When you hear the words ‘peer support,’ an organisation like Alcoholics Anonymous may well be the first thing that springs to mind.

Yet not all peer groups are about beating addiction. Business people make good use of various forms of counselling and coaching in their professional lives. The common denominator in peer communities, however, is that the source of support is usually a similar person with relevant experience.

The translation industry boasts its fair share of alliances, some more formalised and others based on personal sharing. A few are formed for bidding purposes, to meet the criteria for large national or international contracts. Two weeks ago, for instance, I was delighted to chat with an American colleague whose woman-owned translation agency had been asked to partner with a bigger language service company on a government contract where gender balance at executive level was part of the bidding criteria.

Other fraternities are made up of small company owners in a similar market position in their individual countries. They may be subcontractors to the same multinational client who get together to compare notes and learn from each other. Sometimes these alliances also extend to the executives’ social lives. They work hard, so why not play a little as well.

The emergence of the infamous Men’s Camp a few years ago certainly seemed to occupy a void for something fun and newsworthy in our industry. Even for us outsiders, it provided something to titter about. For the benefit of the blissfully ignorant, Men’s Camp is an annual gathering of male C-level professionals who meet in a private, social setting in southern Europe. Admission is by invitation only – and random at best – but new US-based colleagues are known to have been granted membership for this year’s event in August.

Last summer, a group of executive ladies answered the unspoken challenge presented by Men’s Camp and convened for the translation industry’s first Hens’ Camp in sunny France. We were intrigued to discover we all shared the same story: we’d ended up in the industry not because of our love of languages, but because we had met and married someone from a different country, culture and language.

What was intended as a weekend of professional sharing turned into relationship counselling and tips on how to survive working with your spouse. It served as a great reminder of how life and work are intermingled and how instead of ‘balancing’ work and life, you can draw strength from allowing them to flow harmoniously together. What builds you up in your personal life helps you at work, and vice versa.

The value of an outside perspective

My most polished experience of professional peer support to date comes from outside of the translation industry. It started when I joined a Vistage group earlier this year, and while I’m writing this, I’m still very much on the journey.

Vistage is an international membership organisation for SME owners and executives. Their modus operandi is to build private advisory groups of 10-15 business leaders in a geographical vicinity of one another who meet monthly to solve challenges, evaluate opportunities, learn new skills and explore effective strategies.

Members are carefully selected for each purpose-built group – you need to be invited and cannot simply pay to join. No group contains direct competitors, suppliers or customers, and each is organised and guided by a chairperson who has extensive CEO or profit-and-loss ownership experience. The chair acts as an impartial sounding board and provides access to different perspectives.

The membership includes monthly one-to-one mentoring sessions with the chairperson, as well as monthly group meetings with expert subject-matter speakers. At the group meetings, time is always put aside for the members’ personal and professional issues. Everyone brings a challenge to the meeting and the group votes on which ones are discussed, dissected and untangled that day.

The elected members are called to the hot seat and grilled for details of the situation they have presented. Being the focus of such undivided, high-calibre attention can be extremely challenging, invigorating and exhilarating. Tears have also been shed on such occasions. Oddly enough, it’s not usually embarrassing, as the confidentiality and compassion of the group are guaranteed. The session ends with advice from the peers and a call to action for the member whose issue was dealt with.

Small company owners and leaders often struggle with accountability. We tend to be surrounded by colleagues and associates in our daily work, yet feel isolated and left to our own devices at times of critical decision-making. Hiring a business coach can provide a successful solution to this problem, but a peer support group may serve the same purpose and bring additional benefits of wider networks and fun social events.

A good CEO support group can become a place for you to confidentially discuss your confusions or doubts. It can be a pillar for you to lean on when your courage is failing. And, perhaps most useful of all, it can give you an independent perspective on your performance when you’re not sure how well you’re doing.