Vistage gives Valley CEOs a venue to vet business decisions

zkyle@idahostatesman.comMarch 19, 2014 

  • More about Vistage

    Vistage Idaho's first CEO program includes leaders from Delta Dental, College of Western Idaho, Idaho Statesman, Gross Family Farms, Valmark, MetaGeeks, Data Projections, Cougar Mountain Software, Idaho Wine Merchants, Idaho Youth Ranch, T-Sheets and ArmgaSys.

The CEO office can be a lonely place. Employees depend on their company leaders to be strong, confident and unwavering. But CEOs might have doubts about a business plan. They might harbor half-baked ideas, but they aren't about to sit down in a manager's office and say, "This might sound crazy, but listen to this …"

Yet those are exactly the kinds of ideas heard by members of Vistage, a group for CEOs and other business leaders looking for a sounding board away from their companies.

Vistage has more than 17,000 members in 1,874 cities around the world. David Spann helped launch Boise's first Vistage CEO group in November 2010. It now has 15 members, each running a multimillion-dollar operation in the Treasure Valley.

Groups are limited to 16 members. A second CEO group started last summer and now has eight members. A Key Executive Program group also started last year and now has 10 chief financial officers, chief operations officers and general managers.

Members meet monthly. Spann holds court as members present information about their companies - often opening their financial books - to field suggestions or vet business plans.

Spann, who grew up in a Washington D.C. suburb, followed his childhood dream and became a district ranger in the Payette National Forest in 1989. He says the job became less about land management and more about politics. He left to start a Salt Lake City business consulting agency in 2001 called Agile Adaptive Management. Tired of travel, Spann moved to Boise in 2008 and now focuses on Vistage, whose members he visits for 90-minute one-on-one coaching sessions once a month as part of the membership they pay for. He's still president of Agile but contracted consultants handle most assignments.

Spann, 55, lives on Warm Springs Mesa in Boise, enjoys Harley-Davidson motorcycles and mountain hiking, and is engaged.

Q: What are some of the industries represented in your Vistage groups?

A: High tech has several members. Manufacturing, academic, insurance, agriculture, nonprofit, engineering, retail. All are Treasure Valley organizations. We can't have competitors at the same table. That's why you get the diversity of sectors.

Q: What's the range of company sizes?

A: We have 10 employees on the low end and 1,300 on the high end. Typically, Vistage CEO groups want to be at $5 million [annual revenues] or greater.

Q: What does membership cost?

A: The CEO program is the most expensive. I tell people investment in the CEO as an asset needs to be valuable enough to where if membership helps them make one or two really important decisions that move the company, then it's worth paying about $15,000 a year. If we're not even in that conversation - if the company is too small, it's too tactical, if the CEO is too invested in the day-to-day operation - then Vistage isn't right for them anyway.

Q: How does Vistage provide a peer group in ways that leaders don't have within their own companies?

A: Imagine any CEO that has a board of directors or even an executive team. They have strategic thoughts that they are considering but won't speak out loud until they are tested. At a Vistage table, you can test those ideas. You can say, "Am I crazy? If you were sitting in my position, what would you do?" Where else can you have those conversations? You might have it over a beer, but you don't want anybody else in your company sitting down and talking about it.

Q: What is the confidentiality policy, and why is it necessary?

A: Take the 'Am I crazy?' example. If a name went with that, even in this article, confidentiality is lost. The group can't even have a conversation. It's gone. To build trust, confidentiality has to be the underpinning of everything we do.

Q: I can see how opening a company's financial books could make a CEO feel a little naked. What are the feelings that come with that, and also some of the positives that can come from being vulnerable in that way to a group?

A: My groups only display financials or anything else per their agreement. The conundrum is, as a leader, they want to be perfect. As leaders, they also know they are not. They have to give data about both in order for the group to best assist them. It's not what we normally do as leaders. We normally protect everything.

Q: What's the selection process?

A: It starts with a nomination, which comes from either me or from another member. We take people who we know. I then interview them. ... Typically, people then like to have a conversation from the other members to ask what it's like. If they are still interested, for the third step, we go into a deep dive - the financial status of the company. Because we don't take companies that are decaying or going into bankruptcy. We take "green and growing" companies. Then we're looking at the behavioral construct of the CEO. ... We want people who can both give advice and receive it.

Q: How formal are these meetings?

A: Let's see. What do I have on? Khakis, short sleeve shirt, loafers. You can come in a T-shirt. It's very informal. We have some things that are formalized in terms of, if you bring a topic, we are going to process it in a certain way.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, Twitter @IDS_zachkyle

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