After 14 years as a Forum participant, Gretchen Fox has come to view her group as an informal advisory board. The high trust level she has built with her peers—the same core group has stayed together for years—creates a comfortable dynamic where everyone shares challenges and receives supportive feedback.
“It’s an almost risk-free environment,” says Fox, founder and chief executive of Fox RPM Corp., a Boston-based firm that manages construction projects and relocations for commercial clients.
Fox founded the company in 1988. She joined The Commonwealth Institute a decade later to attend a Forum and gain insight from more experienced entrepreneurs.
Reflecting on her longtime Forum involvement, she notes that two themes consistently resurface in meetings: navigating business growth (especially in a tough economy) and managing personnel.
“Even though we’re each in a different industry, it’s remarkable how many similar issues we face,” Fox says.
Like many business owners, Fox used to wait too long to terminate unacceptably poor performers. Then her Forum peers prodded her to cut the cord on an employee who repeatedly failed to meet minimal expectations.
“I kept offering this person new opportunities and professional development,” she recalls. “But it just wasn’t a good fit. The employee didn’t work well in teams, and we do all our projects in teams.”
Thanks to her Forum’s encouragement, Fox terminated the individual in a timely manner. In addition to solving a personnel problem, she found that removing the poor performer sent a positive, morale-boosting message to the rest of her workforce.
Her Forum helped Fox during another difficult period—the 2008-09 recession. In a collective attempt to minimize layoffs, the CEOs brainstormed to identify other options such as requiring employees to take an unpaid week off or asking staffers to accept a pay cut.
“In some cases, we came up with options that prevented layoffs,” Fox says. “And when we did need to lay off people, it was a gift to talk it through with others who knew how painful and necessary it was.”
Fox advises Forum newcomers to commit to regular attendance. By completing email “check-ins” before each monthly gathering, members can ask clarifying questions and share ideas in advance of the meeting.
“Prepare ahead of time and listen with an open mind,” Fox says. “The worst mistake is to let yourself think, ‘I’m so busy I don’t have time to deal with the problem or attend my Forum.’”