Your Most Important Legacy is the People You Leave Behind
Bill Reese has been sitting in the hot seat for decades.
He has served in his current incarnation, CEO of International Youth Foundation (IYF), for 13 years, although he actually joined IYF in 1998 as Chief Operating Officer. Prior to IYF, Bill spent 12 years as President and CEO of Partners of the Americas, the largest citizen-run volunteer organization that promotes economic and social development in the Western hemisphere. And before that he dedicated a decade to the Peace Corps, first as a volunteer and later as Director of Operations in Brazil. This man knows people, knows how to motivate, and knows how to get things done.
Given his extensive experience helming multiple INGOs, and in light of his impending retirement, I took this opportunity to pick his brain for the kind of solid advice he might have wished for when starting his career. As expected, Bill did not disappoint.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave at IYF?
As CEO, I have a big say in my legacy, but I’m not alone. My staff and my partners all contribute. My initial impulse is to say that the legacy of a CEO is to try to keep the organization focused on who they are. But when I really think about it, the true legacy is people. The people you hire, the people you fire; the ones who come to you very young and green or mid-career. You watch them, you coach them; they move up the ladder as they demonstrate loyalty and commitment.
I was thrown into a situation at Peace Corps (as Acting Director) before I was ready. I was told that “Acting Director” doesn’t mean sitting around waiting for them to hire someone - it meant taking action as necessary to move the organization forward. It was like being on a battlefield during a war – you get promoted because everyone else has been killed, and you learn what it takes to survive. I learned to surround myself with great people.
If you could give your younger CEO-self some advice, what would it be?
Learn a lot about HR! Learn how to hire, promote, and move people out. It’s a lot easier to fire someone from C-level who is a thief than it is to let go someone who is just not performing. That’s difficult to do without humiliation and blood on the floor.
The slogan “hire slow and fire fast” has worked well for me. Most people do the opposite. They fall in love with a candidate during interviews and six months later they don’t know what to do with the person. If an employee isn’t working out, who is to blame? Sometimes we move people around because the supervisor is not a good fit; there are always examples of that. But ultimately, taking it slow during the hiring process, not rushing to fill a gap, is the wisest move. That and cutting ties immediately when all appropriate avenues have been exhausted and nothing is working. There’s no sense in prolonging the pain.
What about the financials?
Always keep your eye on the business of business! I’ve always made sure that I understand the numbers and that I’m good with them. Someone once asked me, “Why do you care so much about this?” My answer was that I like to sleep well at night. You have to be familiar with your pipeline. You may not have any holes today, but that doesn’t mean you won’t in six months. Those are the kind of things CEOs need to pay attention to. Even with the most competent, trustworthy staff, a CEO should never turn their back on the financial side of things. You need to understand overhead rates and burn rates. I’ve seen CEOs delegate that stuff and later run into trouble that they could have avoided. I’ve always made it a priority to know the numbers side of the business and it’s always paid off for me.
Tell me one of your best kept secrets?
Networking! It’s so important. In our business, we aren’t Lewis and Clark, out there scouting the frontier alone. Our colleagues in other organizations have been there before, and most of the time they are genuinely happy to share their knowledge. Pick up the phone and ask people how they did it. “How did you open a new office in a foreign country?” It’s not top secret intel, and successful people are not threatened by guiding their peers. Make friends and get the network going. (It’s also a good way to keep an eye on the competition and their innovations. I made that a keystone of being CEO.)
Here’s a great example of networking: Back in the 80s I became the youngest CEO of Interaction. I won’t lie – it was intimidating. So when I became the Board Chair, Julia Taft (former head of Interaction) and I dreamed up the CEO retreat. We invited about 20 CEOs to come together to share experiences and mentor one another. I got to be friends with people through sharing meals and stories with them. Over time I mentored quite a few people, and that was great, because as a mentor you learn a lot too.
How do you manage being at the top of an INGO?
Once again, it comes back to your people. NGO staff are smart and educated, culturally sensitive and receptive of others feelings. That is all delightful, but it tends to lead to excessive amounts of discussion. Part of the culture is to talk things to death, even after a decision has been made. So I’ve learned that despite the caring environment you can’t please everybody, and I move forward with my decisions even if not everyone is on board.
Give us some closing thoughts about working with your Executive Team?
Here’s the reality – it takes time for an executive team to gel. Someone is always leaving, or you have a program that ends and you move people around and someone new comes in. Right now I have a fifteen person senior management team (SMT) that meets weekly, which is necessary, but somewhat cumbersome. It’s difficult to process fifteen points of view and make decisions at every meeting. So to streamline the process, I created an executive management team of four people that are also part of the SMT, and together we hammer out the details and make decisions. At first some of the SMT members feared that we were seizing power, but they soon realized the practicality of the EMT, and it’s no longer an issue. We had to get creative, but the SMT isn’t siloed anymore, and that makes us much more efficient and effective.