Leadership Competencies

CEO groups: 4 benefits of being part of a community of CEOs

I grew up in the family business that began in 1940 when my grandfather bought a children’s clothing store in downtown Harrisburg. By 1993, my father had transformed this small retail shop into Dance Distributors, a catalog company with revenues topping $3 million. That spring, my father called to say he felt overwhelmed and asked if I wanted to return to the family business. After a summer of discussions, I decided to return to Harrisburg and partner with him.  

When I came back, Dance Distributors was still operating out of the same 15,000-square-foot, 2.5-story retail space my grandfather bought in 1940. Two years later, this space was becoming untenable for our growing pick-and-pack operation. We purchased a 70,000-square-foot warehouse that allowed for expansion and we made plans for the move. 

At one point during a hectic moving day, I realized I hadn’t seen much of my father. I asked one of our longtime employees where he was. She said, “I think he is outside, Mark.” That’s where I found him, crying. In that moment, it struck me why he was crying. Growing up, I had three siblings—two sisters and the business. And he loved all his children equally, including the business which had always been housed in this store-front turned warehouse. The move was an end of an era for one of those children.


Breaking the isolation

My dad epitomized the owner mentality and a founder’s love. It’s hard to understand this passion, sharp sense of purpose, and motivation, unless you’ve started your own company. In many ways, my dad was his own island. He kept so much close to the vest. It was rare for him to show emotion and even rarer to say to others, “I need help.”

When my father retired in 1996, I took over as CEO and sole owner. From then until I sold the company, I sometimes experienced a similar sense of isolation as my father did, especially when it came time to make critical decisions.

I learned a great deal from my dad, but there was one thing I needed to unlearn: Never asking others for help. 

These experiences as a CEO led me to working with and guiding other owners facing similar challenges. That is why, after selling the business in 2007, I became an executive coach and family business advisor. It is my privilege to work with a diverse group of owners and CEOs, helping them achieve their version of success.

My path to Vistage

Even while working as a coach and advisor, one thing about my time leading Dance Distributors would often rise to the forefront of my mind. After my father retired, someone called me to ask if I was interested in joining a Vistage peer advisory group. With the perspective of time, I wish the caller had encouraged me to sit down with him to learn about the Vistage model, or that I had taken the initiative to look into the value others received from being part of a Vistage peer advisory group.

Had I joined his Vistage group, I believe that I would have had more fun leading Dance Distributors, held onto it longer, and built up the value of the company before selling.

Now that I was coaching other owners, CEOs and family businesses, I felt I needed to look into Vistage to see if its peer advisory group model could provide those same benefits and value to my clients.

The more I researched Vistage, the more I realized the power of the peer advisory model. This research included talking to CEO and owner members who told me how instrumental Vistage was for growing their companies and improving their leadership skills. Further research confirmed what these CEOs and owners were saying.

An analysis of growth data revealed that companies who joined Vistage grew 2.2x faster than other companies. The most telling piece of information I found was that, on average, Vistage members remain with their peer advisory group for six to seven years.

What CEO or business owner would continue anything for that long if it wasn’t working for them?

As a result of what I found, I decided to take my coaching practice a step further by partnering with Vistage to form my own peer advisory group.


The power of a community of peers

When CEOs and owners of small businesses from non-competing industries join together and support one another in a Vistage peer advisory group the results are incredibly powerful. We become a community which builds each other up to be better leaders, make better decisions, and achieve better results for our companies and our lives.

If you are like I was when leading my family business, feeling isolated or wondering if you and your business will ever reach those elusive goals, here are four reasons why a peer advisory group might be the answer.

1. Encourage renewed curiosity and openness

Sure, the most successful people want to know things, but they also know the second part—openness—is also critical. They are open to receiving new information, new ways of doing things, and new perspectives. Not all ideas are going to see the light of day, but a peer advisory group provides a feedback loop for hearing others’ viewpoints, thus new ways to improve.

2. Create a foundation for the company you envision

As owners, we are accountable only to ourselves. Having an accountability group motivates and energizes you to meet your long-term goals such as an exit strategy or building a fundamental piece of your legacy. Regular meetings and check-ins with a group of people who care about your success just as much as their own adds firepower to ensure your dreams don’t fade away.

3. Clear away operational roadblocks

It’s easy to get stuck in the morass of everyday tasks. Where in your busy schedule do you find the time to plan how to make new ideas work while maintaining profitability? That’s when you can rely on the time with your group to pull you out of the day-to-day habit of working in your business to focus on what’s important for you and the future of your company.

4. Protection from isolation

When it comes time to make critical decisions, there is some information you cannot share with your staff. And, while you should and do rely on your trusted advisors, there may be times when they can’t fully grasp the complexities of managing a business that is not a professional firm like theirs. This often leads to owners feeling isolated; what I call “lonely-at-the-top syndrome.” The cure for this syndrome is to become part of a tight group of CEOs and owners who can connect through shared experiences.

Are you ready to be part of a community of CEOs and owners? The fact we have run successful companies indicates the amazing things we have already accomplished. By coming together as a community, we can transform the amazing into the extraordinary.


Category: Leadership Competencies

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About the Author: Mark Sussman

Mark Sussman’s own experience leading his family’s company inspires him to provide motivation, perspective and achievement for other leaders as an executive coach, family business advisor and Vistage Chair.

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