Molly’s Game, a cinematic example of CEO issue processing

Molly’s Game, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, is a cinematic example of what hundreds of CEOs who are Vistage members experience every month in meetings with their peers.

A Vistage group typically consists of a dozen CEOs and entrepreneurs running businesses in a variety of industries.  Interestingly, members from VERY different industries often have shockingly similar issues they are each facing.  The real-life Molly Bloom could have been a typical Vistage entrepreneur with a problem to solve.

At the core of our meetings is something we call “issue processing.”  This is when we take an issue that an executive is having and process it in much the same way as depicted in Molly’s Game.  Here’s how the movie Molly’s Game and a Vistage meeting are structured alike:

SPOILER ALERT: Plot points ahead!

STEP 1: State the problem

Molly’s Game:  Within the first few minutes of the movie we see Molly Bloom arrested for running an illegal high-stakes poker game.  Her problem is convincing the feds she is innocent to avoid going to jail.

Vistage: A CEO will state their problem, or issue, to their peers in the form of a question such as “How do I tell my sales manager he’s doing a lousy job?”  The executive will go on to explain why this problem is important, what they’ve done so far and what they’d like the group’s help with.

STEP 2: Ask clarifying questions

Molly’s Game:  Through questioning by Molly’s attorney, we learn how she got into the gambling business, about the millions of dollars at stake and how her clients lives would be ruined if she were forced to turn over her hard drives and emails.

The movie shows us flashbacks of Molly’s childhood, particularly the tumultuous relationship with her demanding father.  We learn how Molly never came to terms with her father’s zealous drive for excellence.  In one moving scene, Molly realizes that she must have control over powerful men to be in control of her own life.

Vistage: The Vistage group will ask probing questions that may deal with how many hours the executive is spending on the issue, what are the emotions surrounding this decision, how will it impact their relationships of others, and how much money is at stake.

The group may also probe into the executive’s past to determine what drives him or her to do what they are doing, much the same way that Molly discovers she must have control over powerful men to be in control of her own life due to the relationship with her strict father. By discovering this underlying state of being, executives can come to terms with their behavior and make better decisions based on acknowledging their belief.

STEP 3: Re-state the problem

Molly’s Game:  Sometimes the original problem stated may not be the real problem. Molly thought she simply wanted to stay out of jail, but after understanding her fundamental belief, she realized that the real problem she wanted solved was how to protect her name and reputation once the case was over.

Vistage: The executive is challenged to see if the original problem (How do I tell my sales manager he’s doing a lousy job) is the problem they really want solved.  The group may offer suggestions such as “How do I demonstrate stronger leadership in my company?” or “How do I build a better management team?” Ultimately, it’s up to the executive to decide whether to re-state the problem or not.

STEP 4: Suggestions

Molly’s Game:  Molly’s attorney offers several suggestions to avoid jail including a deal offered by the prosecution.  But to take the deal, she would have to give up the names of the players on her list.

Vistage: The Vistage group may offer suggestions such as weekly one-to-one meetings with managers, going to see key customers with along with the sales rep, looking for events to celebrate when employees do the right thing, or leading a management retreat.

STEP 5: Action promise

Molly’s Game:  By the start of her trial, Molly decides to plead guilty and leave her fate up to the judge, so she can protect her reputation and that of her clients.

Vistage: The executive will commit to a specific action promise to be done by a specific date.  For example, he/she may commit to having an offsite retreat with key managers before the next monthly Vistage meeting.

Molly’s Game is a brilliant cinematic example of how executive issue processing can work when a skilled writer and director like Aaron Sorkin decides to team up with a talented actress like Jessica Chastain.  I recommend you see the movie.  If you’d like to learn about Vistage and how we help hundreds of entrepreneurs and CEOs around the world, you can contact me or a Vistage representative.


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One comment
  1. Ozzie Gontang

    January 22, 2018 at 12:32 pm

    Don, Wonderful application of the storytelling and learning lessons that come from film for executives who are faced with what one stands for as it will also show what one won’t stand for.

    It’s about naming the right problem since the problem named is usually the problem solved. Or another way of looking at it since every solution creates its own problems: What problem do I want to have?

    Thanks for sharing how a Vistage Peer Group and their Chair help each other grow in the role they need to play. Lee Thayer’s seminal book: Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing along with his other writings are truly helpful. As in any excellent movie the measure of performance is: Performance. We don’t see a Jessica we see Molly.

    Again, thanks for sharing


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