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Backing Founders – Sharing our knowledge and experience

David Mott, Founder Partner, Oxford Capital

How would you feel if, as a founder, you knew that almost every opportunity, challenge, problem or major decision that you face had already been tackled by other business leaders in the past. And what if you could explore this issue with them and gain their insights in advance of making your own decisions? I am a great believer in the power of shared experience and peer to peer networks. As a young entrepreneur, I met a group of business leaders from India who had bonded through a business network, and a few years ago a friend that had been appointed as CEO of a Swiss bank told me about a network he was part of and urged me to join. I eventually dug into it a bit deeper and came across YPO, the Young Presidents Organisation and following a fascinating series of discussions I was invited to join the London chapter.

Your personal board

Through YPO, I joined a Forum and for the past seven years, I have been meeting with the same group of nine other business leaders, once a month, to share experience and insights with each other. We think of it as being our personal board, through which we share experience on a range of topics with the aim of helping each member grow and develop personally and professionally. Forum is not unique to YPO, and a number of other organisations have established similar practices such as Entrepreneur’s Organisation, The Supper Club, Vistage or Business Network International. Each has a similar model encouraging the development of leaders through peer to peer mentoring.

Many founders create their own informal networks with kindred spirits – other founders, business mentors or friends. Some will meet regularly for structured discussions while others communicate ad hoc over WhatsApp groups. At the heart of all successful and productive forums is a deep respect for confidentiality that goes beyond the famous Chatham House Rule, often mandating that discussions in the group are never to be referred to outside of it, ever.

Drawing on a deep pool of experience

In our group, at each meeting we pick two topics to explore. A topic may be something that a member of the group has prepared in advance to present or something that has been identified as an important and urgent issue by the group. The discussion will normally begin with the presenter describing the topic and the context for 10-15 minutes. There are no interruptions or questions from the other members who will simply be present and listening carefully. Once briefed, the discussion is opened up to other members. But unusually, questions are not invited. Instead, each member will describe an emotion and a memory that has been evoked by the presentation. This creates a sense of empathy, of understanding and an emotional connection. Then the forum members will share experiences from their own personal or professional lives that are relevant. We have a rule of not giving advice. The temptation is to launch into presenting a solution. ‘You should do this…’ or ‘My advice to you is that…’. Instead, members are invited to share an experience they’ve had, or that someone they know has had, that is relevant to the presenter’s challenge or opportunity. Then, they describe the action that they took, and the outcome that came about.

Our group is made up of business leaders from a wide range of sectors, and stages of development – founders, family business owners and corporate leaders. Yet each time a topic is presented, a wealth of experience is shared, and I always get a deep sense of comfort knowing that as a founder, I am not alone. The model of shared experience means that I hear real life experiences that others have been through and can understand the outcomes of their decision making. Something that a consultant or adviser cannot usually offer. I also hear experiences relating to the topic from multiple viewpoints and from different industries. Through these shared experiences, I can draw threads of each of them together to devise solutions that I can bring back to my colleagues to consider for our business.

Putting it into practice

When working with founders across our portfolio, I have learned to appreciate the wisdom of this approach sharing the experience that I or other colleagues have gathered over the years and across many investments. In board meetings, I often find myself defaulting to the forum language of ‘When we faced a similar situation with start-up X, the decision that was reached was Y, and this resulted in Z’, instead of defaulting to giving advice or trying to solve the problem the founder is facing. As a VC investor, we have the benefit of supporting the development of many companies over time. We appreciate that for many founders, growing a start-up can be a lonely journey at times and sharing experience or encouraging them to join peer networks can help them to find their own solutions as well as gaining the satisfaction of sharing their own experience with others.

Wherever possible we encourage boards to include a line in the budget for the leaders in the business to join peer networks, find mentors or a coach. A problem shared is a problem halved. And perhaps an opportunity shared can benefit others and help more founders learn from each other and accelerate their growth, as well as build a better ecosystem.