It is incredibly liberating when you no longer have to be the smartest person in the room.
Art Saxby is the founding principal of Chief Outsiders, the largest executive level consulting firm that helps the CEOs of mid-size companies implement their visions of growth. His career started out in the defense industry moving into the corporate planning and strategy and then marketing at Frito-Lay. He then later continued his executive marketing development at Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and Compaq Computers.
What are you working on right now?
Culture building and team bonding. I just got back from meetings with our teams in the Northeast and Southeast. Our Texas and West Coast meetings are next week. We have three formal face-to-face meetings a year; two of them are regional meetings, and the third is a national meeting. But the purpose of these meetings is primarily to continue building our culture and teams, and secondarily it is for business reviews and training.
We know that there is nothing proprietary in what we do. The only way we can protect ourselves from competition and reach our objectives is to build a culture that is so strong and compelling that nobody else could attract the type of people we attract or be as successful in growing our clients’ businesses. But building a culture takes time and investment. It requires that everyone knows what we are trying to build and why. It requires constant reminding. And it requires active participation.
Where did the idea for Chief Outsiders come from?
After a great career in marketing working at some of the world’s best marketing companies — Frito-Lay, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, and Compaq Computers/HP — I found out what I loved to do. I love making big things happen.
In my seven years with The Coca-Cola Company, I learned great things and did great marketing, but I was never able to double the size of the company. When I got involved in mid-size companies, I realized that I could take the real strategic marketing leadership — not just the creative or cool stuff, but the lessons in how to strategically lead a company based on the market dynamics — and really make a big difference. Working as VP of Marketing at Imperial Sugar as part of the turnaround team that was formed after a bankruptcy, we were able to take the stock price from $1 to more than $35 in less than five years. I later worked to turn around and sell a financially troubled private equity-owned firm.
I later realized that while I could have the most fun and make the biggest impact working with mid-size companies, unless there was a crisis like a bankruptcy, most mid-size firms could not afford a real executive-level marketing person — at least not on a full-time basis. But on a part-time basis, where the marketer stayed focused on the key strategic initiatives without getting bogged down in the day-to-day fire drills, a senior marketing executive could lead and oversee the implementation of significant projects for a fraction of the cost of a full-time hire.
What value does Chief Outsiders provide for their clients?
We help CEOs and business owners implement their growth visions. We are a management consulting firm, but we don’t sell strategy decks. We focus on marketing, but we don’t sell marketing campaigns or websites. We feel that developing a strategy creates very little value. The real value is created when the strategy is implemented and the business grows. But developing and implementing major growth initiatives require different skills and strengths than running a business.
We allow business owners and CEOs to add a very experienced marketing executive to their leadership team. This person brings a market-based perspective and oversees the implementation of the growth initiative for a fraction of the cost or complexity of hiring a full-time chief marketing officer. We work on a fractional or as-needed basis as part of the leadership team for the six to 12 months it takes to implement a project. Then we fade away as the project is up and running and their people are training to continue growing the business.
Everyone at Chief Outsiders has held the position of VP of Marketing or higher at one or more operating companies. They are seasoned C-level executives who understand the operational and financial implications of a market-based growth strategy. This is a level of expertise that most mid-size companies have never had access to before, and the CEO can choose how much or little to use them with no long-term strings attached.
What does your typical day look like?
Typical is hard to say. Because our CMOs (chief marketing officers) are spread out across the country, we don’t have a central office. So in order to stay in contact, there is a lot of email chatter between people and groups, regular and ad-hoc phone conference calls, and a fair amount of video Skype.
I also spend a lot of time networking with business owners and other professionals. I am always on the lookout for people I can help by making introductions.
Some days I am working out of my home office, and some days I am on the road with multiple meetings. The only constant is that the day starts with emails as soon as I wake up and ends with emails after the evening news and before I go to bed.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I am a highly visual person. I love thinking about business and visualizing strategies. But the personality tests I have taken always classify me as an implementer first and strategist second. I love actually bringing the vision to life. And the way I do that is to share the vision, draw the mental picture of where we are going, how and why we are going there, and then allowing the company to build on to, modify, and implement the vision. So I guess I bring ideas to life by bringing other people into the idea, helping them grasp and own it, and then letting them use their skills to get it done.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The new trend that I am seeing is Executive-as-a-Service (EaaS). Today more than ever before, mid-size businesses have access to people and systems that they never could have before. Cloud-based IT systems and Software as a Service (SaaS) allows mid-size businesses to use highly advanced IT systems without having to purchase a bunch of back room computers or have a full IT staff. They can use as much or as little of the software as they need and grow into full utilization at their own pace. It is now the same with executive level expertise. Executive-as-a-Service (Eaas) — like the Chief Outsiders business — allows a CEO to have someone on the leadership team whom they could never afford to hire. They use the person’s skills as much as they want and then move on.
Many companies struggle with attracting top-level executive talent because of family ownership of the business or no long-term career track. The trend towards EaaS solves that problem because a part-time addition to the senior leadership team is not a threat to the other family members in the business. And the fractional executive doesn’t need a long-term career track with each business because they enjoy working on several businesses and constantly being exposed to new challenges.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I can honestly say that I never had a bad job. In every case, after a few months, I was able to redefine the purpose of the job and find something to love about it. Now I have had some not so good bosses who struggled to see the potential in the job or project that I saw. And I have had some jobs where the boss knew what they wanted done, but none of the rest of us could figure out what they really wanted. And I have had some really hard jobs like going into a company as part of the management team before or after a bankruptcy.
The thing that all of this has taught me is the importance of having a vision, sharing the vision, and allowing other people the freedom to use their skills to bring that vision to life.
As a leader, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
It is incredibly liberating when you no longer have to be the smartest person in the room. I probably have the weakest resume of anyone at my company. They are all much smarter than I am and much more accomplished in their fields. And by acknowledging that, first to myself and then to them, it liberates me. It allows me to say, “I am not sure. Here is what I am thinking and why. What do you think?” And because I don’t say it as a sham — I really do want to hear what they think — it allows me to use their ideas and skills to make my ideas better.
This trait is also one of the key things that we interview for. It is the first point in our core values: we look for people who are so incredibly smart and have such tremendous experience that they no longer feel the need to be the smartest person in the room. And we have asked people to leave the firm despite the fact that they are incredibly smart and bring great credentials because they didn’t really live this value.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Company culture trumps everything else. I really believe this. Our field is not organizational development or helping companies with developing a culture. We focus on business growth strategies and marketing. I have seen where the world’s best strategy can die a slow, painful, and unproductive death if the strategy is not aligned with the culture, or the culture itself is negative. But I have also seen where a culture is strong and positive — it can take a good worker and make them great, take a good strategy and make it fly, and make a company a family.
For help in this area, I highly recommend the books by Patrick Lencioni from The Table Group. His latest book, “The Advantage,” is a great summary of many of his other works, such as “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.”
What are your three favorite online tools, and what do you love about them?
I love video Skype because it helps to see people when you are talking. We do most of our management team calls via video Skype. When you have two to five people, it helps because everyone can feel involved, and you can see when and how a message or discussion is being accepted.
Join.Me is a great tool for sharing your screen with one or many people. We use it for our national staff meetings. Everyone calls in on a conference call number and the meeting leader sends out a Join.Me invitation. Then everyone can see what is on his screen, which can be a PowerPoint, website, or whatever.
I am on LinkedIn several times a day most days. It is a great tool for researching people and companies. It is also a great tool to stay connected, because people update their info if they switch jobs. You can also download your LinkedIn contacts into a mail distribution system and send those contacts newsletters.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Three times a year, we ship out a book to everyone in the firm for them to read prior to one of our regional or national meetings. Then at the meeting, we discuss and debate the book and talk about how we, or our clients, can benefit from the lessons. This is a simple but important part of reinforcing our company culture. It is intended to attract really smart people who like to learn from other smart people.
At this last meeting we issued and reviewed “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni. It is a great book about how the soft side of business — the “people working together” side — can be a huge advantage for a business. It covers how to get your leadership team to really work together, how to explain to the organization what you are doing and why, and how to engage the organization in your vision.
What’s on your playlist?
I am way too busy to listen to music. My car radio is set to a Christian station because the more good and positive things that go into my head, the more good and positive things will come out.
If you weren’t working on Chief Outsiders, what would you be doing?
I have no idea. I am sure I would be in marketing. I like mid-size businesses much better than the giant companies that I came from because I like to actually get things done and make big things happen. In my business today, I get to talk with lots of people who have started or own a businesses. They are great people who have passion and drive like no other group I have ever met before. So I might try and be one of them and start a business. I guess it leads back to where I am now — starting a business that implements growth plans for mid-size businesses.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I laugh a lot. This business building stuff is way too hard if you can’t have some fun with it. Last weekend, I was in New York City getting ready for our Northeast tribe meeting. Pete Hayes, my CMO, and our wives were with me, so we went to see the Broadway show “Rock of Ages.” It is a silly, campy show about ’70s rock and big hair. When I wasn’t howling with laughter, I was standing up, pumping my fist, and singing out “We built this city on Rock and Roll!”.
Who is your hero?
My dad is my hero. He was adventurous. When I was six months old and my brother was a year and a half old, he moved the family from Chicago to Switzerland to look for a job. He was a great father who was involved as we moved the family back and forth across the Atlantic several times. He was resilient, as he changed careers when the travel got to be too much for the family. He was hard working, and he let us see how hard he worked to teach us the value of it. And he had a great sense of humor and taught me the value of finding humor in everything. I credit my work ethic, persistence, values, and sense of humor to him, and those are the things that make me me.
Tell me about a time you failed and what you learned.
I have failed lots of times. Growing up in marketing — especially new product marketing with Frito-Lay, Kellogg’s, and Coca-Cola — was all about trying, failing, learning, and repeating. Many of those failures never got out of the labs or consumer research phases. Sometimes all of your projects seemed to blow up at the same time. So in order to thrive and enjoy that environment, you needed to learn to hold tight to your vision, have persistence, but you also should allow your vision to change and grow.
It is a lesson that has served me well. A leader needs to have a vision and be passionate about bringing that vision to life. They need to be willing to knock down all barriers in order to make things happen. They need to be willing to allow others to help shape the vision and grow the vision.
What is one thing that you consistently do that you would recommend others do as well?
I am constantly sharing my vision for Chief Outsiders. I look for any opportunity to reinforce and remind people in the company why we are here and what we are building. I share the vision in a way that pulls them in, helps them see how they are a part of the vision, and encourages them to use their individual skills to bring the vision to life.
I also share my vision with everyone I can outside the company. When I am networking, selling, or socializing, I tell people about what we are building and why. I explain that we are building a company that is attracting the world’s greatest marketers because we allow them to do the best work of their careers. We make big things happen and really transform mid-size and growth companies.