Kevin Ervin Kelley, AIA

If You Want to Be a Better Leader, Create a Share Group | by Kevin Ervin Kelley, AIA | Jul, 2020

How to get the advice you need to elevate your career

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Most successful entrepreneurs are seekers. Somebody who isn’t satisfied with the status quo answers nor willing to accept the typical roadblocks others face.

A seeker believes there’s always a better solution out there — you just have to dig around to find it!

Seekers are always on the lookout for good ideas on how to improve their business, make better decisions, and take their company to the next level.

However, there are two layers to seekers: The external layer of a seeker relates to the entrepreneur’s efforts to work “on the business.” But the seeker’s internal layer has to do with their need to work “on themselves.”

Both layers are critical to success, but many entrepreneurs struggle to find the specific type of advice and counsel they need to surpass certain internal growth hurdles.

Entrepreneurs have an overwhelming job in terms of running the multiple arenas of their business. Not only are they responsible for keeping their clients satisfied and employees motivated, but they also have to oversee the vision, strategy, and direction of the enterprise. On top of this, entrepreneurs usually carry all the financial risk, often with their homes and other assets put on the line as a personal guarantee.

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Balancing these factors can create a potent cocktail of stress and anxiety, with a shot of paranoia thrown into the mix.

While they may not vocalize it, most entrepreneurs wish they could find more guidance and wisdom on navigating the personal challenges that come with owning a business. But they’re so accustomed to playing the role of the “strong leader” with all the “right answers” for staff and clients that they become conditioned not to ask others for help.

This reluctance to getting help is usually not an ego thing, but more of an acquired habit.

More than most people, entrepreneurs have a stoic ability to keep their stress well-contained and emotions in check, as they tend to manage issues from the inside. But this approach to business and life is not healthy, nor is it advisable for maximizing your ultimate success potential.

Entrepreneurs need a confidant — someone they can share private, sensitive, and confidential matters with — that’s outside the business but still inside the “oval office” of the leader’s mind. They need someone to listen to the tough decisions they face. And someone who can provide constructive feedback on how to resolve critical challenges.

But where can leaders go to find the help they need?

There are many great resources out there — business books, magazines, conferences, online, and even mentorship — that can provide entrepreneurs with advice. While these resources can help the seeker’s external layer, they’re not as effective at addressing the more confidential layers of the inner seeker.

As a lifelong seeker, voracious reader, and active conference attendee/speaker myself, I’ve tried all of the above approaches. But I’ve struggled to find the specific type of advice I was looking for regarding my business strategy and personal growth challenges.

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Of course, corporate psychologists and mentors can provide individualized counseling, but they don’t have to walk in the same shoes an entrepreneur does every day.

So out of frustration, I created a custom advice pipeline of my own in the form of a “Share Group.”

What’s a Share Group?

While there is no exact definition of what a share group is, it usually refers to a small group of professional peers from the same industry that agrees to help solve problems, swap ideas and provide each other with advice.

The share group members serve as your trusted confidants.

There are many trade associations and specialized consultants that offer these share groups, typically for a hefty subscription fee. But most of them don’t fit my specific needs as a business owner. So I created my own free Share Group with selected leaders from my industry and local community.

I’ve created several of these share groups throughout my career, and they have provided me with invaluable insights and guidance. I wouldn’t have reached the levels of success I’ve had in my career without the wisdom I gained from these share groups.

One of the best share groups I created was a Principal Share Group, with three other design firm owners/principals in my city. While these other principals ran successful design businesses similar to the one I co-founded, I ensured none of us competed directly with the other in terms of market sectors or client types.

I also went out of my way to make sure this share group was a safe place where we could discuss confidential information about our business, financials, ownership structure, staff management issues, and personal goals without worry.

Unlike many professional share groups, there were no annual membership fees, initiating rights, or heavy-handed rules in our Principal Share Group. We only had one requirement: we all agreed to commit to meet for two hours once a month for a year.

In my 30 years of co-owning and running a design firm, I cannot think of any source of wisdom, guidance, and advice more invaluable to my personal development as a leader than the share group we created.

This share group was a testament to the idea that four heads are much better than one.

Before the share group, I’d try to figure everything out on my own. But I didn’t always have the objectivity, personal distance, or direct experience I needed. And I also didn’t have the breadth of expertise that the group had as a collective.

But the Principal Share Group changed all that.

The Principal Share Group helped me on a variety of levels — including finances, compensation, ownership structure, transition planning, contract negotiations, to name just a few. But where the group became the most invaluable to me was during a difficult period when I was having problems with a senior-level principal in the firm.

I cared for this individual deeply as both a friend and co-worker. He was immensely talented, and I’d convinced myself that he was essential to the firm’s continued success. I was working on giving him shares of stock in the firm and the keys to the castle. But his reckless behavior was getting out of hand. He was married with kids but had an ongoing clandestine affair with one of the other employees. She got pregnant, but they still managed to keep it a secret from all of us — for a while.

The scandal, conflicts of interests, and impropriety damaged our culture and should have been grounds for immediate dismissal, even he thought so. But as smart as I’d like to think I was in business, I had a terrible blind spot when it came to this particular individual. I allowed him to do things and behave in ways I would’ve never accepted from anyone else. My unending loyalty to him was a mix of brotherly love and a co-dependency on collaborating with him on projects.

Having a Principal Share Group of peers who run a firm like I do and understand the rarity of superstar talent, the value of collaborative partners and the need for organizational stability provided the perfect sounding board for me to discuss my predicament. And the advice and counsel they offered me had an objective, emotional distance I needed to hear.

They helped me detangle my emotions from the business issues. And through their own stories of similar messes, they helped me realize that my management decisions should start with the concept of “firm first,” and not the exemption or impunity of one individual’s unprofessional and destructive behavior.

But this issue of allowing certain employees to get away with too much is where I needed to grow the most in my career. The logic I had in my head was faulty.

Eventually, there would be a big blowup between this individual and me. He left the firm and left me with a massive legal mess to clean up. Much to my surprise, I saw how our firm performed much better without him. But I am not sure I would have been able to see that or get through an employee divorce situation like this without the advice and guidance of the Principal Share Group.

Because of their help and counsel, I no longer have this particular blind spot of allowing employees to get away with murder anymore. I am a “firm first” leader now, which has allowed our business to reach a much higher level of excellence. But this is just one of the many great lessons and gifts of wisdom I received from our share group.

If you’re interested in creating a share group of your own, here are a few of my recommended steps.

Identify 3–5 leaders in your industry/community that you believe would make for an insightful and supportive share group.

It’s ok to start small, even if it’s just two of you in the beginning. You can add members one at a time. However, I wouldn’t let the group get bigger than five because it becomes another work task to manage instead of a resource and refuge.

Set up individual lunches or coffee appointments with each of the leaders to discuss your share group idea. At first, many leaders will be hesitant, if not suspicious, about joining a share group. This cautiousness isn’t because they wouldn’t value their peers’ insights, but because sharing sensitive information with others is outside their usual way of working.

Getting others to sign up for a share group requires some personal sell-in to close the deal.

Host your first event at your place (office, home, or restaurant). Limit this first session to just one hour because everyone will be skeptical about the value of a share group, pressed for time, and resistant to opening up to others. But this will change over time.

Present the purpose, goals, and ground rules of the share group. Put together a list of the discussion topics you will cover so the members can see the direct value they will get from these sessions.

To get the ball rolling, jump into the pool first with the personal story, challenges, and struggles you face in running your business. This willingness to reveal yourself so openly will demonstrate to others the power of being vulnerable. And then, ask your new share group members for their advice and watch what unfolds.

People learn best from hearing others talk about their struggles as a personal narrative compared to the formality and distance of books, magazines, videos, and conferences. This exercise in vulnerability will help get the group more comfortable with opening up.

Once you get the group sharing, the learning, insights, and enlightenment will take root.

Talk with the group about setting up a regular schedule. Getting this schedule part nailed down will be the hardest part, as most leaders are extremely busy and resistance to pull time away from their business.

One way to solve this dilemma is to turn the schedule challenge into a problem to solve and then watch how the group of leaders develop solutions.

The share group I created met the third Thursday of every month from 11:30 am-1:30 pm. We called it our “power-lunch” days, and it became a therapy/counseling session we all looked forward to attending because of the insights we gained.

Prepare a confidentiality agreement not to share information with anyone outside the group. My only advice on this matter is not to get too legal about this, as you don’t want to turn this into another stressful issue for members to have to resolve.

Remember what these leaders need is a safe place and secure refuge to discuss sensitive matters, but not another task or chore to do.

This confidentiality agreement doesn’t have to happen at or before the first meeting. Give the group some time to gel and get more comfortable with each other before asking them to become legally bound to each other.

Dedicate one of your meetings to brainstorm 12 topics you’d all like to learn more about in the year. And then let each member of the share group pick one subject per month in rotation.

A standard part of your meeting agenda should include a dedicated amount of time for each member to discuss a current problem or crisis they’re facing. The goal is to get the benefit from others’ wisdom, perspective, and experience. This way, there’s direct value coming out of each meeting for them. These issues can be in regards to compensation, difficult employees, hirings, firings, financing, stock issues, transition strategies, personal struggles, and more.

Our society has created this myth that great leaders are so strong and capable they never need to ask for help. But the most successful leaders I know don’t buy into this false stereotype.

Leaders that ask for help become better leaders and have a better chance of reaching their ultimate success potential.

Every business can benefit from a breakthrough, and the biggest breakthrough can come from a change inside the leader’s mind. The right kind of share group can give you the additional insights and ideas you need to catapult your career and business to the next level.

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