Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Increasing Popularity of Peer Forums: Five Tips to Selecting the Right Forum Program

image This article was written by Larry Tucker, Chairman of the SCORE114 CEO Forum Program

You are a small business owner and perhaps you’ve been trained, coached and mentored. But there is still something missing. You feel lonely at the top. You need to share problems, ideas and solutions with a group of peers who are “in the trenches” with you, who have similar challenges with getting financing, using social media marketing, hiring the right employees, and addressing the myriad other problems that crop up day to day….a group of peers who would provide an independent, unbiased opinion of your vision, products and strategic plan…a group of peers who are understanding and empathetic, but honest and, at times, blunt.

This gap is being filled for business owners throughout the country through peer forums, groups of similarly situated business owners who meet monthly to solve specific issues and support each other in achieving business and personal goals. There are for-profit and nonprofit businesses running these forums. Some industry groups and associations offer them. The Orange County Chapter of SCORE offers a CEO Forum Program for small business owners with at least $1 million in annual revenue.

If you are considering signing up for a peer forum program, here are some characteristics of successful forums:

1. There is a “process” for discussions. The most common fault of a forum is that it degenerates into a series of stories and random thoughts, with few real solutions. The forum should have a specific process led by the facilitator and followed by the members to achieve, in a set pattern, a thorough vetting of each issue and a practical set of ideas and solutions that the member can immediately use.

2. The facilitator “balances” the discussions. The facilitator should manage the process in a way that is helpful and empathetic, yet moves each issue to an efficient and thorough conclusion.

3. The members are truly peers. No two members should be in the same industry to avoid any concern about revealing competitive secrets. Sole practitioners probably don’t belong in a group with business owners with employees. Fortune 1000 business leaders have different issues than small business owners. But, recognizing those parameters, business owners from different industries with different revenue levels can comprise excellent forums with shared issues and thoughtful, creative resolutions.

4. Confidentiality is key. Members must agree that the forum conversations not be shared with anyone from the outside. Most forums require a signed confidentiality agreement. Confidentiality is the foundation of trust necessary for a successful forum.

5. External Perspectives are helpful. Introducing outside speakers on a regular basis is helpful in providing fresh perspectives to the group. These should not be technical training sessions, but rather presentations or workshops on more strategic topics that encourage members to view their businesses, products, and practices from a different, maybe broader perspective.

If you’d like to learn more about how peer forums help their members become more successful, and specifically about the SCORE114 CEO Forums for small businesses, refer to our website