Berlitz for the Boss

Where to go to pick up the tools for coping with the increasing pressures of being at the pinnacle.

December 1 2001 by Dale Buss


It’s not as if Lee Fisher has never been humbled: He was defeated in an election for governor of Ohio, and as head of one of the state’s largest human-services organizations, Fisher regularly feels the sting of high-profile criticism. But the president and CEO of Cleveland’s Center for Families and Children recently traveled all the way to Colorado for one of his most intense lessons in humility.

That’s where trainers at a CEO “crash course” blindfolded Fisher and three other class members. Then they were guided by four other classmates on a half-mile hike through the woods. Once they reached a clearing, the exercise in dependency and trust continued as the group of eight playacted the removal of a piece of “radioactive waste” using a ball, a bucket, and bungee cords, while Fisher and the three others remained blindfolded.

“I had no choice but to entirely let go and listen to others and trust them to perform the task,” says the 49-year-old Fisher. He experienced the outdoor role-playing and other revealing episodes while enrolled in Leadership at the Peak, a five-day program offered by the Center for Creative Leadership. “It gave me insight on what it’s like to be someone at the lower level of an organization who is being instructed to do something but isn’t always being told how to do it or the purpose behind it,” he says.

Immersion training for CEOs is popular these days; in some circles, it is de rigeur. Witness the buzz generated by a new outfit called the CEO Academy. Its first session in June 2001 was attended by high-profile chiefs including Conseco Inc.’s Gary Wendt and taught by luminaries such as Merck & Co.’s Raymond Gilmartin. Other forms of training packaged for CEOs are delivered in more conventional classroom settings. Leading business schools, executive-education start-ups, and other entities are all developing their own vehicles with a common aim: give CEOs, especially new ones, more tools for coping with the increasing pressures they face.

“In the past year to 14 months, the number of programs that have arisen to focus on leadership issues for the people at the top has really grown,” says Kevin Taylor, founder of ScheduleEarth Inc., a Ft. Lauderdale, FL-based firm that operates an executive-education Internet portal. “I’m seeing more CEOs willing to go outside what has been their comfort zone to take advantage of the programs.”

Some executive-education experts criticize the trend toward such training. “It’s a place to pick up some nuggets from people and do some networking. But is this going to change the landscape of CEO preparedness? Only if you also think that one day of lessons is going to change your tennis game,” says Noel Tichy, a University of Michigan professor and developer of executive programs for GE, Ford Motor, and others.

But executives like Richard Kendall are glad they participated. He put in the nine weeks during three years that are required to graduate from Harvard University’s Owner-President Management (OPM) program. “In retrospect, I appreciate the ability to energize, be exhilarated, and be inspired,” says the former CEO and now consultant to Global Financial Press, part of St. Ives PLC. Among the actions Kendall took after his graduation was an overhaul of Global Financial’s banking relationships.

Such glowing evaluations are typical because of the benefits CEOs derive from being in a group made up of only peers, instructors say. They often find that they learn more from dealing with fellow attendees in informal settings than from classroom work. “A lot of the issues CEOs have they don’t want to talk over with their boards because they want to appear that they’re on top of things. Talking to consultants about such issues isn’t the same thing as being in conversation with your peers,” says Jack Weber, an instructor in “Creating the Future: The Challenge of Transformational Leadership,” offered by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

However, colleague intermingling comes with some drawbacks. CEOs must be prepared for slings and arrows. Some courses even begin talking about the ability to handle criticism before CEOs arrive. Leadership at the Peak, for example, requires participants to have surveys filled out by people close to the CEO, such as board members and subordinates. It’s similar at the Darden School. “The CEO gets the chance to confront the reality of that data,” says Brandt Allen, associate dean. “A lot of them have to confront things that are pretty personal.”

Once the program is underway, honest peer evaluations are a big component. “The instructors urge you not to participate in a conspiracy of politeness where you focus so much on not hurting someone’s feelings that you don’t give them anything instructive,” says Fisher, about the Leadership at the Peak approach. “It’s safe because you don’t have to work with these people come Monday.”

Some executives find baring themselves productive. “The people who got the most out of it were those who were willing to roll ugly pieces of their history onto the table,” says Frank Martin, CEO of Martin-Harris Construction Co. in Las Vegas, and a recent American Management Association-course grad.

The CEOs who most value the training are those who graduated with a resolve to do something. Fisher left Leadership at the Peak with a plan that included delegating more of his detail work to others. He intends to write a summary of his experience and distribute it to staff. “If I don’t do that, soon it’ll be like the proverbial plan that sits on a shelf,” he admits.

With the proliferation of programs, CEOs now have enough options that deciding on a venue has become a complex decision. Choosing a course should start with an evaluation of goals. CEOs need to ask themselves: What do I want to get out of this? There are programs offering substantive help with the essentials of leading a company; others try to give participants new insights that can result from exposure to honest peer perspectives.

Others offer in-depth instruction on specific topics. The Credit Union National Association, for example, last year launched a four-day crash course in Sundance, UT, just for credit union CEOs. The Georgia Bankers Association has launched a CEO Academy for its members, who meet one day every other month during the year. Fuld & Co., a Cambridge, MA-based research company, offers an Academy of Competitive Intelligence that features “strategic war-gaming exercises” for CEOs.

Yet others tout the value of being exposed to chiefs from a variety of walks of life. “CEOs may know a lot about what their competitors are doing, but they come to realize that their peers are facing a set of shared circumstances around the world and across industries,” says Weber. A number of highly regarded institutions provide general leadership training specifically for CEOs, including the University of Virginia and the American Management Association. “Often, our students have seen that while they may be very good managers, they haven’t been giving the company a future and helping develop the alignment of a powerful, shared vision,” says Weber. “We know that that leadership can be developed.”

One of the biggest debates in the CEO-instruction industry is whether quickie courses or longer-term programs are more effective. The University of Virginia program, held at its executive-education residence, lasts only three and a half days, but Weber says the experience is “intense enough that [participants] begin to challenge some business-as-usual routines” and regularly arrive at “some rather profound changes in their thinking.”

Others insist that only training that occurs over the course of months and years provides lasting value. “Short programs aren’t long enough to help CEOs figure out how they think about their companies,” points out Dwight Crane, chairman of Harvard’s OPM program and a banking and finance professor. Harvard enrollees attend three-week sessions each summer for three consecutive years.

Ben Addoms took a crash course and found that “a one-week shot in the arm wasn’t going to be a solution. It was a great personal experience but failed to translate into the workplace.” So the co-founder and former CEO of Internet consumer-data company MatchLogic, and now managing partner of venture capital firm, Ibelay, in Boulder, CO, signed up for a program at the University of Denver’s Daniels School of Business that involved three in-resident periods of instruction over four months. “The most valuable aspect of it was getting coached and then trying to apply what you learned in the workplace and then coming back, reintegrating it, and reinforcing it over time,” Addoms says.

CEOs also have to consider how much time they can afford to be away from operations. Every program requires enrollees to focus on the task at hand rather than worrying about putting out fires back at headquarters. “Out of contact for three weeks seems like a long time, but in the overall scheme of building a business, it’s not,” explains Kendall, a 1999 OPM graduate. “If there’s a CEO who believes they can’t do that, then they need to revisit their strategy.”

Still, few of these courses, even the short ones, require absolute isolation. When he attended the Harvard OPM program, for example, Monster.com CEO Jeff Taylor did e-mail correspondence, and each year made himself available for a quarterly earnings conference call with Wall Street analysts. Taylor did curb the amount of contact he had with his company.

CEOs don’t get too emotional talking about the sessions, but it’s clear many of them take away more than just business. “They get more in touch with who they really want to be, which may have been lost along the way. For a lot of people it’s just welcome relief. It’s not therapy, but it sounds like it,” says the University of Virginia’s Jack Weber. And there are those inevitable reunions. Kendall’s group has met in the Dominican Republic, Switzerland, and Brazil. Next stop: Australia. “I have established extraordinarily powerful, long-lasting friendships” with other graduates, he says. He’s even planning a business venture with some of them.

In the Company of Peers
Laura Walker, 43
CEO, WNYC Radio (America’s largest public radio station), New York City
Training path: Leadership at the Peak,
Colorado Springs, CO
Provider: Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, NC
Cost: $8,900
Format: Five-day program to “give top executives a comfortable, secure environment in which to evaluate their leadership style and effectiveness, and focus on high-level challenges in the company of their peers.” Participants assess their abilities as leaders and benchmark themselves against others; build communication skills via simulated TV interviews, participate in hiring role-play; receive a fitness evaluation; and cover ethics, strategy and other topics.

Reason for attending: Walker came to WNYC to oversee the station’s transition to independent not-for-profit status after decades of ownership by New York City. After increasing WNYC’s membership by 50 percent and tripling its budget in four years, she was looking for a place to step back and ask, “What has this experience been about, and what should I be looking for in terms of organizational and leadership challenges?,” she says. A tip from the head of the Children’s Television Workshop, a former colleague, led her to “the Peak.”

Major revelation: Walker found she could use insights from the rest of her life in support of her business arguments. “As a woman and mother, I sometimes struggle with how much should I bring my personal life into interviews,” she says. “My classmates told me that I was very effective by doing some of that. I realized that if you do it in a way that creates the right balance, it can make you more of a complete person.”

Biggest takeaways: “It helped me understand and appreciate the difficulty of what we face as well as the need for celebration as we go forward,” she says. Walker also discovered she needed more exercise and bought another piece of workout equipment.

Effective Leadership
Jeff Taylor, 41
Founder and CEO, Monster.com (an online career Web site and unit of TMP Worldwide), Maynard, MA
Training path: Owner-President Management Program
Provider: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Cost: $16,750
Format: Three three-week annual sessions on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, MA. The goal is to teach CEOs to bemore effective leaders. Year one lays a foundation, exploring tools for leading an enterprise as well as developing a better understanding of CEO functions including managing people, money, operations, and control. Year two applies these tools and helps attendees focus on taking their companies to the next level. In year three, the focus is on developing management and achieving long-term company and personal goals. Taylor graduated in 1999 from OPM and was the commencement speaker.

Reason for attending: Taylor was an entrepreneurial wunderkind but a college dropout. Yet a Harvard professor told him he might be eligible for OPM. After he sold Monster.com to TMP in 1995, he got the OK to attend. “I would get to go to school full time for three weeks and then go back to work for a year,” he says. “That’s amazing, because in the traditional college experience, you learn stuff but you can’t apply it right away.”

Major revelation: “In the second year, I realized how much I do know,” he says. “We had a lot of casework, and there was no right anwer. We could explore our own issues through every case.”

Biggest takeaways: “After the program, I completely changed the direction of my business-the name of the company, the marketing strategy, and the management team,” he says. When Taylor was opening European offices, he wound up in a class with executives from more than a dozen countries. “I not only got experience doing casework on the difficulties of managing a company with international locations but also gained the perspectives of people who live in those countries,” he says.

Finding a Focus
Frank Martin, 54
Founder, president and CEO, Martin-Harris Construction (a $200 million general contracting company), Las Vegas
Training path: The Management Course for Presidents,
Captiva Island, FL
Provider: American Management Association, New York City
Cost: $4,195 to $4,595
Format: Five-day, classroom-based workshop that teaches “a proven, practical approach to ensuring that your leadership is on target for success.” Sessions include: creating the future, leading the enterprise, formulating strategy, developing people, and driving corporate performance.

Reason for attending: After starting as a carpenter, Martin founded his own company. By 1999 he had a $60 million to $70 million organization and “was making more money than I had thought was possible. But I had lost focus,” he recalls. At the same time, a number of veterans among his more than 500 employees were asking whether Martin-Harris Construction would remain in business. “They were putting pressure on me to figure out what I was going to do, and I didn’t know what my goals were. It became apparent that I was going to start to lose people if I didn’t figure this out,” Martin says.

Major revelation: “I’d always considered myself to be a reasonably good businessman. But this gave me more confidence,” he says. “You don’t have to be an MBA to run a multi-million-dollar company.”

Biggest takeaways: First, “that I wasn’t the only person feeling the way I was,” he says. On a more practical level, Martin also left with performance-measuring tools: “non-promotable,” “trainable,” or “promotable.” “It makes it easier to cull and to promote people who need to be promoted,” he says.