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My Fireside Chat with Wawa’s CEO at PhillyMag’s ThinkFest

Last October I participated in Philadelphia Magazine’s 7th Annual ThinkFest.

The footage was previously lost, but has now luckily been found, so this post gets to come out of the drafts folder (which currently contains 74 others).

Philly Mag approached me to do a “Fireside Chat” with the CEO of Wawa, Chris Gheysens. I’ve done lots of panels and “talks,” but never a fireside, and Chris and I didn’t know each other previously.

I also quickly called shenanigans on Philly Mag to see if they purposefully put us together hoping for some convenience store slug-fest on stage. goPuff and Wawa, our respective current affiliations, are direct competitors, albeit at different stages of company life. They believably denied my allegation so I warmly accepted their invite.

Here is the 30-minute discussion in which we talk Wawa, building companies in Philly, and leadership, all with a side order of Breakfast Sizzli. 

Chris is savvy and knowledgeable with a high EQ. No surprise from the “Lead Goose”.

In the green room he said, “Go easy on me, OK?” To which I replied, “I’m not here for a ‘gotcha.’ If anything, I’m empathetic to the challenge of sitting in the top seat.” Being a great CEO is as exhausting as it is fulfilling, regardless of your company’s size.

I’m actually used to being in the other chair, riffing off the panel moderator and answering questions about my background directly. It was interesting and a lot more prep to be the one hoping to both contribute and guide the conversation. Sitting on a panel usually requires prep of a 15-min conf call, tops. For this I researched Chris, and Wawa, talked to their PR person and even briefly chatted with Chris during the week prior. We cut our chat short to save it for the stage.

I also did some googling on nailing a fireside chat vs a panel. Coupled with my experience, here were my takeaways on the format:

  • The internet says to let the audience know the “arc” of the conversation before you dive in to help set things up. I did that, along with telling Chris the first question I was going to ask after we intro’d ourselves. Easy setup ice breaker for me as well as to put him at ease.
  • A fireside should be more conversational, where both parties are sharing (60/40) vs one party interviewing the other (90/10). Interviews are fine, but a real conversation is much better.
  • I didn’t write out a lot of questions. I listed a few topics and spent the time putting them in a logical order. My prep fit on the top third of a printed page and consisted of about 10 words like: Snapshot, Philly’s Role, Current Customer? Future Customer? Innovation, etc.
  • The internet says quality follow-up questions are everything. Drilling down into interesting subtopics and then actually discussing them while also listening and guiding the conversation is the real skill. If you can do all that while being present – boom.
  • I believe the fireside format is better than an interview or panel. It’s a more natural and conversational way for both parties to share while creating a more spontaneous “window” for the audience. It’s also lighter prep all around.

Thanks for tapping me, PhillyMag, and thanks for putting on such an interesting event. Also, thanks for being a good sport, Chris Gheysens. #cowtailsFTW

Also thanks to my bud David Lipson at PhillyMag for texting me 48 hours prior to the event, “Hey man, you’re going first to kick off the day. Be sure to bring the energy! No pressure!” Yeah. Thanks.

I woke up at 4 am, day of, and reviewed and revised my notes for the eighth time. I have a tendency to over-prepare. What’s new…

ps – I got busy this Spring and my posting frequency took a beating. I need to work on that. So many drafts in the queue…

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