CEO Spelled L-O-N-E-L-Y

By Glen Hellman

So the board meeting ends and a few of the board members and I go out for steaks, single malt scotch and cigars. The CEO hasn’t been invited … and so we drink, laugh, blow smoke rings and make CEO jokes. Two board meetings later, the board fires the CEO and I draw the short straw. That’s when it becomes apparent why I was invited to join the board in the first place: I just earned the right to be excluded from the board-meeting after-parties.

It’s a cliche, yet it doesn’t mean it’s not true … it’s lonely at the top. Leading a company means having vision, courage, and determination. Words like FEAR, DOUBT and UNCERTAINTY are not words associated with Washington, Lincoln, Gandhi, King, Gates or Jobs. So where do CEOs go to share their doubts, their fears? Who vets their vision before they bring it down from the mountain? To whom can they share their vulnerability and uncertainty? To their CFO? To their board? To the COO?

Well yes, if they want to create doubt and distrust. If they want to lay themselves open for a palace coup. Finding a peer and developing an accountability partnership is one method. For me, a better answer was and is Vistage. Vistage International is a 50-year-old organization of people who run businesses with more than 15,000 members in 16 countries. Vistage organizes business leaders into informal advisory boards of eight to 16 peers, led by a trained, experienced Vistage Chair who facilitates monthly meetings and meets one-on-one with members on a monthly basis.

I believe in the Vistage process and our organized, well-disciplined and professionally facilitated approach. Vistage members make better leaders, who make better decisions, and achieve better results. These results can be achieved through other means — for instance, finding and creating an accountability partnership with an unbiased, non-conflicted peer. I just find that having a group approach raises the bar on decision quality and increases the effectiveness of peer pressure accountability.

When, as CEO, I came back to my board, they didn’t want to hear my doubts. They wouldn’t abide my fears. They expected and deserved well-thought-out plans, confidently presented and expertly executed. The board room is not a “safe” place for a CEO to vent, decide, plan, and be vulnerable.

Typical boards don’t focus on the operational details that drive success. All of my boards held me accountable for rearward-facing revenue and profit goals. By the time I reported revenue results, there was no actions that a board could recommend to correct shortfalls. CEOs are often fearful to be vulnerable with a board. I recall an instance where I was reluctant to share with them my anxiety to fire a friend and direct report who wasn’t performing. Share that kind of info with the board, and you’ll create doubts about loyalty and indecision — as well as have the decision taken out of your hands. Share it with a peer group and the result is the same — the friend is let go, your friendship preserved, and your reputation with the board intact.

A well-oiled accountability group like Vistage is a safe place to get unbiased feedback and hone business plans. A high-performing group holds each other accountable and group members are loath to let each other down.

For company investors, Vistage member CEOs have a place to work out issues that would never be brought to the board. The fear of being judged and losing credibility keeps too many important issues under wraps. Vistage offers CEOs an alternative to figuring it out alone. It’s a safe haven with a group of peers, where the only agenda is to help each other with the expectation of receiving the same care, concern, and, when needed, confrontations in return.

Vistage Groups are all about the MAGIC:

  • Making Better Decisions
  • Accountability
  • Growth
  • Isolation Relief
  • Change

As a Vistage Chair, I help people who run businesses figure out what to do — and get them to do it. If you run a business and you’d like to understand what that feels like, try a complimentary 90-minute one-on-one working coaching session by clicking here.

Glen Hellman is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and has worked for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He’s a principal at Driven Forward, board member at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, a Vistage coach, and a mentor at the Founder Institute. You can e-mail Hellman at glen@drivenforward.com.
Originally published: Oct 25, 2011

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