Purpose & Impact
How REF Changed My Career and Life Compared to My Other Peer Forum Experiences
3 Minutes read
I vividly remember driving to my first peer forum meeting.
I was thinking: I don't have time for this! What am I doing? Who are these people? Am I worthy to be there? What am I going to bring to the group? Do I belong? Am I going to fit in? Who is this facilitator person? What is really going to happen in these meetings? Am I going to be uncomfortable? On the way there, all of these questions and thoughts were running through my mind!
On the way home at the end of the day, things were very different. I realized that everybody at the forum meeting was in the same boat. Maybe a different size boat and a different design boat, but all in a similar boat, just like me. Feeling all at sea! Sailing choppy waters, navigating rough seas, and weathering challenging storms. We are the captain, we have a crew, but we don’t have other captains we can turn to that may have been through the waters before us. We feel alone.
I had just become a CEO for the first time. I had been in the medical device industry for over a decade in various functional roles including sales, marketing, business development, and R&D. Then I became the CEO of an orthopedic medical device company, initially as a division of a large orthopedic public corporation and then about four years into that tenure, we spun it out and sold it to private equity, with whom I was the CEO for 10 years.
When I was a functional head, I felt like I had brothers and sisters up and down the hallway. Peers who I collaborated with, struggled with, supported, and felt support from. We could each relate to each other with a common boss and a common purpose. When I became a CEO, I noticed immediately that it went away. I felt like an only child, with no brothers and sisters. Just me. Everyone else either worked for me or I worked for them. Yes, I had peers running other business units and other divisions in other places with whom I would have occasional interactions, but that was it. That cliché of “it’s lonely at the top” suddenly hit me as a harsh reality, for the first time in my career. Read more at the Harvard Business Review: It’s Time to Acknowledge CEO Loneliness
Around that time I started getting contacted by various organizations and leaders of CEO peer forums, which was brand new to me. I guess I was ready, had always been a voracious learner and I was curious to know more, so I started exploring. I ended up joining one of the big peer group organizations forming a new forum around a new forum leader. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get it off the ground with them, so he spun it out as his own thing and we had a group of about 8 of us. Without the support of the broader organization, it was a limited experience, with limited resources and of limited value, but certainly filled a major gap in being able to collaborate with other “captains”.
So, I looked around and landed with a local peer group community also standing apart from the big peer forum organizations but had some more critical mass and some broader resources. That was a much better experience. I met some great people but I found it to be more socially oriented than the business rigor I was looking for. So, I started looking again and ended up back with the original big peer group organization I had been with, finding a different fantastic forum leader and a great group. I really enjoyed the experience, developing great relationships professionally and personally, including some lifelong friends as well as having a major impact on my effectiveness as a CEO.
After about 5 years, the forum leader decided to move on to other things. Right before the COVID pandemic in March 2020, our peer group found itself looking for a new forum leader and we also collectively decided to find a new home. We moved over to REF (formerly Renaissance Executive Forums back then). It was the best experience yet and I am so glad that REF appeared in my life.
I noticed some key differences that I most valued compared to my prior peer forum experiences:
I love REF’s more time and money efficient half-day model compared to a full-day model. The meeting format is also very flexible and focused on member needs, with shorter speaker sessions, prepared “cases” for issue processing and other modes of more flexible issue processing. I appreciated the ROI-focused modules to help me maximize the return on investment in my business as well as my investment of time and money in being a member. REF offered a combination of experiences, blending the rigor of the monthly meetings plus an annual strategic retreat and an annual experiential escape to deepen the quality of the working alliance among the members. So I found REF to be the best of both worlds, between other options which lean one way or the other, REF offered one and the other.
In particular, I have grown to greatly appreciate the real sense of the local professional community that was not present in any of my other peer group experiences. Not a community just among the members, but also with experts in the other local REF functional forums – CFO, HR, IT, Sales, Controller, Entrepreneurs as well as a broad group of trusted outside advisors – tax, banking, insurance, M&A, HR outsourcing, wealth management, accounting, etc. With REF I found this entire ecosystem of professionals to be a real integrated local team that you can rely on for support and accelerating your success. This broad community network is an essential part of the REF Collective Intelligence which I drew upon all the time. That sense of Collective Intelligence also extends regionally, nationally, internationally and globally, which was also very different from my other peer forum experiences.
I sensed that a lot of these differences flowed from REF’s difference in business structure. Being a Franchise locally enables the REF Franchise owners to look at their market more holistically, taking a longer term view of building a value footprint, and developing an integrated community. In particular, this allows them to take a collaborative approach with their team of professional Forum Leaders who share a sense of ownership for growing the capabilities of professionals throughout the network. Of course, some peer organizations don’t have professional forum leaders, relying on member volunteers. Not REF. All resulting in more committed and sustainable forum leaders and partners flowing through to member experience. As my own story of 3 different peer organizations illustrates, my experience was the opposite until I arrived at REF.
This added up to a win/win/win for all, in particular for the members. It was irreplaceably invaluable for me and it changed my career and life. In particular, when I arrived at a fork in the road.
I served as a CEO for approximately 12 years, spending eight years with a private equity firm and the preceding four years with a public corporation. It was undeniably a challenging transition, moving from the share-price-sensitive corporate environment to the high-speed demands of private equity. Nevertheless, my overall performance during this time was commendable.
Gradually, I began to sense a desire for something different in my career. I felt a growing need to align my professional activities more effectively with my purpose and passion. However, each time I entertained these thoughts and dreams, I was accompanied by pangs of fear—fear of the unknown, feelings of uncertainty, and discomfort with the perceived risks and high stakes. I found myself asking whether I should stick with the familiar or venture into uncharted territory.
Without the support of my peer forum, I believe I would still be in that CEO role.
I had nowhere else I could be totally transparent and candid about my thoughts and feelings. I knew that everybody in that room only cared about helping me. That's all they care about. They don't report to me, I don't report to them, I’m not married to them, they're not my son, they're not my father. They're not any of those relationships. They're all business leaders who can relate who joined the forum because they want to be helped, and they want to help others. Did I talk to my wife about it? Sure. Did I talk to my friends about it? Sure. Did I talk to my brother about it? Sure. However, the perspective and the objective view that my forum members had, as well as their history with me as a business leader, helped them give me some insights and inspiration I was not able to get anywhere else in my life. Through the interactions with my Forum Leaders and peers, I found the courage and confidence to navigate a transition from my CEO position to pursue a different path.
I had received so much value over the years from my peer forum experiences that I felt called to get involved to give back as a Forum Leader myself. Of course, as soon as I let that be known, one of the big peer group organizations came calling, courted me very actively, and urged me to join their next training class which I tentatively said I would. After all, it would be an easy decision to go with the big provider.
But I noticed some mixed feelings about it. Of course, I was also considering REF. I turned to some trusted advisors who knew the landscape well to help me weigh up my options and which aligned best with my values, passion, and purpose. It didn’t take long to net out strongly in favor of REF primarily due to the tremendous difference in value brought to the members and the nimbleness of the organization to quickly evolve in support of member success.
In January 2023, I became a partner with the 2 new principals of the REF San Diego franchise… Mark Neilson and Susan Kuruvilla, both of whom had been long time members (10 years and 12 years respectively) of that big peer group, with Mike Richardson as their forum leader. When Mike left after 15 years, many of the founding and tenured members also left, including Mark and Susan. They were still very passionate about the power of peers and were evolving a different sense of possibilities for member experience and community vision. Together they acquired the San Diego Franchise of REF in transition with the founder, Jim Tenuto. They invited me to join their partnership team.
I am so glad about the decision that I made as we are so aligned with our vision and difference.
Our vision is to be the premier peer advisory community in San Diego most sought by C-Suite executives, as an integral part of a vibrant southern California region.
Because of the combined difference of member experience and value proposition that we provide, unlike any other, and for a greater diversity of leaders to help CEOs fully mobilize their team in a more time/money efficient way.
REF has changed my career and life in ways that don’t compare to other experiences I had. We are dedicated to changing the careers and lives of our members similarly. Locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, and globally as an eco-system of Collective Intelligence.
Discover more about REF San Diego at All Members Meeting.