Peer Learning: The Entrepreneur’s Superpower
By BEQ Pride Editorial Team
Photos by Denise Batiste Photography
Last year, the BEQ Pride team sat down with four amazing women to talk about the power of mastermind groups. In this issue, we continue exploring formal and informal methods small business owners are using to come together to drive better business results. This time we are taking a look at peer learning with David Powe of AIOPX Management Consulting.
BEQ Pride: Generally speaking, peer learning suggests reciprocity, mutually beneficial, and interdependent or mutual learning. Given that understanding of peer learning, how would you describe peer learning in the business community?
David Powe: Peer learning begins with an idea that I’ve seen promoted by the author and thought leader Napoleon Hill – “No two minds ever come together without thereby creating a third, invisible intangible force, which may be likened to a third mind [the master mind].” Or the way I like to say it, “none of us is as smart as all of us”. This is especially true in entrepreneurial businesses. The increasing complexity of business and the constant need for innovation challenges leaders to look outside of their own experience for solutions. Learning from and with a group of similarly committed entrepreneurs is a proven way to expand your ability to solve business problems and take advantage of opportunities. And that is what peer learning groups are all about.
Peer learning groups function by bringing together business leaders and entrepreneurs in groups of 10 to 15 non-competing companies from different and diverse industries. They are led by expert coaches and facilitators but the learning is generated primarily by the sharing of knowledge and experience between those in the group. One way to look at it is that each member of the group has an advisory board (the other members) that can help them develop ideas and approaches to whatever they are trying to accomplish. At its best, the group can develop trusting relationships and a working knowledge of each other’s businesses. This unlocks the potential for the group to candidly assess strategies and tactics and to give valuable advice. In some cases, it can lead to businesses collaborating to achieve a goal.
BEQ Pride: What are the vital components of peer learning groups? What do members need to bring to the table for their group to succeed?
David Powe: The foundation of any peer learning group is trust. Members of the group must be willing to share their knowledge and expertise and more importantly be vulnerable enough to share their challenges and needs. This will not happen until the members trust that what they reveal within the group will be confidential and will be used to help them, not hurt them. Developing and maintaining this high level of trust is essential and one of the reasons a skilled group facilitator is usually necessary for a group to succeed.
The most successful groups are typically made up of 10 to 15 people. Smaller groups can be very powerful because the members can more easily build commitment to each other’s success but they often lack a sufficient base of knowledge to deal with some of the unique challenges that exist in our complex business ecosystem. Larger groups make it difficult for individuals to get to know each other and each other’s businesses. And on a practical basis, there is just not enough time to give everyone a chance to learn and contribute at their maximum effectiveness. A group of 10 to 15 is ideal because it is large enough to have diversity of thought, experience and perspective but intimate enough to develop the trust necessary among members to produce rich and candid conversations.
Since diversity of thought and experience leads to greater innovation, groups need to be inclusive. Leaders and entrepreneurs from different industries, educational backgrounds and life experiences will always produce the best results. I have witnessed on many occasions a leader from a nursing home, for example, provide expert advice to the leader of a manufacturing company on acquisition strategy. And, I have seen leaders of small businesses give valuable advice to corporate executives on managing staff in global locations. Being inclusive allows people who don’t think like you, who have different backgrounds and interests to contribute perspectives you would not have otherwise heard. And this always leads to better results.
David Powe: Most entrepreneurs are committing enormous amounts of time and energy to making their businesses work. But they spend most, if not all of their time working “in” their businesses. In other words, they spend their time and energy serving the short term needs of their customers, employees and other stakeholders. When you are busy trying to hire a new employee or fill a big order it is usually not the best time to think about how to build or deliver on the strategic plans for the business.
Peer learning groups offer a tremendous return on investment from spending time “on” your business. Members typically share their strategic direction, successes and failures with each other and they receive candid (and in most cases experienced) feedback and help from the group. As a result, members develop the habit of continuous development and execution of their plans. Many times, members find new ideas and approaches by participating in the discussion of someone else’s issue.
Business leaders who participate in a peer learning group benefit in many ways. My mentor in peer learning, John Schmits, describes the benefits using the acronym MAGIC:
Making better decisions – confidence, speed, more informed
Increased Accountability – the group holds you to your plan
Personal and professional Growth – learning from experts and other professionals
Relief from Isolation -get support and advice that is not available from your team
Change agenda – ideas and Innovation
BEQ Pride: There may be confusion in the difference between a mastermind group and peer learning. Is there a difference?
David Powe: While peer learning groups take full advantage of the mastermind principle, the successful ones employ a significant amount of structure and process. The best peer learning groups use processes in a number of value streams to produce results for their members. For example, peer learning groups can identify knowledge gaps and leverage their resources to bring in expert speakers that they would not have access to individually. Likewise, using a structured process for presenting and discussing member opportunities and challenges produces faster and more powerful solutions. Thus, the most successful groups are led by a coach or facilitator who is well versed in applying these processes.
BEQ Pride: What is the “three-way fit” in the context of peer learning groups?
David Powe: Peer learning groups are not for everyone. Members have to be both trusting and trustworthy. And, they need to be willing to share their learning and lived experience with others as well as willing to learn from others. To create this environment, the group facilitators look for a three-way fit. First and foremost, the prospective group member should understand the value they expect to receive by participating in the group. Their expectations should be consistent with the purpose of the peer learning group. Second, they need to be willing to share their business leadership expertise and lived experience with the group and understand the value this adds to the other members. Finally, they need to be aligned with the group culture and value inclusiveness, shared learning and mutual support.
BEQ Pride: Why do you think of peer learning as an entrepreneurial superpower?
David Powe: Peer learning groups have been a formal development tool for businesses for decades and informally, much longer. When done properly, the results can be dramatic. Companies who participate in and sponsor these types of groups have reported growth of 2 to 3 times that of their industry peers who do not participate.
Beyond the business growth, I have experienced personal and professional growth from these groups first-hand. I am a 12-year participant in a peer learning group. My participation in this group helped guide my transition from a corporate manufacturing leader to entrepreneurship as a consulting start-up offering historically excluded businesses an opportunity to develop their superpowers. I am now coaching and facilitating a group that has enjoyed countless successes by working on their businesses.
The diverse-owned business community needs more peer learning opportunities. My groups have seen multiple businesses significantly increase revenue and even develop strategic initiatives within months of joining our group. These results are realistic for leaders with the right balance of drive and humility — those ready to both give and take from the experience.
Learning faster, drawing from the network’s broad base of wisdom and ability to face challenges with confidence — that’s the superpower. The methods used are not common or obvious until you get involved. So, like any superpower, it is not observable from the outside but when applied to a business, peer learning greatly accelerates results.
BEQ Pride: You’ve recently launched a new peer group learning initiative, Procurement Ready Roundtable. Who is this initiative for?
David Powe: The Procurement Ready Roundtable™ is a group of dedicated business owners, mostly from historically excluded businesses, working to bring the power of peer group learning to its members. We build greater profits for our companies by supporting each other and by providing increasing value to our customers and stakeholders. The inaugural group was developed in the greater Rochester, NY region with the support of the NY/NJ Minority Supplier Development Council and the Greater Rochester Black Business Alliance.
The pandemic has opened new possibilities for us. When we launched in January, the intent was to hold regular, in-person meetings. Naturally, the stay-at-home orders dictated a digital engagement model that, to our surprise, has worked well. While we have had to adapt our learning processes to a digital environment, requiring group members to be within driving or commuting distance of each other is no longer necessary. We can take on new members from wherever they are geographically. We are excited about the opportunity to add members from outside of our locale or starting new groups in different areas of the country.
BEQ Pride: Why do facilitated peer learning groups matter?
David Powe: I am a coach and a trained facilitator. Skilled facilitation is one of the things that separates the Procurement Ready Roundtable™ from other peer group offerings available. Having been a 12-year member of a successful peer group, I decided to develop my skills further under an expert coach over the last four years. Besides planning, guiding and managing the group, I bring a set of skills, processes and expertise that transforms a discussion group into a powerful results-driven roundtable.
My primary role in the group is to ensure the membership, structure and culture of the group are optimized for maximum results. I also provide one-on-one business coaching services if a group member needs additional support.
BEQ Pride: Why did you feel the need to create the Procurement Ready Roundtable?
David Powe: As I mentioned before, I have been involved in peer learning groups for over 12 years. As a minority business owner myself, the low number of historically disadvantaged or underutilized businesses participating in and leveraging this powerful resource caused me to wonder why this was the case. I decided to investigate the reasons for these businesses being under-represented in popular peer learning groups. I found 3 main reasons:
- Cost – The best of these groups cost $15,000 dollars or more per year to participate. While the return on this investment is still high, the initial cost was a barrier to entry for most growing businesses and entrepreneurs.
Time investment – Most groups were meeting in person for a full day per month. Most small and diverse-owned business owners were too busy working day-to-day “in” their businesses and reluctant to dedicate such a significant amount of time, especially in one installment.
- Trust – By far the most significant barrier was their ability to establish a level of trust that is required for peer learning groups to be successful. The idea of trusting a group of businesses that had historically excluded them in the marketplace proved to be an insurmountable challenge. Peer learning groups require a level of intimacy among the members that is based on trust.
We’ve solved these problems with the Procurement Ready Roundtable™. By creating an intentionally inclusive group culture that is supported by external stakeholders and the commitment of its business members to show up authentically. The intentionally inclusive culture fosters an environment where trust can grow among the members while the support of external stakeholders provides resources that significantly lower the cost of participation. We also addressed the time commitment by meeting more frequently, using digital technology and reducing the time spent in any one meeting.
The bottom line is that we have developed the Procurement Ready Roundtable™ to provide historically under-represented, excluded businesses with access to the power of peer learning—their superpower.
BEQ Pride: How could peer learning help with: business development?
David Powe: Most entrepreneurs struggle with business development at some point. Whether it is developing sales and marketing systems, identifying strategic growth opportunities or hiring business development talent for the company is key to the success of the enterprise. Having a peer group that can identify with these struggles, who have overcome similar obstacles in their own businesses and are willing to share their insights and experiences can help a business owner grow. In a diverse group, there is almost always someone who has tried what someone may be thinking about. Their lessons learned can save time and money for the others by pointing out the most effective approaches and the pitfalls to avoid.
My current group has decided collectively to focus on securing government and corporate contracts. As a result, we have shared details of how we are approaching the public sector bid process as well as key contacts. We have also invited guest speakers from both corporate and government procurement and supplier diversity to give further insight on how to secure these opportunities.
Operational excellence is the execution of the business strategy more effectively and consistently than the competition. Group members routinely help each other with operational strategies that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their processes.
It happens that I have a corporate background and deep expertise in operational excellence so, in the group I lead, I am able to provide one-on-one coaching to some members. One benefit of a peer group is the collective network of the group. This expanded network provides access to resources to whatever operational excellence expertise is needed.
talent management and hiring?
In a growing business, nothing is more important than identifying, leading and empowering the right talent. This is a frequent topic of discussion in business peer groups. It seems to be a universal struggle in finding time in their day to day operation. But one thing is true for all business leaders – they have spent their entire careers dealing with people. So their collective lived experience is invaluable in helping and guiding their peers in decisions involving people. In addition, the collective network of the group is usually very helpful in identifying talent and resources to help other members.
Skills acquisition for group members is the whole point of peer learning. As the leader develops personally and professionally, the leader’s company and all of its stakeholders benefit. But the group also presents an opportunity for other company stakeholders to benefit. When the content is appropriate, groups may choose to bring multiple stakeholders from a company to participate. For example, when the topic is marketing or there is a marketing expert speaking to the group, the group can choose to expose other people within the companies to participate. This can spread the learning process more quickly throughout the company and improve the adaptation of best practices.
BEQ Pride: How can our readers get in touch with you?
David Powe is a partner at AIOPX Management Consulting. AIOPX helps companies drive profit and cash flow improvement through the application of Operations Excellence tools. Their focus areas include Lean, Six Sigma, Practical Process Improvement, DFSS, TPM, Manufacturing and Supply Chain improvement. They develop uncommon solutions to business problems and drive extraordinary results to the bottom line.