Steve MacGill, CEO of Peersight Online and Dr. Jim Norris, CEO of KAART Business Solutions, LLC, discussed the challenges of startups and small businesses and how a peer advisory board can offer peer-reviewed, real-world, proven, solutions.
Peer advisory boards offer a valuable collaborative learning resource, in a confidential setting, for business leaders. Today's economy offers unprecedented challenges for businesses. That makes the benefits from membership in a peer advisory board with the convenience and time-saving efficiency of telecommunications and technology even more valuable.
Let’s back up and get a little bit of separate history. Jim can you tell us a little bit about KAART Business Solutions? How long have you been providing solutions for businesses of all sizes, from 5 to 500 employees? How do you help businesses? Why should our listeners be your client?
Right now, we’re working on bringing peer advisory boards to trade associations.
I started consulting in grad school 25 years ago. But, it was what I called ‘binder consulting’. You put all your findings in a binder and hand them over to the owner, pick up the check and the owner puts the binder on their bookshelf without ever getting the resources they need to implement your plan. The result is they’ve spent a lot of money, and are more reluctant to seek help in the future.
I kept asking How do we lift people out of the muck and get them inspired as leaders.
I started KAART five years ago and met Steve just a few years ago. At Kaart, we have two different approaches. One is The Business Support program where they work with business owners on a weekly basis, typically 4 hours per week. Two hours are spent working directly with the owner while the other two are more behind the scenes work, for example representing them at a bank or bringing in specialists to solve a particular problem that they are having. This works really well, but some people are a little reluctant to engage in this process as it can sometimes be cost prohibitive.
I met Steve and his virtual peer advisory board approach and they then created the new process/program to facilitate better engagement and assistance. I don’t like doing the back-office stuff. I ran across Steve and his infrastructure and this seemed a perfect path.
Steve, what are doing? Where are you doing it?
We provide executive coaching advice to help leaders move this business forward. We originally started Peersight online as a peer advisory board. We found that time was so incredibly precious to folks. One of the original things they did was to offer a retail version. We’d work with folks who found us and build peer advisory boards.
What we found out was attracting folks was a pretty pricey approach, so they were introduced to folks who already had a group of current established clients to help create a peer advisory board. Like Jim and other established advisors. If they partnered with the experts, they were able to grow the foundation and a successful board.
We had learned how to provide all the infrastructure, the plumbing if you will. All the little stuff to get a group of folks to together on the phone as well as providing all the support services through the internet and talk in-between meetings.
If we partners with people like Jim, experts in the field with an excellent reputation and a stable of clients there might be a marriage there. We tap each other’s experience and we tapped 10 or 12 folks who became our partners.
Steve, when you began Peersight Online, what were your reasonable aspirations or hoped for goal? Erika Andersen coined that phrase in her book, Being Strategic.
I think there were two. One was to become a major player in the small business, entrepreneurial advice area and do it in a way that others had never done it. The other, and maybe more importantly, was to actually help small businesses and entrepreneurs who wanted to grow and innovate, see their businesses become something they wanted and be there when it happened.
Would you say you’ve reached that goal?
I hope not; there is still so much more to do. The space has a tremendous opportunity. It hasn’t even begun to be tapped yet. It is something that’s a journey vs eventually crossing a finish line.
Jim, what were your reasonable aspirations or hoped for goal when you began KAART Business Solutions five years ago?
I went in like a lot of entrepreneurs. I went in with fairly low level of aspirations, I didn’t want a boss, I had a young family, didn’t want to travel excessively. But as it happens I was able to see potential that I did not see when I first started. The potential is so huge but the numbers are so small. I saw a real opportunity to get this [virtual advisory boards] out to a lot of people. I would like us to be seen as the world’s largest provider of peer advisory boards.
Jim, I want to back up to something you said earlier. Your peer advisory board is focused on members of a common trade or industry. My first thought was I’d be very reluctant to share my challenges with my competitors. Some people may be a little uncomfortable sharing with the competition.
I think that’s a real issue. A peer board in a small market has the same issue. All business leaders in a smaller market say business is great. As soon as you don’t then it’s down the tubes.
We create peer boards with owners at similar stages. Business owners who’d like to retire in 5 years. Their children. Both could create a separate board. What we are looking to do is not putting direct competitors on a board.
We help push people to get people to be outside of their comfort zone.
We want to give people a sense of community when they don’t necessarily have one. There is huge potential and value because I see so many businesses who care about their employees and create family environment. They got it. My big goal is let’s improve the quality of life for the employees and the business owners. I see huge needs out there.
Let’s talk about your partnership. When did you guys discover there was a mutual, strength-based, partnership possible together?
When we on the Peersight side, started looking at the component pieces, the coaches and the infrastructure or plumbing we saw that they did things we can’t do and we do things they can’t do. We didn’t try to do what they did well and vice versa. There wasn’t a lot of competition between us. I couldn’t steal their business and they couldn’t steal ours. Why would either of us want to get into that aspect of the other’s business where they were strongest? I think that’s what candidly may make our partnerships strong. But I think what’s helped Jim and I develop a notch above this is Trust. We talk regularly. But with Jim in particular the level and degree of trust is what separates us.
Just to be clear I had trust written down before Steve said it. Trust is the lubrication that allows friendships and organizations to work. We started with phone calls and then Steve sent over a partnership document, which was very opening and inviting. It was more focused on setting a tone of how we are going to interact rather than just all of the legal rules. I trust that there are no hidden agendas. On that basis, that start, we are able to work through things.
On the basis of this success, what would be the three tips you would share with our listeners on how to duplicate a similar partnership for themselves?
1. Time: face to face or on the phone. Frequent contact is very important.
2. Extreme openness
3. Care enough to confront
[A longer post on this question was published. ]
That is just perfect. I also think it is the blind luck of people with similar values that come together and start doing business together. If the values and trust is there, then the partnership grows stronger.
If you have to rely on suing someone that’s your partner, well, everybody loses.
Now. In your words, what is the value of a virtual peer advisory board?
[Jim shares a great analogy with Steve Winn, casino owner and a Picasso painting. ]
The ability to see in the blind spots. We all have blind spots, but what is interesting we don’t always see them. Peer boards add a structure and outside perspective to help you see your own blind spots.
The board holds people accountable and this pushes people to have the framework for improvement.
I meet with my clients weekly. And I’m meeting with one today. And I bet he’s in his office now getting his homework done.
Looking back over a year, you can see significant progress you wouldn’t see otherwise.
If you think about exercise and working with a personal trainer – you have goals, structure, and a customized plan. They point you in the direction with one on one attention. This type of personal attention becomes very costly and maybe redundant after you have laid out your workout schedule. You can check in with them once in awhile, but you don’t need them down the road, as much. It is tough to do it on your own, BUT if you exercise with a group, they are your support group. The people who hold you accountable. Those are the people that are there for you, your confidants. THIS is what the peer advisory board provides in business; the support group! I find that if I surround myself with people who will do it with me, that’s my support group. Those are the people who can encourage, who can shove. They’re there and they become close friends and confidants.
What are three reasons a business leader should join a peer advisory board:
2.See into blind spots
Too often we spend time focusing on trying to fix our weaknesses, when the research shows we’re better of f building on our strengths and too many business owners are not leading their businesses that are authentic to them.Help them find their strengths and mitigate ways around their weakness.
You work with leaders of businesses, large and small, your resource is one of the best there is for any business leader and you shared a little bit about how it works. Can you share with us a story of a member’s challenge that was overcome with the help of the board?
We had an individual who was looking to acquire a business. He had even identified 2-3 other businesses that he wanted to buy. At this point, the board had already been together for about nine months and they knew each other fairly well. This member just didn’t seem like an empire builder: growth through acquisition. He seemed more of a developer. One of the members began asking some general questions and soon one of the board members was very direct and reiterated that impression. After a few more meetings and great discussions, he backed off.
He still continues to grow his business organically today. This was a clear example of how a group can get to know each other and challenge them to do the right thing. Get others to question their choices and think deeply about their decisions.
I was thinking of a guy who wanted to do performance reviews, but he never did them, even though he continually wrote them down. It turns out he just hated to give out bad news of any kind or appear confrontational. It took a long time for this to come out.
You two are in conversations with your leaders across the country. What are the three most common challenges that you see them facing and sharing together today?
I think the economy is a major one and how you can use the economy to your benefit. I think also finding the right people at the right time. It comes down to finding those intangible assets and how you are going to manage them effectively.
The one challenge that I see is not only paying attention to the here and now, it is also important to have a foot in the future. Make sure you haven’t sold off the future for survival today. We know most business that thrive, survive, and innovate; they are starting to plan what opportunities are available.Business leaders have to have a foot in both doors now, constantly.
Why are so many CEOs reluctant to join a peer advisory board?
My sense is patience. It takes a good six months in a peer advisory board to develop a strong relationship. To get to day one to the six month mark takes a lot of patience and investment to invest in others and yourself. It is hard work and takes time. The payoff long term is extraordinary though.
I agree. There is an old saying: Peer boards are like a NYC playground where you have to step through a lot of poop to get to the swings. I think you are right- the first six months is developing trust and learning how to work with one another; it takes time, but the clear value becomes more evident.
A peer advisory board IS about the future!
Your experiences as start up leaders; what has been your best experience as a start up?
As you know, working with my son who is technology based – getting to know him and be a part of his life was the one thing that has been the most fun and the best experience.
I think it is seeing the value that business owners see in the service. It is those little things in people’s lives that really make a difference.
What are you going to do about this thing called social media? When are you going to jump into this pool?
As you know, I have done it off and on. It is something that you almost need someone to hold you accountable to do it.
We know it is something we need to do. We're looking at the start of 2010.
What is the one thing you wish you could differently in your startup and why would that matter?
I don’t know that I would do anything differently. The exploration, innovation and constantly looking for a better way to do things was fun and it taught me a lot. I never would have learned it, had I not gone through it.
I agree with Steve. One thing though would be to be further along in my social media work.
How can people join the Peer Advisory Board?
Contact us at KAART Business Solutions, LLC or email me, Jim Norris at Jim at Kaart.com.