As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Reese.
Sam Reese is CEO of Vistage Worldwide, the world’s leading executive coaching organization for small and midsize businesses. Sam brings more than 25 years of experience leading and advising senior leaders in complex organizations. As Chief Executive Officer of Miller Heiman, Inc., he built an independent distribution model that became a model for other businesses to follow and redesigned the business model to position the company as a brand leader in executive development. He also previously held senior positions at Corporate Express (now owned by Staples), Kinko’s, Inc. and British Telecom. In addition to his professional experience, Sam is a frequent keynote speaker, serves on multiple boards and is the author of two published books on account management. He holds a B.S. in Business Administration from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado and has completed various executive programs at Stanford University and Northwestern University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my very first CEO position in 2000, and it felt like I had really found what I was meant to do in the business world. The economy was great, and I was riding a wave that I mistook for the great leadership I thought I was demonstrating. When the economy imploded in 2001, I found myself and my company reeling, and I questioned whether I was the right person the company needed to lead them through the various challenges of that time. Fortunately, the board convinced me to stay and believed in me to grow the company. It’s at this point that I first discovered Vistage and became a member. Fifteen years later the business was more than ten times larger in size and profitability. Part of my success was unquestionably due to Vistage and the opportunity to surround myself with other business leaders in my community. Problem solving with my Vistage group was invaluable to both my personal and professional growth, so when the opportunity arose to become the CEO of Vistage, I jumped at the chance.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
People are listening — — I learned this lesson in a way that still feels comical to me. We had just upgraded to a new office building back in about 2009, and everyone was so excited to be moving into a building that was several steps above where we had been the past few years. As I was touring the facility soon after we moved in, I made a comment that the views were so nice from this one section of the building, that I did not see a reason to get any sort of window blinds. I said the comment very quickly and without much thought. After about six months in the building, one of my managers came to me to discuss a “difficult issue.” She told me that the office temperature goes up about 20 degrees in this part of the building at certain times in the day, and although they know that I absolutely do not want to pay for any window blinds, she has to insist that I reconsider. Imagine, for six months the team was probably cursing my name every day thinking that I was too cheap to buy window blinds in order to make the office comfortable! It was a great early lesson for me in terms of being very clear about the things I am passionate about and the things that are just thoughts or ideas.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
During every cross-country race in college, no matter how far ahead I got, my track coach would scream: “Don’t be content!” I would get frustrated with him. After a race, I once asked him if there was ever a time in life that he’d want me to be content? “No, never be content,” he said. “Always try to improve.” That line has stuck with me my whole life. The goal of effective CEOs is to continue to improve day after day and never be comfortable with the status quo for your company or yourself.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
In 1957, Businessman Bob Nourse brought together several Milwaukee-area executives to help one another solve their business challenges. He made sure they were from non-competing industries and kept conversations confidential. He also brought in business experts to share their insights. The key to this model is the role of the Vistage Chair, a seasoned executive who can facilitate the group discussion and provide individual one-on-one coaching. Nourse was very clear that the mission of the company is to improve the effectiveness and enhance the lives of CEOs and business owners of small and mid-sized companies.
The past 60 years have seen Vistage grow and evolve to serve increasingly diverse member businesses around the globe, but we always stay true to Bob Nourse’s original mission for Vistage. We have also worked hard to create clarity around Vistage’s purpose and why Vistage exists, which is to help high-integrity leaders make great decisions that benefit their companies, families and communities. Every decision we make at Vistage connects directly to that purpose.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
2020 was a difficult time for every business. Even if your business was still profitable, there was so much uncertainty that it became difficult to not be distracted and driven off course. One key strategy for maintaining clarity during such times is to focus on employees. An employee-first approach ensures greater resiliency throughout the workforce. Employees are on the front lines with customers, partners and external stakeholders, and they must be able to focus on the challenges happening in real time.
At Vistage, we doubled down on employee health and safety. We gave extra PTO days to ensure people were taking time for themselves. We continued to stress professional development and career advancement throughout the pandemic to keep employees focused on both personal and professional goals. This underscored to employees that they were valuable to the company’s purpose and overall success, and helped to keep them goal-focused and motivated. We also focused on communicating frequently, transparently and empathetically — which helped our team rally to overcome challenges.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
As I mentioned, I was ready to quit my first job as a CEO. I’m so thankful that the board did not allow me to walk away. Like a lot of leaders, at the time I did not realize success was just around the corner if I could make the necessary improvements. Following that fifteen year experience, I joined Vistage and saw firsthand how being surrounded by the diverse perspectives of other leaders can result in better decisions. This was critical to growing the business to record numbers.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leading is largely about setting the direction, vision and expectations and encouraging employees to activate. This requires frequent communication about the mission, vision, purpose and values, and the role employees and partners play in getting there. When leaders are clear about purpose, it creates a true North Star that’s the foundation of integrity and trust in the business.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
There are a few guiding principles great leaders lean on to effectively engage and motivate coworkers:
- Express optimism. This doesn’t mean leaders should be Pollyannas offering a false sense of security. Leaders can be transparent about challenges while still offering an inspired vision for a path forward.
- Remind employees and partners of a shared purpose and their role in success. When coworkers are energized and committed to the purpose of the company, it becomes the fuel that keeps everybody rolling.
- Show gratitude. Reach out to coworkers individually to acknowledge and thank them. They are the ones doing the hard work and it is important to personally recognize them.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be clear, direct and honest. I have found that the best approach is to have one story only, and that story is easy to remember if it is the truth. When leaders are authentic, accessible and transparent, employees know they can trust them to lead the way in difficult times. Difficult communication is also about listening to feedback and demonstrating curiosity and empathy.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Like a world class athlete, effective CEOs avoid excuses and focus on the areas of the business they can impact instead of staying stuck on challenges outside their control. The most effective leaders keep their focus on the long-term goal of supporting their customers and coworkers regardless of what challenges come along.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay close to customers. The best leaders ensure their teams regularly connect with customers, listen to their feedback and exercise flexibility. Customers will appreciate when companies are nimble enough to understand their changing needs and offer new ways to help. When we allow our companies to become too insular, we put our businesses at risk.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Many of the most valuable leadership lessons CEOs learn throughout our careers come from mistakes we have made along the way. A few common ones include:
1) Failing to establish purpose consistently — I’ve seen great leaders consistently reinforce their company purpose often and broadcast their company’s purpose through every channel at every opportunity. Whether it’s a customer, supplier, partner, member or coworker, everyone should know what an organization’s purpose is. And the purpose provides a guidepost to making every decision.
2) Failing to delegate — One of the toughest task’s leaders face every day is time management. Successful leaders set the strategy, remain in frequent communication, and let their team activate strategy on their own terms.
3) Trying to problem solve on their own — A CEO who believes they must have all the answers is not setting the company or themselves up for success. Great leaders always create an open environment where their team can offer insight and ideas, learn from failures, innovate and celebrate success together.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Great leaders continue to invest in their people, stay true to their company’s purpose and don’t lose focus on the long game of supporting customers. At Vistage, we are also committed to staying close to Vistage Chairs, our partners who run peer advisory groups and provide coaching to our members. I also think it is important to continue to seek diverse perspectives on important decisions from trusted peers. Talking with peers who understand the nuances and challenges of being a CEO can offer fresh perspectives and new ways of moving forward even in tough times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Reset clear goals focused on results — Uncertain times call for constant re-evaluation of objectives and consistent reminders to the team and leaders how the company’s mission, vision, values and purpose align with long-term goals. When every team member understands where the company is headed and why, it’s easier for the entire organization to align and take a better approach to growth.
2) Embrace diversity of thought — When leaders bring together people with diverse backgrounds and experience, they welcome new ways of thinking and fresh perspectives that challenge the status quo. Leaders can create an environment that celebrates diversity of thought by actively seeking people with different backgrounds, levels of experience and points of view. In Vistage CEO peer advisory group meetings across the world, executives from non-competing companies come together to help solve each other’s challenges. Not only do they bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds, but they’re not constrained by institutional knowledge. Diversity of thought, and of talent, can significantly ignite a company’s growth.
3) Maintain trust — People need to be able to feel like they can trust their leaders to help them navigate the unknown. The fundamental pillar to building trust throughout an organization starts with integrity. Now more than ever, customers want it, employees demand it and investors require it. This simply means doing the right thing in full view. Establishing expectations of transparency and the belief that everyone has a voice is equally important for building integrity and trust.
4) Always strive for improvement — I am most inspired by the leaders who work continuously to improve themselves, their leadership skills and their companies. After all, world-class today is not world-class tomorrow, and there’s always room for improvement.
5) Believe in breakthroughs by celebrating incremental success — Implementing changes or reaching goals can be an arduous journey from start to finish. Celebrating small successes can make the big ones feel more attainable and doing so is critical for coworkers to feel recognized and valued. Small wins still count as wins.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Author Og Mandino had a famous saying that applied to me as an athlete and still applies to me as a leader. “Strong is he who forces his actions to control his thoughts, and weak is he who lets his thoughts control his actions.” In the spirit of Nike, just do it! While this can seem counterintuitive, it is amazing how much can be accomplished by making the decision to get something done rather than continuing to contemplate a million “what if” scenarios. I often tell people to stop looking at the lake and wondering how many times you can skip the rock, and just throw the rock and see! So many people think of decisions in terms of a right one and a wrong one, when in fact there may be several right answers. The value and happiness of taking action cannot be overstated. When we take action, we commit and we see things with much more clarity.