Growth research Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
Chet Zalesky has portrayed business growth at CMI Market Research into opportunities for his employees to advance themselves. As a college athlete, Chet Zalesky roomed with the young man he was competing against for a starting position. But it wasn’t a hostile relationship, and their off-the-field friendship taught him a lesson: Competition doesn’t have to be nasty.

It’s a lesson Zalesky carries with him to this day, and it is also a cornerstone of the culture at CMI Market Research, the marketing and research firm he founded.

Smart Business spoke with Zalesky, president of CMI, about why accountability can make or break you as a CEO.

Q: What are the key skills that a business leader needs?

No. 1 is a vision for the future.

It’s critical that we can look into the future, see what our clients are going to need and transfer that vision to my key executive team so they can begin a collaborative plan for the future — with initiatives, resources and staffing.

Another thing is keeping those critical client relationships fostered. Not on a day-to-day basis but on a semiannual basis, so they understand they are very important to us.

They have the critical time we need inside this organization. I also need to foster my staff in ways that say, ‘You are very important to our future, and we are going to do everything in our power to mentor and grow you.’

Lastly, financially I need to make certain this organization is on course for growth and has the resources to do it.

Q: How do you do that?

We’ve been growing at a compounded 20 to 30 percent rate for the last four years. We quickly realized the opportunity for us to collegially interact was occurring infrequently.

So we have regular activities where we get together as a company from a team-building standpoint now, where we relax and share time in a nonbusiness way. We try to work on professional development for all of our staff. Whether it’s training seminars that are external to the company, or internal training on a regular basis, we’re really trying to foster those opportunities so they can see this is the best place to be culturally rather than anywhere else.

Q: How did you set up that culture?

I played Division I college sports, and it became apparent that you’re allowed to compete. I roomed during camp with the gentleman I was competing with for the starting position. It became quite apparent that you can compete in a very healthy way and still be friends. The organization here is collaborative, but you still need to be accountable to each other on what we say we’re going to do for our clients in terms of time and deliverables. It’s OK to have those discussions that say, ‘You’re not doing what you promised you would do’ in a way that’s honest, fair, respectful, and we live up to those expectations of each other.

Titles and egos stay at the door. We gain respect in this organization based on the ideas and actions we can bring to bear, not on some title we’ve been bestowed.

Q: How involved in operations should a leader be?

A leader can’t be involved in the day-to-day operations in any great way. It is a battle that growing companies face and I face constantly.

You moved from being the technician and knowledge source to the leader. In that process, there can be voids or gaps, but you need to be working on the business rather than in the business. That requires growing and nurturing a senior staff that can do the things that need to be done.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in business?

Evolving from a researcher to a president and CEO. It meant acknowledging the fact that I have to lead with a vision and focus the organization on being accountable for developing initiatives and plans to move us forward.

Q: How did you overcome that challenge?

I live with change and I’m comfortable with change, but when you’re moving into an arena you’ve had no experience in, you need to find others who have already done it. I’ve been fortunate to join a Vistage CEO group of peers to hear from others what it was/is like to forge that path. [Vistage International is the world’s largest CEO membership organization.]

There are 18 CEOs, from companies with revenues anywhere from $10 million to $85 million — organizations of similar size. We learn from each other and get the opportunity to share best practices.

I belong to an industry association, and I sit on the board. It’s comprised of presidents in the research business. That, while very meaningful because of issues related to my field, is not going to help me grow my business from a strategic sense. The day-to-day issues a CEO/president faces are dealt with within my Vistage group.

HOW TO REACH: CMI Market Research, (888) 311-0936 or