Don't Be Peerless

Don’t be peerless!

With all of the talk about the dangers of too much group think in tribes, bubbles, and algorithm-generated “friend” groups, I fear we may have lost the thread on an incredibly important element of professional success and happiness – peer networks. Yes, we must figure out how to cross the divides that have become so painfully apparent over the past year, but this should not obscure the power of peer networks. In a recent workshop that I lead on Radical Self-Care for Leaders, (based on the interview on Untangle: we spent time unpacking how being a part of these networks provides invaluable and essential sources of information, feedback, and support. Shoulders to lean on and learn from. Pressure-valves for much needed release. Reality checks.

Leaders and managers, especially new ones, find out quickly that the cliché “it’s lonely at the top” is all too real. In my first Executive Director position, I felt incredibly isolated as I took on a turn-around situation for an organization that was bleeding dry its rainy-day fund. While I had pockets of genuine support, I had to acknowledge that the board and staff who were present had responsibility for the situation we were in, and could not be the place I turned to for help finding new solutions. Or sympathy. Through my personal and professional network of peers and consultants, I was able to voice my concerns and frustrations, get fresh perspectives and great thinking about what works. Ditto my experience taking the helm of a start-up organization, where everything was new, yet there was no need to reinvent smart approaches to organizational development.

Many of my clients are founders or first time executive directors of non-profits, foundations or social enterprises who are facing new challenges. They don’t want to appear weak or unprepared, but they are dealing with a basket of needs, many of them for the first time, and are in danger of becoming basket cases (or at least highly stressed-out) without the smart support of others who have gone through similar situations. And survived. Maybe they’ve even thrived! There is no glory in muscling through stuff all alone – in fact, it is a horrible strategy that nobody would recommend to a friend.

A recent article in Fast Company summarized the benefits nicely:

“In peer-to-peer networks, you are among people with similar challenges, issues, and problems. In that setting, the likelihood is huge that you’ll benefit faster from exposure to their thinking, the problems they’ve solved, the mistakes they’ve made, their best practices and innovative ideas — and also the people they know. Tapping into the collective intelligence and wisdom of such a group can be extremely powerful, especially in a forum that provides a safe harbor — a place to test your thinking and ideas, to ask questions with supportive colleagues who are there to help and not to judge. To professional …We all need to be stimulated by the best and brightest in our special area of interest.”

Finding a peer group, and making the time to gather with others - virtually or IRL (in real life) - can seem like just one more task on an over-filled to-do list, but just as I noted in an earlier post (How Can you Make Boredom Work for You? setting aside moments to meditate or just think actually adds time (or at least energy) to your day and week. These networks do as well. Avoiding pitfalls, building upon what works, gleaning industry insights and testing scenarios are truly game-changing time generators. You can identify peers through professional associations, via internet research and by participating in the online communities created by your favorite industry blogger.

If you are leading a non-profit organization, the opportunities for this are abundant. If you are a funder, I strongly recommend that you consider creating such an opportunity among your grantees. Donors strengthen their financial investment (grants) by supporting those vested with the responsibility of stewarding them, giving them invaluable human resources that increase the likelihood of generating success. Community foundations do a great job of this, but it need not be limited to this group. Funding circles – formal and informal – allow leaders of grant-making institutions to similarly learn from each other, pooling funds and knowledge while sharing risk.

The more you open yourself to the support of fellow travelers the better you will be at sustaining the hard and important work you want to do. This is not about group-think, it’s about driving outstanding performance with, as the Fab Four said, “a little help from your friends!”

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