When it come to executive education, CEOs trust fellow top dogs for advice. Featured

12:37pm EDT May 26, 2004
Lou Stanasolovich stands in front of a group at a CEO Forum luncheon and reveals to the gathering, almost exclusively business owners, a few shocking tidbits about them and their peers..

It's not that unusual, says Stanasolovich, president and CEO of Legend Financial Advisors Inc., that a business owner doesn't know whether his business is a sole proprietorship or an S corporation, whether it has adequate insurance to cover its liabilities or that he or she doesn't talk to an accountant on any other occasion except tax time. He gets a few clucks and chuckles from his audience, some, perhaps, nervous laughs from business owners guilty of just the kind of oversights that the financial adviser is citing.

Stanasolovich, like lots of business owners in advisory professions, spends plenty of time simply educating existing and prospective clients. That's just part of the job. And Stanasolovich's talk is enough to make even the most vigilant entrepreneurs double-check their business practices.

While formal education cannot be dismissed as preparation for an entrepreneur, among the most valuable training for confronting the challenge of running a business is contact and interaction with peers, whether it's at a seminar or at a business conference.

Business owners have an interest in gaining hands-on, nuts-and-bolts information that they can apply immediately to their enterprises.

"We see a keen interest in gaining knowledge on technical subjects that will assist the firm in either improving productivity or making sales," says Mary McKinney, director of the Chrysler Corporation Small Business Development Center at Duquesne University.

It's little surprise that McKinney finds that executives are seeking ways to increase productivity, reduce costs and improve their bottom lines through seminars, conferences and workshops. And they look for guidance from their peers to solve their business problems.

"They like to be able to talk to someone in their shoes and learn 'how do you ... '" says Ann Dugan, executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business.

Dugan says the topics most popular among executives are leadership, managing a diverse work force and building a high-performance team.

What to look for

With myriad seminars, conferences and speakers' programs available, finding the ones that can benefit you most can be a challenge. It would be easy to squander time and money attending programs designed more as sales pitches for the sponsoring organizations and speakers than educational experiences for attendees.

McKinney says executives should look for take-home ideas that they can implement and opportunities to network with both speakers and fellow attendees.

"We find this is critical," McKinney says. "They want to hear peers as speakers and interact with other peers who are also attendees. Many attendees get both ideas and make contacts for business."

Ultimately, executives find that such meetings, like the lunch gathering where Stanasolovich spoke, put them in touch with their peers, the people whom they believe can genuinely understand their situation.

Says Dugan: "It is very lonely at the top, and having someone who you can share with and talk to in a confidential manner is important and soothing." How to reach: Legend Financial, www.legend-financial.com; Duquesne University Chrysler Corporation Small Business Development Center, www.duq.edu/sbdc; Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, www.katz.pitt.edu