Do You Have the Right People in Your Foxhole? Consider C-Suite Peer Groups

By: Eden Abrahams

Being a leader is a lonely job under the best of circumstances. Forging close friendships with work colleagues isn’t part of a CEO’s remit, nor should it be. Even executives who are committed to inclusive and transparent leadership understand that the unique demands of running an organization require a certain degree of circumspection. During a crisis, communicating with the right blend of candor, optimism, and urgency while preserving the optionality to make tough decisions becomes an exponentially more challenging needle for leaders to thread.

In order to authentically convey the empathy and resilience their teams are counting on, wartime leaders need an external support system they can lean into to maintain their equanimity. There’s no substitute, of course, for the foundational role family and friends play in that ecosystem. Many executives also engage mentors, coaches, therapists, and other trusted advisors to help them focus on targeted professional and personal growth objectives. These relationships can be powerful catalysts for achieving positive change as well as stabilizing forces in turbulent times.

Some leaders choose to supplement, or substitute, these one-on-one development activities with participation in peer forums. Whether organic and informal or curated and professionally facilitated, these small networks, which are typically capped at 10–12 members, offer several benefits:

  1. The opportunity to constructively brainstorm, problem-solve, strategize, and recharge in the company of trusted equals rather than in “boss” mode, which can turbocharge the positive growth process.
  2. A safe space to develop self-awareness, gain a greater appreciation of one’s strengths, and explore gaps and blind spots.
  3. The ability to normalize common leadership struggles as inevitable and universal, rather than tribulations caused by personal shortcomings.
  4. An invaluable source of moral support, inspiration, accountability, professional introductions, and friendship.

Over time, as members develop a deeper understanding of one another and their respective businesses, these networks become formidable sounding boards and knowledge-transfer conduits, not to mention welcome opportunities to “get out of one’s head” and derive satisfaction from helping others resolve thorny challenges. Relating to and empathizing with the experiences of other successful executives is often a freeing shift in perspective for leaders who are accustomed to feeling that the burdens they bear are unique.

When you don't have a playbook, a brain trust is the next best thing.

A couple of weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown, members of a C-suite peer group who had been meeting on a monthly basis in Manhattan for over a year, connected for their first virtual session. Despite their different industries—including retail, publishing, and professional services—the updates they shared were variations on a similar theme: “We are scrambling to figure out how to creatively redeploy our employees and pivot on the fly; who knows if our products and services will still be relevant when we emerge from this; more furloughs and layoffs are inevitable, and I still haven’t recovered from the first round; I’m really proud of the way my team members are rising to the occasion, but we’re all exhausted and it feels like things will get worse before they get better.” Partners, kids, and pets wandered in and out of the frame as the group shifted into workshopping mode. At the end of the two-hour conversation, everyone left with concrete strategies and resources to throw at their most urgent problem, and several of the executives mentioned how much better and more energized they felt. They agreed to meet again in two weeks’ time rather than wait a full month and to share resources that were shaping their thinking as the pandemic continued.

Recently, the group gathered for its fourth quarantine session. As in the past, members reported that they had “channeled” the voice and wisdom of specific peers as they tackled difficult challenges or operated differently. They also appreciated the value of their exchanges in between meetings, including group emails with links to topical articles and podcasts, one-on-one conversations to share specific expertise and/or referrals a member was seeking, and texts for quick check-ins and personal updates.

This time, all eight members reported that at least some of the strategic initiatives they had discussed during prior meetings and subsequently implemented were paying off. A majority also expressed optimism about what they believed would be possible going forward now that they had sacrificed so many of the sacred cows that governed both what and how things got done in their respective companies. Kudos were exchanged, questions and ideas were shared, and then members signed off to tackle another day in the trenches, buoyed by the collective energy of the group.

The ability to celebrate wins, commiserate over losses, get cheered on when the going is tough, and be held to actions that represent the best versions of ourselves—by people who understand exactly what we are going through—is something we all crave. So while it will inevitably feel lonely at the top, and at times exhausting and all-consuming, leaders who surround themselves with wise fellow travelers who are navigating the same path are never truly alone.

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