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Taking the Leap: How CEOs get vulnerable

Joining then Young President's Organizations (YPO) had been my goal since first hearing about it from a childhood mentor who I looked up to. In short, YPO is an ultra-exclusive members’ organization for people who hold the role of CEO/President of mid-to-large size companies before their 45th birthday and costs an average of $10,000-$20,000 a year to be a member. While many revere a YPO membership because of its prestige and powerful network (if you placed all 25,000 members on an island somewhere, it would boast the 3rd highest GDP on the planet), I’ve come to learn that the #1 reason members renew their annual membership is because of the Forum experience.


Life after joining the YPO Forum

On the surface, the Forum set-up is simple. YPO members are placed in a group of seven to nine other CEOs. Forums meet monthly for four hours during which time members share openly about their business, personal and family lives. Specifically, we talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of what we are dealing with in all aspects of our lives - otherwise known as the top 5% and bottom 5%. From multimillion-dollar business exits, to being diagnosed with cancer, to infidelity, your Forum will typically know more about you than anyone else on Earth. The commitment is strict. If you miss two sessions you are automatically kicked out of the Forum and being late to a meeting could cost you up to $1,000 a minute.


It was at my first Forum session where I had a major Aha! Moment.


When I joined YPO, I was the youngest person in my Chapter. The achievements of my Forum-mates were literally out-of-this-world (one member was launching satellites into space – and that was just one of their many businesses). Leading up to our first meeting, I was so nervous about having to open up and be vulnerable with my new peers that I almost skipped the session altogether. Imagine worrying that your coveted YPO membership might be revoked because of your challenges and insecurities.


One by one, I listened as the other members of the Forum spoke about the highs and lows of their personal and professional lives. I could relate to so much of what they were sharing and was frankly surprised that other CEOs “at this level” still had these kinds of challenges – just like me.


Luckily, I was the last to share. My face was hot, my heart pounding and I felt as if I was on a choppy boat ride as my new Forum-mates looked at me and said, “you’re up.”


As I dove into sharing about the top and bottom five percent of my life, I talked about what was going well and spoke about a few challenges I was running into. Middle of the road stuff. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but think about how my Forum-mates had revealed incredibly personal and private details of their lives and here I was, feeling less than candid, not authentic. I stopped, and took a deep breath.


“Alright. I’m going to level with you guys,” I announced. “I am having a really hard time with a deal I am working on. In fact, I’m so stuck, I have no idea what to do.”


I took the plunge and got into the bottom five percent of my business – everything that was going wrong. I spoke about the things I was really struggling with in my personal and family life. The silence that comes after spilling your guts can feel like an eternity. Like skydiving, I had taken that plunge and now I was free-falling.


Then, one of my Forum-mates nodded and said, “Oh, I’ve definitely been there – and more than once.”


Another Forum-mate sighed and raised her hand. “Yep, dealing with something similar right now. Let’s talk about this more – I’m stuck also.”


Lonely, But Not Alone

Nobody offered any advice. Instead, my Forum-mates related by sharing their personal experiences. I was blown away – I felt understood, accepted and best of all, relieved. So much of the self-judgment I had put myself through now seemed so pointless. I felt the feeling of relief - that “it’s not just me” as I came off my island of isolation. What I felt that evening is impossible to capture in words, though I will never forget it. Elated and euphoric, instead of taking an Uber I walked/practically floated, the forty minutes back home on that brisk Colorado evening, wondering to myself:


“What if I had skipped the meeting?”


“How would I have known that what I was dealing with wasn’t ‘just me’?”


“How long would I have needlessly beaten myself up over it?”


“How different would my life have been had I joined a forum sooner?”


“Imagine if I had never joined…”


I had my first taste of being in a Forum, one step out of isolation and into feeling connection and community with others. I saw the enormous benefits this could have for people, for businesses and our culture at large.


Our business heroes, the people we see and read about doing the “big things” also share many of the insecurities we all do. So many of them rely on these Forums as a support group to help them cope, process and deal with their issues.


That night in bed, I thought, “If CEOs of big companies rely on this level of support and the opportunity to be vulnerable to help them with their lives, what is everyone else supposed to do?”


By joining a Forum, I got to experience how true it really was that so many people shared “my” problems and that having a truly safe space to share experiences could transform a life.

The Forum Experience changed my life and ever since, I’ve wanted it to be available to more than just CEOs.



Our organization, forums@work is offering free drop-in forum sessions to help people connect and cope as we work through the Corona pandemic.

To learn more and participate, visit www.forumsatwork.com


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