It’s lonely at the top. Yet to succeed executives need to continue to learn and grow as leaders to accelerate growth.

Nothing is quite as valuable as unbiased feedback from others who sit in your chair, so to speak. As a result, CEO peer groups are increasingly seen as vital for successful leadership. But packed schedules and geographic distance often pose challenges to making this collaboration happen.

Glen Hellman is a well-known angel investor, blogger and former turnaround CEO-for-hire in the Washington, DC technology community. Recently Hellman launched an executive training company called Driven Forward. WorkSpace Today recently spoke with Hellman about his work facilitating CEO peer groups.


Why did you launch your Peer Advisory Group?

It was a process, as they say. I began my career working for a startup that grew big and was eventually purchased by Raytheon. I then spent 20 years working, founding and running small companies designed to grow. I had a few successful IPOs or acquisitions.

After one acquisition, my original Venture Capital investors asked me to run a similar company in their portfolio where they lost confidence in the management team and I began a 10-year career as a hired-gun, turn-around executive working for private equity investors.

After 10 years of that work, I realized that most of the turn-arounds had already stepped way over the cliff and entered a death spiral. I was a hospice worker presiding over the orderly shutdown of these companies.

One root cause of corporate failure is the isolation of leadership. It really is lonely at the top. So I went about getting myself educated and certified to move from hospice work to what I consider “wellness care” for corporations. As a business coach and peer group facilitator, I’m a corporate wellness care professional.

What’s the biggest value your clients receive?

Running a company is a lonely place. CEOs are surrounded by people who have their own agenda. All advice from direct reports, board members even spouses is biased to the other parties’ own private agenda.

There is no safe place for people who run companies to be vulnerable, share their doubts, admit they don’t have the answers and develop plans.

A Peer Advisory Group is a safe, confidential environment for business leaders to let down their shields and develop more sound action plans in a collaboration with peers whose only agenda is “I will help you because you will help me.”

How do you foster trust, create a comfortable space for real sharing?

Probably the most important factor is member selection. You want people who are life-long learners. I call them green and growing. You want people who can give and get equally. And you don’t want anyone who knows everything. The last thing you want is a member who knows who’s buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Then you must build trust through exercises that force people to be vulnerable. To share the kind of things that develop a belief in shared values and goals.

Lastly is a guarantee of the Las Vegas rule. What happens here does not leave this room, and ruthless adherence to that rule.

Do executives’ busy schedules or geographical distance ever hinder participation in peer advisory groups?

All the time, and in fact over the last 10 years, this has been even more of an issue.

Since the Great Recession, corporate downsizing has forced companies to run leaner, putting more dependence on the presence of the CEO. CEOs do not have the support systems around them that they had 10 years ago and therefore they find themselves doing many things they used to delegate.

When I started doing this 10 years ago, it was not so difficult to schedule an all-day 9 to 5 group meeting on a monthly basis. Now because of time pressure on my members, I run half day group sessions to minimize interference with business responsibilities. 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM or 7:00 AM to 11:00 AM, for example.

Also, attendance has gone from an average of 90 percent to around 75 percent.

What role does video collaboration play?

Now that’s a great question. I have run peer advisory groups using video of up to eight CEOs and you’d be surprised how efficient they are. It seems that we get done in two hours what a live group gets done in four hours. Attendance rates are also higher.

Most surprisingly, my original thesis was it would be harder to develop a high level of trust and intimacy in the online format. That wasn’t the case. The same levels of interpersonal collaboration and trust can be developed using video conferencing.

In your view, what makes for effective business leadership?

Well, I believe it’s being able to collaborate. It’s understanding that you as the leader do not have all the answers and that’s okay. As long as you find a way to get those answers formulated in a collaborative environment.

Where is the peer group concept heading in the next few years?

With the demands put on today’s leaders, time is the most valuable commodity. So I believe it’s the development of the online virtual peer group. It’s more efficient, and the technological barriers to effective online collaboration are getting lower every day.