Leo Bottary on the Power of Peer Advisory Groups: An interview by Bob Morris

BottaryLeo Bottary is Vice President, Peer Advantage, for Vistage Worldwide, where he directs a thought leadership initiative on the power of peer influence for business leaders. Leo also serves as an adjunct professor for two of Seton Hall University’s graduate leadership communication programs. In April 2015, he was named adjunct teacher of the year for Seton Hall’s College of Communication and the Arts.

Prior to joining Vistage in 2010, Leo enjoyed a 25-year career counseling leaders in strategic communication. During that time, he served as a Senior Vice President (Corporate Practice) and Director of Client Service for the US at Hill & Knowlton. He also founded an award-winning public relations agency, which he sold in 2000.

Leo earned a BA from Jacksonville University, an MA in Strategic Communication and Leadership from Seton Hall University and is expected to receive his EdD from Northeastern University with a concentration in Organizational Leadership in 2016. Leo’s dissertation focuses on learning outcomes and the power of peer influence for CEOs.

He co-authored The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth, and Success with Leon Shapiro. It was published by Bibliomotion (March 2016).

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Morris: Before discussing The Power of Peers, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Bottary: Sounds great! Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions today. So, it’s not so much WHO was my greatest influence, as WHAT. In 2006, I was accepted into the Master of Arts in Strategic Communication & Leadership program at Seton Hall University. The program changed my life. It offered me new perspectives on leadership, later created an opportunity for me to serve as an adjunct professor, and challenged me to appreciate the power of peers on an entirely new level as both a member and leader of learning teams.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Bottary: Early in my career, I worked with Dick McDonald and Vin Cimini, both brilliant marketers, who approached the world of strategy and creativity very differently, yet I learned so much from both of them that shapes the way I see the world even today. They gave me a solid foundation, one from which the faculty members at both Seton Hall University and Northeastern University have since provided me with a deeper understanding of leadership, creativity, and strategy.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Bottary: My time at Vistage brought together what I learned in my professional life with what I was learning and reading about on the academic side. Seeing CEOs from vastly different industries work together and learn from one another is a sight to see. It inspired me to look more deeply into the factors that make such a process work so well and help CEOs realize such incredible results both in their professional and personal lives.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Bottary: It codified what I always believed and hoped was the right way to lead and to learn. It’s also a lifelong journey for me now. If you think about topics like leadership and peer advantage, I will never stop being a student. It’s not like learning the alphabet, where once you learn it, you know it, right? My formal education has made me more curious, more thoughtful, and has greatly expanded my view. As you may recall from the book, we quote Pat Hyndman, who started leading CEO groups at age 73 and did so until he was 98! He said, “You don’t grow old, you become old when you stop growing.” I regard having adopted that mindset as a product of my formal education and an enduring gift from Pat.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Bottary: Early in my career, I was tasked with providing communication counsel to leaders without having an adequate understanding of what leadership and being the leader was all about. If you want to be good at counseling leaders, you have to be well versed on both communication and leadership!

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Bottary: That would be Moneyball, largely because it employs systems thinking in a manner which is very strategic. It also incorporates how to use data (in this data rich world in which we live) and look closely at what data we should select and what meaning we should extract from it, without clinging to the ways things have always been done. There’s a new book coming out called Everydata that does a masterful job of addressing this issue. I invite you to take a look at it!

Morris: From which business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Bottary: That would be The Customer Comes Second by Hal Rosenbluth and Diane McFerrin Peters. I used it as a template to build the culture of my PR firm Bottary & Partners back in the mid-to-late 90s. In those days, it was all about the customer and about how the customer is always right. Rosenbluth and Peters assert what I believe is more mainstream today, that if you put your employees first, the customers (clients) will be the real winners. The most impressive aspect of the book isn’t the premise, though; it’s what unfolds throughout the narrative when you see the extent to which Rosenbluth Travel (later acquired by American Express) delivered on the concept. It blew me away. As an aside, I wrote a letter to Hal, and he was kind enough to respond with a thoughtful letter that I had framed and posted it in my office. It served as a constant reminder for me and my team as to what we’re all about!

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Chin:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Bottary: Leverage the strengths of your team, embrace conflict, and celebrate the victory together!

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Bottary: No truer words have ever been spoken. You have to have a framework for evaluating ideas in the context of strategy so that you know what to adopt and, most importantly, what to say no to!

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Bottary: It speaks to the lifecycle of some great companies. It’s all about agility.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) But ‘That’s odd….’”

Bottary: There’s nothing more enjoyable than unexpected (good) discoveries, particularly when once you discover them, you realize, it wasn’t odd at all – it was obvious. For example, we always saw The Power of Peers as a book that would give birth to peer advantage and make the case for CEOs adding a peer advisory group to their personal and professional development ensemble.

Turns out, we’re also hearing from people who lead groups who are saying they plan to buy a copy for each of their members so they can evaluate how they are performing against the five factors that we talk so extensively about in part 2. They plan to use it as a tool to raise their game. Love that!

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Buttary: It reminds me of the best and most succinct definition of innovation as simply “creativity realized.” It’s all about execution.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Ducker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Bottary: Drucker talked extensively about working on the right tasks. This is where CEOs provide one another with incredible value. They challenge each other to be their organization’s chief executive officer NOT the chief everything officer. Most CEOs who join a group will tell you about how the group has influenced how they spend their time back at the office. They let their teams do what they are being paid to do, so as CEO, they can focus on what a CEO is supposed to do.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Bottary: I haven’t read the book, but now that you point it out, I will. Based on your question, this antidote would appear to align quite nicely with what peer advantage is all about!

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Bottary: Stories inspire! A wonderful presentation training coach named Toni Louw once told me, “Illustrate, don’t explain.” He taught me to use stories to inspire adoption and our editor for the book, Heather Pemberton Levy, showed us the power of what she calls Story First! People are more likely to follow great storytellers.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Bottary: Tap into the horizontal forces in your organization, not just the vertical ones everyone is tracking on the org chart. Bring key influencers into the fold early and engage them to help you lead among the ranks in the sense-making exercises that accompany the announcement of any upcoming change. Also, find a way to tease out ambivalence. Ambivalence is not indifference. People likely care a great deal. It’s just that they may like parts of the change and hate other parts of it. This can help leaders understand more clearly what they’re dealing with so they can identify and address legitimate objections early.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Bottary: Take some advice from Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, who is more of a leader in the education space than in the business arena, yet she espouses the importance of teaching students to “learn how to learn.” For CEOs, if their employees can learn how to learn together, they can create a culture and a mindset that will be agile enough to handle whatever comes their way in this complex, fast-paced world of ours.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Power of Peers. When and why did you decide to write it and do so in collaboration with Leon?

Bottary: First of all, the idea of either of us writing The Power of Peers alone would have been counter to the message of the book, right? What we know is that peer advisory groups for CEOs work really well, that too few CEOs, business owners and their key executives avail themselves of this resource, and that with rare exception, there has been very little written about the power of those who stand beside us in our lives. We thought if we gave these groups a voice through the concept of peer advantage that we could inspire business leaders to consider joining the best group for them.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Bottary: One in particular that came to us while we were working on part 1. We talk about the four ways we engage with our peers as we connect, network, optimize and accelerate. Briefly, here’s what they mean:

We connect with our peers in person or online. The people we connect with are typically acquaintances—though they may be people we’ve never met—with whom we exchange information or share a common interest, even if only temporarily. Think in terms of attending general business gatherings in your local community, seeking opinions about vendor experiences on Yelp, or connecting at the most basic levels on LinkedIn.

We network online, at conferences, or at local business events and socials in a more selective and more purposeful attempt to advance personal and professional interests. Connecting and networking tend to be individual pursuits and are, by far, the most common ways we reach out to our peers.

We optimize when we work together in teams to bring a high level of excellence to achieving a common goal. Leaders often form organizational “tiger teams” to tackle special projects. The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, conducts debriefs following every flight (what we see as a perfect flight ) to talk about how they can do even better the next time. Top sports teams participate in practices that are often more rigorous than schecduled games to ensure top performance when it truly counts. The work of optimizing tends to take place among a more homogenous group of peers and be temporary in nature, determined by either the length of a specific project or the span of a season.

We define accelerate as the ultimate means for gaining peer advantage. It’s what top CEOs do when they work together as part of a diverse group on an ongoing basis. The objectives are to help one another meet tough challenges, achieve lofty organizational goals, and grow as leaders.

Our “Aha!” moment occurred when we realized that CEOs should prioritize their own peer engagement in the opposite order. People, generally speaking, connect more than they network. They network more than they optimize and optimize more than they accelerate. CEOs, whose time is extremely valuable, should accelerate, optimize, network, and connect.

Why? Invest your time where you get the most value. It’s essential that you get out of your company and industry silos to engage in rich conversations with a diverse group of peers who truly empathize with the magnitude of a CEO’s responsibilities. Ask any high-performing CEO in a group. Your peers will broaden and deepen your knowledge and help you lead your organization more effectively.

Next, optimize. Take what you learn from your CEO group— your ideas and your understanding about how high-performing groups collaborate—and show your people how to lead groups that optimize inside your organization. Networking involves purposeful interaction with select individuals who can help you and your organization grow. What you gain from accelerating and optimizing will help you be an even more purposeful and successful networker. Finally, stay connected. Connecting helps extend your reach and provides you with an additional knowledge channel for intentional and collateral learning.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Bottary: We gave it more focus. Early on, we were getting caught up in the literature about peer influence in a manner that caused us to stray from our expertise.

Morris: Of all the material provided in the book, which material do you think your business students will find to be of greatest interest and value to them? Why?

Bottary: The five factors are the meat of the book because they are not only relevant to CEO groups, they can be applied in any learning team or professional team situation.

Morris: I chaired two peer advisory groups for more than ten years within The Executive Committee (TEC) organization. The members of those groups were most interested in the work of Jim Collins, Clay Christensen, Geoff Moore, and Ran Charan. That was a few years ago. Which business book authors seem to be of greatest interest to Vistage members today? Why?

Bottary: The ones you mentioned certainly remain prominent. Others would include Daniel Pink, Simon Sinek, Seth Godin, Dave Logan, Malcolm Gladwell, Craig Weber, etc. Just for starters.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. Based on what you have heard from Vistage members and their group’s leaders, what seems to be the greatest challenge that they now face in a global marketplace that seems to become more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous each day?

Bottary: Not sure there is only one challenge, but certainly we hear a lot about the skills gap. Hiring and then keeping really good people is top of mind for most CEOs today.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest challenge that peer advisory group organizations such as Vistage will face in (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Please explain.

Bottary: I hope that’s it’s making sure we have enough highly trained Chairs to keep up with the demand of CEOs who will be inspired to join a CEO peer advisory group. I believe we will see increased demand and our competitors will also. We didn’t write this book to promote Vistage. Rather, to give language to a category – the Cirque du Soleil of professional/personal development, if you will. That’s how we see peer advantage!

Morris: These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away n each of these?

First, Goals for “communities of practice” (Pages 8-9, 32-36, 40-41, and 57-58

Bottary: We felt it was critical to enlist Etienne & Beverly Wenger-Trayner to talk about communities of practice and the scholarly research behind why peer advisory groups are so powerful.

Morris: Optimizing business opportunities (11-12, 37-39, 88-92, 129-130, and 138-141)

Bottary: Optimizing is the fuel for gaining a competitive edge. If your team is operating at 70% of its capability versus 95+%, you may have a tough time competing and staying in business. How far do you think basketball teams in either the men’s or women’s NCAA tournament will go in the draw if they haven’t optimized? Those teams are going home early!

Morris: Learning (19-20, 42-43, 54-55, 84-85, and 111-112)

Bottary: Today’s facts, theories, and data can be rendered irrelevant without a commitment to learning and always being attuned to what’s next? True learning organizations will have the competitive advantage going forward.

Morris: Culture of emotional support (20-21, 55-56, 98-99, 107-109, 111-112. and 119-121)

Bottary: If you lead a company where people at all levels in an organization are free to speak their minds openly as part of a culture of learning and positivity versus one of judgment and negativity, then you’re on your way to building a high-performing CEO group and effective learning organization.

Morris: Trust (21-22, 70-72, 125-126, 147-148, and 151-152)

Bottary: Without trust, you’re nowhere. The rest of the book becomes irrelevant.

Morris: Young Presidents’ Organization (34-35, 57-58, and 65-66)

Bottary: I really enjoyed exploring YPO, along with many of our other competitors, including spending time with Doug Baker who co-wrote True North Groups with Bill George. All these organizations were essential to painting a more holistic picture of the value proposition for CEO peer advisory groups.

Morris: Five factors for successful peer groups (44-45)

Bottary: They create the ensemble that makes peer advantage possible!

Morris: Smart guides (73-86)

Bottary: They are the servant leaders who bring the group together and serve as the stewards of the other four factors.

Morris: Conversations between and among members (78-79 and 138-140)

Bottary: Creating group cohesion both inside and outside the meeting strengthens the bonds of the group and sets the stage for high-performance.

Morris: Fostering valuable interaction (87-89)

Bottary: Giving people emotional safety is critical, but it’s not enough. Intellectually, CEOs need to have confidence that there’s a process for getting to the heart of the matter that will be effective in grappling with real challenges and identifying potential new opportunities.

Morris: Accountability: Individual and Organizational (101-114)

Bottary: By creating greater group cohesion, which I covered earlier, it sets the stage for creating a group culture in which it’s not just about what the leader expects from the group, it’s what the members grow to expect from each other. Most group members will tell you that group accountability is what makes peer advantage sing!

Morris: Diverse perspectives (131-144)

Bottary: Stepping outside your company and industry sector will open you up to a world of possibilities that are difficult to acquire as part of a group that is industry specific. Make no mistake that industry groups can be tremendously valuable, but they tend to cover variations of industry norms versus new ways of thinking and seeing the world differently.

For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Power of Peers, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Bottary: Who you surround yourself with really does matter. CEOs and business owners can help each other in ways they won’t find anywhere else. Just ask a peer who is in a group, and they’ll tell you!

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

I think we’re pretty well covered! Thank you!

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Leo cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His Amazon link

Vistage link

LinkedIn link

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