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Peer Networks: A View from the Inside

1 June 2021

Sandra Edwards is a SEMLEP’s Growth Hub Business Adviser, helping businesses in the South East Midlands region to recover, thrive and achieve sustainable growth.

For the past six months, Sandra has been involved with the Peer Networks programme, helping businesses come together in a time when we couldn’t be further apart. As we look to the future, post-pandemic and in a new age of business, we caught up with Sandra to hear about her involvement with the programme, and the successes she has seen local businesses derive as a result.

There are a huge wealth of benefits to joining a peer group

“With 18 years of experience in the business field, I joined SEMLEP’s Growth Hub as a Business Adviser in October 2020. It was my passion for helping business owners overcome their problems which lead me to the role.

Part of my role was to help encourage more people to join the Peer Networks cohorts that were going to be running in January. I was instantly attracted to the programme; I was already familiar with peer group programmes and knew that they are a really good way of getting business owners to think differently about their business.”

What is Peer Networks?

“To describe Peer Networks more fully, the programme itself offers several elements: Primarily it’s an opportunity to engage with your business peers, connect with them and talk openly about things that directly affect your businesses.

There are two sides to the programme; there’s an open side, where you can have that free-flowing communication between group members, and you have a structured side, where the delivery partner gives a set of presentations led by an expert. These cover a series of topics that are relevant to the businesses on the programme. That could include marketing, finance and HR issues, and the group can put forward topics that are particularly relevant to them.

There is then an opportunity for the businesses to split up into groups and discuss what has been said. At the end of each session there is also time set aside for participants to have a free discussion about their own businesses and how the topics covered relate to them. Over the course of the sessions, there is also the chance for each business to have some focus time, during which they can talk about key problems that affect their business, and the peer group can give their input and offer solutions to those problems. That is one of the most important elements, and one that the participants really love.

At the end of the course, during the last session each participant puts everything they’ve learnt into a business plan which they can then go and put into action. The programme really does encompass everything; you’ve got that expert knowledge, you get to talk with your peers, it’s very fluid and you can keep in contact between sessions. Once you finish the programme, you can stay in touch with the other members and continue to help and advise each other. It really does provide you with a network you can be part of forever if you want to!”

What are the benefits?
“Peer Networks has some really unique strengths. One of the challenges of getting people to join the programme is that they say, ‘I don’t have time’. Every business owner wants to grow their business, but they don’t have time because they’re too busy working on the day-to-day tasks. If you do that though, you’re going to limit yourself and how far you can grow your business. It can also restrict how well you are able to recognise threats and steer your business away from them.

For the duration of each session, you get to work on the business, not in the business, and gain valuable insights. You can also learn how the other group members make more time to work on growth. In my experience business owners often make time for everybody else, but when it comes to making time for you, it always comes last on the list.

Another strength of the programme is that it will give you the knowledge to take your business to the next level. Participants tend to come with a lot of experience, and they sometimes think there isn’t much that they don’t already know. Your current knowledge will take you so far, but then you hit a ceiling. You need extra information that you might not know you don’t have, to get to the next level. The programme gives you access to ten other business leaders and all of their knowledge, plus the knowledge of the experts leading the sessions.

For example, there have been people involved in the programme who had a strategy in place that they’d been working with for some time. However, using what they’ve learnt on the programme, they realise that they’ve been going down the wrong route. As a result, they’ve then changed direction. If they hadn’t gone onto the Peer Networks programme, I don’t know where they’d be now, but they wouldn’t be where they want to be!

It also provides accountability. Sometimes you have to do something but find it hard to get started or stay motivated. When you know you’re accountable to someone else for it though, you have to get it done. By being part of a peer group, you provide that accountability to each other.

Lastly the networking itself is incredibly important. It’s potentially very useful from a business perspective; if you have ten other people in the group, each of those will have their own network already in place, and by participating you gain access to those too. However, just as important are the human connections that are made along the way. It can be lonely at the top, even with a team of employees under you, and participants really value the bonds that they’ve created. By keeping the network going beyond the end of the course, every member continues to receive that knowledge, advice, accountability and encouragement.

If the last year has taught us anything, it is the value of our contacts and connections. As we come out of lockdown and life begins to get back to normal, people are looking to rebuild those connections, both commercial and personal, that have been put on hold over the last year and develop new relationships that they can carry forwards. With new cohorts of the Peer Networks programme starting, this is a perfect time to not only do this but learn new skills that can help you take your business to the next level.”

To find out more about the Peer Networks programme, and whether your business might be eligible, visit: https://www.semlepgrowthhub.com/peer-networks/

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