Decision Vision

A Podcast
for Decision Makers

 

Episode 14

CEO Peer Groups

 

Episode 14: CEO Peer Groups

What’s a CEO peer group all about? Should I join one? What’s the return on the investment of participating in such a group? In this edition of “Decision Vision” host Michael Blake, interviews Marc Borrelli, Chair of Vistage Worldwide.

Marc Borrelli, Vistage Worldwide

Marc Borrelli arranges and chairs Vistage Peer Advisory Groups, which have about 16 CEOs in them, meet on a monthly basis to discuss issues and opportunities the members face to provide advice, challenge assumptions, prevent hubris, and then hold the members accountable for the commitments they have made. The members discuss all kinds of issues in these meetings from profits and cash flow, strategic planning, acquisitions, and sales, and challenges with other owners. The members get the benefit of 15 other CEOs helping them, who are not beholden to them for anything, other than being helped themselves. Members come from a wide variety of industries and the only rules are not customers or suppliers. Vistage has 23,000 members worldwide and 17,000 in the US.

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Transcript: CEO Peer Groups - Episode 14

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Intro:
Welcome to Decision Vision, a podcast series focusing on critical business decisions, brought to you by Brady Ware & Company. Brady Ware is a regional, full-service accounting and advisory firm that helps businesses and entrepreneurs make visions a reality.

Michael Blake:
And welcome back to Decision Vision, a podcast giving you, the listener, clear vision to make great decisions. In each episode, we discuss the process of decision making on a different topic. Rather than making recommendations because everyone’s circumstances are different, we talk to subject matter experts about how they would recommend thinking about that decision.

Michael Blake:
My name is Mike Blake, and I’m your host for today’s program. I’m a Director at Brady Ware & Company, a full-service accounting firm based in Dayton, Ohio, with offices in Dayton; Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Indiana; and Alpharetta, Georgia, which is where we are recording today. Brady Ware is sponsoring this podcast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcast aggregator and please also consider leaving a review of the podcast as well.

Michael Blake:
So, today we’re going to talk about CEO/executive peer study groups. And these are groups that are entities that have like-minded or ostensibly like-minded decision makers where they, kind of, have group therapy, study issues together, and learn from one another. And there are number of groups that are all over the place, literally, worldwide.

Michael Blake:
And it’s an interesting model because being CEO of any organization is a very lonely place, and everyone expects you to have the answers, sometimes, even unrealistically. And just like we’ve kind of asked, “Who does the therapist talk to when they’re feeling depressed?” who does the decision maker turn to when they need some help making important decisions, but they don’t necessarily know who to turn to, and maybe not warrant engaging in consulting, or may require a different relationship than what a consultant could provide? And it’s a big decision. I know these groups help a lot of people. And for other people, it’s not necessarily the right fit.

Michael Blake:
And joining us to help us work through this is Marc Borrelli. Marc Borrelli arranges and chairs Vistage Peer Advisory Groups, which have about sixteen CEOs in them. They meet on a monthly basis to discuss issues and opportunities the members face to provide advice, challenge assumptions, prevent hubris, and then hold the members accountable for the commitments they have made. The members discuss all kinds of issues in these meetings from profits, to cash flow, strategic planning, acquisitions, and sales, and challenges with other owners. Not necessarily among the other owners, just challenges among the other owners.

Michael Blake:
The members get the benefit of 15 other CEOs helping them who are not beholden to them for anything other than being helped themselves. Members come from a wide variety of industries. And the only rules are not customers or suppliers. Vistage has 23,000 members worldwide and 17,000 in the United States. Marc has 30 years of strategy and investment banking experience. Marc is expertly positioned to offer a range of unique advisory services, and he’s worked across Europe, Africa, and the United States, closing more than 100 transactions worth over $3 billion, and is perhaps best known for his fluency in the language of numbers.

Michael Blake:
He is a current chair of the Technology Association of Georgia’s Corporate Development Board, which basically means M&A advocacy, and is a CFA charter holder. Marc is a sharp, sharp guy who is not afraid to tell you what he thinks and why. And that’s why he’s going to be a great interview today. Marc, thanks for coming on.

Marc Borrelli:
Thank you for having me.

Michael Blake:
So, Marc, you’ve done all this stuff. You do deals, doing deals of very intense, fast-paced, sort of, all out kind of profession. And then, you decide to go and become an educator. Why?

Marc Borrelli:
So, I think, to cut this long story short, way back, when I started my own M&A firm, somebody from Vistage approached me and said, “Are you interested in joining a Vistage Group?” And being a very conceited, young 40-year-old, I turned around and said, “God, no. I know everything. I don’t need you. I’m an M&A expert.” Fast forward about — Actually, I was in my mid-30s. And fast forward 10 years, and I was in my mid-40s, I’d just gone through a divorce. I was in a child custody battle. My business was on the ropes. And another person came along and asked the same question, and I grabbed the lifeline with both hands before I drowned.

Marc Borrelli:
So, I think, yes. I think everybody gets — and I was in the group for years, and then I decided to come and do this. And it’s not really — I like your term educate. I don’t think it’s an educator. And, I think, truly, the groups you get into, the benefit I always say is challenging the assumptions and truly finding out what the underlying question is. It’s not there to provide magic answers. It’s not like we lift up the Magic 8 ball at every meeting and say, “Okay, this is what you have to do.” But it’s really asking questions and deep questions to find out what the real issue is, and then getting the person to commit to do something, and then holding them accountable.

Marc Borrelli:
And that’s what I love about it. I love seeing people succeed and grow. I think the people who don’t like it in a lot of cases, or like I was in my mid 30s, they think they know it all, I always say, to be a great Vistage member, you have to have experienced pain, and suffered, and you realize you don’t know it all, and you need help every day.

Michael Blake:
So, you need to be broken down before you’re ready to join Vistage.

Marc Borrelli:
Absolutely, absolutely. Yes.

Michael Blake:
You mentioned asking the right questions, and it calls to mind an Einstein quote that goes something like, “”Finding solutions is easy. It’s asking the right questions that’s the hard part.” Right?

Marc Borrelli:
Absolutely.

Michael Blake:
And I think that’s what’s drawn me to you and our friendship over the years is that you do ask great questions, and you don’t take anything for granted. Even if it’s something that maybe we thought was true two years ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true today, right?

Marc Borrelli:
No. And I think that’s the hardest thing for business members, business owners, and CEOs, and for myself is the world is changing so fast. I’ll give you an example. I recently gave every one of my Vistage members Tom Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late, which is about how much the world has changed, and technology is changing, everything. And the speed of change is affecting every area of our business. Whatever model got us to here — it’s a great book. What got you to here won’t get you to there. And that’s why we need others to challenge us, and make us think, and just digressing slightly. The common complaint I hear is, “Damn, these millennials, how do we work with them?” And it’s like they’re now the biggest sector of the working population. You got to figure this out.

Michael Blake:
Right.

Marc Borrelli:
You can complain about them, but if you don’t figure out how to make them happy and keep them, you’re going to lose, not them.

Michael Blake:
Right. Really, they’re saying, “Damn, how we’re going to work with these Gen Xer’s and late baby boomers, right?

Marc Borrelli:
Exactly.

Michael Blake:
That’s really the conversation that’s going on. We’re going to be in a position where we’ve got to justify ourselves to them, and we probably seem clinically insane too many of them.

Marc Borrelli:
Totally, yes.

Michael Blake:
And maybe they’re not wrong.

Marc Borrelli:
No. And I think it’s very interesting for those of us, we’re about the same age, we grew up in an environment where you’ve joined a company, you paid your dues, you worked hard, nobody thanked you, and you just accepted that was the norm. And it was interesting in the Vistage Group, somebody posed the question, you have the most perfect employee sitting across from you that you’re interviewing that you really want, and they look at you and say, “Why should I join your organization?” And nobody could answer the question. I mean, they all said, “Because we’re a great company.” And the person who raised it said, “So, all the other companies will say ‘We’re really bad companies. Come here and be abused.'” No, they all say they’re great. So, how do you sell this?

Marc Borrelli:
And I think that’s the challenge that we have to deal with, and that’s what I love about it. It’s always new, and it’s always interesting, and helping people try, and just do it better.

Michael Blake:
I’ve got to have some discipline because if I take the conversation the way I want to, we’ll be here three hours later, and they’re going to cut us off. So, I got to stay on topic. It’s just so hard with you. There’s so many peer executive types of groups out there. Vistage is one. There are others. Some are just informal. Others are formalized. What do you think sets Vistage apart from those other groups, if anything?

Marc Borrelli:
So, I think if you look at all four groups, they all have some component of four things. They’re either networking groups, they are social groups, they are personal improvement groups, and they’re business improvement groups. As I tell people, Vistage is not a networking group. We don’t encourage you doing business with each other. We’re not a B&I group. We don’t want that.

Marc Borrelli:
We’re not really a social group. Yeah, we do get together a couple of times a year, but it’s not our key thing. YPO is probably the greatest and best social group. We are a business improvement and a personal improvement. That’s what we focus on. So, I think when you’re looking it, what do you want out of the group? And then, of course, there are some groups that have specific categories like religious affiliations, which we don’t have. We’re open. We believe the more diverse the members, the better input you get, and the better results you get. But I think that’s what you look at is what is it you want out of the group.

Michael Blake:
So, what kinds of topics have you been covering in your group over the last year? Can you talk about that, or is it confidential?

Marc Borrelli:
No, absolutely. Well, I won’t give names away, so it’s not confidential. So, on some of the more simple things we’ve been talking about is getting lines of credit available and making sure you well banked, so if a downturn comes you can get through it financially. How do we challenge clients who are not paying us on a timely basis and get our receivables down? Some people are looking for a COO to help them grow the business through the next stage, which comes into things like technology systems, implementing ERP systems, for advice on that.

Marc Borrelli:
A common one is my exit strategy. Your exit strategy might be you’re the owner, and you’re going to exit at some point, or even more simply, I’m the key person in the private equity own group, and I don’t want to be sold with the company at the next sale. So, how do I build my exit? Some people, it’s as simple as what does success mean for you in your organization. They haven’t really thought that through. And then, we get into some of the more personal ones. And I’m not going to give names, but I’ve had people deal with issues like children with drug problems, abuse issues. So, we cover a wide gamut of things.

Michael Blake:
So, that’s interesting. So, your discussions do bleed over into the personal-

Marc Borrelli:
Oh totally.

Michael Blake:
… as life part of the work life.

Marc Borrelli:
I come from the assumption that we’re here to help you with anything that affects your business. And as I tell people, having been through a divorce and, now, proudly wear the t-shirt, for a year, you’re useless. Your mind is not focused, you’re distracted, you cannot put the attention you need in. And if that’s one of your issues, or you’ve got a dying parent, or child going through some trauma, you are heavily distracted, which affects your business. Now, we’re not therapists. I’m not going to claim we provide therapy, and we’re not going to tell you, but we’re going to try and give you coping mechanisms.

Marc Borrelli:
So, for instance, one of my members is going through a serious litigation at the moment, very distracted by it, and it’s just simple things like the members reach out to him on a regular basis, see if they can help him. Remind him, “Are you meditating? Are you getting a break from it? Because if you don’t do these things, it will consume you.” And as one member said to him, “Look, don’t worry about the litigation, beat them at business. If you beat them at business, you’ve won.” So, it’s just helping people come at it from different perspectives.

Michael Blake:
So, your group then must get pretty tight pretty quickly I would imagine.

Marc Borrelli:
Yes. You’d definitely see there are two types of people that come in the group, those that get tight, and they get together socially. And I encourage that because you’re not going to care about other people and take care of them unless you know them. And then, there’s some that never really get socially involved for whatever reason, and they tend to drift off.

Marc Borrelli:
So, yes, I try and encourage my group. This is a personal thing. Every Vistage Group is different. As of this year, we try and get together four times a year for dinners. Twice a year, we have spouses. We do retreats, I’m going on a retreat with another group next week. I believe the more you’re entangled with each other, the more you care about each other, the more you’re going to help each other. And that’s what this is about.

Michael Blake:
Okay. Now, obviously, although you’re providing it good, it is a commercial exercise.

Marc Borrelli:
Absolutely.

Michael Blake:
So, if I’m thinking about, “This sounds interesting, I might be able to make use of it,” what are the economics look like? What are the costs look like?

Marc Borrelli:
So, basically, in my main Vistage Groups, it’s about $1600 a month to be a member. It has a 90-day termination clause. So, it’s not payable for a whole year upfront. You just pay monthly. And then, once a month, you have to host a meeting, which means you have to provide all the food and the facilities. Now, we also do retreats and dinners where everybody pays their share. So, if I’m looking at all those numbers, you’re just over 20 grand a year.

Marc Borrelli:
A lot of people look at me and say, “Oh my God. I could never afford that.” Being a business person and investment banker, my mind automatically goes to numbers, as you mentioned. So, I’m looking at it, and I say, “Well, what’s the ROI on it? And if you’re the CEO of a business, what’s your average decision? Now, hopefully you’re not just deciding on paper clips, but if you’re deciding on hiring senior people or new market stand, your average decisions got to be over 100 grand a year. And if the group helps you make one good decision a year, the ROI is 500%. So, where can you go wrong with this?”

Marc Borrelli:
Now, some people say, “Well, the group didn’t help me with their decisions.” And I was like, “Well, you didn’t bring a good question to the group,” or “If you just want them to pat you on the back, that’s not using them effectively,” but yes. So, I think there is cost, as you said, but there should be a return on it.

Michael Blake:
And how many groups do you have?

Marc Borrelli:
I have two CEO groups. My one group is from a million to about 8 million in revenue. My other groups 8 million to 50 million in revenue. And I’ve split them because the bigger companies just have more employees and a different type of issue. And then, I have a third group, which is less expensive, but it’s not for CEOs, it’s for senior executives within organizations that are coming up.

Michael Blake:
Okay. And so, that’s a peer group to help them from a career counseling standpoint?

Marc Borrelli:
Correct, yes.

Michael Blake:
Okay. So, did you have a chance to meet other — is your official title a facilitator? Are you a group leader, are you-

Marc Borrelli:
I’m called the Chair.

Michael Blake:
… the ayatollah?

Marc Borrelli:
I am called the Chair of the group. And I guess if you wanted to say anything, I’m a facilitator.

Michael Blake:
Okay. So, as the chair/facilitator of the group, do you have a chance to meet other chair facilitators? And if so, how much do you differ, or do you tend to have a very kind of consistent profile?

Marc Borrelli:
No, I think we’re all very different. And, at least, I meet within the Vistage community. All the chairs get together once a month to discuss best practices and different things. I think we’re all different. We all bring different skill sets because of our background to the table. I bring a financial background. Other people run HR companies, so they bring an HR background. We’re all different.

Marc Borrelli:
I think having spoken to people who were in other organizations, which didn’t have a “facilitator” or somebody in charge, and they took turns, they have said to me that they didn’t find the issues we run as well because nobody is trained to do it. My job is not to jump and tell everybody the answer. My job is just to keep the conversation, draw people out, and make sure everybody gets — I herd the cats.

Michael Blake:
So, do you find then that you tend to draw people that already have an affinity for numbers, data, analytics, finance, or is it the opposite? Do you tend to draw people that know that that’s a weakness of theirs, and they’re hoping that you’re going to plug that or somehow fill that gap?

Marc Borrelli:
I wish I could say it was one or the other, but it doesn’t seem to be either. I have people who are very numerate, and I have people who have no clue, and I’m trying to educate those that don’t. But, again, it comes back to what do you really want to learn? And, often, I tell people, “Look, as a CEO, it’s not so much what you have to learn on the finance side. It’s actually just knowing the numbers you need to look at to make sure your business is operating.”

Marc Borrelli:
So, I encourage all the CEOs that I work with to get custom dashboards built for them that, at one glance, they can tell what’s going on in their business. They should get them every week or less depending on — I mean, more often than that, depending on what their business is, but they should not be delving into Quickbooks or whatever the accounting package they have spending hours looking at reports.

Michael Blake:
That’s probably got to be music to many of their ears?

Marc Borrelli:
It is, but they can’t resist.

Michael Blake:
Yeah.

Marc Borrelli:
They get sucked into back Quickbook. And I see them all playing with reports, and I’m like, “You shouldn’t be doing this. This is not good return on your time.”

Michael Blake:
Problem with so many business owners, they’re very heavily — they’re type A detail-oriented people.

Marc Borrelli:
Yes.

Michael Blake:
And, I guess, sometimes, you have to tell them like, “What are you doing this for?” Right?

Marc Borrelli:
Right.

Michael Blake:
Now what about like personality of the facilitator. Would you say they are different personalities? Maybe some are what we call sort of an American football coach, and others are more kind of nurturing, or is there a spectrum of personalities as chair facilitators?

Marc Borrelli:
That’s an interesting question. I think there is a variety. And some chairs have been coaches, and some chairs are maybe more touchy-feely. But I think at the end of the day, we’re encouraged to through Vistage, and I think what really works, is we’re what we call carefrontational. We care about you. We want you to succeed, but we’re not going to let you off the hook. We’re going to hold your feet to the fire. You said you were going to do this. Why haven’t you done it?

Marc Borrelli:
And as I always tell people, in Vistage, there’s no public flogging, but humiliation in front of your peers on a regular basis, it will destroy you. So, you got to stand up. And it’s very hard to turn around to a group of people who are also CEOs and say, “Well, I didn’t do it because I’m busy.” And you just get these looks like, “Really? Tell me about it.”

Michael Blake:
We’re recording this right before April 15th, and I don’t ever use the phrase, “I am busy inside of my firm.” I’ll simply be thrown out of our third=floor window.

Marc Borrelli:
Right.

Michael Blake:
What kind of time commitment is required? Now, we’ve talked about the cost, right? So, I guess you have monthly meetings. Is that right?

Marc Borrelli:
Correct. So, our group meets once a month as a group. And then, I meet with every member for an hour to an hour and a half during the month. What I tell my members is, “Look, there are 12 meetings a year. I expect you to make nine. People have business trips, family events, you get sick, client unexpected issues arise, you make nine.”.

Marc Borrelli:
But your time commitment is, I think, the most interesting question because speaking to those that I think are really engaged, and want to get the most out of it, and those that do get the most out of it actually invest the time preparing for the meeting. So, they think about the issue they want to bring. They think about all the information they need to present to the group. And so, when they come in, they’re prepared, and they think about, “If there’s a speaker, what do I want to learn from it?” So, they do a lot of upfront preparation. And afterwards, they spend time implementing it.

Marc Borrelli:
Those that don’t get much out of it don’t spend any preparation, walk into the meeting, haven’t thought about anything except they’re just walking in. They don’t really have a good issue. They are sure as heck they can’t give you any information about it, and they don’t really pay attention afterward. And, again, I herd the cats, I can’t make them. But I always say to them, “Look, you’ve spent money on this. If you’re meeting with your lawyer or your accountant, would you just walk into the room with no papers, no backup, and sit there, and know that they’re charging you by the hour to sit there and say nothing?” And they say, “No.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you do that? This is your board. These are your advisers. They’re here to help you. If you invest the time, you will get a greater return.” So, I think people should.

Michael Blake:
And probably the people that don’t prepare, that’s probably a symptom of something else.

Marc Borrelli:
Absolutely.

Michael Blake:
Right? Chances are that’s not the only thing in their business life for which they’re routinely systematically unprepared?

Marc Borrelli:
I would say that’s true, but I would say there is a culture, especially in the US, but it’s infecting the rest of the world, is we’re busy, we believe we’re successful. And I’m really fighting that culture to say-

Michael Blake:
I think, that’s right.

Michael Blake:
I think busy is not a sign of success. Success is thinking, if you’re the leader, you don’t need to be busy, you need to be thinking, you need busy people under you, but you need to be thinking about where the ship is going, and how you’re going to get it there. And getting caught up in the daily minutia is not helping. I try encourage members, the best thing you can do is take two weeks off at a time, and go let your brain regenerate.

Michael Blake:
It’s a very interesting point. And I have to admit, I fall into that trap that I think that being busy is ipso facto good, and it isn’t necessarily. And I think it just comes from this puritanical streak that we have as Americans that idle hands are the devil’s playground et cetera, et cetera. But you’re right, being able to sort of take us a step back, it’s amazing what your mind can do if you force it to do nothing.

Marc Borrelli:
Exactly. Well, I think on that. I’m going to throw two things out that I tell my members, and some do, and some don’t, is you should have an automatic reply in your e-mail that says I’ve received your e-mail, I will revert to you within 48 hours.

Michael Blake:
Ha!

Marc Borrelli:
Because all people want to know is, did you get the e-mail? That’s the main thing. And if you give yourself two days to think about it, you will probably come to a better solution than if you just shoot something off on the spur of the moment without giving it true deep thought.

Marc Borrelli:
And then the second thing I say to them is when you go on holiday, putting out of office e-mail which doesn’t just say, “I’m out of the office,” but says, “I will be gone for this date and this date. I’ll check email once a day, but I’m not checking this address. Please email me at this new address.” And the new address is, “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt your personal family vacation at…” whatever your alias. Nobody will ever send you an e-mail to that address. And we just copy people, we send this stuff out, and we all become slaves, and jump to it. And I think it’s a waste of our mental energy and our physical energy.

Michael Blake:
That’s a great point. That’s something I’ve learned and one of the few benefits of getting gray hair and two arthritic ankles is a little bit of wisdom and realizing you don’t have to respond to every email as it comes in, right? And I can’t tell you how many times I felt like I had a much better response by just stepping away, sleeping on it, and often just say, “Look, I got it.” That’s what most people want. What annoys people if you don’t respond and don’t even acknowledge that you’ve got it.

Marc Borrelli:
Correct.

Michael Blake:
If you acknowledge that you received the e-mail, the person that sent it then knows they are in the queue. You’re, at least, important enough to respond in that way. And then, they know they’re not being ignored. Being ignored really pisses people off when you get right down to it.

Marc Borrelli:
Exactly. But as you said, rushed answers are bad. One last point on this is I try and say to people, “Look, when you finish a meeting, don’t rush into the next meeting. Can you set yourself 30 minutes just to reflect on what truly happened, and what’s really important, and what you need to do?” Because we rush, and I’m guilty, I rush all day from meeting to meeting, and I get to the end of the day, I forgot what I promised at the first meeting. And it’s something I’m working on to try and be more effective with my time.

Michael Blake:
Not to mention, the emotional tenor from meeting to meeting may be entirely different, right?

Marc Borrelli:
Right.

Michael Blake:
But if you go from a dispute mediation into a sales meeting, can you imagine? You can’t handle those. Oh sorry, you just wanted the proposal? Got it. Okay.

Marc Borrelli:
Yeah, yeah.

Michael Blake:
So, you’re right, having that time to sort of kind of reset and center, that is part of time management is giving yourself that space to then, kind of, reset because in a different meeting, you have to play a different role, right?

Marc Borrelli:
Correct.

Michael Blake:
So, are there sorts of personalities that tend to do well in peer groups or ones that don’t do well in peer groups? I guess, know-it-all isn’t great.

Marc Borrelli:
I would say, the ones that don’t do well are know-it-alls and people who don’t care about others. You have to go in saying, “Look, I’m going to get stuff out of this, but what I really want to do is help everybody else.” And if you go in there with either, “I’m superior to everybody else, I know more than everybody else, and I don’t really care about these people,” you’re not going to work out. If you go in there saying, “I can learn from everybody…”

Marc Borrelli:
We have a guy in my group, and those who know him would recognize from his description. He has the worst ADHD of anybody I’ve ever met but has more interesting ideas than any human I ever met. He’s who’s got more patents in process. And the more you get to know this character, the more amazing he is. But a lot of people wrote him off in the beginning because he’s all over the place, and he’s not focused, and you think, “How does this guy get by?” But then, as you get to know him, when you peel back the onion, like this is truly an amazing person.

Marc Borrelli:
And so, I think, there are those that come in saying, “I’ve built my business to X, and I don’t need to talk to anybody else because I’ve done it, and I’m so great.” And I think it’s those that have realized that there are great people in many different guises, and they can all add something who will truly benefit from.

Michael Blake:
Now, what does it take when you — presumably, you prepare extensively for one of these meetings, what does your preparation routine look like?

Marc Borrelli:
So, it depends on the meeting. What I try and do is when I meet with my members one on one is to find out what issues are going on in their life. So, if I find an issue, I will say, “You should bring this issue to the group. And here’s a form. This what you need to write down. Try and bring all this information to the group.” I’ll think of exercises to do with them.

Marc Borrelli:
So, to give you an example of one I’m doing right now, and a number of Vistage Chairs are doing it, And I’ll go back to the beginning, Vistage has an event once a year for all the chairs. And Jim Collins who wrote Good to Great was there, and he spoke about Good to Great and the 12 questions for leadership, and we thought this is great.

Marc Borrelli:
So, I’m sitting down with all my group going through each of the questions. So, we start out with the flywheel. What is your flywheel? Define how your flywheel works? How do you confront the brutal facts? How do you know you have the right people regardless where on the bus they are? And then, you put them in. So, thinking through these things, sending them out links to documents, YouTube videos on this stuff, and then saying, “Okay. This is what we’re going to discuss.” And carving aside, anybody presents it. And then, we challenge each other. And I always say, “You’re open to challenge.” So, yeah, things like that.

Michael Blake:
Are there particular industries that you think CEO peer groups tend to serve better than others, or can it be adapted to any industry, whether it’s high tech, e-commerce, or janitorial services?

Marc Borrelli:
I think it can be adapted to any industry. The only place I think it has a bit of a problem, and maybe I’m wrong, because there are people in groups from these companies, but I think a large professional partnership is sometimes more difficult because nobody, even the managing partner, as a managing partner of an accounting firm once said to me, “We have all the responsibility and no authority.” So, they find it hard.

Marc Borrelli:
But I have a lawyer in one of my groups, and he said to me, “Why should I join? I’m a lawyer. I don’t know about selling and marketing.” And I said, “Well, you should. I mean, today, we all have to sell, we have to market, we have to collect. So, yes, your expertise may be in another area, but you still got to do all these business functions to get ahead, and build your model, and think of a different way of doing business.” So, I think everybody can benefit if you go in with an open mind.

Michael Blake:
Yeah. And that advice of having to sell, I mean, I long learned there are people in my industry and finance that are sufficiently technical. They can just be the technical nerd in the corner and thrive. I ain’t that smart. So, I have to develop other skills as a survival path. All right. So, how long does the meeting last?

Marc Borrelli:
That’s an all-day meeting.

Michael Blake:
All-day meeting. So, what happens? Kind of go through the order of battle in a given meeting.

Marc Borrelli:
So, eight times a year, we have a speaker. So, the speaker will come in in the morning. They will talk for about 3-3.5 hours on a subject matter area of expertise to them. And if we don’t have a speaker, we’ll think of either we’ll do what I’m going to describe next for the rest of the meeting, or I may present a topic of discussion.

Marc Borrelli:
So, aside from the speaker, what we’d usually do, we have what we call a check-in. Everybody goes around, says what’s happened since the last meeting personally and privately in their lives, what’s good, what’s bad. Then, we have a host of the meeting who I mentioned is responsible. They get an hour to present their business, their issues, and tell us about what they’re thinking, what are their three-year plans, what’s the business plan, what’s their exit, what challenges they’re facing. And that’s usually an in-depth discussion.

Marc Borrelli:
And then, the rest of the meeting, really, is everybody writes up issues or opportunities they’re facing. And we sit down, and we go through our process of asking, probing questions. When we’ve got no more questions, we then go around and ask everybody what they would recommend they would do if they were the person with the issue.

Marc Borrelli:
When everybody’s told them what they would do – and during this time, they’re not allowed to say anything, they just listen – we basically turn to them and say, “So, what are you going to do?” And they could say, “I like what John said,” or “I like what Mary said,” or “I think you’re all a bunch of idiots, and I’m going to do something else.” And we don’t really care, but we say. “Okay, So, you’re going to do X, and when are you going to do it by?”.

Marc Borrelli:
And when you come to the meeting next month, “Did you do it?” And if you didn’t do it, then we’ll say, “Well, do you want somebody in the group to be a wingman, and remind you, and lead you through it?” And if you repeatedly don’t do it, then there’s an issue that you haven’t really gone into.”

Michael Blake:
Right, there’s a deeper issue. I guess.

Marc Borrelli:
Exactly.

Michael Blake:
So, you have a buddy system, almost like alcoholics anonymous, right?

Marc Borrelli:
Oh totally. There’s a joke in Vistage where AA is for CEOs.

Michael Blake:
Oh, is that right?

Marc Borrelli:
Yeah. Because they need somebody. And the thing I found, and I speak for myself knowing this as my own behavior, is when we’re stressed, we revert back to what we like to do because it’s comfortable. And CEOs, like everybody else, get stressed. They’ve got big decisions, and they don’t know what to do with them. So, they revert back into their comfort zones.

Marc Borrelli:
I have one member who’s very stressed with things going on. I spoke to him the other day, and I’m like, “What have you been doing?” And he’s like, “I was rebuilding our website.” And I’m like, “Why are you rebuilding? You should not be rebuilding a website. This is not your time.” But that’s where he’s comfortable. And so, he’s reverting back. And I think where the group is there is to help pull you out and focus on.

Michael Blake:
Are there certain kinds of questions or challenges that you found a group like this is not particularly adept at addressing?

Marc Borrelli:
I would say the hardest thing with a bunch of CEOs, and this is reflective, again, of being CEOs is you have to train them to go through their probing questions. They’re all ready to jump in and tell you the answer. And it’s only through the questions we truly find the issue and think about what it is. So, the hardest thing when the group starts, and even you’ve got to keep reminding them, “Guys, this is not the time for solutions. We’re working on questions. Wait. Think about it.” And it’s that old adage that we all fall victim to, “When you ask a question. actually, listen to the answer. Don’t prepare your next question.”

Michael Blake:
It sounds like that age old Mars, Venus thing, right?

Michael Blake:
Yeah, absolutely.

Marc Borrelli:
You want to try to solve the problem, but, in fact, until you’ve asked enough questions, you don’t really know what the problem is.

Marc Borrelli:
Exactly.

Michael Blake:
Right.

Marc Borrelli:
Yeah. So, that in itself on that, some of your members may struggle with initially, and that is a skill that they develop.

Marc Borrelli:
Yes.

Michael Blake:
Right? Because if they carry that into their business life, that means they can then seek better and more input in a more honest and vulnerable way from their other resources. It could be their subordinates, their other officers board, and can be more effective in that way too, right? The sort of a sneaky little personality business skill that gets inculcated there.

Marc Borrelli:
Yeah. And hopefully, some of them do. But there are still a bunch who, “I’m the boss.” It reminds me of the classic scene when we’re talking about age things. It’s the Italian Job movie with Michael Caine, the original version. It came out the ’60s. And there’s a great line, and he says, “This job requires team effort, which means you all do exactly what I say.” And it’s breaking that and making them here.

Marc Borrelli:
The thing I found with CEOs, and I’m making a huge generalization, but most of them have one or two skills or both. They either invent something, or they’re great salesman, or they’re great salesmen and they invented it, which means they know their products, and they know their best customers. They have no idea what’s happening in the finances. HR is a mess. Legal doesn’t exist. I’m trying to arrange them to be slightly broad and understand these other parts, especially the HR side. It’s the most common areas motivating people, retaining, people, culture.

Marc Borrelli:
I heard a great line the other day, “Is you’re onboarding process more akin to waterboarding?” And I love that because I think we hire people, we don’t do anything, then we wonder why they leave. It’s this new environment. We’re talking about millennials.

Michael Blake:
We put you through our process. What’s the problem?

Marc Borrelli:
Right, exactly.

Michael Blake:
I mean, yeah, you got waterboarded, but I mean, it’s that sunny area, tropical weather, beach front property you can see.

Marc Borrelli:
Right.

Michael Blake:
Right. So, you mentioned that one of your groups is $1 to $8 million in revenue. And the other is $8 and above basically. I infer from that then, do you need to have a company with a million bucks of revenue to be involved in a Vistage group, or is that just sort of where you’ve carved out your delineations?

Marc Borrelli:
No, you don’t need to be a million bucks and above. But I do find the companies under a million bucks find the financial commitment and the time commitment very hard. Now, the companies that do come in under a million bucks are, usually, professional groups like lawyers, accountants, maybe some engineers, architects, but because they’re more — and I’m not knocking saying the others aren’t professional, but they had that structure, and they have a lot of systems in place.

Marc Borrelli:
But under a million bucks, even my group that’s a million to eight, what I refer them to is my entrepreneurial group or entrepreneurial management group. And what I mean is all spokes feed into the center. And then, my larger group has more of a professional management where they have various functions under them, and the CEO is truly being a CEO. And those where the CEO has everybody feed into them, they’re very distracted, they’re very hard to focus. And, again, companies under a million, the CEO is just getting yanked. They don’t show up for most the meetings. They’re always about the numbers. They’ll sell anything and promise anything. I mean, they’re the people who need it the most, but most can’t commit to it.

Michael Blake:
Probably because they’re so and probably necessarily involved in the tactical-

Marc Borrelli:
Correct.

Michael Blake:
… that they just don’t have the bandwidth to address the strategic.

Marc Borrelli:
Exactly.

Michael Blake:
Right?

Marc Borrelli:
Yeah.

Michael Blake:
Yeah. You don’t think about, “How I’m going to put in a new sprinkler system?” when there’s a four-alarm fire right in front of you, I guess.

Marc Borrelli:
Right.

Michael Blake:
So, let’s say there’s a listener now that that is listening to this thing, “I merely thought about this, but I think I’d like to learn more,” is there a system or a path where somebody can perform due diligence on a peer group before making that commitment? It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that sells itself, well, kind of shrink-wrapped and off the shelf, right? It sounds like it’s got to be the right fit. So, how can a business owner figure out if a group is right for them without sort of making the big upfront commitment?

Marc Borrelli:
Well, I think, first of all, every group is different. So, there’s no standard. But what I do with my potential members, if I meet somebody that’s interested, I’ll say, “Okay.” First of all, I meet with them, learn about their business tone, learn about Vistage. At the end of that meeting, if I think they’d be a good member, then I say, “Okay. We need another meeting. You cannot sign up today. I’m not selling you anything.”

Marc Borrelli:
I then, go back, and we have a much longer meeting, probe more deeply, and there are questions I want to find out about their caring side, how much they’re willing to try new things. I always ask them. “When was the last time you did something new for the first time?” If you’re not learning and pushing yourself, you’re probably not a good fit.

Marc Borrelli:
If they get through that meeting, then I say to them, “Look, I’m interested. I think you’d be a good member. Now, you have to come and meet the group. While they’re not the final authority, they have a huge input into whether or not you come into this group. And because you have to fit with them, and (A), they have to like you, but (B), you also have to like them.”.

Marc Borrelli:
So, I usually get them to come to a meeting, and they sit through a meeting. And at the end of the meeting, I’m like, “Okay, you can wait, and I’ll ask the group if they want you. And then if they say you’re in, and you decide you want in, then you’re in. And if you’re not, go away and enjoy your life.”

Michael Blake:
Okay.

Marc Borrelli:
And I usually find it helpful too, if they come to a meeting to have the present an issue. I’m like, “Really come with an issue. Present it, and get feedback, and learn new things.”

Michael Blake:
Okay. Now there are probably people out there that have maybe tried a peer group like this in some fashion that, for whatever reason, didn’t work out. Maybe they weren’t emotionally ready to handle it, maybe the company wasn’t mature enough, whatever, or just life happens. Is it possibly worth them circling back and revisiting the issue? Maybe the second time around will be different.

Marc Borrelli:
I think so. I think the best way I can describe it is groups like ours are necessary but not urgent. And so, people put them off or say, “Well, I didn’t have the time.” I think if you put the time and the effort, you will find the reward huge. And it’s like having a gym membership. You got to go, and you got to work hard to make it worthwhile; otherwise, it’s not.

Marc Borrelli:
What happens is people sign up, but they’re passive members, and they don’t get anything out of it. So, if you truly want to be a leader, there are competitors out there all the time. Everybody’s challenging your business. If you want to stay ahead of the crowd, a group like this will help you, but you’ve got to put in the effort and the time.

Michael Blake:
Is there any kind of success story that comes to mind, someone that’s been in one of your Vistage groups, and they’re just a great example of somebody that’s been helped in a clear fantastic way?

Marc Borrelli:
There are quite a few. I think, I look at one gentleman who’s in my Vistage group. He was in a different type of peer group, but he came to Vistage because he wanted a strict facilitator. He said, “We used to meet, but it had no direction.” And he’s basically got to the point. He says, “In seven years, I don’t want to work anymore. That doesn’t mean I’ve sold my business. It just means I don’t want to work. And I’m putting in place all the steps.” So, we met recently, he’s got a COO, he’s got a CFO, he’s putting on an ERP system. His business is growing 30% a year. And his goal is that in seven years, he will not work, but the money will keep coming in. To me, that is a great success story.

Marc Borrelli:
There’s another guy I know who wasn’t in one of my groups but a Vistage member. And he brought in a present, and he said to me, “I have a house out in the country. I’m in my house, country house, Monday through Thursday. I come into Atlanta on Fridays. Meet with the president of my company, figure out what the issues are that we need to discuss, if any. And then, I spend the weekend socializing with my wife and friends. And on Monday morning, I go back to the country and do the stuff I like on my farm.” And he said I make more money now than I ever made before. He sold his private equity group recently and did incredibly well.

Marc Borrelli:
So, I think, yes. I think there’s definitely help there, and people have had great things. There are other people in my group who’d tell you they’ve got more out of this, and it’s saved them more, and helped them more than they can ever imagined.

Michael Blake:
Well, very good. I think you’ve made a very compelling case for why one would consider joining a group like this. How can people contact you to learn more about this?

Marc Borrelli:
The easiest is to reach out to me, [email protected], which I know is a lot.

Michael Blake:
Two Rs, two Ls.

Marc Borrelli:
Correct.

Michael Blake:
I have to remind myself of that.

Marc Borrelli:
Yeah, or you just go to marcborrelli.com. And there’s information on how to set up a meeting with me. I’d love to meet anybody. If you don’t feel it’s not a fit after we’ve talked, that is perfectly okay. I only want people who are willing to come in and work hard.

Michael Blake:
Okay. Well, very good, Marc. Thanks for joining us. That’s going to wrap it up for today’s program. I’d like to thank Marc Borrelli so much for joining us and sharing his experience with us.

Michael Blake:
We’ll be exploring a new topic each week. So, please tune in, so that when you’re faced with your next business decision, you have clear vision when making it. If you enjoy this podcast, please consider leaving a review with your favorite podcast aggregator. It helps people find us, so that we can help them. Once again this is Mike Blake. Our sponsor is Brady Ware & Company. And this has been the Decision Vision Podcast.

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