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What Makes a Great CEO
A Two Part Series on Leadership Excellence Featuring Executives Bill Celndenen & Michael Burcham

Part I: Executives Bill Clendenen & Michael Burcham on Leadership Excellence

In this episode, seasoned executives Bill Clendenen and Michael Burcham discuss the crucial attributes of a successful CEO, especially within private equity. They emphasize the importance of financial acumen, empowering the team without micromanaging, and the continuous education and coaching of teams. Both highlight the necessity for potential CEOs to develop strong foundational skills, including goal setting and relationship-building, to lead and scale businesses effectively.

Part II: Executives Bill Clendenen & Michael Burcham on Excelling as a Shore Capital CEO

In this episode, seasoned executives Bill Clendenen and Michael Burcham discuss what it takes to become a successful CEO within a Shore Capital portfolio company. They highlight the importance of having a bias for action, grit, and determination, as well as the capability to lead and mentor simultaneously. They emphasize the need for true humility, acknowledging limitations, and engaging with board members for continuous improvement. The discussion also covers the critical role of storytelling in communicating vision and strategy throughout the organization.

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Transcripts

 

Introduction - Part I

Anderson Williams: Welcome to Bigger. Stronger. Faster., the podcast exploring how Shore Capital Partners brings billion-dollar resources to the micro-cap space. This episode is the first in a two-part series in which I talk with Shore Executive Partner Bill Clendenin and Shore's Chief of Strategy and Talent Development Michael Burcham.

Over these two episodes, Bill and Michael will talk about what makes a great CEO and particularly what makes a great CEO in private equity. In addition to their own experiences, as multi-time, private equity backed CEOs, both Bill and Michael serve as Lead Independent Directors for multiple shore portfolio companies.

They also both formally and informally support and mentor numerous CEOs across the portfolio and beyond. In this episode, we'll focus on their personal experiences as a CEO and the hard lessons learned about themselves, their leadership, and their business that only come from being in that CEO seat. In episode two, we'll shift the conversation to what makes a great CEO, specifically in a Shore Capital portfolio company.

Welcome Bill and Michael. Thank you guys for joining me today.

Michael Burcham: It's our pleasure. Good to be here.

Bill Clendenen: Looking forward to it.

Journey of a PE-Backed Entrepreneur

Anderson Williams: To get started and maybe Bill, you can kick us off, but so that we have some context, will you just describe a little bit about your experience as a CEO? The company or companies you've led, the industry size scale, those sorts of things.

Bill Clendenen: Yeah, I'd be happy to. I've been a private equity backed CEO for over 15 years. And during that 15-year period, I've sold a variety of businesses and for one company, three sales in 10 years with three times cash on cash return. So had a long, successful run as a private equity backed CEO. Me and my partner in 2000 bought a small CPR first aid publishing business and transformed it into now a digital compliance and safety solutions business.

And in that time certainly drove outsized growth using a lot of different levers that we'll talk about in today's session. But that experience was really what now is called a search fund where somebody finds a company, get some investors and buy it. Well, my partner and I did that 20 plus years ago before there really were such things as search funds.

I was happily retired, enjoying my life as a reformer, private equity CEO, when Shore convinced me to unretire. So, I've failed retirement and Shore convinced me to become CEO of an urgent care practice in Eugene, Oregon called Community Care Partners. And I was a CEO with Shore for over three years.

 

Anderson Williams: And Michael, what about you?

Tell us a little bit about your experience as a CEO.

Michael Burcham: I left Hospital Corporation of America and started my first company in 1993. It was a physical therapy consolidation called TheraPhysics. With the help of private equity partners, we acquired a collection of Physical therapy practices in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

I sold that in 1997. Then in '98 started Paradigm Health, which did catastrophic care management with the backing of many of the same PE partner investors. Paradigm Health was sold in 2007. I had a bit of a lock up period there, so I did a turnaround for a company that was owned by a Blue Cross plan and formed a nonprofit called the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.

And then my third and final PE backed business that I sold recently was called Narus Health, and it was concierge medicine and support, serving self-funded employers. Connected with Justin and Shore as the organization was forming and came on as a board member in 2011.

Natural Aptitudes and Areas for Growth

Anderson Williams: So, I'll stick with you, Michael. As you look back, how would you describe yourself as a CEO and what were some of the things that came natural to you in that role?

And what were some areas that you really had to work on?

Michael Burcham: I think I'm a classic entrepreneur in that I see a gap or a problem area and I want to go solve it. So, problem solver is probably how I describe myself early in my journey. What I've learned as a CEO is to scale. I had to learn to lead through other people and that solving a problem was really nice, but executing to scale was more important.

So early in the journey, problem solver, entrepreneur, I can fix this. And as businesses grew, come to realize that until I learned to lead through others, I would never create anything of significance.

 

Anderson Williams: And what about you, Bill? How would you describe yourself as a CEO and maybe some things you were good at and some things you had to work on?

Bill Clendenen: I've always viewed myself. Really, as an educator and a coach, my passion was in training and education, helping people become the best versions of themselves. And so, I think that translated to me as a CEO as well. I wanted to be empowering. I wanted to be fair, but firm give people enough rope to succeed or fail, you know, on their own as a CEO, I needed to learn to trust that people were doing the job, but also verify.

And understand what are the right checkpoints to know that the job is getting done in the manner that you want it done. We talk about this a lot at Shore and at other private equity firms. You have to be able to drive results, right? And that's such a hard thing to do. Yet at the same time, Michael referred to building scale, you have to build processes behind that.

And so individual effort can only get you so far. So as CEO leading through others. Helping them develop processes to scale and succeed. I think it's important that you avoid micromanaging people to help them feel in control of their own experience and journey. So, verifying, but yet holding them accountable, yet not micromanaging them.

It's a very delicate balance. Also, as CEO, I think it's important that you set the vision, but allow the people on your team to participate in that vision because everybody has a different view of what success looks like for them individually. So how do you get them to join the team vision, but yet have their own individualized version of success.

And finally, I would say, and this was a challenge for me. Was caring less about how things got done. I'm a very particular way. I'm maybe a bit OCD, but I like things being done a particular way, but letting people do it their own way, as long as the results got done. And so, letting go yet at the same time, maintaining control is a lesson learned as a CEO. But I'd say in summary, being a coach, empowering my team to become the best version of themselves is what I strive to do.

The Shift from Solving to Leading

Anderson Williams: Michael, you just kind of smiled when he said control. I'm curious as to what you were smiling about.

Michael Burcham: Well, there were a couple thoughts came to mind. I'll start with yours about control and I'll go to another that I had as Bill was speaking. I have a hard time giving up control too. People tell me you'll delegate responsibility, but never authority.

And I think that's still kind of true. I'll delegate responsibility for actions, but I'm still going to make sure the final product is as needed or required to delight the customer, and if it falls short of that, I'll call foul and we'll fix it because that's my ultimate job is to make sure we deliver.

I think one of the other things that Bill mentioned that I would love to add to a bit is he said he's always seen himself as an educator or a coach. I think over time, every good CEO becomes an educator and a coach. Knowing what to do and how to do it is important. But you're constantly working with your team to help them understand, you know, why our mission and vision are so important to where we're going, why the values and how we behave and treat one another matters so much when we're doing a strategy.

 

What are our key points of difference that stand us apart from others? And I think sometimes I talk to CEOs who say, I feel a little bit like a broken record. And I tell them, well, good, you're probably just about to say it enough if that's the way you feel, because ultimately, you're constantly amplifying those key tenets to make your company stand out, be something special that people want to be part of.

Bill Clendenen: That makes me laugh. Michael's comments there as CEO of my company, 10 years ago, I would every month have a monthly staff meeting and we'd show every month our vision, mission, values. We'd review our top five goals for the year. We would share success stories. We'd share our failures every month, 30 minutes, the whole company.

At the end of the year, I would survey my company and say, you know, write down our vision, mission, values, and what our goals were. And as a whole, about 50 percent of the company got it right. So, to Michael's point, you can never repeat these things enough, and it is, you're beating a broken record, you're beating a drum, and that's the cadence that you've got to set with the company.

Potential Blind Spots

Anderson Williams: You guys both hit on some things that I think you've learned along the way. And we obviously know that being a CEO is. It's really difficult. I'm just curious, Bill, maybe you can start us off. Were there any blind spots that being a CEO in particular exposed for you as a leader, as a business person, as a thinker, whatever it might be, that really is a result of being in that role?

Bill Clendenen: I would say yes to all the above, right? And understanding your blind spots, I think is one of the keys to success of a CEO. The job of private equity firm and hiring the CEO, that's the private equity firm's most important job. If you get the CEO hire wrong, you've set back the investment, if not two years, maybe more.

And quite frankly, it's hard to recover from a poor CEO hire. Your job as CEO, first and foremost, is value creation for your team, for your investors, for your family. All those things are your job, number one. And as I became CEO of a private equity backed business, I certainly had blind spots. And I think my blind spots and my Actions to mitigate those blind spots changed over time.

I'd say out of the gate, my first big blind spot was financial acumen. Private equity was new to me. Covenants, restrictions, ad backs, gross strategies, all those things were brand new. And so really for the first 18 months, my most important skills that I developed as a CEO was really getting a much more robust financial background.

I was a product marketer. I was a educator. I was a trainer. I wrote books, videos, like that was my passion. That's what I was doing. And all of a sudden, I was CEO for private equity backed business. And I had to learn the numbers and the numbers matter. And so that was my first blind spot. And how I got over that was by over investing in a very strong CFO and working with my private equity partner, so I understood what mattered.

What were the KPIs that I need to look at every day, every week, every month. And so that was the first blind spot that I had to mitigate. Over time as the company grew and Michael referred to this about scaling is you have to empower people to do their job. Yet how do you empower yet trust yet verify and hold people accountable for the results?

And so, I think my second blind spot in my evolution was entrusting people that they were actually doing the job. Yet not verifying that the results that we wanted were actually happening. And so, for me, that took time to put in systems and processes so that I could let the organization grow and scale.

Yet at the same time, have enough controls in place that I knew the job was actually getting done. That was probably my hardest lesson in my experience as a private equity CEO. And I think the last lesson would be is holding onto underperformers for too long. In many of these small micro-cap businesses, you have people that have helped you build that business.

And what got you to say a million dollars of EBITDA are not the same skills that will get you to 10 or 20 or 30 million EBITDA. And what I think holds back companies and high performing teams is you have people that can't keep pace, yet for some reason you have an affinity, an affection, a passion for who they are as people, yet the company's outgrown them.

And you have to understand that it's actually a favor. And one of the lessons I learned was I let, you know, a friend of mine go. And when that happened, they thanked me for letting them go because they were drowning. And anything that I threw them wasn't going to save them. And so, the best thing I did was let them go and find a new opportunity.

They were very happy. We were still friends. We still socialized. That was meaningful for them, right? I treated them with respect and dignity. So those are probably the three biggest lessons in my blind spot journey.

Anderson Williams: Michael, what about you? Were there things that you learned about yourself? In terms of potential blind spots that you could only learn once you got in that CEO seat, that there was something about that environment, that responsibility that exposed a blind spot, despite having a successful career prior to being in that seat that you were able to see as a CEO.

Michael Burcham: It's a great question, Anderson. Two things come to mind. First, I think really good CEOs spend part of their thinking six months ahead of where their team is. And part of their thinking in today. Getting the discipline for me personally to live that way, took some time. I was either all in today's work, and I was working in the business, or I was all in tomorrow's future working on the business, and you're bouncing back and forth between the two almost every single day, and so learning how to delicately do that so your team is focused on today's work and what matters now, but you're paving a pathway for the next three months ahead of when they even know they need it is something that was a learned skill for me.

Something that's complemented is something that Bill just said that I think is true also is that learning how to break the work into meaningful wins. So, the team had things to celebrate along the way rather than every task being a three-to-six-month journey because human brains like to accomplish something every week.

And when I learned to cut the big task into what's important this week and not this week, we started making far more momentum than when I laid out six-year, five-year, four-year, even one-year goals.

Bill Clendenen: I think that's a great point, Michael. One of the things I used to encourage my team is, let's strive to improve 1 percent today and tomorrow another 1%.

You look back at the end of the year, you're 300 percent better. How does that work? You know, it's those incremental steps. You know, being better today than you were yesterday. Tomorrow we're better, tomorrow than we were today.

Michael Burcham: It's so true, Bill. So absolutely true.

The Incredible Responsibility

Anderson Williams: So, as you think about that experience, some of the people listening to this are considering being a CEO, want to be a CEO, aspire to be a CEO.

Maybe they're new in their journey. Of course they want to be successful. Michael, if you had to nail down what ultimately made you a successful CEO, what was it?

Michael Burcham: I think it was learning to accept the incredible responsibility of the job. You cannot be a CEO Monday to Friday, eight to five. You're always thinking about it.

And anyone who tells me they're not, I worry about their ability to succeed because the responsibility for your customers, to your investors, to the team you've hired and their families. I think it's something that is always on your mind of a great CEO because if you're taking care of those core stakeholders, you're going to have a great business.

So, I think that's an essential part of succeeding is understanding the responsibility you're taking on. It's probably not the most glamorous part of a job, but I think it's one of the most important is accepting that you are signing up for something that is probably more and above and beyond what most people want to sign up for.

I find people look at the job of a CEO and it looks pretty glamorous from the outside, but you spend a week in their shoes and you realize it's a pretty lonely long journey, and it's not for everyone. So, I think that is one of the key things. I think a second thing that makes it very successful CEO is someone who really has a deep passion for the impact they're looking to make.

Because there are times and days where the work gets really long and hard and without a passion to make an impact and make a difference, whether that's through your products or the lives of your customers and your team, it's really easy for it to simply become a job. And the minute it becomes a job, you're on the path to failure.

Anderson Williams: What about you, Bill? What ultimately made you a success as a CEO?

Bill Clendenen: I'd like to dovetail on both the things that Michael touched, I think those things are important for context. I think being a CEO in any context, private equity backed, non-private equity backed, a sole entrepreneur, it is both a gift that you have that opportunity, yet it's a tremendous burden that carries a lot of personal weight and sacrifice.

And I agree wholeheartedly that if you're not all in, you're not in. And without that, you won't be successful. I think the second point that Michael talked about was passion and finding that passion in the work because it's hard work. And so with community care partners, we were improving the lives and keeping people out of the hospital every day.

And so, we would celebrate our successes on a weekly basis. We'd send out emails to our people, we'd share the stories where some young girl came in and, you know, had her hand cut up by a dog. And we got a wonderful email from the mom saying that, you know, you saved her a lot of money and time, and the care she got was amazing.

Like we would share those successes and just as CEO, driving that passion is so important. At the Health and Safety Institute we were saving people's lives with CPR and first aid. So, we would share our survivor stories where somebody had a heart attack at work and was successfully revived because an AED was nearby, or there was a near drowning in a pool and somebody was able to be resuscitated because one of the lifeguards took our training and knew what to do and act properly.

And so, as CEO waking up every day. And having that passion, but then sharing it amongst the team, I think is so critical. And one of the things that I did to bring that home is I challenged my employees to find their favorite customer and mine was Earl. And so, I had a picture of Earl next to my desk. And Earl was this CPR instructor who traveled around Florida, teaching CPR and first aid to high schools, because he thought that would make a difference.

And so, driving that personal passion for you, I never forgot about Earl every day. Helping my employees find their Earl was equally as important because that's what got us up every day to do our job. What I think made me successful as a CEO I give a lot of credit to the people that I had around me and I think one of things we'll talk about broadly as it relates to being a successful CEO, particularly private equity CEO, is hiring the best team you can. I've been blessed to have an amazing team around me helped me on that journey.

So private equity operators, private equity investment team, the people I hired, my N minus one, my N minus twos, the people that worked for me that entrusted their livelihoods and their families, health and wellness to me was something that's invaluable. And that's the burden that I think, you know, Michael referred to earlier, it's a gift that you have that opportunity, but it's also a burden that you actually have to execute and deliver.

And so, I give first credit to my team. I think I was blessed in being in some wonderful industries or going in transformation that I was able to motivate and inspire my team to react to the customer needs, the market needs and deliver a real quality product. But I think mostly I would give credit to my success as a CEO to the people that I had around me in that journey.

Michael Burcham: So, Anderson, to amplify a comment by Bill, I think great CEOs become great storytellers. Whether you're telling the story of a customer, the story of a heroic employee, the story of your why. But great CEOs, honestly, become great storytellers.

Reflections on Leadership

Anderson Williams: So, I want to come back and just ask you just for any final reflection on that line of thinking, because I think many people listening to this may be surprised at your answers in terms of what made you successful, each of you successful, and the two things that you both hit on.

We’re storytelling and keeping it personal from values perspective, keeping your customers, knowing who they are, knowing your team, you didn't answer how well you managed your PNLs or your, you know, marketing or your sales. Just any thoughts on that? Because I think for someone who thinks they want to be a CEO before they've been in that seat, those could be surprise answers.

Bill Clendenen: If you don't wake up every day as a CEO and think about your customer, the service or product you're delivering to them and the team you have delivering that product or service, you shouldn't be a CEO. That is job number one from an operational perspective, is serving your customer in the best way possible.

And so without that, the rest of it doesn't matter. And to scale a business, to grow a business, yeah, you've got to have the operational efficiencies. You got to get the sales and marketing matrix right. You got to get your go to market strategies right.

You have to have your strategic plan. All those things are critical, but if you don't inspire your customers to purchase a product from you, if you don't inspire your employees to get up every day and serve those customers to the best of their ability, you don't have a business.

Michael Burcham: Anderson, I think at the core of our human existence is the desire to have authentic, meaningful relationships.

And that's true for our customers, and that's true for our team. And honestly, I think it's true for our investors. So, marketing and operations and data and all those things are simply manifestations of relationships that worked and they chose to focus on functions. I don't think functions make you successful.

I think the relationships you forge drive your success, and great relationships will have wonderful processes. They will come up with best-in-class marketing. They'll help you find margin. But it's driven, first and foremost, by healthy, meaningful, and authentic relationships.

Anderson Williams: Michael, if you were right out of college or right out of business school and you think you want to be a CEO at some point in your career, what's your recommendation for what they do now?

What can they get started working on to get on that path?

Michael Burcham: That's a fantastic question, Anderson. I would say first and foremost, develop some self-discipline of your workday, your work week, how you're going to live your life. I think really great CEOs are highly disciplined in the way they structure their life.

And it's a learned behavior. It's not intuitive to most people. So, having a way you structure yourself, what time you get up, how do you take care of yourself? When do you read? When do you reflect? When do you going to improve on yourself? All those things and self-discipline are extremely important.

That's my first area. I think the second area is you need to practice goal setting that are quantifiable, measurable, and hold yourself to an accountability of achieving your goals. That rhythm of goal setting and executing on your plan is a key part of every CEO's job. And there are many people who arrive at the day they get the opportunity to lead and be a CEO or any other member of the C suite and their discipline to goal setting and execution is still relatively weak.

Another thing a young person can do today to prepare themselves is start building relationships. The other young people your age that you know today that are excelling and you admire are likely the key talent you're going to want to hire when you get to the seat. And a five-to-six-year relationship that's already built is much likely to become a team or a team member than trying to go nurture a relationship right when you need to hire someone.

We call it in CEO circles, building your bench, but I think you should always have a virtual bench, even as a young college graduate, that says one day when I get the opportunity to lead a company, here are the people I'm going to call first, who I trust. They're going to help me find the right talent to be part of the journey I'm going to embark on.

So that relationship building is kind of my third area. I think the fourth and final area is rather than copy someone else, read enough, be learned enough, study enough of successful leaders to cultivate what will be your authentic way you lead. Because when you get stressed in the job and as you grow, you can no longer just copy someone else.

You have to know authentically how you're going to lead because the individuals around you want you to consistently show up every day. And your lack of consistency breeds distrust, and you cannot be a consistent leader if you do not authentically know yourself and how you're going to lead.

Bigger Than a Role

Anderson Williams: Michael, I can't help but reflect on those points from how you structure your life, to how you set your goals, to the relationships you choose to cultivate, to being authentically you.

What you're describing here is thinking about the CEO vision or aspiration, not as a job you want to do, but the type of life you want to live. It is bigger than a role.

Michael Burcham: It's absolutely bigger than a role. And I think that's the mistake so many individuals make in their saying, I want to be a CEO. They see it as a job.

I think it's the culmination of a group of life experiences you've chosen to put yourself into by foregoing other things you could have done and refining those disciplines about yourself that you're set up for success. Because I think without those core four disciplines, you cannot succeed. And it's not something you've mastered in a single year.

So, starting early in your life with this being the destination, it's very much like, you know, if I were trying to train for an Ironman, I don't start a week ahead of the race. I think most people who do really great at such rigorous athletic events will practice for years. And they may run some partial marathons or a half marathon.

They practice their swimming. They do all the things they've got to do. So, by the time the event has arrived, they're prepared in every dimension of that experience. I think the experience of leading a company, being a CEO is a multidimensional experience. And from my 30 years of leading, those are the four that I think are the most critical for you.

Bill Clendenen: Michael, I couldn't agree more, and so I don't want to take away from what you said, because I think those are the right four. But that being said, I think I have some hints, tips, and suggestions for people maybe to think about actions they can take in the short run. Going from a recent college graduate, you've had a tremendous amount of personal success and you've been responsible for carrying your own water.

Now you've got to translate that to your leaders and then the people that your leaders lead. And so how do you lead through others? Those skills are critical because you're going from individual success to how do you achieve team success. And so, this individual success is based on whatever superpower you've developed.

And so how do you then translate that superpower into a coaching superpower? And so, some suggestions I would have is that you take on some interim leadership opportunities, volunteer at a nonprofit organization that you're passionate about, offer to lead a committee, help them fundraise, get some at bats in leadership where people are volunteers, you're not paying them.

You want to learn about leading people? Have a volunteer, you know, spend 10 hours a week making phone calls to people that are mad at you. That's the leadership lesson that you can get in that moment. Go coach a five-year-old girls’ soccer team. Learn how to motivate children. You get so many life lessons from those things, it's critical.

Michael Burcham: Oh, my gosh, you're so right, Bill. There's no more valuable lesson in leadership is learning to lead people. You have no ability to hire or fire. And if you can inspire them to be something bigger than themselves, you probably are on your way to being a decent CEO. If you think your ability to hire and fire makes you a great leader, you are so mistaken.

Bill Clendenen: Amen. A couple other things they can do, really learn how to work your way around financial statements. And so, you can download, you know, publicly traded companies' financial statements, really understand how all that's put together. Like that's on you, right? One of the things that I think private equity CEOs, particularly if they come out of an operational background, may not have the financial acumen and understanding that's needed for the job.

So, understand to work your way on a cash flow statement, balance sheets, etc. So that's something you can do on your own. Learn how to project manage, right? I think one of the challenges that CEOs sometimes have is holding their people accountable. If you can become a good project manager, you learn how to hold people accountable, how to motivate them.

So, if you're in a job where you can take up some project management, offer to lead a project, a multidiscipline project, so that you get some at bats on how to lead multiple teams, multiple dimensions, different skill sets. And lastly, we talked about this notion of storytelling. And so, I think things you can do to improve yourself on a storytelling perspective is write, journal.

Offer to write an article for the local paper. Write a letter to the editor about something you're passionate about. Offer to write a letter to volunteers or donors at the nonprofit you volunteered for. Join Toastmasters so you learn to articulate your stories well. There are so many opportunities for you to learn and develop your skills.

You just have to look around. And so, I would say the biggest challenge, and I agree with everything that Michael said, is find those specific opportunities to elevate your game and your skillset so that you, one day you can become the CEO that you want to be.

Anderson Williams: And Bill, I think what's important to that message is what you're talking about are transferable skills and that learning to be, or preparing to be a great CEO doesn't mean you're finding your way into some executive room.

It means that you volunteer for a political campaign. It means that you're on a neighborhood board or a community-based group. It means that you're on a nonprofit board because you're in the business of where people meet some set of goals and require some sort of structure. And ultimately that's a business.

But I think that young people in their career assume that the experiences they have to acquire have to be specifically in the business setting for them to be valuable, rather than recognizing that the breadth of their experiences across some of those things you mentioned. Actually, we'll add up to potentially becoming an even more versatile and flexible CEO who's able to learn at the pace of the business.

Bill Clendenen: Try coaching a youth sports team, dealing with parents, a board, 10-year-olds. It's often like running a company.

Michael Burcham: It's so true. And Anderson, if I were going to add a fifth, cause this conversation is spurred this thought is begin now to recognize your reputation is built day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, and it can be destroyed overnight and build a reputation, build and live your life in a way that you already have the knowledge you need.

But the respect of others that you will do the right thing, because if you don't have that going in, it's really hard to know how to build trust. So, living your life with integrity, living your life with transparency, thinking about the hard choices of life and making smart choices early, prepare you to make the hard choices later when so much is on the line.

Anderson Williams: Yeah, just adding my own thoughts there. I think testing your values.

Michael Burcham: When it's easy.

Anderson Williams: When it's easy, yeah. And then testing your values when you don't have the ability to hire and fire and you have to find compromise. Testing your values when it's based on where you live, not just where you work or where your kid is playing sports and how you behave in those.

Those are real testing grounds for being prepared for the unknown and you've got to get out there and test who you are. And the more you can test who you are in more places, the more you're prepared for that unknown, that's inevitable in becoming a CEO.

Bill Clendenen: Get as many at bats as you can get.

Michael Burcham: Those opportunities, build character, and it will allow you when you are faced with really difficult choices as a leader to instinctively make the right decision because you have refined your ability to think, reason, and make choices for the greater good long before you showed up in the CEO's chair.

Introduction - Part II

Anderson Williams: Welcome to Bigger, Stronger, Faster, the podcast exploring how Shore Capital Partners brings billion dollar resources to the microcap space. This episode is the second in a two-part series in which I talk with Shore Executive Partner Bill Clendenen and Shore's Chief of Strategy and Talent Development Michael Burcham.

We will focus on what makes a great CEO specifically in a Shore Capital Portfolio company. In addition to their own experiences as multi time private equity backed CEOs, both Bill and Michael serve as Lead Independent Directors for multiple Shore portfolio companies. They also both formally and informally support and mentor numerous CEOs across the portfolio and beyond.

Essential Attributes for Success

Anderson Williams: Based on what you've shared about your own experiences and what you've seen as a Lead Independent Directors in those coaching and mentoring types of roles. Will you just describe what it means to be a CEO of a Shore portfolio company, meaning private equity backed, microcap, hyper growth? What does it mean to be a CEO in that environment? Bill, maybe I'll start with you.

Bill Clendenen: Well, first, it means you're not going to get a lot of sleep for the next five years. That you sacrifice a lot of your me for the we.

And you do that full knowing what it entails. And again, we talked about the burden and the obligation. It's really a gift that you have this opportunity. I was happily retired as a former private equity backed CEO and partnered with Shore because I thought that Shore provided me the opportunity as CEO to deliver on a growth strategy investment that would make a difference in the community that I lived.

I thought that investing in urgent care in rural underserved markets was a recipe for success. I was excited about the opportunity to serve those patients that were not getting the medical care they needed. Providing best-in-class medical care, best-in-class customer service to these patients was something worthy of getting out of bed four. And so that was my why as it relates to Shore.

I think the first thing that you have to have as a CEO for Shore, or quite frankly, any private equity backed company, is a bias for action. This bias for action is waking up every day. And knowing not only how are you going to work on the business, but where are you going to work in the business to get the most return for your team, for the company and for your customers.

I think personally, one of the things that has worked very well for me is I have a tremendous amount of grit and determination. You can knock me down 10 times and I'll get up 11. I don't really care about falling down. What's more important is getting up and during this five plus year journey as a private equity backed CEO is Shore with another private equity firm, you're going to make mistakes. And it's not that you make the mistake. It's how do you respond to it? How does your team respond to challenges? Those bits of effort, grit and determination, I think, help provide the fuel for success. In microcap businesses, particularly for Shore.

I think the third element that is really important is being a player coach. I talked earlier about being an educator and motivator, and I think in the microcap space, you've got to be able to coach and lead, but you also have to be able to get in the game and play. And so how are you going to step into the game as CEO and help lift your team up in those moments when they need you most? So being not just a coach, but being a player coach in the microcap space, I think is critical.

The fourth attribute that I think people often maybe not understand about being a CEO is having true humility, knowing your limitations, understanding your blind spots, being able to accept help from Shore, from your Shore Resource Team, from your COE, from your Strategy and Talent Development Team, from your boards of directors.

Do you get on the phone every quarter and talk to each one of your board members about how they can help you? They will give you the feedback if you ask for it. So how do you engage with them in a meaningful way? Not because you know better, but because you want to be better every day. So asking for this help is not a sign of weakness. It's actually a sign of strength.

And the last thing which we've talked about earlier was storytelling. How do you communicate both up the organization to the board to your investors? And then down throughout the organizations from your N-minus-ones to your n-minus-gives, how do you communicate the vision, the strategy, your purpose, your goals? Those elements, I think, really are key to being Shore CEO and possibly a CEO at other firms as well.

Michael Burcham: The very nature of microcap typically means we are acquiring small businesses. Every one of those small businesses has a founder, CEO, and it may have been their life's work or 5, 10, 15 years of blood and sweat and tears they put into something. I think to succeed in the microcap space as a CEO, you have to have a deep respect that you're bringing together a collection of small businesses that were very important and personal to someone.

And while you're putting them together, never forget the magic that they created in that one little company. Because if you lose that magic across 10 of them, you've lost 10x of magic, and that's what makes microcap so special. So to succeed as a CEO at Shore, you have to respect founders. You have to respect what you're trying to achieve. And what you're trying to achieve is almost daunting, because in five years you're gonna take this collection of companies that may have taken 15 years to get where they are, and in five years you're going to four, five, six, maybe even 10 times scale what has been built before.

That inflection speed is very challenging on a good day, and keeping that in mind as you focus on what you're going to prioritize and what's the nice to do's that you're probably not going to prioritize is the life of a private equity backed CEO. It's easy to come up with a million to do's, it's very hard to strategically boil down to the three to five key things that are going to make this company or this collection of small companies that has now become one big company, very successful. And to really create success as a PE back CEO, that's what you have to do.

Key Traits of First-Time CEOs

Anderson Williams: And Michael, as you guys described this, a lot of Shore CEOs are first time CEOs. What are we looking for, particularly when we're thinking about a first time CEO that we can't look at a CEO track record for?

Michael Burcham: I think for all the challenges, let's start by saying this, the journey from the beginning to an exit at shore with a company is probably the most challenging and rewarding thing a human can do.

 

It's incredibly powerful. So I applaud anyone who wants to step up as a first time CEO and say, I accept this challenge, because their life will be transformed. The things they will learn, how they will change, how they will grow and improve as a human. Nothing comes close to that magical experience. I think for first time CEOs what we look for is this rare combination of grit, adaptability, because we don't know all the things we don't know.

 

The ability to really pull a team together around a mission and a vision to keep setting priorities and focus on those priorities and to live each day realizing that I have a very fine, finely defined objective ahead of me. What am I going to do today to meet that objective and grow it? That's the recipe for success, and I don't think, historically, your track record as a CEO when you had a million resources around you means much in private equity, particularly at Shore and microcap, because you're starting with a very small team.

 

You are doing the work and planning the work early on, and you slowly start adding the team around you. But often, CEOs who've had the pleasure of running really large teams and large organizations will struggle in a microcap environment because they don't have the resources around them at their disposal and they have to be creative and nimble at reading a market and actually doing the work while they build a team.

 

That's a rare gift, and I find people who have overcome adversity, who grew up a bit without, who had to earn their way where they are, it honestly make some of our very best CEOs.

Anderson Williams: And Bill, some of that relates to that player coach, right? That idea of you've got to get in the business, but then going back to something Michael said, balance on the business too.

 

There's no standing back and delegating amongst a large team of talented, seasoned executives in microcap.

Bill Clendenen: And it evolves over time, right? So the early part, when you don't have the team, it's you and a couple people. You have to be more of a player coach and lean in more. But as it scales and the company develops, you have more people to actually do all those things.

 

So, it does evolve over time. I think a couple of things that Michael touched on is this entrepreneurial sense and ability to adapt and adjust to what's happening in the market. But I think also a commitment to process. I think successful, Shore CEOs commit to developing processes for scale, whether that's creating a de novo machine or an acquisition machine or a sales and marketing machine for commercial excellence, all those things take time and resources and effort.

And so being of a mind that you'll improve every day is critical to success. To go back on generally what Shore, I think, looks for at the same time of all those attributes, is they're looking for athletes. And so, when we say athlete, we think people who have a high capacity for growth, a high motor engine, both intellectually, emotionally, who've had success in their own field. And so I think having an athlete who's got a superpower, who's got a high engine, who's empathetic, who can lead coach play, they're rare. And in my experience, most first time private equity CEOs don't succeed, and that's not a criticism of them or their opportunity.

 

It's just it's a very, very hard job, and success is difficult. And in my experience, those challenges never go away during your investment hold with your partner. Every day, that's the challenge. And so finding the person that can do all of those things and do all of those things well, it's very rare.

Anderson Williams: So there's obviously a lot there. If I were just going to distill this as much as possible, Michael, if you had three words to describe a CEO who succeeds at Shore and in the microcap space, and maybe three words that you would use to describe the CEO who isn't going to make it, what would those three words be on either side?

Michael Burcham: I think my first word is vision. I have to know where I want to go. My second word is alignment. My team is not aligned, vision doesn't matter. The third word is execution. If we don't do something and accomplish something, vision nor alignment matter. So, vision, alignment, execution are my three words. The three that likely lead to failure is ego, me, and I have to come back to one third.

Bill Clendenen: Let me add your third word and you can say it because I agree with your first three. I've got, those are the exact three I was going to say. I would say people not accepting help. So my third, not successful CEOs that say, I got this. I don't need your, I don't need the short research one word for I got this is exactly what I said.

So like, I don't need to do a strategic plan. I don't need the SRT's help. I've done this before. Like, that's not one word. But it's almost like resistance for help, lack of humility.

Michael Burcham: Yeah, I said ego because you think you got the answer. Me, because you think you are the sun and everything revolves around you, which is insanity. And this sense of assuming your past success is almost prescriptive of your future success. And I think the reason sometimes we hear, I don't need the help, is they think, well, I've done this before. I've done a strategic plan before. Yeah, but you've never done a Shore strategic plan.

I know how to prioritize. Really? How are you going to prioritize a 10X growth in 60 months? Tell me about that. You know? And Shore is a really powerful playbook of how to do that. And I find individuals who come into a CEO role who are dismissive of those lessons learned don't last very long.

Bill Clendenen: I couldn't agree more.

Leveraging Shore's Resources

Anderson Williams:  There's a certain resourcefulness that you guys are describing in terms of thinking about what Shore is bringing to bear to really help de-risk your role as a CEO in the company you're trying to build.

 

And so I'm curious if you guys could just give a couple of examples from where you sit from the Lead Independent Director's seat. Of where those shore resources really make a material impact or provide a critical insight or an outsized opportunity for a CEO in a microcap space.

 

Just any examples of where that support shore brings really makes a material impact.

Bill Clendenen: I've worked with a number of private equity firms other than shore and all have been amazing relationships. But I think Shore's playbook for success of these microcap businesses is one that as an operator, I would want as well. And so if you think about the journey of a CEO and the company through a 60 month journey with Shore, there are three phases that we talk about regularly.

 

The planting, the growing, and the harvesting, and to give an example of that, in the planting phase, the most important things you need to do is hire your team. And we have a COE for talent, not only development, but recruiting, so that if you need a CFO, if you need a VP of commercial excellence, they're here to help you accelerate that growth in finding that person.

 

If your thesis for growth is M&A, we have a PDT team here that'll help source and find companies for you to acquire, and we'll tee that up for you so that you can accelerate your growth. If you need to hire a head of M&A and you haven't been able to find them in a short period of time, there's a COE for business development here at Shore who can step in and fill those shoes until such time you find that person. And so in that planting phase, diagnose your problem and what your challenge is, tee up the resource at Shore to get what you need. And I think that is unique in this microcap space.

 

In the growing phase, once you've made these investments and you're trying to grow, there are other resources like the SRT and the Centers of Excellence who can help you accelerate and optimize your operations in that mode of continuous improvement.

 

And then as you go towards exit, there are other resources within Shore's network, including your board, including more COE, your investment team, outside parties to help you prepare your management presentation to help you through that harvesting phase. And so the Lead Independent Director's role in that is to help the CEO and the investment partner get the right tool at the right time for the right project along that journey with the company and the CEO.

Anderson Williams:  And I think Michael, that's important to build on that as Shore, even as we hire a, bring on a new CEO for a platform and you have the pressure that you've described of the growth in a particular window of time, we're not just going saying, okay, here you go, go make it happen. Good luck. There's a ton that's coming in behind it, right?

Michael Burcham: You're right, Anderson. Here's something I say to any new CEO that I get to spend time with at Shore. You have to understand, Shore started as an entrepreneurial venture all its own. There were four guys, by the time I arrived there were six of us working in sublet space, trying to figure it out, just as any young entrepreneur does.

 

But each year we have memorialized our lessons learned, what we would do differently next time. We've created operating processes and playbooks that amplify the success we saw. We've made copious notes of things never to do again that we know do not work. And now we have 14 years of that knowledge here at Shore.

 

I simply want a first time CEO to take advantage of those lessons learned. You're going to make some mistakes, you're going to face things we've not seen before. That's perfectly okay. But don't make the mistakes we made five years ago because you didn't bother to use the resources to follow the processes to apply the lessons learned.

 

And I think that's one of the things that is so incredibly valuable. I mean, we have many different areas of value at Shore and areas of expertise, but if I had to distill it to one simple truth, it's that the entire vault of lessons learned here would take five lifetimes as an individual to experience on your own.

 

And you've got about a five to six year window to create something magical. Take advantage of the lessons learned that are all memorialized in the way Shor does the things we do, the processes we have, the resources and experts we've hired to support you so that you can have the success we want you to have.

Advice for Aspiring Microcap CEOs

Anderson Williams: In addition to taking advantage of those resources and making the most of that, Bill, what other advice would you offer someone considering being a CEO in the microcap space with private equity backing at Shore specifically, what advice do you give to someone who's even thinking about this job?

Bill Clendenen: The advice I would give to an aspiring private equity backed or shore backed CEO would be these few things.

 

One is, know what you're getting into. There's loneliness, there's exhaustion, frustration, disappointment. Plus, we talked earlier about your compromises in physical and mental health. It is not an easy job. You will live and breathe the business 24/7, and it's a burden. We've talked before about the role of the LID and the LID is there to be your coach, counselor, mentor in this journey.

 

And quite frankly, except for your LID, nobody else is going to care. Your spouse has got their problems. Your employees have their own problems. The only person that's really going to care is your dog. And what your dog is really looking for is just a biscuit. So nobody's going to care except you and your LID. They're your problem. So it's a big burden. We talked about it, but it's a tremendous opportunity and gift. That's the first thing I'd share.

 

The second bit of advice I would give to somebody is ask yourself the question. Are you personally set up for success? Are you mentally, physically? Is your world in a good spot? Is your relationship with your significant other good? Your kids? Because this is going to be an all consuming journey. And think about yourself. Are you a growth minded CEO? Are you a turnaround CEO? What are your skill sets? And are they right for this position? Because oftentimes it may be a great opportunity, but you might not be the right person for that job.

 

So really do that self analysis before you step into that role, because if you don't, you actually put the rest of your life at risk when you do that. And not only the risk to yourself and the people you love, but also the company, the investors that are counting on you to take that journey with them.

 

The third thing I would challenge CEOs to think about is, are you able to attract talent in the microcap space? It's all about talent arbitrage. Can you attract outsized talent to do a job? It's very difficult. It's going to be very challenging. And will they join you for this journey? If you can't attract and retain and motivate talent, the likelihood of success is even less than what it is if you can do all those things.

 

And so know that you can attract, retain and grow talent. And I think the other thing that challenges me when I think about talent is understand where value is created in the company. Know what are the things that are actually going to drive outsized value for your customers, for your partners, for your investors, so that you as CEO are set up to drive that value creation because that's your number one job.

 

And lastly, I would say as CEO, if you are blessed with getting that opportunity, make bold moves early. If you're going to break something, if you're going to challenge assumptions, if you're going to make mistakes, make them early in the investments that you have time to make up and learn from those mistakes as the investment goes on.

 

So in my experience, I have been often hesitant to make bold actions for not wanting to upset the apple cart challenge assumptions. And in hindsight, I've never regretted moving faster to challenge the underlying assumptions that are within a business or within people. And so I just would think about, do you have a mindset to challenge the art of the possible so that you can get outsized returns

 

I think that's how it works. So those would be the four things that I would challenge somebody who's thinking about being a CEO to prepare themselves for that job.

Anderson Williams: What about you, Michael? Any thoughts, additions, advice for someone who might be considering this as a career direction or considering a role actively to be a CEO in a microcap environment?

Michael Burcham: Sure, Anderson. I've got a couple thoughts here. The first thing I would do is a really thoughtful assessment of my strengths, my blind sides, areas that I'm weak. Get to know yourself really, really well. Because once the race starts, you don't have time to go do a reflective weekend somewhere.

 

The race is now begun. So do that before you begin. I would say the second thing I would encourage anyone thinking about this, It's that recognize you need to professionally grow faster than your company is growing. And there's different skills required as the company scales and grows. Bill mentioned the planting, growing, harvesting phase.

 

You could think about it as just different sizes of revenue and cash flow or different sizes of teams. But you quickly go from leading a small group to a growing group that has to have you nurturing their professional development, to leading through others, to managing their KPIs. And so the job by the time you exit five years out is not at all the job you started with at year one.

 

If you do not professionally grow yourself, the company will outgrow you.

The Accelerated Lifecycle

Bill Clendenen: When I think about the journey, 60 months as a private equity CEO in partnership with a private equity firm, probably the thing that surprised me the most is the pace of the journey.

 

Approximately every month is one and a half to two percent of the hold period. And so understanding what has to be done every day, every week, every month, every quarter, you add that up over 60 months and it can drastically transform the business. We say it's a marathon, not a sprint, but it's a marathon going at a two hour and 30 minute pace, which is pretty darn fast. Sometimes it's a two hour pace.

 

My point is, I think you don't understand that cadence and pacing until you're in the seat. And you have a private equity partner who is challenging you to grow as fast as you and your team can go. And so I think probably the most enlightening or eye opening experience I've had is learning to run the company at the pace of growth that that requires.

 

It was one of my biggest lessons and one of my biggest challenges.

Michael Burcham: Bill mentioned that each month is about two percent of a whole period. You can't take 45 days to make a decision because the business is going to react to the market or not react long before you've decided if you're waiting that long.

 

And you can become a bottleneck for your team really fast. I think we had rather you, as a CEO, make an error than not make a decision, so being decisive is a key attribute of a CEO, particularly in a fast paced private equity marketplace.

 

Another thing that comes to mind as we talk about this is magic around a board meeting. They happen each quarter. The preparation you put into a board meeting, just reporting what happened the previous quarter, if it's done well and with thought, memorializes your own lessons learned of the past quarter. It allows you to practice storytelling of what we're doing and where we're going. And a well run board meeting will also have a final segment thinking about what will the next quarter look like.

 

So you walk out of that meeting aligned with your investment team, board members, and your management team of what will we do the next quarter. And then the following board meeting, you get to do the same thing. You get to memorialize your lessons learned, and your new insights from the previous quarter. You get everyone in the room aligned and you get to talk about what we're going to achieve in the next 90 days.

 

I sometimes think CEOs fail to recognize how valuable that is, and so they're simply preparing as though they have to report out what they did without understanding that this is probably more powerful for them than anyone in the room, if it's done well.

 

And the pace at which we move is one of the few times you actually get to catch your breath and reflect for about a half a day, because our board meetings are typically about four or five hours. What you accomplished last quarter, realign based on what we've learned, and let's set a plan for the next quarter to move us closer to our five year goal.

 

If that's done well, a lot of other things just come together.

Bill Clendenen: One of the mindsets, in particular, working with Shore Capital Partners, I think, is having a mindset of being completely transparent with your partner. Shore knows what it's like to be an entrepreneur. Shore is a very entrepreneurial firm. So be transparent with your challenges, your joys, your failures, your successes, share those with your partner, with your LID, with your company. And I think having that mindset of being transparent is very important.

 

To the downside, avoid surprises. The last thing you want to do is surprise your partner. The most successful CEOs at Shore are two or three steps ahead of their partners in running the business.

Anderson Williams:  If you enjoyed this episode, check out our other Bigger, Stronger, Faster episodes at www.shorecp.university/podcasts. There you will also find episodes from our Microcap Moments as well as Everyday Heroes series, each highlighting the people and stories that make the microcap space unique. This podcast was produced by Shore Capital Partners, with story and narration by Anderson Williams, recording and editing by Andrew Malone, editing by Reel Audiobooks, sound design, mixing, and mastering by Mark Gallup of Reel Audiobooks.

 

Special thanks to Bill Clendenen and Michael Burcham. This podcast is the property of Shore Capital Partners, LLC. None of the content herein is investment advice, an offer of investment advisory services, nor a recommendation or offer relating to any security. See the Terms of Use page on the Shore Capital website for other important information.

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