Leadership can get lonely at times. You are the only one with your role in your direct team(s). Your manager is quite hard to reach. And you are also restricted in what you can share with the team, and talking about your struggles is almost always inappropriate. So how can you work through them? And how can you benefit from the knowledge that other people with the same role have in your company? Forming peer groups is the most straightforward and helpful format to handle tough challenges.
Unfortunately, as you progress the leadership career ladder, support from your managers will steadily decline. You will get a lot less actionable feedback about the things you do, and a lot more candid feedback about the results you achieved. Your managers will be increasingly absent when it comes to day-to-day guidance and help towards growth. So how do you get better at your job then? Besides looking outwards for training courses and books, I found peer groups the single most useful lever to pull.
What is a peer group?
In its most bare-bones version, a peer group happens when you collect a group of 4-5 individuals that perform the same role and tell them they are a group now, to exchange their approaches over different day-to-day problems they face.
It relates a bit to the Manager Voltron idea from Lara Hogan, with the difference that you are all sharing the same employer.
What can I get out of one?
The biggest benefit is you can get is answers to
How can I deal with this specific situation?
in a very safe way: Your peers will share their recipes and approaches, and they can stop you from running against any organizational walls.
You can get feedback on your plans and discuss your understanding of patterns, concepts, or processes. And you can do all that without the fear of looking incompetent in front of your leader that might put a mental note into their “not read for promotion” bucket. Ultimately, this is the fast lane toward becoming a better manager.1
It’s also a safe place to vent (within reason), and we all need a bit of that.
How can I start one?
It was surprising to me how little effort you need to jumpstart one, compared to the benefits you get and how much people that participate love it. For us, that meant
Defining Groups and their members on a Confluence page
creating a closed Slack channel for each group
Post a brief introduction text in each channel, and then leave them to it
The broader spread out over the organization the group is, the better - avoid putting people together who already have some overlap in their day-to-day work. For example, avoid putting EMs from closely collaborating teams, they’ll be talking to each other a lot anyways.
Absolutely avoid reporting lines in the same group. It might happen as sometimes people from the same level report to each other, so check that beforehand. If a manager-report relationship is on the team, you will severely reduce to option for both to be vulnerable and show their struggles openly.
Keep it inclusive for everyone, which works best when you just “assign” groups of people and with that shake up existing networks in your organization. If people self-assign, you’ll see a lot of old-boys-networks forming.
With that, you’ll get a broad range of perspectives when discussing challenges.
The group should meet semi-regularly, with a fixed slot in the calendar already booked. Meeting spontaneously is almost impossible with all our busy calendars. One hour per week seems like a good starting point - most of the time, not everyone can participate, but with a group of 5, you will be able to have a regular exchange going on. Either you create it for them or nominate one person from the group to create the invite. I just created a list of all people from the role and split them by hand. If you feel fancy, it’s a good excuse to write a script in your favorite programming language.
You don’t ask your leaders for permission to create a meeting in other cases, right? So, just go for it.
Keeping them useful and non-toxic
As we have been running this format for a couple of iterations by now, I can see two ways peer groups can fail:
No one opens up
Let’s face it, we are all better at giving advice than at asking for it. It comes with the role where we have to be confident in the face of ambiguity a lot. But if everyone is trying to give advice, and no one shares their struggles, it will die down very fast and not be very useful until it’s dead.
My best approach here was to lead by example: I prepared at least one or two current, real, struggles2. And if some people would stay firm in the advice-giver role, I’d gently nudge them on a private channel. It only works if everybody meets at eye height, and no one tries to bring any hierarchy to this group.
The toxic complainfest
We all gotta vent every now and then, and this is the prime safe place for it. Especially during times with a lot of top-down changes3. That’s alright in moderation, but if it dominates the discussion and you have spent your whole hour puking out hatred, you haven’t gotten anywhere and you probably feel worse now. If you continue doing your sessions that way, you’ll rile each other up and end up a lot more spiteful than you started, and the group can become a toxic detrimental place.
So you need to watch it - I never needed a written agenda for this, as it was always fairly obvious. You just have to feel somewhat responsible for the group and call it out when it happens - There were instances where I stepped in and asked “Do we just want to be angry a lot? Or find ways to navigate that mess?”. And sometimes my peers would gently pull me away from my righteous crusade against everything :)
After half a year, you will likely have gotten a lot of learnings out of your peers, and the returns start to diminish. It’s useful to first find out if the format should continue4, and if yes, switch up the groups.
Just beware that people might have gotten to like each other and they’ll try to keep both old and new groups afloat until their calendar explodes.
Peer groups are a low-process, low-cost format of getting people from the same role together to help each other, and they are awesome for that!
Of course that assumes that your peers are great people you can learn from - but if that’s not the case, you should move to another company, not fiddle with peer groups. ↩︎
“But I don’t have any struggles” - Stop kidding yourself, you do, you just don’t know about them ;) ↩︎
We all got into this job because we wanted to change the world for the better and found ourselves as the long arm of senior leadership and occasionally having to drive things that we hate. ↩︎
A small engagement survey might be cheaper than running a whole retro for all groups ↩︎