No matter where you are or how you do it, having a group to support you makes a significant difference.

Inside YPO Columbus and Vistage groups, a lot of vulnerability

By Steve Wartenberg

CEO peer groups break down isolation and foster personal growth.

The age-old cliché seems to be true for many CEOs: It’s lonely at the top.

“I prefer the word isolated,” says Artie Isaac, a peer-group leader for the Columbus chapter of Vistage, an international executive coaching organization. “You’re surrounded by people and talking to people all day long, but you’re isolated because there’s a limit to what you can say.”

The goal of Vistage and YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) is to change this desolate dynamic and bring the CEOs and top executives of small, medium and large companies and organizations together in small groups to counter the isolation of leading. Members are assigned to peer groups and meet monthly to discuss their ups and downs, the difficult decisions they have to make at work and how to maintain balance in their personal lives in a confidential and supportive setting.

“YPO is one of the most impactful things in my life,” says Michael Copella, the managing director of the Columbus office of CBRE, an international commercial real estate company. “I feel lucky to get to spend four or five hours every month with seven other executives and learn from them.”

Copella says the members of his YPO peer group have helped him make business decisions and create a more fulfilling home life, something many CEOs struggle with. “It’s helped me become a better spouse and father,” he says.

The YPO model

As the name suggests, YPO is for young leaders, although younger might be more accurate. Membership requires a sponsor, and potential members must either lead a company or be “the professional manager of a large private or publicly traded company,” says Michelle Kerr, the co-founder and president of Lightwell, a Dublin-based technology company. These potential members must rise to the top of companies that meet specific size and revenue requirements by the age of 45. Kerr is the communications chair of the Columbus chapter of YPO, which shares programming with the powerful Columbus Partnership.

YPO has more than 28,000 members in 130-plus countries who employ about 22 million people, according to its website. “Once you are sponsored into a chapter you become part of a peer group of seven to 10 people,” Kerr says. “You meet monthly (for four or five hours) and everything is based on three things: Confidentiality, respect and trust. You can be completely vulnerable and open in a safe space with like-minded people who understand what you’re going through.”

Because of the confidentiality clause, Kerr is not at liberty to rattle off the names of the other local CEOs who are members, although 10 local board members are listed on the organization’s IRS 990, which is open to public inspection because it is a nonprofit organization. Influential chief executives Kerr can name are Cameron Mitchell of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Jane Grote Abell of Donatos Pizza and Doug Ulman of Pelotonia.

Copella joined in 2015, soon after he was named a CBRE managing director, his first leadership position. He’s the membership chairman of the Columbus region YPO chapter. “I had never managed or led people,” says Copella, who leads 200-plus CBRE employees. “So, I was drawn to a network of people who could help me through my leadership journey.”

In addition to the local peer groups, YPO offers local seminars and regional and international conferences. “YPO also puts together peer networks for specific industries,” Kerr says. She’s a member of groups for international technology companies and travel. The international connectivity of YPO was helpful to Kerr when Lightwell bid for and won a tech-support contract with a Swedish company. “We’d never done business in Sweden before,” she says. “I reached out to YPO members in Sweden and connected with someone who (advised us) on issues such as visa requirements and housing. That person has really become important to me in terms of my business and on a personal level.”

The membership fee for YPO in 2019 was $3,525 in 2019, according to multiple sources, and local chapters can assess additional fees beyond that. Kerr declined to share the costs.

The Vistage vision

While YPO peer groups lead themselves, Vistage provides what Isaac calls “chairs” who lead and facilitate groups. Isaac chairs seven of the 13 local groups and leads about 100 of the 175 local members. Vistage has 23,000 members in 20 countries.

Isaac calls the monthly, all-day meetings he leads “test kitchens for half-baked ideas” and considers himself an eyeglass cleaner. “All I do is help people see the world a bit clearer,” he says.

Emotional self-awareness and empathy are important for any leader, Isaac says. “It’s how you identify and understand your own emotions and the emotions of those around you in such a way that you bring to bear productivity. I think we all have a certain amount of self-confidence and self-awareness, and if a leader has more self-confidence than self-awareness, they risk becoming a buffoon.”

The monthly fee for Vistage membership ranges from $400 to $1,500, depending on the size and revenue of a company, Isaac says. He forms his peer groups of leaders from similar companies, and his current groups include: The founders of entrepreneurial startups, the CEOs of larger companies, the leaders of nonprofit organizations, and non-CEOs who are the top executives of companies.

“For me, I had reached a point where I was looking for personal growth and development,” says Stuart Hunter, the founder and CEO of Roll, a bicycle shop chain that will open its fourth location this year. “Vistage seemed to tick a lot of boxes for personal growth and business growth.”

Roll recently leaped into bike manufacturing, a rather large undertaking. But first, Hunter talked it out with the members of his peer group. “At first, we looked at our stores and our manufacturing as two separate entities,” Hunter says. “But my peer group was quick to point out the strengths of considering it as a single business from a branding and marketing standpoint.”

His peer group also helped him realize it was time to let go of some tasks and hire a chief operating officer. “What I’d tell another CEO is it’s often easy to find yourself operating in a vacuum and that can get very lonely,” he says. “You’re the bearer of a lot of responsibility and the cheerleader and that can be wearing. Vistage provides an opportunity and outlet to share some difficult decisions and get an unbiased perspective and totally confidential advice. You can be 100 percent open and truthful in your peer group.”

In general, but not always, the members of Vistage lead smaller companies and organizations than the members of YPO. “I don’t like the term ‘small business’ because nobody wakes up in the morning trying to be small,” Isaac says.

Other Vistage leaders include Beth Paul of Capital University and Ross Appeldorn of Feazel.

Shared gains

The members of YPO and Vistage talk about the same advantages: The confidential, expert advice they receive and their growing friendships with the other members of their peer group. Peers help one another make more-informed decisions, be better leaders and balance the demands of running a company and having a personal life.

“I just turned 40, and we have members in their early 30s and members older than me,” Copella says of YPO. “Everyone has helped give me confidence and evolve in my leadership. How do we fend off complacency and bring in and the best and the brightest? How do we take care of our people and help them develop the skills they need to have a really successful career?”

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