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Speaking of success Featured

6:20am EDT November 17, 2004
Looking for a master's level class in business leadership but don't have time for college courses? You might just consider attending a few lunches at The Executives' Club of Chicago.

"It's getting harder and harder for companies to make the time commitment to send young or even senior level executives away for three-, four- or five-day retreats, for three-week programs," says Jonathan P. Ward, chairman and CEO of The ServiceMaster Co. "People are thirsting for this because we have found a way at The Executives' Club to compact a lot of growth and education and learning into very short periods of time."

But that wasn't always the case for the 90-year-old organization. About 20 years ago, the club was near extinction. Kaarina Koskenalusta, its president and CEO, is credited with saving the organization and making it one of the most respected speakers bureaus in the country.

"I think the key is we want to have balanced membership," she says. "By giving diverse membership an opportunity to come in and be members, we are able to guarantee well-balanced growth. Presently, we have a very diverse and multifaceted membership of about 1,750 -- both individual and corporate."

Koskenalusta's vision had such an impact on Ward that he joined the board of The Executives' Club.

"Having taken a lot from this organization over 20 years, there is a time when one should give back," says Ward, who serves as chairman of the club. "I believe giving back to the community is part of our responsibility."

Under Koskenalusta, The Executives' Club is healthy and vibrant, but that doesn't leaders are still looking for ways to improve the organization.

"One element I think would be very important for the business community and for the city of Chicago, and which we would like to participate in as a leading organization, is the development of the city of Chicago as a model city for sustainable growth," Koskenalusta says. "Sustainable growth development is very important, and this particular model could be used in cities nationally. We can participate -- become a model organization, which brings diverse business and civic leaders together for a cohesive community and to develop Chicago as a model sustainable growth city. That would be the dream."

The Executives' Club of Chicago does more than just bring in top-level business executives. It organizes missions to other countries, instituted a women's leadership forum and has mentoring programs for young executives.

Smart Business spoke with Koskenalusta and Ward to learn how the club went from the brink of extinction to being one of the most distinguished and respected speakers bureaus in the country.


How important is it to have an organization like The Executives' Club?


Ward: Very important. It isn't too often that both CEOs and business leaders can get together and hear very important perspectives on the compelling business issues of the day. Most of these luncheons and other meetings we have foster down to what is really effective leadership, how to be an effective leader, what it took to be successful at the company or over one's career.

I can remember being in these audiences when I was 30 years old and seeing people like (Jack) Welch get up there and talk, and hear their perspective on leadership. Ingraining that early into your own development capability is very, very helpful. We see it all the time in the surveys from our members.

And then, for the senior executives to be able to get together and sit down in a let-your-hair-down type of environment over a luncheon or a reception or a private meeting where you can say, 'Here are the three or four issues that I'm struggling with, trying to think through. How are you and your company thinking about it?'


Koskenalusta: I think what our members are saying is that it also gives them an opportunity for gaining invaluable insights and observations, and also that it helps them to create business linkages, not only local, but national and global. What is also very important is that our organization serves as a developer for future business leaders.

The other important aspect is we are working very closely with the mayor in developing Chicago and promoting Chicago as a world-class city.


How did you turn a nearly extinct organization into one of the top speakers bureaus in the country?


Koskenalusta: Before 1985, the club was really a public affairs forum. It had only individual members, and the board was primarily composed of mid-management executives.

We asked our remaining members what kinds of programs they were interested in. We found that CEOs and the business leaders were the ones they were interested in. That's why we changed our strategy, our programming and started featuring only Fortune 500 CEOs. Maybe the most important aspect for this turnaround was to invite Chicagoland CEOs of leading corporations to serve on the board.

The third element -- to create stable membership -- we invited corporate membership. And that really has sustained us because there is tremendous attrition in individual membership. We expanded our programs as our mandate became more global.

When the organization's membership grew, so did the attendance at the CEO luncheons, which we started at maybe 150 and now it's 1,000. The members wanted the opportunity to network in smaller, more intimate settings. Then we created a series of panel discussions ranging from hot issues like Sarbanes-Oxley to tort reform and others.

The programs now range from the public meetings, which are covered by the press, where members can invite guests, to the more intimate off-the-record meetings, which are limited to five to 20 people.


What do members get out of the programs?


Ward: It allows you to sit back and reflect on your own leadership style. You hear some of these guys, whether it's (W. James) McNerney from 3M, or (Glenn F.) Tilton and some of the struggles he's having at United Air Lines, you sit there and go, 'How do some of these issues affect what's going on in my business?'

They become permanently part of your intellectual warehouse, where you're pulling down on things and saying 'Here's what McNerney said he was dealing with when he got into 3M as he wanted to make some culture changes. Maybe (they are like) things that I'm going through.'


What impact do the club's missions around the world have on members?


Koskenalusta: The missions have helped bring Chicago to the world and the world to Chicago. These delegations have increased the Illinois presence in Europe and in Asia.

And with all these missions, we have had great participation from previous governors. Participation in this forum has given our members access to other global leaders. Aside from serving the business community and the city in general, we have some corporate studies, where corporate leaders who have gone to those countries have established joint ventures or wholly owned subsidiaries. It has been a great business development tool for individual members.


How accurate is the description of the club as a business forum for thought leadership?


Ward: I think it's very accurate.

We're not a political activist group that goes out there. This is about leadership thought; what are the issues going on, what's happened in scandals across America. What was it like to work under Welch and then take that to a company like 3M and make it work? What is the challenge of the airline industry, not only today but in the next three years?

Our ability to be topical but not narrow is incredible. We talk about issues of local, national and global development.

If you go to one of those luncheon series and you're not coming away with a couple of thoughts about how to run your company better or (saying) 'Gee, I'm growing my leadership ability, how do I encapsulate this man's or this woman's thinking into what we do,' you haven't paid attention.


HOW TO REACH: The Executives Club, (312) 263-3500 or www.executivesclub.org.