In the movie You've Got Mail, when Meg Ryan asks Tom Hanks how to save her ailing Manhattan bookstore, he suggests that she seek insights from The Godfather.

Had Ryan actually owned a New York City business, she probably would have relied on "family" of asort--namely, other company owners. She might, for example, have found help at a meeting of TECor from members of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). As athirtysomething president, she could have sat in on a session of the Young Entrepreneurs'Organization (YEO). She might even have fielded her own informal group of company builders.

Peer groups, as such organizations are called, are everywhere. The three biggest--TEC, YEO, andthe Young Presidents' Organization (YPO)--together boast a membership of more than 16,000CEOs, presidents, partners, and owners. The companies that belong to YEO and TEC employ morethan 1.5 million people all told; their combined sales exceed $210 billion. And that's just the tip ofa very large iceberg.

As peer groups have emerged, so have some rules of operation. For example, no good group allowsdirect competitors into the same local circle, so members can freely share their fears--and theirnumbers. Members' frankness about their own companies is matched by the frank comments andcritiques of their peers, who become a kind of de facto board of directors. "Your managers aren'tgoing to embarrass you" by forcing you to account for your actions, says Andrea Keating, whojoined YEO while growing her $5.5-million company, Crews Control. "The peer group never forgets."

Peer groups can also be great fun, especially for the insatiably entrepreneurial who relish beingdealt into the game of business at several tables at once. And occasionally, the experience ofrunning someone else's shop is more than just vicarious: in one instance a TEC group collectivelyran a member's business for six months after he suffered a heart attack.