When is the last time you learned something old?
I had that experience just this morning as I was doing research for an article about the risks of asking too many sales questions. I came across an interesting fact: skilled clinical interviewers use reflecting statements about twice as often as they ask questions.
My initial thought was that that is an interesting insight which could make me a better questioner and make for smoother and more productive sales conversations.
But the real point of this story is that I had already known and forgotten that fact—because it came from an article that I wrote about seven years ago!
That reminded me of an incident a couple of years ago when I was on a sales call with a CEO, and I asked him whether he still asked his subordinates to pre-send their presentations to him before meetings, as he had talked about in an interview a few years prior to our call. He responded that he had gotten away from that habit since coming to his new company, but thanked me for reminding him and said he would reinstitute the practice.
How many times has something like this happened to you? You knew something but forgot it; you had a skill but you lost it; you practiced a good habit but drifted away from it… Think about it: what have you lost by forgetting something old?
I’m not sure why this happens, but I can think of two plausible explanations. First, it seems to me that sometimes we’re in such a rush to learn the next big thing and keep ahead of the competition, that we discard useful ideas to make room for the new—like throwing out a perfectly good pair of shoes just to keep up with the latest style. Second, it’s possible that sometimes we’re not yet ready to fully appreciate a lesson, like watching a favorite childhood movie and discovering how much “adult” meaning you had missed back then. Seven years after learning that insight about reflecting skills, I have much more personal experience and book learning to relate it to and make sense of it.
What I do know is that some of the best lessons I’ve learned come from re-reading books that I’ve read before, or from periodically going back and refreshing myself on the basics of a particular topic. Book publishers probably won’t appreciate this advice, but I would recommend that you buy fewer new books this year and re-read some of your old favorites; you may be astounded by how much you can pick up the second or third time around.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t know about that, but I can attest from personal experience that an old dog can learn old tricks!
This week, I spoke to the City’s Planning and Zoning Board against a proposed development. It was a five hour hearing, with speakers on both sides of the question, and at the end of the night my side lost, 6-3.
I was disappointed, of course, and a little bit angry at one or two of the board members because I considered their stance to be motivated by less than pure disinterestedness and neutrality.
But here’s what I did not do: I did not publicly voice my feelings, and I did not dwell on my resentment for long. I certainly did NOT do what another speaker did, which was to publicly and personally attack the character and motivation of the board members from the lectern in the strongest possible language, so much so that he was finally told to leave and never return.
What lessons can we draw from this experience?
The limits of passion and authenticity
As a speaker, this man exhibited many of the qualities that are touted as essential to great speeches: he was authentic, direct and passionate. He also damaged our cause and contributed to our defeat. I would say that he embarrassed himself, but I’m not sure his type is capable of the minimum level of introspection required for that sentiment. He certainly embarrassed those of us who are on the same side he is.
Don’t take it personally
The other side has their reasons for believing and deciding as they do, and they usually feel just as strongly as you do about the rightness of their position. Most of the time, they are not “bad people” because they argue against you. And even if they are, pigeonholing them that way shuts down your own analysis.
Disagreement is data
Disagreement can be, well, disagreeable, but it also provides data that can help in two ways. By giving an understanding of how the other side views the situation, it helps you find better ways to attack their position. Less cynically, you might actually learn something that you can use to improve your own proposal, kind of like the old idea of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis.
It’s a campaign, not a battle
Use whatever data you receive from your “loss” and start thinking about your strategy for the next step of the campaign. Most complicated decisions involving many people and many moving parts aren’t solved in one presentation or meeting. They take time and your influence campaign needs to look at the long term and the big picture. Until the final decision is made, you’re still in it and you still have a chance to win—as long as you don’t do something stupid. Insulting the other side may make you feel better in the moment, but you will regret it in the long run.
Some people say: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” I could not disagree more. If you make a career in sales, or in any other profession that requires you to sell your ideas, you will lose, and you will lose often— unless you’ve achieved a totally boring life free of all controversy and achievement. Losing is not enough to make you a “loser”; it’s what you do after you lose that counts.
I had dinner last night with a new acquaintance who owns a highly successful manufacturing operation in the Midwest. It was fascinating hearing his story of how he left a job running a similar operation for a Fortune 500 company in the same town, because he did not like the way they did business. After several years of trying to work within the system (the big company had bought the privately-owned operation that he started with out of high school), he left, scraped up every available dollar he had saved, mortgaged his house to the hilt, purchased some used equipment, and opened his new company seven miles away from the old.
So many customers followed him that he was profitable within two months, and within four years the corporate-owned plant had shut its doors. He has since expanded to four times his original size, and is now enjoying his semi-retirement in South Florida, where I met him and his wife.
Here’s the funny thing: the company he originally worked for is a sophisticated $23B operation, founded over 125 years ago, with facilities around the globe. No doubt it enjoys cutting-edge strategic planning and best practices, as well as strict standards for talent acquisition and management. They could have made my friend the GM of their plant and saved a lot of trouble for themselves, but he was ineligible for the job because he hadn’t gone to college.
I asked him what his competitive advantage was that made him so successful. Was it low price, quality, service, some secret sauce? He immediately responded that it was not low prices at all—in fact, his prices are higher than his competitors’. He said:
“Jack, the reason people do business with us is that we do what we say we’re going to do. When someone calls us, a real person answers the phone. When they have a problem, we fix it as quickly as we can, even if we have to eat the cost. I’m old school, I never went to college, but I know what I’m good at.”
His words remind me of the Woody Allen quote: “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” Business pundits have written billions of words about what it takes to succeed, and maybe all their innovative ideas just mask the fact that there is a lot of money to be made by just doing the simple things well, and being someone that customers can rely on.
This post pulls together several separate threads that I’ve experienced over the past few days. First, I’ve been working on a new speech about healthy sales cultures for a new client, and I’ve found that what seemed to be a straightforward and routine undertaking has gotten much deeper than I expected. Second, I listened in on a podcast by Tim Hurson on The Sales Experts Channel, in which he introduced me to the concept of the “third third”. Finally, in a conversation with a new client this weekend, he told me that he had begun working on his first book, but abandoned the project when he got negative feedback on his first chapter.
These three separate incidents helped me to spot—or maybe just clarify—a pattern that seems to apply when you take on a difficult project that requires both deep understanding and creativity. I examined similar situations that I’ve been in before, including writing three books, creating new courses, and—of course—major speeches. I can’t say for sure whether it applies to anyone besides me, but I’m not that different from you, so you might find it helpful.
I noticed that these undertakings seem to go through three phases if they are to succeed:
Ambition: The project has to be ambitious, with just a slight whiff of “fake it ‘til you make it”, for the next two stages to kick in. If the project is comfortably within your current capabilities, the good news is that you won’t go through the concern/crap stage, but the bad news is that you won’t produce anything to get excited about either. On the other hand, it has to be close enough within reach that you have to have some sense of confidence that you can rise to the occasion. For example, for my project I knew that my experience and wide reading have given me a good grasp of the topic, although I’ve never put it together into a coherent package.
It has to be big enough and worthwhile enough to stimulate your interest and sustain it during the inevitable next stage. Even better, make a commitment so you don’t have the option of backing out when the going gets tough, because it will.
Concern/crap: This is by far the hardest but the most productive phase of the entire project. As you get deeper into the topic, you generate concern and inevitably produce crap. The concern arises because as you dig into the nuance and detail of the points you’re trying to make, you realize that you have to learn far more than you thought—and the more you learn, the more you figure out how much more there is still left to know. You discover that others have more expertise than you do, so you begin to doubt your own abilities, maybe even your right to talk about it.
The crap comes out as you start regurgitating everything you know onto the paper or your slide deck, because your concern causes you to overcompensate, and you haven’t thought through the patterns and linkages carefully enough. The less you understand something, the more words you use trying to show otherwise.
But there’s value in just getting stuff on paper, regardless of how bad it is. It builds momentum and helps you think out loud. Plus, as long as you allow yourself enough time, you’ll find that your mind is somehow working on the problem in the background. In my own case, I inevitably wake up in the middle of the night with new insights or a clearer idea of how everything fits together.
The most important thing is to keep going. As Tim Hurson says, we stop thinking before the good stuff comes. So, when my friend quit writing his book because he found out it wasn’t as good as he thought it was, he forfeited his chances of working through to the good stuff. During the concern and crap stage, remember to keep pounding the rock, because frustration can mask the real progress that’s going on underneath.
The crap stage can easily frustrate and discourage you, but here’s where your ambition comes to the rescue. If you’ve committed in some way, you can’t get out of it, so there is no way out but to keep plowing forward to produce something that won’t embarrass you and will truly add value to your audience. With a customer it’s one thing, but if it’s a personal project such as writing a book you might need to go for some type of public commitment to raise the cost of failure.
Excitement: When you break through the concern and crap stage, the glittering prize at the end is the incredible excitement you will feel knowing you’ve produced something fresh and worthwhile. As your key ideas crystallize in your mind, you start cutting out the crap and clutter—chipping off the rough edges and additional polishing makes the hard diamond sparkle through, and you can’t help but be charged up to deliver it.
You know you’re going to deliver something that others will value, and you’re going to look good in the process. You get to the point where your only thought is, like Jack Welch: “I can’t wait to get out there and do this!”
What if you get through the first two stages and you’re still not excited? Repeat steps 1 and 2.