Mike Novakoski, a YPO member and President and CEO of EV Construction and EV Group in Holland, Michigan, USA, reaps the value of peer support in every aspect of his life – with his wife and kids, other CEOs and industry colleagues, and business partners and suppliers. Like many busy executives, he started out believing he didn’t have the time for peer support groups, but now can’t imagine life without them.

YPO member forum

For the past 17 years Novakoski has been in a peer group with fellow YPO members, all chief executives. YPO calls these groups ‘forums,’ and Novakoski’s monthly forum meeting is a can’t-miss event on his jam-packed calendar.

Novakoski shares the impact his forum has had on real people, real businesses. Recalling a Friday night amid the Great Recession that began in 2007, Novakoski says a fellow forum member shared that he didn’t see a way to keep his business afloat. Forum members dropped everything and spent an entire Saturday dissecting the member’s challenges and helped him develop a plan. Without the forum’s encouragement, trust and accountability, Novakoski says, his fellow member would have gone out of business.

The forum has also been instrumental in Novakoski’s personal and family life. It offers a place where “members can be real about their true financial situations, about troubled relationships and the ebb and flow of their marriages and can find hope and support through a level of vulnerability that members have not experienced elsewhere,” he says.  While professional therapy can help at one level, Novakoski explains, “they are not in the arena with you in the same way that your peers are.”

YPO’s industry network forums

In addition to his primary forum, Novakoski is also part of two YPO Construction Industry Network forums, made up of non-competing building contractors in North America. He has met with the first forum for the past 11 years, and the second for three years, about every six weeks on Zoom, and semi-annually in person. These peer groups are about much more than the how-to of running a construction business. They discuss strategic, financial and operational best practices and share business plans, giving each significant competitive advantages in their respective markets. Members also help each other with tough leadership questions around hiring and culture. Most recently, Novakoski’s forum mates have helped him develop a Virtual Design and Construct (VDC) department, an essential need given EV’s 600% growth in the last five years. In another case, the forum brought a program to Novakoski’s attention that will enhance EV’s bottom line by more than a million dollars. “That’s a high-value takeaway!” says Novakowski. 

With one of these network forums, Novakoski and his peers have built “sub-forums” where the department heads of each of the YPOers’ companies meet virtually and have in-person sessions twice a year to share specific items that relate to their area within the business (e.g., CFO, COO, HR, Pre-Construction, etc.). Novakoski comments, “It’s hard to put words to how powerful these meetings have been for these next-level leaders. We’ve had incredible advances in each area of our business due to the giving nature of these peers who lend a hand to bring us to the next level.” He adds that EV shares their best practices and programs as well.

Peer support inside EV

Novakoski has brought a “forum code” into EV, too, infusing his business with the best practices of peer support groups.

  • In a multi-year strategic planning meeting, he begins by saying, “We’re going to go personal – talking about the things that worked, the struggles we’ve had in the last several months, what we are looking forward to personally, for our families and professionally.”
  • Novakoski has introduced the classic “lifeline” exercise, with each person sharing high and low points from birth to the present day to achieve greater depth, with his executive committee, field managers, superintendents and administrative staff.  
  • He has employed forum-style exercises on company retreats, which has created unexpected bonds.  
  • Employees regularly use a forum issue-clearing model to resolve conflict and move forward. As Novakoski reports, “Sometimes I am the one who needs to give the example to model for others, to demonstrate that admitting errors or failures is the kind of vulnerability we must all be willing to show.”
  • In company meetings, he encourages the use of a forum exploration model. Employees share experiences and feelings and talk about what comes up for them, rather than jumping immediately to tell each other what to do.
  • Members of EV’s senior leadership team serve as moderators of EV contractor roundtables, building their competence as peer group leaders. 

According to Novakoski, these activities have helped build EV’s culture and low turnover and highly engaged, closely connected people. He says, “It’s really about building trust and vulnerability, encouraging meaningful, substantive connections between employee and employer.”

Contractor roundtables

Seeing the value of forum in his personal and business lives, Novakoski wanted to bring similar value to the leaders of EV’s partners in the electrical, plumbing, drywall and other trades. As a general contractor, he recognizes that EV’s success is based on their relationships with these partners. 

“We wanted to create a community of equal peers,” he explains. 

In the past eight years, EV launched multiple contractor roundtables, each comprised of about 10 non-competing trade partners meeting every six-12 weeks.

He chaired the first roundtable meeting, opening with the icebreaker question: “Tell us about a time when you failed in your business.” Modeling vulnerability and setting the tone for the group, Novakoski went first, sharing the story of losing a million dollars in a startup. He says after everyone had taken a turn sharing, they collectively observed, “So we’re all a bunch of losers; how did we make it in the world this far?” 

One member of that group was a high school graduate who had built a 50-person company on his own.  He reported to Novakoski after their first roundtable, “What’s amazing to me is the comfort I had when I laid my head on the pillow that night, that I now have a group of peers with whom I can really share where I’m at. They’re telling me their doubts and fears and successes, and I have an outside group I can confide in and who can coach me. I can’t tell you how comforting that is.”

In parallel to Novakoski’s network forum, these contractor roundtables have also been expanded to add field manager/supervisor “sub-forums.” These sub-forums meet regularly to talk about items that are most relevant to their role in the industry. Novakoski’s shares, “These new groups have been instrumental in further cementing key relationships and completing some incredible, mutually beneficial projects.”

The business value to EV is direct and quantifiable. Trade contractors have told Novakoski that because of the trust he has built, they will save their best, limited capacity in a tight market for EV. Others have told him, “I’ve priced all of the other general contractors at 15% higher, but I trust you guys to run a better job. You’ll look out for me; together we’ll make money.” Because of this approach to building deep relationships, EV has won the coveted Michigan Contractor of the Year award (MCOY) three times, most recently in 2023-2024. Novakoski also credits YPO and his rich forum experience as the primary driver in the book he wrote, “Becoming Unmistakable: Start the Journey from Commodity to Oddity.

Forum at home

Peer support skills are life skills, and Novakoski uses a similar approach at home. He says that he, his wife and their children discuss their biggest struggles of the past week and what they are looking forward to in the next week. Mike remembers one day driving with his daughter, who was struggling with her boyfriend.

He says, “All I did was float down the river, sharing a journey I had as a kid at the same age with a girlfriend. And that was it. I gave her no advice. I just told her my experience.”

Mike and his wife, Elizabeth, also started a forum for couples. He says the YPO forum format has helped them learn to “talk to each other, to be close to and support each other in new ways.”

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Novakoski believes that “with the support of our peers, we can be the change we wish to see in the world,” and he’s doing his best to live a life that makes that possible.