Vistage International is a chief executive membership organization–a sort of think-tank for CEOs. As a Vistage chair, I facilitate three chief executive peer advisory groups for the purpose of helping the participants to become better leaders, make better decisions and produce better results. We meet in a confidential setting without any competitors in the room. This creates an environment in which everyone is free to be honest and in return receive unvarnished advice and insight from peers to a degree they simply couldn’t get anywhere else. The level of raw honesty and the connectedness that result from that kind of interaction is extraordinary.

Through Vistage, I became involved with Executive Leaders Radio and happily accepted their request to be a show host. On the show each week I have a very personal conversation with business owners, presidents and C-level executives, just as I do during a Vistage meeting. Through these interviews, listeners get to know a person in a way they wouldn’t ordinarily get to know them through a typical radio interview. We are more interested in the person behind the position and their trajectory across time. What was going on early in their life or career that influenced and shaped who they are? What set into motion a series of events that clearly indicate a connectedness across time to where they are today? That’s a hell of a story to discover in just 12 minutes. You can’t hear that story and not be emotionally impacted.

Having associated with a number of small business owners for the past seven years–four of which have been during the most difficult economic period of my adult life–I believe the untold story is that of our country’s small business owner. I strive to draw their stories out in order to share what they have been doing not only keep businesses going, but to keep people employed. The stories are about more than conveying the heroics of these business owners. They are consistently about the triumph of spirit over circumstance because many these individuals have come from, or have been toiling through, very challenging conditions.

Two Cs of Leadership

I was once a business owner. I was a start-up guy who took a couple of early-stage concepts to maturity. This is where I learned the “competency” side of being a leader–the tactics, processes and functionality. Competency is certainly necessary, but it turns out there is an even more important component of leadership and that is “consciousness.” Consciousness is what is going on internally–the individual’s personal operating software–that we may not even be aware is running. It is the habits of thinking, subconsciously, that shape how we perform in a certain context. For example, a person who grew up under difficult circumstances makes meaning out of that experience which shows up in the way they lead. For some, it empowers them, and for others, it inhibits them.

As a coach, I work to help surface those habits of thinking. Through our conversations these individuals begin to take a new look at how think and they ask themselves, “Is what got me here going to get me there?”

Certainly every leader needs to develop a skill-set in order to execute appropriately and arrive at a certain level of success. However, a leader must grow their mind in order to handle increasing complexity and to achieve at the next level. That growth of mind is “consciousness”–seeing things differently in order to handle growth and a continuum of success more effectively.

A Trajectory of Success

Typically individuals enter into adulthood with a success strategy. Imagine a young man who grows up in a supportive environment, gets involved in athletics and turns out to be really good. He receives standing ovations for his accomplishments on the field or court and learns that in order to be worthwhile he must achieve. That is a healthy message that works for him to continue into adulthood with a determination to work hard and achieve. But then he works himself into a role where he must manage others. For the first time, he experiences a shift of consciousness. He discovers that it is no longer just about his achievements but the achievements of others that determine successful outcomes. “I need to value the efforts of others and start helping others to succeed because it’s not about me, it’s about us.” Such a significant shift can be very difficult for many people because it means they have to let go of strategies that had previously worked for them and find new strategies. Some people will struggle through this stage before accepting that “what got me here won’t get me there.”

Opening the door to a change of consciousness is different for each person. Everyone arrives to a point in life with a success strategy that worked for them. But somewhere along the path, the limits of that strategy will become evident and the strategy will need to evolve.

Mentoring – Consulting – Coaching

In my experience, most leaders have sought guidance along their trajectory of success in at least one of three ways.

Mentoring typically involves an individual with much more experience in a specific role helping another person develop their expertise. A mentor will serve as a sounding-board, provide guidance and help the mentee develop or improve particular skills. This is typically an informal and often long-lasting arrangement.

Consulting involves hiring a person for their specific subject matter expertise in order to improve a situation or context. Simply put, this is the purchase of someone’s knowledge.

Coaching is based on the belief that all the resources a person needs to succeed are internal to that person. The coach, through inquiry and conversation, pulls those resources to the surface and designs a set of actions that builds competency and confidence in a particular area. Coaching is not about supplying answers, but it does involve working on very personal issues.

Gordon Bernhardt and I share a mutual enthusiasm for people and discovering their stories. We are both fortunate to work in professional fields that allow us to regularly engage interesting and successful people throughout the Washington D.C. area. In sharing the details and personal perspectives regarding their failures, disappointments, successes and achievements, each of the leaders profiled in this book has a lesson from their life to teach us. No matter where you are on your trajectory of success, this is good reading.

Peter Schwartz
Vistage Chair, Vistage International
Host of Executive Leaders Radio

Peter Schwartz is a Vistage Chair working with chief executives and business owners who want to become better leaders, make better decisions, and produce better results. Vistage D.C. serves more than 300 businessmen and women from companies that generate $11 billion in annual revenues and employ more than 44,000 people. In 2011, Schwartz received Vistage International’s Chair Excellence Award for outstanding overall performance. As a Host of Executive Leaders Radio, he has conducted hundreds of elite interviews of prominent CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs and presidents focusing on “what makes people tick.”