By James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA
Salons – the gatherings of people to discuss literary and philosophical topics (not the kind where you get your hair done) – were popular during the 17th and 18th century French Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin, in 1727 in Philadelphia, formed the Junto, a small club of tradesmen and artisans that “discussed issues of the day, debated philosophical topics, devised schemes for self-improvement, and formed a network for the furtherance of their own careers,” according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin. Winston Churchill cofounded “The Other Club,” comprised of politicians from both British political parties as well as members from outside of politics who would debate over dinner.
Imagine the inspiring conversations and vigorous debates that occurred within these discussion groups of the past and the erudite thinkers that participated in them! Now imagine how you, too, can become a more well-rounded leader, creative thinker, and problem solver by forming a discussion group of your own.
Professional networking groups help their participants both perform better in their work and establish connections. Some are industry-specific, large events that offer a one-way presentation of information, such as by panel discussions. Other groups are geared toward prospecting or deal-making. Still others are designed more like formal classes to coach executives or entrepreneurs. Participation in some of these can be quite expensive.
Discussion groups accomplish these same objectives plus so much more: expanding breadth of knowledge and wisdom through the exploration of topics like leadership, philosophy, economics, ethics, society, and culture. Even religion and politics should be eligible for discussion in a group characterized by trust among its members. After all, with today’s polarization of society, it is more important than ever that we open our minds and try to understand how others think. By encompassing these topical areas and opportunities for personal growth, the traditional benefits of networking – business development leads, job opportunities, etc. – are byproducts, not the goals.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about large, anonymous online groups. Instead, these groups should be small, close-knit (anywhere from, say, five to 15 people), and based on trust and personal relationships. This does not mean you have to know everyone in the group on day one; start with one or two people you know and let each of them recruit one or two others, and so on. This way nobody is a stranger and is vouched for by at least one other person in the group. Since the goal is to expand your knowledge and become more well-rounded, enlist diverse members of various ages and from completely different professions – not just business, but also scientists, doctors, academics, clergy, etc.
Nothing is better than in-person gatherings to provide energy, enthusiasm, inspiration, and social connection while expanding your mind. A bar, restaurant, coffee shop, or someone’s home or backyard are all stimulating venues. During these pandemic times – or to supplement live meetings when the pandemic is over – use virtual formats like Zoom; Facebook or Google Groups; various messaging platforms; WhatsApp, Discord, or “old school” text chat groups; or even conference calls.
A traditional format might be a book club that focuses on nonfiction titles in business, leadership, philosophy, history, and biography. The downside of this format is that everyone is reading the same book at the same time. I prefer Franklin’s approach to his Junto, where topics “ranged from the social to the scientific and metaphysical,” according to Isaacson. Franklin established 24 types of conversational contributions each member could share, encompassing topics such as recent interesting reading, news stories, acts of citizenship, business successes or failures, new contacts deserving of sponsorship from a networking perspective, and direct assistance or support requested from other members. The agenda may allow members to bring to the table issues they are facing in their work, such as strategic problems they are wrestling with, new technologies they are trying to understand, management or communication challenges, or positions to fill. But do not let it be solely about business. Remember, a well-designed and diverse group should have people that are not even in business. The objective is to become more well-rounded. In Franklin’s Junto, each member had to write an essay on a topic of their choice once every three months and present it to the group. Including this in your discussion group format will allow the members to follow their own unique interests and develop their own ideas, multiplying the topics that each member is exposed to. The discussion group model can be brought to bear inside of your company as well, although that may of necessity limit the topics that can be discussed.
In addition to some structure to stimulate discussion, the only rules are to have a relatively small but diverse group and to encourage open, civil debate. In addition to gaining knowledge, insight, and wisdom, you will be inspired, stoke your passions, be exposed to new ideas, and clarify your own. In the process, you will become a more well-rounded, knowledgeable, and wise leader supported by strong relationships and a network to rely upon.
Want to talk about discussion groups in the first meeting of your own discussion group? Here are a few sources to get you started:
James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is CFO of J. Knipper and Company | KnippeRx in Somerset, N.J. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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