Tony Hutti explains the power of peer groups
Tony Hutti explains the power of peer groups
In this episode, Tim talks with Tony Hutti about the power of peer groups. Tony is the CEO of Renaissance Executive Forums has almost 50 years of leadership and management experience. He shares how being vulnerable is crucial to being a good leader and why we should have the mindset of taking everything as a learning experience.
Tony HuttiCEO & Partner, Renaissance Executive Forums
Tim Leman: Have you ever felt like you're on the edge of something great, you've put in the work, you've done the hard stuff most people aren't willing to do, and now you can just sense a magical run lies ahead? This season, we'll talk to leaders across a wide variety of industries to learn what it's like to ride the edge and own it. We'll hear what separates those special teams from the more ordinary experiences, the kind, if we're lucky, we get to be a part of maybe three or four times in our life. Join me, Tim Leman, chairman and CEO of Gibson, as we discuss leading on the edge. Welcome to The Edge podcast. I'm your host, Tim Leman. On this episode, we have Tony Hutti. Tony is CEO of Renaissance Executive Forums of Indiana. I've learned a lot from you, Tony, over the years, being a part of your peer groups and just working with you. I appreciate all your mentorship. Welcome to the show, Tony.
Tony Hutti: Thank you. Glad to be on with you, Tim.
Tim Leman: Hey, so give us a brief overview of Executive Forums. Tell us what it is.
Tony Hutti: Executive Forums is a peer group for C- level executives. We're part of an international organization, and here in Northern Indiana, we have about 10 groups of CEOs and about five groups of other C- level CIOs, CFOs, and COOs, so it's a phenomenal structure of, as you know, peer groups of executives helping each other to overcome challenges and to capitalize off opportunities.
Tim Leman: Tony, how long have you been doing this?
Tony Hutti: Two decades, 20 years, and I said I was going to retire, and I'm going to retire five years from now, and I've told my wife that for the last 20 years.
Tim Leman: I know. It kind of sounds like Chairman Mao with a new five- year plan.
Tony Hutti: It is, and I refer to my management style as a benevolent dictator, so that has been my style. I get input and I think that's part of the teams I've been on, but then I believe we have to make a decision as CEO.
Tim Leman: Well, speaking of CEOs and leadership teams, you've seen a lot of them over the years, doing what you do. Tell us a little bit about the best ones and also what made them special or unique.
Tony Hutti: Well, I reflect first, back to my first company that I took over, and what was intriguing about that, it was my first time as a CEO and we were all in our 30s and we each had a very significant strength, but we did share a common value, and we worked, really, as a team. I was learning from them. I think that was the benefit of it. It was my first time as the CEO. And so, my plant manager, my technical person, my office manager controller, and our purchasing, we all just kind of helped each other. And that's why I learned about teams, and it's something I learned from my 14 years at Associates. I worked with a CEO, Ron Krauss, and Joe McClellan, who was a corporate controller, about how they would get input from everybody, ask questions, and then as we learned, they had three choices. Either, they would say, " Yes, I agree with the team. This is the way we're going," " I disagree with the team because this is... I heard your input, but here's what I think," or the third choice, I've done many times, is, " I don't agree with the team, but we're going to go the way the team wants to go because you've got some intriguing arguments," and I think that style of getting input from other members of the team... And I just did something a couple weeks ago, I expressed my vulnerability and mistake I made. I think that's critical for a CEO, to be willing to say," I felt myself getting a little antsy, frustrated, and uptight." And I shared that with my team and said," I'm not myself right now, I don't know why," and we spent an hour talking about, why was I feeling this way and what could I do to get out of it? I think that's critical for a CEO, to be able to express their vulnerability and their feelings.
Tim Leman: Tony, have you always been able to do that with this team, or is your current team, have you guys grown to a spot where you're able to?
Tony Hutti: The answer is, I've always been able to do that, but the team has to grow. There are skeptics sometimes on a team about, they're willing to share their vulnerability and to hold each other accountable. And I say," I can teach someone in six months, but it takes about three years for them to learn it naturally," so that's why, yes, the team will get acclimated, but they don't really start functioning as a cohesive team. And again, as you know, any time you add someone to that team, you've got to go back through that process. A new member gets a little scared about that, willing to share their vulnerability and to share their mistakes and say," I just didn't do this right. I need your guys' help, or the ladies' help."
Tim Leman: So Tony, vulnerability being one of those special ingredients to really having a great team, what are some other ingredients when you reflect on some of the best teams that you've observed, worked with, et cetera?
Tony Hutti: Well, I'm going to go back to one of our members, and there were two brothers, and one of them has passed away, but when they were there, they actually complimented each other. One of them was the contract bridge player, the chess player, the thinker, the engineer, the technical background, and the other was a more of a sales, very strong personality, and they complimented each other. And what I learned from them in observing them is they regularly met, just the two of them, about once a week, and made sure they were on the same page, and then they would come together with their team. And it was interesting to watch them. Sometimes one would lead, sometimes the other would lead the team through discussion. And I've watched them now, even after the one brother passed away. Their whole team operates as everyone is at the C level. Their HR lady is at the C level, their operations, obviously, their CFO, their engineer. Anytime you go to one of their meetings, any one of the five or six people can be leading that meeting. It's not necessarily the CEO.
Tim Leman: Wow, that's a really good example on that. Tony, what do you see leaders struggling with most these days when you think about all the peer groups that you're a part of and help facilitate? Where are they struggling?
Tony Hutti: Well, I'll put them in two categories, the first category, the ancient people, the relics like me, they have some time... We had mentors when we were growing up and the mentors would teach us things. In this day and age, I view that we have difficulty. We have to learn from that 20, 30 year old, so they have to mentor us. We'll be mentoring them about interpersonal skills, but they'll be mentoring us about technology, et cetera. So I think that's a big challenge for 50, 60 year olds, CEOs, or executives, being able to step back and say," I need your help," to the 28 year old. Conversely, the 28 year old, I think are phenomenal, but they need to learn how to understand interpersonal skills and reading people and developing relationships. They are phenomenal at maintaining multi relationships on a technical side. They're willing to learn, and just got to teach them on that interpersonal side.
Tim Leman: Yeah, I think there's some, just general life experience out there that can be missing from time to time and some seasoning and having been through multiple cycles and so on, to see how some of the decisions actually turn out. They don't all go according to what the textbook said they would, right?
Tony Hutti: Right. And the key thing though, the couple thoughts there, Tim, is, one, every decision is a learning experience, whether it works or doesn't work. And even if it works, I still want to step back. I spent six years in the army, and after an event, you always had to step back, and I think in a business, we don't do this. We don't say," What worked, what didn't work, what can we learn from it?" The other thing that I think is critical for a... is that we are continuously learning. I don't care if you're a 56 year old. Every day is different, and that's what's exciting. That's why I don't see myself stepping away from business. It's just, every moment is a new moment. You learn something new.
Tim Leman: Tony, you are one of the most voracious readers I know. Talk a little bit about your process with learning and reading, how far you go into a book. I know you've maybe even cast aside some books that don't cut it, but tell everybody a little bit about what you do every year with that.
Tony Hutti: Well, my goal is, consume about two books a month, and I actually do some things, but one of the things is, I'm a big advocate for the Kindle. I use my Kindle, and when I get about 30% through a book and I look at it and there at the bottom, it says 30%, 33%. If I feel like it's not connecting with me, I don't see any benefit. I'll just take the book and close it and not go back to it. But reading it through a Kindle, I can highlight things and I can do extracts. To me, instead of following down a path that doesn't seem to connect with you, get out of that path, don't go down it. The other thing is, I do take, as you know, the month of January, and do go to Mexico. And there, I will consume, in those five or six weeks, I will start probably 15 and I'll finish, easy, 10 plus books. And there are certain writers that are just phenomenal. You and I both love Pat Lencioni, and every time he publishes one, I got to grab it and understand it. So there's others that are just on the cuff. And when someone tells me," I've just read a book and here's what I learned," I grab my iPhone, I go to my Amazon, I download a sample of it. And then I've got probably 10 or 15 samples there, and I'll take a couple hours in the weekend and start reading the samples and say," Is this one I want to put into the process?"
Tim Leman: So you almost have a double screening before you get there. Tony, are there books that you go back and revisit on a annual basis or every couple of years?
Tony Hutti: Well, any one, again, of Pat Lencioni's would be one. I go back to them, but it's just when I need them. I mean, I'm a big fan of Dan and Chip Heath about how you get things done, how do you motivate things? When you've got an idea, you got to make sure you got the inaudible the driver. If I start thinking about it, because I've got a two to four- page recap in my computer that I've pulled out of the Kindle, I'll go back and pull that and say," What was that thought that they were trying to convey?" I also believe that out of every great book, there's only about three or four super ideas, so you got to just hold onto those ones.
Tim Leman: Tony, talk about peer groups a little bit too, and why do you think they're so meaningful and have so much potential and power?
Tony Hutti: Well, peers have the greatest influence, and you can go back to grade school, high school, college, the peers that you have around you. What's interesting is, we've coined the phrase, the peer group is the one place you can go and get your answers questioned. I don't know how many times I've had a CEO come in and say," Well, here's what I want to do," and eight out of the 10 people in the room will say," Well, what were you thinking?" The advantage of a peer group is, if you have that 12 to 14 in a room, they come from different disciplines. You've come from sales, I'm an accountant, so you have HR people, you have engineers, so they look at a problem from a different perspective. Plus, they have different experience and different industry backgrounds, so you're really dissecting that opportunity or problem. In fact, this year, we're making an effort to help our members understand how they can create a peer environment on their executive team, where the team holds each other accountable, not the CEO holding everyone accountable. And the team is willing to share, as we talked about earlier, the vulnerability, the mistakes. I think if you can run your company as if it's a peer group, and actually, I'm beginning to think if you could run your family as a peer group... I don't know if anyone else has had this experience with a 15 year old and try to communicate with them and it doesn't work. Well, you've not created that... One of the elements in a peer group is clarifying questions. You don't give advice until you uncover what the issue or the opportunity is. Do we do that same thing in our family? Do we have that weekly meeting where we sit down and everybody's at the same level, whether they're an eight year old, 18 year old, 28 year old, or a 50 year old? So I think peers, not only for CEOs, for executive teams and families, is an unbelievable way to really have a successful life, personally and professionally.
Tim Leman: Tony, I think that's a really interesting perspective, to use some of these business tools, the kind of rules of the road in facilitating peer groups, and apply that to your family. Let's talk about families a little bit. As you think about your peer groups and listening in and facilitating, what percentage of the time does the topic shift to something that's maybe more personal in nature for these executives in the peer groups?
Tony Hutti: I would say just under half, 40%, it gets in there. You are impacted in your business by your personal life. There's a friend of mine that says," There's five stresses in a personal life and you're all going through one of them, be it, financial, relationship, be it health, and you have to uncover that and deal with it." Well, that will impact you professionally. The classic I have is, one member, his wife came home one night and said," Divorce," and for six months, he was totally out of it, terrible for his company, everyone. I had another where his son was down in Texas and was incarcerated because of drug usage, and for six months, he would just let him sit there. But boy, his mind, here's my 21 year old son down there in prison, wondering what's going to happen, really impacts him. So personal things do come up quite regularly in the peer groups. And here's the other thing, Tim, is that about three years ago, we uncovered something from a guy, Kevin Lawrence, put on your parachute first. A lot of times, people would say," Well, you need to deal with family, you need to deal with your business." What gets squeezed in the middle is you. First, you need to take care of yourself or you can't do the other two, and so you've got to make sure that you're mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared, so that's where the peer groups help.
Tim Leman: Yeah, great book. One of our previous guests, Amish Shah, had mentioned that book, and I just finished it a few months ago, and great reminder on all that. I think it's a really difficult concept though, for those of us in the Midwest, because it feels selfish, a little bit, or it might look selfish, this put your oxygen mask on first. And I think we've all learned that being on a plane. It makes sense, but it makes sense in life too, and it's actually not selfish. It's how you give your best self to everybody around you, is you got to take care of your own health, your own mental health, those type of things.
Tony Hutti: Well, and I'm a ritual and routine person, and it takes me hour to two hours every morning to get mentally ready for the day. That includes mental exercises, physical exercises, meditation, prayer. The discipline is going to bed. Fortunately, I can live on five or six hours, but getting to bed and getting up at five o'clock in the morning and spend an hour, hour and a half just for you, and doing things that, again, mentally, physically, emotionally prepare you. That's what I've found is a good method.
Tim Leman: So Tony, we're talking about teams, we're talking about families, and I think families and so on are one of the most important teams that you're on. How about for you personally? What's worked for you with your team at home?
Tony Hutti: Well, let's talk about, first, what didn't work on my first team at home. We got married when we were 19, infatuated, we grew up, we grew separate, and we found out we had different values and different goals in life. And my ex- wife and I are still friends. We're both CPAs, so we... After 25 years, our daughters in college, we looked, and she actually was my office manager controller for the company. We were selling the company and we said," This isn't where we want to be," and neither one of us could see us changing, so we stepped away from that marriage. I was fortunate, being now in my 40s, I knew who I was, I knew who I wanted to be with, I knew my values. I was fortunate to find a partner for life. We joke about it. My goal is to be married to her for 50 years. I have one daughter and I have three grandsons. The three grandsons are in their 20s, 24, 22, and, well, 17. One's in the army. He decided that he didn't know what he wanted to do, so he's in Kuwait right now and he's thinking about staying in. The older one tried to get in the Navy, but he had a medical problem that wouldn't allow him to join, and the youngest one's going to be a Marine. What I believe is that military experience is beneficial, as far as teaching you discipline and regiment and helping you prepare for what you want to do in life, so all three of them have followed that advice from me.
Tim Leman: That's great. So how do you keep your fellow team member at home happy?
Tony Hutti: Even though I'm an accountant, I have a highly creative mind, and my passion is travel, outside of work. And here's the crazy thing, we just got back from an Indiana cheese tour. We spent five days going from little farms with grass- fed cows, goats, and they make their own cheese, and we would learn about cheese- making. So started down by Evansville, worked up to Connersville, and Indianapolis, Lafayette, so it's always looking for that escape time. But the one thing I think has been beneficial in this marriage, what I learned from the first, is when we sit down at the evening table, the two of us, there are no phones, no electronics, and afterwards, we have at least a 20, 30- minute, just talk about the day. And here's a key that I've learned, is in the past, I would just listen and shake my head. This one, I'm really listening. Difference between, a little bit, men and women is, women want to describe everything step- by- step, man says," I went to work and I met so- and- so," and that's it for the day. But listening to and really paying attention, one of my books I read taught me that, to really get into a conversation. So the most important person in the conversation is not the listener, it's the speaker making sure the listener is paying attention and comprehends. So that daily ritual is vital.
Tim Leman: Tony, you've done a lot over the years, and as a CPA, your finance career, then being a CEO, and then now, the last 20 years, leading peer groups of executives, what's giving you your edge in life?
Tony Hutti: Well, obviously my parents, and I grew up with two sisters, so I grew up with three females that were influential to me, and then my wife now. But I think one of my edges, I didn't realize it till I took StrengthsFinder, is I have a high level of empathy. But one of my passions, which I learned from, particularly my dad, I'm always inquisitive about the other person's life. How did they get where they are from now till the end? And I've got half a dozen questions I'll ask people, like, how did you propose to your wife, or how did your husband propose to you? Tell me about something in grade school that you vividly remember. And you really learn about people when you listen to their life story, and one of the elements we tell our members is, I need to know the first 40 years if I'm going to help you in the next 20. I can't start in the middle of the book. I've got to read the first 40 chapters. So those are the two, is the... Well, I guess growing up in a women's world, empathy and intrigued by people's life stories. I think that's unique to me.
Tim Leman: Okay, let's shift gears to rapid- fire. This is always my favorite part of the show. We'll start with an easy one. What's your favorite color, Tony?
Tony Hutti: Actually, purple.
Tim Leman: Purple. I would've figured I'd get the blue and gold of Notre Dame, but we're going with purple.
Tony Hutti: Well, you only let me have one color. I have some things in my wardrobe, and dress is important to me, so purples... The right shade of purple, not the dark, but the lighter- colored purples, it kind of makes you stand out.
Tim Leman: All right, I'm going to look for that now, and I inaudible if you're having a purple sort of day. Tony, what was your first car?
Tony Hutti: My first car was a 1954 Chevy, Powerglide, power windows. That was the first one I bought. And I hate to say, it cost$ 75.
Tim Leman: That sounds like an entire summer's worth of work.
Tony Hutti: It was, yeah.
Tim Leman: Tony, what's the most memorable concert you've been to?
Tony Hutti: Actually, I would say the Jimmy Buffett, and the reason that was, it was actually with my wife, and she didn't know we were going, and I had arranged for it down in Indianapolis, and I had gotten seats through a colleague of mine, and we were about six rows off to center stage. And just the energy level, I was not prepared to what they do as far as tailgating and dress and all that. I just showed up an hour before, and it was like, this is an event. This is as good as a Notre Dame football game, as far as the preparation. But that concert just was very memorable for a couple...
Tim Leman: Oh, that's cool. So you're not a full- time Parrothead, but you got a flavor for what it all is?
Tony Hutti: We have a trip coming up to New England and I just bought tickets. And again, I know my wife won't listen to this, but I bought tickets to a show that a local playhouse is doing on Jimmy Buffett. And Charlie does it, my wife does it, inaudible, so I've got that already set up. Surprises are great. I love to do surprise things for people.
Tim Leman: Yeah, you never know. She might listen in. We'll try to block her from the channel here.
Tony Hutti: Please do.
Tim Leman: Tony, what's something about you that very few people know?
Tony Hutti: Most people don't know, there's a few that do, but for the first two years of high school, I went to the seminary. I was thinking of becoming a priest. I wanted to be a missionary priest in South America. I still wanted to do accounting and finance, but I lost an aunt to breast cancer and I had difficulty with that at the end of my sophomore year and I dropped out of the seminary.
Tim Leman: Wow. Well, there you go. I did not know that. My grandparents were Baptist missionaries, and my mother grew up in South America in the mission field too, so I can appreciate all that. Tony, this is an interesting one because you do a little bit of theater yourself, but which actor would play you in a movie?
Tony Hutti: The person I would like to play me would be Dustin Hoffman. Dustin Hoffman is person I idolize because he can play different parts, from Midnight Cowboy to Rain Man, and that's the parts that I like to play where it's a different character and it's an impactful character, so Dustin Hoffman.
Tim Leman: I like it. I could see that. Three people you'd like to have dinner with?
Tony Hutti: Well, the first one, and as always, is my mother's father. I never met my grandfather on my mother's side. She always tells me I am like him and that he was a very successful candy sales guy in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. He used to go from store to store and could sell anybody, anything. The second, most people don't know this, I had a brother, and I'll take a few moments here. My brother was about a year and a half older than me. He only lived three hours and they told my mother," Do not have any more children. You shouldn't have them." And she said," You will not bury my Tony," and she went ahead, got pregnant. I was outside the womb. There was complications. But if my brother had lived, I probably would not exist, so I definitely want to meet my brother. I've always been intrigued to meet him. The third is someone that, again, idolize, as far as theater, Lloyd Webber. I'd like to meet him and sit down from him. And where do you come up with these ideas of the different shows or plays that you've done? Andrew Lloyd Webber would be the third that I would like to meet.
Tim Leman: That's great. And then last one, Tony, and I think this is perfect for you because you're still thinking of all these new ideas and things you want to do and setting long- term plans, but what's something big you want to do before it's all over?
Tony Hutti: Well, one of the places, travel- wise, is Antarctica. I would love to do that. There's things I wish I could have done earlier in life that I... not regrets, but didn't do, which is... Climb Kilimanjaro was one. I had an opportunity to do that, decided not to, skydive. But the one that I feel I could physically still do would be to go to Antarctica and spend about couple weeks down in Antarctica.
Tim Leman: Well, you had me until you went to the couple weeks part, but that's on my list too. I want to go to all seven continents, and should be doing number six this next summer for my daughter's 13th birthday, which is Australia, and then I got Antarctica left, so maybe we need to get this thing scheduled.
Tony Hutti: If you're going to Australia, you need to go down to New Zealand.
Tim Leman: We're going to do that as well.
Tony Hutti: Yeah, we had three and a half weeks, and two weeks, we were in New Zealand, week and a half was Australia, and I'd go back to New Zealand in a heartbeat.
Tim Leman: Wow, that's awesome. Hey, Tony, thanks so much for joining us today. I always enjoy getting together with you and just talking about life and business and everything, and so thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas and wisdom with us today.
Tony Hutti: Happy to, Tim, and the best of luck to you and everyone at Gibson, and most importantly, to you, Kimra, and your family.
Tim Leman: Thank you for tuning in today. I'm Tim Leman, and remember to own your edge. Subscribe to The Edge podcast on Apple, Google, and Spotify.