top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureJE Colburn

The Power of Peer Groups (and How to Start One) by Dan Richards


Harvard Business Review, April 5th, 2024


Summary.   A peer group is a group of professionals who meet on a regular basis to confidentially share their current issues and exchange insights that will help each member excel. Their benefits have been proven by successful leaders and workers for centuries. If you want to form a peer group of your own, take the following steps:

  • Recruit the right members: Try to form a group of six to 10 people with diverse personal and professional backgrounds. Make sure you each respect one another, and are committed to meeting regularly throughout the year.

  • Set guidelines. Agree upon how often you’ll meet, who will organize the agenda for your meetings, as well as who will moderate and keep time.

  • Agree on values. Confidentiality, candor, empathy, and balance are required for your group to establish an inclusive and productive culture.

  • Check in to keep up the momentum. Every few months, ask members for feedback to learn if the group dynamic is still beneficial for each member.


Have you ever wished you had a community to support you throughout the long journey of your career? I’m not referring to a mentor who provides you with occasional guidance or a network to lean on when times get rough. I’m talking about a group of people to regularly bounce ideas off of, advise you on tough decisions, and offer guidance when stressful work challenges arise.

This secret weapon is called a peer group — a group that meets on a regular basis to confidentially share their current issues and exchange insights that will help each member problem solve, ideate, and move forward. Discussion topics can range from work-related problems to personal matters, depending on the goals and dynamic of the participants.

Whatever field or industry you are pursuing, peer groups can give you a competitive advantage. Their benefits have been proven by successful leaders and workers for centuries— from Andrew Carnegie and his group of what we might now refer to as “thought partners” to the Young Presidents’ Organization which currently connects more than 30,000 leaders around the world.

During my time teaching at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, I’ve also seen the benefits of peer groups firsthand. James Hitchcock, a former student, helped organize a group right after completing his part-time MBA. Three years of monthly meetings later, members describe their experience as transformational — helping them excel in the workplace, improve relationships, and even achieve personal goals.

As someone new to the workforce, you too can use this secret weapon to excel. If you want to start your own group, take the following steps:

1) Recruit the right members.

Many of the peer groups that have spun out of my courses began when students established a bond while working together on a group project. This can be a great place to start from, but if you don’t have that privilege, consider asking one or two trusted friends or colleagues to join you for an initial meeting. You can recruit additional members from there.

Here are some ideas to guide you as you recruit

Select a manageable number of participants.

The ideal number of participants is normally between six and 10, although some groups do have more members. Keeping the group this size ensures that everyone will get a chance to contribute while still including a variety of viewpoints.

Seek out people with diverse backgrounds.

It’s ideal to have a diverse group. This means not having all men, all women, all engineers or math majors, all entry-level or senior employees, and so on. Aim to include people who bring a range of work experience in terms of industries and expertise — as well as aspects of identity like gender, cultural background, and age. One of the benefits of a peer group is that you gain different perspectives and learn from different experiences, something that’s helped by having a diversity of backgrounds.

Avoid conflicts.

Avoid having two members who work for competing companies or who may be conflicted in other fashions. While everything shared should be confidential, there may be ramifications if work-related conflicts exist among the group. This will undermine the openness that is essential for high-performing peer groups.

Focus on interpersonal dynamics.

An effective group requires trust, respect, and a minimum threshold of compatibility. Trust and respect are non-negotiable — you have to be 100% confident that other members are operating with your best interest in mind. You also need to value their opinions. While you don’t necessarily need to enjoy spending time with other members, you should not actively dislike someone. Group members should feel neutral, at the very least, towards one another to ensure a productive collaboration. To test out the dynamics, and make sure everyone has a giving mindset, consider beginning with a trial period of six months.

Check for commitment.

Based on my experience in and observing successful peer groups, I recommend meeting monthly for around four hours. This is a substantial ongoing ask and it’s not a commitment everyone is able or willing to make, so be upfront with people about your expectations.

2) Set guidelines for how your group will operate.

You have your members, now it’s time to agree upon the logistics.

What’s the cadence?

Decide how often you’ll meet, where you’ll meet, and when meetings will happen. While I recommend meeting monthly for four hours, you can deviate from this if a different structure works better for your group. Some groups even decide to meet weekly. For instance, Bill George, author of True North Groups, wrote that for the last 36 years his group has met on Wednesday mornings from 7:15 am to 8:30 am.

What’s the agenda?

Just as in any meeting, you need an agenda to add focus and structure. In my experience, meetings typically begin with short life or work updates from each group member. We then allot time for two or three members to do a deeper dive into a pressing issue they’re facing. After hearing each member out, others in the group share related experiences and provide feedback. The deep dives almost always make the biggest impact.

As an example, here’s how my group typically breaks up the time of our four-hour meeting:

  • 10 minutes: Initial welcome; confidentiality reminder; confirm devices are off and out of sight; presenters from the last meeting discuss what actions they took to address their problems.

  • 60 minutes: Short updates from all group members since last meeting.

  • 5 minutes: Agree upon who will do the first deep dive — typically three people share per meeting.

  • 45 minutes: Deep dive #1 and discussion/feedback.

  • 15 minutes: Take a break.

  • 45 minutes: Deep dive #2 and discussion/feedback.

  • 45 minutes: Deep dive #3 and discussion/feedback.

  • 15 minutes: Wrap up; we also use this time to preschedule at least one deep dive for the next meeting.

What are the key roles?

To keep things on track, there should be a moderator (responsible for facilitating the meeting and keeping the agenda on track) and a timekeeper (responsible for letting members know when the time they’ve been allotted is about to end). The moderator and timekeeper can be permanent roles or be assigned at the beginning of each meeting.

How will you launch the first meeting?

The very first meeting lays the foundation for the group’s success. It can also be more challenging than later meetings, as people are often just getting to know one another. It can be helpful to have a few ice breakers in mind to get things started. A former student of mine, for example, had each member of his group create and share a vison board, in which words, pictures, and other images summarized their goals and aspirations. Other groups start by having each member present a lifeline exercise, in which a flip chart is used to map out the ups and downs that person has encountered throughout their career.

3) Establish the core values of the group.

As your group is being formed, make sure you establish the values you want the group to uphold. Ideally these will be written down in a place that is accessible to everyone, such as a Google document, so that people can refer to them. Some baseline values that are critical for a respectful and inclusive discussion include:

Confidentiality

Absolute confidentiality is necessary for your peer group to be open with one another — and you need people to be honest in order to help them overcome their challenges in realistic ways. My own peer group has been meeting monthly for 13 years. After all this time, we still begin each meeting by reiterating that everything discussed in our group will be in 100% confidence.

Candor

This goes hand-in-hand with confidentiality. Candor and vulnerability are needed for members to benefit from the advice of their peers. Creating a culture where everyone feels comfortable sharing their deepest concerns and feelings can take time, but if you’re successful, it can be remarkably powerful.

To build this culture, ask for volunteers to present at the first couple of meetings. Someone who puts their hand up is more likely to be comfortable opening up and will set the tone for presentations to follow.

Empathy

During your meetings, you can establish an empathetic environment by encouraging people to listen to their peers without interruption or judgement. When members feel that everything they say will be heard with care and compassion, they will feel safer opening up about difficult issues. At the start of each meeting, remind people that they are here to listen with an open mind and aim to understand.

Balance

Balancing airtime, or the time each person has to share, shows everyone that this is an equal and inclusive space. It’s normal that some members will be more comfortable sharing their views than others. What’s important is to ensure that there is a reasonable level of participation by all members, and that two or three members don’t dominate discussions. Having a clear agenda can help.

4) Check in to keep up the momentum.

As your group continues to meet, it’s useful to take a pause, reflect, and make sure everyone still feels the time you spend together is productive.

Assess the group dynamic.

You want your group members to feel their participation is beneficial. Periodically step back to assess how well meeting logistics are going and where there may be areas for improvement. Some groups do this after every meeting. Often an anonymous survey to capture feedback can be used to identify any issues. Use it as a jumping off point for a deeper feedback conversation at the next meeting.

Create bonding opportunities.

It’s common for groups to start strong and run out of steam, even if they have the right composition of members, are aligned on values, and run on strong operating principles. To sustain a positive and energized dynamic, it can be helpful to give people opportunities to build deeper bonds. This might include in-person rituals like holiday celebrations or events when milestones are achieved. Additionally, holding an annual two-day retreat during which members have the opportunity to bond, share, dig deeper into their issues can increase affinity among members.

Create an accountability system.

As a way to maintain momentum, some groups give members the ability to ask for accountability. At the start or end of each meeting, a group member can request that another participant check in with them periodically. Usually this is useful when a member has committed to taking action on a problem and needs some encouragement to follow through.

Replace members who leave.

For groups that operate for any length of time, some turnover is inevitable, as members move to other cities or go through changes in personal situations. When considering new members, existing members normally have the right to veto any potential new members on a no-questions asked basis. Think also about how you onboard new members. Conducting another ice breaker may be helpful in bringing them up to speed.

. . .

Forming a peer support group can help accelerate your career and pay huge ongoing dividends. That said, it does require a substantial upfront investment of time and effort. Even so, the effort is well worth it. The results can be transformative to your personal and professional development.


  • Dan Richards is a serial founder, and as a former CEO, he led the turnaround of a public company in the financial industry. Today, he is an award-winning faculty member at the Rotman School of Management, where the MBA class of 2022 voted him Best Professor. He oversees the course associated with MBA student internships. You can find him on LinkedIn.

2 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page