I’d like to share with my fellow CEOs how my company was able to weather the economic crisis of 2008, without me even in the country, and the lessons we applied to the current challenge.

As a closely held asset, ACI ownership is simple. In 2003, my wife and I naturally felt planning for our estate meant taking care of the business and our employees as well as the well-being of our children. Over a year, we developed a succession plan that would activate if I became disabled. The intent wasn’t to anticipate every possibility that could arise, but to create decision-making authority in my absence so that the business can continue, providing for our employees and customers. As an Army reservist, I knew the possibility of military call-up was very real, as is the possibility of a medical disability or something more tragic.

Forming a board of directors was a critical step in my recognition that businesses almost never go according to plan, and that I myself need to be reporting to someone besides the employees and customers. Other everyday questions a board can help with includes: What happens when the business doesn’t go according to plan? Who holds the owner accountable before issues get big enough for customers or employees to leave? Where can a CEO go for unbiased, real practical advice? How do you settle a leadership disagreement?

In 2006, Jim Flowers and VT KnowledgeWorks took root at the CRC, with the intent of helping grow early-stage businesses, but Jim also recognized the value of accelerating existing businesses. From that, he launched the Presidents’ Council as an opportunity for owners/CEOs to gather monthly, and share in a confidential environment their concerns, best practices, and hold each other accountable for goals and initiatives. I jumped on-board early, and quickly realized that such a council formed an important cornerstone to the strategic direction of Automation Creations, and also filled an important role in my contingency planning.

For me, I put my council and succession plan to the test when the Army sent me active duty orders to Operation Iraqi Freedom in August 2008. I shared my concerns and current plans with my Council, and entrusted them to help my wife. As it turned out, I had almost no Internet or telephone access back to Virginia during my deployment. In my absence, my Council was able to both keep the company going and handle unanticipated issues. One of the biggest was that in spite of our planning, we really needed a full-time CEO to provide daily oversight. My Council located and hired Jim Wyers, who still serves ACI with me today. I’m particularly proud of everyone’s hard work during my year-long absence, and grateful that my trusted fellow peers went up and beyond to find and recruit such a great leader so that my company could not only survive, but thrive without my wife having the stress of unexpectedly running it.

Now, with 2008 in the far rearview mirror, LXCouncil was awarded from VTKW to take over the two Presidents Councils and bring in a structured proven model for running a meeting.  We now run 3 groups in the area: two in Blacksburg since 2013 which I am the moderator and one new group in Roanoke led by Charles Whitley. By being part of a larger peer group organization, our monthly council meeting in March 2020 discussed the possibility of an economic lock-down.  Two weeks later, it happened.  Our council, as well as other LXCouncils nationwide, quickly pivoted to a weekly Zoom meeting format, keeping pace with the rapidly changing situation, respecting the distance requirements, and helping our business leaders apply for, prepare for, and manage the various relief programs.  We dealt with a limited outbreak, planned for Public Relations, and kept members appraised of the turnaround times each local bank was delivering their PPP monies. The advice was invaluable, and while our meetings are now hybrid with some in-person and some Zoom, we’re chatting with a bank president next month for his lessons learned.

A carefully chosen group of fellow CEOs who truly get to know your company provides invaluable feedback, and with the added dimension of confidentiality, can provide a regular sounding board. When choosing either an informal board of directors or a peer CEO group, look for both members with a high level of business acumen, synergies, as well as fresh ideas and perspectives. Build a rhythm of meeting with them regularly, so that there is a routine of feedback, accountability and a growing knowledge of how your company, as well as your peer companies, works.

Whether you connect with a few key mentors on a monthly basis, or meet with an industry-specific peer group quarterly, make an effort to seek the kind of feedback only fellow CEOs can provide. If it’s a local CEO peer advisory group, you’ll enjoy the benefits of getting to really know confidentially your neighboring CEOs both monthly and in the local community. Even more so, the RBTC is offering a technology-specific peer group in a new cooperative agreement with LXCouncil.  Open, sample meetings will happen in mid-October to give any CEO a sense of how things look when you can regularly step back and take a strategic view of your company.  Whatever you do, challenge yourself to do better, take time to be strategic, eliminate group think and tell your mentors or friends what your objectives are, so that they hold you accountable, before customers or employees take their business elsewhere.  The #1 reason a company stops growing is because the CEO stops growing.  Don’t let that be you.

Henry is President & CEO, Automation Creations, Inc.

 

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