“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a CEO,” With Sam Reese of Vistage

Getting out of the weeds to focus on the big picture is a constant struggle. It is not something you just figure out and then you are on auto pilot. In my first CEO role I worked hard to stay out of the weeds early on so that I could be an effective CEO, and […]

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Getting out of the weeds to focus on the big picture is a constant struggle. It is not something you just figure out and then you are on auto pilot. In my first CEO role I worked hard to stay out of the weeds early on so that I could be an effective CEO, and I found out that I was missing many details when it came time to execute, and this lowered my confidence in my decisions. When I became the CEO of Vistage, I embraced the “weeds” early on so that I could gain an understanding of how things get done, but I had to do it while still keeping an eye on strategy and long term success. I became an expert in our business much faster than I did in my first CEO role.

I had the pleasure to interview Sam Reese. Sam is CEO of Vistage Worldwide, the world’s leading executive coaching organization for small and midsize businesses. He holds a business administration degree from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado and has completed executive programs at Stanford University and Northwestern University.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Vistage is the world’s largest CEO coaching and leadership development organization, and I was a member for nearly a decade before I became the CEO.

For fifteen years I was the CEO of Miller Heiman, a company that became one of the largest sales performance and consulting organizations. But it did not start out great for me in this role as a first time CEO. After running divisions of large Fortune 500 companies, I figured I was more than ready to be the CEO of a mid-sized consulting organization. I wasn’t. My first two years were not well timed, as I started in 2000 and then tried to manage the company through the next two difficult years with very little success. In fact, at the end of 2002, I let the board know I was resigning because I clearly was not taking the company in the right direction. To my surprise, the board convinced me to stay and believed that I could figure out how to get us back on track. It was soon after this meeting that I learned of Vistage, and the opportunity to surround myself with a trusted peer advisory board was the catalyst I needed to start making the right decisions. Fifteen years later the business was more than ten times larger in size and profitability and we were able to complete a very successful transaction. I tried my shot at retirement, and it didn’t work out, and I was recruited to run Vistage…………a real dream come true for me.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

The biggest early challenge I had after becoming the CEO is that I already knew the company very well, but from a member perspective. It is a challenge because I had many preconceived notions that I trusted as facts through my own experiences. I soon learned that my experience as a member was just that………….only my experience. Members have many different things they are looking for and I had to quickly adjust to the possibilities that I did not know enough about members. This reminded me to continue to seek to understand and remain curious even in situations where one may feel they have expertise.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Well I never claim victory while the game is still being played, so I see success as more of a goal than something that has already been accomplished. But I have been very fortunate to be supported by a global network of experienced Vistage Chairs who lead our peer advisory boards around the globe, and they were more than capable of making sure our members were being taken care of while I was still getting up to speed. Listening and learning from them continues to be a secret weapon of mine that keeps me on track.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

A. Getting out of the weeds to focus on the big picture is a constant struggle. It is not something you just figure out and then you are on auto pilot. In my first CEO role I worked hard to stay out of the weeds early on so that I could be an effective CEO, and I found out that I was missing many details when it came time to execute, and this lowered my confidence in my decisions. When I became the CEO of Vistage, I embraced the “weeds” early on so that I could gain an understanding of how things get done, but I had to do it while still keeping an eye on strategy and long term success. I became an expert in our business much faster than I did in my first CEO role.

B. It is all about the people. CEOs who believe that they will become the hub of the spokes for all of the business find out that, at some point, it becomes untenable. I began my first CEO role doing many of the same things that I did as the leader of sales and marketing organizations. Keeping lists; tacking progress; scheduling update meetings; reviewing projects; etc………..all important and all critical, but as a CEO you cannot get all of these things done yourself. You have to trust your leaders to make sure the disciplines of the business are being managed. As a leader it is your job to verify this, but not to take over the process yourself. When this is done right it creates a great operating rhythm that allows me to understand and add value, as opposed to becoming the chief administrator.

C. Be purposeful in your comments. People are listening. I learned this lesson in a way that still feels comical to me. We had just upgraded to a new office building back in about 2009, and everyone was so excited to be moving into a building that was several steps above where we had been the past few years. As I was touring the facility soon after we moved in, I made a comment that the views were so nice from this one section of the building, that I did not see a reason to get any sort of window blinds. I said the comment very quickly and without much thought. After about six months in the building, one of my managers came to me to discuss a “difficult issue.” She told me that the office temperature goes up about 20 degrees in this part of the building at certain times in the day, and although they know that I absolutely do not want to pay for any window blinds, she has to insist that I reconsider. Imagine, for six months the team was probably cursing my name every day thinking that I was too cheap to buy window blinds in order to make the office comfortable! It was a great early lesson for me in terms of being very clear about the things I am passionate about and the things that are just thoughts or ideas.

D. Leading a company is a very lonely job. Everyone tells you this but until you are really in the role it doesn’t really set in. I struggled with this early on and over the years I have learned to embrace it. As a new CEO, one often thinks they have to be in the center of all key discussions in order to keep the business on track. As it turns out, the opposite is just true. One thing all effective leaders have in common is that they have followers who believe in them. While I would have been suspicious of a senior executive team meeting that did not include me in my early days as a CEO, today I find few things excite me more than knowing my senior team is working together as a cohesive unit. This is how we get leverage as leaders. Whenever I start to insert myself in the middle of everything going on, it is almost certain that this will drive my leaders to start working in their own silos in order to get their piece of the work done. As leaders, we have to make sure our senior executives see themselves as a collective team as opposed to viewing each other as the leaders of individual entities.

E. The power of purpose. Having grown up in large organizations such as Xerox and British Telecom, I was programmed to believe that the outcome we were all working toward was the pursuit of shareholder value. This is 1990’s thinking. Coworkers do not get excited about creating shareholder value, but they do get excited about pursuing a purpose that leads to greater good in the world. In this regard, shareholder value is a very likely outcome that gets realized but it is not the focus of the day-to-day business. As a young CEO I began with the traditional push of metrics and spreadsheets that all added up to shareholder value. While this sort of open book management and transparency is still something I advocate, just hitting the metrics is not what motivates people to go above and beyond. It is not what insures we are all working toward the same definition of success and it does not guarantee that we will not sacrifice our values to get there. But focusing on purpose as the driver does accomplish these things. Helping high integrity leaders make great decisions that benefit their companies, families and communities is a purpose we can all rally around at Vistage, and one that speaks to our belief that holistic and authentic leadership is what employees are craving.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Avoiding burnout is something we all struggle with as leaders. Working long hours, flying across time zones and catching up on weekends is something that becomes part of the job for most CEOs. But it cannot be that way all of the time. I used to believe that burnout was only for those leaders who were “soft” and unfocused. In my own mind I was channeling back to my days as an All-American track athlete at the University of Colorado, and the pride I felt in outworking others. But a few years ago a guest speaker had me rethink this approach. After listening to my viewpoint and asking several questions, he wondered if some of the many injuries and surgeries I had back in the day were the obstacles that prevented me from realizing my one true dream of making an Olympic team. What if I would have paced myself a little better when rehabbing an injury? What if I had been more patient in building back up to race shape? And most importantly, what if I would have looked at the bigger picture rather than just trying to work toward a short time horizon? I no longer pride myself on the lack of sleep or the amount of hours worked. In fact, it is just the contrary. Getting sleep, dedicating time to read and plan and spending quality time with my family all help me become more focused and more present while on the job. Rest is one of the best ways to stay on your game as a CEO.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Every leader who has some success almost certainly benefited from the wisdom of other leaders. I have learned something from every leader I have been around and I have tried hard to continue this discipline. In my first CEO role, I was fortunate to have the mentorship of a board member who was the former president of a large division of Clorox. In my very first financial review meeting with our board after taking the CEO role just a few months earlier, we had a productive discussion and I seemed to impress and bond with the board members. At least that is what I thought. After this meeting he very subtly thanked me for the time and then clearly called out that there were several situations where I clearly did not know what I was talking about. I did not have a strong background when it came to understanding private equity backed companies and the appropriate financial metrics they wanted to understand in detail. As I faked my way through this meeting I thought I had fooled everyone. He taught me to never fake it as a CEO, and even more importantly to never evaluate my effectiveness by the feeling of a meeting. Meetings are great but they do not necessarily lead to results.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Over 30 years ago I heard a motivational speaker by the name of Brian Tracy talk about the importance of goals. I always had clear goals as an athlete and his wisdom helped me bridge the gap to the professional world. Since then, I set my goals on an annual basis under the headings of Function (Job), Finances, Fitness, Family, Faith and Future. The key theme for me is to just keep getting better. Listen better; be more present; stay disciplined in my fitness; make sure I am spending quality time with my family; and continue to be honest with myself about the things I need to spend more time on. It is all about improving.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

Leadership is a privilege and we should all be grateful for the opportunity to lead. But it is just another role in the company that is not necessarily any more or less important than other roles. I hope that in the organizations I lead every single coworker will feel respected; that we will be a team pushing toward accomplishing the same purpose; we will not take short cuts that go against our values, and that we will be able to clearly point to a track record of achieving our goals. The health and long-term viability of the companies we lead are the best legacies we can leave as leaders.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

Author Og Mandino, had a famous saying that applied to me as an athlete and still applies to me as a leader: “Strong is he who forces his actions to control his thoughts, and weak is he who lets his thoughts control his actions.” In the spirit of Nike, just do it! While this can seem counterintuitive, it is amazing how much can be accomplished by making the decision to get something done rather than continuing to contemplate a million “what if” scenarios. I often tell people to stop looking at the lake and wondering how many times you can skip the rock, and just throw the rock and see! So many people think of decisions in terms of a right one and a wrong one, when in fact there may be several right answers. The value and happiness of taking action cannot be overstated. When we take action we commit and we see things with much more clarity and consequence, and even if we make a bad decision we are in the moment and we can redirect things.

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