Intro: Duration: (1:18)
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This is Human Capital, a GoalSpan podcast, and I'm Jeff Hunt. Human Capital is the place where I interviewed top business thought leaders to uncover the deeply human aspect of work. My guest today is Rob Cher, founding principal of CEO to CEO. Rob also runs the one-page business plan company. Yes, he definitely sounds like a busy guy.
CEO to CEO is a consulting firm of former chief executives that help improve leadership business and interpersonal skills of management teams. And the one-page business plan company has, I believe over four or 500 management consultants internationally, and they have a suite of products that are designed to help improve execution.
Rob has written two books, mighty mid-size companies and the feel of the deal. He is a regular columnist for the online version of Forbes and CFO magazine. Welcome, Rob.
Hey, thanks for having me, Jeff.
Topic 1. What inspired you to go into business? Guest’s journey into business (1:19)
So I always like to start our guests with a common question. Tell us who or what inspired you in your younger life to go into business?
Well, you know, it's funny, my dad was both a physician and a businessman. He had an analytical laboratory and so on. And so growing up, I wanted to be one of those two things. And when I was about seven, he had a patient he knew very well who had gotten a woundedness in his hand. Brought me into the operating room, and this is in private practice, and said, Hey, Robbie, do you want to watch?
I said, sure. And about halfway through, he saw me getting white, as a sheet, asked the patient to wait, took me outside, laid me down on the floor, gave me smelling salts, and said, wait here. And that's when I decided I thought business would be perhaps more appropriate for me, but that's always been fascinating.
I watched him in that and, and it seemed like a great place for me. And it's been a wonderful path.
Tell us a little bit briefly about these two endeavors that you're involved with. And you've been involved with them for quite some time, CEO to CEO and the one-page business plan company.
Certainly. So, um, for 23 years, I was one of several partners running a business called, Bentley publishing group in the art publishing world.
And when I exited that in 2007, I tried my hand at consulting and I've learned that I liked consulting through being a member of peer groups. So that's been 13 years of helping mid-sized businesses grow, early on, I had a client who had too many ideas and not enough focus and they really needed a business plan.
And that's when I became licensed, to provide the one-page business plan methodology. And over the years that grew and grew and became really important to my practice. And I became the designated successor for Jim Moran who's the author of the one-page business plan book. And sadly, we lost him about a year ago, and so I stepped in to run the business and now have acquired it.
Got it. Yes, definitely, keeping Jim in our memories, he was a tremendous guy and mentor to so many people and, uh, such an encouraging force in the business community. Wasn't he?
Staying on the whole CEO theme. What's the most difficult question you've ever had to ask a CEO?
Oh, that's interesting. So I am both a CEO and when I think of the CEO, I really think of my own experience in being a CEO. And so when I approach a CEO it's as a peer. And my standard is never to shy away, never to worry, but to say if I were that CEO sitting in their seat, what would I want to hear?
So, um, you know, I don't know that there are hard questions. The riskiest ones are when you have to point out to the CEO, that the biggest problem may be him or her. And you have to build trust. You don't necessarily blurt that out in the first minute. But if you've established trust, um, it is your duty to confront them.
And so often in midsize companies, the CEO is creating conditions that hurt their own goal, and some care intensely about it and are willing to try to change themselves as needed. Others are like, nope, I'm the CEO, and that's the way I am helping my teamwork around me, but it's about being open and honest, but that is probably the touchiest area, hey buddy, it’s you.
I'm sure that you get all sorts of responses when you have to point that out.
So you do and, and, you know, as a good coach, there are different ways that you do that. So it's about asking questions and why do you think that happened and what created that circumstance? And, hey, we've tried to tackle this two or three times.
Is there, is there a commonality here? Could it be something that you're doing that's triggering that response and you can ideally get them to discover it and then to say, aha, it's me, and better that you ask the powerful questions that get them to discover it. Then you have to slap them in their face, occasionally you have to do that. And hopefully, they respect that.
Topic 2. Mighty Midsized Companies, and “silent growth killers" (05:47)
Absolutely well, and you've done a lot of research in this area. To the point where you wrote a book a few years ago, right. Called the mighty midsize company. Or lagging midsize companies. And actually, I have fond memories of that book because when I read it, I was actually sailing.
Between Tortola and the Panama canal. So, but I loved your book, Rob. It seems like some of what you're describing was actually articulated in that book. Can you take just a couple of minutes to share, what inspired you to write that book? And what's the core takeaway message from there?
So what inspired me to write the book is that I had so many clients and even my own experience. Trying to run mid-sized businesses where you look at all the books out there, and there would be books on how to do a startup. And there would be books that tell help you run big companies and structures that seem too big or cumbersome or too expensive for midsize.
And there was really very little written on that. And so I sat back now probably seven, seven and a half years ago and said, I've learned a lot, I've got clear perceptions, I've been saying similar things to similar clients. It's time to create a book that really delves into that. And so the book focused on what are the different things that midsize companies have to contend with that are especially toxic to them, right?
I mean, bad management affects small, medium, and large. And I went out and did research and talk to over 110 different companies, some small, mostly mid-sized some large to try to pick out those things. And that's what the seven silent growth killers are, is what things hit and hurt. Mid-sized companies far more than smaller, large.
And what do you do about it and how is that different? That's the premise and that's what I focused on.
Got it. And do you want to share what those seven growth killers are or. Is there maybe one or two that you would pick out that are significant to share with the listeners?
I'll give you a couple of examples. So one of them has to do with, um, Dysfunctional leadership teams midsize is when leadership pings become crucially important. When you're a small one smart leader, 10 helpers, it works well, but really it mid-size, which all defined roughly as 50 people to probably 5,000 people. It's roughly eight to 10 million and up in revenues, it depends on a variety of circumstances, but midsize is when you need three leaders, one leader can't make all the decisions or five liters.
And all of a sudden, when the CEO has to lead leaders, that's different. And when there's multiple leaders, you have to have plans and structure, and accountability. And so this is a huge metamorphosis. So that's, that's one of them has to do with the operational meltdown when you're small and you overwhelm yourself, you hire one person and you're fine.
You work Saturday and you're fine. But when you're a hundred people at midsize. And you've run out of factory capacity and you have to move to a hundred thousand square foot facility that does not happen over a weekend. Right? So there's this discipline of execution of planning and looking further ahead into the future.
So you can start your plans earlier that small companies never had to learn. And so that's new and midsize, and boy, it hurts when you sold too many new clients. And for, you know, for 18 months or trying to hire the 30 engineers to do the work that they need. That those are two and there's, you know, 500.
Topic 3. Addressing performance issues (09:31)
Okay. And one of the ones that really stuck out to me was was along the lines of what you just described, which is tolerating, dysfunctional leaders. And what's really interesting for me in my experience, cause I I've consulted with, the C-suite for the last 15 years. And. Almost unequivocably every client that I've worked with has one or more leaders that would fall into that category that they've really waited too long, either to address substandard performance issues or behavioral issues, or to ultimately get to the point where there's the realization, this person's not going to work out and they let them go.
I'm curious as to whether or not you've seen the same thing. And what's your advice would be to, uh, not only CEOs, but leadership teams about how to address this.
Right. So I've seen it all the time and there's a lot of that content in the book, but I'll give you one that can shake people up and look, CEOs are good people.
They care for the people that help them get there. They don't want to hurt people, and that's often the reason, that they hesitate. And then sometimes we feel dependent. You know, we don't have 10 people in every department that are great leaders. We have the one person and if they're acting badly or worry, gosh, if we'd get rid of that person, okay.
You're the only one that knows the code, what will happen. Right. So there's good reasons to hesitate. But the one that shakes up most people the most is to check whether a CEO is more loyal to the mission of the organization than they are to an individual. You know what, when you are more loyal to an individual and you tolerate them for whatever reason, while they hurt your team, your team cohesiveness, while they do bad things to your business, then you're dysfunctional.
And it's that moment when you say no, we have an important product and important service. We want to be up at this high level, delivering value, and this person is hurting us. So I'm going to send them packing. It's that notion the other notion is a bit of arrogance because we all think that our company is the only good one to work in.
But if somebody has to work for somebody else, Oh, it's horrible. And that's just not true. Is it? And you know what, someone in our company that's not doing well, that's getting into trouble. That's causing waves. They're usually not having any fun. And so let's get them to let them go somewhere else where they can really succeed and be in the right environment.
And would you say, would you also say Rob that. When organizations delay and they don't actually address these issues, that, that it's almost always compromising their core values as well.
It's compromising their core values. Hopefully they have defined them. It's also compromising the respect that the leader gets.
And I used to think back in my old company, right. When I, I delay and make sure somebody was really completely horrible before I fired them right? And then I'd finally get rid of them and my team would come up overall. Thank you so much. We really appreciate you getting rid of Joey. You know, we've had to do his work for six months and he used to think that was good.
Like, I didn't execute someone in a never, you know, never do something harsh on someone. What I realized later is they were saying essentially, Hey man, we had to do that idiot job for six months while you finally got it together, figured it out and did your job. That was actually not a compliment. And there's a real truth to that.
And I personally want to be a great leader. I don't want to just be nice and hurt my company and hurt the team that's loyal and effective.
Right. Well, and it seems like that we can actually maintain compassion and empathy toward people, even in difficult situations when things aren't working out. So if we do need to correct performance or let somebody go.
We can approach that in a way that still maintains dignity and humanity, and that at the end of the day, like you said, the team, the remaining team is really going to appreciate you for it.
Yes. But it takes courage and discipline. So the courage of saying. Hey, Jeff, you've done a great job so far, but you just fell short here.
I need a little bit more over there. And then a month later when you don't do it, Hey, I've got a bigger issue. So if you start early, you ratchet it up and you're kind by what I mean by kind as being honest and direct, because so often we don't tell someone they're messing up. Until we get pissed off about it and they've really ruined their environment.
And then we tell them, that wasn't being kind, that was letting them fail and get worse and worse until we have a problem. And so get on it early, be direct, ratchet up the pressure so that either get it fixed and that's awesome. Or we have the confidence to move them out.
Topic 4. Commonly misunderstood attributes of CEOs (14:24)
Yep. And by not addressing it, we're almost always, eroding trust internally within our organizations anyway. So most, most of the listeners to our show are not CEOs. And speaking to this audience for a minute. What would you say is the most misunderstood attribute about CEOs that you would want people to know?
It's interesting. So, CEO's are all different, just so many different personalities and types. But I think the one thing I would want the listeners to remember about CEOs is they really respect proactivity and drive and energy. Even the ones that tend towards a little bit on the micromanagement side and so on, which they may push back a little bit. But most every CEO I work with, if they have someone who says, Hey, I'd like to help on that project.
I'd happily lead that project, that's respected. And then they really respect people who have a little bit of planning, discipline to say, I'll do that for your boss. And then they say two days later, here's what, well, I think I want to do here's the objective. I think here's the way I think we have to go.
Here's a couple of measures. Does that align? So they check that alignment because we try to train CEOs and CEOs love it when they have direct reports that are good enough to say. Make your people create a plan and then manage them to plan. That's not micromanaging. So if you can do that, raise your hand, show interest, lay out what you're going to do.
Do it communicate regularly to the CEO, even if, especially if they're prone to micromanage or they're worried, or you're new at leading at that level, keep them informed. Tell them what's going on. They may give you a few course corrections, but they're going to say, wow, that person wrote a plan executed on the plan then kept me in the loop.
And after a couple of those iterations, they're going to say, look, write the plan, but don't check in as much, just do what you've been doing. That's the path to promotion.
Topic 5. Inclusion, diversity, and employee development. (16:30)
Okay. That's great feedback. Really appreciate that. And so let's shift a little and talk about, you know, this year has been unbelievable.
A struggle for so many people. The United States is really at a turning point, politically, economically racially, both at a macro and a micro-level. And, you know, I guess the question I'm going to present is a little bit loaded because here we are, two middle-aged white males, that are CEOs, but my question is what can CEOs do to help improve.
Inclusion belonging, diversity deal with some of the racial strife we've experienced, um, in the organizations we lead. Do you have any counsel there?
I do. So part of it, well, maybe all of it ties back to development. I think the highest order of any leader, CEO or leader in any walk of life is to identify people who are high potential.
Who want to grow and develop regardless of color and style and gender or anything, and say, Hey, I'm going to help that person develop as a, as a leader or as a manager, and to be more proactive in it. The entire mid-sized company space does far too little time. Oh. And work, and it's not rocket science. And so what I would say, every CEO out there, no matter what you are as pick out three, four or five people in your organization, check yourself to make sure you're being fair and open.
So you're not, not giving someone who's, um, of a, of a minority or a different gender, you know, make sure you're fair about it. And then put, you know, writing a development plan. That's going to help them step up in whatever direction they want, ask them what it is, and then say, all right. And there's three elements.
The simple development program is. Talk to the person, find it where they want to go. And then each quarter say, what training should they get? It could be a class that they take on their own, who should mentor them, who can come to them and guide them along the way. And let's give them a project it's called experiential learning.
Let's give them a project that stretches them. Right. And then, you know, mid-quarter how are they doing on that? Are they stumbling or are they not end of the quarter? How did it go? What are the takeaways? Hey, do you want to try again next quarter? Repeat. It's really just simple steps that represent the most powerful development that you can deliver.
And rather than distracting yourself and trying to do all hundred employees, which usually means in mid-size, we start a project and then we don't do anything exactly. The four or five, you know, small handful of leaders focus on them. Get them going and you know what, in a year or two, they might start picking the three or four leaders under them and doing the same thing. So we bring everybody up a level.
Topic 6. How to develop employees and implementation of internal processes (19:27)
It's almost like you're just addressing it programmatically. You're really creating some structure in a way that can build a sustainable change internally for the organization, in a way that's really going to yield significant results.
Yes. It's one of the biggest changes for mid-sized companies is you have to do everything programmatically, right?
But it's simple and intentional and creating a program creates intentionality. If you don't do that, our emails and all the phone calls and all the craziness will distract all of our attention. But when you create a program, you're forced to do it. And when you write it down in a goal, I know you're not big on goals, right Jeff? And you lay it out.
Then all of a sudden we have to pay attention to it. And so that's true of business planning of development of all those things.
Yes. For sure. Yeah. And so why do midsize companies struggle with this so much? Is it that when they're, you know, did their founders originally had to put together the. The furniture from Ikea to, to get the business off the ground, and then they've grown and morphed into this situation.
And is it that they just don't address these issues and put these, um, programmatic systems in place as they grow? Or what's the reason why they struggle in this area?
So many and most startups. Are by nature scramblers and you know what? You have your first idea. It's probably going to be bad. You scramble around until you find a good idea.
And then things start to grow a little bit. So you get some more helpers. It's a scrambling it's reactive, and you don't need a lot of structure because the human brain is amazing. You can spin a lot of details in one brain, but if come up with a good enough idea, it starts to expand beyond what you can manage between your ears.
And when that happens to get multiple humans to coordinate and stay on track, you need that. But that may not be a skill that comes. And there's very few systems that were built for this teenage phase of business. And so if you get the wrong tools, and the wrong processes, it feels bureaucratic. So it's a learned transition.
And,that's one of the things we as consultants help bring in. And we've found clients that have tried to bring in process, but like, Whoa, way too much. No wonder why it's not working. And then sometimes too little and sometimes small businesses grow fast and they just outgrow their coordination. That happens, there's a mix of reasons.x
Sometimes CEOs will leave culture creation internally to HR instead of really leading the charge in that area of creating cultures that ultimately have the goal of reducing turnover and maximizing, you know, having a high, high performance from teams and individuals.
And, uh, what do you suggest that CEOs could do? And leaders in general because it often falls to the entire executive team to help create, sustain and manage culture. Um, what's what do you suggest that they could do to do better in this area?
So, you know, first of all, I love great HR leaders. They are super powerful and much of this process evolves that's needed at midsize involves HR and people.
And so boy, if you have a strategic HR leader worth their weight in gold, at the same time management, all managers manage people right? And people stay and love their job not because they love the HR leader because they love their manager of the number one duty of all of management is to lead people and lead their people and do all those kinds of things.
So I agree completely that it is management's responsibility to decide culture and values, to deliver it and execute it and live it themselves. And then defend it to not have people that would record or ruin it or change it into something else. So that is management's philosophy. Now at a hundred people, you may have a leader in HR, which trains the trainers, which coaches the management team and helps them reflect on how to do that.
But it shouldn't go around the management team because otherwise, what are managers managing like the widgets, the widget made pains. People in almost every business are what's critical. Uh, just as you can say, all of that performance review, if they will have HR do that. No, the manager has to have a hand in that, right.
And ride that. So I think it's, it's a recognition early on that if you want to live and have a company that has the culture that you want, it is important. It takes time. It takes a little bit of definition, and then checking ourselves to make sure we don't drift
And really the expectation from the very top of the organization that you're going to continue on those processes, wouldn't you say?
In midsize if the CEO doesn't believe it doesn't buy, it doesn't care. It probably won't happen. Now when you get to 300 people could not enough high(25:02) level executives. That, that doesn't have to be just the CEO's love. Maybe, maybe they're an engineer and they're a specialist, but if they're anti-culture that we're trying to create, if they breach it, they can still run it, even at that scale.
So Rob, you answered this question partially, but I'm going to ask it because I know you have some more wisdom you can share here. We think of human capital is really the greatest asset any organization has, and it's obviously not on the balance sheet. And so my question for you is really what, what can organizations do to better value the human capital they have on staff at every level?
So you're an individual contributor all the way up to the C-suite. What can they do to better value people?
So I haven't really thought about, you know, is there a, some number you can put down for it? I think the way you value your people is that you pay attention to them. You don't be grudge the odds once a year review, let's get it over with then instead you embrace it.
And I think the biggest missing element that I see in too many companies. Is around the notion of the career path to say to someone, okay, you've got a job and we're going to evaluate how you're doing on the job. Where do you want to be in three years? Oh, you want, you love the technical path. You don't want to manage those wildly people.
Okay. Well, what direction do you want to go in? And then. Agree with that person. So what are the milestones and what are the steps and what pace? I mean, maybe you've just had triplets and you know, you're going to go slow for a year. Okay. No problem. We're aligned on that. And then to take the journey with them and to say my responsibility as the manager is to get you where you want to go in that three or four year time.
And maybe that, that means you get to the end of the career path in our company. And maybe it means that you'll leave us. But you'll have been really pumped up for those three years and we'll be getting more out of you than ever because you'll be excited and learning. And if you leave at that point, well, that's all we can do, but we've done something good in the world and you'll always love us.
And maybe you'll come back later. If that makes sense for you. It's that stewardship that really shows value and raises the value. But it takes a little bit of time to do it. It's not as complicated as people think if you don't do it, you're leaving a lot of value on the table.
I really appreciate that because it's another way that HR is actually inculcated through the entire organization. It's everybody's responsibility. It's not just career pathing is not just. Um, falls on the HR shoulders.
Right now, could they in a mid-size organization create the documents and the structure. That would be awesome. Sort of an external coach for the manager who says, I don't know what to do with Joey. I don't know where it's going to go. Well, let's think that through together managers need coaching in that way.
Providing that critical guidance. So, um, when you look back on this year, Rob, with the pandemic, What changes do you see that companies have made based on the pandemic that are here to stay? Rob Sher:
Well, it is driven forward. The distributed workforce. We have all learned, uh, to a much higher to get all of our clients that we don't have to always show up at 8:00 AM and work in the same environment. And a lot of that is absolutely going to stay. Uh, and I think there's a lot of good there and it's shifted on costs, but I'm going to also answer the, the sort of the corollary to it.
I think the power of human contact and humans really coming together is still very powerful. It may become a more rare skill or more rare occurrence that much as I love video, I was doing video for years. It's way better than telephone. It's not the same as being there in person. So we're going to have to get very thoughtful about when does it make sense to get on the plane and take that time because it's powerful.
The second thing that is still lacking for so many of our clients is on the business development side. The how do you not travel out and sit down on the engineering drawings for a new boiler room? You know, there's things that, and finding new clients and building trust. The answer isn't fully there and it doesn't work quite as well in video.
And so there is some big challenges around it, but there will be big rewards for the people that figure out how to do more without physically traveling around the globe.
Topic 7. Lightning round questions. (29:50)
Okay, great. Let's jump into some lightning round questions. So I'm going to ask you some quick questions. Top of mind answers are all we're looking for.
How's that sound? The first one is. As we finish out this difficult year, what are you most grateful for?
The health of my family, and the people that I know.
Rob, who is one person you would interview, if you could dead or alive?
I've always just been so impressed with Nelson Mandela and just how he could lead the way he did be imprisoned for so long and come out and be a mentioned a great leader that he was, I would just be so interesting. I love reading his book.
What's your favorite non-work activity?
Sailing. You mentioned sailing so love to get out there on the water. My sailing club is kind of shut down because of the COVID, but just getting out there on the water.
Now, the San Francisco Bay sailor, right? Best training in the world for sailing. Let's see. I know you have written some couple of good, wonderful books and you must be an avid reader. So what's your top book recommendation?
Wow, another, another tough one. I'm not reading as much as I, as much as I would like.
It doesn't have to be new and, you know, any what's, uh, the most significant book that you've read that you can think of over your career.
One that's coming to mind is called the work of leaders and it's part of the work that we do, but it really helps people understand that there's different modes of leadership and how to lead in those modes. Really some great takeaways.
Fantastic. Um, tell us what the best piece of advice you've ever received is.
Pay it in early, um, better to do it, right do it early and defer rewards because it just gets easier as life goes on.
Isn't that true? What are you most hopeful for in 2021?
A vaccine and a return to positive normalicy along with hopefully a less divisive political environment in the U.S.
Amen brother. Absolutely agree. Uh, okay. So Rob, what is, you know, summarizing our conversation here, if you had to come up with a single most important thing that you want our human capital listeners to take away from our talk today. What would that be?
The one that's coming to mind is find high potential people and develop them, invest a little bit more in that help people get better. Do better, become better, pays big dividends for your company and for the world.
Very valuable piece of wisdom. So, well, Rob, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate all the wisdom you shared with our audience. I wish you the very best of holidays and a wonderful new year.
Hey, thank you much. Same to you, Jeff. And thanks for having me on.
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