Arts or Science, Business or Healing?
Growing up in England, like most children I was faced at the age of 16 with a stark choice: ‘arts or science’ A levels. This can then lead to another choice later in our culture, that of healing or business. Although there is plenty of cynicism about business training from psychologists about being shallow or manipulative, for many it is a gateway on to a healing path of personal development. It certainly was for me – although it was a very long path: I was highly focused entrepreneur until my late 30s, when the ‘call’ to change direction was helped so much by the ideas in the book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey.
Starting in my year’s industry placement as part of my degree in my early 20s, I joined the sales force of a large American multi-national, NCR – the inventor of the cash register and where the founder of IBM originally learnt his trade. They generously sent me on a wide array of presentation and sales skills courses in their training centre in Birmingham, UK. I became fascinated by business psychology and started some recommended reading about success. The two books that stood out to me were ‘How to Sell Anything to Anyone’ by Joe Girard and ‘What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School’ by Mark McCormack. I was later to apply some of the ideas and techniques in these books within my own business.
“The elevator to success is broken – you will have to take the stairs: one step at a time.”
My main take-aways were how marketing is very much at the route of sales success. Joe Girard applied a relentless approach to finding prospects to sell cars. He would drive around affluent neighbourhoods, taking notes of addresses where old cars parked were parked in the driveways; he would then discover from the electoral role and phone book the names of the people. He would then contact them including a six-monthly phone call and send them a variety of greeting cards. He also had some eccentric ideas – always finding new barbers to cut his hair and offering them 100 dollars if they introduced him to a new customer. He would give them a plaque to screw to their wall that read “If you are looking to buy a new car – ask the barber”. He even tossed up a handful of his business cards when the local baseball team scored, so people might associate finding his card with a positive feeling. His relentless tactics paid off, as he became the world’s most successful sales person for 12 years running in the Guinness Book of World Records. He usually sold around five cars a day.
What his book taught me was the huge amount of marketing activity that is needed to land a customer. It is a great reframe for those who find approaching people uncomfortable; it requires a deliberate and hard worked process to succeed in business. As Joe put, “The elevator to success is broken – you will have to take the stairs: one step at a time.”
McCormack was a highly successful entrepreneur who started the field of sports management. He was also a great salesman but had wiser ideas of how to build a business that would provide lasting income for both his business and his clients – he founded a business (IMG) that had made him extremely wealthy. He realised that the career of a sportsperson was relatively short, so if they could earn sponsorship money, not just during their careers but continue to do so after – it would be a win for them (and for him). He described how he managed to sell the brand of Rolex to appear on the score boards at Wimbledon. He pointed out that Rolex didn’t sell watches, they sold ‘luxury’ which matched well the aspirations of tennis spectators across the world. The Rolex brand remains on those courts today – producing a continuous income. As my father advised me, “Make income not money” which proved good advice and eventually gave me sufficient income to start employing more people.
Putting Learning into Practice
The next phase of my business was more complex: to move from a ‘one-man band’ to a ‘pop group’ is betting the business if you do it too wrong – I am not sure why I did this, probably because I was finding the work boring – but it was a huge gamble. The ultimate goal is to get a ‘band’ which consists of a board of directors: competent operations, sales/marketing and finance people. Initially, I did all these roles, but as the business grew, I luckily could delegate much of the operations to my existing small team – but the finance and sales was much harder. The ‘catch 22’ is that you can’t really afford to hire a decent sales professional and the cost of a truly competent accountant is breath-taking. It was therefore an uneven and messy few years until finally the right people were in place.
During this risky transition time, my interested in leadership sparked by the Seven Habits book was truly a life-saver. Covey advised: ‘delegate results not methods’ and I quickly found that my increasingly competent crew members didn’t like being told how to do things, but we could agree what good looked like. I also found that my coaching skills were incredibly helpful transitioning from a management to leadership role. I would now define leadership as creating and facilitating other leaders – so discussions were more like brain storming, where we jointly learnt to create better solutions, without anyone (including me) dominating the discussions. Covey called this “synergise”.
Perhaps the two greatest ideas I got from Covey, was time management and vision. I initially needed a highly disciplined approach to time management to gave me the extra time I would then need to deal with this transition (while still running the business).
The Value of Vision
The other more ethereal quality was that of vision; how could I galvanize a team to become highly effective. This was also messy, it took time for my team to get the vision habit, but finally a mission did emerge that put us on the right path and again we created it collectively. Vision still remains a bit of mystery for me; vision is not the same as a goal, but definitely influences the direction of travel and therefore what goals can actually be achieved. Vision creates radical change, but as you can’t entirely predict what that change will be, it is impossible to anticipate it and you need to learn to grow and develop as a result of the change that you initiated. What I think Covey’s ideas changed in me was a permission to start thinking in a new way. Rather than being entirely preoccupied with the daily problems that go with running a business, it allowed me to have ‘bigger thoughts’ – what were my values? What values did I want my business to foster and express? – as Peter Drucker summarised – I had begun the move from being in the business to being on the business.
It was this journey that enabled me to realise that my own personal vision was to follow a new path of NLP and Coaching. In typical entrepreneurial spirit, I started out in that direction too – but that will be for another blog. For now, I remain grateful for these books and highly recommend them.