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. 

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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.

A leader should be interested in developing 2 competencies in the people within their organisation:

  1. Good Decision Making (to take good choices about how to use the resources of the organisation to achieve strategic plans)
  2. Influencing Skills (because if they cannot influence their peers, people will have to involve you every time…)

If your team doesn’t have #1 they are taking poor decisions.  If your team doesn’t have #2 they cannot execute without your support (you will be sucked in to every initiative).

In order to take Good Decisions, you need to ask great questions.  

Most people ask few questions and rapidly jump to a solution.  Great decision makers ask many questions and get many perspectives before they commit to a decision.  Here’s a set of great questions…

This set of questions was inspired by the Global Digital Citizen Foundation and by Vistage Issue Processing where we help leaders develop the ability to ask great questions to help leaders think more deeply and see new perspectives, clarify objectives and take disciplined effective action.

The Ultimate Guide to Great Questions for Critical Thinking

Divided into who, what, where, when, why, how…

Who

  • …benefits from this?
  • …is this harmful to?
  • …makes decisions about this?
  • …is most directly affected?
  • …have you also heard discuss this?
  • …would be the best person to consult?
  • …else has overcome a similar challenge?
  • …will be the key people in this?
  • …deserves recognition for this?

What

  • …is the impact on you?
  • …is the impact on those close to you?
  • …are the strengths/weaknesses?
  • …is another perspective?
  • …is another alternative?
  • …would be a counter-argument?
  • …is the best/worst case scenario?
  • …is the most/least important?
  • …can we do to make a positive change?
  • …is getting in the way of taking action?

Where

  • …else would we see this problem showing up in your life?
  • …else have you overcome this type of challenge?
  • …are there similar situations?
  • …is there the most need for this?
  • …would this be the greatest problem?
  • …can we get more information?
  • …do we go for help with this?
  • …will this idea take us?
  • …are the areas for improvement?

When

  • …is this acceptable/unacceptable?
  • …would this benefit you?
  • …would this cause a problem?
  • …is the best time to take action?
  • …will we know we’ve succeeded?
  • …has this played a part in your past?
  • …can we expect this to change?
  • …should we ask for help with this?

Why

  • …is this a problem/challenge?
  • …is it relevant to your goals?
  • …is this the best/worst scenario?
  • …are people influenced by this?
  • …should people know about this?
  • …has it been this way for so long?
  • …is there a need for this today?

How

  • …is this similar to _____?
  • …does this disrupt things?
  • …do we know the truth about this?
  • …does this benefit you/us/others?
  • …does this harm you/us/others?
  • …do we see this playing out in the future?
  • …can we help you?

[Edit: this poem was shared by my Dad upon receiving this post]

I Keep Six Honest Serving Men
Rudyard Kipling
I KEEP six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When 
 And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
 I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
 I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
 For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
 For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views; 
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
 From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

The Elephant’s Child 

More Great Questions for Vistage Groups

Great Questions for Teaching & the Learning Process

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain.  As it tires, your brain looks for shortcuts.  The 2 most common decision avoidance tactics are:

  • to act impulsively (without seeing the consequences of the decision)
  • to procrastinate (do nothing)

Taking decisions takes willpower.  Willpower is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted. It is like a muscle that gets fatigued with use.

There are a limited number of good decisions that one can take in a day.  You might be a more effective decision maker than those around you, but you will still have a finite limit on the number of good decisions you can take in a day.

Decision Fatigue for Leaders

How do you Ration your decision making?

In the toughest days of my life as a CEO – dealing with the fallout from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the collapse in bank lending at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, I hit my limits of decision fatigue.  In order to get through the weeks and have energy to deal with the things that would allow us as a business to get through these tough times, I rationed my decision making.

The first step was to specify when and where I would take decisions.  (Initially… when: on a Friday; where: only in my office).  Previously my team would approach me at any time in the day, over coffee, over lunch, via email, via sms to request budget for small projects or permission to do some new activity.  I felt responsable as leader for providing an immediate answer.  It was killing me and leaving me with no energy to dedicate to building our future once we survived the immediate crisis.

“That’s great, bring it on Friday…”

I decided that I would take all budget decisions on a Friday between 9-12.  If someone came to me with a request, I learnt to say “that’s great, bring it on Friday and we can take a decision”.  It was hard at first, people were frustrated and angry and didn’t like my lack of willingness to engage at the time and place that they wanted.  Over the following months, the people around me learnt to plan ahead and bring the information necessary to take a good decision on the Friday before they needed the decision.

It gave me peace at lunchtimes, in the break area, even in my office when someone opened the door on a Tuesday.   It was a challenge to remove my sense of responsibility to decide at all moments.  I learnt to be able to have a conversation where I could contribute ideas, but allow it to be clear that no final decision would be taken during this discussion.

When One decision is not really One decision…

My wife realised that one of her struggles with going to the gym is that it was never just one single decision.  Each trip to the gym was a series of decisions: do I change at home or at the gym? do I shower at the gym or at home?  will I eat there or not?  which t-shirt will I bring? which trainers will I use today? which bag will I use?  As the idea of gym came up, her brain knew that it would be exhausted by the series of 20 decisions.  Her solution?  She wrote down all the questions that she used to ask herself and wrote the answers.  She make going to the gym become one simple decision, with a written template of pre-decided answers (shower=yes, trainers=blue, eat=there…)

In Vistage one of the first processes of change that we see in a new CEO member, is a greater awareness of which decisions they should be taking and which decisions they should not be taking.

Are you taking €10,000 decisions, €100 decisions or €1 decisions?  

If you are taking the €1 decisions, your brain’s decision willpower will be depleted before lunchtime.

If you are taking the €1 decisions, your €10,000 decisions will not be receiving the analysis and impact that they deserve.

Jack Welch spoke about the size of decisions that he allowed himself to be taking.  GE is a multi-billion business.  As leader Jack allowed himself to only be taking decisions that could affect at least $50M of the market capitalisation.  

Steve Jobs is famous for having a wardrobe full of identical blue jeans and black t-shirts.  It was not a fashion decision, it was a conservation of decision willpower for the important decisions of Apple.  Barrack Obama speaks about a similar challenge as President of the USA.  He set up a structure around him that ensured that he would take no more than 5 important leadership decisions in a day.

The Structure of Leadership Decision Making

The Vistage Decision Model captures 60 years of experience of working with CEOs as they take operational and strategic decisions to lead their companies and their lives.  There are 3 levels of Decision “skill” – Instinct, Judgement and Perspectives.  There are 5 areas of leadership decision: Talent, Operations, Financials, Customers and Leadership Style.

The Vistage Decision Model

Learn More about the Vistage Decision Model