Few small-business owners have the expertise or confidence to tackle every obstacle alone. Some pay consultants, join networking groups or become members of the local chamber of commerce.

Or, if they have $7,400 a year to spare, small-business owners can have a board of directors of sorts. Local management consultant Lee Barrett, through a privately held San Diego company called The Executive Committee (TEC), is marketing a regular forum for small-business owners to discuss commonplace and major decisions.

Barrett is a local contractor for The Executive Committee. He chairs two of five locally based Executive Committee groups, which are made up of about 14 small-business CEOs, each of whom pay the $7,400 in annual dues. Barrett's fee is based on how many people he signs up. The company says more than 1,800 businesses belong to groups worldwide.

Barrett arranges monthly meetings for the groups, hiring speakers on subjects ranging from employee benefits to business ethics. Members are asked to respond to the speaker's presentation by discussing specific actions they can take with their own companies. In the afternoon, they talk over specific problems and common experiences, acting as each other's boards of directors.

Claire Kincaid ran her company, Editorial Experts Inc., for 14 years without hearing other perspectives before she joined the TEC group Barrett started in Washington in 1986. She said she had turned to senior managers in the company for help in making decisions, but it wasn't enough.

A manager's "perspective is inward," she said. "If you're not an outsider looking in, you're so close to the problem you're not looking at it objectively."

The meetings are not for everybody, though. Barrett concedes that nine of 26 executives have dropped out of his two groups in the 3 1/2 years since he started working in Washington. One member's firm went out of business, two members quit because their firms had financial difficulties and three others left because they were not happy with the dynamics of their groups. The others either moved or sold their businesses.

"What I'm looking for are some of the basics," Barrett said. The member "needs to be the CEO or primary decision maker. The company needs to be big enough that he's managing other people."

Companies with financial problems are usually ruled out too. "I look for people who are interested in development and who are open and interested in learning and talking about their business," he said. "I look for whether or not they are facing the kind of issues that growth companies typically face."

Barrett also keeps an eye on the groups' diversity. TEC markets itself to companies with annual sales of $2 million to $1 billion, though in Washington there are no members on the high side of that range. Barrett said he tries to get a mixture of large and small firms in his groups.

By choosing companies from different businesses, Barrett said, the group reflects varied expertise and avoids partnering direct competitors. Racial and gender balance are less a priority, he said. Out of Barrett's 24 members, three are women, two are black and one is Hispanic.

The Executive Committee was founded in the Midwest in 1957 by an executive who believed he learned more from talking to the people who attended business seminars than from the people who spoke at them. The company grew rapidly in the 1970s and its first Washington groups were formed about five years ago.

After 3 1/2 years, some members of Barrett's groups say they often find they have unexpected problems in common with other members.

Among them, Barrett said, was a computer hardware and software developer who depended on government contracts and was looking to enter the commercial market. Although the group had no members in his field, the owner got advice about what to look for in hiring a salesman to make that leap.

Another member looking for outside capital came away with specific leads to follow, Barrett said. One other member with problems collecting a debt was advised of possible approaches, short of hiring a lawyer, to find out if the person was unwilling to pay or just did not understand the situation.

"Part of it is like therapy," said David Perry, president of Academic Travel Abroad and a member of one of Barrett's groups. "As you start to talk it through you begin to see yourself the structure of the problem."