Harry Marsland is no stranger to business challenges. After a successful career in marketing and advertising, when the opportunity arose to become a Vistage chair, he said yes. Eighteen months on, Harry chairs not one but two dynamic groups in the North East, and has been awarded New Chair of the Year - but the path didn’t always run smooth.
We caught up with Harry to find out about his journey, his advice to anyone thinking of becoming a chair, and what makes Vistage work so well.
Tell us about your background; how did you get involved with Vistage, and how did the process work?
Harry Marsland: I had a career in marketing and advertising, where I worked for a couple of agencies including McCann Erickson Advertising. At the end of ’95 I launched my own agency in Soho with clients like Virgin, Tesco, Carlsberg, and we did a lot of broader marketing work for them. Alongside that, about four or five years ago, I became a growth accelerator coach, helping SMEs put together plans for growth. That’s when I heard about Vistage. I was at a conference, having a chat with a guy on a coffee break and he suggested I could make a Vistage Chair.
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In August of 2016 I contacted Ian Lloyd, Chair Recruitment Director, and had a chat with him. He asked me to do a couple of telephone interviews with existing Chairs and then went down to Southampton to be interviewed and do some exercises. One of the guys who interviewed me was a guy called Paul Johnson who’d been a Chair for about eighteen months. He said, “This is the most enjoyable work I’ve ever done, and I think you’ll find the same.”
The training that I did was based at Hedge End, Hampshire and was just fantastic; I found it incredibly educational. I was so impressed by the quality of the people delivering it. I thought, ‘This is a serious organisation that knows and believes in what it’s doing.’ And that was that.
What happened after your training? What challenges did you face?
HM: I became part of a supportive and smart community. When I’d done enough of my training to actually start building a group, I faced a couple of challenges which were fairly daunting.
I knew nobody in the North East other than the girl I’d come over here to marry, so I had no business footprint. I also realised there were four other Chairs in the North East all building groups - it’s not a large business community at all, so that was a challenge as well.
I had to focus on the core principle that I strongly believe in, which is that being a member of Vistage should be a badge of honour for a business leader. They’re serious about their leadership, they’re serious about their decision-making, they’re good but they’re humble enough to know they could be better.
What was the process of building a group like?
HM: It was an up and down process, but I decided that for once in my life I’d do as I was told and not try to improve the methods. So, I followed the training to the letter and that was probably the secret of why I was successful. By the end of March, I had enough members to launch. That had taken me about four and a half months.
I had my first group meeting on 11th May 2017 and it was fantastic. I found it quite emotional, actually, how quickly the people around the table bonded and opened and wanted to work together. There was no one there trying to be the big guy in the room. They all got it, which either means that I’d selected well or that the Vistage principle works. I think it’s both.
New members are always really surprised at how quickly they’re welcomed, how quickly they start being honest with each other, how supportive it is and how much fun we have. There’s always so much laughter in the room. It’s demanding though. I always set out that each day they’re going to laugh hard, think hard, work hard, and at the end of the day they’ll feel they’ve had a real experience and take things from it which they can act upon - which it sounds like they do.
Anyway, the group was built, and had reached a point where it was working well, and I realised that I had an opportunity to build a Key group. A number of my members were thinking about succession plans, and a couple of family businesses had next generation in senior positions. So, I said to the group, “I’ll put a Key group together so that you can put your next people in”. That launched in March 2018 and we’re currently at nine members but I’m hoping to add another two or three to that.
What makes a good Vistage Chair?
HM: Vistage groups tend to be very diverse, so a good Chair needs to be able to engage with members from a range of different business sectors and backgrounds. For example, in one of my groups the ages range from 32 to around 63, then we’ve got one guy who went to Eton before joining the military, next to another member who began his business selling ice creams on a housing estate.
The diversity in terms of the size of their businesses is also enormous. In my group, it ranges from a person who runs a construction company worth about £1.5m, up to a lady who runs a £150m business with more than 300 staff across 11 divisions.
To be Chair of all of those, I need to be able to engage with them regardless of their business type, their business size, their personality, background, age or education. That means engaging with them on a personal level, not just a business level.
A big part of this is having the ability to empathise and to ask the right questions. Someone once asked me, what’s my favourite question, and the straight answer to that is; I don’t have one. I think on my feet, you know, and a good question is one that’s appropriate, that’s probing, that they possibly can’t answer straight away, that sometimes they wished you hadn’t asked them.
What would you say to someone who’s thinking of becoming a Vistage member or a Chair?
HM: It’s consistently brilliant - every day, getting up and thinking, “Oh, great, who am I seeing today?” I still don’t sleep the night before my group meetings. It sounds silly but I’m almost like a kid before Christmas. It’s not quite like throwing a party, but when you’ve got a dozen or so really great people coming together, you do have a lot of fun - and you really stretch each other. I love it. I get excited for the meetings and I look forward to the one-to-ones. It’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
But it’s not for everyone. Not everybody is humble enough to know they can be better. If someone’s good at what they do, humble enough to know they could be better, and open enough that in a completely safe environment they’ll share their problems and they’ll share their knowledge, then they’ll be a good member.
In terms of being a Chair, you need to re-orientate yourself. I was used to being the bloke who had the answer. In advertising and marketing, you’re paid for that. Your clients have a meeting with you, and say, ‘This is my problem, what should we do?’ Then you go away and deliver it. When you’re a chair you’re not doing that. Yes, it helps to have some bright ideas and some ways to take conversations, but you’re more of a facilitator. It’s a different skills set and it’s one that I’m still learning.
‘Chair’ is an interesting term, because it suggests a hierarchical structure. From what you’re saying it’s a lot flatter than that, however. You’re more of a conduit through which people are discussing issues; you’re learning, they’re learning, everyone’s open?
HM: It’s flat-ish. I’m the leader of the gang. I always felt that when I was inviting someone to join my group, I was asking them to join my gang. It’s got my personality and my fingerprints all over it. Fortunately, the group like that.
I always say “Look, you’re going to get a day and a half a month with me, so you’d better be able to put up with me. We’ll have a laugh along the way, but I am going to challenge you. There will be times when I’m going to be hard work but it’s because I want to help you get better. I like to think I’m fun to work with, but it’s not an easy ride.”
So, in the group, I run the meeting. I chair it, I direct it and I drive it along, but member input is what makes it work. I’ll give the agenda out and say, “There’s the agenda, there’s an outside chance we might stick to it, but I wouldn’t expect that. We’ll see what comes out today. We’ll see what challenges people are facing, what issues come up during the course of the day, and what needs working on.”
I need to be agile: to think quickly and respond to the room. If you’re working on something which really just isn’t delivering for people, you move on from it. The people in the room have paid money, and more importantly they’ve given up a day of their time. They need to leave with insights, ideas and inspiration which will make a difference to their business or their lives.
I like this idea of the group being moulded in your image, so to speak. On that note, how much of it is Vistage and how much of it is you?
HM: First and foremost: the formula. The Vistage model is brilliant. I deliver it in my tone, with my own personal style and knowledge base but I am delivering the Vistage product. It’s rooted in the structure of the day and the core things we always do, like the sign-in and how we use the speaker.
I then add twists and flavour and different techniques to help the members get more, or to address particular issues. I get a lot of those ideas from other chairs. Good chairs are like jackdaws. We talk to each other about things we’ve done which have worked. If you’ve done something in your group and it’s worked, you put it on ChairNet or you tell the other chairs at a conference and you then get people asking, “How did you do that? That sounds good. I think I’ll use that idea.” It’s a fantastic and generous community.
Could you share some real-life stories or some of the real personal wins from the group?
HM: In my Key group a member came along to a meeting. When they signed in at the start of the day the thing that was on their mind was the decision of whether to take on an IT project that the business needed. I felt that this member was a bit on the quiet side that day, just not quite as bubbly as normal. When we got to the afternoon I said, “Shall we look at this?” They said, “Well, it’s not really a biggie. I think I’m going to do it so no, leave it. I’m fine.” I sensed that actually there was something there to talk about so I said, “No, come on. Let’s talk about it.”
So, the group used the Vistage techniques and within about five minutes worked out it wasn’t about the IT project. This person actually really didn’t like their job and was unhappy in their current position. They didn’t enjoy what they were doing and actually felt that what they really wanted to be was general manager of the business. There were one or two tears, and a bit of honesty and soul-searching, and this member vowed that they would go and tackle this, and the group were so supportive. I got an email that night to say a meeting had been set up with the CEO for 8am the next morning. At 10 o’clock the following morning there was a WhatsApp message that went out to the whole group to say, “I’m starting as general manager next month.”
I could have cried. The CEO is in my Chiefs’ group and I was pretty confident that they’d be pushing at an open door. I didn’t say that, and it was important not to do that, not to give signals and lead. It was important to let the group help their peer think through what they really wanted and then support them in going for it. So our member went from being unhappy with their role job at 4:30pm to becoming general manager at 10am the following morning. Brilliant. It’s so powerful - and there are plenty of stories like that.