Growth Insights for CEOs

From the Vine to the Wine: CEO Growth Tips from Sonoma

Posted by The Chief Outsider


Guest Blog by Joanie Rufo.
I recently spent a few days in Sonoma, CA, which included some phenomenal wine tastings. On one vineyard tour, our guide mentioned a particular technique called “stressing the grape.” I’d never heard this phrase before! (Darn tourist.) His patient, brief explanation: stressed grapes produce better wines. The concept immediately grabbed me.

The Art of Stressing Grapes

I’m no viticulturist (or viniculturist, as they are called when growing grapes for winemaking) but here’s my general understanding:

  • The smaller the grape, the better the wine. Large grapes are too juicy and their skin is too thin for wine-making.
  • Producing wine-ready grapes requires “intentional stress.” This means wine grapes grow best in soil that is relatively poor in nutrients and in full sun. Slopes are ideal; they get the strongest sunrays, and water runs off.
  • Wine-ready grapes need a Goldilocks “just right” philosophy about water. Not enough water means the grapes won’t ripen properly. Too much water allows the vine basically to get lazy. This results in vines that either produce too many grapes or grapes that are too large. Neither makes for good wine.

In sum, if you want good wine, you can’t make it too easy for the vines. Vines that have to struggle for their existence produce wines with more depth and character than their counterparts.

You know where I’m going with this.

Creating Stress on Purpose

What I love about the “stress the grape” concept is how intentional it is. There’s an intentional goal and an intentional method to get there, even though parts of that method may strike us as counterintuitive or unpleasant. Struggle for water? Poor nutrients in the soil? By all means!

The notion of creating stress on purpose sounds crazy; our workplaces are stressful enough. Yet we all know that is the hard times and challenges we have faced in life that help us form our own depth and character.

As CEOs, being committed to self-development is critical. Why? 

  1. “It is not fair to ask of others what you are unwilling to do yourself.” Eleanor Roosevelt. While I believe that every individual has a responsibility to manage their own development, part of the CEO’s role is to create an environment that supports that. Before asking staff to take on more responsibility or to try new things, do a quick gut check. When was the last time they saw you try something new? Or go out on a personal limb? Actions speak louder than words.
  2. “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” – It’s usually quicker to tell teams how we want them to handle something than it is to coach them to figure it out on their own. Yet, we’ve all experienced how shortcuts up front come back and take even more time later. We’ve also seen how we can cripple people’s ability to make decisions. How can you incorporate “intentional stress” for the sake of your employees’ development? In what areas do you want them to stretch, to reach the nutrients and water they need to become a team you’d proudly submit for a Wine Spectator review?

Leading by Example

Here are some quick tips to consider what intentional developmental stress might personally look like for you:

  • “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” The grape growers start with the end in mind. What’s something you want to work toward – a new skill, a reframed attitude, an expanded perception? You don’t have to boil the ocean here. Pick one or two things. (If you can’t think of anything, ask the people you live or work with every day.)
  • What conditions bring out the best in you? Conduct a self-audit: What do you avoid? What do you gravitate towards? What motivates you? Proverbially, put yourself on a sunny slope in Sonoma with just the right amount of water to meet your intended goal.
  • Life begins outside your comfort zone. You know the feeling you get when you hit a goal you didn’t think you could? Running a marathon. Having that difficult conversation. Saying no even if it means disappointing someone. Learning cannot happen from a place of comfort, so get comfortable being uncomfortable. (My personal best? Flying trapeze lessons, including a catch. Ask me for the video.)
  • Let people know. Research shows that people who tell others what they are working on and check in periodically to ask what improvements they have noticed report greater returns on their personal development investment. Lead the way!



JoanieRufoJoanie is a Certified Leadership Coach with 20 years of experience helping leaders increase personal and organizational effectiveness. Enabling executives to learn and to make intentional decisions in context to internal and external influences is the hallmark of her career.

Initiate helps executives uncover, isolate and address the issues that stand in the way of effective corporate, team and personal leadership. Initiate was founded in June 2007 and is led by Founder and President Joanie Rufo.

For additional information, please visit or call Joanie at (301) 841-7234.

Topics: Leadership, CEO Perspectives, CEO Strategies