Peer Advisory Groups for Association Members Who Want to Learn From and With Each Other

In a recent virtual chat for association professionals, one person asked the others about membership renewals. In 15 minutes, she received advice on strategies and tactics, as well as lessons learned—an example of peer learning at its finest. In this group, problems and questions are shared with a sense of confidentiality and trust. In return, participants hear insight and solutions from colleagues with diverse perspectives and experiences. Your members would be happy for you to arrange experiences like this for them. Or you could take this concept to the next level: peer advisory groups.

How peer advisory groups work

Peer advisory groups are made up of six to ten non-competing professionals who are in the same business (and size of business) or at the same career level. Groups may contain people within one specialty (remodelers or custom builders) or one profession (lawyers, doctors, or accountants). Some peer advisory groups are made up of CEOs and their successors.

The group meets regularly to learn from and with each other. Their goal is to increase revenue or sales, grow their business, improve their performance, or climb the corporate ladder. They invest time and money—thousands of dollars usually—into the group and expect results. One member of a peer advisory group said most of the people in his group doubled or tripled their margins in three years.

Monthly meetings are run by a facilitator. Logistics are taken care of by the organization that manages the program—an association, nonprofit, or for-profit. Some groups are facilitated by an executive mentor.

Formats vary, of course, but most include:

•    Updates on member progress toward goals.
•    Discussion of members’ urgent issues.
•    Discussion of a topic chosen ahead of time or a presentation by an expert.
•    Hot seat: similar to what takes place in a mastermind, a case study presentation by a member followed by a solution-focused discussion.
•    Goal setting.

Why people invest time and money in peer advisory groups

Peer advisory groups discuss strategies and tactics, workforce issues, best practices, trends, new products and technology, new ideas and research, and challenges. The group acts as a sounding board for each member, providing feedback, exploring ideas and solutions with each other, and looking at the bigger picture together.

A huge advantage of being part of a group like this is the exposure to different perspectives and strengths. It’s an opportunity for frank conversations, the kind they can’t have with their board or others in the C-suite or office. Members share their network of contacts, experts, and resources.

The peer advisory group is a circle of trust made up of people who ‘get’ each other. It reduces the isolation often felt by the person at the top of the corporate ladder—it’s lonely up there. It serves as a personal booster club for aspiring executives and entrepreneurs.  

Members hold each other accountable for business goals. In some groups, they’ve held others accountable for necessary changes in health and relationships too. They help each other face challenges. They create results together and watch each other learn and grow.

Social learning in action

Peer advisory groups are an example of social learning in action—interactive learning from and with peers. A more familiar example of social learning is table exercises during a conference session. Participants take new knowledge, apply it, discuss it, answer each other’s questions, and maybe challenge someone else’s interpretation. They work with the information, make it their own and make it stick.

Similarly, in a peer advisory group, someone presents a problem. Members ask questions and discuss the issue. They propose solutions from different perspectives, raising anticipated obstacles. If they don’t have the answers, they go off and research, talk to others, and bring back ideas to the next meeting or to the group’s discussion forum. This is customized, practical learning in the moment.

Social learning like this is empowering. Participants aren’t just passive recipients of information. They’re actively working with new information, asking questions, figuring out solutions, and gaining new perspectives.

Examples of peer advisory groups

Some associations, like NAHB, have had successful peer advisory groups for decades. For-profits, like Vistage, make this type of program their business.

•    National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) 20 Clubs

•    American Rental Association’s Peer Advisory Groups

•    Associated Builders and Contractors’ Peer Groups

•    Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s Accelerator Program

•    Family Business Institute’s CEO Performance Roundtables

•    Vistage

Enhance the peer advisory group experience with online learning

Your association can improve the peer learning experience by providing required and/or optional online learning programs as part of the group membership fee or for an additional fee. For example, the group may decide they need training in specific topics, such as succession planning, process improvement, or risk management. You could arrange live online presentations from experts in those topics. Since you don’t have to fly them in, the speaker’s fee might be in the group’s budget or they can share the additional costs.

You could offer training sessions on developing mission statements, goals, business plans, strategies, and action plans. Members could read, listen, or watch and discuss articles, podcast episodes, or videos hosted on your LMS or website library.

Busy executives and entrepreneurs appreciate timesaving microlearning programs, for example, online mini-courses on critical topics like business management, marketing, sales, or reputation management. If these programs are required, you can allow members to test out of certain topics. Some advisory groups also include subscriptions to business services and executive coaching as part of membership.

Peer advisory groups present many opportunities for sponsorship—a great way to subsidize your costs or the membership fee. Sponsors could provide scholarships for aspiring professionals who can’t afford group membership, especially members who bring a different and valuable background and perspective. Industry partners also can provide their expertise through sponsored content, such as webinars, new product demos, or educational programs discussing new industry developments.

“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage,” said business theorist Arie de Geus. Imagine the possibilities for your industry if more competitors were learning and growing together. Peer advisory groups have the potential to uplift their members and the industry.

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