An Interview with Brian Oken, Executive Business Coach

In this episode, our very own Addison Adams sits down with business coach and consultant, Brian Oken, to discuss strategies for success and growth in the modern business landscape. Without further ado, let's jump right into the conversation.

Addison: So, Bryan, I work with a lot of business owners that are very successful and good at what they do and I am always looking for ways to help my clients succeed to find better ways to grow their business, to protect themselves, to be smart about what they're doing. And most of them do a great job. What would you say is one of the reasons why a successful business owner would want to hire a business coach and join a CEO peer group?

Brian: Sure, so let me give you a little introduction to me, who I am, what I do, that kind of stuff. So basically, I'm an executive coach and organization expert to business owners and CEOs. I offer business owners and CEOs and their executive teams personal and virtual strategic consulting and coaching appointments where I help devise a plan to best suit their vision in their businesses. Like you said, I also run online and in-person private advisory boards and peer groups. Working with businesses, everything goes through cycles. You know, sometimes people are very successful other times they're dealing with issues. So working with an executive coach is not based really on the performance of your business at any given time. It's really about making your business better and making yourself better. And it starts with what do you want? And in this current state that you're in, are you actually achieving what you want, versus some desired future state for your leadership abilities and the performance of your company?

You know, right now people are getting hit from all sides, right? You've got fallout from the pandemic, you have anxiety with employees, you have chaotic supply chains, there are delays all over the place. Pricing for anything is exponentially higher than it was a year ago. And companies need a plan. They need a well thought through plan, not just something that works for today, but a plan, with roles and responsibilities for employees, their sustained strategies, some built in accountability and measured results.

So any business, or any CEO or business owner, who desires to continuously improve their company should be working with somebody to help them actually get there. It doesn't matter really where you're at. You know, athletes use coaches, artists use coaches, performers use coaches and in business there's a huge opportunity for that business owner and CEO to really improve the performance of their business and themselves.

Addison: Would you say that a lot of people looking for an executive coach are more interested in working on themselves as managers? Or, more looking for feedback on their specific business and some specific issues with the business itself?

Brian: Yeah, it always it always starts with the business. When I'm approached, it's rarely 'a behavior I'm participating in or I'm doing is sabotaging my performance, please help me.' You know, I'll get those one out of ten times. But the other nine times, it's 'the business isn’t generating the returns I want', or 'I have a problem with somebody who reports to me', or 'the business isn’t generating the cash and I’m getting close to retirement and what do I do now?' So, it really is based on the incident that that business owner or CEO is dealing with at that moment. But it quickly turns around into ‘you get the business, you deserve.’

You know, the performance of a company starts at the top. So the culture of the business, the urgency, the symmetry of the business, the flow all starts at the top of the organization chart. And we do a lot of work with organizational structure. I mean, that's part of the reason you hire an executive coach and organization expert, because having great vision and having an idea for your business without understanding where the gaps are in your organization is just going to lead to mediocrity. You have to know what the business needs from an organizational standpoint and who are the right people to fill those roles. So that’s one of the first things that we work on, frankly, is the organization and the gaps in the organization. Once we identify what it is the CEO wants and when do they want it?

Addison: You run several CEO peer groups where the business owner, the managing CEO, the managing partner attends a group setting with you to have a guided feedback loop to get input from other business owners and from yourself about various business issues. What are some of the benefits of that kind of feedback from others? Both if you're the one asking for information and feedback, as well as if you're the one giving it?

Brian: The greatest benefit—there's two right off the bat—the first is improved decision making. When you're sitting around a table with 12 people and you're able to talk about the issues you have, the opportunities that that are being presented to you, you have the opportunity to get feedback from 12 people who have no agenda other than to just help you. And that just improves decision making to no end and it increases the speed at which things get done.

One of the biggest complaints that I receive is ‘we start projects but never seem to finish them.’ Well, when you're sitting in a peer group and month to month you come in and you give updates on an initiative or action item that the business or you are working on, it forces that accountability. You know, CEOs tend not to have a whole lot of accountability. If they have a board. Great. Most small and medium sized businesses don't have boards. So, CEO accountability really is not front and center. So, sitting in that room with those people working with companies up to a couple hundred million dollars is a ton of experience and that decision making really improves.

The other area is just exposure. You have exposure to so many other ideas and you get to compare the performance of your business with your peers. It really helps set the perspective on the kinds of performance that you should be expecting for your business and your people.

Addison: Some of your Vistage groups include well-known speakers coming in giving presentations. So, would you say that one of the benefits of a group like that is getting your master's degree and being a boss? Learning best practices, is that a big part of the services you provide?

Brian: Yeah, that's a great way to put it. Certainly. We have guest speakers several times a year and they range from local to guest speakers throughout the country on a variety of different subjects. Pretty much anything you can think of. Vistage has one of the largest pools of expert speakers of these kinds of organizations. You know, they'll spend 2 or 3 hours at a meeting giving firsthand experience and training to business owners and CEOs. It's the level of training that businesses typically don't have access to otherwise. We also go into some speakers who most people are familiar with, people like Joe Collins, Simon Sinek, Patrick Lencioni, some well-known presenters who are presenting their tried-and-true philosophies or concepts at a place that, again, normally you wouldn't have the opportunity to see or have exposure to.

Addison: As you know, I'm a mergers and acquisitions deal lawyer. I'm always looking to help my clients improve their business, to grow it, and really most of my clients are looking to sell their business at some point in time. Either when they're ready to retire, or just when they're ready to move on to their next business. So I've seen it from the exit point of view, many, many times when the buyer is coming in to look and see, well, 'what do we get when we buy this business?' How much of your coaching keeps that in mind in terms of setting up the corporation for a successful sale to address concerns any buyer of a business would have in terms of continuity and the assets and liabilities and everything else?

Brian: Yeah, it really depends on the particular situation. Each business has its own purpose and that's why I really like to start with ‘what do you want?' And that's different from a vision because ‘What do you want?’ really is talking to the individual. In five years, what do you want? What do you want from your business? What do you want from your life? And if part of the answer is, well, you know, at some point I want to monetize the company, then it opens up a door to a whole different set of strategies than somebody who says, well this is a second generation business, I'm looking for it to be a legacy business and continue for multiple generations. I’m going to go down a different path if I get that kind of answer as far as devising short- and longer-term plans.

Currently, today, I have a number of clients and Vistage members who have sold their businesses recently and the kinds of activities that you're engaged with, the things that you look for with your executives, all take on different meaning if that's the direction you want to go. So, I think it's dependent on the individual. What do they want? And we have a palette of exercises and workarounds that the business owners and CEO should be engaged with to set their business up to get the most that they can if they're going to put it up for auction or for sale.

Addison: I love that answer. It reflects the insight that you've accumulated over the years that not every owner has the same goal in mind. Not everyone is just looking for the same thing.

Brian: There is no script. You know, people like to think of business as a game, and it is. And you're always trying to be strategic. You know, the core of my practice and my philosophy is strategic base. You know, my companies, when I was running businesses as CEO, we stood on two legs, one of which was to achieve better than industry average operating performance or financial performance, and the second was to create great places to work. And I found that that can be applied to pretty much any business. But how you get there is different depending upon the industry, the individual, and the and the situations. So, I don't believe in a one and done kind of approach. I don't believe in a commodity approach to the work I do. Everybody's different and how we get to the end result is really predicated on the individual who I'm working with.

Addison: Well, hopefully this has been helpful for readers and listeners of this. I am grateful for the advice that you've been giving me over the years. I enjoy our friendship and I enjoy the help and advice that you've given me in terms of my business. And I would encourage all business owners to reach out to Brian Oken and look into getting coaching services and even joining one of his CEO peer groups. Any final words, Brian?

Brian: You know, Addison, I appreciate that. Thank you very much. I feel the same way towards you. Everybody who I've referred to you has always just had glowing feedback. I never worry offering a referral to you. It's interesting times right now, right? Number one issue people have is people. The second issue, they have a staying on track. And a third issue right now that business owners are going through deal with either rebuilding their business or sustaining the gains they've made over the last year. So, it's tough right now. And it's actually a lot of fun. The business is good and I'm loving working with people with all these different things that are that are happening and there's some real opportunities. So, I appreciate the time, thank you very much!

Addison: Yeah, no, thank you. It's my pleasure. I can tell you love what you do, just like I love what I do. So hopefully everyone stays happy, healthy, and prosperous.

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