Centering Customers’ Needs in Crises

Centering Customers' Needs in Crises | CEO Campfire Chat | The Sterling Woods Group

Vistage Worldwide is a company that offers mentorship, coaching, and support to CEOs of small to mid-size businesses. They’re the largest such organization globally, and their model has always focused on creating local support groups where CEOs can meet in-person to learn from each other.

The coronavirus pandemic presented an interesting challenge for Sam Reese, CEO of Vistage, and his team. Suddenly, gathering together was an impossibility. But their CEO members were facing an unprecedented challenge and were in dire need of the type of community that Vistage provides.

Sam admits that he and the team were initially blindsided by the realities of the pandemic. But then he reflected back on something he had heard from Patrick Lencioni, well-known author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Lencioni talks about the importance of developing a rallying cry during difficult times. So that’s exactly what Sam did. The Vistage rallying cry became, “Whatever we do, what will define us is how we can help our members outperform their non-Vistage counterparts.”

With that mission guiding the way, Sam got to work. He committed to personally answering every member email he received—some days, there were hundreds of emails in his inbox.

He got on the phone with members who expressed reservations about continuing with Vistage in the new, all-virtual format.

And when members asked for something, Sam and his team made sure that Vistage delivered. They brought in experts to help members navigate the PPP loan application process.

They secured famous business speakers like Jim Collins, John Maxwell, and Patrick Lencioni to present at webinars for members.

They made it easier for members to connect on Vistage’s member app so leaders could share ideas and resources.

Sam led other organizations through 9/11 and the Great Recession, but he says what’s different about this crisis is that the endpoint is undefined. With that uncertainty in mind, he is holding 90-day scrum sessions with his team to plan for the short term, with long-term goals less defined at the moment.

But there are some important learnings from this time that will inform Vistage’s model moving forward. They’ve developed techniques to build connections and trust virtually, by ensuring that meetings are confidential and coaches leverage smaller breakout sessions to give their member CEOs a chance to dive deeper into issues.

The live studio audience discusses their personal rallying cries that have been powering them through the pandemic. Plus, several audience members share actionable tips for keeping their teams engaged while working virtually.

The theme that emerges in this episode of the CEO Campfire Chat is that the most important thing a leader can do is center the needs of people. Whether it’s their customers or their team, people must remain at the heart of a leader’s decision-making process.

Episode Transcript

Rob Ristagno: If ever there were a time when we needed to lean on others, it’s now. On this episode of the CEO Campfire Chat, we sit down with the leader of the world’s largest network of CEOs who’s working hard to create community and a network of support for members during this unprecedented time.

Intro: This is the CEO Campfire Chat with your host, Rob Ristagno. Taped in front of a live studio audience, join us to hear successful growth stories from middle market companies just like yours. Sponsored by the Sterling Woods Group.

Rob Ristagno: Welcome to the CEO Campfire Chat. I’m Rob Ristagno and have the privilege of introducing us to Sam Reese, the CEO of Vistage Worldwide. Sam has been running organizations big and medium-sized for over 35 years. He’s also an advisor to several CEOs across the world. Before Vistage, Sam led Miller Heiman, which we all probably know – it’s professional sales training. And while he was leading that company, he increased revenues and profits by a factor of 10. So, Sam, welcome. Welcome to the CEO Campfire Chat.

Sam Reese: Thank you. Great to see you, Rob.

Rob Ristagno: Let’s just set the stage for people who aren’t deeply familiar with Vistage, give us the elevator pitch. Tell us all about Vistage.

Sam Reese: You got it. A company I’ve been involved with, the CEO for four years but I was a member for a long time – and I’ll talk about that – but just the world’s largest executive coaching organization for small and mid-sized company CEOs. Most of our members are between five and 500 million in revenue. We’ve got about 25,000 members across the globe in 20 countries. At the heart of this proven platform are two things. One, a confidential peer advisory group. So you’re around a table with, let’s call it, eight to 15 other peers, and the second part of it is a seasoned Vistage chair. This is the coach that we train – a proven executive themselves – who leads a group and individually coaches each member. So that’s a starting point.

Sam Reese: You think about our purpose is pretty simple. Our purpose that we rally around every day is helping high-integrity leaders make great decisions that benefit their companies, families, and communities. And we believe that triad goes together. You can’t pull them apart. The CEOs that struggle are the ones that have dissonance between those three. Our members are not people that are negotiating with celebrity politicians for 20,000 jobs in downtown Seattle. Our members are the heart and soul of communities. And so they really do have that responsibility to families, companies, and communities.

Sam Reese: That’s where the jobs are being created in our country and across the world. Just one other point is, I am like the spokesman, and you can see by looking at me just like the Hair Club for Men and that’s a very good analogy for me. But I’m like that spokesman because I was a member for a decade before, and my membership came the same way a lot of members come as I … CEOs rather, they’re isolated, they get stuck in the weeds or – where they really just want to or fear that they’re falling behind. And I was a CEO in early 2000, 1999, 2000. All I ever wanted to do was be a CEO, it was my first CEO job.

Sam Reese: This was with Miller Heiman over 20 years ago. And I was failing massively after 9/11, so 2000. Just massive. And I went and quit. Basically said I can’t do it. I suck. I thought it was going to be good. I stink. I’ll go back to being a COO or running some sales organizations and the board talked me into staying. Introduced me to Vistage. My wife tells a story that I actually got a bonus that day. And the chairman of our board to this day believes I was negotiating. I was not negotiating. I wasn’t any good. I joined Vistage and that was really – I’m a poster child for success using that apparatus to help me grow my business.

Rob Ristagno: It’s always great we can lead a company that produces a product that you’re truly a fan of and have benefited from yourself. So that’s great. It must be a dream that you’re now at the helm of Vistage.

Sam Reese: It is.

Rob Ristagno: I have to call out here that you talked a lot about the value of Vistage as being part of the community and these group sessions and some coaching sessions with trained former CEO professionals. What’s going through your mind back in March when the governor of your state and most states said, “Hey, no more getting together.” Being in person is a big part of your model. What’s the first thing that’s going through your head?

Sam Reese: Yeah. And we have a nice little business in China. So that wasn’t going well either. Just to give you an example, that time, really, it was sort of an incredible time for us. And I think we took … Before we counterpunch, we just took a hard punch at the end of March and early April where it was almost like we were approaching it in a way gym memberships work. It’s like, I guess you can use the facility. Well, with that approach for the first few weeks as we were reeling, that was clear that that was going to be a very big problem for our business. That’s where it all started.

Sam Reese: This is like, how are we going to respond? And what are we going to do? Because we could say, close your business, wait till the gym equipment is ready. But the fact was, our members were saying, “Hey, we need to talk more than ever. Like, let’s get back to talking.” And I would say that think about the challenges for us. First of all, small/midsize businesses, they’re the ones getting hit the hardest. We had not a lot but several in the hospitality industry. We had, call it 3, 400 members in China. We just had every way you could be getting hit.

Sam Reese: And then my chairs, who were all former leaders themselves, they themselves weren’t the tech savviest from the start. So having to work with them to get them up to speed. But I was just saying, those first few weeks, we saw some really difficult dynamics in our business that had to take a deep breath and get our arms around what it is we were going to do and how we were going to respond. But we took a few shots, body blows before we counterpunched.

Rob Ristagno: Got you. And during that body blow period, how did you keep the team engaged? How did you pull in different perspectives? How did you think through, “Hey, we can’t just stay closed like the gyms, we need to do something”? How did you think about what to do? And how did you get people excited about it?

Sam Reese: We started with this rallying cry. And we actually had him speak, I’ll talk about that in a minute. But I had heard Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I’d heard him speak many years before, it was in a small group when I was running another company. And he was talking about like forming this rallying cry during times of crisis, and that’s what we did. I pulled everybody together and said, hey, here’s a rallying cry: “Whatever we do, what’s going to define our actions now are how are we going to make sure that our members outperform their non-Vistage counterparts during this period?”

Sam Reese: So when we look back, the same way we have the benefit of looking back on the Great Recession, with Vistage members just dramatically outperforming their non-Vistage counterparts. How can we make that claim and what do we have to do to make that a reality? And so we started to get everybody’s brain around that. It was all about our members. It was even easier than Lencioni said, actually, to start off because then everybody just started to think. Like, wait. It’s not what I think, it’s not what you … It’s how do we help members. Getting together, what can we do? And so that rallying cry just started creating a lot of energy, a lot of excitement, and literally everybody just started trying to figure out how to connect. And there were a lot of challenges.

Sam Reese: We had to make sure that we had the technology backbone to do so. Fortunately, I would say our CIO was right. He was always invested so much in technology. And I’d be going, “Really? We need all this?” Luckily, we needed all that. Because we were set up. But we had to train our chairs on how to conduct these virtual meetings, not just the technology, but how to hold these discussions. We had to get over the mindset. Because everybody wanted to start every meeting with … Think how different is if I start the meeting with “Rob. Hey, nice to see you. Sure, wish I could be sitting across the table right now with you.” Just by saying that it diminishes.

Rob Ristagno: It sets the wrong tone.

Sam Reese: Yeah, the wrong tone. So getting everybody to do that. And then just start to communicate with our members that we’re here for you. We started listening to what they wanted to talk about. Making sure that what we were publishing, what we were talking about was really relevant to them, and what they were going through right now. Not just us. It started off – our first efforts were really good. But then I started to get a lot of feedback that said, hey, we’re loving that you guys are back, making sure everybody is taking care of. But our meetings feel more like updates rather than the deep processing we want to have. So took that feedback, got it back to everybody. And so we’re learning on the fly.

Sam Reese: What I was going to say that was really helpful, too, is we learned that instead of us just trying to take over and saying, “Hey, here’s what we’re going to do field. We’ll come up with a plan.” We got the rallying cry and then we let everybody start testing and going, and then we just organize it. Like, I remember having a meeting where we thought we were going to organize what the ideal meeting looked like. And I said, “While we’re doing that there’s 100 meetings taking place. Let’s get on the line and ask them what they’re doing right now.” That’s what informed them.

Sam Reese: I made a commitment that, in the middle of it, I wished I wouldn’t have but in hindsight was the best commitment I ever made. I think I told you this. I committed that I would answer every single member email individually. It wouldn’t go to a masterbox it would come to me. And some days, those would be 150 emails. And I’d be up all night. Some days it would be 40. But it was an onslaught for a month.

Rob Ristagno: Your typing skills have just gone to the next level here.

Sam Reese: You can’t believe how skilled I am now. It’s really good. If you need me to do any … You want to do a dictation, I’m up for it.

Rob Ristagno: I did hear that court stenographers actually make, like, 3 or $400,000 a year. So you may have a second –

Sam Reese: I’m going to keep that option.

Rob Ristagno: All right.

Sam Reese: But I did all that and that kept me really close to what was happening and close to the action, which is something I’m really thankful for.

Rob Ristagno: Got you. It sounds like you did the right thing, which is put the customer at the center of everything you do. Both the rallying cry, listening to their feedback, and testing and learning from them directly. I imagine that there’s must have been still some noise/stress around, maybe coming from your CFO or investors or just, “Hey, what are we doing” Sometimes there’s a tension, the right long term strategy is focused on the customers and exactly what they want. But we have to keep the lights on and pay the bills. Kind of, how did you manage that noise? Those tensions? How did you think through those problems?

Sam Reese: Boy, that’s right. Right in the sweet spot of what was going on. We were getting a lot of feedback from people that … Because there’s so many companies that were hurting. And so people were saying everything from we should get free memberships now while we’re going through it, to more things that we could be doing for them that were all cost, cost, cost. This is really difficult for everybody. Because there was one point I was having discussions saying, none of this would work if nobody’s paying for anything and all that’s happening is I’m providing more.

Sam Reese: But where we really, I think, crossed an important line is that we built this resource center called the COVID-19 Resource Center, and just gave our members everything they needed to know how to navigate this pandemic. Even from – brought in the top medical experts in the world to do webinars, US Chamber to how to do your PPP loan. What happened is, our members started talking to each other and all of them were getting PPP loans. Literally, of our members that applied, 99% got the loans. So they started sharing with each other going – the value of knowing each other – and you’d see members that couldn’t get a loan then would send a note to another member and say, “Here’s the bank to talk to.” That was big.

Sam Reese: And then they started sharing capacity. Like, many of them were retooling their operations. And then, like, somebody has some PPE equipment – a bid they’ve won that they can’t fulfill – and they’re sending notes out, they got a manufacturer in China, somebody in Australia, and they’re all doing it together. And so the community was coming together. And I saw we were bringing, actually, in some cases more value than we ever brought. I took all of those discussions off the table and just said, we are here to serve, they’re going to do better than everyone. We’re going to bring more value. That’s what we’ve been riding and we haven’t had that initial pushback. That hasn’t happened in terms of price and value. That’s gone.

Rob Ristagno: Excellent, excellent. And again, I think comes back just putting them in the center of all your decisions, putting the customer in the center. Putting them-

Sam Reese: Which is hard to do, because when you say that it means that you … Some of the org changes you make, some of the investments of like … Part of putting then in the center is they said, “We want to speak to, I think … We want to know what Jim Collins thinks.” Good to Great. Jim is the most iconic … You know what, that’s what they wanted. Guess what? I had to go find Jim Collins. He’s an unbelievable, maybe the most powerful speaker I’ve ever seen. And we brought him to do a special engagement for our members. Jim Collins talking to Vistage. We brought in Patrick Lencioni. Patrick Lencioni, John Maxwell. So they say they want it. When you say you’re going to do it, you can’t go, “We can’t do that.” You got to do it. And so we really surrendered to the member being at the center of our strategy.

Rob Ristagno: Excellent, excellent. So Mike Tyson has a quote I like, which is, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” So you have, going in, you’re rolling into January, February, you have all these strategic plans. COVID hits. You make this quick pivot, you kind of make all these changes, how are you going to come out of this? What initiatives did you realize maybe weren’t top of mind, or shouldn’t have been as prioritized, high as they should have been? What needs to be modified? What new ideas do you have? How do you think about the disconnect between the original plan and the go-forward plan?

Sam Reese: Well, that’s a great one. I’ll tell you, what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying right now to make sure I don’t declare victory too early on anything. And I have a belief that we should still just really stay focused on what’s in front of us. I have the organization thinking about like a 90-day scrum, quarter by quarter. I’m just starting to connect it to our long term. But I think there were a couple things that came, but we underestimated the power of everyone across all of Vistage, across the globe, talking about the same thing at the same time.

Sam Reese: We hadn’t done that before. So that’s changed our strategy. Moving forward, we’re going to bring in the Jim Collinses of the world to talk to everybody at one time and give our chairs some tools to have those. We underestimated that because we’ve always just used Vistage as working with your local peers and bringing them what you individually need. We’ve learned there’s lots of that. I think what we’ve had to sort of scrap is this belief that – this is a hard one – but this belief that we drive … Like when there’s a change, we drive the strategy instead of let our entrepreneurs in the field test, experiment, and get our arms around what they’re learning, and then try to operationalize it.

Sam Reese: We have some really smart people that have some really great ideas and those ideas were … When someone says and now we go like, well, who’s doing that? It’s just an idea. That doesn’t account. Just an idea. We want to know who is doing and what they’re executing on. I feel like that’s like a huge time saver for us. Then I think the other one that I’d say that we’ve learned is that we didn’t believe we could actually add chairs in … Because that’s a big part of our growth strategy, people want to be chairs. We didn’t think we could do that during this time. We were wrong about that. I mean, we’re adding groups right now that are only meeting virtually.

Sam Reese: So that was a belief we had that can … And I think our what we call Chair Academy, how we train … I think it may be better, candidly, online. And I’d say the final one is, we’re investing more in our member app in that we were trying to push people to communicate with each other. Now, when there was a common crisis, it’s over the top. So now we’re really trying to improve our member app to say, it can’t just be generic. It’s got to be world-class and give you everything you need as being a member here. So a lot of development and money I’m spending on that I’m hopeful will pay off.

Rob Ristagno: Well, actually, I’d like to go back to being able to launch new groups and find new chairs. I think a common complaint I hear from a lot of people out there is that we figured out Zoom and it’s great for existing relationships. But it’s really tough to network to new people, whether it be employees or business partners or customers. Help us understand the secret sauce behind launching these new groups and finding new chairs.

Sam Reese: We started with that. It’s funny, we started … In terms of the launch of the new groups, what we’ve seen is this combination of … So if your initial meeting was just with a group, it might be a little clunky if nobody’s met each other. But what we found is that our chairs spend a lot more time upfront with each individual member, getting to know them, making sure they understand them, and get familiar with them before they take them to the group.

Sam Reese: And then there’s a big nuance, that they do is that – and this came from a member email, you love this. A member sends me an email and says I’m leaving because the technology doesn’t work for me. And I look at it, and it’s a technology company. In fact, it was an award-winning one. So I call up the member. He leaves me an email and just says thanks but this doesn’t work. He was surprised I called him. I said, “Why’d you quit?” He went around and around. And I said, “Is it really the technology?”

Sam Reese: He said, “Yeah, but the real issue is my business is 40% down. I don’t want to tell the group that because I’ve sort of been the leader, and I’m embarrassed.” Now this defined us to make sure that now when we meet to make sure that everybody’s like, “Hey, this is confidential, you guys have your earbuds on. Is anybody in there?” Because if I feel like we’re talking and your wife’s walking around in the background, your kid is … So making sure it felt really safe was important. And then what we do is we think of everything in sort of groups of three.

Sam Reese: So we might have a group of 15, then we process an issue and say, “Rob, why don’t you go over here with Bob and Joe, and you head over here with Mary and Sue,” and let those people get to know each other. And we’re finding some really strong bonds in relationships. We’re finding what I believe to not be possible is possible. People can form relationships virtually.

Rob Ristagno: Got you. Excellent. Good to hear, and positive motivation for all of us to try this out despite some potential skepticism. You mentioned a member may be a little bit embarrassed about talking about the impact of COVID on their business and feel like they’re failing. What about the practical reality that some members may just not be able to afford the investment right now? Any creative ideas for people who are struggling with that, where they’re focusing on the customer, they want to help them out, but people’s budgets are tight? At least in the short run.

Sam Reese: Yeah. A few handful of members just literally were … I had to shut the doors. I mean, some of the smaller companies in hospitality. And so we’ve tried to get some creative things to basically let them have some time off. And if things come back on track to get their membership back on track. We’ve been surprised on – it’s exceeded our expectations over the last two months at how many people have come back. So just being empathetic. We’ve been really flexible if people were in difficult situations here. I mean, there’s been some people that were just sucker-punched by this.

Sam Reese: What I’m seeing now, though, for the most part is that, and what makes me feel better about our business, is that members have reprioritized the importance of their role as the leader and the decisions they have to make. We’re seeing, candidly, attendance at meetings higher than it’s ever been. Maybe it’s, too, the ease of going virtual but people really diving in. And we’re seeing our networks online, more traffic than they’ve ever had. We think that most of our members have figured out a way to survive and put us as a priority. But it’s tough because many of them had really difficult situations that they just couldn’t overcome early on.

Rob Ristagno: What’s one thing you miss most about being able to get in person? I know you have a lot of events and you’re meeting a lot of members, you’re meeting chairs, kind of what’s one thing …. What’s the first thing that you’re going to do when we’re allowed to go back to in-person?

Sam Reese: Yeah. Well, I participate in my own – I was in a group for a decade running a different business, and I actually rejoined that group. I’m in that group. And so getting back with them is what I miss most. We had a virtual meeting yesterday. It went incredible. But just some really strong relationships. One of the members has some major health issues now. I just want to see him and shake his hand, give him a hug. I miss that. That time, I think what happens is groups as we grow together over time, many of us have known each other for, call it, seven, eight years. We need that time where we just sit around at the end of the day and just talk about what’s going on with our families and our lives here. I’m looking forward to hanging with that group. A lot. I miss them.

Rob Ristagno: I could see that.

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Rob Ristagno: Well, this is not your first rodeo. You already mentioned that you were leading Miller Heiman during 9/11. You were also there for the financial crisis in ’08. How is this crisis similar to those two events and how is it very, very different?

Sam Reese: Yeah. Every crisis is different. I’ve learned that. But I would say that similar piece of it, more to 9/11 than 2008 and 9, it was just a complete surprise. Like it just came from out of nowhere. And nobody was prepared. People were making some bets on the margin in ’08 and ’09 saw some weaknesses coming. So I think that part of it is where it’s surprising. I think what’s so different right now is what we could see in both ’01 and ’08 and ’09 is we could at least see an end to it. We had an idea roughly what that end would be and how long the problem would be around. We don’t have that now.

Sam Reese: I don’t even use the word new normal, I use the word new reality because I think we just have to be flexible. Things are going to be different for a while. And what I’m trying to fight, and this is what, really when I think about what’s different is, I’m really trying to fight, I’m trying to get my team to fight it, I don’t want to keep thinking about why can’t things just be the way they were? We had such a great plan. When will it be … It’s not going to be back to that. And we just got to keep being flexible and adapting and do what’s in front of us right now. That’s different. This could be around for a while, these sort of dynamics.

Rob Ristagno: Yeah. The uncertainty is killing us, I think. But it’s also, I guess, an opportunity for people to be creative and to try new things and … I think the companies that will come out as the strongest are the ones that can adapt the best.

Sam Reese: It goes back to this rallying cry again, even as I’m talking to you, that makes it simple for me to stay focused, as long as we’re making sure our members outperform and do great during this time, that’s really the focus we need. Our North Star always being our purpose. But as long as we do that, we’ll be fine here and our company will be strong. I’m not spending a lot have time right now trying to figure out how today impacts our five-year strategy. I’m not there yet. I’m a believer that success begets success. It’s like a world-class athlete. We’re in a race right now. We got to win this race. After we win this race, we’ll talk about what our plan is, but we got to win this race right now.

Rob Ristagno: Well, I’m going to open it up to questions now. But before I do, if people are interested in learning more about Vistage, what should they do?

Sam Reese:, everything you need to know. Retooled website, we have a world-class marketing head by the name of Mike Hamill who’s just a superstar that’s built a world-class platform, everything you need to know. I think they’ve even airbrushed my hair on the website so it looks really good. So go to the website.

Rob Ristagno: You were talking about the Hair Club for Men, there’s also this other 80s commercial with a guy with like spray paint. Remember this infomercial with a guy with spray paint hair on his … I forget what that was called. But, anyway.

Sam Reese: I had a salesman that worked for me that did that and I’ll never forget it because he got really nervous in the meeting and he was sweating black beads because he … That’s why I said I’m never going to do that.

Rob Ristagno: There we go. All right. Let’s let’s open it up. We have a great audience here today. Who has some questions for Sam?

Jack: I have a question.

Rob Ristagno: Go ahead, Jack.

Jack: Thank you. Very good. Enjoyed your remarks, Sam, and glad to hear things are going well. And not surprised from what I’ve heard from a couple people that I know that have been members. But my question is just about technology. Do you use technology that allows members to talk to each other beyond just using their emails? And is it Slack or Teams or something else?

Sam Reese: Yes. So it’s all through a member app that we call My Vistage. And this is part of what we’ve learned in this pandemic is they wanted to do a lot … You were always able to do it, but there were a few extra steps you would have to take because we wanted to make sure people were talking to people that that made sense for them to talk to. We’ve now, with this new member app we’re invested in, have made it a lot easier. And then what we also did, Jack, is we built these online networks so that by the things we’re interested in – like we have an online network that’s just about family businesses, an online network about manufacturing. Joining those, it facilitates the discussion a lot faster as well. This is where we underestimated. There’s a lot of that our members wanted.

Jack: So that type of thing is much more taking … People are taking advantage of it more now than they were before?

Sam Reese: I think our networks have grown from before. We had some of them stood up. I mean, it’s like at least five-fold in the traffic. Everybody’s talking all day, every day. It’s really interesting to follow.

Jack: That’s great.

Sam Reese: Thanks.

Rob Ristagno: More questions for Sam?

Heather: Hello. Hey, Sam. Good to see you. I love seeing the Vistage team, too. I have more of an observation on that idea of human connections. I was looking back through your resource center, which I think is fantastic. I would love your thoughts on the idea that as more companies are studying productivity and what working from home means, and that idea that there are knowledge workers who’ve been working from home for a long time, and then there are gig workers. But, culturally, I was reading that Microsoft has been studying their productivity and that there’s kind of new habits are coming out. Just wondering if you guys are seeing that.

Heather: So for example, Microsoft will say that they’re going to institute Recharge Fridays, where everybody just tries to clear their calendar and just work. And they also noticed that while they don’t have those marathon meetings anymore, they’re having more connection meetings, like 30-second meetings, 15-seconds meetings. So they’re recording the data and starting to see patterns and would love to see if you guys hear anything about that and what companies are saying. Are they seeing better productivity in measuring how it’s affecting their company?

Sam Reese: We asked that recently. We have a great research arm in our business here and people are seeing greater productivity right now, and it’s certainly more than they expected. All those things are happening. We’ve copied several ourselves from members, but in all these coffee breaks, a couple minutes to just catch up, open forums, that’s that stuff’s terrific. What we’ve done that we learned is a really simple practice. And I’m surprised when I first implemented it, I thought it might feel a little bit draconian, but it’s been just the opposite. Because it was – when people are working from home that hadn’t from home, and we got this from our remote workers – our remote workers said, “What we do is every day we send a note to our managers that say, here’s what we want to accomplish. And at the end of the day, we send a note of what happened.”

Heather: Accountability.

Sam Reese: Really simple. Here’s the thing I hadn’t thought about, though, that our remote workers told us is, what it does is allows your day to end. So you sent the note, and now you’re finished. We’ve really been emphasizing that with our coworkers just saying, now you’re done. Don’t sit at your computer all day. Those are some things we’ve learned.

Heather: Yeah. It’s to avoid that burnout, that screen burnout. Now we all – we all have to wear glasses now. Yeah.

Sam Reese: [crosstalk 00:30:17] about that burnout right now for a lot of our members are feeling, a lot of CEOs are feeling right now. I think one of the things we always think as CEOs is the best thing is for us to be available during a crisis. But we got to be careful because just being available and being a zombie isn’t helpful. We got to take some time away.

Heather: Great. Terrific. Thank you.

Sam Reese: Thanks for the question.

Rob Ristagno: If we don’t have any more questions for Sam, then I have some questions for the audience. But last call questions for Sam? Go for it, Dave.

Dave Lampert: I have a question. It’s Dave Lampert, company’s called [inaudible 00:30:46] Partners. Sam, I’m curious Vistage has always centered its groups geographically based on the face-to-face meetings. We don’t know how long it’s going to be ’til that’s going to happen. And so I’m curious if you are considering groups that would be folks who were not geographically proximate to each other, and how that might fit into your strategy.

Sam Reese: Great question. This has been a hot one popping up in our business right now. And here’s the belief, we’re debating it right now, here’s a belief I have, is, at the CEO level – so we have some other programs for emerging leaders and key executives, and I could see those having – potentially being able to be virtual in some form, and cut across the country or even the globe. I don’t believe the same thing with our CEOs. Our CEOs, that core of it are the issues we’re dealing with – so much of it in our local communities, individual challenges, the connections that we have – everybody’s not on the same page as me with this right now.

Sam Reese: But I would tell you, that’s where my thinking is now is that the core product, I still see Vistage as local not only because it’s better, but I also wonder what that would mean to our value proposition and what other new competitors would emerge if I change that approach. What’s interesting about my other products like Emerging Leader, I call it, is they have much more curriculum-based, and so that, I think, can be handled remotely better. But it’s a hot issue that we’re debating right now. We actually have a couple of test groups that are CEOs across the country and we’ll see how that goes.

Dave Lampert: Thanks.

Sam Reese: Thank you.

Evan Harter: This is Evan Harter. Sam, how often do you recommend that – in your groups – that you change the chair? Is it chronological? Do they have a year assignment? Do they have six months? Do the chairs get a collective assignment that they want to margin enhancement, revenue growth, HR? I mean, how do you work that, and how do you manage that process?

Sam Reese: Thanks. It’s a business model that I love. It was the same business model I ran for 15 years with the other company. Our chairs are 1099s. The same way I ran this other business. So we’re looking for that unique leader who has been a key executive, run their own company, or been a CEO of a business, that now wants to run their own practice here. But in a more easy-to-package way than just hanging out a consulting shingle. So what happens is, it’s actually sort of rare that members switch chairs. They get a loyalty with the group and they get a loyalty with the chair.

Sam Reese: The average member stays have been about five to seven years, so it’s a pretty long relationship. But the chairs build their own practices. And so that it ends up being their business, if you would, and we support them with all the tools and processes and training and technology and speakers. But they have a lot of loyalty, their members to that individual chair.

Evan Harter: Is there compensation at all related to performance of the members? I mean, how does that get structured?

Sam Reese: Yep. Their compensation. Think of it, there’s a few nuances that relate around the quality and the surveys that they receive, but it’s pretty much based upon the size of their practice. So we have some chairs that say, I only want to have one group. I’m semi-retired, I want to work with 12 other CEOs and only want to work a day or two, a week. And then we have some that might have five, six … I see one that has eight groups that basically they’re as full-time as they’ve ever been. And we have a system where they can do all that and then get the right levels of support based upon how big they want to build their practice. 600 of them in the US, we have right now, and about 30 of them retire every year. So I’ve got to keep replenishing them. Really top people.

Evan Harter: That’s a great model.

Sam Reese: It’s fun. Although, the best part about it that keeps you sharp as the CEO is remember, everyone believes they could do the job better than me. Everyone’s like, “I could do his job better.” So I get some great feedback. That’s nonstop.

Evan Harter: And some of it, it’s even enjoyable.

Sam Reese: Most of it is. There’s some pretty good ideas. Thanks for the question.

Rob Ristagno: Any other questions from the group?

Jack: Just following up on that. And by the way, I’m my company’s The Bulfinch Group in the Boston, Greater Boston. But is there a maximum number of people in a group? You mentioned are 15 or?

Sam Reese: I think 18 is really the furthest that we’ll take. Otherwise, it just becomes a little bit too clunky. And this would be the challenge with those big groups when we get back together when that happens to make sure there’s a meeting space that has enough social distance to do that. So we’re trying to understand those contingency plans. But think of the average size about 12.

Jack: Thank you.

Michelle: I’m Michelle. So it sounds like you do a really good job of listening to your members so that you can center them in everything you do. I’m wondering if you already had a system in place to incorporate their feedback and to do that listening or if you had to come up with one in March?

Sam Reese: Good question. I would say it’s a little bit of both. We had a really good system. We have a system that between every meeting that a member has, they evaluate that meeting based on how effective it was, how good the speaker was. So we always have that data and that was really helpful for us. But there were some things that were happening in the interim that we just needed to get some quick on the spot feedback for that. We first said, we got to reach out straight to the members and see what we get. But what we found is our chairs said, hey, what do you need?

Sam Reese: And we just went through our chairs who went straight to the members, and they were the ones that really started to give us the feedback on the fact what people want in virtual meetings, what they want in terms of speakers. And that it had that side benefit. I don’t think we’ve ever felt more aligned with our channel than we feel right now. And I didn’t know that, it was just a nice benefit that happened. They probably think we’re listening better than we’ve ever listened. So they probably said, what took you so long? We’re listening better.

Michelle: Good. Thank you.

Sam Reese: Thanks.

Rob Ristagno: How about a question for the audience here. One thing that struck me from Sam’s comments was this idea of the rallying call and how his focus is based around this idea of how can our members outperform their non-member peers? Does anyone have a personal rallying cry? Does anyone here maybe hasn’t been as formal as the Vistage rallying cry? What are we telling ourselves to get us through these hard times? Kind of what’s your own personal rallying cry?

Evan Harder: So for me, it’s just been remember that I’m serving customers and not vice-versa. So that’s my focus every morning.

Heather: Hi, Rob. So something that I’ve noticed that I say a lot and it almost sounds silly, but every time we end a meeting with my team in the morning is, “Have a good time, find a way to enjoy yourself.” Which is kind of not of the times, fully, but I feel like during these times it’s so challenging, there’s so much stress going on. Where can you find some fun? Where can you find some laughter? Where can you bring some sunshine to each other so that everybody can enjoy themselves as much as possible? And in that, I found that my team is just really productive. So if they’re thinking they’re having a good time, and they’re somehow enjoying it, we’re going to get better work out of them.

Evan Harder: I agree. We do one thing that accomplishes, I think, the same kind of thing that Heather was talking about. Is we focused in the first five minutes of each of our group meetings, obviously most of which are remote, with what’s going on in our family lives. Is there anything exciting that’s happening? Is there anything positive that’s happening? Is there any problem that’s going on? What do you think of what your governor is doing? We try to get that out of the way so people can take the things that are important to them and have them heard, have them shared, have them look at it. I’m not known from a managerial perspective as being particularly warm and fuzzy. So that was a real-

Rob Ristagno: That surprises me Evan.

Evan Harder: That was a real significant change for our team. And I found that, actually, the idea came from my wife who was sitting on the other side of my desk one day in one of our team meetings. And after the meeting was over, she said, “That may have been the lousiest meeting I’ve ever been a party to.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You didn’t ask them what their lives were like. What are their approach was going on?” And I learned a lesson. And you cannot imagine the difference in that next meeting when we did that. That first time, it probably lasted 10 minutes. Our meetings are normally 45 minutes for most cases.

Evan Harder: But I think we need to remember that, from a leadership standpoint, in a CEO, COO perspective, obviously, we’re thinking about performance, we’re thinking about metrics, we’re thinking about all this. But it’s people that are going to get us there. And people have their own issues. And they’ve got to have a friend that they work with as opposed to just a co-worker and an employee. So I have to slap myself a couple times in front of the mirror and say, “Wait until we get a little into the meeting before you start going through your list of four things that didn’t happen right,” or something like that. So I think it’s a bias that …

Evan Harder: I also learned – I’m on a couple of outside boards – and one of the companies that Mark who’s joined us today is … The CEO is a financial guy. Very low-key. And I’ve watched him over. He’s been in a turnaround situation for about 18 months. And he has totally changed the culture from the person he replaced. Low-key, professional manner. And the first five months of the current fiscal year, they’re on a calendar year, his revenues are up 41% his margins are up by 60%. And if you meet him, you wouldn’t think immediately that this is a hard-charging, aggressive leader. Well, he sure as hell is.

Evan Harder: I mean, he does the right things in the right fashion, combines TLC for his employees. He really does care about … When he says how are you, he wants to know. It’s been a wonderful learning experience for me. Being an old dog, looking at those types of things. I just think that that thinking about that … I’m not saying shy away from the realities of the world or anything else but getting personality and personal time in this card, aggressive pain in the neck thing that we’re all dealing with, whether it’s Zoom or things or anything else in it. Because my own bias is, this is going to be with us forever, folks.

Evan Harder: Corporations are going to look at capital costs, P&E costs, things of that type. And the days of, okay, I got to go see this guy in LA, I’m going to fly out from Kalamazoo, Michigan at lunch with him and then come home, those days are going to be looked at in a different fashion, probably. So I think we got to look at it positively about how we can take advantage of it and not forget interpersonal.

Sam Reese: Vistage meetings start with a check-in where people check in on health. They say here’s my health, here’s my business issues, and here’s kind of what’s going on in my life. That’s really a good way to get connected.

Evan Harder: Yeah, it’s a great way to put it.

Rob Ristagno: I think that’s a practical thing we can all leave with: to start all of our meetings with some of those check-in questions no matter how much stuff is on your to-do list for the day. Sam, I want to thank you on behalf of everyone here from the CEO Campfire Chat. It’s been a pleasure hearing your story. What’s one thing we can help you with? We’re here, we want to help you, we appreciate your time. What can we do to help you?

Sam Reese: I feel like I got some great questions there. So I think just this kind of dialogue and as we were just talking there at the end about reminding ourselves of the fact, that was like such an easy concept that we have to remember. It’s all about people. Whatever strategy, we still just got to really stay grounded with the fact that nothing happens unless our people are motivated. Heather’s comments, people having fun. And Evan says, ask what they’re up to. Great reminder to me because I’m, probably like all of you, going at a pretty crazy pace right now. So I’d say that’s a big help and I appreciate you asking me to talk today. I really enjoyed it.

Rob Ristagno: Sam, CEO of Vistage. Go to to learn more. This is Rob Ristagno with the CEO Campfire Chat. Come to our website,, to listen to other episodes. Join our email companion list or even take a test to get some specific advice on how you can grow your business in these troubling times. Be well.

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