The Value of CEO Peer Groups

The Value of CEO Peer Groups

by Steven Wasser
Steven Wasser facilitates the Executive Peer Group at Upstate Capital.

Read how CEO peer groups can:

  • Build trusted relationship between executives
  • Help solve difficult business problems
  • Bolster personal and professional growth

CEO peer groups have been instrumental in my personal evolution as a CEO. The benefits of participating in such groups are fairly universal, based on my 20+ years of experience. In 2006, I started a peer group for CEOs in Boston, after spending a decade in a Vistage group. Over the next 10 years, this group proved invaluable for both me and other members in many ways. 

CEO peer groups are designed to be safe environments for leaders to learn from other leaders while addressing business and personal issues.

In general, here a few expectations every CEO should have for a CEO peer group:

1. Rely on confidentiality
Confidentiality is the number one rule for a successful peer group. Together, members create a safe place to discuss difficult issues — especially on topics a CEO may not be ready to discuss with her board or management team.

2. Learn in your own way
Growth in a CEO peer group takes place in many ways. As shown in the exchange above, Kevin often brought issues to the group but did not follow recommendations. So why did Kevin credit the group with his company’s success? There is more than one way to learn from a group of CEOs. You may benefit from direct feedback on a specific issue — or find your most valuable wisdom through processing issues and participating in discussions

3. Expect diversity

Most CEO peer groups, including our Upstate Capital group, strive for variety among members and do not allow competitors in the same group. While each business is different, we face many similar issues — from succession planning and recruiting talent to direct sales vs. wholesale distribution, to name just a few examples.

4. Find clarity

When a group member has an issue to discuss, here is how we explore it together: First, we seek clarity, asking questions to make sure we thoroughly understand the situation. For example, a member might complain about the performance of her sales force. During this conversation, we discover her father manages the sales force. The group may help discover that the real issue is the relationship between the CEO and her father.

5. Gain feedback

Once we have clarity, the group provides feedback. We encourage the CEO who presented to listen, not defend. Unlike some other CEO groups, we do not strive for consensus. If there are 12 people in the room, there may be 11 different opinions about the best course of action. It is up to the presenter to decide what feedback, if any, he thinks is most appropriate to his situation.

6. Plan for action
Finally, we ask the presenting CEO, “What will you do?” Ideally, the CEO has distilled the feedback and determined an appropriate action plan. The group will check back with the CEO later to learn how the implementation is going. This provides valuable accountability among peers.

Today, I’m working with the Upstate Capital Association of New York to facilitate a newly-launched Executive Peer Group for CEOs in the Hudson Valley. We currently have 9 members and have capacity for up to 15. Membership is open to CEOs from across Upstate New York who are leading $1M+ companies and are focused on strategy, growth and evolution. Meetings rotate among members’ respective locations so everyone gets the chance to experience the inner workings of each company.  In addition to facilitating group meetings every 6-8 weeks, I meet one-on-one with each member between meetings.

If you’d like to be part of Upstate Capital’s Executive Peer Group, you can contact Steven at, or Noa Simons, the Executive Director of the Upstate Capital Association of New York, at for more information and an application.

Steven Wasser has been involved with CEO peer groups for 20 years, including 10 years as a member of Vistage and 10 years as founder of a self-facilitating, cooperative group. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School, has worked as a management consultant and owned Verne Q. Powell Flutes, Inc., the Stradivarius of the flute world, for 30 years. Wasser has also taught entrepreneurship, strategy, and leadership to undergraduate and graduate business students.

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