The push for efficiency defines many organizations, and Greenleaf Book Group is no exception. I push my staff to eliminate silly wastes of time and money as often as I can. We've adopted best practices from many organizations and have become a training ground for operational efficacy. There's no sense in having intelligent, hardworking people fritter away hours and hours in meetings that could be complete in half the time with half the people.
But like every good policy, there's a huge exception to this rule. And that exception involved being a generous company that gives first, and asks for sales later.
Now, if you are like many entrepreneurs, your first impulse is to go for a signed contract as soon as possible. You strive to keep free consultations basic, to keep preliminary meetings brief. But this is short-sighted. If you want people to see your company as one worth recommending and worth working with long-term, it's imperative to do more than set up a plain old cost calculator on your website and hire a few low-paid newbies to explain what you do to inquiring customers. To show the world that you're a cut above, start by having a valuable conversation, not just telling a prospect how much an engagment is going to cost.
At Greenleaf Book Group, this means that we spend a lot of time coming up with free content that will help the writing and publishing communities. And once we've identified a project that we think has potential, we meet extensively with the client to get to know the book, show him or her what we can do with it, and feel out how the relationship will work. Our editors prepare detailed book diagnoses that show potential clients that we're taking time to invest in the project and have a clear idea of how the relationship can benefit both parties. And all this happens before a contract is signed or a single payment is made.
Does that mean that our editors spend a lot of time reading books that we don't end up publishing? Do our consultants spend whole days meeting with authors who ultimately decide not to work with us? Yes—and, bluntly put, I don't see that as a problem. As a result of the time we invest, we find better books to publish. And the ones that aren't a good fit for us? Well, we typically come out on the other side with someone who—despite not working with us—likes us, will refer us, and will perhaps come back in the future.
Another huge benefit of our "give first" policy is that we get a chance to know our prospective clients. We only work with a small percentage of submitted titles, so we have the privilege of turning folks down who are either unreasonable or just plain rude. Our culture is too important to the success of the company to let a jerk client ruin our mojo. The "give first" plan allows us to meet and get to know potential clients and avoid those who are too much trouble.
Delivering value before the transaction also helps us establish the tone of the client relationship at the outset. It's amazing how far some initial sincerity and cooperation will go. Finding that natural fit between customer and company feels great for our team, and it makes all the difference down the road with the relationship.
So, kill those inane meetings. Streamline the hell out of those pointless processes. Quit buying expensive office supplies. But don't be stingy with the time you spend showing prospective clients that you're happy to spend a little time with them... and that you care.
I'm getting real tired of the financial news media telling me why I'm not hiring. Those who speak on the issue blame tight credit markets (lack of lending by banks) as the primary reason. They also blame concerns about the economy, and concerns about the consumer not spending money, but those are always secondary. That may be the case for a small group of companies, but most of this is trite commentary by folks who don't know the real reasons that hiring has stalled.
Let's take a moment and kill a dumb myth — most of us don't borrow from banks in order to hire. We borrow to buy equipment, and rely on cash flow to pay for hiring new employees. This is especially true in the service sector.
Yet this raises a question. It's clear that cash flow is strong — there's trillions of dollars on corporate balance sheets. If companies wanted to hire, we would.
So why aren't we hiring?
It's simple: uncertainty. I wrote about this concern earlier in the year, and not much has changed. We're still waiting to learn what recent legislation will mean for us. And I'm not just talking about the Financial Regulation passed in July. When politicians told us we had to pass the Health Care bill to find out what was in it, business owners suspended their plans to hire. The risks are too great.
To be clear, business owners can handle risk — it's a very big part of what we do. But we're not idiots. The myth propagated outside of business is that we're all cowboys and will risk it all regularly. (These are the same
folks who push and beg us to hire.) Here's the thing — entrepreneurs like calculated risks, risks that we think are likely to yield profits for us. Very few successful entrepreneurs will gamble with their companies, betting the whole enterprise on a lark. We want to be comfortable with most of the variables before we take a leap. That's how we built our companies, and that's what we need in order to continue to grow them.
And there's the rub. We won't jump back into the hiring pool until we know that we won't be blindsided by new taxes, that the new taxes won't push us into a double dip, and that new regulation won't swamp us with needless paperwork. So if Congress and policymakers are serious about getting the economy back on the right track, my advice to them is to get out of the way. Stop regulating and pushing agendas, and let us build. It's what we do, and we're champing at the bit to do it.
Why is it that in many cases, winners continue to win? What are they doing right that propels them into more and more wins? I'm an entrepreneur, just like 95 percent of the readers of this blog, and I love to win. But to win you must compete, and competition—by definition – means you may sometimes lose. So, when it comes to my livelihood and that of my family and staff, I want to eliminate as many losing factors as possible and lock in the factors that keep us on the winning team.
Norm Brodsky has a great line: Smart people learn from their mistakes, but wise people learn from the mistakes of others. I'll try to coin a corollary rule about success—smart people learn to replicate their own successes, and wise people can replicate the successes of others. The trick is to pick the right characteristics of the right people and avoid the bad. That is often harder to do.
At my publishing company, the pillars of our business model are built largely on the weaknesses of our competitors. Where they fall short, we push forward. This isn't to say that we don't make mistakes, or even repeat mistakes that have plagued the industry for decades. But, by trying to follow a systematized approach to success, we've been able grow revenue and profitability in an industry where that's less and less common.
This summer, we're releasing a book by author Les McKeown based on this philosophy, aptly titled Predictable Success. While we have done some of these things naturally, the principles give us a step by step plan to make sure we continue to win. Our team is working to better predict our successes through improved systems and stronger awareness of the things we do that are successful and those that aren't.
But, you say, think of all the success stories you read in the news—overnight successes where someone followed his or her intuition and won. The reason you hear about them in the news is because they are so uncommon. That's the success bias in action. Rather than cover the 99 percent who fail, the media covers the 1 percent who succeed. (Think of how much more depressing the news would be if they covered the failures!)
The good news is that, according to McKeown, predictable success is a state reachable by any group (an organization, business, division, department, project or team) through which they will consistently achieve their common goals with relative ease.
Those who manage groups want to get to predictable success for a simple reason: It's easier to manage a group when you—and they — know how to be successful. Just like it's easier to manage a football team that already knows how to win, groups with a history of success have a substantial competitive advantage over those that don't.
We were never taught "predictable" success in business school - that success could be learned and replicated, understood and scaled, nurtured and sustained. Sure, we were taught about cash flow, human resources, people management, vendor selection, 5 "P"s and 6 sigmas — and a thousand other nuggets of information. But we were never shown how all of it could (and should) add up to more than fleeting or momentary success; how, if we took the right steps, we could develop success to be replicated over time and in any environment. Put simply, we were given the tools for success, and an expectation of success, but no dependable way of combining the two to consistently achieve success.
Because of this missing link — no dependable connection between the tools we have and the results we want — our experience with success is patchy: sometimes stuff works, sometimes it doesn't. As a result we have developed a collective belief system that throbs along in the background as we work, telling us that success will just 'happen' eventually, if we do the right things (whatever they are); that while success is there, it is locked up in a vault waiting for us to crack the code. If we spend each day trying different combinations on the lock, one lucky day we'll guess right and the tumblers will fall, the safe door will swing open, and success will be ours.
Part of that underlying belief system is true. There is a code that will unlock success, predictably and consistently, in any organization. The untrue part is that you have to guess at what that code is, or that you have to experiment every day to get it right. McKeown's book teaches us that the code for predictable success is sitting in plain view and is available to anyone who wants to pick it up and use it. You don't need to experiment day in, day out to discover how to make your organization predictably successful. Organizations have been in existence for long enough, and in enough numbers, that the patterns of success and failure in all business areas are as clear as the night sky, if you know where to look.
The question for you, now, is how can you use existing knowledge to predict your success? Who can you emulate? Who should you avoid? Although this will be an intensely individualized exercise for everyone, share your ideas so we can all learn from them—and how we can apply similar ideas to our industries.
Two recent and poorly executed apologies were those offered by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods. After both apologies, which were leading news items for days, people talked about how the apologies were weak and the public was still not ready to forgive the wrongdoers. They were dishonest early in the game, and their later, weak apologies were not sufficient.
Lets be clear about something: In neither case was the negative response simply to the news conference itself. The deception or secrecy that came before the confession caused all the trouble. This was also what happened to Bill Clinton when he was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair. He lied openly before the truth came out. Had he been honest, admitted his mistake and worked to not do it again, there would have been no "depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" comment and I think the uproar would have died more quickly in the public arena.
A big apology, executed early and correctly, leaves people knowing so much that they feel a bit like a voyeur — that they probably know too much about someone's personal life. If, instead, there is a sense of dishonesty or "more to the story," both the public and the media will not let go. If all questions are answered, and there is an appearance of justice (i.e. punishment that fits the crime or is greater than the crime) people usually stop digging and start forgiving.
A big apology is sometimes considered a bad idea because it opens the person up for trouble at home or future legal trouble. Guess what: If a crime has been committed, the legal issue is there either way, and if the subject of a lie is an affair, the jilted spouse will be jilted whether an admission of guilt is offered or not.
Probably the best case study for this happened just over two years ago. Both Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were listed in the Mitchell Report as Major League Baseball players who had used performance-enhancing drugs. The two players approached the crisis in very different ways. Roger Clemens made a farce of his situation, even going to Congress and denying any involvement with drugs. Even the knuckleheads in Congress were able to see that he was lying. Andy Pettitte, on the other hand, took full ownership of the claims, answered every question anyone had, and was willing to take any punishment that would come.
Clemens quickly saw the media swarm over him, probing for more lies. Less than two years later, Pettitte pitched and won game six of the World Series, and was once again a hero.
The lesson is simple. When you screw up, admit it frankly, early, completely, and move on. The theory that you can lie your way out of a crisis is almost always untrue. Instead, it feeds the inquisitive minds of others and encourages them to dig deeper. If you've done wrong, don't hide anything. If you are completely honest (as Pettitte was), you'll find that people are ready and willing to forgive.
And this is as true in business as in any other realm.
If left unchecked, uncertainty will kill this recovery. The impending threat of new taxes, new healthcare rules, Cap-and-Trade, increased unemployment benefits, record-breaking deficits, and more regulation is stopping entrepreneurs and small businesses from hiring.
We all know that the recovery won't be real until hiring starts. When consumers are employed, the economy will swing upward. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of our economic activity, after all. But in order for consumer spending to rebound, consumers need jobs, and jobs will only come when small businesses start hiring again. The simple fact is that hiring won't happen until Washington eliminates the uncertainty that is in the air.
It's politically acceptable to say a lack of lending and liquidity are the big problems holding small business back. But I feel that today's announcement to release TARP money to small business misses the mark. True, a tight lending market is limiting capital investment, but the need for loans is not stopping hiring. The reality is that concerns about governmental interference and our crippling budget deficit are causing businesses to pause rather than to hire new employees.
The economy is not strong enough to allow businesses to go through the expense of hiring when politics might render that growth impossible, resulting in a fast round of layoffs that will in turn lead to severance payments and higher unemployment taxes.
The only thing worse than more taxes is threatening several different kinds of regulations, fees, and taxes. Owners will hedge against all of these, halting hiring altogether. When there is clarity on the depth of governmental interference in our lives, our biggest barrier to recovery will be gone. Until then, we'll have high unemployment, low consumer confidence, and a muted recovery at best.
Please, Washington, get out of the way and allow small business to fix this economy.
Today, I received a letter from my local dealer. As I opened it, I guessed that it would tell me to keep the faith in the Saab dealer's service department—that I need not worry about an interruption in service. I also thought the letter would suggest that I look to buy a new Saab at a discount given the uncertainty over the future of the brand.
What I got instead was the same form letter that I've been getting from this Saab dealer for years. I am nearing a scheduled maintenance for the car, the letter observed, and I should call the dealer's service department for an appointment.
Really? That's it? There was no mention of Saab's future. The omission was so conspicuous that I wondered if Saab might be closing its doors any day now and that this was just a scheduled direct mail piece that someone didn't bother to cancel.
That letter represented a missed opportunity. The dealer had a chance to sell me on staying loyal to the brand, and it blew it. This got me thinking'¦what openings have I missed with my clients? What seemingly obvious chances have I missed to communicate with them, to quell their fears, to give them new information, or to sell them new products and services? More important, how can I make sure I don't miss chances like this in the future? I'm open to your suggestions as this is something from which we can all benefit. How do you prevent missed opportunities in your communications with customers?
My last year in college, I read Only the Paranoid Survive by Intel's Andrew S. Grove. The premise is simple -- get complacent and you lose. This theory, along with the stark reality that I am NEVER the smartest person in the room, keeps me on my toes. You can call it a healthy insecurity or something more negative, but the reality is that it has served Greenleaf Book Group well.
By never taking what I have for granted, I constantly work to improve. Make no mistake, I'm not so caught up that I don't appreciate what I have -- there's no denying that I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world. But there's a HUGE difference between being thankful and appreciative and taking success for granted or as an entitlement.
Jim Collins' latest book, How the Mighty Fall, did a number on my confidence. The book is great -- it describes in simple terms how once-great companies managed to screw it all up and go into the ranks of obscurity or cease to exist entirely. He also explains why the critics of Good to Great and Built to Last are knuckleheads who don't understand the premise of the books. The books never promised that these companies would always be great, just that they were once great.
Collins' five simple stages of collapse are clear enough to understand, and scary enough to occupy your thoughts and ask those annoying questions you hear in the back of your mind. Some good news for the ever-paranoid, however, is that constant paranoia is one of Collins' keys to success. Believing in your skills (when they're really luck) or your brilliance (when the market was simply in your favor) is the fastest way to start down the path of collapse.
Three other books that were recently released have also promoted healthy questioning of the status quo. Jeff Jarvis' What Would Google Do does a great job of describing how Google has changed business as we know it, by making almost everything free. Speaking of free, Chris Anderson's Free does a good job of reminding you why you should shy away from the scarcity mindset of trying to charge your customers. Scott McKain's Collapse of Distinction teaches that with competition comes sameness, and that to win in a sea of similarity, you have to do things that others will not. Competition almost always leads to comparisons on price -- a game all but one company loses.
I'm not suggesting that you should always be afraid -- there are times in business when you need to ignore the signs and trust your gut. Instead, my simple advice is to be aware of everything, including your own weaknesses, to be truly successful over the long haul.
Only one glitch. I couldn't go. My schedule was too booked and I had to turn the tickets down. The problem is that I've let my schedule get too filled up with little things that become big things.
We are all busy. When the economy is tight, we take on extra work to save payroll costs. When the economy is great, we are so flushed with work that it's a full plate. I've gone 12 years now with this business and each one has been busier and more time-consuming than the last. The lie we tell ourselves -- "When I finish this issue/event/project, I'll be free to work on that project" -- almost always plays out differently. Something always comes up and we get too engrossed in our fires to focus on what we need to. So, instead of taking advantage of a great new opportunity, we're mired in mundane tasks than we can pass off to others.
This situation I'm in is unacceptable and has to get fixed. Today, it's the front row at U2. What will I be too busy to do tomorrow? An important client meeting? A speech to a large group? A dance recital for my girls? A family emergency? I'm not sure, but damn it, I'm not going to find out.
So, what's an entrepreneur to do? In order to force myself to get more things off my plate (and thus to free up more time for bigger things) and be available for bigger issues, I'm going to take more and more off my plate. My goal is to get to a point of having no more than 10 planned hours of work every week. That way I have the rest of the time to focus on big issues. There are always big-picture items I can tackle, and the only way to be free to focus on them is to remove the little things. I've done a great job of hiring well, and now that the team is in place to handle my smaller issues, I can let go without fear. If I need more help, I'm going to hire more great people. (Check out our hiring site, where we're working to attract top talent.)
My plan is pretty simple -- I offer it up not as the best plan, but as a possible solution. I would love to hear your thoughts and maybe we can all learn from my loss.
- Why It Pays to Be a Giver
- Why I'm Not Hiring
- How to Achieve Predictable Success
- My (Thoughts on) Apologies
- The Only Thing Worse Than Taxes
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