CEO to CEO Podcast: Larry Kihlstadius

March 24, 2021 Kevin Campbell

The CEO to CEO podcast is hosted by Kevin Campbell, CEO of Syniti.

This week's guest is Larry Kihlstadius, Vistage chair, and coach to many CEOs. Vistage is the world leading peer to peer CEO advisory organization, with over 24,000 senior executive members. Vistage provides guidance to CEO and executive peer boards to help senior executives make better decisions, ask better questions and grow both themselves and their companies. Prior to joining the Vistage, Larry was an accomplished human resource and recruiting executive at several prominent companies, including Accenture, Impellam and Kinetix.




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Kevin Campbell (01:34):

Welcome to this weeks, CEO TO CEO podcast, and we are excited this week to have Larry Kihlstadius on with us. Larry is the advisor to the CEOs of the world. So, we're excited Larry's a Vistage chair, but he does a lot of CEO coaching. So, I thought it would be great to have his perspective. So Larry, welcome to the show.


Larry Kihlstadius (02:04):

Thank you. Really happy to be here, Kevin.


Kevin Campbell (02:07):

How about giving us a quick overview of your career, Larry, and how you got to this spot.


Larry Kihlstadius (02:12):

Sure. And actually, that's really germane to this conversation because... How do I say this kindly? I guess I don't. Anybody can be a CEO coach. Anybody can be a life coach. Just throw a shingle out there and say, "Hey, I can coach you." And what you really find out is, unless you've actually been in the shoes of someone who started a business or run a business, it's hard to have that eye to eye efficacy with them.


So, the fact is in my background, I was very fortunate in the beginning of my career to do a complete re-engineering of a company function by function, with the Boston Consulting Group. I was the internal facilitator so process re-engineering was my first forte. Actually went to the Juran Institute and was the class ever taught by the legendary Joseph Juran himself. From there, I accidentally stumbled in the human capital management space. I really didn't intend to. I was just given this giving a speech on self-directed work teams and the CEO of North America for Randstad, When they came to the U.S. from Europe, big tall Dutch guy [inaudible 00:03:16] and says, "I'm Erik Vonk, and you will work for me." And I said, "Okay, I will do it." And it was great. We grew a company from a hundred million to a billion in five years. Great ride. I was a little bit hooked on the space after that, went out to work with Monster.


And then McKell Bill, the CEO of Monster, is busy making the world's biggest yacht, and I had a business plan for doing recruitment process outsourced, and he couldn't be bothered. So, I went to a company here in Atlanta and pitched the deal. They agreed to fund it. I was employee one and we started a company that literally within three and a half years grew to $48 million. That's actually where I bumped into my friend here, Kevin Campbell, when he was at Accenture. And from that journey, I learned what it was like to stare at the ceiling at three in the morning and worrying about my run rate, worrying about the talent I needed to get, worrying about, frankly, we aren't going to make the number. I had 14 months to get to profitability. Long story short, we did it, company ended up being... We became Sourceright, and then was sold to Ranstad.


From there, continued the journey on leadership, worked with the Accenture, and I did big global deals. I always remember Kevin telling me, "Larry, if it's not a hundred million dollars in a total contract value, don't bother with it." And I always thought that was kind of amazing, the scale of which we did things there." The CHRO of Vistage gave me a call, said, "Hey, this is a culture you would love. Come work with us." I worked for corporate Vistage for five years. I was a member for three years and... Fast-forward, chair in Atlanta is looking to retire, asked me if I'd like to take over his practice, and I do. And the last three, some years have been the best thing I've ever done in my life. So, there's the career nutshell.


Kevin Campbell (05:02):

That's awesome. And a lot of... As I said, practical experience, I think in the introduction, I made sure to focus on practical experience. So, tell us a little bit more about what Vistage is.


Larry Kihlstadius (05:17):

So Vistage is an organization that's been around since 1957. First of all, soak that in. How many companies survive since 1957? Depending on who you listen to, YPO could say they are, we can say we are the world's largest CEO membership organization. And the essence of it is very simple. If you hire a coach like a Larry, like me, you're going to eventually ring out their knowledge. But when you're in a group with 15, 16, 17, 18 other CEOs, and your only agenda is to help each other. You never ring that out. It is the efficacy of the peer group that makes it work.


Kevin Campbell (05:59):

How many groups do you chair today? Tell me how you put together the groups.


Larry Kihlstadius (06:03):

Okay. So I have four groups, three through Vistage, and one on my own. The one on my own is a give-back. It's a nonprofit CEO group of nonprofits here in Atlanta. It's a who's who of nonprofits in Atlanta, great group of people. But that's my give-back. I don't charge for that. I do it pro bono. Then I have what I'll call a larger company CEO group, which is... Roughly, I'm looking for companies between 50 million and up. Most of the companies in that group are somewhere between 75 million and 300 million. Then I have a smaller company CEO group, which is 2 million to 20 million-ish, and then I have a senior executive group. So, people who are either very high potential, think VP, SVP, EVP, C-suite senior executives. That's the practice. And then I also have my own individual coaching practice, which is about a third of my practice right now, which is just individuals that for whatever reason, don't want to join a group, can't join a group and just want to get coaching as we go along.


Kevin Campbell (07:05):

So, how many CEOs in general do you think you're working with or coaching at any one time?


Larry Kihlstadius (07:11):

Well, I actually did the math preparing for this conversation. So, here's the math. Right now, I have 48 CEOs and 23 senior executives in the practice.


Kevin Campbell (07:23):

Just getting to talk to them. I'm getting new idea. What keeps it fresh for you? What do you really love about being a chair?


Larry Kihlstadius (07:30):

So, without hesitation and without reservation, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever done in my life. I love every single day. I wake up energized... Everything I see and do all revolves around this statement. It is a privilege to coach the few who influence the many. And you think about by transition of the coaches... Coaching those CEOs and those senior execs, how many lives you're touching, in hopefully a very positive way.


Kevin Campbell (08:04):

A lot of CEOs get offers to get coached by a lot of people, as you [inaudible 00:08:09] in your preview. What do you think makes Vistage different? And the power... Maybe talk a little bit more about the power of the peer coaching.


Larry Kihlstadius (08:19):

So, very few CEOs get radical candor. And that's just the truth. That's what happens. They don't get a lot of perspective. They get a lot of white noise. They get, "Hey, you're the greatest." They don't get a lot of pushback. So, this is a place where they can go once a month and, in no uncertain terms, hear truth. They get to accept reality as it is, and they get to hear radical candor. And what that really leads to, is gaining perspective. And what I always tell them is, I think the main thing when I tell a CEO, "When you join this group a year from now, you're going to tell me, 'I listen better, I look for perspective more, and I actually lean into getting people to tell me the truth.'" Now, the second part of this is a little more personal for CEOs, and I make the joke, CEO sign-up and human beings show up. It's lonely. It literally is just a lonely job because everybody, for the most part, you're interacting with has an agenda for you, and sorting that out can be very lonely.


Kevin Campbell (09:25):

And you know, we can attest from the group that I'm in with you, that you get comfortable with each other, you understand each other's business, you build a personal side and then you get the radical candor, right?


Larry Kihlstadius (09:41):



Kevin Campbell (09:41):

There's a... Nobody's afraid to say anything.


Larry Kihlstadius (09:44):

It's so true. Be prepared to be vulnerable.


Kevin Campbell (09:48):

Yeah, Which I think is great. Do you have any examples that come to your mind of CEOs getting advice that you think kind of changed the trajectory of their company?


Larry Kihlstadius (09:59):

I do. And I'm going to start with one... It sounds like a soft topic, but it truly is not. It's culture. And one of the greatest things that's happened during my practice is watching one of my CEOs, has a pretty large company, well over a thousand employees across the country, do a complete culture reset and see that CEO change her actual persona of how she shows up. So, this whole idea... Leaders are always exuding micro messaging, and how you show up makes so much different. Your executive presence, your positivity... And an amazing culture shift in this company from one of we're not going to admit mistakes, we're going to all fake good, to one of radical candor, admitting mistakes, everybody's vulnerable, and we lift each other up.


So, that's one of the great stories that I could tell about how a CEO stepped into the culture shift, I'll call it. And then I think the other thing you see... And that was what the bigger company group, so I'll give you example for a smaller company group. For smaller company CEOs, it is literally about pulling out of the weeds. It's stop being the hero with the cape, start building a professionally run managed organization with real leaders and scale. Teaching them how to scale... And to me, [inaudible 00:11:22] nuts and bolts things like learning cashflow, really understanding how to manage your business from a strategic point of view and not a tactical point of view.


Kevin Campbell (11:32):

Great. And when you're doing one-on-one CEO coaching, which you do part of your groups but also... In your personal coaching business, what are the areas that people are typically asking for advice in?


Larry Kihlstadius (11:49):

Talent, talent. It's always about talent. And you'll hear a phrase from me a lot, and it's broken in the middle. And most of the times that's what happens. The CEO has a great vision has a great strategy. Their team gets it. They have clarity. And I use this term called organizational champion, and it really is about setting expectations, creating enormous clarity with response checking, and then creating the scoreboard so you can find out if you're actually winning or not winning in these things. I'll give a... I'm not a big Simon Sinek fan when it comes to the idea that you can't win in business. I think people get up every morning and win business. It's about winning against yourself, not against the world. It's a being your best self. And I think that's what we may spend most of our time in as we get rolling.


Kevin Campbell (12:40):

Mergers and acquisitions, do you get asked about those? Because those are common CEO growth tool, right?


Larry Kihlstadius (12:48):

[crosstalk 00:12:48] All the time. We talk about this all the time, and my advice to them gets back to some really simple advice. And it is, when you're looking to do an acquisition, what does their leadership team look like? Is there talent on their team that's going to translate over to your talent? Is the culture fit going to work? Because if it doesn't, it'll be a disaster. What's the basket of their client base look like? Is it diverse enough? Is it all leaning into one or two large clients? And finally, do they really lean into what you're doing? Do they buy into what you're doing? So, that's on the acquisition side and the merger side.


Now, being acquired is a whole different [inaudible 00:13:31], and that is knowing your number. Are you really going to be happy with the new ownership group because a lot of my CEOs have been bought by a private equity, and for the most part, I have to say, they're doing a pretty good job of doing what I'm telling you right now, which is making sure the culture fits there. And they clearly understand their role in the new organization, which by the way can be, I'm out. I got my number, I'm going to transition and I'm going to transition out, or am I staying in for that second, third bite?


Kevin Campbell (14:04):

That's good advice. Where do you think people get stuck? Is it always on the people issues on mergers and acquisitions?


Larry Kihlstadius (14:13):

Well, I think it's... If you want to use the word culture to envelop that... So, I think if you put people into culture, I think that's true. The other piece is the mix of talent. So, is it a force multiplier mix of talent or is it not? And then the other piece is just the markets. How do we go to market together? Are we strategically aligned to enhance what we can do in the marketplace? You do those three things, you're going to be in good shape.


Kevin Campbell (14:41):

The broader executives that you coach, that probably want to be CEOs some days, what do you think is the biggest thing that gets in way of people becoming CEOs or achieving their vision?


Larry Kihlstadius (14:58):

So, I want to put it really, really straightforward. Humility, humility. If you truly want to be the leader of an organization, leaning into your emotional intelligence, being self aware, being a good self manager... Do I walk my talk? Social awareness... Can I read the room? Do I have the executive presence to lead the room? And then finally, relationship management. Am I a relationship builder? Do I lean into empathy and vision? If you do those things, you can be a great CEO.


Kevin Campbell (15:38):

What are the other kinds of problems that you have to coach those executives through? Kind of the tier down that... You must get some that say "My boss is impossible."


Larry Kihlstadius (15:51):

It's interesting. I ask him to look in the mirror when that happens, because it's a relationship, right?


Kevin Campbell (15:57):



Larry Kihlstadius (15:58):

You have an impossible boss because you've created an impossible relationship. You're half of that relationship. I'm not giving you a lot of sympathy there. I may give you a little teeny bit of empathy, but you better look in the mirror there. But what it really is is top-grading their teams. Some of the greatest career advice I ever had in my life. And I actually use this quote, and Kevin you've heard me say it. I ask CEOs and senior executives all the time one quick question. What makes your life great? And the answer to that is great teams. Well, what makes great teams hiring A players and developing them. And what I see over and over and over again on... People not getting to where they want to go, not achieving what they want to achieve. It's because they've never really done the hard work of top-grading their team. And by the way, that's hard work because it's people's lives.


Kevin Campbell (16:48):

Yeah, it is. And [inaudible 00:16:51] sometimes have to make painful decisions. How do you coach people that say you've invested enough in this person and they're not going to get where you need to.


Larry Kihlstadius (17:02):

So, I ask them, "Have they truly..." It really gets back to, can you look in the mirror and answer these questions? Have you truly set the expectations you expect from this person? And have you truly, truly response check for clarity? Are they able to tell you back? What are the key responsibilities and what are the activities that go into that responsibilities? Do they have the willingness? Do they have the capability, and have I done everything I can to scale up their skill sets so they can do so, because if they can't, and you won't, they're going to be happier somewhere else, and you know you will be happier when they're somewhere else.


Kevin Campbell (17:43):

Addition by subtraction.


Larry Kihlstadius (17:45):

Sure is.


Kevin Campbell (17:47):

So, if people want to get ahold of you to join a Vistage group or to get CEO coaching, how do they get ahold of you these days?


Larry Kihlstadius (17:55):

So, the easiest, simple way is our dear friends over at LinkedIn. LinkedIn is your friend. I'm on LinkedIn. I'm a power user on LinkedIn. I love that place. I think it's a great community. So, find me on LinkedIn is the best way to do it.


Kevin Campbell (18:10):

Great. Hey, two questions we always like to ask every guest, which is who have been your mentors along the way?


Larry Kihlstadius (18:19):

I'd say the main mentor I had was my very first real corporate position after getting out of the service and all that and... That was Jake Gosa. He was about 5'7" 5'6" from Southern Alabama. And one of those little guys with a huge voice, and just this amazing magnetic personality and charisma. And he was the CEO at American Woodmark, was the company I talked about we did the re-engineering for. And all the advice he gave me really came down to one sentence, talent is everything. Develop your talent and develop the talent of those around you. Coach, coach, coach. Find great people and make them greater.


Kevin Campbell (19:10):

You want to throw in go Navy, be in the army [inaudible 00:19:14].


Larry Kihlstadius (19:15):

I always want to throw in and go Navy be in army.


Kevin Campbell (19:19):

And then, what's the best career advice you've ever gotten? I know you've gotten a lot along the way. You mentioned one piece a minute ago. What else comes to mind?


Larry Kihlstadius (19:30):

Well, unfortunately it was from you and I didn't listen. So, the best career advice I ever got was if you're already somewhere great and you're doing great work, rewards will follow performance. Don't go chase money. And unfortunately, I didn't listen. I went chased money. And to this day, literally, when people ask me what's the dumbest thing I ever did in my career, it was leaving Accenture and going to chase money. And not a good move. I learned from it the hard way.


Kevin Campbell (20:02):

Bill Green said... When we talked to him on national mentor day, he said his boss at the time when he had another job said to him, "You know what you have here." It's the same thing. Be careful you're not using the grass is always greener.


Larry Kihlstadius (20:20):

Yep. True words.


Kevin Campbell (20:22):

Yep. Larry, thank you for joining us today. Thanks for your good advice. And I'm hopeful that a multitude of people reach out to you because they can benefit from your coaching and your direct style. So, thanks for being on.


Larry Kihlstadius (20:38):

I really appreciate it, Kevin. It's always great to see you and I look forward to seeing you in the group next week.


Kevin Campbell (20:43):

All right. Thanks everybody. And tune in next week for our next episode of CEO TO CEO. Take care.

About the Author

Kevin Campbell

CEO, Syniti

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