NEWS: Global Mentoring Solutions is now part of the Sherweb family. Click here to read more about the acquisition.

In a recent column, I tackled the issue of working with other solution providers at a technical level – coming together to help deliver a solution to a customer that an MSP can’t reach alone due to geographical coverage or technical focus issues.

But that kind of partnership is just one of the isolation issues that managed service providers – particularly smaller local specialists – face. It’s a tactical issue.

I believe there’s a much more, much more strategic issue that smaller MSPs face, and that is an issue of accountability.

As I wrote in the beginning of that recent column: One of the great things about the channel is that it is full of independent, entrepreneurial individuals. But that’s also one of the challenges that many solution providers face.

And while that’s true when it comes to developing and delivering technology solutions, it’s even more true in the area of developing the business.

It’s lonely at the top, and many small MSPs, born of a passion for serving customers and delivering top-notch technologies, don’t benefit from the depth of a board of directors to help guide the ship over the long term, and hold leadership accountable for growth goals and milestones along the way.

A great business mentor…

This could be a fellow or former MSP or VAR, a senior vendor or distributor executive, for example, who has the passion, skills and candor to help your business grow – is a great alternative. If you’ve got such a mentor, get closer! These kinds of people – who have the know-how who to help you grow your business and the willingness to share it, but don’t have the conflicts of interest that can derail or at least call into question the best of intentions – are rare, and should be truly embraced.

But I believe for regional managed service providers who want to get serious about making their business more than just a “lifestyle” business, there’s a much better option: the peer group.

First, a word of defense for the lifestyle business. I know I may have used it in the above paragraph in almost a pejorative sense, but I hold the concept of a lifestyle business in the highest of extreme. As an independent blogger and pen-for-hire wordsmith, I’ve chosen a path that is perhaps as far out on the end of the concept of lifestyle businesses as is possible. I believe is an honorable – and in my personal case highly-desirable – rationale for starting and running a business to have something that allows you to do what you love to do.

However, for many entrepreneurs, there is the desire to grow beyond the boundaries of the lifestyle business. And somewhere in the business goal continuum between “pay the bills and let me lead the life I want to live” and “total world domination” there emerges the need for leadership to face greater accountability, and even scrutiny, in terms of the business’ goals, and the strategies and tactics that will allow it to meet those goals.

Peer Focused Board

Perhaps the most successful approach I’ve seen to this kind of external accountability demand for solution providers is the Peer Board of Directors approach espoused by a variety of groups – most notably the Heartland Tech Groups peer groups and the VentureTech Network’s Masterminds groups.

In both cases, it’s a simple concept that takes a lot of time, effort, and caring to execute well – get a group of leaders from likeminded but not directly competitive solution providers together on a regular basis, and open the kimono. All the way. Share everything – pour over each other’s financials, lay all the goals and dreams of the business on the table. Set, in front of your fellow members, quarterly goals for how you’re going to grow or enhance the business. And then be prepared to report in on how you executed (or perhaps failed to execute) on those goals.  And, of course, be willing to provide the feedback, encouragement, well-intentioned criticism necessary to help your fellow “board members” guide their own ships.

For businesses not used to being particularly accountable to anyone outside their four walls, it can be difficult and humbling experience to share all your organization’s financial metrics, dreams and goals with a group of what may in some cases be, at first, a group of more-or-less strangers. But as relationships build quarter over quarter and year over year, it’s a structure that I’ve seen have remarkable transformative effects on how solution provider leaders think about and structure their businesses.

It’s an opportunity for the sharing of true best practices, and for getting a much-needed outside set of eyes on where your business is at and where it’s going.

It can be tough going at first, but a number of conversations with organizations that have joined such groups have recorded one constant truth: it can be liberating, exhilarating, and even business-changing to stand naked (in a business transparency sense) and truly accountable before a group of your peers that care enough to hold you to the highest standards.

To whom are you accountable, and how are those people or organizations invested in making your business the best it can be? Sound off in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts.