Let us say that you are a senior executive — now, or hopefully in the future. You may be wary of participating in many of the online networks. Why? Online networks are typically much more accessible than face-to-face networks — you don’t have to fly all the way to Aspen to meet people at the ski lodge there. As a result, they tend to attract a lot of the “have-nots.” With no disrespect, the “have-nots” are the job-seekers, the recent college graduates, the pre-revenue startups seeking funding, and all the other people who are trying to get something, but have a small power base. The “haves” are people like you: the senior executives at prominent companies, the venture capitalists, and all the other people who are deluged with people trying to access them.
There are two ways to design an online network to attract the “haves”. One is to design it so requests to members must pass through social filters. That’s the LinkedIn approach; I can only send a request to Bill Gates if one of our intermediary connections is willing to say my request is reasonable. The other approach is to make it hard to enter the network in the first place. For example, to join the International Executives Resource Group, you must pass a telephone interview, have a salary of over $150,000, and have at least five years of international executive experience. (Disclosure: David Teten is a member.)
There are unique considerations to keep in mind when designing an online network that works for senior executives. Business coach Gayle Lantz runs an online group for senior executives whom she supports, and she lists some common characteristics of executives to keep in mind when forming any kind of executive peer group:
- They desire trust. The greater your seniority, the more difficult it is to find others at similar levels with whom you can build trusting relations.
- They value time. They may not all be worth $300 per second like Bill Gates, but they recognize that time is scarce.
- They have difficulty staying focused. Many struggle with issues related to self-management.
- They are goal driven. Achieving self-accountability and helping others be accountable is a means to help achieve these goals.
- They lack candid feedback. Many executives express concerns about others telling them what they think they want to hear versus what they need to hear.
- They are stressed. In April 2004, the Mayo Clinic reported that stress was #1 among executive health concerns.
All of these needs can be addressed through some kind of executive peer group, preferably with both a face-to-face and online component. In our conversation with Gayle, she listed five key reasons why executives participate in executive peer groups:
- Peers they can trust. The trust comes through an established screening procedure, combined with ongoing interaction opportunities.
- To stay focused on the big picture. Being among peers and talking about your priorities on a regular basis enables you to stay more focused than you might be otherwise.
- Accountability. It’s not unusual for a member to ask the group to help him do what he says he wants to do. By stating your goal or action plan in front of the group, it is more likely to get done.
- Objective perspective. They crave candid feedback and ideas to help move their businesses forward.
- Reduced stress. Being able to discuss any potentially sensitive issues with objective peers in a safe environment helps you gain better perspective and process ideas in a constructive way.
If you are running an online network, you do not need sophisticated technology. A free Yahoo! Group will suffice; that’s what Gayle uses. Here are ways in which online communication between regular meetings has created more value for Gayle’s group members:
Online communication aids a crisis situation.
For example, if a member suddenly loses an employee, whether it’s the CFO or a personal assistant, the member can broadcast the announcement to the group. The network is ready to provide quick ideas, resources, or simply moral support that’s needed without waiting until the next regular meeting.
Members can test or preview new products, programs, and services.
A member of one of Gayle’s groups requested feedback on a new online program in the financial services industry. By sending a link to the group members, they could experience the program firsthand and provide suggestions on how to position the product.
Meeting logistics are handled efficiently.
Online assessments are available to serve a variety of business purposes.
Instructions on where to find the assessments and how to complete them can be sent electronically to group members. Access is restricted. Each executive receives his/her own results promptly by email. Assessments can be a powerful tool to help virtual groups get to know each other.
The more senior the level of participants in the group, the more time and effort it will typically take to establish the relationships on the front end. This can be more challenging to achieve with an online network where members have no previous connections with each other.
Gayle’s suggestions for attracting executive members:
Invite members with personal invitations, not public announcements.
Optimize the membership portfolio.
Members should be of similar seniority, but ideally represent a diversity of skills, backgrounds, experience, and styles. Executive peer groups can be established for leaders representing non-competing industries or for leaders within the same industry if competition is not an issue.
Build trust quickly.
Help members identify common challenges and goals. Give members the opportunity to express the value they want to give and receive from the group.
Gain strong commitment.
Make sure members are willing to commit the time and energy to making the group a success. Avoid potential members who are simply experimenting or testing the waters to see what happens.
Establish ground rules.
When establishing a new group, let the group members contribute to decisions on how the group will function.
Use a professional facilitator if needed.
Many senior executives are accustomed to taking the lead in meetings. A skilled facilitator can help moderate the discussion to accomplish the most important outcomes for a particular meeting.
Rotate the meeting location.
Members appreciate the opportunity to host a meeting at their place of business. The group learns more about the hosting member’s business by meeting in their own setting. Virtual meetings can be held on a bridge line for groups comprised of members that are geographically dispersed. Keep a consistent meeting schedule.
Plan social events.
Consider planning a couple of retreats during the year for the group. Plan a social event around the holidays. For virtual executive peer groups, meeting in person periodically at retreat-like settings is even more important.
Online networks can be a powerful tool for any business person. They can be particularly powerful for busy, stressed, and multitasking executives — like you.