A UNIQUE FORM OF SUPPORT FOR EXECUTIVES IN SMEs
These mutual problem-solving and support groups for senior executives in well-established SMEs would be beneficial in every incubator, science park, innovation centre and tech hub. All they need is a good facilitator.
Next up: Oxford Innovations – a major source of incubator space in the South East, but one that provides meagre support for occupants.
‘Vistage’ forms groups of senior executives from SMEs, each group of about a dozen people, who meet regularly to help each other to:articulate their issues (‘what is your biggest pain point?’)
- clarify their thinking (‘what is its root cause?’)
- identify possible solutions (re-motivate/hire/fire?)
- and to hold them accountable (‘What are you doing about it?’)
(- comparable to the Belgian Plato programme (see below.)
It now has some 1000 members in 70+ such groups in the UK. Big in the US where it started several years ago, it now operates in 16 countries with over 20,000 members.
Each group is of about a dozen senior executives, all with similar levels of responsibility. (Groups in the Plato programme are matched both for function (eg marketing/finance etc) and by industry.) Vistage runs some for large SMEs (£4mn+ turnover); some – on a smaller scale – for smaller SMEs; and some for ‘key directors’.
They meet on each other’s premises, normally monthly, for a full day, in which they draw from each other’s experience. The centrepiece of the day is for two (or sometimes three) members of the group to bring a key issue to the table, by:
- stating succinctly what it is
- saying why it is important
- and indicating their ideal outcome.
Other members of the group then ask questions to get to the heart of the problem (diverse thinking being encouraged) until in a final round, each person proposes their solution. Only then does the problem-owner comment, and say what he or she will now do.
Most meetings will start with a presentation by a well-recognised speaker – on a relevant topic; and may finish with a general discussion on a common or topical issue. These groups have a life of their own, including an annual retreat; and this life is itself managed by the group.
Between meetings of the group, each of its members has a coaching session with the Chair of the group, focusing on their current major challenge; and helping them to make decisions about what they will now do. Those who were in the spotlight at the previous meeting will be asked what have they done since; and they will be asked again at the next meeting of the full group.
The nature of these groups consists in:
- willingness to accept vulnerability
- the sharing of issues, experience and ideas
- and the acceptance of challenge.
Openness to these qualities is the overriding requirement for joining any group. Group Chairs have a crucial responsibility for putting groups together, for which they depend on their interviews, though some candidates may attend the Speaker workshop part of the meeting as a guest, and sometimes they join for a trial period.
Candidates come from several sources and have to be invited by the Chair – to ensure that they’re right for this kind of meeting and for the specific group. (To ensure openness and confidentiality, no group can include competitors, suppliers or customers). The fact that most group members sustain membership for long periods of time makes it clear that these groups have a role that is different to any other relationship in almost any organisation – whether with directors, colleagues or subordinates – essentially because of their intimacy (they could be said to be addictive and comforting – a bit like the confessional!)
The group Chair is of course responsible for sustaining the life of the group, for organising and facilitating the meetings of the group, and for the one-to-one coaching sessions between each of its meetings. Vistage carefully selects Chairs, and runs training and development courses and events for them. The expert speakers are equally carefully selected and only retain their Vistage accreditation if the members score them highly.
In addition to the group meetings and 1-to-1 coaching, Vistage also runs a series of exclusive keynote speaker events throughout the UK – to further support the development of group the members, but also to help them develop their teams.
It is evident that Vistage supports growth in the businesses concerned (apparently three times that of the average SME), just as it also helps to allay the stresses in those involved.
The main advantages of this well-established model (which is not unlike that of Action Learning) is that it:
- focuses on major issues
- brings to bear on them a wide range of thinking and experience
- encourages decisions and action
- enables close relationships with a number of fellow travellers
- and provides comfort and re-assurance.
However, it does not necessarily provide advice related to the specific context of those issues (eg the sector), nor from people with closely related businesses.
A comparable programme:
AN OPEN INNOVATION LEARNING NETWORK – FOR SMEs AND OTHERS
I have just returned from a two-day workshop in Belgium about mentoring small groups of senior managers in SMEs, who meet together regularly to draw on each other’s experience, and with the support of mentors – a striking example of collaborative enterprise. Set up by a passionate individual in East Flanders Chamber of Commerce, it has been running for twenty years and has now been seeded in at least fifteen different countries. April, 2012. http://wp.me/p3beJt-H
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