Episode #1004: Discover the incredible life journey that led Bill Clark, CEO of Clark Leadership Group, to find his life purpose in helping others make a better life for themselves in Episode 1004 of the Arete Coach Podcast. Continue to watch the interview, download the transcript, and read the recap.
About Bill Clark
Bill Clark is an executive coach, master coach, and CEO of Clark Leadership Group, where he and his colleagues provide coaching services to small and mid-market companies. Bill's journey to becoming a coach was not typical. He was a low performer in high school and finished at the bottom of his class—two years behind the class he started with. With his uncle mentoring him, he went from working in a laundromat, and later buying it, to becoming a serial entrepreneur. He began buying and selling businesses, which led him to experience many successes and failures. All of his successes and failures served as life lessons, which eventually led him to become an excellent coach whose purpose is to help others achieve.
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A New Path
In his entire adult life, Bill was mentoring others because he knew the value of a good mentor. However, his executive coaching journey started about 15 years ago, when a friend of his, an executive coach himself, invited him to a meeting with a group of CEOs.
Right around that time, Bill retired from his business and was wondering—what's next? After visiting that meeting, he realized coaching is something he could do. It made sense to him, and it started him on the path of executive coaching.
In his coaching practice today, he and his colleagues help people explore themselves, become better at what they’re doing, and get to the next place in their life.
“I believe that every life has a journey, and every life has a story. I do not think my story is unique. I just think it happens to be my story.”
Bill's school years were challenging. He didn't fit in the one-size-fits-all educational system. His academic record was poor, and he failed two grades. He didn't do well in high school either. He graduated at the bottom of his class, two years behind the class he started with.
His family began to wonder what would happen to him and what his future would look like.
Around that time, Bill's uncle expressed interest in paving a road for him. His uncle had a construction company, and on the side, also owned a laundromat—where Bill was initially offered a position and soon after, ownership. Bill didn’t have any money to buy it, so his uncle taught him how to leverage it. So, in his early 20s, Bill was an owner of a laundromat. He then decided to buy a bar-restaurant. The experience of owning a laundromat and then a bar-restaurant was the catalyst for Bill's future of buying and selling businesses.
But, it is, as Bill emphasizes, the mentoring he had that really helped him progress through his journey.
"I was fortunate to get coaches or mentors in my life, and they mentored me about how to act, what to do. And there were some things I discovered about myself. The mentoring really helped me in my journey.”
Later in life, Bill learned about his severe ADD, which caused him to be easily distracted. That distraction had a significant impact on both his business and personal life.
Bill sees himself as a been-there-done-that person who has had phenomenal success but also painful loss in his life. Through all of it, he was blessed with perseverance that allowed him to continue to go on and grow.
In his early 50s, he discovered who he really is and realized that he isn't incapable, as he believed for so many years, but just the opposite.
Together with the other coaches in Clark Leadership Group, Bill works with people who are learners who also have the curiosity to learn a lot about themselves and are ready to answer deep questions. As he mentions, if people aren’t curious about themselves, it just won’t work.
He believes that his skill set was shaped over the years by different experiences and things he had done in his life. He and the coaches at Clark Leadership use their life experiences in helping others. He believes that the fundamentals in coaching come down to a coach's ability to ask tough questions and wait to see how people answer.
When asked whether there was some specific event that made him switch from running businesses to helping others do it, Bill explains that it was lifelong learning that led him to become who he is today.
Other people would say that he is extremely self-aware and that he pushes the boundaries. He admits that he was always a severe risk-taker. And, if anyone was to ask many people he worked with in the past about one thing they can say about him, Bill says the answer would come back as one word overwhelmingly—a pusher.
He pushes people to their boundaries because he wants them to learn about themselves and to become all they can be. That is, he believes, a fundamental in coaching:
“Your work really is about helping others achieve.”
He pushes people to achieve. Although he is aware that sometimes it might get uncomfortable, he emphasizes that there aren’t many things in life that you can succeed at without having to go through uncomfortableness to get it.
The foundation for what he does today in pushing people into personal growth and growing their organizations comes from an experience he had with one individual he mentored. By asking him questions and getting him to learn about himself and go through some other learning experiences, Bill helped him grow the company from $18 million to $400 million. That success helped Bill realize that the principles he had used with this individual really worked.
For a long time, Bill didn't understand his purpose truly. He could say that his purpose is to help others but didn't quite understand it beyond that. Then, seven years ago, he had a major health event, and the doctors told him that he probably has only hours to live. They have also told him that they feel that they could save his life, but that would require them to do certain things that would destroy his cognitive abilities.
Bill’s spiritual beliefs were always strong, so he told them to let him be. If God has more for him to do on this Earth, he would survive. If not, so be it.
That event helped him realize for sure that his purpose was to help others succeed. And that is exactly what he does to this day.
Asking Tough Questions
Some of the most powerful questions Bill asks his clients are:
“What are you doing that you shouldn't be doing? What are you not doing that you should be doing? What should you be doing that you're not doing?"
These are tough questions for people to answer. But they help them learn.
Bill mentions that, in his early years as an executive coach, he struggled with rescuing. He would ask a tough question but didn't know how to deal with people stammering and struggling. So, he would jump in and rescue them and say something like: "Well, I guess what you meant was this…" But, with time, he realized something important.
“Nobody learns when you rescue them. So, what I really had to learn was to ask the tough question but then let them struggle to answer it.”
When they finally answer the question, they will learn from it. And you will learn about them too.
One of the guiding quotes for Bill is the one that says:
“What got you here, won’t get you there.”
He realized that in order to be a coach and to coach CEOs at a high level, you need to be growing yourself. To get to the next level, you have to continue learning. Another quote that has resonated with him is the quote that comes from the Star Wars movie: "there is no try. There is only do or don’t.”
"No excuses. You either do it, or you don’t."
When asked about the tools he uses to help inform or create a learning experience in his one-to-one coaching, Bill mentions an individual he met eight years ago who profoundly changed his life—Lee Thayer, one of the most important figures in leadership coaching. Lee Thayer taught him about the power of Socratic thinking. It is the ability to ask powerful questions, and Bill believes that in it lies the answer for learning how to be a good executive coach.
Bill also mentions a powerful question that Lee would ask:
“Is it the leader that makes the organization successful, or is it the organization that makes the leader successful?”
Over the years, he learned that the answer to that question is:
“If you really do put good people underneath you and ask them the tough questions, they are the ones that will drive your organization to be all that you want it to be. But, if you rely on you to make it happen, you will have weak people under you because then your organization—thus your company, thus you as a person, will only grow to the level you want.”
Painful Failures and Powerful Lessons
One of the most significant failures that Bill experienced is related to a business in which he had an opportunity to grow an organization from $10 million to about $150 million in revenue. He was in his 40s, and his ego was out of sight, as he describes it. A company much bigger than him wanted to buy him, and they offered a large amount of money for it, numbers he hasn't seen in his life. However, he turned them down, out of arrogance, he says. Because he believed that as successful as he was and as successful as he expected himself to become, they would eventually come back and offer him even more money.
But, his plan had a flaw, and it was that he didn't actually understand the market. So, they destroyed his business by always making their price lower than his. After all, they had huge amounts of money and could afford to do it. Bill couldn't.
Eventually, he tried to recover the company, which didn't work, so the company went bankrupt. Bill also had to personally declare bankruptcy. He had nothing. He has gone from living in a 7000 square foot home to a $3-a-night-motel. There was a United Parcel depot behind him. So, he got a job working in the United Parcel, washing their trucks.
But then, he started over. As always, he persevered. He started again, bought another company, and continued from there.
That failure brought a lot of growth for him. He realized that earlier, he thought there isn’t much more that he could learn because he had already accomplished so much. But that experience taught him that you have to always be in a learning mode.
When talking about business and the market, Bill shares another interesting story, an experience that became one of the greatest business lessons for him. He was in his 30s. He had a business, he was making money, and he had a great mentor. He had won a certain contract, but he felt they don't have enough money to execute it correctly. He asked the bank for an increase in the credit line he had, but they turned him down. So, he was complaining about it to his mentor. Then, his mentor put his arms straight out and put his finger right out and said:
“I want you to remember this, Bill—anybody and I mean anybody can run a company when there's money in the checkbook."
Even though he didn't realize it at that point, after many years, he finally understood that that was one of the greatest lessons for him in business.
The Changes in Coaching and The Coaching Industry
Bill explains how today, there are many different tools that coaches can use. There is also more information out there, which sometimes leads to people thinking that they already know everything and need one or two coaching sessions most, and then they'll have all that they need to go forward. As Bill explains, coaching is a lifelong experience, and you always have to be in that learning mode.
He also believes that today it is increasingly popular to become a coach. But, from his experience, many don't have so much to offer. As he points out, he is unsure how many actually know what it takes to move somebody from one place to another. Again, it comes down to being Socratic and able to ask a lot of tough questions. You also have to be a learner and know what you want to accomplish with people. You have to be able to be a true, authentic person when you are talking with someone. Bill is unsure, however, how many authentic people are out there nowadays.
Describing what Clark Leadership does, he explains that it comes down to helping people move from point A to point B, point C, point D… They are helping people along the journey. Clark Leadership operates in Baltimore and Washington D.C. area. However, as Bill mentions, with everything that is happening because of the COVID pandemic, there are no boundaries anymore. So, now he is looking at his practice becoming more of a practice defined only by the boundaries of the internet.
Life Experiences as The Strongest Attribute
Bill's life experiences are what makes him stand out and what helped him most. For many years, he believed the things others would say about him, such as that he is stupid and wouldn't amount to much. He has become an extreme risk-taker because nobody expected anything of him anyway.
In his 30s, he owned several airplanes. He learned how to fly an airplane. He also learned how to sail a boat. He took three years off and took a journey around the world in a sailboat.
There, he learned a lot. He learned that he might die. But he kept going. He learned a lot about himself in that quiet time. And he realized that he is blessed with perseverance. He doesn’t quit.
That is what makes his organization different. The richness of life experiences that he and his coaches bring into it.
Today, being 80 years old, he manages risk differently. To him, a risk now comes out in learning how to pivot.
Measuring His Life
“I will measure my life in the fact of knowing that I have helped others transit and make a better life for themselves.”
A Piece of Advice
For those who are considering a career in coaching, Bill’s most important advice is:
“Learn about yourself… understand yourself, understand what makes you work, understand where your hot buttons are, understand what you need to do to learn more about you.”
Making Sense of the Years Ahead
Bill admits that, for many years, he had false beliefs that led him to ignore the importance of self-care. He believed that sleeping longer than four hours is a waste of time, that you can function with little food and alcohol in your body. Taking care of oneself takes time, and he didn’t have it. What he now knows is he actually didn’t want to find time for it, it just wasn’t a priority.
Today, that's changed. He intends to live to be over 100 years old, so long that he can continue helping others succeed because that is his journey.
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