People and Culture: An exploration of team leadership for a new reality

The first Vistage National CEO Conference of 2021 “The CEO’s Journey: People and Culture” aimed at the question: How can you be the leader your people need?

The March 26 event flipped the script. To be the leader your people need, it’s imperative to answer the question through a lens of your employees’ experience.

Hundreds of Vistage CEO members from around the world joined together for a day of status-quo busting insights from Marcus Buckingham and Juliet Funt, Targeted Learning Breakouts from need-to-know business resources, and perspectives shared in Guided Discussion Sessions with peers. It was a day for getting real about leadership, the current reality, and a leader’s responsibility to determine what comes next for their people.

Let’s dive in to some of the day’s learnings from Marcus and Juliet. I hope you find value in these for your pursuit of building and sustaining morale.


Don’t study leadership, study followership and figure out the way to create it.

Marcus’ presentation, Nine Lies About Work, was based on his best-selling book of the same name. Below are a few of the resonant concepts driving some of the “lies.”

LIE: People care which company they work for.
TRUTH: People may be attracted to a company for its brand, but how long they stay is dictated by their team and their work environment, and these realities are driven by the team leader. For longevity, leaders must integrate two distinct human needs, the “we” and the “me,” checking in with their people every week, individually, to ensure these needs are being met.

“We” “Me”
Purpose I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company. At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
Excellence In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values. I have a chance to use my strengths every day at work.
Support My teammates have my back. I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
Future I have great confidence in my company’s future. In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

LIE: The best companies cascade goals.
TRUTH: The best leaders cascade meaning. That meaning is defined by the rituals you put in place, the stories you tell and the heroes you point to.

LIE: The best people are well-rounded.
TRUTH: Each human has a unique contribution. Your job as a leader is to maximize that. Teams aren’t the antithesis of the individual. Teams were made to make uniqueness useful.

LIE: People need feedback.
TRUTH: Your job as a leader isn’t to give feedback, it’s to pay attention and help your people do better. Focus on what your people do well. Ask questions to determine how it can happen again. The best leaders understand the raw material of a person’s future excellence is their current goodness.

LIE: People have potential.
TRUTH: People don’t have potential, they have momentum. This means all are capable of change. They don’t have strengths and areas of opportunity, they have strengths that are their areas of opportunity.

Member insights:

In your leadership climb, where have you achieved the greatest level of achievement?

  • When I developed leaders that would replace me.
  • When I saw junior members of my team I’d trained move up to a senior level.
  • When I realized I don’t need to know everything about everything.
  • When I realized I can delegate and trust the people I’ve hired.


You can’t ignite a fire and keep it burning, if you don’t build it right.

Live from New Zealand, WhiteSpace at Work founder and CEO Juliet Funt began her presentation with a powerful analogy. There must be space between combustibles for oxygen to feed a fire. From there she drew a sobering parallel. In current workflows, there is no space for the oxygen needed to sustain us.

This is the “WhiteSpace” Juliet has dedicated her career to.

WhiteSpace is time with no assignment. It is a pause, which isn’t to say it is a rest. WhiteSpace is time to think, plan, strategize, create, innovate, feel, recover and reflect.

71% of conference attendees said they may be assigning tasks their team members would consider “low value.”

Instead of filling time as we do now (with busy work, reply-all emails, meetings, etc.), WhiteSpace releases the pressure gauge on the insatiability, conformity and waste of current work reality.

In our 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Zoom meetings world, we’ve become complacent to hanging on by our fingertips. We’ve hit bottom, which should be sufficient pain to make a change, but our willingness to work this way has us trapped. Here are three actions from Juliet to change it.

ACTION: Use the wedge.
Take a reductive mindset. Schedule a small moment of time to pry apart two activities that would usually be connected, like back-to-back meetings. To accomplish this:

  • Add “hall time,” like in between bells in high school.
  • Cut five minutes from every meeting.
  • Don’t always make a meeting take as long as it was scheduled.
  • Break the compulsion to fill time if you finish early.
  • Turn off cameras when you can.

ACTION: Fight the thieves of time.
When the water starts rising, spot a “thief” and ask a question. Think of the questions as your emergency triaging tool.

  • Thief: Drive | Ask: Is there anything I can let go of?
  • Thief: Excellence | Ask: Where is good enough good enough?
  • Thief: Information | Ask: What do I truly need to know?
  • Thief: Activity | Ask: What deserves my attention?
TIP: Don’t let promotion at work become a demotion in life.

ACTION: Try the Yellow List.

  • Start a Yellow List document with a section for everyone you frequently work with.
  • Before you send an email, pause and ask: should this be an email? If it’s time-sensitive, it should probably be a phone call or DM. If it can wait, put it on the Yellow List.
  • After a few days, have a verbal debrief of everything on your Yellow List.
One Vistage member found 80% of her emails to one person could have been saved for her Yellow List.

A note on implementation of WhiteSpace
Not only do you need to give your people permission to practice it — you must go first. Show your vulnerability. Ask yourself, where are you driving or modeling an impossible work standard? Next, focus on imparting a clear framework of action — not just a narrative. You can’t be in emergency mode forever. Now is a moment of transition and possibility, and as leader, it’s up to you to set the course.

TIP: If you think you don’t have time for a pause, try sitting in silence for a minute.

To those who joined us on March 26, I applaud your sacrifice of time for the sake of your team’s longevity and morale. That’s true leadership. Thank you to the business resources who made this Conference possible.

Category: Leadership

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Mary Ellen Sheehy About the Author: Mary Ellen Sheehy

Mary Ellen Sheehy is Senior Vice President, Member Programs and Alliances of Vistage.

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