Peer to Peer Network

It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top. The Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program gives local CEOs an “instant network.”

You know the old saying: “It’s lonely at the top.” But there’s actually proof that being the boss can sometimes be a solitary experience.

A few years ago, leadership consultants RHR International conducted a survey of CEOs. About 63 percent said they had experienced isolation or loneliness because of their position. This tended to be especially true for business leaders who were three to five years into the job.

It’s understandable. Owners frequently have to make decisions, on their own, that people sitting on the other side of the desk might not understand or agree with.

And it’s not always easy to find an ear to bend: There are some topics that entrepreneurs don’t feel like they can discuss with employees, friends or even family.

Luckily, the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program has been helping Kansas City business owners make valuable connections for 20 years.

HEMP is best known for its mentoring services. The nonprofit finds seasoned executives and management experts who counsel HEMP’s mentees—small-business owners who are established, but still growing and learning.

But just as important, HEMP serves as an “instant network” for its participants. A few hundred business owners have joined HEMP over the past two decades. It’s common for

HEMP mentees and fellows (what the organization calls its alumni) to pick up the phone and call each other with questions.

“No one goes it alone,” said Dr. Michelle Robin, founder of Your Wellness Connection and a HEMP fellow. “At many times in your life, you need people.”

More often than not, the person on the other end of the line has faced the same challenge as the business owner who needs help, whether they’re trying to find a way to meet payroll or launching a product line.

“These are all owners, CEOs or leaders of organizations that are the ultimate decision makers, that have a lot of weight on their shoulders,” said Laura Lee Jones, the founder and CEO of LionShare Marketing, and a HEMP fellow.

Informed Opinions and Useful Feedback

Of course, not all the communication happens via phone.

Joe Runyan, the owner of Hangers Cleaners, meets with a group of five or six other HEMP fellows about once a month for lunch. Those get-togethers give them all an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other.

“We talk about issues, opportunities, problems we’re having,” Runyan said.

In Runyan’s case, he has been considering either buying his own building or expanding his leased space. He was able to find people in his network who have firsthand experience with both options. They shared the pros and cons of each.

And a few years ago, when Hangers Cleaners was presented with a tempting partnership opportunity, he was able to get feedback from other HEMPers, including the organization’s founder, Barnett Helzberg Jr., the former head of Helzberg Diamonds.

Several times a year, HEMP hosts events it calls “Lunch With the Big Guy,” where groups of six to eight CEOs will meet Helzberg himself for lunch and talk about what’s happening in their businesses, Jones said.

The meetings are useful because of HEMP’s rule about confidentiality. Anything said in the room must stay in the room. And that frees participants to talk about the problems that are bothering them.

A lot of times, when business owners are out in public or at a social event, they’ll be asked how things are going. The standard response is “great” … even if things are not, in fact, great.

That’s not what happens with HEMP.

“What I love about HEMP more than anything—and it’s a famous saying in the organization—is ‘put your worst foot forward,’” Runyan said.

‘You Have to Show Up’

It also helps that, while all the HEMP participants are business owners and have similar experiences, there is a certain amount of emotional distance, Jones said. It’s not like talking with family members or friends about business.

“It’s about the perspective of the person giving the advice,” said David Cacioppo, CEO of emfluence. “A family member is going to give advice that is sometimes too close.

Meaning their interest is so focused on me as a person that they don’t see the bigger picture of the business. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be bad advice. It just comes from a different lens. Whereas a business owner is more likely to see a broader picture.”

There’s another key to getting beneficial feedback from other entrepreneurs, whether that’s through HEMP or roundtable sessions hosted by other organizations. You have to show up and “put in the work”—introduce yourself to people, share and listen.

“You have to show up,” Jones said. “It’s kind of like the gym. You have to go to learn.”
Who knows? One day, you might be the one getting a call for help.

“It’s a two-way street,” Cacioppo said. “I take calls and meetings with other HEMPers, and it gives me an opportunity to provide some hopefully valuable insight from my experiences. Sometimes those experiences are specific to my business, digital marketing, and sometimes they are more general. Either way, it feels great to help out when I can.”