Follow the Leaders
What’s the recipe for success in business and life? Members of the Virginia Council of CEOs recognize that the ingredients vary from company to company and chief executive to chief executive. But we can learn much from one another.
To that end, we asked five CEOs to share their leadership lessons for the current environment. Here’s what these outstanding businesswomen had to say.
One theme that came through in these discussions is the immense transformation that is underway in nearly all facets of business. Arlene Lee, CEO and Principal of Lee Construction Group, Inc., in Charlottesville explained, “The greatest challenge is the pace of change, the breadth of areas in which the change is occurring, and the size of the challenges that require attention.”
With so much going on, a CEOs’ focus is zooming out and in, or as Arlene puts it, “I have to be able to see the big picture but also dive into the details with targeted precision…I have to be able to see the horizon and know where we are going but also to see the boulders in the way.”
While CEOs have always had to combine strategic vision and tactical implementation, doing so can be especially difficult now because the old answers don’t always apply. Arlene elaborates that she must “be able to not just to define ‘The Box’ but to also throw it out the window.”
One critical place to apply such out-of-box thinking is personal interactions. K Alferio, President/CEO of The Cultural Arts Center, highlights how “In-person engagement among staff, clients and target audiences has changed dramatically.” Her advice? “We must use our creative leadership skills—and tap into those of our employees—to create innovative communication tools.”
Robyn Zacharias, President/CEO of Yebo adds to that theme, “The traditional 9-5 model is, as they say, history. The hybrid model is here to stay; the question is now how we make it conducive to the business as much to the employees.” Yebo moved to a full-time hybrid model in July. To prepare for that change she communicated early with her employees to give them time to acclimate to their new reality. She also gave them a voice and asked for their feedback and acceptance. Robyn said, “Together, we figured it out.” She added making it work “comes down to trust, collaboration and communication.”
Courtney Gregory rose from CFO to President of Carrol Plumbing & Heating, Inc., before taking ownership of the company. Ask her what she needs most right now and her answer is emphatic. “Talent, talent, talent,” she says. “Specifically for my industry, experienced tradespeople have been difficult to acquire over the years but even more so after the pandemic.”
In an industry apart, The Cultural Arts Center is having similar problems finding employees to assist with its social advocacy mission. “Hiring and retaining talent is the most immediate and critical challenge,” says K.
Both CEOs are exploring solutions. According to K, “It is about more than monetary compensation which demands that we create a positive culture that people want to experience. We must consider flexibility in offering options for working from home and flexible hours when possible.”
“My lesson for a post-pandemic world,” Courtney adds, “is find good people, train them, invest in them.”
How can a CEO keep up? Bunny Young, Founder of A Better Place Consulting, recommends tapping resources outside yourself. “Hire a coach. Find a mentor. Surround yourself with people who will challenge you to be the best version of yourself and take care of yourself.”
Courtney agrees. “Invest in yourself! Besides joining VACEOs, the best decision I made was hiring an executive coach! Taking the time to invest in myself and my company has been an amazing leadership lesson.”
Even if you can’t make a significant financial commitment to leadership development at the present moment, there are options. “Find a trusted confidante to bounce off ideas and frustrations as well as share successes,” K advises.
According to Bunny, the important thing is that leaders take to heart “that you are the greatest return on investment.” The leadership lesson she is drawing on “is to remember that what is best for me is best for the company and not the other way around.”
These women leaders are turning to supportive ecosystems to help them through and they issue a critical reminder, that it is up to us all to create these environments. “Never accept an invite to the table unless you can bring someone else with you for the opportunity. This is how we grow and support one another. This is how we know that we are not alone.”
Courtney summarizes, “Never stop listening and learning. Get involved!”
Many Virginia CEOs are still looking for their community. Our panel suggests VACEOs for nearly chief executives in nearly any stage of personal and company development.
Arlene was a new CEO when she joined the Council, for example. “Being part of a roundtable forum helped me see I was asking the right questions and going in the right direction. It helped me build the confidence and skills needed to fully step into my role,” she says.
Courtney’s business, by comparison, was more mature, but the VACEOs impacts were just as powerful. “We had years of success under our belt, but I knew I wanted to grow more. I came to my roundtable, presented about my issues and by the end heard ten different ways others had tried, their successes and failures to grow their business. That is something you can’t put a price tag on.”
“Being part of a roundtable forum helped me see I was asking the right questions and going in the right direction. It helped me build the confidence and skills needed to fully step into my role.”Arlene Lee, CEO and Principal of Lee Construction Group, Inc.
Although these top executives mention the VACEOs programming lineup, including speakers and conferences to help expand leadership skills, they are most impressed by the attitude members bring to each session. “In our world there are few places where we can go to explore the hard questions, the vulnerable truths, as our authentic selves, where the people around us get ‘it.’” Arlene says, “The Virginia Council of CEOs is one of those rare places.”
“As leaders, one of the toughest challenges is feeling isolated,” adds K. “We all need a place to share our victories without seeming smug and a place to air our vulnerabilities without seeming weak.”
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” contributed Robyn. “Although it’s not always an easy thing for a CEO to admit.”
Going so deep might be scary at first but it’s worth it, according to Bunny. “The more you show up as your whole self and bring that vulnerability and authenticity to those you trust in VACEOs, the more you will get out of the experience. Listen a lot, as the knowledge and failures shared from all of the business owners around you will save you years and millions if you really receive it.”
If other CEOs are wanted to home in on a single action or transformation to pursue, where should they focus? At first, Arlene finds it difficult to pick just one lesson from her experience but then she gets inspired. “There will be ‘leap now’ moments with no way to know how things will land. Embrace them. That is what gives wings lift to soar.”
“The great thing about those moments is they rarely include the metaphorical box,” she goes on. “There is incredible freedom in throwing away that box. The freedom to ask better questions, the freedom to see things from a new direction, the freedom to create, and the freedom to fail. Failure is the currency of success and failing forward defines the pathway.
“There is more than one right answer to every question or situation. Our job as leaders is to help teams and identify the best right answer. We must all feel that an idea that does not work is not failure, it can be a great learning and growth opportunity.”K Alferio, President/CEO of The Cultural Arts Center
K agrees, “There is more than one right answer to every question or situation. Our job as leaders is to help teams and identify the best right answer. We must all feel that an idea that does not work is not failure, it can be a great learning and growth opportunity.”
And when failure eventually leads to success, there will be no one happier for you than your VACEOs peers. “I wish I knew I’d end up with ten cheerleaders,” Courtney says about her roundtable group. The members, she says, are “just as passionate about my success as they are their own.”
These conversations with five exceptional women CEOs revealed a wealth of leadership lessons. Now imagine what you might glean from a regular monthly roundtable. Actually, you don’t have to imagine! Get a taste for the VACEOs experience at one of our upcoming Meet & Greet events. Learn more and sign up at www.vaceos.org.
Virginia Council of CEOs (VACEOs) is a nonprofit organization connecting CEOs for learning and growth. Formed more than 20 years ago, member benefits include placement in a peer roundtable group and access to a thought leader network, and a robust program of events for learning and growth. This is not a networking group, but rather a group of CEO peers who are invested in the success of each member. To qualify for membership CEOs must run a business with $1M+ revenue and 5+FTEs. Learn more at www.vaceos.org.