Two-and-a-half years ago, Brian O'Shaughnessy's life was falling apart, and he was having a hard time keeping all the pieces together. His marriage was crumbling, and he was struggling to keep his employees happy and his business on track.
"Being the guy at the top of a small business is really lonely," O'Shaughnessy said. "People expect you to have all the answers all the time, and you're held to a different standard. You often don't have anywhere to turn, so you internalize the stress or don't handle it well at all."
In the middle of a presentation, O'Shaughnessy, the CEO of Green Bay, Wis.-based ITConnexx, finally broke down from the pressure, he said. HTG Peer Groups, and the immediate support he got from his colleagues at HTG, was what helped him get back on track, he said, and ultimately helped save both his business and his family.
HTG, a group of 10 to 12 IT company leaders who meet quarterly in a noncompetitive environment to network and discuss issues specific to each member’s concerns as a company owner, president or manager, according to the company site, creates peer networks across the country, linking together groups of 10 to 12 similar IT companies to network, discuss company development, and resolve problems and more. There are 25 such groups, which meet with each other on a quarterly basis and are brought together for a nationwide conference at least twice a year. While they only get together a few times a year, O'Shaughnessy said that he emails his group multiple times a day for advice and to check in.
O'Shaughnessy said he first joined HTG six years ago when he was at a ConnectWise partner summit, sitting through a breakout session on the Peer Groups network. Someone on the panel at the breakout session had a similar experience to one that O'Shaughnessy would have a few years later. The man got emotional while describing his experiences with HTG.
"I realized this is what I need," O'Shaughnessy said. "I needed to do some growing up if anything else, and knew that I was an exceptional engineer when I started the company, but I didn't know the first thing about being the leader of the business. I was winging it and I felt like after hearing the stories, hearing the presentation about the Peer Groups ... I thought, 'I need this. I need some direction. I need someone to help me go from an engineer and to show me the path to becoming a real leader.'"
The group O'Shaughnessy joined has now been together for more than five-and-a-half years, with nine or 10 of the 11 companies in the group together since its beginning. He said he knows all of the companies' employee names by heart and their business operations inside and out. They email throughout the day, providing advice on job descriptions, technology, leadership and more. For example, O'Shaughnessy said one of his biggest strengths is managed print services, so he is able to help his peers grow their businesses and support them with technical issues, and take similar advice from other areas in which his peers are stronger.
More than the business, O'Shaughnessy said that the members communicate so often and know each other so well that they often are able to support each other with personal issues, including when his own marriage was struggling. In a similar situation, O'Shaughnessy said another member was facing a separation. O'Shaughnessy said that he knew the peer's business so well that he was able to hop on a plane and help out with the company until he recovered. He told other stories of members suddenly passing away, and their peers were able to step in and figure out the next steps because they had been immersed in the workings of it before.
"It's absolutely an amazing safety net," he said.
Other than the daily support of his peers, O'Shaughnessy said one of the most beneficial aspects of the program is the initial focus on planning and legacy. HTG requires new members to create life plans, leadership plans, legacy plans, and business and direction plans. He said that there was no way he would have had those plans in place before joining HTG. It wasn't an easy process to create the plans, he said, and required locking himself in a hotel room in a Wisconsin spa for three days to get it done.
To sum up his experiences with HTG, O'Shaughnessy uses an analogy of standing next to a burning building with one of his peers. If his peer told him to run through the fire because he had already done so, O'Shaughnessy said he would follow his advice without question. While it may be risky, O'Shaughnessy said he shares that level of trust with his peers.
He said he thought that any business that fits the basic requirements of HTG would benefit from joining the program and opening a conversation with their peers in a noncompetitive setting, as long as they are willing to put in the effort.
PUBLISHED MARCH 10, 2014