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Joseph Destein is master chair of Vistage North Bay. He can be reached at joseph.destein@vistagechair.com.

Every month over 20,000 highly successful CEOs and key executives head to a very private, highly confidential meeting with a small group of peers, where they discuss the issues and challenges they are facing and seek out understanding, advice and help.

There is an old adage that, “it’s lonely at the top.” CEOs worry about their families, their employees, their vendors, their customers and often their boards of directors. No one worries about CEOs. That’s why these executives come to the table each month to care about each other and address their common struggles.

Back in Wisconsin in the 1950s a group of CEOs faced the “lonely at the top” challenge head on and formed a group called The Executive Committee, “TEC.” The group soon morphed into an incubator for many more like minded groups over the years. More recently Larry Ellison and Michael Milken took control of TEC and rebranded it into “Vistage International” and put it into overdrive.

They passed it on to private equity companies who continued their vision. Today, Vistage is the oldest, largest CEO organization in the world, operating in 16 countries with more than 20,000 members. The Bay Area is home to about 40 Vistage groups from Monterey to Santa Rosa. The North Bay has five CEO peer groups covering Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties.

Each peer group is comprised of 12 to 14 members who come from non-competing industries offering totally different and unique perspectives. This allows for the confidentiality that members need in order to share information freely, without fear of compromising proprietary business data. There are three classes of peer groups, one for small business CEOs, less than $5 million in sales, a second for larger business CEOs and a third for “Key Executives” who report to CEOs.

Many of the members of the CEO groups rely on the key groups as a leadership training and succession program for their executive teams. While each peer group avoids members from competing industries, Vistage also provides “vertical networks” where members from the same industries can collaborate with each other around the country and around the world.

Peer group members typically struggle with rapid growth, controlling their financials, culling and building their teams, while keeping them fully engaged, managing millennials and every other complex business challenge imaginable. They also have personal issues affecting themselves and their families that make it difficult at times to keep it all together in a world that imposes stress at every turn. The ability to take these concerns to their trusted peer group each month helps them to work things out, become better leaders, make better decisions and get better results.

Members typically start every meeting by “checking in” on what has happened over the previous month, personal and business. They also raise issues for which they would like some “face time” later in the meeting. The checking in process helps all of the members develop a deeper understanding of each other and the world in which they live. Over the years this understanding deepens the bond each member feels for the others. In a peer group it’s all about bonding and transferring trust to the group so that when really tough issues come up, each member is willing to bring it to the table and know that their peers will have their back.

Joseph Destein is master chair of Vistage North Bay. He can be reached at joseph.destein@vistagechair.com.

After check-ins are over the fun begins. Issue processing is the core of the peer group experience. A member brings an issue to the table, gives a brief description of the challenge they believe they are facing, identifies what they see as their options, identifies which option they are thinking of pursuing and then asks the group to challenge everything they just said. The group at that point is only allowed to ask “clarifying questions.” No advice or recommendations are permitted until the questioning period is complete. The first questions typically revolve around determining if the issue described is the “real issue.” Often a member doesn’t realize they are missing a deeper underlying issue and often they have to reframe the issue to be more precise. The questioning then continues until there are no questions left to ask.

At that point the process moves on to advice and recommendations. Each member is asked to share their feedback while the member with the issue just takes notes until all members have been heard from. The member then goes down the list of notes and identifies what advice they believe will help them deal with their issue and “promises” to be held accountable to take action.

Typically another member volunteers to follow up with the member to be sure they take the actions they committed to. There will also be an accounting at the next meeting. It’s one of those few times a top executive is held accountable for their actions. Good executives welcome the accountability.

Leaders who are attracted to peer groups are also “lifelong learners.” They are hungry for new knowledge and are always trying to improve themselves, personally and professionally. They want to expand their understanding of progressive new ideas and better ways to run their businesses. Eight times a year speakers are invited to address the peer groups on a “best practices” topic, ranging from financial controls or sales management to mindfulness and communication.

Vistage also provides and “curates” a web based platform providing members access to research, data and expert perspectives, including weekly webinars that members may share with their executive teams. This is all part of the educational immersion of being in a Vistage peer group. Stanford University has recently partnered with Vistage to develop a leadership certificate program offered to CEOs who want to have a more formal and in depth exposure to current business practices and procedures.

The glue that holds the peer group together is the “chair.” The chair is responsible for planning and facilitating the monthly meetings, guiding the issue processing, selecting speakers and generally making sure the day of the meeting is their best day of the month for members. The chair also serves as a coach, meeting with each member every month for a “one to one” to discuss current issues and see if there is something that should be brought to the group.

New members to the group are often nominated by existing members, other trusted advisors or are actively targeted and recruited by the Chair or by Vistage. The chair is responsible for vetting new members to be sure they will be a good fit for the group and to determine if there would be any potential conflict of interest with an existing member. Candidates are then invited to meet the other members who have a voice on inviting the candidate to join the group. The average tenure of a group member is about 7 years, although there is one group from back in the 1950s that is still active with members now in their 80’s and 90’s.

Dun & Bradstreet keeps the stats and recently reported that Vistage small and mid-sized companies are growing at 2.2 time faster than non-Vistage companies their same size. It could be that those fast growing companies naturally choose to belong to peer groups, or it could be that being part of Vistage has helped them grow faster than their peers. There’s something going on here. Inc. Magazine has partnered with Vistage to provide them with member stories of business success.