Lessons in Surfing, Service, and Leadership

Episode #1093: In this episode of the Arete Coach Podcast, Dr. Michael Denning, a Vistage Master Chair, Executive Consultant, and Professor Emeritus, discusses the importance of serving to lead, his learnings from the Air Force, and the power of peer groups. Dr. Denning shares advice for aspiring coaches and gives insight from his years of experience as an executive and executive coach.



About Michael Denning

Dr. Michael Denning is a Vistage Master Chair, Executive Consultant, and Professor Emeritus. Dr. Denning has been with Vistage International for 24 years and serves as a Vistage Master Chair in 4 groups.


Through Vistage, Michael has coached over 250 executives in Arizona. Michael also serves as an executive consultant in leadership, turnaround situations, mergers, acquisitions, finances, global marketing, and strategic planning. At Arizona State University, Michael serves as a professor emeritus in the W.P. Carey School of Business with research and teaching interests centered on leadership, marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, Michael is also called an “angel investor.” He invests in small businesses that show significant potential in technology fields. In many of these investments, Michael has held positions on boards or as interim President.


Michael has held leadership positions such as the Vice President of Marketing at Memorex Corporation and a variety of other roles at IBM. He has also held executive positions such as CEO, COO, and other presidential roles in 12 companies including Mortgages Limited, Learning Edge, and LandTech Environmental. Additionally, Michael was a member of the US Air Force Academy class of 1967 and served in the Southeast Asia area during the Vietnam War. Michael earned his master’s degree from Columbia University and his Doctorate from Capella University in organization and management with a specialization in leadership.

Key highlights


Serving to lead

Timestamp 09:31


When discussing his executive and commercial positions after his time in the military, Mike shares a story about serving to lead. Early in his career, Mike made a mistake on a presentation he made for a manager. However, instead of throwing Mike under the bus, the manager took full responsibility for the mistakes. Mike shares, “that was one of the best lessons, that if you’re going to lead, if you’re going to manage, then you have to serve your people. Not the other way around.” In discussing servant leadership, Mike shares that servant leadership is vital for management and leadership today.


Lessons from the Air Force

Timestamp 12:12


After Severin asks, “what did you take from your Air Force experience that helps you today?” Mike shares, “you have to survive in order to thrive,” and the importance of “debriefing after every mission.” He explains that the “concept of trying to learn and continuously improve everything that you do in combat, just like in business” was a key learning Mike gained from the Air Force. Severin and Mike have a powerful discussion on the power of continuous learning and improvement. Mike shares that it is important to learn from both successes and failures, as even successes can show us ways to improve.


Are your ethics for sale?

Timestamp 30:04


In a discussion about the power of peer groups, Mike shares a story of a “member who was presenting an issue” that revolved around them compromising their workplace culture values. When addressing this issue in the group, another member said, “let me get this straight, so your ethics are for sale?” Mike shares that he will “never forget that line as long as [he] lives.” In response, Severin shares a story from his own time in leadership, removing a fraudulent employee from a business. Mike states that these experiences and learnings are “a gift that we need to share.”


Mike’s powerful question

Timestamp 38:25


One of the powerful questions Mike likes to ask his Vistage members is, “why do your customers buy from you?” He explains that throughout the years of asking this question, he has “yet to get a really clear answer from anybody.” His second favorite question is about the purpose of their business and how they got to their business. Asking this question gives Mike a “great deal of foundation work that [he] can play with later on.”


Being open to learning

Timestamp 51:09


A powerful lesson that Mike has learned recently that he wishes he would have learned earlier on is that “there are some people you just really can’t teach, they just are not open to learning.” These coaching clients have to “learn the hard way” and “will not take the lessons from others.” He shares that while he wishes he could screen these individuals out before coaching them, he states that “sometimes you don’t realize they are uncoachable “until you’re well into the game. The only way to get rid of them is just simply tell them that you can’t help them.” Mike elaborates on this and states, “I don’t feel that I can help people who can’t help themselves.”


Learning to listen

Timestamp 58:49


Mike shares a great metaphor when asked what advice he would give to aspiring executive coaches: “listen as a therapist listens… see as an artist sees.” A therapist listens without judgment and an artist sees what can be in opportunities.


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