Entrepreneurial 'Therapy': Deals, Divorce, Downsizing

By Gwendolyn Bounds

Once a month, eight New York area entrepreneurs cancel all appointments, power down BlackBerrys and cellphones and gather in a cone of silence. For three hours, they unload the triumphs, and more often, stresses, not shared with spouses, friends or boards: a marriage on the rocks, the pain of firing a long-term employee, depression that's usurped their passion for work.

Protocols are strict. There are no excuses for latecomers -- 10 minutes stuck in traffic costs $100 toward the group's dinner -- and the price of regular absenteeism is their membership. No one gives advice; only similar experiences may be shared. Cross this line and you'll be cut off midsentence. In return, there are seven people you can trust with your deepest, and occasionally, darkest secrets.

This is Forum -- a type of professional group therapy. Members of this particular collective belong to the Entrepreneurs' Organization, a 6,600-member international community of people who own and run companies. While forums are practiced by other business groups, they've flourished among the entrepreneurial set: 81% of EO members, whose average age is 39, belong to a Forum and there are 650 EO Forums world-wide.

Members say there is innate understanding between them that is hard to achieve in traditional therapy, which some also seek. Because members are so identified with their companies, business and personal issues often are intricately intertwined. Hearing experiences of people coping with similar anxieties is what they seek from Forum.

"These people feel the pressures of having other people's lives, and those people's livelihoods, on their shoulders whereas everyone else can just go home after work," says Verne Harnish, who founded EO 20 years ago. "That's unique."

To get a window into this world, I sat in on a New York Forum's October session. Every member had to approve my presence. In exchange for their candor, I agreed to not attribute certain sensitive matters to specific individuals. Here's what unfolded:

* * *

At 3 p.m. sharp, seven men file into a warm conference room not far from the bustle of Wall Street. This month's meeting is being held in the office digs of one member, Joshua Aaron, president of Business Technology Partners Inc., a technology consulting and service firm. The other six represent a mix of industries, including fashion, charity and environmental testing. Every business has at least $1 million in annual revenue.

The eighth member, and only woman, runs an upscale wine-import distributorship but has called to say she is stuck in traffic. They begin without her, drawing the blinds around the office and passing out a four-page agenda detailing the schedule and everyone's roles. This week's timekeeper is Darren Port, president of Powered by Professionals Inc., which connects volunteers to charitable works -- he holds a stopwatch. Once she arrives, Tina Fischer, a partner of Polaner Selections, will monitor "Gestalt" protocol, meaning she will put the brakes on advice-giving.

The attention to protocol is twofold, Mr. Harnish of EO explains. One, nothing would get done if everyone talked ad nauseam. More important, he believes, entrepreneurs crave a break from decision-making; Forum's rules grant them that luxury for a short window. "This is a bunch that likes to be led."

Immediately, members are allotted five minutes to update their lives. Trevor Price, chairman of Nature Technologies Inc., a deer-deterrent service, talks about his plans to run the New York marathon, the gossip problem at his office and his company's plans to expand through acquisition. He mentions the challenges of a third child on the way, the pressure it's putting on his marriage, and his commitment to work through it. Recently, he says, "It's been one step forward, two steps back."

The group gives careful feedback. When Mr. Port pronounces the expansion plan "fascinating," he is called out for advice-giving by Roark Dunn, CEO of Roark Dunn & Associates, which coordinates and executes high-end fashion photo shoots.

"Gestalt," Mr. Dunn admonishes.

Matthew Schwam, CEO of Holiday Image Inc., a company that designs and installs retail-window displays, addresses Mr. Price's personal difficulties this way: "I heard that there's a plan, but not a strategy." Mr. Price just nods; he isn't allowed to respond.

Work stresses overlap. Several desperately need to hire an operations manager, but don't have time to recruit; others have had to terminate a long-term employee and are struggling with guilt -- "I feel terrible about it, but you have to do what you have to do, right?" asks Christopher Tiso, head of ATS Environmental Services Co., which tests gas stations for compliance. For most, the job is all-consuming -- "I'd love to be home more, but it's just not feasible," says Mr. Port, whose wife just gave birth.

When Omid Moradi, co-president of Faviana International Inc., a special-occasion dress company, relays that life is "going great personally and professionally," the room presses him. "How do you stay that happy another month?" Mr. Port asks. Ms. Fischer arrives at 3:35 p.m. (she'll pay the fine), and during her update, she recalls slipping away recently for a weekend with her husband without the kids. "I can't recommend enough going away with your spouse alone," she says.

Forum's format also provides a regimented environment to get unbiased feedback on personal issues. There is talk of one member's extramarital affair and the ripple effect on the business. One member discusses trying to take the moral high ground when arguing with his ex-wife: "I try to lower my voice and say, 'Is this where we want to be?' "When members broach topics that they want never mentioned again, they preface their remarks by saying, "This is Attila the Hun," a longtime EO tradition of invoking the fierce warrior.

The meat of the forum is "Presentation," where one member speaks for 20 minutes about a specific issue and the group responds. This month's presenter is dealing with a potential death knell for entrepreneurs: loss of passion for the job. This person speaks of making up excuses to work from home and feeling beaten down by the monotony of chasing accounts.

"It's like I've lost the drive to put in 110% -- and if I don't do well, the company doesn't do well," the presenter tells the group. "The company can't afford to have me one day on and one day off. It's never been like this. I've always loved the work, even in s -- times. I've sacrificed family, my marriage, relationships." Using a vulgarism, he asks, "What am I doing it for?"

When the presentation is finished, the group takes two minutes of silence. Then they question. "What still excites you about your business?" one member asks.

"Deal-making," the presenter says, jawline clinching.

"What's your unique ability?" prods another person.

"Motivating other people."

Question: "What makes you happy?"

Answer: "You hear people say they want work-life balance. I've always been a slave to my business. This company is tied to my abilities, and I don't want it always tied to my name."

That retort starts something. Someone asks whether the presenter has considered what it would take to get out of the business -- "either by changing roles, or some other model?"

The presenter nods; but wonders if such changes are an admission of failure -- "I thought by the time I was 35 we'd be a $30 [million] to $50 million firm. But it feels like I'm only a couple of steps up the ramp."

There will be no resolution now; the presenter proposes making a 21-day action plan. Each member of the group quickly shares experiences that might help: employing a business strategist, seeing a professional therapist, getting out of the office for lunch or breakfast. Then members promise something they too will accomplish by the next meeting: Ms. Fischer wants to finish reading restaurateur Danny Meyer's book; Mr. Schwam says he will identify a new chief operating officer.

Before adjourning for dinner -- where there are no rules or protocols -- everyone gives one word of how they are feeling: "connected," close" and "inspired" are offered up.

The presenter goes last. "Stronger," is the reply.

The PDAs come out. Cellphones are powered up and the blinds opened.

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