Not So Lonely at the Top
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I have been a member of the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO), a more than 50-year-old nonprofit dedicated to helping its members become better leaders and make a positive difference in the world, for almost a decade. I was named chairman of my first technology company at 34—too young and inexperienced to have any idea what I was in for. Fortunately, one of my board members suggested I apply for membership in YPO, and it ended up being one of the most important things I have ever done professionally.
YPO was founded to give young leaders a place to gather and share their challenges and experiences, listen to world-renowned thinkers, and gain the sort of perspective that helps them achieve balance in their lives. Its mission is based on the idea that the person who becomes a leader at an early age faces a special set of opportunities and challenges. Elevation to the top spot usually means distance from the troops, often leaving the new leader few colleagues with whom to talk frankly about tough issues.
The global reach and impact of YPO globally is significant. YPO has 10,500 members and more than 25,000 alumni in more than 100 countries. They manage companies that together employ more than 4 million people and generate combined annual revenues of more than $3 trillion. Working Assets' Laura Scher, Charles Schwab, Motorola's Bob Galvin, Intuit's Scott Cook, and AT&T's Dave Dorman were all YPO members.
The heart of the YPO experience revolves around a monthly meeting with a group of eight to twelve people. YPO calls these meetings "forums," and carefully creates a confidential and supportive environment where members bounce their most difficult challenges off other leaders. Forums adhere to a strict set of principles of respect and support. They do not involve any form of paddling or running around naked in the woods. Instead, this is a place where peers can have candid conversations and exchange ideas.
In the words of one YPOer I interviewed: "When I walk into a forum meeting, it is the only place where I can be certain that no one in the room has an ax to grind. I know the only agenda in the room is to help me think through my issue."
YPO members also participate in monthly activities at the chapter and network level, often with their spouses (a chapter usually consists of 35 to 100 members; a network, about the same number, but it meets more sporadically). In network meetings, members connect with people around the globe through specialized networks based on industry, personal interests, and involvement in particular social enterprises. Chapter and network meetings have featured luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, Esther Dyson, Colin Powell, and Jack Welch, among others.
But YPO isn't just about business. Programs are regularly held on topics such as parenting, marriage, caring for aging parents, medical technology, politics, and personal development.
ROAD TO MEMBERSHIP.
Like any nonprofit organization, YPO has its challenges. It has not yet succeeded in attracting as many women as it would like and is working to do better. The global size and scope of the organization makes management and integration of the chapters increasingly difficult, though its annual global congress with all of the chapter officers appears to be helping. Of particular interest to members lately has been definition of what a "young" president is. Members have historically been "kicked out" of YPO the year of their 50th birthday, but in light of the fact that people are living and working longer than they were when the organization was founded, how to handle members over 50 who are still highly active in business is a hot topic right now.
Membership in YPO is by invitation only, but people interested in membership can contact any local YPO chapter. To be considered, a person must become leader of a firm before reaching 45. Requirements vary according to industry, but for a sales, service, or manufacturing company, minimum requirements are $8 million in sales and 50 employees. These are the minimums established by the YPO International Board. In addition to meeting these requirements, potential members must go through a rigorous evaluation by members of their local chapter (complete membership information can be found at www.ypo.org).
Over the past few weeks I spent time with some of YPO's members and alumni, asking them about their experiences in YPO for this piece. I was struck by how easy it was to get some of the busiest people in the world on the phone when I mentioned I was calling about YPO. And how passionately each of them felt about the organization, and how profound the impact of their YPO experience had been.
Click here for a slide show on how 10 renowned leaders built world-class companies, thanks in part to YPO breakthroughs.