In No Retreat: Business Bootcamp, Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena challenges businesses with near-impossible physical and mental tasks at his farm in Vermont. The goal? Help them realize their full potential and chart a path forward. The show is currently airing on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on CNBC.
I’ve received a lot of exciting phone calls from Joe De Sena in just the three years we’ve known each other.
“Dr. L, we’re going to the Atacama desert!”
“Dr. L, find a film crew. I need you in Tokyo!”
“Dr. L, come to Tahoe!”
“Dr. L, want to help me write a parenting book?”
But the most exciting call by far came over the summer of 2021 with just five simple words: “We got the green light.” I knew exactly what he was talking about when he said it — that filming for CNBC's new primetime show, No Retreat: Business Bootcamp, was a go.
Four months later — and with two suitcases packed — I headed off to Pittsfield, VT to join Joe, marketing expert and entrepreneur Qu’Harrison Terry, and the CNBC production team to begin shooting the show. I spent nearly a month on The Farm with Joe, and lots of people asked what it was like. “Cold,” I would often reply. But they weren’t interested in weather reports, and they were barely interested in the day-to-day activities. What most people really wanted to know was what it was like being with Joe for a month on The Farm. So here goes, Spartans. Here’s what it was really like.
A First-Hand, Behind-the-Scenes Look at What It Was Like to Film Joe De Sena's New CNBC Show
Early Morning Wake-up Calls
My first few days on The Farm, I agreed to Joe’s invitation for pre-dawn hikes up the mountain. I’m a runner and keeping up with my fitness is always important to me. (Like Joe, it’s a bit of a non-negotiable.) I figured, however, that if I agreed to a few days up the mountain, he’d lay off on day four or five and let me tend to my own activities. Wrong.
On the fifth morning, I purposefully avoided his text asking if we were headed up the mountain and instead brewed myself a nice pot of coffee to enjoy with a fresh bagel I had picked up from the general store the day before. I was barely a few bites in when a knock on the door revealed Joe’s pale face staring at me through the window in the morning light. I opened the door and — without pause — he said, “Let’s go. You’re late.” I tried to remind him that we hadn't had a time scheduled, but he interrupted me, insisting, “Let’s go.”
And so we went. And this went on for nearly every morning at The Farm (minus the mornings where Joe flew to Newark or Boston or Orlando). The truth is, I didn’t even mind it so much. Some mornings we talked all the way up and all the way down. Other mornings we barely said a word. But the consistency of doing something difficult helped start the day off right. And the man certainly sticks to his guns about workouts every morning — for better or for worse.
Credit: Scott Eisen/CNBC
Un-Planning and Uncertainties
I’ve spent enough time with Joe to know that he likes to pivot and throw people off of their game. Yes, there’s a part of him that enjoys watching others scramble, but that’s not really why he does it. He pivots because he knows that he’ll get the real version of anyone when they are hit with uncertainty.
The businesses that arrived at The Farm came to Joe because they needed help with hidden fractures in their system, and Joe knew that the best way to build them up was to first break them down. He often pivoted mid-task or between challenges to expedite the breakdown, but when you’re an expert standing beside him during each shoot, this means that you must learn to pivot too.
I’ll be honest, the first few times that Joe shifted the challenges, I felt nervous and even slightly annoyed. An entire production team had planned and laid out a task, and I was concerned that the team may not be able to adjust accordingly. I was wrong on all accounts. First, the production team was always prepared to be unprepared. They moved left, right, up, down and anywhere they needed to to make it work. They crushed it. And honestly, Joe was right. The most productive and revealing challenges turned out to be the ones that he fiddled with the most. As someone who prides herself on being prepared, organized, and ready for anything, I quickly learned that sometimes spontaneity is the key to success.
Witnessing Joe’s Weakness (Yes, He Does Have One.)
Joe isn’t a hugger. He’s not warm and fuzzy. And while he doesn’t dish out a whole lot of compliments, he’s a damn good team player. I first witnessed this when we traveled to the Atacama Desert together and he held a boom microphone over his head for nearly an hour because there was no one else to do it. Which CEOs do that? Joe does.
When it comes to rolling up his sleeves and getting dirty, Spartan's CEO is who you want on your team. But watching other teams roll up their sleeves to get dirty and not being able to help? That was extremely tough for Joe. On various occasions, you could see him squirming because he wanted so badly to step in and give the teams a hand. He did not thrive in those situations — he struggled. Both Qu’Harrison and I had to literally pull him back by the collar of his jacket a few times because he could not help himself from moving in to offer assistance.
Watching Joe tolerate the discomfort of not being able to help was both refreshing and also informative. (He’s got limitations, too!) It reminded me of what truly energizes Joe: helping. He has built his entire brand on providing a space where individuals confront what they are really capable of. He’s not just a fixer. He’s a helper. How’s that for warm and fuzzy?
Credit: Scott Eisen/CNBC
Working Hard. Laughing Harder.
Every single day at The Farm was a day at work. Even though we had the most glorious background and incredible setting, Joe, Qu’Harrison, and I were there to get a job done. We were called upon to help these businesses recognize areas of weakness, cultivate their strengths, and develop unbreakable cohesion. We showed up on set every day ready to kick ass and make our mark on these teams, but we still weaved in some essential laughs along the way.
If you’ve ever spent time with me, you know I love a good laugh. Thankfully, so do Joe and Qu’Harrison. None of us shied away from the opportunity for a good joke or a chance to laugh, especially as the Vermont days got longer and the nights got darker. Even the companies laughed along with us: We laughed over Joe’s shoe choice during a task in the mud, we laughed over Qu’Harrison's inability to catch a break with the WiFi (or lack thereof), and we laughed at the number of hand warmers I stuck to my body at any given moment to keep warm.
As we watched the teams come together through the challenges over the course of the month, we came together, too. Joe may be an insanely tough guy, but he’s down for a good laugh at any and all times of the day.
Being on the farm with Joe, Qu’Harrison, and the whole No Retreat: Business Bootcamp team was incredibly exciting. We battled Mother Nature, pushed ourselves and the business teams, and watched individuals transform right before our eyes. Throughout my tenure there, one thing remained true and consistent: Joe will be Joe. It’s what people love most about him — he is who he is everywhere and at all times. There is no second version. You get one version. (And thank goodness, because who could possibly handle two?!)