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Chairing with Excellence

2021 Cope award winner Cheryl McMillan (center) with past winners Jeannette Hobson and Peter Schwartz.

2021 Cope award winner Cheryl McMillan leads by example, helping members and peers face their toughest challenges

In the fall of 2019, Chair Cheryl McMillan walked into a meeting with her Chief Executive (CE) group and told the members they were going to do an exercise.

“Let’s assume you wake up tomorrow and 20% to 30% of your business is gone,” she told the executives. “What would you do? What lessons did you learn in 2008 that you can apply?”

Breaking up into teams, the members got to work on their plans. Financials. Communications. What they would tell customers. Once they got back together, McMillan asked members to share elements of their plans with the group and challenged them to continue working on those ideas after the meeting.

In other words, McMillan serendipitously helped her group build their disaster recovery plans six months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Stories like this exemplify why McMillan was awarded the 2021 Don Cope Memorial Award. An eight-time Master Chair and STAR award recipient, 2016 Robert Nourse Chair of the Year, and 14-time Chair Excellence award recipient, McMillan has now earned Vistage’s most prestigious honor for a Chair.

Named after one of the first Chairs to be based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Cope award recognizes a Chair who epitomizes the Vistage values of “Trust, Caring, Challenge and Growth,” traits McMillan embodies, says Lee Peters, senior vice president of Vistage’s Eastern region.

“Cheryl cares deeply about the Vistage mission and is committed to having that shine through with the work she does with her members,” says Peters. “There isn’t anything Cheryl wouldn’t do to help them.”

McMillan’s contributions have had a lasting impact on Vistage members. She was one of the Chairs instrumental in fostering a relationship with the Healthnetwork Foundation so that members had initial access to the top hospitals in the United States, including Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic.

But McMillan, who is based in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, finds working with her groups the most rewarding.

“Where else can I go where I’m helping people and every conversation matters, whether it is during a one-to-one, or a group meeting,” McMillan asks of Chairing. “It’s a little bit like being an ER doc. I never know what will show up, so I’m never bored.”

The combination of unbiased feedback from peers and insights from world-class speakers has helped McMillan energize members to become better leaders and live more balanced lives.

You can talk about anything, but we’re going to do it within the process. And you are going to ask real questions. We’re not going to ask leading questions or suggestions disguised as questions.

When she joined Vistage in 2005, McMillan learned to use Vistage’s issue processing system. She strictly adheres to that process, she says, along with compelling members to ask tough, yet insightful questions during meetings.

“I’m firm about that,” she says. “You can talk about anything, but we’re going to do it within the process. And you are going to ask real questions. We’re not going to ask leading questions or suggestions disguised as questions. Many times, I’ll ask them to rephrase it. Just like in their businesses, if members don’t follow the process, it just doesn’t work as well.

Celebrating the 2021 Cope winner. From L to R: Lee Koury, Jeff Semple, Kevin McDougal, Brad Roller, Jeannette Hobson, Michael McMillan, Cheryl McMillan, Peter Schwartz, Lee Peters, Scott Gundlach and Jim Mazzella.

McMillan says she “would not be here today without Ed Crabtree, a local Chair (now emeritus). He recommended me and before Vistage had a mentoring program for new Chairs, he coached me.”

Crabtree also invited McMillan to observe one of his meetings to better understand how real meetings worked. Those lessons were “so valuable,” McMillan says, that ever since Vistage implemented an official mentoring program in 2007, she has coached new Chairs as they begin to build their practices.

But she has taken it one step further. New Chairs don’t just observe the meetings, she says, they practice being a Chair. This includes leading issue processing sessions so they know what to expect once they launch. “It’s critical that new Chairs are in ’Chair mode,’ not member mode where they are only focused on content,” she says.

“My groups are really good at giving feedback to new Chairs,” McMillan adds. “And I’ve lost count of how many of them that I have mentored.”

“She spends a ton of time working with Chairs on this in an effort to help deliver the highest level of member value,” says Peters. “The funny thing is Cheryl loves this as she gets Chair feedback on how she facilitates a meeting, and it’s just as helpful for her as it is for the new Chair.”

Photos: Allison Hopkins Photography

As she looks to the future, McMillan wants to continue helping new Chairs acclimate. And she wants to continue helping members ask powerful questions, both to themselves as well as their teams and spouses.

“2022 is about adjusting my meetings, processes and one-to-ones to post-pandemic changes,” McMillan says. “Many of my members plan to spend more time outside of the state. I’ve accepted that hybrid meetings are here to stay. I’d rather have a member attend virtually than miss a meeting.”

But for right now, McMillian wants to celebrate this win with her husband, Mike, a retired architect. It’s still sinking in, she says.

“I think it’s every Chair’s dream to win this award,” she says with glee, “and I didn’t really think it would ever happen.”

It did happen, Cheryl, and congratulations.

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