How to Become a Better Leader with Nils Vinje

In this episode of The B2B Leadership Podcast, best-selling author and leadership coach Nils Vinje shares his own story of leadership along with the experiences that ultimately molded him into a better leader along the way.
Nils began by bouncing around between professions (from a software engineer to a Xerox sales rep), looking for work to cultivate his abilities. While attending grad school, he heard a presenter whose simple question became a pivotal moment for him: "Are you the CEO of your career?" This epiphany led to his commitment to take control of the direction he wanted to move towards with his life—instead of letting other people make that decision—all while combating impostor syndrome.
Nils wraps up the episode by providing several leadership tips:

1. Answer the question: "Are you the CEO of your career?"
2. Never settle and always push yourself
3. Always invest in yourself, even if your company isn't going to

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What the B2B Leadership podcast is all about

Hi, I'm Nils Vinje. And you're listening to the b2b leadership podcast, a show dedicated to demystifying leadership development, one conversation at a time.

Each week, I sit down with leaders in the b2b space, to discuss their journey, and what they've learned along the way. It's for you, if you've ever wanted to get a behind the scenes look at the stories, experiences and advice that other leaders have to give as a result of what they've gone through.

Take a moment right now and think about someone you admire from a leadership perspective. Maybe this is a leader within your company. Maybe this is a leader within your industry, somebody you've seen up on the biggest stage speaking at a conference. Now, imagine you could go to coffee, or have a conversation with them, and ask them questions about how they got to where they are today. Imagine that in a short conversation, you can get a glimpse into what has enabled them to be successful.

Every week, I'm going to interview leaders in the b2b space, and ask them questions about how they got to where they are today. You will get to hear some very honest answers about what goes on behind the scenes of these leaders. You'll get to hear their stories firsthand. You'll get to be inspired by what they share. You get to hear their advice for how to grow and develop your leadership skills.

You'll also get to see that every one of my guests is a human being just like you and me.

To kick things off. In this episode, I'm going to share my leadership story. And I'll also share my advice on how to become a better leader.

I've been fascinated with leadership for a very long time. But there was a time when I had no idea what I was doing with my career.

This was about the first 10 years of my professional career. After I graduated from undergrad when I went into the working world, I had no idea where I fit in the professional world. And I bounced around from one job to the next, trying to find something that kept me interested, something that would utilize my unique talents and skills.

And when I say bounced around, I literally mean it. I did everything from being a software engineer, which I was absolutely terrible at to a Xerox sales rep. That's right, I went door to door selling copiers. And yes, it is just as bad as you might think.

But things changed after a long period of time of being frustrated and always thinking that there was some way for me to add more value to the companies that I worked for to extract more value from finding a fulfilling line of work. I just didn't know what it was.

And then my daughter was born. And this was a great motivational factor. Because I knew at that point in time that I was going to have to do a lot more to be able to provide for my growing family.

We had one kid and we wanted to have more. So I went to grad school, I made the decision that I had to invest in myself, and that first major investment was getting an MBA in the field of management and organizational behavior.

One Saturday morning changed everything

And there was one Saturday morning in grad school early on in the first semester. That was incredibly pivotal. And it was a Saturday morning. It was in an auditorium where we had outside speakers come in and talk to us for a couple of hours about a particular topic. This happened a few times each quarter.

So this Saturday morning, I go in, it's nine o'clock in the morning, I'm sitting in the auditorium. There's a couple hundred people there, and the presenter walks out on stage. They introduce him and everybody claps, he stands right in the middle, looks directly in the audience and does not say anything. And then asked one very powerful question.

And he said

"Are you the CEO of your career?"

And in that moment, I can still feel exactly what I felt back then.

In that moment. It was as if my entire professional career up to that point, completely flashed before my eyes. I began to get very angry with myself. And the reason was that the answer that came out of my mouth to that question was NO.

Up to that point in time, I was not the CEO of my career. What this meant was that someone else was always in charge of my career direction. All that time that I spent being frustrated with not being able to find where I fit in the professional world, I was always asking other people to tell me where I should go and what job I should do, and how I should contribute.

You see, I was never willing to answer that question for myself. But right then, and right there in that auditorium seat on that Saturday morning, I made the decision to never again, not be the CEO of my career, I would be the one who is in charge, I would be the one who would make this call on what was right for me to focus on from a growth and development perspective, from an investment perspective, from a training perspective, I was in charge from that point on.

And that was the turning point. Because I went on to graduate from that program, with an MBA in management in organizational behavior, and a 3.92 GPA. I don't say that to impress you, I say that to impress upon you what is possible when you find alignment with something, it is so powerful, you've never felt it before.

You see, in all of my schoolings, up to this point all the way through undergrad, I was at best, maybe a C plus b minus average student. School was hard. I did not enjoy it. I never enjoyed learning.

I had a lot of complications, and a lot of challenges that I faced. And I just thought, frankly, it was a period of time, my life didn't really think I was that smart. Because I was constantly surrounded by other people where learning in school was really easy. But when I got into that program, when I got into the classes that led me down the path to understanding what management and leadership was really all about, a fire was lit, that fire still burns within me today.

I am so passionate about sharing the incredible expertise I've acquired. And through both school and education and training and coaching, as well as experience in the field in the trenches working with my teams. I'm so passionate about helping other people become incredible leaders, that it drives everything that I do. And that is how I graduated with almost a 4.0. When I had never come anywhere close to that at any point in my life. It was a huge, huge accomplishment that I'm still incredibly proud of today. But it is a reminder that alignment is our greatest source of inspiration and fulfillment. If you have alignment with the work that you do, and you acquire the right tools, you can be successful and whatever it is, but the key is you have to understand what it is that you are most talented to do.

A couple of years later, after going back to post-grad school, I worked inside of startup organizations, and b2b SaaS businesses in downtown San Francisco, going through just incredible ups and downs of what happens in a fast-moving company.

And a few years passed and I was putting everything I had into my organizations, but I felt this itch. And it was because I wanted to push myself again. But I didn't want to go back and get another degree or go for a Ph.D.

Becoming a Leadership coach

I wanted to find something that would complement the work that I was doing because I love my work. So what I did was I became a leadership coach. And the coaching process that you go through to become a coach is absolutely one of the most life-changing experiences I've ever had.

You cannot become a coach, a certified coach without going through the process of coaching yourself. And I'm eternally thankful to the program that I went through called the Academy of Leadership Coaching and NLP. It's a wonderful organization, run by an incredible person, one of the most influential people in my professional life, having given me the gifts and the tools in order to share my gifts of coaching with everybody else.

During this track, I also had a very significant growth period, from an individual contributor of which I had been at that entire almost 10 years I was telling you about before, I was always at an individual contributor level.

So I went back to grad school, got an MBA. And then I got into my first role as a customer success manager and this was the individual contributor level. So I was working with clients to help them build and get value out of our solution.

In two and a half years, 30 months, I went from an individual contributor to a vice president.

That is the difference that happens when you invest in yourself and you acquire tools and you get coaching and you accelerate the growth and development, your leadership skills. The only reason I was able to do that in one quarter of the time that I spent at that level previously was because of the tools that I had acquired and because of the investment I made myself.

Now, this wasn't all roses and unicorns and all kinds of perfect things all along the way, there was some trouble, I hit multiple stages where the feelings of being an imposter were enormous to the point where I questioned whether or not I deserve to be in this role.

There was even a point in time when I was a vice president, and I seriously questioned whether or not I deserved to be in that role. But what got me through those difficult times was knowing that I had the tools in order to solve the problems that I was facing.

And when I didn't know how to solve the problem I was facing, and I did not have a tool that I had the wonderful world to go out to, and find somebody who had already solved that problem, get access to their tools and their expertise, and then apply them to my situation.

That literally is the only way that I got out of the imposter syndrome from it being a debilitating feeling, because it can start small, little doubts, little concerns, and if not addressed, and if you don't conquer it head on, it will consume you entirely.

Now, there's a lot of leaders who have mentioned this in passing. And I know there's exponentially more leaders who have faced this and currently face this, I'm here to tell you that it is something you can overcome. But it doesn't happen overnight.

Going out on my own

In January of 2015, after being a vice president going from an individual contributor to a manager, director to Vice President, January 2015, I started my very first consulting firm. This was in the customer success space, I was the very first consultant in the customer success field that ever existed in the entire world, I was the first one to hang out my shingle, and say this is what I'm going to do, I want to help other organizations in the field of customer success, I have a deep passion for this field and I've also had some incredible successes in this field.

So having an opportunity to be a consultant for years with fast-growing b2b SaaS businesses has been incredible because I get to see inside everybody's organization.

I get to see what works, I get to see what doesn't, and I get to be a piece of their success. And that brings me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

You see, my greatest strength is something called Maximizer. And if you're familiar with the strengthsfinder assessment, this comes directly from StrengthsFinder.

In the strengths world, what they say is that we acknowledge where we don't have strengths. But from a growth and development perspective, we focus on where you already have strengths and do more of what you're already naturally talented to do.

So Maximizer, to me, means that I see strengths in other people, oftentimes before they see it in themselves, and bringing awareness of strengths to others gives me tremendous satisfaction.

So I have this unique ability that is born inside me, that is not something that is taught, of how I see people and how I see the world. And it is an incredible gift that I want to share with others.

And that is part of this podcast, it's part of my leadership style. And it's part of something that you can take action on, by going through the strengths assessment yourself. And identifying and understanding what it is you are naturally talented to do.

Because every single person has a set of dominant strengths, which means you have a way that you see and approaching the world that is unique from everybody else.

And I fully recognize that and I want you to find that I want you to embrace that. And I want you to claim that because that is the source of incredible confidence when you're able to say, here's what I am most talented to do. This is how I am going to contribute at the highest level, to my team, to my company, to my customers, and to the world.

Adapting to the global pandemic

Now, in 2020, everything changed, as we all know. And the consulting world changed dramatically. In the event that I had a lot of great relationships, I had a lot of great projects I was working on with clients, and then when the pandemic hit and the lockdown hit, nobody knew what was going to happen next.

The first thing everybody did was freeze discretionary spending. What that meant was that any extraneous projects that weren't absolutely mission-critical, which most of my work was in, because it was more of an optimization kind of effort, were put on the shelf.

And I got call after call over the course of about 48 hours when all this hit, that my clients said, I have to stop, I have to stop, we have to cancel, we're putting this on hold, I can't pay you, we need to move forward.

So here I am, the first part of 2020, rocking and rolling from a, you know, great first quarter going into this, and then all of a sudden, going to zero. And having no insight into how long this would last.

And clients that I worked with, and projects that worked on were my source of income. So I had to find a way out, I had to lead myself through this incredibly difficult time where my entire business and world disappeared overnight.

So what I did was take a step back. And I said, Well, if this approach that I have had to the consulting world, and these relationships have been great, but world circumstances are going to change that.

What if I took a look at something broader, something more sustainable, that even in bad times, or even in difficult times, would still be incredibly relevant? And I'd still be able to serve clients in a way that is different than what I had been doing.

So I set to work. And I wrote a best-selling book called 30-Day Leadership Playbook: Your Guide To Becoming The Leader You Have Always Wanted To Be.

This book was the culmination of 20 plus years of experience in the field of my MBA of my certification, being a coach, and spending 500 plus hours working one on one with clients.

And I brought all of that expertise, everything that I had ever coached anybody on into this book. And I released the book 110 days after I decided that I was going to write it.

There was a fire in me that I had to modify and change and enhance my business to pivot and focus on something different, bring an element of my business that had always been there being a leadership coach for 10 years, but had never been the forefront and make it the forefront.

There was a lot of imposter syndrome that came back. But how I got through that was by knowing that what I had to share was incredibly important and had incredible potential to impact the lives of other people. That was my fire. That was it, that was the single most important thing, if I can get these tools that I put in this book in the hands of any leader in the b2b space out there, I know I can have a positive impact on you.

It's that simple.

So that's the story of how I've evolved from executive to consultant to now author. And now the leadership piece of the business is taking off in a way that I never could have imagined. Because there are a lot of people out there who need help to grow and develop their leadership skills.

My leadership advice

So I've got some advice for you that I want to share. And this is going to be similar to some of the advice that you might hear from my guests in the future.

And I will always ask them because I want you to walk away with something that is actionable, crispy and tactical, and specific. So here's my leadership advice for you.

Number one, answer the question, Are you the CEO of your career? If your answer is no right now, then do whatever it takes in order to make it Yes, I am the CEO, Mike or make a decision, your environment and your world and your boss and your company is never going to decide this for you. Only you can decide this.

If your answer is yes already and you fully believe that with your entire being and all your heart, wonderful, you're all set.

Number two, never settle, and always push yourself.

This was the mantra that I was essentially saying to myself for almost 10 years in the beginning, I was never willing to settle for a job. I was never willing to put myself in a position where I didn't love what I did. I knew that there had to be more. And it was that drive and knowing that I was never going to settle.

And I was always going to push that kept me going. And then when I found the alignment with my work and had the tools in order to rise up from an individual contributor to a VP, in 30 months, I had the same mantra playing in my mind, I was never willing to settle. I always wanted to do more to experiment or to take on the next role to acquire the skills that I would need for the next role before I got to the next role.

And number three, always invest in yourself, even if your company isn't going to.

I've been around the b2b space a long time. And I know that the number one thing that everybody does when there's a potential to attend a program or potentially get some coaching or whatever that field of interest is that you have is to find out is my company is going to pay for it.

And that's great. companies are doing an incredible job of supporting their employees. And I think that's wonderful. However, if you leave all of the decision about whether or not you're going to get access to the training, the coaching the tools, up to your company, guess what, you're not the CEO of your career, someone else's in charge, your company is going to be able to dictate how much you learn.

And if you're the CEO of your career, guess what you are your single most important asset, you are the thing you have to grow and develop, because you're the only thing you're going to be with for your entire career.

So always invest in yourself, even if your company isn't willing to do it. Because if you acquire those skills and those tools, guess what, you add more value to the organization, guess what you deserve to be paid more, the return that you will get from investing in yourself, I guarantee is greater than any return on any investment anywhere in the world.

And I can say this without a doubt, because I have invested over several hundred thousand dollars of my own personal money in order to acquire the tools to acquire the knowledge to be able to never settle, always push because I'm in charge. I'm the CEO, my career, nobody else is going to tell me what I can learn and what I can't learn.

And when I do that, and I learned a tool, I learned a strategy and learned a technique. And I bring that into work with, you know, nowadays, it's working with a company or a leader. But in the early days when I was inside of organizations working, when I brought that in, it would have a significant difference and a significant impact.

People would always ask me, how do you do this. And I would share some of the tools that I've learned. But the only way I was able to do that was because I went outside what the organization had to provide, because I knew there were experts in the world that had already accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.

And I wanted to take the fast track, I wanted to pay them to get access to their expertise, and have them coach me. And then I could accelerate the results that they got because I had the fast track and I had the keys to their success.

So in addition to hosting this podcast, I run the b2b leaders Academy. This program features monthly leadership training and live coaching. Just like we talked about before, I believe that continuous investment and development of your leadership skills is critical to your future success.

Whatever field it is that you're in in the b2b space and wherever you want to go. Growing your knowledge and growing your capabilities and growing your leadership skills must be at the top of your list.

Learn more and work with me

To learn more about this b2b leaders Academy program, simply go to

And I welcome you to connect with me on LinkedIn and tell me that you heard this podcast and that you'd love to connect. And I would be happy and would love to connect with you.

Because I want to understand where you are in the world today and where you're going so that maybe there's an opportunity for me to help you from a leadership perspective.

Thank you for listening to the B2B Leadership Podcast.

If you enjoyed this episode, I'd welcome you to subscribe and give the show a five-star review.

I hope you'll join us again next week. Take care and have a great rest of your day.

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