The Capital Masters Talks (No Fluff Stuff): Damon Gersh, President & CEO of Maxons Restorations
Rich: Today I’m thrilled to interview someone I’ve worked with and known for two decades. Damon Gersh, of all the CEOs I’ve worked with, no one has a better handle and understanding of work-life balance than you do. Damon, let’s start with why you think work-life balance is the wrong label.
Damon: Sure Rich, well I think it’s more about life integration, when you say work-life balance, it’s almost as if one takes away from the other. In my view I try to have it all and make it all fit together as one whole part of my life.
Rich: Let’s start off with how you started your business which was an unusual father/son launch for sure – what do you guys do?
Damon: We do emergency property damage restoration. After disasters such as fires, floods, smoke etc. we help people and businesses get their lives back in order. I started the business with my Dad when I was 21 years old, right out of college. He was 81 and he had a similar business that he had sold. His name was Max and I’m the son so it became Maxson’s, that was in 1989 and that’s pretty much where it all began.
Rich: Before this interview started you were talking about abundance and abundance mentality, would you share with us how that evolved for you, what you mean by that, and how other CEOs can put that into play.
Damon: Sure, I think it’s all rooted in an outlook on life, kind of an existential outlook, that’s about the life that you’re living. You’re an entrepreneur but that’s not the total sum that defines you. You’re a human being that chooses to go down the path of entrepreneurship in their professional life. So entrepreneurship and business is just one piece of what it means to be a human being so to me putting it all together and having a well rounded or complete life is fulfilling all the areas, whether it’s a business, family, friends, personal passions and interests, physical activity, all those things put together to me make a more complete life, and entrepreneurship is just a part of that.
Rich: So let’s talk about some of the amazing things you do for fun, I think every year you go to a baseball camp in Florida? You’ve taken your kids all over the world, you’ve started an association of peers, you’ve started a festival in Long Island. You have a growing thriving business, how do you determine where to put your time and energy?
Damon: I think it all starts with taking a step back and being clear on what’s important to me. I’ve done an exercise where you do a pie chart of where do you spend your time right now and then doing another chart right next to it of where you would ideally like to spend your time. I’ve done this with a lot of entrepreneurs and I see a lot of those two circles don’t really align. What I try to do is organize my schedule in a way that puts me in the position to be doing the things that align with my priorities. I really live very closely out of my schedule but my schedule is proactively put in place so that I am putting myself in position to do the things that I want to do.
Rich: You have an administrative assistant and how does she help you manage your time and priorities, and bring the right people to you at the right time, and allow you to focus on where you want to be and what you’re doing?
Damon: I think first and foremost is having somebody who is committed to my success and obviously I’m committed to her success so it’s a mutual partnership. The other thing is being very clear on what my priorities are and making sure that she understands them. I’m very open that it’s not just about she’s my administrative assistant for my professional life, but that I want my schedule to reflect what my total priorities are. She’s my assistant and supports me in all areas but she’s empowered to say no to things and to people that don’t align with my priorities which is very important because she controls my schedule.
Rich: We ought to say her name is Anna Chow and how long has she been with you now?
Damon: Oh about 15 years now! I think in that relationship the longer that we work together the more aligned that we get and we just keep on developing that relationship. We finetune and now we almost speak in shorthand, I don’t have to tell her what my priorities are, she knows and knows that her success is measured by how much I’m living in accordance with those priorities.
Rich: You have so much energy and there’s so much that you’re able to take on at any one time, what do you consider to be the source of your energy? I remember a number of years ago we had a conversation about you wanting to get back to being healthier and on an exercise program, is that maybe one part of it?
Damon: That’s a piece of it I think, if I look at my parents they’re both very high energy people. My father was an entrepreneur and lived until he was almost 95 years old, and I think the first foundation is picking good parents, that’s always a good starting point. I think there’s a genetic factor that I just feel like I have a lot of energy but then I think some of the choices that I make in terms of how I spend my time is i’m doing things that are aligned with my purpose, priorities and my passion so that things I’m doing feed that energy, they don’t draw from it.
Rich: Let’s talk about purpose and passion, for so many entrepreneurs it’s so easy to get into a mindset of wherever I am, I’m not somewhere else. If I’m with my business I’m thinking about how my kids need me, or if I’m with my kids thinking how I should be working. How have you been able to create the right balance, or to use your wonderful word integration so wherever you are you’re there as Gandhi said.
Damon: The main thing again is being clear on what my purpose is and what my kind of unique ability is, and to me it’s working with other people in close relationships to create extraordinary experiences. So the things that I do are aligned with that purpose whether it’s in my business, my community organization, my YPO forum groups, whether it’s in my industry association, my softball team or my band – whatever it is there’s a kind of unifying theme there that I get energized and feel on purpose when I’m in relation with other people creating extraordinary experiences. I think the other thing going back to the and I think the other thing scheduling piece is I know what my next week two weeks look like so I know that I have time reserved to spend time with my family and to get unplugged from email and phone calls and busyness, so it allows me to be fully present when I’m at work and not feel like I’m detracting from some other area. I know that I’ve allocated the time coming up and that allows me to, when I’m with my band, be fully with my band, not worrying about what’s happening at work and when I’m with my family I’m fully present there. It allows me to kind of live in the moment which brings me that energy and makes me feel like I’m on purpose as well.
Rich: So what do you do to restore your energy?
Damon: I remain very active, I have a lot of interests. I play golf, I play softball, I’ve run some triathlons. I have a morning routine where there’s a stretching and meditation routine which I think is a great refreshing habit to have developed in the last couple of years which feeds me on a few levels.
Rich: Do you want to spend a minute talking about meditation, how you got into it and what it’s done for you?
Damon: Sure, I’m in a YPO forum, so this is a group that we started kind of as an executive conference that meets once a year up at M.I.T in Boston. The group as a whole has kind of moved from success to significance, and entrepreneurship is not just about your business – it’s about leadership of yourself, leadership of your family, leadership of your community, and the contribution that you could make. In the leadership of ourselves we try to set goals and be clear on making commitments that are aligned with our priorities and purpose. I think we’ve all found almost independently, and together in some way, that meditation is an anchor that allows you to kind of step out of the busyness of the moment, and creates a little bit of space that allows me and the people who I’m doing this with to respond. So again it’s being more purposeful about how you’re living and having more awareness about where you are, where you’re going and just taking time out of the rushing stream of life to reflect.
Rich: How do you define leadership because obviously you see yourself as a leader and what qualities does it take to be a leader across the board, not just in one area of your life?
Damon: Hmm, you know the question of are leaders made or are leaders born – I think it’s both, I think it’s a muscle that you could develop but certainly it involves a clarity of vision in order to lead, so by having a clear set of priorities or a clear vision for the future I think that allows you to at least point in the direction of where you want to go. The other thing is articulating what that is for other people, because sometimes people have a vision in their head but they’re not able to share it. I also think there’s an art in getting people on board right, and it’s not a gimmick but really kind of enlisting them. Part of it is a passion thing, part of it is alignment with getting their input and their buy-in. I think people really look for something better than things are currently, so if somebody has a vision, a passion and some ability to shepherd, I think people really get excited about that. You know though not everybody can lead, it can’t be all chiefs and no Indians.
Rich: Along the way you’ve learned a lot about leadership and much of it has been through trial and error. What advice would you give an entrepreneur right now who’s struggling to be the leader of their company, and more importantly, the leader of their life?
Damon: This actually came up recently in a conversation I had with another entrepreneur. I came up with something and I don’t know if I’ve heard it or I just developed it, sometimes it’s hard to tell. But the concept of you can expect what you accept, so you can see that your life and your company is a result of what your standards are. So if you have a high standard then you’re going to hold yourself and your company to higher standards, and you’re not going to accept mediocrity.
You can accept excuses for both yourself and from others and most people avoid conflict, and I think that that’s an important thing – that you have to be comfortable having constructive conflict in order to move yourself forward out of your comfort zone and be able to push other people on your team out of theirs as well.
Rich: You do a great job of that and I’ve seen it with the incredible team you’ve put together and the challenges you’ve had over the years. How do you challenge someone and say you know you can be better than this, and what advice would you give for the entrepreneur who’s thinking I can’t get through to this person or I don’t know how to communicate this?
Damon: To me conflict is inherent to all relationships and if you’re not comfortable with conflict you could have struggles, because what you’re doing is basically procrastinating dealing with that issue. I try to be proactive in dealing with conflict in my relationships and proactively maintaining those things. It’s like relationship hygiene, it’s almost like brushing your teeth right, no one likes to do it but if you don’t do it there’s going to be a consequence down the road – so it’s just what choice are you willing to make. Do you want to avoid having a difficult conversation now or having a real problem that blows up in your face at some point down the road.
Rich: A few years ago I believe you brought in a consulting firm to interview all your leaders and the people that work with you to ask them about the qualities of the team. When you shared that with me I think you were a little concerned that they would say well Damon isn’t here all the time and we’re doing all the work, but what did they actually share and what did you learn?
Damon: This process was a kind of deep dive into our company independently of me. They were interviewing my people and it was in a confidential setting so they could speak very frankly. I’ve arranged my schedule so that I’m probably in the office two days a week, so I expected that there would be some resentment of that, but I was surprised to learn that they were fine, that I’m clear and upfront about what my role is in the company, which is setting the direction, what the priorities are and then kind of getting out of the way because I have great people. So my job is more about making things happen and their job is about getting things done, and on some level they kind of like when I’m not around because I’m not coming up with new ideas, disrupting things, they can get the things done and make the trains run on time.
Rich: I have two final questions, we could go on forever. The first is what advice do you have for entrepreneurs in terms of being a parent?
Damon: That’s a pretty big question Rich, I certainly think you have to allocate the time for it, it’s not something that you fit into the margins of your schedule. To me the relationship that you have with your children from early on, you never get that time back, and I think if you look at it existentially, if you look back from your deathbed, you’re not gonna be thinking about the days that you missed in the office right. I’ve certainly made it a priority and I always put my kids and my family before work, I never miss a baseball game, never miss a recital you know, I put that big rock in the jar first and then the business has to fit around it.
Rich: When your priorities are clear, your decisions are easy. The final question I wanted to ask you is I find great entrepreneurs are lifetime learners, but not everybody learns the same way. I’d like you to share with us how you learn and how you put lessons you learn into practice.
Damon: Sure, as I said before my pattern is about working with others so I’m a relational person. I’ve done a disc assessment, I know about myself that just working with others is where I fit. I don’t really read many business books like a lot of my friends do, it’s not really my favorite mode of learning, it takes a long time. I have read some great books, but I prefer learning in a dynamic interactive setting, so whether that’s one on one with other entrepreneurs or business leaders and coaches like yourself, in small groups like a forum or in my leadership team, in larger groups such as a conference or an association, and then even much larger groups, being part of a community, I just really get excited by those atoms bouncing off each other. I really value learning from other people’s experience and perspective in a real-world setting.
Rich: Finally Damon we were talking before the interview about how you see life and whether it’s a zero-sum game or a world of abundance and abundance mentality, could you please elaborate on that and let that be something that we can all take away?
Damon: I think it’s about self-limiting beliefs, I see a lot of people who think that working is going to take away from time with family, or time as a family is taking away from work, or I don’t have time to go to the gym or pursue a passion or learn a musical instrument, whatever it is. For me, I have a conversation with myself about having my cake and eating it too, basically that I can have it all. Starting there with that conversation it just opens up the idea that it’s possible and then I look for ways to do it, rather than thinking that it’s not possible. So opening up that possibility and then creating that in my life, because as entrepreneurs we know that we have the flexibility and the ability to create things where they haven’t been before so to have that possibility be open and then actually make something happen.