What I have valued from peer-to-peer exchanges

What I have valued from peer-to-peer exchanges

Helen Wiseman
12 September 2023

In 2018 I signed up for INSEAD’s International Directors Program (“IDP”) at the recommendation of some Australian director peers through my membership of Women on Boards.

Naturally, the INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre and its Faculty came highly recommended.  Yet I had not appreciated the breadth and depth of talent in the larger community of peers whose insights, wisdom, fellowship and camaraderie would come to mean so much to me.

A few years ago, I was handed a book called “The Power of Peers: How the Company you Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success”.   As the authors state at the outset:

“The truth is, we can help each other in ways we can’t find anywhere else. If you want to grow as an individual, become a better leader, and prepare your organisation to meet the challenges of the future, simply step up your level of engagement with a group of peers you respect and who are committed to the same goals, and watch what happens!”

And this is what my IDP-27 peers gave me (thanks guys!).  On completion of the program, I wanted to continue to be part of this unique community of international peer directors and leaders.  So it was a no-brainer for me to join the INSEAD Alumni and the INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) when I became certified as an IDP-C 19.

For me, and in the context of the IDN, a Peer network represents a high-trust relationship with others who have sat at the boardroom table dealing with similar challenging decisions and trade-offs.  Those who have experienced some of my doubts and fears, who have confronted challenging board dynamics and who can share great examples of what has worked well.  Peers who, in one way or another have lived their principles, especially in times of crisis and:

“…at best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Ok, not every challenge that I might want to run by my peers is of this level of crisis (though I have certainly experienced a few). Rather, when I reach out to my peers, I can take off my armour, confidentially reveal my ignorance despite my boardroom accolades, and ask for help on a particular topic without feeling judged.

Sometimes, the power of peers can be as simple as fellowship – where I can let my guard down, listening to others, and at times, sharing a little dark humour to lighten the load – knowing that it stays in the room. 

My point is that it can be lonely, isolating, confusing, disorienting and sometimes very stressful being a company director or an aspiring company director.  

You can have fantastic governance credentials, but each boardroom is its own case study of unpredictable emergent possibilities and personalities who are often grappling with a volatile, uncertain, complex, hyperconnected, risky and opportunity-laden world.  

How is a Peer different from a Mentor you might ask?  Peers can certainly give mentoring advice, but I see peer relationships as enduring over the long-term, as involving a higher degree of mutual exchange and reciprocity – and even if not directly with each other then certainly within the membership of a network like IDN. 

Lifelong learning is a core tenet of an INSEAD alumnus but that is not enough.  We need trusted peers who we can turn to, to gain other perspectives, to work through or test our own thinking, who may have unique expertise or who can suggest amongst their peers who can help.  

We may want a peer to tell us frankly that we are on the wrong track – or that we are on the right track and here is some added confidence, backbone and messaging that can help us navigate a challenging situation.  

A peer-to-peer exchange can be an effective way of cutting through the tsunami of information, newsletters, webinars etc aimed at the director community to identify those two or three practical actions that can make a tangible difference.  For example, I called upon my IDN peers only recently under Chatham House rules to help me navigate governance oversight of particular cybersecurity challenges directly relevant to specific circumstances on my boards.  It was an excellent discussion. One participant commented along the lines that “if the President of IDN is unsure then it must be OK for me to be unsure”, and promptly signed up for the peer-to-peer exchange.  Ahem, cough….

I also called on a small group of peers to help me frame my approach to a particular board meeting on a very controversial topic knowing that I was going to be heavily challenged for my stance.  

And some years ago, I reached out to peers to help me navigate one of the most stressful board situations of my life, the experience of which is super relevant in today’s capital constrained environment.

I volunteered to be President of the INSEAD Directors Network due to my firm belief in, and my experiences of the power of peers.  I saw the spirit of it in the monthly peer mentee discussions that forms part of the INSEAD Director Mentoring Program, as well as my own ability to reach out and get peer input when I have needed it.

Because I expect that I am not the only one who sometimes feels lonely, isolated, confused, disoriented and sometimes very stressed in my role as a company director.  

So on this Global INSEAD Day, I am reaching out to each of you as a peer, to extend the hand of confidential non-judgemental help; and to invite you, through the IDN Linkedin Group, to propose a small group confidential peer-to-peer exchange on a topic or challenge that is relevant to your current situation where you might need (or crave) help.  

It could be a challenge that is resolved in the space of an hour, or the peer-to-peer exchange could take the form of a regular forum to catch up around a particular theme.  From my experiences, there is enough in, say, navigating boardroom dynamics, or in the Audit and Risk Committee arenas to create valuable peer discussions, let alone in the many other domains that form life in the boardroom.  

Whilst these peer-to-peer exchanges span the global nature of our network, there may be topics that are specific to a region, in which case, our IDN Ambassadors are your peers who may also be able to assist.

Happy Global INSEAD Day.  May the power of peers be with you!

…Oh, and whilst I have your attention, does anyone have experiences of executive incentive programs (i.e. short-term and long-term incentives) backfiring in unexpected ways and the lessons learnt therefrom?  If so, please flick me a message on Linkedin and I will get a peer-to-peer exchange set up!

[1] The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success” Leon Shapiro and Leo Bottary, Routledge, April 2016
[2] IDN membership welcomes all INSEAD Alumni interested in governance and directorship, not just IDP-Cs.

One Comment
  1. Hi Helen,

    appreciate your reaching out!

    I was part of your mentoring group a year ago and after that had a 1:1 mentor (a lawyer). Mentoring is great, yet for COO profile there is little demand even while focussing on manufacturing companies. My mentor supported realism that COOs are not key to NED in Boards: Whatever knowledge they bring is for the Executive Board to cover or pull in.
    Talking to other former COOs I hear the same experience, with the only exception already having a close relation to a supplier.

    Are there former COOs in the IDC network that would champion their approach to finding a relevant NED position ?

    In the meantime I am focussing on interim COO assignments!

    Best regards

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