by Branden Lisi,  Branding Director at Small Brand Incubator and Partner & Strategist at Object 9.  Branden has many years of experience in brand management, marketing consultation, package design consulting, product development and public relations. His specialty is turning around under-performing brands. Branden is a sought after writer and speaker for topics ranging from personal and corporate branding, how to plan, build and leverage a network, and principals of leadership.

Entrepreneurs are a unique breed. In the pursuit of our vision, we risk much to build new companies that provide jobs, drive our economy, and perpetuate the American dream. Each individual road to prosperity is forked with critical decisions that eventually, a single entrepreneur will lack the skills or experiences to confidently make. Finding a peer group that offers unbiased, frank and confidential feedback about those critical moments in the life of your company can be an invaluable resource for corporate leaders: it has been for me as I’ve built Object 9.

My expansion into the Atlanta, finding, compensating and retaining key people, and refining our firm’s marketing focus are just some of the issues I’ve successfully vetted through my peer group within the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. Being around and learning from other entrepreneurs allows me to bring unique and relevant perspectives into my clients’ businesses thus extending the value of my peer experience to others.

So who is a true peer?

For entrepreneurs, peers are other entrepreneurs. Period. A good peer group is made up of business owners that don’t compete with one another or do significant amounts of business with one another. Nothing obfuscates the truth like money and nothing creates a barrier for communication like sitting in the room with competitors or vendors. You should view your intimate peers as intellectual resources, not as prospective customers or vendors.

As soon as money start changing hands between two people, your relationship dynamics change—you go from being peers to a client and vendor. I wasted years trying to find peers within groups comprised of prospective customers, vendors or competitors. The fact is, you won’t have an open discussion about your core challenges or issues with your competitor OR your customer sitting across from the table.

A good peer group also brings together a wide range of experiences and skills. I belong to a 7,000-member global organization called Entrepreneur’s Organization—or EO for short. Every month, I meet with a small peer group that includes manufacturing, retail, finance, HR, sales, operations, management, import/export, software and technology experts sitting around the table sharing their knowledge, experiences and wisdom in a structured format that addresses MY needs. It’s a uniquely powerful way to round out my practical entrepreneurial skills which are oriented around marketing communication and design.

Frank feedback

As an entrepreneur, I have always been surrounded by family, friends, and employees who support and encourage me. However, many years ago I realized that as much as these people love me and want me to succeed, they simply can’t relate to the unique pressures, challenges and emotional state that come with building your own business. What is more, their emotional and intellectual investment in my success becomes a barrier to the kind of brutally honest feedback that I need. The old saying about the emperor having no clothes is very relevant when the emperor is faced with an important decision. Having a group of peers with the freedom to be blunt is invaluable.

Confidential dialogue

The hallmark of a good peer group is confidentiality. In my role on the board of EO, I discovered that most entrepreneurs really want to discuss the issues deep at the heart of their business. But most are wary and slow to open up until they find themselves amongst true peers. Whether you are involved with peer groups like EO, Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Vistage or others, the most important component is trust. If you can’t have a safe, confidential environment in which to open up your heart and mind, you can’t have a true peer group.

Making decisions that impact my business and my life

Since I became actively involved in my peer group, my company has grown more efficiently and effectively. Instead of operating “from the gut” and implementing ideas that take 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, I get the kind of frank, honest feedback that enables me to makes 1 steady step after another. The things I’ve learned by surrounding myself with Leaders (with the capital “L”) is that the impact goes far beyond my role as President of Object 9—they’ve made me a better husband, father, and friend. I encourage every business owner to find a peer group that can help you realize your— and your business’—potential.