For many, the idea of being an outsider carries negative connotation, implying rejection and loneliness. For David Belden, however, it’s sacred. James Dean, a childhood idol of his, is famous for saying, “Include me out.” Bob Dylan, another hero, said, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher and World War II prisoner, set himself apart from everyday life to examine and unlock some of its most profound details. “They were all outsiders, taking the time and space to look at their society and cultural norms from a distance,” David says. Now the founder of ExecuVision International, David serves clients as a “Professional Outsider,” using the insights of a broad and reflective external vantage point to help people step outside of their organizations and see them with new eyes.
ExecuVision is a facilitation and coaching business that has served over two hundred companies since its inception in 1998. Depending on the unique needs of the client, David will handle the case solo, or call upon partners with other areas of expertise. Many of his clients have been family-owned businesses, which he says brings an extra layer of complexity, often prioritizing loyalty over success.
His certification in Imago Relationship Therapy comes particularly in handy in these instances. “The Imago approach is about getting people into a conversation where they talk directly with each other about what they’re really seeing, feeling, and experiencing,” he explains. “Each party works through how much of the conflict is them, and how much of it is the other person. The role of the facilitator is simply to guide the conversation. The focus is on how things land, rather than who’s at fault. Whether I’m working with family business partners, or executives who don’t trust each other, I see tremendous success borne from getting things out in the open and investigating their origin.”
David’s approach usually begins with an analysis of who’s in the room, including their motivations and strengths. ExecuVision uses the Core Values Index assessment to reveal a person’s innate preference for a certain type of work. This leads to a better understanding of how each person can be engaged to contribute at his or her highest level of ability. Then, he examines the communication patterns within an organization, implementing systems to provide a feedback loop. Once an organization has a common vocabulary for the challenging conversations they need to have, actually having the conversation becomes much easier.
These considerations pave the way for replacing a “culture by default” with a “culture by design.” “The culture of an organization isn’t about a plaque on the wall with the company’s mission statement,” he says. “It’s about how people treat each other, day in and day out. The key to an intentional culture is the daily behaviors of the people involved. Those behaviors must confirm the values the organization claims to have.”
At its heart, his approach is exploratory, more interested in uncovering the root causes of malfunctions than finding solutions to superficial symptoms of discord. It takes an openness and acceptance of the shadows of life that isn’t come by painlessly. He can still remember the day when, at 42, he experienced first-hand the Imposter Syndrome.
After working in several other countries, David had been asked by his French employer to take a position at the company’s head office. When he walked into his new corner office in their grand tower in Paris, he suddenly had the distinct feeling that the next person who walked through the door would know he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. “I felt paralyzed by fear that someone was going to figure out I was just pretending to be ready,” he remembers. “I felt that I hadn’t done anything to deserve this. I was sweating and racked with heart palpitations—classic signs of a panic attack. But then it struck me that nobody has all the answers, and that none of us really know what we’re doing—if we did, life would be totally predictable, and it’s far from that. The reality is that none of us know for sure what really needs to be done. We’re figuring it out along the way, and that’s what makes life exciting.”
David inherited this critical, self-aware, restless pursuit of understanding from his parents, who were incredibly hardworking. His father was one of twelve children growing up in a tenant farming family. He spent a year in prison for refusing to go to war and then became an impassioned civil liberties attorney, fighting for social justice for the impoverished. His mother, a dedicated educator, invested her whole heart and energy into her work as well. As far back as the 1950s, she was teaching high school students about contraception and encouraging them to get educated before starting a family. She later co-founded a community college and worked to change child protection legislation. Both his parents loved their work, and expected the same of their children. “Their only expectation of my four sisters and I was that we save the world,” David laughs.
David was raised in a small town in Oregon, where few things were valued more than work and study. “We had a large family, and both my parents worked, so the children were responsible for cleaning the house, cooking dinner, washing clothes, and doing chores,” he says. “The summer I was five, we lived in a migrant labor camp, where my father was working as a supervisor. I remember picking berries, beans, and crops in the fields alongside the migrants. That was where my family was, and it was expected that I would contribute. Work was an integral part of what we did—there was no separation between work life and family life. That has extended to my professional life today, and the way it’s an integral fabric to who am I as a person.”
Another early experience that would profoundly affect the gait of his professional step came when he was eight years old. David woke up to an empty house. The large, old dwelling had two pantries, and on that morning, he decided to take it upon himself to clean one of them. “I took everything out, wiped it all down, and washed the walls,” he remembers. “My memory tells me I spent the entire day doing it, and when my parents came home, I couldn’t wait to show them. My mother praised my initiative effusively, but, typical of my father, he said, ‘If you had just cleaned the other one too, that really would have been something.’ That became a defining moment for me. Most of my life, it has felt like, no matter how much I do, I need to do a little bit more. I’ve found that’s a common trait among successful people—the feeling that you can always do more.”
David’s parents had always told him that he just needed to get through the monotony of high school, and he’d love the academic life of college. But when he graduated at age 17 and began classes at the University of Oregon Honors College, he was sorely disappointed. “I was expecting deep intellectual discussions, philosophical questions, and time to ponder,” he says. “It wasn’t like that at all. I lasted two terms and then heard Timothy Leary speak, whose tagline was, ‘Tune in, turn on, drop out.’ To an eighteen-year-old, that sounded like good advice, so I dropped out of college and leapt into the turbulent social and political currents of the day.”
David engaged with the 1960s in all their glory—joining the Civil Rights movement, engaging the Vietnam War controversy, and working with a migrant labor group his eighteenth summer to help establish schools and education programs for the children. Later that year, he decided he would become a citizen of the world, traveling to Europe to write the next great American novel in the spirit of Hemingway and Steinbeck. He celebrated his nineteenth birthday in Canada on his way to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he would live for the next 24 years.
Embracing the life of an immigrant, David began washing dishes in the kitchen of a hotel for 85 cents an hour as he set about learning the Danish language and culture. Showing a penchant for organization and leadership, he was soon put in charge of coordinating the kitchen schedules, and then promoted to manager. “I never intended to be a businessman,” David remarks. “I had always thought my career lay in academia. So when I naturally gravitated toward this career path and found myself starting to ascend in the business world, I spent a lot of time philosophizing on why it was interesting to me, why it works, and why I’m good at it.”
After working in the hotel for three years, he was offered a job as a stock clerk at a small import-export company. He learned on the job by day and attended business school classes at night. He studied language and business, soon earning a promotion to Supplies Manager. Then, at age 25, he was hired as the Export Manager for a well-established Danish company, and was honored to be their first foreign employee. A year later, he was elected to the Board of Directors by his colleagues. “It was all a tremendous learning experience, as I didn’t know anything about business,” he says. “I read books and paid attention, and the lessons worked.” He was then hired by a large family-owned engineering company that exported propane gas and supplies to 108 countries, each with its own trade regulations, consular invoices, and letters of credit. David had a mind for international trade, quickly learning to manage successful exchanges even with unstable countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Colombia.
His extensive work experience with international businesses drew the attention of a French company specializing in international trade facilitation—the inspection of goods exported to the developing world, ensuring that the right goods were shipped for a fair market value. They asked David to set up operations for them in Scandinavia to service their 38 clients, named by the World Bank as the most corrupt countries in the world. After that operation was successfully up and running, he was sent to establish new locations or assist floundering operations all over the world, leading to a host of adventures not for the faint of heart. “I was kidnapped in Nigeria and caught in crossfire in Pakistan,” he recounts. “But overall, I loved getting to explore the world and learn so many different languages and cultures. Living in Taiwan was definitely a highlight—a country with only 20 million people, and yet the twelfth largest trading nation in the world. It was amazing to see how they do things firsthand.”
By the time David moved back to the U.S. in 1996, he was thirty years wiser, and had the life experience to show for it. He had lived the life of a Dane—earning dual citizenship, assimilating that culture’s proclivity for logical thinking and long-term sustainability, starting a family, and even winning election to the school board in his son’s district.
What’s more, David had studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Copenhagen. He wrote and defended a thesis in Danish of the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. He studied Mandarin in Taiwan, German in Hamburg, and French in Paris. He lived in six different countries and worked in another twenty, using his status as an outsider to study business in a variety of contexts. “What I found was that there’s a commonality in motivation for people,” he explains. “The world is full of different cultures and different ways of approaching business, but there’s a common denominator of motivation for all people that I’ve found in every society I’ve worked in, and it’s this: everyone wants to make a contribution at their highest level of ability. Once I realized this, it became my mission, vision, and purpose in life to help people create organizations where every single employee is contributing at his or her highest level of ability.”
David was recruited by a Swiss competitor of the French company he had started with. He was charged with turning around the worst performing unit of the enterprise’s sixty operations. Within two years, he had transformed worst into best. “I had done five startups and three large-scale turnarounds by that point,” he says. “The secret to any turnaround is simply identifying with the people involved what’s going wrong. Ask people, what kind of an organization do you want? Then you decide together how to accomplish it, set everyone’s sights on the future, and stay out of the way as they march forward.”
David led the employees in achieving the team-based work environment they envisioned for themselves, establishing eight task forces to address specific areas of concern. The leader of each task force was chosen by a vote, and David modeled the approach after lessons imparted by his son—an elite Green Beret Operative in the U.S. Army and a member of the Commander’s In-Extremis Force. “I’ve learned from him and my own experience to create Green Beret teams in companies to handle the chaotic situations in a targeted fashion, separate from the standard operating procedure of the regular Army forces,” he says. “My son’s team of only thirty people, for instance, succeeded in capturing and killing the top 200 Al Qaeda leaders, changing the entire course of the Iraq War. On a much less dramatic scale, I train teams to enact operations in an organization that change the entire course of a business.”
Vistage International is a CEO peer group and leadership organization providing a supportive and constructive environment for CEOs to explore challenges and pursue personal growth. David became a member of a local group while struggling with a turnaround. “In the turnaround situation, I couldn’t talk openly with anyone involved,” David explains. “Vistage provided a forum to explore ideas with people who had no vested interest in the outcome. It was an amazing experience. When I completed the turnaround, Vistage asked if I would be interested in becoming a Chair—a facilitator of my own group of CEOs. I’ve been doing that now for 16 years, and still find it both stimulating and rewarding.”
Around the same time, he was asked by another company to help develop their executive team on a long-term basis, leading David to launch ExecuVision International as a platform to realize his calling to design innovative, forward-thinking businesses that allow each employee to achieve their full potential.
Amidst these ventures, David spends time with the younger generation joining the workforce and sees that same eagerness to contribute at their highest ability. “It seems to me that young people today are seeking adult supervision—not parental supervision, but guidance from other adults,” he observes. “I mentor several younger people, and many of my Vistage members mentor each other’s children. We all find it very satisfying.” He is also a certified Imago Relationship Therapist, basing his practice on the work of Harville Hendricks. “I frequently mediate disputes between executives, which are very similar to the issues couples have,” David says. “The training in couples therapy has been a great asset.”
Much like Jean-Paul Sartre, who rejected the Nobel Peace Prize because he didn’t value official honors and declared, “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution,” the honors and awards David’s received don’t hold much interest for him. “What means something to me is people benefitting from a conversation,” he remarks. “When one of my Vistage members is having a hard time with something, and I know they feel better by the end of a conversation, those are the victories.” Those victories extend far beyond the immediate experience of that person to transform family dynamics and community engagement.
And, David would argue, they reach even further. ”It occurred to me at some point in my career that if we are to solve the multitude of problems facing the world, it will be through increasing exchange amongst all peoples,” he says. “The path to international peace is through commerce. Savvy business people seldom see an advantage in killing their best customers. The internet has given us incredible access to people and the world. If we can move past issues of petty greed and short-sightedness, promote crowdfunding, and embrace the Conscious Capitalist movement, we can benefit everyone while remaining profitable and promoting the common good.”
In many ways, David’s story demonstrates how externally leading an organization begins with an internal focus of one’s immediate mindset to examine the approach and perception from new vantage points. It begins with creating a good process, and then communicating with people to inspire, motivate, and help them achieve what they want to achieve—which, in many cases, isn’t readily apparent. “Amazingly, very few people know what they want to do in life,” he points out. “Many don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing or where they want to go. To me, leadership is helping people identify that. I think everyone is looking for a way to tell their truth. That’s what I’m listening for. That’s what I step outside to see.”