Walter Paulsen | Vistage CEO | Midlife Fulfilled Podcast

Ep 158 Lessons from a Silicon Valley Vistage Chair for High-Achieving CEOs

Walter Paulsen, a Vistage Chair sheds light on the power of CEO peer coaching and the importance of balance in this Midlife Fulfilled podcast episode.

Walter Paulsen is a seasoned executive with a passion for coaching and mentoring other CEOs and founders. With a background in senior leadership positions, Walter joined Vistage, the largest CEO coaching organization in the world, as a coach and facilitator. He underwent extensive training and now leads confidential group sessions where CEOs from various industries come together to discuss their toughest challenges. By creating a safe space for vulnerability and collaboration, Walter helps these leaders support and learn from each other, resulting in extraordinary success for all involved. As the “ringmaster” of his CEO group, Walter is dedicated to helping others thrive in their roles and achieve their business goals.

In this episode, Walter sheds light on the power of peer-level advisory groups and the transformational journey of CEOs navigating the high-pressure environment of Silicon Valley.  Additionally, Walter discusses his upcoming book, focused on achieving balance as a technology CEO.

Key discussion points from the conversation:

1️⃣ The power of peer-level CEO coaching: Walter sheds light on the incredible results that come from CEOs being vulnerable with each other, sharing their hardest issues in a confidential setting, and helping each other succeed.

2️⃣ The CEO journey in Silicon Valley: With a track record of success and failures across 10 startups, Walter brings a unique perspective on the highs and lows of the tech world, culminating in his commitment to help other CEOs succeed.

3️⃣ The quest for balance: Through his upcoming book, Walter aims to guide CEOs in achieving sustainable success without sacrificing their health, relationships, and personal fulfillment – a message that Silicon Valley can benefit greatly from.

I recommend giving the episode a listen for some valuable insights! If you’re a CEO interested in contributing to Walter’s upcoming book reach out to him on LinkedIn.

🔥 My affiliate link to Castmagic, which I used to help produce these show notes. 🔥

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Episode Transcript

Bernie Borges [00:00:00]:
Walter, welcome to the Midlife Fulfill podcast, a maximum episode.

Walter Paulsen [00:00:05]:
Well, hi, Bernie. Thanks for having me on the show.

Bernie Borges [00:00:08]:
Well, thanks for being here. I’m looking forward to our conversation. Walter, you have an amazing background, and I’m really intrigued by what you’re doing today. You are a Visted Chair in Silicon Valley, California. You lead a CEO peer advisory group. You’re also a CEO and founder in Silicon Valley across 10 different startups. That’s amazing. And you’ve had 6 exits.

Bernie Borges [00:00:33]:
And you say that your most notable success was leading the launch in the growth of Blackhawk Network’s gift card mall. And you took that from an idea to $500,000,000 and 80% share in the grocery channel. That is very, very impressive. You are based in Palo Alto, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. And you’re a sought after expert on entrepreneurship and lean startups and corporate innovation and leadership of high growth companies. And, Walter, you’re also working on a book that’s focused on balance in the life of technology CEOs. So we’re gonna we’re gonna talk about that. But let’s begin, Walter, with tell us about Vistage.

Bernie Borges [00:01:15]:
I’m familiar with Vistage. Other people may not be. What is Vistage about?

Walter Paulsen [00:01:20]:
So Vistage is the largest, peer CEO coaching organization in the world. It’s been around about, you know, 50 years, and the model is really simple. They find people who’ve been senior executives, CEOs, and founders who are ready to move for whatever reason from the playing field to being coaches, and they provide a bunch of training. And then the way these groups work is we get CEOs together from noncompetitive industries and have them talk about their hardest issues in a totally confidential setting. We encourage them to be vulnerable, admit they don’t have all the answers, and the results are really extraordinary when CEOs can relax and not have to be performing and sort of showing everybody that they have all the answers. Mhmm. They really help each other succeed, and and it’s just a fabulous thing to be a part of, and I’m sort of the ringmaster of our CEO group.

Bernie Borges [00:02:19]:
Something you said in describing it that I think really resonates is you said it’s it’s peer level advisory. So it’s CEOs sitting in a room together, and then again, you’re the ringmaster. And so you’re using the phrase ringmaster. The word that comes to mind is like you’re the conductor of an orchestra. Right? You have you’re making sure that the CEOs are engaging and getting value from the conversation. I I would think that this it’s fun, exhilarating, but also maybe challenging at times.

Walter Paulsen [00:02:54]:
Oh, you’ve got that right, Bernie. Depending as some CEOs, they really like to talk a lot, but don’t like to share any of their problems. CEOs are used to being the smartest person in the room and sometimes they like to jump right to giving suggestions. And so there is an element, and I and I I like the conductor slash maestro angle, but, you know, Ringmaster sort of captures some of the improvisation, that that goes on. But, yeah, really, the the keys are to get the right people in the room and then sort of guide the conversation so that people are heard and feel heard. And one of the amazing things is not only do the CEOs who are talking about their issue get health, and we’ve got all kinds of data on problem solving and how well companies do that are led by vestige CEOs compared to none. But when you get CEOs engaged, they recognize things in their own businesses that they they they go tend back. Even if they’re just giving suggestions, even if they’re just listening, they’re like, oh, I’ve seen that.

Walter Paulsen [00:04:08]:
I got I have that issue, and I haven’t thought about it. And so it’s really, and especially as the group gels and people trust each other more. It’s really remarkable, you know, how they look out for each other. It’s just, it’s a great thing to be a part of.

Bernie Borges [00:04:23]:
Yeah. Walter, tell us your journey. How did you get to be, a a Vistage chair?

Walter Paulsen [00:04:30]:
Well, you know, like, you know, most paths in Silicon Valley, it’s a it’s a long and long and winding road. I started my career, in media. I worked at 20th Century Fox early in my career. I, financed a bunch of pretty popular fitness, Speed, Doubtfire, Home Alone. Braveheart Had a great time, and then I ran home entertainment, for Asia Pacific. So I spent a lot of time in Tokyo and Seoul and Hong Kong and Singapore and Sydney. But there was this thing bubbling up the coast in Silicon Valley, the, you know, the world wide web. And I decided that sounded like a more invigorating place to spend my career than at a movie studio.

Walter Paulsen [00:05:10]:
So I moved up here to the Bay Area the month Netscape went public and, did a corporate venture job for a couple of years, with actually a big Japanese, company, NEC. And then I started working at at start ups. And as you said, there’s been, you know, 10 of, you know, 10 of them, 6 have had exits. Now to be to be clear, you know, half of those, we sort of got the investors money back plus a nickel. I mean, it was it was just it was and and and the the ones that didn’t work, they didn’t work. People didn’t get their money back, and those felt terrible. But the ones that worked were pretty, pretty exhilarating, had a couple of triple digit Midlife exits, and then Blackhawk ended up being a, you know, quite unexpected rocket ship. So I had this long journey.

Walter Paulsen [00:06:01]:
And then right before COVID, I shut down my last start up, which was an agricultural technology, for indoor farming, and I joked that it was almost a good idea. We got reference customers. We’d raise some money, but we just missed the product market fit. And I was thinking about starting something, joining a team, and then I realized that I would rather help people who’d been in my shoes succeed, both fly higher and also avoid some of the stumbles that I’ve seen my peers made and make and I’ve made myself. And so so that journey started about a year and a half ago, and I just it’s the most, you know, satisfying work I’ve ever done.

Bernie Borges [00:06:44]:
Yeah. I I I can I can certainly understand why it would be with your background? Now, Walter, being in Silicon Valley, you’re probably in the highest concentration of technology companies as well as very, very driven start up CEOs. So I’ve had some exposure to Vistage, but not in Silicon Valley.

Walter Paulsen [00:07:07]:

Bernie Borges [00:07:07]:
And so I’m wondering how coachable are these high achieving, you know, fast moving, driven Silicon Valley CEOs?

Walter Paulsen [00:07:17]:
Great question. And and 2 things. First, not all of the CEOs in my group are technology CEOs. We’ve got, you know, a number of tradition. We’ve got family owned businesses. We’ve got a very large, you know, multimillion dollar family plumbing business, large construction businesses. So there’s some traditional family owned, you know, fitness, but then we also have, you know, high flying technology companies, and it’s interesting to try to blend those, together. And some CEOs just are really hard to coach, and they kind of self select out.

Walter Paulsen [00:07:53]:
Occasionally, we’ll have some people who wanna join the group and we just have to say, we don’t think you’re gonna be a good contributor because they’re they wanna dominate the conversation or they’re not gonna be honest or they’re not gonna be vulnerable. So it really is a case by case, you know, basis, but it doesn’t here’s the thing. It doesn’t correlate with success. In some ways, the struggling CEOs are the hardest because they feel, I think, that they need to pump up because they’re aware that they’ve only got 3 months of runway, and that their their product isn’t gonna ship. And they get this fake it till you make it desperate. Never let them see you sweat Mhmm. Attitude. And that’s and it’s really tough to get somebody in that mindset to come and be vulnerable and ask for help.

Bernie Borges [00:08:50]:

Walter Paulsen [00:08:50]:
On the other hand, if you have somebody who’s had some success and some maturity, but they’ve had some stumbles as well, think that’s the that’s the idea the idea because they have confidence. They know they’re good, but they also recognize that they don’t have all the answers. And that being a, you know, CEO is a sexy title, but it’s a it’s a lonely crummy job a lot of the time.

Bernie Borges [00:09:13]:
Yeah. That’s a common it’s a common description that it’s a lonely job. It’s lonely at the top. That’s been said many times. On average, if there is such a thing, Walter, how long does it take for a peer group? Once it comes together, how long does it take to kind of gel, you know, and really get the members really trusting each other, engaging,

Walter Paulsen [00:09:44]:
convention for this and and it applies to teams and I think CEO, you know, your career groups as well that there’s the they call it forming, norming, storming, and performing. I kinda like the thing. And it’s usually, I think, at least a year and a half to 3 years before people trust each other, show up consistently enough, have had some people really stumble and to get that, you know, and have had a, you know, 1 or 2, you know, weekend retreats. And so it’s, like, one and a half to to 3 years, and then people really they’re starting to pull on in in the same direction, but they haven’t gotten stale. Right? And they’re and they’re like a they’re like a growth company. It’s like they’re coming. They’re excited to show up, and it’s and it’s but it’s at least a year, you know, to be honest. And that’s and and and that’s the time when the chairs, you know, like myself, have to do some heavy lifting to draw people out, create the the safe space.

Walter Paulsen [00:10:49]:
So that would that would be my, that’d be my answer.

Bernie Borges [00:10:52]:
And are you doing any 1 on 1, or is it strictly within the group?

Walter Paulsen [00:10:57]:
So we do 1 monthly 1 on 1 coaching as well, and and one of the one of the ways we use that is we try to, I guess, I would say, set things up. So if a member has an issue, they really should bring to the group, get them to admit they do and think about how they’d wanna frame it. Are they willing to be vulnerable? Are they willing to do that? So so we do the the 1 to 1 coaching as well, and that’s an hour to 2 hours, and that’s kind of setting things up. And there’s also some things that even with the very trusted group, CEOs don’t wanna talk about, except 1 on 1, and so there’s there’s a combination. I think that’s one of the it’s it’s a bit of a 1 two punch that the that this model offers. Now there’s some CEOs that I work with. They only wanna do 1, you know, 1 on 1 coaching, and that’s fine. It’s a different price point.

Walter Paulsen [00:11:50]:
It’s sort of it’s sort of like, you know, I don’t you know, I want white glove services. Like, okay. We can do that, but it costs more. Personally, I mean, I love I love the I love the I I love convincing people that they should that they’ll get something out of a peer group and then seeing them come out and say, wow. That was kind of a life that was kind of a transformative thing I just experienced. But, you know, but it’s not it’s not for everybody.

Bernie Borges [00:12:17]:
I wonder this is probably an unfair question, Walter, to ask in a podcast, but I I have to ask. And that is, how coachable do you find these CEOs to be? And I’m sure it varies, but, you know, share maybe, you know, what that spectrum of experience looks like for you.

Walter Paulsen [00:12:35]:
So it varies, you know, considerably. I try to be good about not having anybody in the group who’s not coachable. There there there’s a a level of humility and honesty that we really try to get to, but we’re but we’re not, you know, we’re not perfect. This is sort of, you know, not from my group, but there’s definitely CEOs who know they need a coach and they’ll sign up for a coach and then they’ll be late. They won’t schedule meetings. They won’t do the stuff they said they were gonna do. They won’t be accountable. And then they’ll get fired because the coach would be like, I mean, it’s there there’s certain amounts of homework and practices that you need to do, and just the idea that you’ll because this happens.

Walter Paulsen [00:13:27]:
A lot of people agree to a meeting. There’ll be a big fee if they don’t show up, if they, you know, if if they don’t cancel within 24 hours. All kinds of stuff. They’ll get charged over. They’ll be like, oh, I’m so busy. I can’t do this. And then over time, like, sometimes you have to sit down with them and say it’s like, are you serious, or are we just wasting our time here? But, you know, truth is, some some of them really aren’t coachable. Try to select those out because it wastes their time and, certainly, it wastes the group time.

Walter Paulsen [00:13:54]:
Group’s time.

Bernie Borges [00:13:55]:
And then the ones that are coachable, maybe you can speak to those attributes. You know, what’s that experience like?

Walter Paulsen [00:14:02]:
Well, it’s it’s very rewarding, I think, for for everybody involved. And the the way I would a very experienced, you know, chair I met when I was thinking about was when I was getting started doing this, had this expression that that his job is really and he and he has this prop, is to hold up a mirror to the CEO and help the CEO recognize things about himself or herself that they can’t see on their own. And so it’s really to draw out some of the CEO’s wisdom. And I and I like that because there there’s a whole all kinds of different modalities and frameworks and personality profiles. But at the end of the day, can you help the CEO recognize things that they can’t find themselves and then agree to take action and be held accountable?

Bernie Borges [00:14:57]:
Yeah. Walter, let’s shift gears a little bit. You you’re working on a book about balance. So what’s that about? What inspired you to take on this project?

Walter Paulsen [00:15:07]:
Oh, thanks. Thanks for asking. So what inspired the book, which is about achieving in Silicon Valley, without blowing up your life, destroying your health, and and all the other, you know, you know, terrible things. It’s just that I think we’re at a transformative period between climate change and wellness and awareness of longevity attributes that previous modalities. You can sleep when you’re dead, 24 by 7 players. Sleep under your desk. Go all in. That those really aren’t sustainable, and people who do that actually aren’t helping their companies that much.

Walter Paulsen [00:15:55]:
They if you really wanna be a high performer, you can sprint. Certainly, there’s times when you’ve gotta sprint and run like crazy, but you have to figure out, you know, a way where you’re taking care of your health and your sleep and your diet and your relationships. And if you go one dimensional and all of a sudden you’re worth 100 of 1,000,000 of dollars, then people can get wide eyed and say, oh, that’s amazing. I wanna have a Bugatti on TikTok and live like a rock star. And and it can be really deceptive. And so one of the ideas behind the the book is that give people a different perspective, and and not everybody’s gonna be open to this message. But if I can get a few CEOs to read it, talk with me, and change their lives, It has such leverage because CEOs affect everyone in their company Yeah. And all the people in their company’s families.

Bernie Borges [00:16:51]:

Walter Paulsen [00:16:52]:
And so so that’s that’s the point is that a bad CEO can create such damage. And and I’ve both in the past, myself and my my now ex have worked for some of these hard driving, oh, I need my 247, 365 player. You know, they’re emailing at, you know, 11 o’clock Friday night, and they want a response within 20 minutes. And and they create these these companies where people are, you know, neglect their health and relationships and sleep and they kind of become members of this unhealthy work cult, and, and I think that’s terrible. I think it’s a terrible way to live, and and I want to be able to convince some people that that’s not how they have to do it.

Bernie Borges [00:17:38]:
So you’re still in the process of writing it. And if I’m not mistaken, Walter, you’re still conducting interviews with CEOs to really get into their heads and get the input or the content before your book. Right?

Walter Paulsen [00:17:50]:
Yep. Exactly. Yeah. So, you know, still talking because, and this is one of the things that’s been so enlightening by Vistages. I mean, I’ve had a, I’ve had a, I’ve had a good career. I’ve had some successes. I’ve grown some, you know, companies I’ve had, I’ve had failures, but I’m always impressed when we get the members talking about a problem is that the insights that they have that don’t occur to me. And I was kinda like, Why didn’t, you know, why didn’t I think of that? But that’s the beauty of the the group.

Walter Paulsen [00:18:21]:
And and in particular, I think the the CEOs who I’m talking to, they’ve often had an moment or a road to Damascus moment, where they were working like crazy and things were frayed at home and and the business wasn’t thriving and they were burning people out, and they kind of realized they needed to do something different. And what I really kind of want to understand is, is how can we help people have that moment and then actually lead their companies in a more balanced way to much more sustainable success, where they’re not trampling on and grinding people up, but they’re actually lifting up their teams and just, you know, creating this, this affluence and drive and opportunity that’s, you know, such an important part of, you know, sort of, you know, American capitalism.

Bernie Borges [00:19:23]:
So in the conversations you’re having with CEOs for your book Yep. Are you generally hearing them acknowledge that they want balance, that they value balance, but maybe they haven’t found it? Is is that what you’re hearing or the opposite?

Walter Paulsen [00:19:38]:
Oh, so, I would say less, I don’t know, maybe a quarter feel like they’ve got it figured out and they’ve got a formula that they wanna share. But, and then, you know, probably most of the rest feel like if, if, if it’s a combination of sort of business, personal and health, they feel like, okay, I got 2 out of 3, you know, and, but but I’m trying to find a way to to get all of them. And and then it’s actually, you know, you know, interesting. You know, some of the best conversations are with CEOs who who say, yeah. No. I look like I got it all going on, but it’s a, there’s there’s really hard times. So, yeah, one of my close friends from college had a spectacular career and as as, you know, lead partner at a, you know, global strategy consulting firm, always looked poised, possessed, you know, just, you know, truly an outstanding guy, and he still is. And, he was a very senior person in the, you know, current, you know, governor of California’s cabinet, and he had to resign because he was having anxiety attacks.

Walter Paulsen [00:20:54]:
And this is someone who’s worth minimum tens of 1,000,000 of dollars, has succeeded outwardly at everything he’s touched, has a beautiful, you know, family freedom. He’s respected. And that’s just and so to help people, you know, realize even successful CEOs, it’s like, yeah, very few people hold it all together all the time. And so acknowledge that. And that’s one of the things that have been achieving with balance is like, you know, there’s times you’re gonna get out of whack for a period. That doesn’t mean it’s permanent, but, you know, recognize that and figure out a path back to something you can sustain.

Bernie Borges [00:21:30]:
Yeah. So if we have any CEOs listening to this podcast and they wanna contact you to maybe be interviewed for the book, how how would they do that?

Walter Paulsen [00:21:39]:
Let’s see. Easiest way is is LinkedIn. I’m very easy to find. Walter Paulsen, p a u l s e n. And my email is walter.paulsenat I think you’ll put that in the show notes.

Bernie Borges [00:21:57]:

Walter Paulsen [00:21:58]:
And, yeah, if you’re if you’re a CEO who even if you don’t have it all, if you have insights that have worked for you that you’d like other people to benefit, from, I’d love to hear from you.

Bernie Borges [00:22:11]:
That’s great. Well, I I hope you hear from somebody listening to this podcast. I just wanna close by, well, first of all, thanking you, Walter, for joining me on this episode of the Midlife of Phil podcast, a maximum episode sharing your expertise, your experience. You know, I love the fact that you speak to your experiences as both successes and failures. And as you know, Walter, a lot of times people don’t even wanna use that f word, meaning failure, right? They don’t even wanna acknowledge things, you know, somewhere in their life, right? But it’s natural. It’s part of life, especially us mid lifers that have decades of experience. There’s usually gonna be some failures along the way. And now you’re channeling that in a in a constructive way, in a productive way, not necessarily in a new business, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bernie Borges [00:23:00]:
Although, it is a new business because you’re doing that through the Vistage network where you chair

Walter Paulsen [00:23:05]:

Bernie Borges [00:23:05]:
Of Vistage and and then helping other CEOs. And I can tell that you’re really authentically inspired to do that. You know? Like, you that’s your purpose. And I would even go out on a limb, Walter, and say that you get tremendous fulfillment from that.

Walter Paulsen [00:23:21]:
I do. Yeah. My why is to help people be their best selves and achieve their life’s work. And and I feel like I’m doing that better now than I ever have. And I’m just, yeah, thrilled thrilled to be doing the work.

Bernie Borges [00:23:36]:
Fantastic. Well, again, we’ll include, your contact information in the show notes, and I look forward to staying in touch and seeing the the book when it when it come when it becomes available.

Walter Paulsen [00:23:46]:
Alright. Thank you so much, Bernie. It’s been a pleasure.

Bernie Borges [00:23:49]:
Thank you,

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