About 5 years ago, Randy Williams, founder of the Keiretsu Forum gave me the opportunity to start my business, working with start-ups getting financing. Randy is not only a genuinely compassionate person and super savvy business person, he also is the best networker I have ever met (I refer to going to Keiretsu Forum events as “networking on steroids”.) In one of my first few visits to Keiretsu I met Paul Witkay, founder of The Alliance of CEO’s.
I’m very direct and curious. It is rewarding to know Paul because he doesn’t sweat my technique while also having his own opinions about things that we discuss (whether we ultimately agree or not). I find it inspiring that as a passionate leader of an organization of passionate leaders humility guides him to success, and he’s a cool dude to boot! And in the midst of his swirling centrifuge of a professional life, I’m honored that he took the time to help me share him with you.
Paul Witkay steps into The No Blah-g Zone
If I put 5 CEO's around a table to talk about whatever they wanted, except business what would they talk about?
A little background, I sort of hang with lots of current and past CEO's. They're an interesting lot. Most of the ones that I meet are passionate. Most of them are savvy, to the point and humble enough to surround themselves with people who are good at what they aren't or don't have the bandwidth or proclivity to accomplish. A % of this uber-exec crowd does get a little...discombobulated when I ask them what's important to them, they say family and I ask why they work 70 or 80 hours a week. And may in fact stumble when we get to a topic outside of business.
BTW, Paul doesn't. It's one of the reasons he's cool for me. One night when I was meeting with him, he had to jam because a friend of his was doing a show at the Great American Music Hall to celebrate a release of a new CD. And, most certainly, he is vulnerable, eloquent and touching when he speaks of his family and children.
"There are two characteristics I observe in most every CEO: a) passion and b) a need to take action. These characteristics are typically present in their personal lives as well as their professional lives. Therefore, they would talk about their passions outside of work--their families, hobbies, community activities, etc."
Passion certainly can mean a lot of different things. Let's face it, ask Jesus and Tom Peters and passion will mean something vastly different. Regardless, it is interesting to note that the group would gravitate towards something that connects them creating shared viewpoints and maybe even realizations that they might apply in their lives.
It's also interesting to note, that they would talk about activity-centric issues. I think Paul's guess is accurate. To me that means that they wouldn't naturally gravitate towards talking about feelings or love as an abstract, but maybe rather as a component of the subject that most or all of them get.
If you went to speak in front of a graduating seniors from an inner city, urban school (with mostly minority students) what would you tell them?
I have a single goal in life: To bring more love into the world. Inside of that is the every day existence wherein we look at each other for who we are not what we are. Business leadership (CEO...) positions have traditionally been and predominantly still are the domain of folks that look like me but are, generally, a bit older.
They then become the board members who choose or support CEO's who....look like them. (Yes, I understand that The Zone looks like my country club growing up, not the clubs where I go to dance....) Being in the Bay Area by definition creates a more diverse population of CEO's. But the imbalance is still easily identifiable. I've shared this before with Paul on a few occasions and we've had some great dialog on it.
"I would talk about how life is very short and they should find a passion and pursue it" (Interesting, not terribly novel....) "Life is not like school where you merely progress from one grade to another, but about making a difference in at least some small (or big) way" (that's more like it...of course the audience would likely be a fraction of the total kids who started out...)
"If they haven't found a passion, they should simply do something--anything. Sometimes finding out what you don't like to do is often as valuable as finding what you like. You'll find that each of your experiences will enable you to grow in unpredictable ways and enable you to do other things later in life."
I'm down with that. Life's a play handed to you one line at a time. One of the things that Paul has been a big part of teaching me is to be honest and call it like it is. I can see him earnestly trying to deliver this message because he sincerely means it.
I'm not sure what someone in the audience might think because of how few people who do what Paul and the members do look like them (which in my mind is their issue to work through...fear). I also know that there are some folks who look like me who aren't too fond of folks who don't, joining the game.
As far as what the audience might think, Paul added "I would like to think they might be inspired in some way. If I could inspire one kid to pursue their dream, then it would be time well spent."
Did I mention I think Paul is cool?
If a graduating high school student from that same school came to speak in front of The Alliance of CEO's what would he or she talk about?
"I don't know, but I might think they would take the opportunity to talk to these business leaders abut their opportunity to make the world a better place"
I don't know either, but it would be fascinating to be there to listen to it. Particularly if you told the student that he or she could speak about whatever they wanted to and the audience would be asked to stay attentive.
What do you think the Alliance members would take away?
"I believe they might find that we have more in common than we think. I would like to think that high school students are still idealistic with a belief they can change the world. Many chief executives still feel that way and build companies to try to do just that."
Now that is one to send me off to contemplate. It is curious to note that changing the world is most certainly defined within one's frame of reference.
What's the hardest thing for a CEO to admit?
"It takes incredible persistence to be a CEO. Very few objectives are met without resistance and obstacles."
This is one that I have DEFINITELY experienced in my life hanging with CEO's. They are unrelenting in getting to a goal, often any goal. The other thing I like is that the CEO's I know will be very frank in bringing forth what might be the obstacles to success and trying to remove them.
"The most difficult thing for a CEO to admit is that the objective is not obtainable and they should quit and do something else."
Paul gets noticeably charged up when I talk to him about the Alliance. It's something he believes in often founded in the numerous success stories he shares that, in many ways, have little to do with him per se. They are founded in the power of the organization he's put together. There's plenty of competition out there and obstacles in Paul's efforts to provide value to members.
I've even had candid discussions with him regarding decisions that he made to expand the Alliance that have not worked out. But he's seen and knows (more than believes...) the value and obstacles of any kind aren't the ones that will stop him. I don't know if it means he will keep pushing and turn into Sisyphus, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that it would.
What's the least understood and/or discussed part of being a CEO?
"The role of a CEO is very lonely. Most people think that being the boss is the best job. However, CEO's have tremendous responsibilities and cannot be friends (in the normal sense)" ...by the way is there such a thing as a "normal" sense....."with their employees or board members. They must make decisions that affect people's lives."
Who is the most humble AND successful CEO you know or can think of?
"I know a number of CEO's that would fit this description, but I'm not sure who to name. Many of the most "successful" CEO's are those that no one hears about." Paging Mr. & Mrs. Humility, Mr. & Mrs. Humility would you please pick up the nearest white courtesy phone.... "They build small companies that are the very best at what they do. These CEO's take no credit themselves, but discuss their employees and others with great pride.
"I am hesitant to name specific CEO's because I would be leaving out so many wonderful people." (BTW, this may feel a little....brown nose-ish to you, but it's Paul being real....) "However one person that comes to mind is one of the first Alliance members: John Ewing, President of USS-POSCO, a billion dollar steel company.
I remember how I was incredibly impressed with this man who had spent his entire career in the steel industry and ran a company with 1,000 blue-collar, union steelworkers. Although his role demanded him to be tough, John was one of the most humble and eager learners I ever met.
He was sincerely interested in the opinions of each person he met-from waitresses to receptionists to hourly workers to other CEO's. He honestly felt that he could learn from everyone."
Given his heartfelt praise of Mr. Ewing (who has passed away), I think I see more clearly now why Paul agreed to meet with me several years back to begin with.
How would you describe what you do to an artist?
"One of the most important jobs of a CEO is to communicate their vision. A good CEO "paints a picture"....(no confirmation as to whether, if he were speaking to the artist, he would do the finger quotations in the air)...."of the future that is compelling to their employees, customers and shareholders"
How would a CEO who belongs describe what he or she gets out of it to an artist?
"Alliance members are challenged by their fellow CEO's to continually clarify their visions so they are both compelling and simple to grasp. The most successful CEO's are capable of distilling very complex situations into simple concepts that are easy to understand."
For both of these, by the way, I'm of the opinion that an artist's brow would furrow and they would look at the speaker in the same way my daughter looks at me when I try to explain to her why people honk their horns when they are angry or give their lives away to work....
If a CEO joins your organization and realizes that he or she is in fact not fit to be a CEO, did the Alliance succeed?
This is one that Paul and I have discussed on several occasions. The Alliance groups talk about sensitive, tough business issues. He's right, CEO's are lonely and sometimes he or she might want something different, but they have an awful lot at stake where they are.
"Absolutely. The Alliance culture is one of openness and candor. If a member comes to realize that they lack the passion or self-confidence to lead then it is best for everyone that they find a better fit for their skills and interests."
Will diversity every find its way into the CEO club? Why or why not?
"If you're talking about ethnic diversity, the Silicon Valley is a great example. There are CEO's of virtually every nationality running companies in the Bay Area.
If you're talking about female CEOs, an extremely high percentage of the 14 million companies in the US are run by females. Unfortunately, most of these companies have revenues under $1MM.
It's the Fortune 500 that still lacks diversity. Women and minorities are making some progress in the large companies, but the world has changed. There is far more opportunity for talented, entrepreneurial people to start new ventures than ever before. Therefore, many of the talented minorities and women are choosing to start their own companies rather than working their entire careers for a chance to run a large company."
And the ones that do, my bet is they retire a VP of something if they are lucky. That being said, his response is another example of Paul's honesty and willingness to express his points of view.
What does love mean to you?
"I'm tempted to quote Paul's letter to the Corinthians" (and yes, it would cost Vince Vaughan 40 bucks if he did....for you Wedding Crasher fans!) "but I'll do my best to answer your question myself. I believe that love is the passion that drives people to do positive things. People demonstrate their love by doing their very best to earn the respect from those people or things that they love--their families, their work, their interests, their sports teams, etc."
Anything is possible:
- I disagree with that
- I think that
- I believe that
- I know that
I believe that.
If you could apply the collective minds of your organization to any one problem in the world, what would it be?
"I'm tempted to give you the Miss America answer of "world peace"."
Not bad material... Isn't it interesting that this comment sort of makes sense? I wonder how it came to pass that if you asked someone what Miss America would say to that question that world peace is an awful popular answer. Gandhi, MLK, Mother Teresa....Miss America...oy!
"I have found that most CEOs are extremely generous and interested in making a difference in the world. They're also very practical, so I would suggest that we start at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid and focus on the basic needs first: food, water shelter. By working together I am positive that they could identify achievable objectives that would make a dent in the war against poverty and homelessness."
I agree, on the other hand our politicians are doing such a wonderful job....NOT!
What one piece of advice would you give my 5 year old daughter?
"Give your Dad lots and lots of hugs and everything will work out fine."
I can't tell you how deeply that answer touched me. In addition, btw, when Paul responded to the questions he mentioned how this question made him think very fondly of his own daughters.
Did I mention that Paul is cool?