The expression “It is a wise man who knows what he doesn’t know” is sometimes attributed to the ancient Greeks. I attribute it to homebuilding mogul Bob Toll who taught me so much throughout my career. He used the Socratic method and got us comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” You didn’t want to look dumb in front of the boss, but Bob’s whole thing was, “You’ve gotta get over that!”

Life is an ongoing college course. You’re never finished learning. If you believe you have all of the answers or your ego inhibits the admission of incomplete knowledge, your ability to improve is compromised.

One of the key skills of an executive is the humility to understand there are more things they don’t know than they do know. Once you’re there, the next step is figuring out where you go to learn. Here are some well-traveled routes:

Consultants and Trusted Advisors

The plus is outreach for wisdom. The negative is there is little structure, the advice is sometimes colored by the fact that a dissenting view could lead to loss of a professional relationship, and the group dynamic of testing a breadth of experience and alternate solutions is missing.

Advisory Board

The positive is that the owner/CEO at least has a  structure for getting advice. The negative is there is no penalty for not taking the advice and, in too many occasions, the board members are reluctant to be confrontational or truly independent critics, as the relationship with the owner/CEO may suffer.

Board of Directors

The positives are having other perspectives to call upon and usually a semiannual or quarterly structure of meetings.

The negatives include the high possibility of couched criticism (due to familiarity or the favor of being on the board) and usually limited diversity, both in size and experience.

Industry Best Practice Groups

The advantages of the groups are a regular structure and timing, common language for problem solving, and the development of relationships for sharing of performance, information, and common industry strategies.

The disadvantages are that honesty can sometimes be compromised (don’t want your industry friends to know your real dirty laundry), the relative infrequency of meetings, and the need for mostly national travel to attend meetings.

Peer Advisory Groups

Typically these are groups of around 15 owner/CEOs in a relatively tight geographic area, but from different and noncompeting industries.

They meet frequently to work on their business and leadership issues together in a confidential setting.

The positives of these groups include diversity of membership), a regular structure, local meetings, professional facilitation and coaching, access to speakers, and open and frank discussion, advice and criticism in a caring way. The negatives can be the time commitment for meeting and the willingness to be challenged by peers.

The Bottom Line

High-performing CEOs and owners often take advantage of multiple approaches to grow themselves and their businesses. It is not uncommon for CEOs to consult with an attorney/accountant regularly, a formal board of directors, an industry group, and a peer advisory group.

Each source has a different bent of advice. You don’t have to settle and choose just one. Smart executives keep multiple channels open.

Those willing to invest in these types of programs usually perform significantly better than those who don’t. But it first takes a willingness to move from a know-it-all headspace to a learn-it-all headspace and do something about it.

Join our next CEO Introduction to Vistage

Experience for yourself why top CEOs and executives turn to Vistage peer advisory groups, purpose-built to help leaders improve the performance and outcomes of their businesses. For more information call George Casey at 207.869.5491

Vistage is the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses.

GEORGE CASEY leverages 40+ years of experiences as a residential building and development CEO, consultant, board member and Vistage Chair to guide local business leaders through transformation. He can be reached at, (207) 669-5491 or


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