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.

A big part of Vistage group meetings is working through a CEO’s challenges and helping them get clarity about how they can move forward with their business and their life.

We often find that the biggest obstacle to forward progress is not outside of us, but inside of us.

There are 4 fatal fears.

We also call these “Core Self-Limiting Beliefs”. They are learnt. We are not born with these fears. There are only 2 fear that we are born with: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. Every other fear has been learnt. (This does not make them less real or easier to deal with).

These 4 fears will drive a grasping towards something that will never fill me. If I am looking for completion outside of myself, I will never scratch my itch. I need to learn to be able to sit with my fear and anxiety and accept it and accept that I am human and imperfect.

  1. Fear of Failure “I Need Success”
  2. Fear of Rejection “I Need Acceptance”
  3. Fear of Emotional Discomfort “I Need Emotional Comfort”
  4. Fear of Being Wrong “I Need to Be Right”

Each of the fears can be accepted and allowed to exist within me. They will never go away. They will always be there, but I can accept them and not allow them to direct my actions and my words.

This is a 30 minute interview I conducted with Waldemar Schmidt, past-CEO of a 250,000 employee global company. He shared insights about the role of the CEO:

  1. How to get the CEO role
  2. How to be a good CEO
  3. How to end your time as CEO and
  4. What to do next.

Watch the Interview

View on YouTube: The Job of the CEO

About Waldemar Schmidt

Waldemar Schmidt

Waldemar Schmidt, past-CEO of ISS, a 250,000 employee global facilities services business.

Currently on the Boards of 28 companies, London Business School Advisory Board, Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Executive in Residence at IMD.

Author of 4 books including “The Job of the CEO“. Note: all book Royalties are donated to the Waldemar Schmidt Scholarship for (Brazilian) students at the international MBA Programme at Copenhagen Business School.

Highlights from the Interview

  • 1:49 What is the Job of the CEO?
  • 3:18 Know Products, Numbers, Customers
  • 4:30 Management and Leadership
  • 5:35 Taking Good Decisions
  • 12:40 The Calendar of the CEO
  • 15:07 What do you do after being a CEO?
  • 16:45 Why did Waldemar step back from the CEO role?
  • 18:10 Advice to a 55 year old ex-CEO
  • 19:55 Networking as a CEO
  • 21:18 How to Build Relationships with top Head Hunters
  • 23:20 130 dilemmas that CEOs will face in life and business
  • 23:50 The worst enemy of great leadership: Arrogance

Further Resources

The Job of the CEO – Book Contents

  1. the Job of the CEO
  2. Characteristics and Skills of Great Leaders
  3. Examples of Successful CEOS’ Education, Nationality and Career Paths
  4. Self-assessment Tests
  5. Reflect, Evaluate and Decide Whether the Job of the CEO Is Right for You
  6. Planning Your Career if a CEO Career Is Not Right for You
  7. the Essence of Career Planning
  8. Career Planning
  9. Your Personal Brand
  10. How to Work With Executive Search Firms
  11. Your Pre-CEO Jobs
  12. How to Manage Your First CEO Job
  13. How to Manage Your Next CEO Jobs
  14. How to Manage Your Dream CEO Job
  15. How to Successfully Exit From Your Final CEO Job
  16. Decline or Revival?
  17. What Do You Do if You Lose Your CEO Job?
  18. Retirement or a New Career?
  19. How to Manage Your Second Career
  20. How to Manage Your Third Career
  21. How to Manage Your Work-life Balance
  22. How to Deal With 130 Critical Career and Job Issues

Buy the Book

Note: all book Royalties are donated to the Waldemar Schmidt Scholarship for (Brazilian) students at the international MBA Programme at Copenhagen Business School.

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

Are you a Business Leader?

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I’ve been part of Entrepreneurs’ Organisation for the last 10 years and for almost any significant decision I have taken in the last decade, there are 9 people in my forum group who have helped me take a better decision.  I would share with them:

  1. the background to the decision
  2. the why of the decision
  3. what I’m seeking to achieve in my life

There is no major decision I’ve taken in the last 10 years that has not had at least those other 9 wise brains also looking at it.  They are also giving me different perspectives, helping me think through:

  1. Who I am
  2. What what my strengths are
  3. What my company strengths are and
  4. How I can better play into the opportunities that I have

My question to you: “how many brains do you get involved in the big decisions you have to make?”

If it is just one brain (your own) then you are really going to struggle over your life as a business leader.   Join Vistage, join EO, join Young Presidents’ Organization…  Get into a peer group where others can give you multiple different perspectives, different ideas, different experiences that have worked for them in the past.

Get as many brains as you can to help you take important decisions, to help you think through the problems you face, to see how to seize (or say no to) the opportunities coming into your life.

Get access to brains to share your problems. Ask lots of questions and get as much coming back from other’s life experiences as you can.

There is a saying: “if you’re the smartest person in the room, find another room.” 

Are you the smartest in the room?  If you find that you are often the smartest person in the room, you’ve got to expand your network.  Get out of that room and get yourself onto a bigger playing field.

Peer Group Organisations

 

 

Over on the Inc blog there is an article titled 20 Executives Share Lessons They Wish They Could Have Told Their Younger Selves.  I share my top 4 from the full list, in the order that I think they are important.

The most relevant for me was number 9, not for the “decide issues quickly” but for “figure out what typically slows down your decision making and find ways to work around it”.  I took some time to reflect…

What slows down my own (business) decision making?

…this is a brain dump of thoughts that come to me now…

  1. Fear of being wrong
  2. Fear of a better idea coming up tomorrow when we have already committed to this course
  3. Feeling like I have to figure out all the implementation details now rather than allow them to be decided when they become necessary.
  4. Feeling like I need to have a really good explanation of my decision that will impress others and have them see me as a “decisive visionary leader”
  5. Feeling like I have to be 100% sure
  6. Feeling like I should speak to a few more people and get their inputs first
  7. Worrying that I have messed up similar decisions in the past (particularly people decisions)
  8. Not seeing the costs of delaying the decision (both financial, and that it then hangs on my mind while I wait to actually commit to a decision)
  9. Not being systematic about the approach to taking decisions
  10. Not distinguishing between small decisions and big decisions and having a clearly different process for each
  11. Not trusting myself to figure out how to make it work down the road
  12. Not stopping to clarify exactly why the decision is important and how it relates to my vision and purpose

What slows down your decision making?

Here’s the four lessons from the article that I found most valuable and important to me right now.  Numbers are from the Inc Article, Bold text is my own addition…

9. Maximize your time.

“The fastest way to maximize your time is to decide issues quickly. If you need to speed up your decision making, figure out what typically slows down your decision making and find ways to work around it. Pass responsibilities down as far as your people are comfortable. This is another way of speeding up your decision making, by giving others power to decide. You’ll often find that this motivates your employees, building their confidence and enthusiasm, and over time they will gradually accept more responsibility. Clarify your company’s vision, so everyone on the team intuitively understands when projects should be prioritized.”

Jesse Robbins, founder and CEO of Orion Labs, an enterprise voice platform which secured $18.25 million last fall to expand its next-generation of services to the broader speech and voice recognition market, on track to be worth $18.3 billion by 2023

If you want to explore more about taking better decisions quickly, you could continue reading How to Choose in Life Decisions and Agonizing over Decisions.

1. You don’t have to be strong all the time.

“It’s OK to be vulnerable. In high school and college, I spent a lot of time learning to be mentally strong, which can be a good thing, since resilience will wear down mountains given time. However, you don’t have to be strong all the time. Tell people when you don’t know, and when you’re worried. You’d be amazing how much help you’ll get, and how much of a connection that creates.”

Mike Tuchen, CEO of Talend, a provider of cloud and big data integration solutions which saw its stock rise nearly 60 percent over the past year

If you want to explore more about leading as a real human being, you could continue reading Freedom is not Fun and 17 Personal Habits for a Fulfilling Life.

3. You need people who question your beliefs.

“CEOs need people around them who are going to question their fundamental beliefs. These people should test and push, so CEOs are forced to question the decisions that they’re making and plan for the inevitable ups and downs that building a company will bring. If you surround yourself with coaches, prodders, and different thinkers, you will create a feedback loop that will fundamentally change your view of the world and make you a better leader.”

Gordon Ritter, founder and general partner of Emergence Capital, an enterprise cloud venture firm which was recently named Venture Capital Firm of the Year by the National Venture Capital Association

If you want to explore more about getting good feedback for your growth, you could continue reading Accepting Feedback and Managing Oneself.  

You should also check out Entrepreneurs Organisation, Young Presidents Organisation or Vistage as these organisations will help you find a group of peers who can challenge your beliefs and inspire you to be the best that you can.

18. Speak up.

“The one thing I wish my younger self knew was how to find a balance between acting smart and expressing achievements without hesitation. Stereotypes of women’s behavior can dominate perceptions, and as a woman in a male-dominated, STEM-related field, I’ve learned how to take a seat at the table and deliver my message so that it’s heard and respected.”

Chris Mackey, CEO of MackeyRMS, a research management platform for investment professionals that has taken no outside capital/funding, with clients on its platform managing over $1 trillion in assets

If you want to explore more about speaking up, you could continue begin my free 10 week program Speaking as a Leader and Five and a half reasons why you should start a blog today.

This video is about Leadership development. I find that leaders worry about the training for those around them… but who worries about the training for the leaders?

What should Leaders be Learning?

The 7 Key Skills of a Successful Business Leader

At Vistage, we believe there are 8 major areas that Leaders need to be working on:

  1. Inspiring a Shared Vision
  2. Leading and Letting Others Manage
  3. Knowing your Numbers
  4. Attracting and Retaining the Right People
  5. Creating and Retaining Customer Loyalty
  6. Watching Emerging Trends, Risks and Opportunities
  7. Taking Care of Yourself

Where can you Find Inspiring Leaders in Continuing Development?

If you are reading this via email, watch the video on the blog: Setting Goals for 2017

Each year I decide on a few words that set the theme for the year.  Last year was Connect, Create, Complete.  This year I have set Unconditional Peace of Mind as the theme.

I will explain more on what these words mean over the course of the year. Meanwhile there are two specific areas that I will be working to master in 2017.  I explain in the video above.

Scroll down, leave a comment, and tell me what you think.

PS The idea of setting 3 words as your theme for the year came from Chris Brogan.

They lie, they manipulate and they pick fights: Some colleagues are ruthless, especially when it comes to their own professional advancement.

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Avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing on a star performer.  The trouble with Toxics is that they are difficult to detect. Often, Toxics are popular with colleagues, seen as friendly and interested. It’s only after a while that co-workers begin to notice that the Toxic is sucking the joy and engagement of an entire workplace.  Poor leadership creates the perfect breeding ground for Toxics.

Who is likely to be toxic?

Overconfidence and narcissism are toxic.  I know these traits…  because myself, Conor Neill, at age 35 was massively overconfident and pretty narcissistic.

Overconfidence:

What it takes to get the job is not just different from, but often the reverse of what it takes to do the job well.

The main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence.  Men are more apt to show confidence, women tend to hold themselves back from overconfidence.

Unstructured interviews are a terrible method to evaluate a person for a job – they reward self confident individuals and fail to analyse real competence.

Narcissism:  

High-flying leaders dream of their faces appearing on the front of Time, Business Week and the Economist.  Not their brand, not their team, not their investors…  their own face.  (That was my dream when I was 35 – fame for me).  This is narcism.

Freud told us that there is a dark side to narcissism. Narcissists are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. Perceived threats trigger rage. Achievements feed feelings of personal grandiosity. Freud thought narcissists were the hardest personality types to analyze.

Narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison was described thus by a subordinate: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

The 4 Apocalyptic Qualities of Poisoned People

Harvard Research showed that employees who showed the following characteristics were more likely to be toxic workers:

  1. Overconfident – as described
  2. Self centred – narcism
  3. Productive – individually highly productive in visible areas; note: this is individual rather than team focus on productivity
  4. Rule-following – a stickler for the formal rules

A self-centred, overconfident productive and rule following person will poison their team – taking all the credit, ruining the spirit, enjoying and promoting the failures of those around them.

How to be Un-Toxic?

What can you personally do to be less toxic?  What can you look for in others to ensure that they are competent and serve others?

Jim Collins identifies the 4 characteristics common to Level 5 leaders:

  • Humility
  • Will
  • Ferocious resolve
  • Responsibility: Give credit to others while taking blame upon themselves

How do you achieve humility combined with ferocious resolve?  How do you stay responsible even as you do start to achieve more and more?  I believe there is only one way to keep our feet on the ground:

Feedback from Trusted Peers

You must be surrounded by a group of people who can keep your feet on the ground, but believe deeply in your capacity to be a powerful, positive, valued leader.  There is no way to keep this journey going alone.  We need others to regularly see something in ourselves that we become blind to when left alone.  As the story goes, we are 2 wolves…  alone we feed the bad wolf, supported by peers, mentors, coaches and inspiring people…  we feed the good wolf.

Watch people – do they seek feedback from trusted peers?  If not, they are likely Toxic.

Robert Fritz says that we each have two limiting beliefs: powerlessness and unworthiness.  We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are.  We don’t have to pretend that we don’t do shameful things that all humans do.  The only cure?  Allowing trusted peers to really know us, and let us see what they see in us.

Benjamin Franklin brought together a peer group of 12 friends who would be fully open about their lives, challenges and opportunities.  A group who aspired to live bigger lives, and who worried about the dangers of self-delusion.

I have been part of a peer group forum for 8 years.  Each meeting we push each other to share the real person, not the one we have created to impress others.  I have found over these years that each time I share something that I am ashamed of, it loses its power over me.  Each time I share my real me, the others respond in a more positive way than when I share the carefully crafted impressive version of myself.

For 2016, Get Trustworthy Feedback

In 2016, be sure to surround yourself with people who believe in you, and in turn, make every effort to give them the same gift.

Do you have a trusted group of peers?  If yes, let me know how you found this group.  If no, I’d love to hear from you – I can share some tools to help you get started.  


 

More on Toxic Employees:

More On Peer Feedback Groups