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Vistage Chicago guides business owners with one-on-one coaching sessions

Vistage, a CEO membership organization, began in 1957 with more than 16,000 members across the globe and has been helping executives improve their businesses through peer advisory groups for more than half a century. The organization utilizes both peer group meetings and one-on-one conferences with experienced mentors, giving business owners the tools they need to take their company to the next level.

Chicago's own Vistage Chief Executive group has been led by entrepreneur John Page since late 2007. We chatted with Page to discuss the corporate path that led him to start his own Vistage group in Chicago, when the time is right to take that long-needed vacation, and how bizarre it feels for a pre-millennial businessman to hold a meeting at Panera.

What is the inspiration behind Vistage?

It started in Milwaukee, and Chicago was clearly one of the first markets that it migrated to, and still Chicago has one of the largest numbers of CEOs in the Vistage world. Chicago and Orange County, California are two of the largest markets out there.

It’s delivered through individual, facilitated, and trained chairs like myself, which is different than a lot of other groups out there that may not use facilitators.

When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Every day that I worked for somebody else. It’s funny because I have always been entrepreneurial, even when I worked in larger organizations. Sometimes you have the flexibility to do that.

Right after grad school I started a new department and then I was recruited to the University of Nebraska to start a new department. Being entrepreneurial within a larger organization is easier to do when you’re in charge.

When you live and die based on your decisions, I can live with that. I can’t always account for what someone else thinks is a great idea, which is the frustrating thing about being an employee; you may have great ideas but getting them accepted and implemented may prevent you from following through with them.

I think that’s what makes a lot of entrepreneurs that start in a “safe” business. They get frustrated because they could do something else, so they go out and they do it. That’s what happened with me. Somebody said, “If you think you can do it better, then go ahead and do it.” I said, “Hey, you know what, that's great advice.”

What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do as an entrepreneur?

I’m not a salesman, so everything I do is really based on developing a relationship and relationships take time. You’ve got to learn to give things the time that they need to develop and be willing to invest in creating that relationship.

For example, the first member I ever signed as Vistage chair and I just passed our five-year anniversary. My first member I ever signed got his five-year anniversary plaque the same time that I did. Half of my first group is likely to be five year members this coming year.

Longevity in what I do is important, but also hard to do because you have to continue to provide value and if someone doesn’t feel they’re getting value from you, they’re going to vote with their feet and walk.

What tends to be your daily routine?

Every day is different for me. I don’t even have an office routine. I had an office when I first started and got rid of it because I found that I was never there; I go to where my clients are. When I do a one-to-one session with them, it really depends on where they want to be, but it is never at my office.

It’s their choice -- I’d never anticipated that people would talk about their business at a Panera, for example. I do more business at Paneras than I do just about anywhere else. It makes for drinking a lot of iced tea, but the reality is that it’s an environment where people feel safe and as long as you provide them with that safety they are very willing to work with you.

When I “worked” for a living, I typically got to my office somewhere between seven and nine, and I would leave somewhere between seven and nine at night. I’d never been to a Panera. I had no idea what the heck it was.

The first time I went there I thought, This is the middle of the day, what the heck are all these people doing out of work? I could not imagine doing something that didn’t involve being in the office "working"--what I would consider productive.

The reality is that in this day and age location is secondary. I can be much more productive in my home office than I could have sometimes in a formal office. We complain about millennials and how they work. Well, they do work differently, but that doesn’t mean they work any less, it doesn’t mean they’re lazy.

They may be working at 11 o’clock at night. In fact, one of my colleagues today said, “I got the proposal.” I didn’t see it until this morning because I was doing what I should have been doing at 11:16 pm: I was sleeping.

I’ve learned to work as needed and I think it is one of the things that technology allows us to do that we couldn’t always do before. I could be anywhere -- sometimes good and sometimes bad, where you can be on the golf course or you can be on a cruise somewhere and still conducting business.

What do you like to do to relax after a long day of work?

I have been so busy the last five years I’ve recognized that I’ve not taken a vacation once. I’ve scheduled one for December and beginning to take my daughter on some college trips to look at colleges and things like that.

That is one of the things that happen when you’re trying to build a practice or a new business. Unfortunately vacations take a backseat. It’s funny because it’s not something that I’d let one of my members get away with. I’ve had that discussion -- the need to take a vacation -- and I’m feeling that need right now.

But I can’t complain. Life is good: building a new group, have a new board appointment on a company in St. Louis. It’s a good time. I have to admit, 2008 was not the best time to start a new business, but I’ve made it through and hopefully paid my dues in the last five years so my labors are now beginning to bear fruit.

What advice would you give to any beginner entrepreneurs out there?

Do what you enjoy doing. The old Confucius saying: “Any man who loves what they do will never have to work a day in their life.” I do what I love to do. I don’t consider it work. I only work with people that I want to be with; nobody tells me that I have to take a customer.

This job has spoiled me. I've gotten to the point where I am very "unfiltered", as my 17 year-old calls it. I’m very honest with people; call them on things where sometimes they’re not prepared for the honesty. 

If you look at what I do, a CEO probably has no one else that they can trust at that same level, everybody has some kind of an agenda, and that’s not a bad thing. Your wife has an agenda: she wants you to do well and provide for the family. Very few people in your life have no agenda -- are there only for you and are there to hold you accountable when other folks in your life will let you slide.

That’s what I see my role as right now. I’m really there for my members and to call them on things that other people may see but not want to be brutally honest about. Sometimes the impediment to their business growth or their personal growth is them, something they’re doing or something they’re not doing. Pointing it out to them is part of my job.

At the end of the day, they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. They’ve got to determine what they’re going to do to correct something. But sometimes they’re just not even aware that they’re doing something.

What’s next for Vistage?

One of the things we’re looking at is the "traditional" face-to-face model that we’ve used on an ongoing basis. I think one of the things that we’re looking at is whether we can provide valuable services differently, different delivery models and levels of service that don’t necessarily require a full day, face-to-face meeting.

A face-to-face peer group is still critically important, but are there other ways to do this as well? I think that’s what we’re beginning to explore: using technology to provide a "Vistage experience" that is different. It could be a supplement to the traditional delivery method. In fact, I am facilitating a Vistage session 'online' in March to a specific industry vertical - healthcare. That's a new offering for me and this group. We've also begun creating "Vistage groups" within large organizations to provide a facilitated peer group opportunity for 10-20 senior leaders within a single large organization. Challenging them, facilitating better decisions, enhancing accountability and ultimately improving the business bottom-line! 

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