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40 Years with Vistage

40 Years with Vistage
The Vistage Cope Award winner shares his insights on the power of peers

If anyone could be called a Vistage celebrity, it’s Richard Carr. He’s served as a Chair in Southern California for 13 years and as Vistage’s CEO from 1998 to 2001. He recently launched a Vistage Inside group for the leadership team at Taylor Guitar. And this year he received Vistage’s most prestigious honor, the Cope Award, given to a single Chair each year in recognition of their lifetime contributions to the organization. Yet for all the limelight, Carr sees his members as the stars.

Carr’s Chairing philosophy was inspired by the lessons he learned in the Army, first as a West Point cadet then as a decorated company commander. “In 1967, I had the opportunity to serve in Germany as the aide to General Frank Mildren, who was one of the great heroes in my life,” Carr says. “For two days of every week, I would travel with him in the field to live with some of the 6,000 troops under his command. He believed that to lead effectively, you had to ‘eat the dog food’ yourself.” In Mildren’s leadership, Carr saw the importance of the perspectives of the team over the singular insights of a leader.

Carr first discovered the power of the Vistage group not as a Chair, but as a member. After resigning from the military, Carr bought a side business his father had purchased out of bankruptcy, Sentinel Container. “I was just 29. I found that while I’d learned a whole lot about leadership in the military, I was lacking in some critical business disciplines,” Carr says.

Through the relationships you develop, you gain access to these profound insights you would not get to on your own.

Richard Carr | Vistage Chair

“The one-to-ones, and especially the group meetings, became part of the fabric of how I learn.” After a successful run with Sentinel, Carr wanted to share the wealth of his experience with the next generation of business leaders. He became a Chair. However, he says the shift from executive to mentor necessitated a profound shift in mindset.

“A Chair isn’t focused on their own success or the success of their business, but on the success of their members,” he explains. “There can’t be any competing agenda.”

The work has been rewarding; Carr has helped the members in his groups seize some incredible opportunities and overcome all manner of challenges.

However, it’s the emotionally fraught decisions that have really stuck with him. “The group is often at its most powerful when a member is dealing with crisis,” Carr says. “One of my groups helped an owner of a business with many locations who was struggling during a bad recession. The group helped him make the tough decision to downsize, which saved the business in the long term.”

Carr says the group is especially powerful when the crises are personal. “A member of mine was dealing with a serious illness and felt desperate to sell. We helped him take a breath, and see that he really shouldn’t make a life-changing decision under the influence of his emotions. The group prevented him from making a rash decision, in part by helping him see how a sale would hurt everyone who worked there.”

The remarkable results that come from peer perspectives are, to Carr, a kind of magic—but impossible if a member doesn’t build real relationships within their group. “To all members, or anyone thinking about becoming one, you need to be present and vulnerable,” he says. “This means divulging your story, fully, and hearing the stories of your peers. Through the relationships you develop, you gain access to these profound insights you would not get to on your own.”

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