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Corner-ing the Market on Peer Advisory Boards for Entrepreneurs

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The blood flowing through Tina Corner’s veins has always been infused with the spirit of an entrepreneur, even though she tried to deny it for many years.

“Raised by an entrepreneur, it was not my intent to follow the same path. In fact, I thought the corporate life was my answer. I considered corporate structure to be safe compared to my dad, who always had unpredictability with his businesses,” she wrote in her new book, Sit Down! Speak Up! Cash In! A CEO’s Guide to Peer Advisory Groups, an exploration of the power of peer advisory boards for entrepreneurs.

For many years, Corner played it safe ø in corporate America — if you can call having profit and loss responsibility for 1,300 employees and $1.2 billion as an executive for a global telecom organization “safe.” And that was until she discovered that she didn’t have the degree of freedom and flexibility she thought she had.

“My father was an entrepreneur, and he made a big impression on both me and my natural inclination toward small businesses,” said Corner. “Over the years, he had both predictability and more control and freedom than I did with a large company. That was a revelation.”

Experience-Built Leadership

Armed with this epiphany, Corner set out to re-connect with her entrepreneurial roots.

A major turning point in her career occurred in 2005, when she founded Maryland’s first franchise of The Alternative Board (TAB-BWI), a company that provides business owners with peer advisory boards and coaching services. After spending seven years and 10,000 hours developing peer-to-peer advisory councils for business leaders in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, Corner grew TAB-BWI into the largest single-owned peer board franchise in the world.

“When it comes to learning, there is no substitute for real-life experience,” said Corner. “Experience in the business world trumps academics. And in a peer council, it is all about sharing real-life experiences.”

She sold TAB-BWI in 2012 and then focused her efforts on evolving the peer advisory board process with a new venture that is all her own: LXCouncil.

LXCouncil (which stands for Leader Exchange Council) is Corner’s answer to the issues that plague most peer advisory councils: smaller than full boards of advisers, the wrong peers matched with each other, and poor moderating and facilitating.

“The reason I have devoted the last eight years of my life to this is because I am a business owner, too,” said Corner. “I know what it is like to feel lonely at the top and wonder if you are making the right decision or have the right focus for the now. I am all too aware of how it feels to put it all on the line.

“I have walked in your shoes and know that the path is often bumpy, with no road map to guide you in the right direction. And I also know that there is nothing more rewarding.”

Women’s Leadership Life

No other group experiences the loneliness of entrepreneurship quite like women do. Despite the fact that American women own 10.6 million businesses, the struggle for work-life balance is still very real, as is the prevalent bias against women in business who “act like men.”

Corner’s entrepreneurial essence may have come from her father, but she is well aware of the issues facing female business owners, having experienced many of these challenges first-hand while working both in the corporate world and for startups. Even now, Corner is the only female leader in a peer advisory council industry that is dominated by men, but that fact didn’t stop her from literally “writing the book” on the subject. Sit Down! Speak Up! Cash In! is the first-ever book about peer advisory councils.

Due to her breadth of knowledge and considerable business success, Corner has been invited to speak on issues facing women in business many times over the years. In 2011, she was named one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women by The Daily Record.

To help other women navigate the rocky world of entrepreneurship, Corner is developing a model for women-only peer advisory boards at LXCouncil. The only thing different about these meetings will be the gender of the participants; the group goal of helping one’s fellow business leaders learn and develop remains the same.

“These won’t be glorified gab sessions or excuses to complain about the unfair treatment of women in business,” said Corner. “These gatherings will allow women who are passionate about their businesses to come and solicit the wisdom of their female peers.”

Because of the all-female demographic, topics in these meetings may focus on issues such as how to raise a family while building a company, or how to stand up for oneself without being perceived as overly aggressive. But the mission of each gathering will be the same as the groups that involve both men and women: mutual growth and advancement.

As for that holy grail of the female executive: work-life balance?

“It’s never balanced at any given time. A woman will always feel like she’s favored one over the other at any given moment,” Corner said. “You’re always balancing, but never balanced.”

Enhancing Maryland Businesses

Nearly every community in Maryland and D.C. is packed with new entrepreneurs of every age, gender, economic background and experience level.

Why is it helpful for business owners (both new and veteran) to consider participating in a peer advisory board?

A budding entrepreneur typically has a core set of characteristics that include people skills, passion and general business knowledge. But these traits alone do not make success a guarantee, said Corner. A solid support network that includes family, friends and peer business leaders is vital to prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness from killing a CEO’s confidence during the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

“Independent business owners have too much at risk to not give themselves every opportunity to build the very best company possible while becoming the very best leader they can be,” said Corner.

And she would know; she’s on the same journey.