Sam Reese, CEO Vistage

This article by Vistage CEO Sam Reese was originally published on the Vistage blog. Over his 35 year career as a business leader, Sam has led large and midsize organizations and has advised CEOs and key executives of companies all over the world.

Over to Sam…


The COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges for leaders, but it also offers fresh opportunities to learn how to navigate their companies through uncharted waters. As employees accept the current crisis and adjust to new environments, routines and protocol, they look to leaders for transparency, stability and conscious decision-making.

Through coaching more than 100,000 CEOs of small to midsize businesses over 60 years, Vistage has identified 7 fundamental truths about great leadership. The following laws ensure solid decision-making through these unpredictable times and beyond: Free guide to help lead your company through challenging times.

A CEO's Guide to Leading in Challenging Times

1. Reject shortcuts to growth

Great leaders know leadership excellence is a challenging, continuous journey that requires hard work and determined attention.

Sam Reese

Great leaders know leadership excellence is a challenging, continuous journey that requires hard work and determined attention. They reject shortcuts and take ownership of their development, especially in times of crisis. They bring rigor and grit, working hard to hone their expertise and continuously improve. They recognize it is important to keep an organized rhythm of communications and work progress that will keep their businesses busy and aligned during a crisis.

2. Carve out space to work on the business

Successful leaders routinely carve out time and space away from the business to reflect, acquire new knowledge and focus on strategy. This discipline allows them to gain the clarity they need to navigate the day-to-day challenges and understand the environment outside their business. The stress of leading through a global pandemic requires a leader to pause and regroup.

3. Challenge your thinking with fresh perspectives

Great leaders seek diverse perspectives on important decisions from trusted peers. They actively work to combat insular thinking and confirmation bias. They find other CEOs and business leaders who’ve tackled similar issues but in different industries. These peers understand the nuances and challenges of the role but bring fresh perspectives, unhampered by institutional knowledge. Now more than ever, when a group of diverse leaders learn from one another, this effect is amplified. CEOs can share the real-time learnings that come from leading a company through a pandemic.

4. Stoke curiosity

World-class business leaders are high on curiosity and low on ego.

Sam Reese

World-class business leaders are high on curiosity and low on ego. They are inquisitive, welcome new ideas from trusted sources and eager to explore. Vulnerability is viewed as an asset, and they are the first to admit they don’t have all the answers. They ask questions to seek input and pressure-test their assumptions, so they can come to the best decision for the business – not to prove their own point. These trying times present the opportunity to be open to and apply new ideas.

5. Apply discipline to decision-making

High-performing leaders follow a disciplined approach to decision-making. They use a systematic process that takes into account their instincts; judgment based on experience and data; and perspectives from peers, mentors and employees. The key is to focus on what can be done today, not necessarily developing long-term strategies that may need to be changed after a crisis. Focus has to remain on mission, vision, purpose and values as the North Star. With these values as the foundation, leaders can make decisions with speed, consistency and accuracy – even under the heavy pressures of a pandemic.

High-performing leaders follow a disciplined approach to decision-making.

Sam Reese

6. Find a trusted guide

Successful leaders view a coach or mentor as a critical component to leadership excellence, especially in stressful times. They value a trusted guide who challenges their assumptions, identifies their blind spots and holds them accountable. The most effective coaches and mentors approach the CEO as a whole person, not just the leader in the corner office. Leaders who take a comprehensive approach to development that includes feedback from trusted peers, effective mentoring, and insights from subject-matter experts continuously outperform their competitors.

7. Rise by helping others

Great leaders help others think critically through their challenges and in the process fine-tune their own decision-making skills. Leaders also recognize relationships matter even more during a crisis. Whether these relationships are with coworkers, customers, suppliers, partners or investors, CEOs and decision makers help others as they remain in constant, transparent communication. Accessibility is the No. 1 quality employees look for in their leaders during a time of crisis. By staying available, you will become acutely aware of the challenges that need to be addressed and convey a sense of stability and continuity during a crisis. High-integrity leaders leave a legacy. The way you manage in a crisis like this will be a key part of the legacy you leave and an example for those who follow in your footsteps.

The coronavirus has brought disruption and caused unprecedented challenges for CEOs, but it can also inspire innovation and lead the way to a company’s future success when life returns to normal. COVID-19 shines a light on the challenges of leading through change and crisis. By using these seven laws and providing clear communication, decision makers can take effective action for their companies today and tomorrow. 

Get the Guide

If you liked this post, you will also like Why you should be in a Mastermind Group and Conor Neill’s Webinar for IESE Business School: How to Lead in Uncertain Times.

If Life is hard, it is especially challenging for rugged individualists.  

Rugged individualism, derived from “individualism”, is a term that indicates the virtuous ideal where an individual is totally self-reliant and independent from outside assistance.

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I was a proud rugged individualist through school, into my first corporate job, and into my first 2 entrepreneurial ventures. 

In 2006 I came across Entrepreneurs Organisation (or better, they came across me…) and I began to change.  I learnt that you can make much wiser decisions when you allow others to guide you with their experiences and their questions.

I have had many mentors in these last 12 years.  I have been asked to be the mentor to others.  I feel underprepared to be a mentor.  David Cohen, founder of TechStars, wrote about the lessons he has learnt over 11 years of day to day experience in identifying great mentors for the entrepreneurs that form part of TechStars.

The Mentor Manifesto

Here is David’s mentor manifesto (full text on his blog: The Mentor Manifesto)

  • Be socratic.
  • Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back).
  • Be authentic / practice what you preach.
  • Be direct. Tell the truth, however hard.
  • Listen too.
  • The best mentor relationships eventually become two-way.
  • Be responsive.
  • Adopt at least one company every single year. Experience counts.
  • Clearly separate opinion from fact.
  • Hold information in confidence.
  • Clearly commit to mentor or do not. Either is fine.
  • Know what you don’t know. Say I don’t know when you don’t know. “I don’t know” is preferable to bravado.
  • Guide, don’t control. Teams must make their own decisions. Guide but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours.
  • Accept and communicate with other mentors that get involved.
  • Be optimistic.
  • Provide specific actionable advice, don’t be vague.
  • Be challenging/robust but never destructive.
  • Have empathy. Remember that startups are hard.

If you liked this post on mentorship, you will also like How to be a good mentor and What is Mentorship?

The Top 6 Reasons why Leaders Seek Coaching

  1. Creating a 90-day plan
  2. Navigating Organization politics identifying tactics to deal with “politics”
  3. Managing work and life priorities achieving a workable “balance”
  4. Developing a strategy to grow your leadership presence
  5. Accelerating momentum in your current role
  6. Clarify goals and pinpoint how to achieve them

I spoke with one of my mentors in Madrid this week.  We spoke about success in business.

What is business success?

  • What price is worth paying?
  • What are the ingredients of achieving success?
  • Is Business Success due to Great Decisions, or is it due to Excellent Implementation?

I share his answer in this video.

PS 99.9% of business (and life) success is due to Commitment, rather than Brilliant Ideas or Decisions

LinkedIn is testing out a new free service for members that will match them with other professionals who can give them career advice. LinkedIn will help to make matches between mentees and mentors via its online platform.

Mentorship is a significant part of the careers of every successful person that I know. I personally have sought out and found mentors since my early 20s working in Accenture.  I used to think this was normal, but I discovered over the last decade that many talented friends have never found a formal mentor relationship.

I have run the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation Mentorship Program in Barcelona for the last 3 years and have learnt a lot as we have got 15 mentor-mentee pairs connected and working together to achieve specific goals.  Personally I have have benefitted from some wonderful mentors throughout my life – in particular Michael (my first long-term manager at Accenture), Brian (the reason I teach at IESE Business School), Harry (helped me take a big decision last year).  I personally mentor 5 people each year and it is hugely valuable for me to reflect on my own life as I listen to the challenges and opportunities of these inspiring individuals.

How will Mentorship work on LinkedIn?

Hari Srinivasan, director of product management at LinkedIn, says, “As people spend less and less time at a company, it’s hard to find people you need to talk to.”  LinkedIn user analysis shows that 89% of senior leaders (on LinkedIn) would be interested in giving advice.

This is how it works: There will be a section on your profile called “dashboard”. This will display the “career advice hub” where you can sign up to be a mentor or a mentee.

The first screen is a basic overview of the function and its value for both those giving and getting advice. From there, you are instructed to provide specifics on who you’d like to talk to with parameters such as region, industry, school, etc.

LinkedIn’s matching algorithm will immediately send recommendations for matches. If you select someone who is a match they will get a message immediately notifying them of your interest to connect. Once both parties agree, they can start talking.  Read more about LinkedIn’s plans for mentorship on Fast Company.

Two of the reasons mentorships fail are…

  1. the mentee isn’t able to articulate what they need or
  2. asks too much of a mentor.

Check out my blog post: “How to be a Good Mentor

LinkedIn is working on ways to make the conversation flow more smoothly so both sides get what they need.  LinkedIn say that it’s not meant to be a replacement for long-term mentorship. It’s meant to tackle those “quick question” requests such as whether you are taking the right approach in different scenarios.

Do you have a mentor?  Are you searching for a mentor?  Are you interested in becoming a mentor?  

 

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton

In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, mentors extend our vision, enable us to attain greater heights. Mentors provide counsel and expand our resourcefulness.

The word itself is inspired by the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. The goddess Athena takes on his appearance in order to guide Odysseus’ son Telemachus in his time of difficulty.

In the famed Hero Journey works of Joseph Campbell, the hero always requires a mentor to give him the push onto the path of adventure. We cannot have self-belief until we have seen another believe in us. My earliest mentor was Mr Matz, a biology teacher. I was 14. He believed in me and my potential in a way no adult ever had before. (ReadThe best teacher I had in school for more Mr Matz)

Every challenge you face was once faced by someone older. Every life choice has been lived by someone older. We have the choice to accelerate our growth by bringing mentors into our life.

How important is it for you to find a mentor? I recall an entrepreneurship lesson from Brad Feld: “Rule #1 for business: Get a mentor. Love your mentor. Embrace your mentor. Stay close to your mentor. Listen. Ask questions.”

There are 3 Types of Mentor

Gandalf, Obi-wan, Dumbledore… mentors come in 3 types:

  1. Sponsor – The Sponsor Mentor puts their personal reputation on the line and takes responsibility for your personal success. Protege means “one who is protected”. The protege is expected to work hard to make the sponsor look good. This mentor must be senior and influential, This mentor must be willing to make a stand for their protege.
  2. Guide – The Guide Mentor asks “so, what’s your next step?” and helps you to learn to trust your own decisions. I personally have learnt to trust in my own decision making processes in people decisions (hiring, firing, recruiting) from my mentors.
  3. Coach – The Coach Mentor puts a focus on your performance improvement. This mentor helps you set clear goals, and asks good questions to widen your perspective; seniority is not necessary.

How do Mentors work together with you?

“A lot of people have gone further than they thought possible because someone else thought they could” Unknown

The 5 most commonly used techniques among mentors are:

  1. Companion: supporting in a caring way, standing side-by-side with you.
  2. Plant Seeds: preparing you for a future change, pushing you to gather resources for an upcoming project.
  3. Catalyst: Here the mentor gives you a push… they might ask for a personal commitment, force you to close a chapter in your life, provoke a different perspective, or suggest a re-ordering of values.
  4. Demonstrator: using their own experience and example to demonstrate a skill or activity.
  5. Mirror: Provoke reflection. Here the mentor asks questions: “What have you learned?”, “How useful is it?”.

How do I find Mentors?

Route #1 not to find a mentor? Write an email to a stranger asking them to be your mentor. Do not start with strangers.

First, get yourself ready

You cannot find a mentor until you have an explicit vision for what you want to achieve. (Read How I set goals) In my teaching, when we work on Vision, I ask participants to define goals in 6 areas of their life: health, peace of mind, relationships, money, contribution and spirituality. What type of life are you working to create in these 6 areas?

Be great at what you do – this is the most important thing you can do to get noticed. (Read The 6 key characteristics of A-players) Promote the success of others – your generosity and openness are critical to your success, and will be remembered.

Second, learn to ask great questions… and to listen

Rob Whittaker, a Vistage Chair from the UK taught me that there are 4 levels of questions when you are learning from the experience of a mentor:

  • FactWhat was your first leadership role?
  • OpinionWhat were the best and worst aspects of the role?
  • ImpactWhat impact did those experiences have on you today?
  • ChangeIf you could go back, is there anything you would have done differently?

You can find many great resources to help you improve your questions. Two great places to start are the books Humble Inquiry by Eduard Schien and Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute.

Third, start with those you already know

Who inspires you? Make a list of people that inspire you to be the best version of yourself. Who has achieved something you would value achieving in each of the 6 Vision areas? Write the names down.

Join organisations that focus on your growth as a leader. If you are an Entrepreneur, join Entrepreneurs’ Organisation. If you are a CEO, join Vistage. If you are a president, join Young Presidents’ Organisation. Find a local Toastmasters chapter. Join Rotary International.

Fourth, build relationships

Are you somebody you yourself would like to mentor? Are you open, flexible, resilient, respectful? Are you eager to learn, and committed to modifying how you’re interacting in the world?

Don’t immediately ask for mentorship. Follow their work, and be helpful and supportive. Tweet out their posts, comment in a positive way on their blogs, share their updates. Bring them a project that will make them look good. Show you are able to be of service to them, and go out and do it.

Fifth, pay it back

“How do we pay back our mentors? We mentor others.” Jim Collins

Jim Collins says that the best way to pay back our mentors is to become a mentor for the next generation. I have 2 questions for you: What positive thing have you said about someone to their face today? What positive thing have you said about someone who isn’t in the room? If I were your Mentor, I would ask you these 5 questions:

  1. What is it that you really want to be and do?
  2. What are you doing really well that is helping you get there?
  3. What are you not doing well that is preventing you from getting there?
  4. What will you do differently tomorrow to meet those challenges?
  5. Where do you need the most help? (Who can help you?)

Who will you ask one of these questions today?

About Conor Neill

Conor Neill is the President of Vistage, Spain and a Professor at IESE Business School. His mission is to improve the effectiveness and enhance the lives of CEOs and key executives.