Scott Mordell was CEO of the Young Presidents Organization, or YPO, from 2011 through 2020. What is fascinating about YPO is how intensely engaged their community is. Members will move mountains to make sure they can attend their regular meetings, despite the fact that they’re among the busiest people in the world. Many of them even qualify as “Superusers”—host Robbie Kellman Baxter’s word to describe members who go beyond just being good paying members, and actually contribute significant time and money of their own to benefit the organization. In this conversation, Robbie and Scott discuss the processes YPO has developed to attract, engage and retain CEOs around the world, the surprisingly friction-laden process they use to onboard new members, and the reason so many members become superuser.
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YPO’s Scott Mordell on a Subscription that Makes CEOs into Superusers
Our guest, Scott Mordell, has been the CEO of the Young Presidents’ Organization or YPO from 2011 through 2020. Prior to that, he was a YPO member as the result of leadership roles at Chamberlain Group, HeathCo LLC, Duchossois Industries and Arlington International Racecourse. The Global YPO Community includes more than 29,000 members in more than 140 countries. Membership is limited to executives and entrepreneurs who have achieved significant leadership success at a young age. Combined, they lead businesses and organizations contributing $9 trillion in annual revenue.
What I find fascinating about YPO is how intense and powerful the community is. People I know who are members will move mountains to make sure they can attend their regular meetings despite the fact that they’re among the busiest people I know. Many of them fit the bill of superusers, my word to describe members who go beyond just being good members who pay their dues and get value from the offerings, but contribute significant time and money of their own to benefit the organization. Scott and I are going to talk about what YPO has done structurally to attract, engage and retain CEOs around the world, how they’ve managed to recreate the magic globally and how they transform happy members into superusers.
Welcome to the show, Scott.
Thank you, Robbie. It’s great to be with you.
Tell me about the forever promise that you make to your members. What is it that you’re going to do for them forever in exchange for their engagement and loyalty?
First of all, we welcome extraordinary leaders to come together and grow together to improve their lives, businesses and ultimately, the world. It can be lonely to be a leader of an organization. Our forever promise is that you’ll never walk alone in your journey as you go forward.
We all need that especially during times of COVID when we can feel especially lonely. Walk me through that experience of a new member, and this is a typical scenario, from the time that they first hear about or become interested in YPO, through the time when they feel like they’re fully part of their forum.
For many years now, we’ve been doing this and we’ve been a quiet organization. We’ve not been trying to put ourselves out there as anything other than helping our individual leaders grow and become better people. With that, some people will more often than not hear about YPO through other leaders, somebody who’s been in contact with the organization or as a member of the organization in some way, shape or form. Nowadays, with social media and everything else happening, many prospective members and people aspiring to be members find out about us through social media and the rest.@SMordell and I on how @YPO attracts, engages, and retains CEOs, how they recreate the magic globally, and how they transform happy members into superusers. On my Subscription Stories podcast. Click To Tweet
Once somebody becomes aware, there are two paths. One is if I come in contact with you, Robbie and I say, “I think you’d be a fantastic member of YPO,” the courtship and the conversation begins to happen. You’re wondering, “What YPO is? What do they initially stand for? Why would I even want to be a member?” These days, people are joining fewer organizations as time goes and there’d be much more discriminating about how they participate in organizations. There’s a diligence process that happens. For us, it happens from person to person. It’s me explaining to you how YPO has changed my life. I’m a better leader, a better husband, better person than I would have been without YPO. To talk that all the way through and in that way, we can connect you to people in your industries and all the rest.
There’s a getting to know you space that happens with that. Once the aspiring person says, “I would like to join YPO,” then there’s a pre-qualification process at which somebody fills out a rudimentary application that says, “My businesses have sufficient size and I am the leader of my organization,” that matters to us. It’s critical for our peer-to-peer relationships that people can have that peer empathy that we are running our organizations. Once that process goes forth, I’m going to be recruited into a chapter more likely than not. I will typically attend a chapter event and get to meet a number of the different members as time would go and it gives a flavor of what this YPO journey is going to be. From there, that leads into the formal application process, and the formal review process is one would do that.
Other people will reach out to us through our website. Somebody will say, “I’ve heard about YPO. I’d love to be a member and learn more.” They can talk to our members right through our website and a live chat right then and there because CEOs expect a person to person contact and that personal attention. We spent quite a bit of time towards that. With that, we’ll either recommend you to a chapter to participate in or we have virtual chapters. Some of our incoming members will join virtual chapters because of where they live, maybe there’s not a local chapter or whichever. We’ve got about 475 chapters located around the world. We’re in many of the major business centers, but as we know some great leaders aren’t in the major business centers. We want to make opportunities for them there as well.
There are few things I wanted to follow-up on. I’ll try to do them one at a time, although I’m excited about the different topics. One thing I like is that you’re clear on who your ideal member is and it’s the person who’s responsible for leading the organization. I believe that one of the most important things about building a successful membership organization and justifying recurring revenue is that the organization is clear about who’s an ideal member and also who’s not an ideal member. Being willing to say to some prospective members, “This is probably not the right place for you.” The other thing that I find interesting is this is a friction-laden process. It’s not like I give you some money and you tell me which chapter to join. It seems like you’ve deliberately put quite a bit of friction into the process of becoming a member.
The clarity of who should be a member and who should not be a member in a peer-to-peer organization, the members are the product or the experience for the other members when it’s all said and done. If we’re going to create this safe space for people to truly be with peers, it’s important that they be peers and we don’t apologize for that. We create a safer place for people to share ideas because they know they’re speaking with peers. That clarity has always been part of YPO. We debate what a peer is every single year and we go through all of those parts but in the same vein, that’s important to us in terms of clarity.
Relative to the process ahead, as we evolve, in some cases we’re creating a little less friction relative to what it looks like but this isn’t just my revenue’s certain amount and therefore I should be in. There are personality attributes that would suggest whether or not you’re a peer in terms of joining and in contributing to an organization like this. Peer-to-peer is just that, “I’ve got something to contribute and I’ve got something to learn.” Within that sense, we’re seeking a sense of curiosity and in a sense of, “I will commit to the experience. I know what I’m getting into, so I don’t say after I go through the process, ‘It’s not what I thought it was going to be.’” We try to minimize that. As a result of that back and forth relationship that builds up between the prospect and the organization, and between the prospect and the other members that that prospect meets in the process is particularly important to help validate everybody that this is going to be a great experience and we’re going to have a good experience together.
What I love about this and what I hope our readers take away from this is that sometimes having that upfront discipline and not rushing to acquire anyone who wants to be part of your organization can lead to a more powerful value proposition for the members. As a result of that, a longer duration of the membership. I have something else that you said that stuck out for me. You talked about the forever promise being, “You’ll never walk alone,” which is beautifully simple but also very ambitious. When you were describing some of the conversations that your members have, you mentioned being a good husband, being a good spouse. People don’t usually think of that when you say, “This is an organization to help me be a better leader and maybe I leave my personal life at home.” I don’t think that’s the case at YPO. Can you talk about the decision to take that, “You’ll never walk alone?” To me, not just you’ll never walk alone on your professional journey but also you can bring the rest of yourself to the group.
Leadership is a whole-person experience. When I’m making business decisions, I’m bringing to bear my entire life, my personal life, the way that I feel now, all of my experiences, who I trust and who I don’t trust, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. YPO embraces the entire member’s experience. That means that we embrace family inclusion. We embrace our spouse and partner inclusion. We provide programming for that whole experience. When we meet in our groups, we recognize that sometimes what’s on my mind now is all my personal topics. We feel that if we did professional topics and limited within a range, that’s not who we are about this lifelong journey about how a member’s going to improve their leadership and their lives in the world. It requires a holistic attitude. We embrace that 100%. In that sense, it’s a big part of the distinction between YPO and maybe some universities, maybe some other different membership organizations that we recognize that the member joins the organization, not the CEO box of an organization and not the organization but it’s the member, it’s a leader herself or himself that joins the organization. We’re very committed to that leader’s development.
I’m going to ask you a question that I didn’t tell you about in advance because of where this conversation is going. I hope it’s okay and you’re up for answering it. You were a member of YPO before you became YPO’s leader. I’m curious if you could share maybe a little story from your time as a member and perhaps a time when you brought your whole self to the meeting. It would be helpful for people to understand what that might look like, bringing your whole self to the group.
When I left Arlington International Racecourse, which was my first CEO role when I became a YPO member, I was at a career juncture and it was not entirely about my career. I had real involved discussions with my forum about who I was going to be as Scott Mordell like, “Who is Scott Mordell?” Not, “Who is Scott Mordell as a CEO? What’s the next place you’re going to go?” but, “What matters to you? What excites you? What doesn’t excite you? Why?” That ended up being a drawn-out in a good way, a personal experience for me to understand how that would play out.
One other example which touches me and makes me want to cry as I think about it, I was a baseball coach for my kids. One of the kids that played with our kids ended up going to Italy and did what the college exchange students shouldn’t do, but he got intoxicated and went home alone. They found him in a ditch beaten beyond recognition. He was in the hospital and I didn’t know what to do. Our friends are appalled in terms of how to help. I called a YPO member in Milan who I knew, it turns out that he happens to be a doctor. He took it upon himself to fly to Rome, put himself into this situation and take care of this young man, helped the family connect with the hospital there.
It was extraordinary to see YPOs in Italy who I barely knew. We’re helping extradition and all kinds of support for the family. This is wasn’t even a YPO family. It was people doing the right thing. When I think about that, that had nothing to do with business, had nothing to do with networking, had nothing to do with, “Scott’s going to do a favor for me in the future.” Those people are acting with an extraordinary amount of grace and goodwill. That’s this whole person as it gets. There are many stories like that around YPO. I’ll never be alone. When I’m in crisis, I’m coming to YPO. When I’m not in crisis, I’m going to help people. It’s the spirit of togetherness that creates a sense of community.
How do you keep this magic as the organization has grown this intimacy and trust when you go across borders and adding new people all the time? How do you keep this level of community and culture even as you grow, expand and evolve?
Part of it is that friction-filled process is helping people understand with some degree of clarity as to what the experience is going to be. As a result, we’re going into it all wide-eyed and having big expectations as to what we can do and participate in. Beyond that, looking at that peerdom, relative to people are curious, people are givers more than they’re takers and people are in the process. We have some personality attributes, which are very important. We also are clear as an organization, we’re not allowed to be an advocacy organization. We’re not here to tell you exactly what to do, Scott or Robbie. We’re were to tell you what we’re doing, what somebody else is doing, share through their experiences and you draw your own conclusions.
As a result, we’re not for or against any kind of economy, any kind of politician, any kind of philanthropy or charity work, any kind of industry. As a result, we do engage and invite open sharing. We welcome that and we welcome disagreement in, “This is what I’m doing. This is what you’re doing but I’m not here to convince you.” That welcoming spirit and curiosity that’s inherent in all of the members translates incredibly well from chapter to chapter, no matter what country we’re talking about whether it’s in Mauritius, Canada, Singapore or China, it translates very well. It’s implemented by the local cultures.
What feels confidential for somebody who’s grown up in China might be quite a bit different than what feels confidential for somebody who’s grown up in England, for example. At the same time, it can be implemented based on their local mores and the local ways that people engage. When we cross-pollinate across our borders, whether it be through virtual events or in-person events, we come together with that same spirit of curiosity and acceptance that helps it all to work. It’s a lot of similar protocols and attitudes, but they’re implemented with cultural and geographical diversity.A peer-to-peer relationship is all about contributing and learning at the same time. Click To Tweet
If I went to a forum meeting in San Paulo, would it feel like Auckland or Dusseldorf? To what extent are you like McDonald’s where the experience is consistent globally but with little bits of local flavor? To what extent would I maybe not even recognize that I was at a YPO event if I were in a different market?
The only way that we’re similar to McDonald’s is we both have menus. We have a menu of opportunities. What we do is if there’s a forum meeting in Oakland versus one meeting in San Paulo, they’re going to go through basically a similar process of a meeting. There’s an opening, a reminder of confidentiality and norms of how people are coming together. There’s a conversation starter, updates, then there’s a talk around what we’ll call presentation, certain deep dive topics and issues. There’s an exercise that everybody participates in and there’s a check-out.
That process will be the same wherever you go into a forum meeting around the world. How does that get executed? What’s a good conversation starter in Sao Paulo with a particular group and in Oakland could be quite a bit different depending on what the current issue is, the tone and attitude of those members who are joining at the time. That’s where we’ve got the menu. We’ve got resources available which can help the moderator, the person leading that particular group because it’s all member-led. In terms of how we go about doing it, we try to resource them with the materials, so that they can build their own meeting that’s effective for what they’re trying to achieve at a point in time.
I talk about this concept of superusers. A superuser is somebody who goes beyond just being a good due paying member, who’s using your services regularly and well, getting good value and happy to pay a fair price for that value. A superuser goes one step beyond that and contributes their own time and in some cases, money, toward the good of the organization, helping that organization’s brand and product be more successful. YPO has a lot of those. One of them is a client of mine, McKeel Hagerty. He’s the CEO of Hagerty Insurance, very well-known as perhaps the world’s leading brand for classic car enthusiasts, but he’s also the past global chair of YPO.
He is phenomenally busy, running a good-sized organization with lots of challenges and yet during the time that we were working together, he was the Global Chair of YPO. Traveling all around the world, coming to meetings, speaking, talking about the future of the organization, dealing with challenges as they arose. I’m curious, how do you get people like McKeel to donate hundreds of hours for the good of the YPO Organization, well beyond what it would take for him to be a good and active member in his forum or chapter?
It’s complicated and simple at the exact same time. We’re a peer-to-peer organization. Everything that we do, every single event is led by a member. Our overall governance of the organization is led by member boards, committees and volunteerism as part of the spirit of the organization. More than two-thirds of our members have volunteered in some way, shape or form for the organization. We’re blessed with superusers like McKeel. He was a phenomenal chairman of YPO and an example of what we consider the model YPO owners, but we’ve got two-thirds of 30,000 people who have participated as leading events or are participating in other ways in terms of leading their forums. Why would you donate time back to something? It’s because you get something back with some validation, some relationships that build because I’m volunteering, I may meet people from different countries outside of my industries that I may not have met.
Otherwise, I may develop bonds and delight as I go around and have different experiences outside of my workflow. I become accountable as I build relationships by working alongside people. Nothing’s going to make me do something more than me deciding to do it. That sense that I want to do it because I want to support you and help you becomes a cycle of participation. It does evolve to the point where we have some superusers and people who donate incredible amounts of time, who are incredibly busy but they find the time. It’s because of the relationships, the contribution that they can make to others, the validation and value that they’re coming back, the learning, the new ways that they’re thinking, it becomes a self-fulfilling experience. In that sense, once you begin to get that, you want more of it.
I’ve been CEO for many years, I’ve been a member for 25 years. I’m stepping out of this CEO role, I’m going to go back and take a breath. I’m sure I’m going to find other ways to volunteer back into YPO because I want to keep connected with my community. Going back to the earlier point you had raised relative to, it’s more than business, it’s the whole family. In my case, once my kids and my wife were getting value out of YPO and we feel we’re part of that community, now I’m wanting to make the community great for them too. Therefore, it’s not just a business pursuit, it’s a personal pursuit. When it’s personal, it becomes very sticky. Our renewal rates are over 95%. It’s unheard of for membership organizations in this way. It’s because people are getting this kind of value and that’s with two-thirds of our members of volunteering over the course of their journey. I’m proud to be part of it. It’s been a model that’s been followed and sometimes the model is better than the management. Sometimes it works because it’s a pure organization.
If you join YPO because you’re leading an organization and then you move to a point where you’re not leading an organization either because you’re looking for the next thing or you’re taking a break or you retire. Do you keep your membership in the organization? Do you need to be an active leader of an organization of a certain size?
Earlier on in your tenure journey or your first six years when you join and say there’s a transition which is perfectly natural, people are moving around to organizations and changes. We implement what we call grace, that you get a certain amount of grace time while you’re putting yourself back into a leadership role. Members will find those roles. After one has been a member for over six years and the whole rest, while you are in YPO, you’ve been doing this now for long enough. If you’ve changed companies or changed the way that you lead organizations, whatever their scale is, you continue on as a member.
You’re a member for the rest of your life if you choose to be?
Yes. Our youngest member is 22 and our oldest is 99. That range of experiences of our members and when offered in the net safe communication space that, “I’ve been through this and this is what I have to share.” There’s a generational value, a business value and a life-stage value that our members get to share that as much more than business challenge value. It’s wonderful to see.
Talk about a forever transaction. Join when you’re 22 and stay until you’re 99 is close to as forever as it gets for people. As a membership person, I love that because I think a lot of organizations focus on a particular moment in time solving that pain point that might bring someone to you. I might call it a headline benefit. For example, people might be joining YPO because it’s their first time leading an organization, or because they’ve run into a thorny problem and realize that they have no trusted peers and a friend or they have only one. Their one trusted peer friend says, “This might be a good time for you to think about joining YPO.” Beyond that headline benefit is all of what I call engagement and retention benefits. All the reasons that somebody would choose to make it a habit after they’ve gotten through that sticky, difficult point that brought them in the first place.
Also, that commitment to say, “We’re following you on the entire journey. You will never walk alone.” It doesn’t say you will not walk alone for as long as you’re a CEO or as long as you’re a leader of an organization but never. Metaphorically, that’s a useful concept. I had one question, I don’t know that I heard you talk about acquisition metrics, awareness metrics, reasons for the loss, the things outside of the current membership base. What are the metrics that you use for people who are not members?
We track our exit surveys and all of those reasons as to what people are leaving YPO for. For the outside metrics, we track our pipeline in terms of who’s in the pipeline and we can keep track of where that’s going. We have some target markets as every organization does and how that pipeline looks in that target market area, which is quite important as we would see.
A target market like, “We’re growing in China. We’re growing in New Zealand,” or like a certain industry, “We’re trying to grow in Biotech or Pharm?”That friction filled process is helping people understand with some degree of clarity as to what the experience is going to be. As a result, we're going into it all wide-eyed and having big expectations as to what we can do and participate in. Click To Tweet
We’re much more geographic-oriented. We’re seeing that the industries end up reflecting the geographies a lot of times. We do run our industry spread but we don’t say, “We’re running law and financial services. Let’s go get some.” We don’t do that because we haven’t had to because we’ve been represented. What we do is we look at the markets, where we think are likely CEO prospects. One has been a growth area where in the last many years, we’ve grown from about 118 countries to over 140. Some of that’s a wider footprint but in many cases, it’s following the economy and finding out where the depth and the growth of the economy is making sure we’re being meaningful there. Social media, the followers and we are not chasing just numbers, we want the right followers. We want people aspiring who are close to where we are, close to becoming members and also people who are opinion leaders and relevant in that way. We’ll break down our followers and track that as best we can. We can always get better at it. It’s a constant journey as everything gets more connected.
We’re talking during the COVID 19 pandemic and I have to ask, what has been the impact of COVID on YPO? What has happened and how have you responded?
Like everybody, it’s been quite dramatic. We’ve had a number of members who have been in great pain and distress because of the economic impacts and also the societal impacts, and then we’ve got members who are doing very well in contributing and helping in different ways. We’ve seen the whole range of different approaches. We’ve got members in the markets that have handled it well and members and markets who haven’t handled it well. We’re seeing all that. It’s disrupted everything. We’ve gone from 8,000 in-person events to 0. We’ve canceled some big events and had to make the pivot to much more digital and on-demand activity as everybody is doing the same.
Our members are getting Zoom fatigue like many other people as well. We’re evolving, even those engagements to be more person to person rather than one to many as that would go, and we’re being aggressive about how we do that. The technological change is in need of technological change as is quite dramatic. Like many organizations, we’re doubling down on some of the platforms that we’re going to need to have in the engagements that we need to have. We’ve upped our personal attention. We’re getting very one-to-one. We do a process we call needs and leads and member to member exchange, where somebody is in crisis or somebody needs PPE or somebody needs some support or somebody needs some financial guidance. We’re matching them with the members that we have, who can offer and help that. We have a lot of givers and a lot of people in need, and we’re personally matching them.
For example, if I’m a member in Singapore and I need PPE, I would go directly to YPO headquarters and say, “This is what I need.” You and your team would act almost as a matchmaker or concierge to try to figure out who might be able to help them in a digital way?
Yes, and we created a mini marketplace group site where people could say, “I’ve got a whole bunch of PPEs. I’ve got disinfectants.” We’ve published every single week where we could make that available to people. Some of that was done personally and facilitated as you described. Some of it was, “I’ll go to the Coronavirus microsite and if there’s a PPE list, I’ll look at the current one and I’ll see what I can do.” Inventorying all that and moving that along is quite a bit different than the programming we were doing before COVID. It’s highlighting for us that beyond the pandemic, the needs that people have are very varied all over the place. How do we create a real marketplace of needs and support for those needs that are more than our structured programming but is much more individualized? We’re doing that through personal support as we evolve. It’s a process underway but it’s taken shape here under COVID.
Some of those features or benefits that you’ve created in response to member needs during COVID, are things that you plan to continue after things go back to where it’s possible to go back to being in person?
Think about what’s happened for all of us. Our urgencies, in a lot of cases, have become immediate. It’s not just personal growth but now we have urgent and immediate needs in a crisis, and how responsive and agile can we be as an organization to help members with what they need, not what would be static learning programming. With COVID, we’ve made a shift for that. That helped us create greater clarity about what it is that that member wants and needs. We need to be there for them because that’s part of the lifetime journey. It’s changing our outlook.
I want to wrap up with the two last things. The first one is I would love to get your advice for people who are reading, who tell me all the time, “My membership, they are important people, they’re very busy, they don’t have time for the community, they don’t have time to respond to my questions or requests.” What’s your advice for leaders of global networks and communities who are trying to keep busy and powerful people engaged, and even to tap into this power of superusers?
I’m always reminded that as human beings, we will do what we want to do and we will passively resist or aggressively resist what we don’t want to do. Be very mindful about why would somebody want to volunteer time for the organization and what are they getting out of it for themselves in terms of their growth, in terms of their relationships, in terms of their whole being, in terms of whatever they’re seeking? If we’re not providing that in our communications or in our engagement opportunities, they tell us that based on the lack of response, based on the lack of participation and based on how hard we’re trying to push something on them. We think it’s a good idea but maybe they don’t. Do you listen humbly to that? Do you know that, “That’s not working, how do I get the voice of who’s there?”
I believe a membership organization of any kind is an ongoing dialogue between whatever you consider the organization and the community that the organization represents and the individual members. If you can’t keep some meaningful feedback loop or relationship that’s as personal as it can be, you’re starting to work for large numbers. It’s easy to rationalize large numbers, but losing one can be devastating if it’s for the wrong reason. In that sense, having that current dialogue is important. When people feel that they’re being heard, their contributions and voices are meaningful and they’re getting something out of those conversations, they’re going to keep coming back for more.
I want to jump into a speed round, some quick questions, the best piece of advice you received?
In my role, I get a lot of advice from CEOs to CEOs. Continue to be more conversant in a person-to-person voice, don’t speak on behalf of the organization. Every communication should come from a person, not from the organization. Nobody has an alliance with the organization and they have an alliance with other people. The advice I got was we need every communication owned by a person behind it and let’s stand up for that no matter who it is but somebody who’s going to own that communication and be the person speaking to the other person. We’re going vigorously with person-to-person voice. Xavier Mufraggi, our new CEO who has replaced me at YPO, is all over that and pressing that. It’s exciting to see. The advice is there, heard and being acted upon.
What is the first subscription you ever remember getting?
Time Magazine. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I remember my father telling me, “Scott, you have to be a generalist. You need to understand how the world works. You should subscribe to this.” He made me pay for my own subscription out of my newspaper route money. I’ve always been a generalist, reading and trying to see the world since then.
Your favorite subscription now?It's not just a business pursuit, it's a personal pursuit. When it's personal, it becomes very sticky. Our renewal rates are over 95%. Click To Tweet
I’d have to say YPO. I’m a lifetime member of YPO and I’m not going anywhere. It provides value for me in so many different ways. It’s going to help me as I renew myself for my next chapter. I’m fully committed to it.
It’s such a pleasure to have you, Scott. Thank you so much. It’s a fascinating conversation. I know it’s going to be helpful for our readers.
Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed this very much. I love the whole thinking that you’re bringing relative to all of these topics and what it takes to bond members together.
That was Scott Mordell, CEO of the Young Presidents’ Organization. For more about YPO, go to YPO.org. If you like what you read, please take a moment to write a review and give us a star rating. Reviews matters so much in helping others find us. Thanks for your support and thanks for reading.
About Scott Mordell