Why I Love Leading Vistage Workshops

I just finished leading another CEO workshop for Vistage, the very highly-regarded executive coaching organization. This was one of Chris Noonan’s groups in Denver, and I think it was my 386th Vistage workshop conducted over the past 11 years.

Next year, I am going to reduce the number of Vistage engagements, for a number of reasons. Yet as I finished this one, I realized why Vistage has been so meaningful to me as someone who likes to share what I know with others and help them grow, personally and with their business. To bring you into the experience, I’d like to share some of the magic of the three hours the CEOs and I spent together in Denver.

Vistage members: eager to learn, explore, dig deep and grow

During Chris’s typical introduction, he asks each business leader to tell me about their company, themselves and the hot stuff they are working on. These particular folks were much like other Vistage members but different from our clients at SAMC. They come to these monthly sessions with an eager interest in learning something they can apply to their business in some way to bring about big changes and meaningful growth. 

As for me, I come to Vistage sessions with three things to share: 1) my experience as an anthropologist, 2) my training and experience as a Blue Ocean Strategist, and 3) my interest in what these business leaders are doing so I can figure out how to help them.

Very few of these CEOs start out talking about their problems (occasionally there is one who vents a bit). My job is to push them past their comfort zone to see things with fresh eyes. All too often, people are focused on only incrementally improving what they are doing now. But occasionally, like in the Denver session, there are some who are actually moving into new areas, opening new markets and creating innovations. By and large, though, they are the exceptions. 

As I began my talk, I realized why I love doing these workshops.

These guys (and most of them are guys) were really ready to “see, feel and think” in new ways. My questions for them: What is happening all around you that could open a new market space for you? What are the unmet needs, even among your own clients or customers, that you could solve if you only knew what they were? Who could use you if you offered your products or services in different ways?

The Denver CEOs just got right into the strategic canvas and the Innovation Games we use, particularly “Reverse Everything.” What came out of our time together were some amazing ideas that they were coming up with. As I always tell my audiences, the more ideas they have, the more likely they will have big ones. These big ideas come at the intersections and from looking across different industries and market segments and different buyer groups. 

3 examples of the magic that happens in a Vistage workshop

One CEO has an old-style metal manufacturing company where he makes equipment parts for various industries such as mining and construction. He is very good at supplying companies with the parts they need after their own parts fail. His group in the Reverse Everything exercise worked with him to completely reinvent his business in a way that was actually quite possible—not that far-fetched. He could shift from building new parts that replace broken ones to installing sensors in machines so he could know when the parts were failing, enabling him to replace them before they break, rather than after. He could even create a new platform that connects companies that manufacture parts with those that need them. 

A 2nd CEO has a business model that he thought worked really well, but after examining his strategic canvas together, we began to wonder if his heavy investments in inventory were really as valuable to his clients as the cost of those goods warranted. Perhaps it was time to rethink both his pricing strategy and his business model. What could he do that would allow him more must-in-time production? 

And a 3rd CEO is having a hard time attracting and retaining engineers. He attracts a lot of business but has a terrible time getting the work done. Fortunately, his Vistage workshop team came up with a number of big ideas that he grabbed onto. One involved simply retaining a virtual engineering team that could work for him globally. Another was to let others do the engineering so he could become the community developer.

Teaching business leaders how to have vision

The actual ideas and suggestions that bubble up during Vistage workshops are less important than the energy and enthusiasm that they exude—and the pleasure I got from watching the workshop attendees discover possibilities through the theory, method and tools of the Blue Ocean Strategy approach.

Key to this process is going visually exploring. As anthropologists, this is exactly what we do at SAMCtake our clients out to see things with fresh eyes. In a three-hour workshop, however, it’s hard to go out into the field to observe what’s really going on in the marketplace with users and nonusers. That’s why we use Innovation Games, a great alternative that permits the workshop groups to come up with some big ideas is almost no time at all. 

As John Seely Brown famously said: “The way forward is all around you.” That is absolutely true. You just have to open your eyes to see it. 

I thank Chris and his great groups for the pleasure of meeting them and the joy of working with them. I actually can’t wait for the next one.

To learn how Blue Ocean Strategy could help your business, check out these blogs, white paper and podcasts:

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From Observation to Innovation,


Andi Simon, Ph.D.
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants

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