Be strategic when leading the company, but never lose sight of being tactical when your organization needs you to be the driver.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Skip Sorenson.
Skip started his career as a fourth generation shipbuilder and since has achieved proven value creation results for both public and private equity companies as CEO of Century Boats. He has an operational orientation and has been involved in multiple restructuring and process improvement initiatives as both a CEO and CFO. Sorenson has been involved in a multitude of M&A transactions during his career, selling and purchasing both private and public companies. He was awarded “CFO of the Year” by DCEO Magazine in 2011.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up thinking I would be an architect, I took five years of drafting in high school, but grew tired of the tediousness of drafting “gears.” Towards the end of high school, I was deciding between being an investment banker or professional golfer, but one thing I knew for sure, I swore I would never work in the “family business” at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS). The summer before I graduated from college, I realized the PGA tour wasn’t going to be an option, so I decided to do a summer at the shipyard. I absolutely fell in love with it and went on to work there after I graduated with my finance degree. I became a fourth-generation shipbuilder, worked on nuclear powered submarines as a Construction Supervisor in charge of the first construction and testing of a vertical launch Tomahawk cruise missile system, and ultimately went to sea trial on the submarine for five days before delivering it to the Navy, it was an amazing experience. That boat went on to fire some of the first shots of the Persian Gulf War using the vertical launch system we built. I finished up my MBA at the same time we delivered the submarine and went on to many different finance roles, culminating in… founding my own investment banking firm, Anchors Aweigh Capital, but also creating a yacht charter company called Club Yacht Charter, and buying a boat building company called Century Boats. So I ended up being the investment banker I dreamed of and the boat builder I swore I never would be, I play amateur golf tournaments occasionally, and am having the best time of my life!
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I’m naturally a finance-oriented person, good with numbers, so I had to learn how to “sell.” I had supported many people in sales before, so I was fortunate to learn from them. I determined that sales is mostly about trust, if you can help others be successful and they trust your intentions, they will be your biggest advocate and help you succeed with your goals.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The teams I worked with ended up providing the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences in my career, and were without a doubt had the greatest impact for the successes we had. I enjoy leading, that’s what I have been told I’m best at, so I like to paint a vision of what needs to change, communicate that to people and organizations, find the bridge from one way of thought to another, then help everyone cross that bridge to a more effective way of thinking or performing. That’s how I define leadership and that’s what I do on a daily basis, seek out ways to lead.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I love restoring, turning around, fixing, improving, growing businesses, that makes me tick. So I’m always looking for ways to help my businesses and others succeed.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
That I put people and their development, both professionally and personally, as the number one objective in every organization I had responsibility for. My greatest achievements were watching low-level analysts grow to become senior executive officers over their career, having them follow me to multiple different companies and working with them through challenging times. One of those individuals passed away way before his time and I continue to “look for John” in every new responsibility I take on and there is such an emptiness knowing he is not there to participate anymore, it is really gut-wrenching, how much he meant to me in my personal and professional life and how we can’t share those challenging times together anymore. Also how much his family misses him weighs on me. I now make sure to recognize and enjoy those I work with because of John.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
The five attributes I believe are most important for being a successful CEO are:
1) Managing people with their best interest at heart and keeping them engaged,
2) Building trust and confidence in your customers and suppliers
3) Listening and communicating incessantly with everyone at the company and in the industry
4) Know your numbers!
5) Be strategic when leading the company, but never lose sight of being tactical when your organization needs you to be the driver.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Being in a career is NOT a marathon, it is a series of sprints. If you think of it this way, taking breaks throughout the day to stay fresh, changing responsibilities occasionally to see the business world from a different perspective, and living a balanced life physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, these will help keep you engaged and hungry to do what you do best.
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?
My mentor was Herb Lanese, a friend of my fathers and the family and he was CFO of McDonnell Douglas. After learning that “nepotism” was going to stunt my career at NNS, I sought out his advice and he offered an alternative path, to leave Virginia and work for him in St. Louis, Missouri. My formal role was manager of financial planning, but I was also asked by him to be an assistant and help with staff meetings, off-sites, and human resources. McDonnell Douglas had serious financial issues when he arrived there, being by his side and watching the corporation’s transformation, and providing some facilitation of his plan along the way, was an incredible experience. I learned so much from just watching and listening to him and his staff. He asked all of his direct reports at the first off-site, “when you go to a cocktail party, what do you tell people you do?” around the table each of his subordinates stated their title, “I’m the CFO of the McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Division or I’m the Controller of McDonnell Douglas, etc.”, when it came back around to him, someone finally took the bait and asked him what he said, “I tell everyone I’m a business manager at McDonnell Douglas because my primary role is to help the division business leaders be successful in managing the company.” This really stuck with me, that a finance person could also have an impact on the performance of the company through supporting others with data, information, and guidance. This broadened my focus and helped me see a bigger calling than just crunching numbers.
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!
I want everyone to reach their full potential in their career, that would be the movement I would champion. I have started a business called “United Executive Agency” where I represent business leaders and help them with their careers. I assist them by first helping them understand what they want to do and what they are good at, and then helping them find the path to actualize their dreams. Sometimes people get stuck in careers they never intended and/or don’t know how to change lanes or don’t know how to reach the next rung, I enjoy helping them define their potential and reach it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I have a network via LinkedIn that is continuously expanding to reach more people to help and serve. For updates and news on Century Boats, you may follow them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram and follow Anchors Aweigh Capital on LinkedIn.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.