I got a call this weekend from a Fortune 100 CEO, former client and friend Jack, who was just returning from a mega CEO gathering at Bill Gates’ home in Redmond, Washington. Among the CEOs attending this year’s summit were Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bill Green of Accenture, Jim Sinegal of Costco, and Meg Whitman of HP. According to Jack, the CEOs attending represented collectively $3 trillion dollars in revenue and over 11 million employees.
This year’s meeting featured no outside speakers. Instead, small panels of the CEOs were addressing the others, speaking on topics that included growth, dealing with emerging markets, competition and environmental issues, and coping with adversity. After a few minute of listening to Jack talk about the meetings, I asked what he got out of them in terms of a takeaway.
He reflected back on two of the CEO sessions he attended, one with Bill Gates and the other with Jeff Bezos of Amazon. There was a question asked of them to the effect of what was the secret of their brilliant strategic coups and extraordinary success. Jack, who had been a client for many years, was struck by the fact that they both said the same thing.
“Robert,” he said, “it was fascinating that both CEOs said the same thing,” which was to make sure they had the time to step back from the incredible number of demands coming at them. Both said they took a couple of days each year with a good book or two, with the idea of reflecting on the big trends, their company’s place on the business landscape, and connecting the dots.
It was this kind of personal “offsite” that led Gates to drop out of the CEO role and start the Microsoft foundation based on the principle that all lives have equal value. It was this kind of offsite that led Bezos to come up with the idea of the Kindle.
Jack confessed, “You know Robert, I am involved in so many board issues, deals, and operational issues that it has been years since I have done anything like that.” He then went on to tell me that the last time he did was when he was doing executive coaching with me a few years back. He would come to my house in Boston and as Buddhists say, “sit” with me for a day in what he termed the “Club Room,” which he confessed was one of his “favorite rooms in the world.”
Time in the Club Room
We would catch up, swap tribal knowledge and war stories, and enjoy a few laughs. While these one-to-one coaching tete a tetes didn’t have the panache of sitting in Bill Gates’ house with a large group of CEOs, they provided equally fresh perspectives, as I am always reading about big ideas on the forefront of business, leadership, technology and so on that CEOs often don’t have the hours in the day to do so. I also seem to have a knack for asking questions that others may not ask, as well as get people to look at things from angles not looked at before. I found that this can often lead to finding some of the missing pieces of the puzzle.
After a lunch (which included the three basic food groups: steak, scotch and cigars), Jack and I would engage in “conversation for possibilities” initiated by some provocative questions: “Who do you want to be as a leader?” He told me in one of these sessions that he would like to be CEO and transform the company. “What would be an impossible future for your company?” This led to inspiring his organization with a greater goal that linked a higher purpose to high performance. “What is your greatest strategic opportunity based on what’s changing or already changed?” This led to a game changing product idea.
Eventually, People Open Their Kimono
At some point in these conversations, Jack would “open the kimono” and get down to the leadership or business challenges most on his mind. “I am having trouble with my boss, what should I do?” or “There are a few guys on my team that just don’t get it. Any advice?” What I liked about the sessions, Jeff told me, was the “coaching insights needed to take my leadership to the next level,” or when we would “take an idea from being a mere possibility to a realistic opportunity that could in fact be executed.”
I also encourage executives in my coaching sessions to develop introspective practices like reading autobiographies of great leaders and then reflecting on their managerial frames, journaling as they attempt to meet their leadership and business challenges, and even meditation and prayer in some cases. I further encourage executives to develop mastermind groups where can consult confidentially with people they trust about important decisions and have honest conversations about their challenges, dilemmas, mistakes, and disappointments.
Personal Offsites Can Happen in Many Places
The one-to-one offsites that I have done with various CEOs or executives have not just been limited to my study. I have held them at the Louvre in Paris while looking at paintings of Napoleon and Lord Nelson, on the ski slopes of Verbier in the French part of Switzerland, or the occasional golf outing to places like Saint Andrews.
One executive told me that his time spend in one of these offsites was the ultimate growth experience of his life. Jack and I ended the conversation by agreeing to resume our one-to-one offsites, starting next month.
How do you get your reflection time?