How You Learn. You Must Learn.

Only a third of CEOs will find this a valuable essay. The other two-thirds will agree with my assessment, but will find less value.

CEOs learn both before and after bad things happen. I’ve become an expert on both ways, though I prefer proactive instead of reactive learning. When I started my company, most learning came from on-the-job training. In other words, reactive learning, solving problems when they sprung up instead of anticipating, shifting and building to prevent problems. In searching for proactive learning, I spoke to other CEOs, but the conversations were surface level. I knew it and they knew it. “Yes, I have issues, but everything is under control. No need to look under the hood.”

For seven years, I excelled in reactive learning. Body blow after body blow. I knew the basics of business, but was continually being slammed by events. I survived and learned. I reacted. There had to be a better way.

On a particularly tough morning, I was looking through my inbox and saw a postcard with the question, “Is there a problem you are facing and nobody to talk to?” At that time, I was struggling with my poor management of an exceptional Vice President. The talent of my most experienced senior executive was being wasted and I feared he might quit. So, I called the number on the postcard and spoke to someone who told me there was a better way to learn, a more proactive way. I should consider sitting in a room with other CEOs, brainstorming a wide variety issues and opportunities, not just your own, but everyone’s. Instead of learning when events slam me, I could learn from a dozen other CEOs who are facing tough issues and lucrative opportunities.

The theory was that if a group of CEOs have the courage to admit they don’t know everything and brainstorm solutions for issues and opportunities, every CEO in the room will learn in a proactive manner, not just reactive. Each CEO gets a team of coaches. One coach is great, but a team of coaches is better. Add to that an experienced leader of the group and you have a proven recipe for success.

Back to my original premise, a third of CEOs will find this a valuable essay and two-thirds will agree with my assessment, but will find less value. Over the past 40 years, I have had in depth conversations with over a 1,000 CEOs. One-third of them are open to learning in a group setting. Two-thirds of them prefer to learn in other ways. I found Vistage Worldwide, Inc. in 1991 when I read that postcard. I found out that I thrive in group learning. I went from understanding the basics of business, to a deep understanding of both the science and art of business. I went from reactive learning to proactive learning.

My recommendation… figure out how you learn. If group learning works, find Vistage. If group learning is not for you, that’s OK too, just never stop learning


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