"...this is the time when our humanity, our vulnerability and our capacity to empathize is in the greatest demand. As leaders, we need to be human first and business people second. We need to face our fears and vulnerabilities head-on."
in 2019, I started searching for my next role because my wife, Jennifer, and I knew our home was soon to be abandoned by our Penn State-bound son, Hudson. His next chapter meant a new chapter in life for us, too. We weren’t going to sit around pining away, staring at his empty bedroom while he blazed a new trail in life—we were going after it, too. After six years of overseeing unprecedented growth at the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) in Orlando, FL, I was hungry for change and craved the thrill that comes with starting anew.
The search came down to two opportunities; heading up the Association for Corporate Growth, a middle market deal-making organization, or another role based out of New York City. ACG Global was hands down the winner, and I came on board as CEO last Fall with a teenager-like exuberance that mimics my son’s. It offered that “first job” kind of excitement. You know, when the world was full of nothing but cloudless skies and abundant opportunity, and there was nothing to hold you back? That is exactly why I joined ACG. I love building things.
The move from Orlando to Chicago brought the thrill of a first kiss— butterflies in your stomach, wearing a “shitty grin” for days for no reason as you repeatedly recollected that brief but momentous moment. We found the perfect place, bought winter coats (these are not easy to find in Florida), and enjoyed public transportation. We were on cloud nine.
And the job was even more amazing. The staff at ACG is the reason why people love the Midwest—friendly, talented, ethical go-getters. However, fluidity in leadership for several years meant the wheels were turning and the organization was sound, but somewhere along the way they lost the rudder. They were hungry for leadership, for decisiveness, and for strategic direction. And I was hungry to lead.
The strength of our team extended to the 60 markets where ACG operates chapters. Our chapter leaders are what makes ACG work. They are on the frontlines of local events that bring dealmakers together, and they, too, were open to new ideas, willing to bid adieu to orthodoxies, and hungry to focus on a “GLOCAL” relationship that ensured mutual benefit for the entire ACG network.
Our ship was gathering steam, and everyone had their eyes fixed on the horizon. It’s the kind of thing only a tidal wave or iceberg could stop. A natural disaster beyond anyone’s control. Something like a novel virus….
COVID-19 landed with a thump in Chicago, and everywhere else for that matter. It exacted a toll on ACG that was unprecedented. Social distancing and live events don’t mix, obviously, so in order to keep our members safe we canceled events all over the country in practically every major city. Our management team mirrored thousands across the country as we made a plan to keep our employees safe. We followed the guidance to reduce their risk of exposure by operating remotely. Fortunately, our preparation and quick action kept all systems running seamlessly.
So here’s the funny thing… as quickly as my love affair with Chicago started, it got ripped away as I hustled to book a flight back to Orlando and my family. My son was finishing his senior year, and we had plans to rent an RV and drive him to school in State College in July, then Jen and I would go on to Chicago for good, our dogs Winston and Derby in tow. And so, I find myself living back in Orlando, in the same house I thought we were leaving behind. And all I can think about is Chicago. The fact that my whole staff is there, including two new members of my senior management team that moved from Orlando to start this new adventure with me. They are there to help grow and diversify revenue streams, which is needed now more than ever. But only days after moving to a brand-new city and a brand-new job, they find themselves working at home, doing everything they can (just like the rest of ACG’s staff) to innovate in these crazy times.
COVID-19 is something that I can’t control, and as the leader of an organization built on people, it makes me feel vulnerable; something that leaders never want to feel - let alone reveal. But this is the time when our humanity, our vulnerability and our capacity to empathize is in the greatest demand. As leaders, we need to be human first and business people second. We need to face our fears and vulnerabilities head-on.
I’ve spent the last couple weeks telling staff, chapters, our board members and more that we will get through this—and I believe that. Even two weeks in, my belief that we will come out stronger, better and wiser is unchanged. Make no mistake though, we will be different. In many ways for the better. Let’s not squander the opportunity that this moment affords us. A universal crisis that immediately makes everyone in the world that much more relatable can suddenly expose our human side—our best side. That side that too often gets lost in the partisanship of our politics and the pettiness of our fragile egos.
We are a nation—a world really— of innovators and believers. In these economically challenging times, I’m confident that our community of nearly 100,000 middle market professionals, ACG members, will drive the growth that will sustain and grow our economy, just as it did in the comeback after 2008.
But I might be even more inspired by the fact that apartment buildings full of people in Chicago (people that perhaps didn’t even give each other a second look just a few weeks ago) are now coming out on their balconies and patios and singing Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” in unison. This virus might just bring back our humanity, too, and that would be the biggest win of the decade.
And something else funny will happen on the path to recovery, I’ll finally move back to Chicago. I’m sure it will feel like the “first time” all over again—maybe even more so. Living on a Prayer---Chicago!
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