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Transitioning Your Skills as a Leader

By Lisa Woods (3743 words)
Posted in Leadership & Teambuilding on May 28, 2014

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Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Alan Weinstein, a successful business owner and expert in the field of Executive Coaching. Alan discusses the biggest challenges CEOs face as they transition their skills & organizations for growth, as well as his own entrepreneurial journey as co-founder of LaserTron. Serving as a Vistage Chairman for more than 20 years, he explains why CEOs and Senior Managers seek out coaching, what they should look for & what they should expect from the process. This is great insight for our readers and I thank Dr. Weinstein for taking the time to share it with us.


Q:  Your experience helping business leaders, and business owners, transition their skills and ideas into successful organizations spans more than 30 years. How has your own experience as an entrepreneur shaped the way you help others? 


I grew up in a family business and at an early age, I was struck by the contrast between the two branches of my family.  On one side of my family, everyone was loving and supportive. On the family business side, it was hierarchical and tense.  What I loved, however, was the independence that owning a business offered.  My earliest experiences as an entrepreneur were making and selling lemonade, pot holders, and in my era, delivering newspapers.  One of my first lessons was that being entrepreneurial is not for everyone. I grew one of my routes from 10 customers to 110, only to find out that no one wanted to take it over (let alone buy it) because it was a lot of work.  


I started several companies, three of which are still active. I do my Vistage work and consulting as Alan G. Weinstein and Associates. My executive coaching practice is run through The Executive Edge, LLC. My largest launch with Jim Kessler, who was my student at the time, is Lasertron.  This startup involved raising capital, developing the real estate site, creating a new technology, and working through the lean years until the business made money. In 1990 I founded the Center for Entrepreneurship at Canisius College. This was an outreach program designed to help companies to grow and prosper. I continue to work with some of these companies who joined one of my Vistage groups. I also worked with family businesses in The Family Business Institute, which I founded on the Canisius College campus. Here I worked with retiring and aspiring entrepreneurs as well as the top decision makers. Family members not involved in the business were always included. My early experience with family business told me that much of the dysfunctional behavior in family business came from those not in the business.


I am a strong advocate of writing business plans. All of my entrepreneurship students wrote a plan. While not every plan led to a business, knowing how to write a plan and what is important in the success of a business offered students a more objective view of what it takes to succeed from a startup.  


Q:  Tell us about your journey as Co-Founder and Chairman of LASERTRON. What lessons can you share with other entrepreneurs who are ready to invest in their own vision?


Jim Kessler and I often joke about comparing the Lasertron startup experience to Hercules and his many challenges.  It seemed that every initiative had unsurmountable obstacles. Here are two examples. We hired an engineer to build our prototype equipment and advanced him money to buy equipment and support himself. After missing several deadlines, we traveled to Cleveland where he was based. His work turned out to be worthless and he soon declared bankruptcy so we had no recourse to recover our investment. We turned to a local company to build our equipment.  They too failed to deliver.  In fact, our first demonstration to our shareholders failed. Our contractor decided they could not complete the project and terminated the contract.  We took a risk and hired one of their engineers to finish building our equipment. He succeeded in building a workable prototype but we had no funds to build a mold to make enough equipment to play the game.  Fortunately, I knew a local executive who had connections to Laramie Toy Company. They made toy guns. We struggled to find the funds to buy the minimum order of shells for our equipment. The lesson learned here was simple. Anything can go wrong. It takes optimism and perseverance to succeed.


A second example was raising money. Our initial fund raising was to develop the equipment. We needed a building to house the Lasertron game. We relied on a local developer to find a building or land where we could erect a building. Jim and I found a parcel that fit our needs. The developer refused to pay the asking price and we were back to square one. Talking with other developers, the idea was suggested that we be our own developer. However, this would require financing. We quickly learned that banks do not fund startups!  Through conversations with a bank officer we learned that the bank that would not finance Lasertron, would loan individual investors the funds to invest in Lasertron. We were able to package an equity and debt package for our investors that gave us the funds to buy the land, borrow (mortgage) the money to erect the building, and finish developing the equipment. We even had enough for working capital, which we later found out was too little.  The lesson we learned here was that friends and family along with an “angel or two” are the primary source of startup funds. 


There were many other lessons learned. To list a few, our builder went bankrupt and left us with many liens for work we had already paid him for; the town of Amherst would not allow us to put more than 3 video games in our facility because of a law that excluded anyone that was not specifically mentioned in the current law. This forced us to hire an attorney to change the current law. We suffered from the classic problems of initial sales that did not match projections, bad assumptions about our primary market and seasonality to our business that we had not anticipated. I often loaned the company money to pay the mortgage and make payroll. All of these problems were worked out but not without a lot of pain. Our bank viewed us as a high risk, even though we never missed a payment and had strong investors with deep pockets.  Once we were successful, however, this same bank used us in their advertising as an example of how it helped finance a successful small business.  


Q:  As a Vistage Chairman, you work with both CEO’s, as well as Senior Managers. What differences do you see between the two groups and how does one work to bridge the gap between them, both working together and advancing in one's career.


CEOs of small to mid-sized businesses are often the owner who either started the business or took it over from a parent or former owner. They understand risk, the need for sales, bank relations, working with business advisors, the need to get product out the door, hiring and firing. In short, they do it all. They have an integrated role, overseeing the entire operation.  Many entrepreneurs reach a plateau where they no longer have the ability to grow the company. Their expertise is often in the area of technology, sales and they may struggle as the business gets more complex. In larger companies, the CEO is usually better equipped to deal with the complexities of growth, larger markets, international sales, strategy, and even leadership. In family businesses, which make up 85-90 percent of all businesses, the CEO is most likely a family member. Here the CEO role is complicated by family issues that often invade the company culture.  Knowing the strengths and liabilities of the CEO and his or her issues is critical if a Vistage chair is going to help them to be successful.  


Senior managers are a different breed. They are typically trained and employed in a specialty such as accounting, purchasing, operations, HR, sales, etc.  They are less of an integrator than an expert in their functional area. The friction that often exists between CEOs and senior managers is usually around strategic thinking and silo management. CEOs often perceive senior executives as being more operational than strategic.  They are often accused of being limited by their own “silo” thinking and competing with other senior executives.  


In my view, integrating these groups requires two very important initiatives. First, the CEO needs to create an inclusive role for the senior team to work as a team and not in silos. Meetings where executives can communicate with each other collaborate on business issues and cooperate with each other for the betterment of the entire company is important. The executive team is the intelligence of the organization. When they are not aligned and working together, dysfunctional behavior usually follows.  


Another strong initiative is the coaching that occurs between the CEO and the senior managers. I strongly recommend one2one meetings where the senior executive is given the opportunity to review goal progress, get feedback, and learn how to leverage assets while managing liabilities.  CEOs need to be coaches, or hire their replacement. Coaching is the process where accountability and growth jointly take place. A CEO who does not coach senior managers is likely to get results that are subpar.  


Q:  What are the biggest challenges you find for CEO’s today as they try to transition their organizations?


Innovation, Leadership and Strategic Thinking.  


All products and services have a tendency to become commodities over time. Companies need to continually innovate to maintain and grow their markets. Sitting put on products or service delivery give competitors a major advantage on taking business away from your company. The most successful companies that I work with have innovation as a core strategy.  


Where do CEOs learn how to lead? For most it is a combination of what we learned from our parents, teachers, role models and former bosses. In my experience, most CEOs struggle to become strong leaders.  Most have never analyzed their leadership style and its consequences.


As a Vistage chair, I bring in expert speakers who talk about effective leadership. I also work with my members in one2one meetings to help them understand their own leadership style with its positive and negative consequences. In one case, a CEO of a very strategic, innovative company struggled with holding his senior executives accountable. These executives also had a silo mentality, often competing with each other and protecting their turf at the expense of customer satisfaction and profitability. After much coaching, the CEO decided to hire a COO to run the day-to-day company operations while he focused on technology and sales. Aligned on strategy, the CEO and COO worked together, each bringing a different but complimentary set of skills to the leadership of the company. The improved leadership led to stronger sales and a return to profitability.


Many companies are “me too” when it comes to strategy. They produce products and services that are easily copied by other companiesBusiness is highly competitive. If you do not have a strategy that differentiates you in the marketplace, you are likely to compete primarily on price.


Not all CEOs are strategic thinkers. Strategy involves many aspects of business, including value proposition, innovation, customer focus, distribution, on time delivery, and the perception of reliability and safety by the customer. It also requires that the CEO and executive team think beyond what is currently available. Status quo is not a good strategy in a competitive world.


Q:  At what point should a CEO or Senior Manager seek out an executive coach? Are there common triggers or scenarios that could require coaching, or is it something that everyone can benefit from? 


First, you must be coachable. In other words, you need to embrace change and be willing to take the steps necessary to change. While I believe that every executive can benefit from coaching, here are few triggers.


  1. Passed over for a promotion

  2. Acted out in a way that was dysfunctional

  3. Stuck in a job with little perceived opportunity for advancement

  4. In transition between jobs

  5. Bored or lacking in motivation at current job

  6. Individual has not lived up to potential in their view or the view of leaders in the organization.

  7. Major organizational change in strategy, structure or reporting relationships

  8. Not in touch with assets and/or liabilities that impact on performance

  9. Personal problems that spill over into work


Q:  There are a lot of Executive Coaches out there, what can you tell our readers about finding one they can trust to bring real value? How do you define that value?


Almost anyone can call themselves an executive coach. The field is cluttered with retired CEOs and senior executives, psychologists and HR professionals. Even the credentials handed out by coaching certification programs do not guarantee effective coaching. Here are a few caveats in choosing a coach.


Does the coach clearly state how he or she will work with you?  For example, I always tell a potential coachee that I cannot change their personality, nor will I try. What I will do is assess their assets and liabilities and help them to leverage their assets and manage their liabilities. Every coachee is different. The role of a coach is to work with those differences in order to help the coachee to be more successful in their coaching goals.


Coaching is not therapy, although a few of my coachees call me their “corporate shrink”. Beware of the psychotherapist who practices executive coaching. Executive coaching relies heavily on an understanding of business as well as methods of behavioral change. Therapy is based on an analysis of anxieties and dysfunctional behavior.  It draws from theories of psychoanalysis and clinical psychology. The goal of psychotherapy is to help the patient cope with reality. The goal of executive coaching is to help the coachee to be a better executive. If I perceive a coachee to have deep psychological problems that are beyond the scope of executive coaching, I refer them to a therapist who can help them.


Unlike consultants, coaches do not give you advice, or at least this is not the major method used by coaches.  Coaches “pull” what is important from the coachee’s experiences and help them to reframe these experiences into new ways of responding to challenges and opportunities.


Be prepared to answer lots of questions.  This is how a coach learns who you are and how you deal with your work world.


Expect to do the “heavy lifting” in a coaching relationship.  A good coach will not tell you what to do, but help you find the answers that work best for you.


Coaching is not a quick fix. Do not expect one or two sessions to bring about change. Coaching is a developmental process and can take months, if not years, depending on the goals. What goes on between coaching sessions is part of coaching and these experiences need to be shared and analyzed in the context of how the coachee is progressing with change.


The best way to find a coach is to ask others about their coaching experience and who helped them. It is like any other professional decision. References are one of the best ways to choose a coach. Vistage chairs are a good source of coaching references.


Q:  You recently published your book, Executive Coaching and the Process of Change: A Practitioner’s Guide. What inspiration drove you write the book and who is the audience?


I was inspired by my students, both undergraduate and MBA, coaching colleagues and by the need to clarify what coaching is and is not. Teaching students about change, personal leadership and executive coaching taught me that there is a vast audience that is totally unaware of how to create their own lasting change.  The failure of training programs is legend. MBA students learn about leadership theory but they do not learn how to become a better leader.  I am inspired by how rich the executive coaching model is in creating change. 


My audience is threefold. First, I have tried to lay out a strong coaching model for professional coaches to follow. This includes how to bring about change-a deficiency in most of the readings in the vast coaching literature. Second, I am trying to reach the aspiring coach who is looking for guidance in shaping their coaching methodologies.  My third audience is the individual who is seeking a coach. This person can benefit from an understanding of what coaches do and what to expect from coaching.


Q:  If you could have a reader take away three key elements from your book, what would they be?


Coaching is about change. A coach or a boss cannot change you. You must take responsibility for your change.


Change requires tension. The best tension is between a desired state (goal) and the current state or experience. 


We all have a balance sheet of assets and liabilities. The key to success is to leverage your assets and manage your liabilities.  


If I may add a 4th take away, be sure your coach understands business as well as how to create change.  It is hard to know which questions to ask unless you are familiar with the executive’s business challenges.


Q:  As you know, ManagingAmericans.com brings thought leaders together to share success tips and knowledge for the benefit and professional development of today’s business leaders and managers. Throughout your career as a successful Entrepreneur, University Professor, Consultant & Executive Coach, what is the one piece of knowledge you’d like share with our readers…something each of us should incorporate into our professional development process?


Serve your customer as best you can. When I coach, it is not about me. It is about the coachee. As a teacher, I learned that when my approach to students was to give them the best knowledge possible with my former teachers and colleagues as my internalized judges, at best, I got to some students. The majority could care less about this sterile approach. Whatever they memorized to pass their exams was quickly forgotten. When I personalized the course content, requiring students to relate what they were learning to their own experience, it opened another world for most of my students. They may have been exposed to less content but what they did experience was how to relate what they learned to themselves. I am convinced they will retain and apply much more of what they learned compared to what traditional teaching methods offer.


I believe personal success and influence is best measured by how our coachees, students or employees respond to our efforts to help them to improve. One of my students recently wrote me a three page letter thanking me for lighting a fire under him and guiding him on the track to success. It is this kind of feedback that reinforces the model of developing others. The same is true when a business owner or CEO reaches a milestone. If I had anything to do with this accomplishment, that is what drives me to continue what I do. That is how I define success.



{#/pub/images/AlanWeinsteinPhoto.jpg}Alan Weinstein is a coach to CEOs, a college professor, a consultant, and an entrepreneur.  Alan received his Ph.D in Industrial Psychology from Wayne State University. He has held professorships at Carnegie-Mellon University, Oakland University, and Canisius College. At Canisius, Alan was the Chair of the Management & Marketing Department, founded the Center for Entrepreneurship the Institute for Family Business. In 1988, Alan co-founded LaserTron, an entertainment company that manufactures and manages laser tag court games. The company is currently headquartered in Amherst, NY. In 1992, Alan started the first TEC/Vistage group in Western New York.  He now chairs two CEO groups, and  a KEY group. In addition, Alan created The Executive Edge, LLC., a company focused on Executive Coaching, Alan led his consulting company, Alan G. Weinstein & Associates. which specialized in organizational development, corporate training, team building, group facilitation, team building, and strategic planning. Alan also worked closely with several not for profit cultural organizations to create a collaboration, enabling these organizations not only to survive financial hardship but to flourish artistically He has served on several Boards of Directors including Perry’s Ice Cream, LaserTron, Stride Tool, EGW Associates, and North American Health Plans. Alan’s book, Executive Coaching and the Process of Change: A Practitioner’s Guide was published in 2013.



Written by Lisa WoodsPresident ManagingAmericans.com  Lisa is a dynamic business leader & author with more than 20 years experience leading, managing and driving growth in the corporate world. Today she partners with business leaders to understand their vision, identify internal and external roadblocks, define a practical strategic path forward and guide a successful transformation. This work includes strategy definition & goal setting, organizational design, facilitating team buy-in, establishing visual metrics, internal and external research studies, business feasibility assessments, and investor insight into organizational strength, weakness & strategic opportunity. She helps business leaders drive growth & increase profits.


Do you have a question for Lisa?  Post it in our Executive Leadership Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert



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Comments (1)

D. Waters posted on: February 28, 2024

Thank you for wonderful insights!{start up business management-Security Management-Best Practice Management Models] I have management responsibilities that involve recruiting and managing first responders and allied professionals and liaison with private and public entities. I have utilized the listening group format and tried to integrate a number of the best practices I have learned in Six Sigma and in Management CLE courses etc. I have even tried to integrate (old school) some of the methods I learned in college-keeping in mind way back then we were studying the Japanese business models! I find tensions among the more military minded first responders vis a vs the more social work oriented practitioners. Interestingly I find the younger first responders as less authoritarian but arguably with a less disciplined work ethic. Offering plank holder future- hypothecated bonuses and earnings for start up employees seems to have mixed results, thank you all for your expertise!

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