An Alliance Like No Other: Celebrating 25 Years of Bringing Leaders Together
September 15, 2021
Case categories include: Culture Founder’s Insights Leadership
Since September 1996 when our first Alliance of Chief Executives members gathered, we have had the privilege to work with thousands of leaders who strive to create successful and impactful organizations that make a difference in our world. Their fresh approaches in addressing today’s most difficult and complex challenges have transformed how we live and work. We believe, as they do, that leadership really matters, and we are inspired by their tremendous work.
As we celebrate our 25th year as a thriving leadership community, we reflect on the contributions of our Alliance members who have truly shaped our community and strengthened our journey. We spoke to more than a dozen Alliance members to discover the many ways the Alliance has shaped their own leadership journey. Every member’s experience with the Alliance is different. Yet they all have a similar story to share — a moment in which they understood how unique and valuable the Alliance truly is.
Shared below are some of our Alliance members’ experiences from throughout the years.
Kirsten Bay, Co-Founder & CEO of Cysurance, joined the Alliance in 2015, and said that at the time, she had some big decisions to make about her business and herself. “That’s the thing that is so nice about what we do in the Alliance — it is about you, your role and how you maximize your capabilities in your role, in addition to the business considerations.”
She remembers her feelings of uncertainty about whether the Alliance of Chief Executives was right for her, even after her first meeting. Everyone seemed more qualified to be in the Alliance than she was. Why was she being invited to join?
But when Bay shared this feeling with her Alliance Director, she got an interesting response. “It’s funny you should say that,” he told her, “because your compatriots were so impressed by you they weren’t sure they deserved to be part of your group, too.”
“I actually call upon that moment at times,” says Bay. “If I think I’m failing, I realize I’m with all these people who support me and who are challenged by the same things I am, and I have a group who I can reach out to.”
Bay moved from California to New York a few years ago and says her connection and involvement with the Alliance continued, as did the support she received. By participating in roundtable events focusing on the cybersecurity and software industries, board programs and her private Alliance group meetings, she says that she feels very fortunate to have these activities made available to her that she ordinarily wouldn’t without her connection to the Alliance community. “It’s been enormously enriching for me in so many ways,” she says.
And because the Alliance community is now broadly distributed across the globe, Bay comments that there is a huge opportunity for leaders to think in a collective about how they can influence larger societal change. “We all are in businesses that are growing or morphing and changing in so many ways that I think it’s an opportunity for us to expand horizons to be more influential in the larger conversations. I am excited for what we can do in the future and I’m so grateful to be part of our group,” said Bay.
Jim Flatt, CEO of Brightseed, a biotech firm using artificial intelligence to uncover molecules in plants that have direct links to human health, enjoys the fact that, for every situation a leader may face, there’s a good chance other Alliance leaders have faced it before. “In a way, the Alliance helps prepare you as if you’re in training for a marathon or any other major endeavor,” he says. “All of those hours of practice help, so when that moment is yours, you’re prepared for it and can deal with it in the best way possible.”
Flatt joined the Alliance in 2018 and describes its culture as heart charging, humble and diverse — diverse not only in the conventional use of the term, but diverse in the experiences, industries, and outlooks of its members.
He says he appreciates the new insights developed through his Alliance participation, as well as the different ways of thinking about problems. “You learn from each other, and in a way, can help someone else at the same time you help yourself.” Flatt discovered that Alliance relationships can also help with previously unseen challenges, too. For example, by launching a series of member surveys at the start of the COVID pandemic, the Alliance played a role in helping Flatt and other leaders navigate the crisis by leveraging insights from across the entire Alliance.
“I ultimately concluded from all of the discussions that remote working can be quite productive,” Flatt says. “I think that challenged all of us who had biases that (remote work) wouldn’t be as productive. But, where remote working seems to fall short is that you may not get the same outcomes with respect to innovation, which actually requires an in-person exchange of ideas and workshopping that happens with having close proximity to one another.”
As Flatt looks toward the future, he considers the discussions he’s had within the Alliance to help test and refine the strategy for his company. “I feel that, in short, our strategy and opportunity is deeper and richer than when we started with the Alliance. So, I can definitely attribute some of that benefit to having worked through that as part of the Alliance.”
Doug Leeds, who has been a member of the Alliance for the past decade, says there’s “no better place to actually work on who you are as a leader and how you lead as a CEO” than the Alliance. “It just opens your eyes to so many things,” says Leeds, who is currently the CEO of EAT Club, a cutting-edge food tech company. As a leader, “you spend up to 100 hours a week on your own issues. Getting outside of that and thinking about other issues is a great sort of cross training workout that really helps you in your own role,” he says.
Leeds recounted an early, challenging moment as a leader in which his Alliance group helped him gain perspective. “It was tying me into knots and making me so frustrated and upset,” he says. “I explained the whole situation and I got a lot of great advice, but sort of across the room people were saying, ‘chill out.’” The message he received was that “‘there’s an easy path, and if it doesn’t work, it’s OK. This is not about your life. It’s not an existential issue for your company. It’s just an issue.’ It was the most impactful thing that could have happened to me at that time.”
Cat Lincoln of of CLEVER, the world’s first full-service influencer marketing agency, joined the Alliance in 2015 when she was a first-time and inexperienced CEO. She remembers the friendly and welcoming environment she stepped into and was surprised by the curiosity expressed by other Alliance leaders about her experiences and perspectives. “People who had founded and sold multiple companies cared about my opinion, and it felt great to be able to contribute something meaningful to the conversation,” she said. Even though her industry was different from everyone else in the group, she mentioned that the challenges she presented were very familiar to everyone. “It was so helpful to find out that the hard things about my job were actually ‘normal’ CEO challenges, and I could learn from their experiences instead of figuring out everything by myself. I was sold from that moment!”
Today Cat says the Alliance represents a place where she can bring a problem, big or small, and know that everyone will meet her with unconditional acceptance and support. “There will always be someone who has experienced something similar, and can help, or knows someone who can help — and it’s so satisfying when I get to be the person who can help!” She comments, it’s a place where members can celebrate each other’s wins, and all feel like winners.
Craig Hinkley, joined the Alliance during his first leadership role six years ago. “The Alliance intrigued me because I knew I was at least aware enough to know that as a first-time CEO I would need the support of other CEOs as I navigated the path,” says Hinkley, who is currently the CEO of NTT Application Security, a global technology and business solutions provider.
“I remember from my first meeting feeling incredibly welcomed, but also this sense of being at home,” he says. “The openness of my group and the directness and candor in which they communicated, interacted, discussed, debated ideas was fascinating to me. It was one of those things where you kind of looked around and thought, I want this.”
That openness helped Hinkley during a critical moment in his career as a leader. “There was a point, maybe a year into my time with the Alliance, where I asked my group for feedback on my leadership style,” he says. “Because I had built a relationship with them, they were able to give me the cold, hard truth of what some of my strengths were, but just as importantly, what they observed as potentially some of the weaknesses that were holding me back from being a more effective leader. It was invaluable to me, because it gave me objective evidence and insights that I would not have necessarily gotten from my leadership team.”
Today, the Alliance is “a core part of my leadership DNA,” Hinkley says. “I know I can put any issue on the table and I’m going to get unbiased, great, thoughtful, intelligent, diverse perspectives and potential suggestions for ways to handle a situation that I know I would not have been able to create on my own.”
Ted Elliott, CEO and Alliance member since 2012, credits the Alliance’s transition to Zoom meetings to continuing engagement at Alliance meetings during the pandemic. “We’re all seeking that direct connection — but it’s OK that people are not meeting in person,” says Elliott, whose company, Copado, is a provider of a DevOps solution for Salesforce. “It was really helpful at the beginning at COVID. And the polling the Alliance did about where people think the market is going gave us a pretty good sense of what the business climate was and when it was coming back. It was a really unique piece of intelligence.”
Elliott most appreciates the culture of his Alliance group. “We lay it all out on the table, and some of the best feedback is stuff that hurts to hear,” he says. “But it’s never done to show someone up — it’s done out of, ‘how do I actually help you?’” That dynamic has been particularly useful to Elliott when facing personal challenges. “The Alliance gave me the ability to start appreciating things that weren’t natural for me to appreciate until all the other people in the room were saying, ‘Hold on a second, get it together.’” he said. “I think I’ll always appreciate that. It’s very easy to think everything’s horrible in the world. But you judge character by how you get back up on the horse, not how you fell off.”
Elliott adds, “The journey is much more important than the on-ramp or the exit — it’s who you’re on the journey with, what you share with them, what you’re trying to achieve. I feel like the Alliance is part of the journey.”
Ravi Narula, CFO of FinancialForce, a customer-centric business applications on the leading cloud platform from Salesforce, also remembers how important the Alliance was to him in the early months of the pandemic, when panic was in the air. The Alliance surveys combined with “temperature checks” by Alliance leadership and a shift to virtual group meetings via Zoom really helped, he says.
“More importantly, it was all these different conversations and lines of discussion on the IT side, the finance side, HR that were very helpful,” Narula says. “The Alliance did an amazing job helping all the members saying, ‘OK, what’s happening? What’s working? What’s not working?’ By bringing all the Alliance members together, being a resource for each other, it gave us a lot of information about what we should be aware of.”
Narula, who joined the Alliance in 2016, describes the Alliance culture as very pragmatic and transparent, and says his group is willing to ask tough, honest questions about issues. “It starts with relationships and trust. I do feel those are the two foundations of the group. And that exists very well within the Alliance.” By thinking outside the box and getting slightly outside of one’s comfort zones, Narula says that’s where “Aha” moments originate.
For his part, Narula says the best thing he received from the Alliance was another family. “Last night, I finished my work when an Alliance member called me and he said, ‘I’m ready to retire and need some advice,’” Narula said. “He and I spent 45-50 minutes in conversation and decided to have lunch in a week or two weeks from now. When we meet each other at an Alliance meeting or outside the Alliance, it is truly a family.”
Diana Abdueva, a first-time Founder of BloodQ, said her biggest discovery about the Alliance was how relatable and honest Alliance group discussions could be. “The amount of active listening that everyone was offering to each other was just fascinating,” Abdueva says of her first meeting in April 2021. “All of those folks were actually experienced CEOs with tons of problems, and yet for a specific moment, everything was put aside, and everyone listened very actively.”
Abdueva believed she had already mastered the practice of active listening as a parent of two children. But after the meeting, “I got the feeling that there was a ton to learn on my end,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that degree of deep communication that was taking place. I’m not an easily impressed person, but it was quite shocking to see the amount of attention that was offered in the room over a course of three hours.”
Abdueva acknowledges being a “bit skeptical” about the Alliance before she experienced it. “It was very liberating to actually take a step aside and learn from a completely different model,” she says. “It was an opportunity to learn from a much broader domain of knowledge, and all of it is being packed and memorized in a very different sort of personalized manner, which I absorbed so much better than anything else.”
Aaron Silva, President/CEO of Paladin fs based in Austin, Texas, was a young, eager entrepreneur when he joined the Alliance in 1998 working on a technology incubator, which was a new concept at the time. He recalls the wonderful, life-long friendships that he has made over the years with diverse leaders throughout many industries — accounting, construction, professional services, industrial, engineering, software and more. He appreciates the encouragement, respect and advice given to him, and his own ability to give and help others. “I like to take my brain off my company for a little bit and think about other people’s companies. I’ve always been interested in doing that. And so, I hope that I’ve given back and created equity for others.”
As many can relate, Silva says that when things are going right, leaders have lots of options they can pick from. But when things aren’t going right, options are sometimes limited. He recalls the moment when his first company was experiencing financial challenges and he was introduced to an Alliance member who was affiliated with his industry. The member suggested that Silva call every single one of his customers and vendors and tell them what was going on.
“I thought, that’s the last thing I want to do — I didn’t want anyone to know that we might not make payroll,” he said. “But I did, and it was as the best advice I ever got. I was shocked at the response I got from vendors that were willing to do anything they could to help, and customers who were willing to do anything to make sure we could still serve them. It was absolutely fantastic.”
Silva says he appreciates the Alliance’s diversity of opinion and experience, and how Alliance Founder & CEO Paul Witkay and Alliance Directors have created a platform where leaders can feel good about saying what they had to say. “The Alliance is a place where you can share ideas openly and discuss them and you weren’t judged,” he says.
The Alliance is truly grateful for all our members who have been willing to share their experiences, challenges, and insights with each other for the past quarter century. We have so much to learn from each other across a wide, global network of leaders, and we can only imagine what the next 25 years will bring. But we are certain that the kind of deep strategic exchanges that happen within the Alliance will continue to help us all challenge our existing assumptions, generate breakthrough ideas, and overcome future obstacles — together.