"Are You experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have." – Jimi Hendrix
Top EO trainer Mo Fathelbab calls “Forum” The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders. Vistage chairman Leon Shapiro says it’s The Power of Peers. I’ve run into many coaches and leaders who, like me, consider our forum to be the most significant thing we’ve done to improve job performance. We’ve also seen how it changes the lives of hundreds of thousands of leaders and those that work with us.
Verne Harnish, Jeff Snipes, Bob Halperin, Kaley Klemp, Shirzad Chamine, Mo Fathelbab and many others have generously contributed to help create Circles because they are so passionate about forums. And they’re excited to see Circles build something that “gets everyone in the world into a forum.” (I’ve noticed that’s how they describe what we’re doing when they talk about our work to friends and colleagues.)
What Are the Differences Between What Circles is Building and a Traditional CEO Forum?
Short answer: cheaper. Longer answer: in some ways, better. Here’s a look inside how we’re reinventing the forum experience.
Circles will be less than 1/10 the $5-15,000/year it costs to participate in a CEO forum. How? First, we’re designing for scale. We replace expensive coaches with purpose-trained guides leveraged with automation. Members don’t need to volunteer and be trained to take on a year-long role as a group “moderator.” But most of all, as David Neeleman described in his strategy to create JetBlue, we aim to give customers what they want and nothing that they do not want. We are not building a network, or running events and in-person universities, or arranging special member discounts from service providers like Fedex. Many CEO’s see a forum as the biggest part of the value they get from YPO or EO, but there’s no “forum-only” plan. Plus, we’re not building a prestige club for CEOs or founders: the Circles platform will serve many types of people.
One of the first things we researched and tested was whether a circle could produce deep, engaging experiences over video. It did! It even worked in our buggy video room prototypes. Not everyone can take the better part of a day out of the office every month, plus one trip a year, like a typical forum experience. Forums over video are a lot more convenient.
But it’s true that in-person forums really are exceptional. Everyone with the time, money and proximity to a group should join one. But Circles is not just stopping at being a 10x cheaper and easier version of a forum. In some dimensions, we’re going to be better and here’s how:
Almost every forum I know of is comprised of new members that randomly walked in the door of their local chapter around the same time. With the constraint of geography removed, we can sort deliberately. We can carefully balance forums for peer level, maximum diversity, and interests. With scale, social media, and a little data science … shouldn’t we be able to exceed “random?”
While studying the ideas behind “learning to learn”, I realized there’s something not so great about my CEO forum experience: there’s little follow-up – forums identify and explore the most urgent challenges at the time of the meeting. But they lack the structured repetition required to rewire your brain. You need practice. For all that I’ve gained in my other forum with YPO, just like most classes I’ve taken or books I’ve read, I’ve lost much more because of the lack of a continued focus. Circles contains a structure to help maintain a focus on a particular topic for many weeks, and then go back to it just when the learning would otherwise fade. This structure keeps members looking out for and sharing relevant content and ideas. It allows us to curate and serve up relevant material across each circle. Shared issues of any cohort tend to be multiple-choice and not as unique as the members might expect. This insight allows us to track and help participants in a circle with the most common challenges that occur in any group.
Group chat wasn’t around when YPO started in 1950. In my life, “circles” have formed naturally on Whatsapp, Facebook, and Slack. These group chats have become an amazing place to stay connected with each other, and share content, challenges, and ideas. Of course, CEO forums can and do establish their own group chats. But we are creating and intentionally fostering a group chat environment to use this tool as an important connective tissue for a circle, between meetings.
In general, our digital platform enables powerful features. One example is timers – something important to ensure “equal air time” during meetings. We can also store secure recordings that can be reviewed at 1.5x speed when you miss a meeting. We’ll track issues, challenges, goals, and follow-up. We can remove some of the friction that comes up during in-person forums: Who presented last time? What’s the agenda? When is our next meeting? We can securely preserve and make accessible important information that even close forum-mates sometimes forget (what’s his kid’s ages again?) We can also automatically analyze forum performance and intervene if necessary. We can use audio and video to help enhance the meeting experience creatively. Circles is new, so I don’t know which features will have power and which won’t, but it is going to be interesting continuing to experiment.
How Do You Explain Forum To Someone Who Hasn’t Experienced It?
It’s not easy explaining the forum experience to someone who has never tried it. This Q&A on Quora and Peer Resources’ guide are good places to start. You could also read Mo Fathelbab and Leon Shapiro’s books mentioned above. Circles is just one of many participants, along with forum-based organizations like EO and YPO, plus other groups like Lean In, Action Learning, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Aspen Global Leadership Network, AA and Benjamin Franklin’s Junto (See more examples we’ve collected here.) We’ve chosen the massively broad term “circles” to align ourselves simply with a widespread, growing movement and to embrace its many variations. A big part of our approach revolves around one sentence: “We learn better in circles than in rows.”
To sum this up: I love forum.
I want to make it 10x cheaper, 10x easier and 10x better so that it can become accessible to 1,000x the people.