global Leadership

How to Find Safe Sounding Boards Outside of Your Company

(This post was first published at www.Forbes.com on July29, 2019)

Senior leaders often benefit from talking to executives outside of their own company.

For example:

  • A new CFO is adjusting to C-suite politics
  • A CTO faces peer pushback on plans to expand into another country
  • A CEO has undergone a shift in mindset not shared by the executive team

Discussing issues with other senior executives offers a kind of support and perspective that coaches, mentors, or colleagues can’t typically provide. And talking with someone outside of their company — and industry — allows leaders to run ideas and questions by peers who might have a different take on things.

C-suite leaders especially may lack peers whom they can talk to speculatively without having their ideas treated as proposed courses of action. It’s been observed that, with each successive promotion in a company, individuals find the number of coworkers who will speak candidly to them has shrunk. Becoming part of the C-suite magnifies that separation, and for CEOs, it can feel like nearly total isolation.

When I’ve helped my coaching clients connect with outside executives, the positive feedback they’ve given tends to fall into several categories.

Many point to the reinforcement they received from talking with someone in a similar role and finding out that their own position was completely understandable. They weren’t simply being stubborn or irrational.

Others cite the candid advice offered on their conduct as a leader, such as, “You’ve got to have a straight talk with him and get a better idea where he’s at,” or, “You need to be tougher with people.” These recommendations carry extra weight because they come from executives in similar positions.

Still, others were given new questions to consider, for example: “Have you gotten clear on what the results you’re looking for need to look like?” Or, “Does the board really understand what you bring to the company?”

One common concern is that these discussions might expose sensitive company information, but leaders already handle this risk effectively when they connect with others at conferences or seminars. And many C-suite executives have mentors from other companies.

Another concern is that leaders might be overly influenced by outsiders. This impressionability can be beneficial, however, if managed responsibly. New approaches might be exactly what the leader needs to get beyond internal thinking and inertia. This doesn’t necessarily assume “neutrality” from external sources; everyone has biases and agendas. Rather, the value comes from the extra degrees of separation, or “safe distance,” offered by peers outside the organization. External input can be extraordinarily helpful if leaders can connect with another executive who has dealt with similar challenges.

In facilitating approximately 50 of these senior level cross-industry peer connections, I’ve found that the reached-out-to executive usually has a reason to want to make the connection, too. Sometimes they simply want to be helpful, especially when they’re in a unique position to provide insight. Reached-out-to executives also tend to be aware that, no matter how well things are going for them, they’ll probably benefit from discussing the ins and outs of their role as well. 

Finding the right connection  

Senior executives at major companies have a particularly hard time finding external sounding boards.

While conferences offer opportunities, they take a lot of time, don’t happen frequently, and are usually limited to executives from the same industry. Connections at conferences also tend to be arbitrary—determined by who happens to be free at the same time you are or who happens to sit next to you at presentations or at lunch. The same randomness limits connections made in seminars and executive education courses.

Peer-to-peer networks exist, but most are not aimed at senior executives from prominent global companies and may require levels of commitment few senior leaders are ready to make.

One solution is to get referrals from a trusted consultant, coach, or outside executive, giving them as much contextual information as possible, including

  • Your objectives in reaching out. Are you looking for an on-going sounding board on issues as they arise? Or an executive with expertise in a specific area such as M&A, risk management, or expanding into new territories?
  • Whether it matters if potential connections are in the same role you are or have experienced challenges like the one you’re facing. Does their industry or country of operation matter? Their gender or cultural background?

Even though your sources may not be able to come up with individuals who meet all your criteria, the more they know about what you’re looking for the better. But it can still be hit or miss, depending on the challenges you face and the range of known and trusted connections your sources have. 

Based on feedback I’ve received, my referrals have resulted in useful connections roughly one half to two thirds of the time. That’s a good percentage, but it still indicates leaders can’t assume that their first connection will work. Mutual chemistry always plays a role, and it’s often hard to predict until two people start talking with each other.

The potential benefits are substantial, however. Regardless of whether an effective solution or new course of action surfaces, just talking through issues with someone in a similar position helps clarify leaders’ options and allows them to move ahead with more confidence.

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