Make Some Noise
What Kind of Noise Are You Making?
Don’t get too comfortable. Not yet. We’ve got places to go.
Before we can start discussing what it’s going to take to make your business (and you) a dominator instead of an also-ran, you’re going to need to get a quick, real-world read of where you stand right now and what you’re up against. And I need to show you that the people most important to your professional life—like your customers, prospects, investors, fellow employees, everyone you need on your side—likely don’t see you the way you hope or believe they do. So we’re going to hit the road and take a short, virtual, eye-opening field trip.
The good news is, I promise this will be fun and way cooler than those god-awful excursions you remember from your school days, because—and this is the better news—rather than bouncing along in a yellow bus (see: grumpy driver, buzz-killing chaperones, irritating loudmouths, etc.) we’ll be riding two-wheelers. As in motorcycles. As in see? I told you it’ll be fun. And by the way, you won’t be riding as my passenger; you’ll be on your own bike.
Even if you’ve always sworn you’d never ride a motorcycle or believe yourself incapable of it, or you think your mother would kill you if she
found out what we’re up to, or even if you’re the world’s biggest wuss, please play along anyway and live a little. I guarantee nobody’s going to get hurt and that you’re going to get a huge kick out of your ride, remember it, and benefit from what it’s about to teach you. The same goes for experienced riders. So come on. Let’s go before someone chickens out.
The first part’s supereasy. I want you to imagine, right now, that you’re sitting on an awesome motorcycle. But there’s a simple rule here: It can’t be a Harley-Davidson. (I know. Bummer!) That shouldn’t be a problem, though, because there are millions of great bikes out there. You’re on one of them right now, so relax for a minute and soak it all in. See in your mind the wheels, fenders, gas tank, motor, handlebars, and all those shiny dials and gauges. Pretty cool, no? Now zip up your leather jacket, tighten down your helmet’s chin-strap, and cinch up your gloves—we ride safe, even on imaginary bikes—because this is about to get good. By the way, that leather looks great on you. Seriously.
With your hands on the grips at the ends of the handlebars and both feet flat on the ground, lean your bike just a bit to the right and push back the kickstand with your left foot, as you would on a bicycle. There you go. It’s way lighter than you thought it would be, isn’t it? And supereasy to balance. Now, see that button next to your right hand grip—the throttle—that says START? That doesn’t need an explanation. Push it. Woo-hoo! Listen to that engine sing! Twist the throttle a few times to savor that powerful, high-pitched howl blasting from your exhaust pipes. Woo-hoo again! Your heart’s racing already and we haven’t moved an inch! (Mine is, too. I love this stuff.)
Directly in front of your left foot peg (about where the pedal would be on a bicycle) is a lever; that’s your gearshift. Push it down and you’ll hear a satisfying “ka-chunk” as first gear engages. There it is! You’re officially pregnant and there’s no backing out now! Here. We. Go. Twist the throttle a bit to give her some gas, lift your feet onto your foot pegs, and . . . you’re off! Hey, you’re good at this! Now crank the throttle harder and feel that awesome rush of wind in your face as you accelerate, make some wide, looping turns, then race through the gears. This is what it’s all about, baby! And it’s about to get way better.
Follow me now. A quick turn onto this narrow back road will take us into the boonies a bit where we can take this ride up a few notches (and, remember, learn some things about your current competitive situation, in case you’ve already forgotten). Let’s see: No traffic whatsoever? Check. Gorgeous canopy of tree limbs over the road? Check. Curvy twists in the
road following a stream? Check. Beautiful horse farms and freshly cut hay you can smell as we blast past? Check and double check. I don’t need to tell you how great this is because you already know.
There’s not an intersection or stop sign in sight, so don’t be afraid to open that throttle some more and enjoy the buzz. Go on, amigo, let it rip! That’s the way! You’re really moving now, laughing inside your helmet, feeling your heart working double-time in your chest; soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells; gliding through sweeping turns then onto this long, pool-table-smooth straightaway that’s stretching out before us. It’s gut-check time! Catch me if you can! Watch your speedometer climb as you go faster and faster and faster and
Dream’s over (for now). It’s time to learn.
You have just one second to answer this question: What manufacturer’s name was on the bike you just rode? One thousand one . . . Time’s up. Oh, come on! You shouldn’t have to think about this! But you don’t know, do you? Which means you don’t need to know.
Here’s why: Your imaginary bike’s brand name—and everything it represents—wasn’t important to any part of your riding experience. So you didn’t think it through that far. You just know you were riding a great bike that was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing and having a blast. If I told you that the bike you just rode was a Kawasaki or a Honda, Suzuki, Triumph, Yamaha, or any other famous make, you’d be cool with that, because each of those companies is synonymous with fine motorcycles that nobody would be embarrassed to own.
Since you probably didn’t assign your imaginary bike any differentiating visual or tonal cues, you couldn’t tell the difference between what you were riding and the gazillions of other equally great bikes you’ve seen over your lifetime. Anyone who happened to look up from the sidewalk or heard you zoom past likely didn’t know who built the bike you were on, either, because just like you, they can’t tell the difference, even at a short distance (trust me, even people who make their living selling motorcycles often can’t tell them apart if they can’t see the logos on the fuel tanks). And they all sound identical don’t they? That high-pitched engine whine—“RHEEEEEEEEE!”—that’s a pleasure to the ears announces clearly, in every language on earth, “Motorcycle!” It just doesn’t announce who built it.
Okay. Time for some more fun. Only this time, we’re going to turn the tables a bit and take a quick virtual ride on a Harley (black T-shirt optional).
Let’s see if anything changes. Again, throw your leg over, grab the bars, lower yourself into the seat, and check out the accents, gauges, and gadgets. Everything is right where it should be and familiar to you now. So zip up your jacket, lock down that helmet, and cinch those gloves because it’s time to burn some gas. Stand her up, flick the kickstand back, and notice that it’s just as easy to balance between your legs as your prior ride (you thought it would be a lot heavier, didn’t you?). Grab your right hand grip, thumb the start button, and—whoa! Listen to that deep rumbling engine thumping to life! Ba-BOOM-Boom! Ba-BOOM-Boom! Ba-BOOM-Boom! What a completely different sound! She means business, so it’s time to let her loose. Vámonos, muchacho! Follow me!
Kick her into gear, give her some gas, and see what she can do. The combination of that deep, throaty-sounding engine and the wind in your face is completely intoxicating, no? It’s making you feel powerful—like you’ve become a different person. Don’t deny that!
I know another great road that’s as amazing as the last one, so let’s get to it. Go ahead, rev that engine and let it roar, just to make sure the folks on the sidewalk know what’s coming (as if they don’t know). Look at them looking at you. Feels good to be noticed, doesn’t it? Now imagine your mother’s stunned face—oh, dear God!—if she happened to look over from her car just now and recognize you. We’ve got places to go, so hammer that throttle and smile as you blast past them and leave them in your dust. Don’t be shy, man! See if you can catch me. Bury that throttle, watch your speedometer climb higher and higher, and
Those people on the sidewalk, still-shocked Mom and, likely, anyone else within hearing distance of you and your bike, knew precisely who built your machine without having to think about it. Or even see it. That deep, rumbling noise blasting from those exhaust pipes has been Harley’s calling card around the world for well over one hundred years. But unlike the noise from all other bike makes that screams, “Motorcycle!” your bike’s noise has a name attached to it. Everyone recognizes it immediately. It’s distinct, powerful, memorable, and commands attention. It’s a noise that makes pictures appear in your mind. It’s a noise that says, “This is different than everything else.”
It’s the noise of a dominator.
And it metaphorically just taught you my greatest lesson about competition. Your business is like one of the bikes you just rode; it makes noise.
(The same lesson applies to you personally: You make noise, too.) What kind of noise are you making?
Of course, I’m not talking about engine noise or any mechanical sounds your company makes while doing whatever it does. Nor am I referring to any sound your business uses, like your ad jingles or any background music that plays on your website or when callers are on hold.
I’m talking about your real, bankable noise, which is made up in large part by your reputation and everything that word implies. Your noise is what the people most important to you or your business—customers, potential customers, employees, suppliers, investors, media, and people in the communities where you operate, your boss—say about you. It’s what precedes you and stays behind after you’ve left.
Your noise is also every association, thought, and feeling your important publics have about you and everything they see and hear that reminds them of you and only you. And it’s the pictures that form in their minds when they think about you or hear or see your name mentioned.
Your noise is what makes you different from businesses—and people—you’re competing against who do the same things you do. It’s what attracts people to you and makes them prefer you over others. Or not. It’s what pads your bank account or leaves you nervous at the end of the month when the bills come due.
Your noise is either instantly identifiable, memorable, and meaningfully differentiating or it’s the same buzzing drone your competitors are making, leaving you indistinguishable and one of many in a crowd, as with the first bike you rode today that nobody could identify. RHEEEEEEEEE! The bottom line is, your noise determines whether you’re a dominator or a struggling also-ran. You with me so far?
Quick experiment to further prove my point: If you were to tell some friends that you just took a ride on a Honda, they’d probably light up and say, “Hey! Way to go!” But if you told the same friends that you just rode a Harley-Davidson, they’d react way differently, wouldn’t they? As in, “Whoa! You?!” Or, “When you getting tattooed?” Because Harley-Davidson means something to everyone, everywhere.
Think about it: despite the obvious fact that Harley-Davidson and its competitors are all manufacturing and selling the same thing and it’s very hard for nonowners, otherwise known as potential customers, to tell one company’s products apart from the others (especially when their engines aren’t running), everyone—you, me, and your mom included—believes
Harley-Davidson is night-and-day different than everyone else in the market. And we all believe that, even if we’ve had no actual experience with motorcycles, based on what we’ve heard others say about the company, its products, its dealers, its customers, and its approach to business. Period. You know this despite the fact that you can’t recall the last time, if ever, that you saw a Harley ad or some other paid promotional tool. You just know this.
So let’s connect the dots here: do you know how a potential customer views the players in your industry or market, your business included? I do. The same way those people on the street saw you on the non-Harley bike. They know—everyone knows, without even having to think about it—that just as the bike industry is full of great businesses that make, distribute, and sell great but indistinguishable products and/or services, your industry or market is, too. All they know is what they see, hear, expect, and experience from businesses just like yours that go to market and promote themselves and their look-alike products and services the same way their competitors do. You’re one of many, lost in the crowd. RHEEEEEEE!
When look-alike competitors are all saying and doing the same things, potential customers—and even current ones—can’t tell the players apart and assume they don’t need to. You can think of a million examples of this (and if you can’t you’ve never chosen a plumber . . . Realtor . . . gas station . . . ). Meaning those potential customers would be content to buy from any of them. Which means nondistinguishable competitors typically struggle and, worse, resort to “low price” to generate attention. And we all know that ain’t good.
So I’ll ask again, now that we’re on the same page: What kind of noise do you make? Is it attractive and instantly recognized as yours? Or is it a static, droning hum, indistinguishable from sound-alike competitors? What are the most important people in your life saying about you right now? What are they saying about your competitors? Is one of your current customers making beautiful noise for you by telling someone who doesn’t know you yet that she should be doing business with you and telling her why? Or are you simply meeting that customer’s base-level expectations, leaving her with nothing to remember and discuss?
As you’re thinking about your competitive environment—the businesses and people you’re competing against—you’re coming to the realization that you’re all pretty much interchangeable, aren’t you? Just imagine how much that dynamic would change if one player in your industry or market (that’d be you, Sherlock) changed its game to make itself noticeably
dissimilar from its competitors, made vocal advocates out of its important publics, and started making a different noise than the others. That competitor would clearly stand out, wouldn’t it? And be more successful. And worry less.
You see—he said, stepping up onto his soapbox while patriotic-sounding music rises in the background—here’s the thing about all of this that’s so frustrating: These days, it’s safe to generalize and say that all businesses, yours of course included, are really quite good at what they do. It takes an amazing amount of talent, creativity, and entrepreneurial drive, to say nothing of Herculean courage and saintlike patience, to run any business anywhere. It’s not easy! The things we invent, design, create, manufacture, make, bake, sell, construct, service, install, and everything else we do—while running at one hundred miles per hour at all times—in the name of commerce? It’s astounding what businesspeople are doing, how well they’re doing it, and how much better they’re doing it this year than last. We’ve all enjoyed the benefits of this and have learned to expect nothing less.
And look at the backbone of the business world, small businesses. When you see statistics showing that there are twenty-eight million small businesses in the United States alone, that means there are at least that number of leaders possessed of those rare gifts in the last paragraph helming them. And millions more like-minded and talented lieutenants on their leadership teams. Combined, these people are keenly focused on busting their butts to build the kind of work cultures that enable them to do that thing they do well so they can keep their doors open and their phones ringing.
With all of these tremendous positives going for these millions of businesses, though, there’s one hugely uncomfortable nugget of truth that’s working against the lion’s share of them (music abruptly stops): They flat-out don’t know how to compete. I’m talking about damn near all of them, from brain surgeons to tree surgeons. From carpenters to accountants to restaurants and to farmers. From booking agents to bookstores. From machine shops to car dealers to repair shops to junkyards.
How else does one explain the utter lack of marketable differentiation between players within industries and markets? Or the fact that pretty much every time we come in contact with a business, we’re satisfied with what we get but remember nothing positive about it? Or can’t even remember who we did business with last week and last month? Or the simple U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stats that tell us that roughly half of the businesses that start this year will be dead within five years and nearly two-thirds will be gone
within ten? Or that so many businesses are struggling to survive? And worried about their future? And unable to invest in new growth opportunities?
I’ve learned—and have yet to meet anyone who can disprove it—that what separates dominators from also-rans in every facet of every industry in the business world isn’t what competitors are producing, providing, and/or selling. Or the methods used to produce, provide, and/or sell them. Or “the people” (quotes intentional) behind making that happen. No matter how great any of these might be nor how frequently this stuff gets promoted. Nor is it where business gets transacted or the prices being charged.
Dominators crush also-rans because they make the most noise in their market. Which means dominators know how to compete. Which means they:
Make it a business-wide, leadership-driven priority to ensure that they are noticeably different from their competitors—even if they’re all doing the same thing or selling an identical product or service—in ways that customers and other important publics find attractive;
Make it a business-wide, leadership-driven priority to ensure that they are placing more visible emphasis on the human side of their business—by overtly pleasing the people upon whom they’re dependent—than the product or service they sell;
Make it a business-wide, leadership-driven priority to ensure that they have more vocal advocates recommending them than their competitors do;
Make it a business-wide, leadership-driven priority to ensure that everyone working in their organization knows what to say and how to say it consistently—in all interactions with important publics and through all channels—to maximize the effectiveness of their competitive messaging, inspire advocacy, and maintain positive marketplace narrative; and
Make it a business-wide, leadership-driven priority to ensure that everyone working in their organization knows what kind of behavior to exhibit in all interactions with important publics to bring their narrative to life.
I’m sure you noticed the intentional repetition of “business-wide, leadership-driven priority.” Get used to it, because the solution to becoming a dominator resides at the source of nearly all competitive problems: The top of the organization. Noise is business strategy, not some sort of function or “program” that gets delegated to staff. You’ll see.
If your first instinct is to be protective of your business and say, “We’re already doing a lot of those things to stand out,” or “Our marketing people have this covered,” or, “We’re already doing a great job of explaining ourselves and our products/services to our market,” or “Our products/services are great and sell themselves,” or (gulp!) “Our market only cares about low price,” you’re far from alone. I hear this all the time. Ditto that if you’re personally protective and say, “Hey, I know what to say and how to be memorable to differentiate my company . . . it’s the other people working here who don’t.” I’m no Sigmund Freud, but I know denial when I hear it.
Here. Wanna see something cool? (Remember that question because it’s the best opener in the world. No human being has ever answered it with a “no.”) It’s very easy for me to tell when a business of any size, whether it’s a one-man shop or a ten-thousand-person global enterprise, has or hasn’t made dominance a top-to-bottom, company-wide priority. Anyone can do this.
All you have to do is enter a business, or call it, or visit its website, or talk to one of its reps at a trade show, conference, or at your workplace to see if that business is making an obvious effort to dominate the also-rans in its market space. Or not. You just need to know where to look and keep your eyes and ears open.
Here’s a quick illustration to show you some obvious “tells” that instantly let you know—denial be damned—you’re not in the presence of a dominator or even a would-be dominator. Instead, you’re in the presence of someone merely going through the motions, doing what’s expected.
I go to a lot of trade shows and conferences, more than seventy a year, in every industry imaginable, so I get to see lots of businesses self-inflicting serious wounds and effectively killing any chance they have of ever making great noise and becoming dominators. You’re about to pop into a trade show with me and see what this looks like. And what to look for. And, of course, what we’ll be working to avoid at your business as we move forward.
I hope the sad irony won’t be lost on you that the business-killing behavior you’re about to witness is happening in the very place where the exact opposite is supposed to be happening. Making it even more sadly ironic is the fact that the businesses gathered here have paid a ton of money
to participate in an event where most of them are actually working against themselves.
By the way, I guess it’s only fair to mention now that you, personally, will serve as Exhibit A in this illustration. So you’re not just at the show, you’re working it from a booth, promoting your business and yourself. Look at you, all large, in charge, and trade-show-like in your khakis, comfy shoes, and a polo shirt bearing your company name. And a name tag of course.
You’ve got one and only one mission today: You’re here to attract new customers to your business from the sea of prospects walking the floor. Naturally, your competitors are here, too, tucked into their booths, hoping to do the same thing. (You’re not worried, right? Especially if you just said you’ve got this stuff covered.)
Look who’s approaching your booth: a very important somebody who knows nothing about you or your business. Game on! We’re watching you! Let’s see if we can spot any competitive problems we can fix (and, perhaps, some of your personal awesomeness).
She’s here! Uh-oh. Her facial expression reads noncommittal from the get-go—the typical “trade show face.” (That’s your first tell.) Upon recognizing that she’s not immediately impressed by your “How ya’ doin’?” opener and whatever she’s seeing in your booth, nor making eye contact with you (tell), what should be a great opportunity for you is already slipping away. And she’s only been here a few seconds. (Step it up, amigo! There’s still time! We’re counting on you!)
So you ask a few more obvious questions while she’s looking over your display like, “Can I help you find something?” or “How familiar are you with . . . ?” (whatever it is you sell or represent) that she responds to with no conviction whatsoever (two big tells). Now you’re struggling a bit and rubbing your hands together because you know the stakes are high, you want to make a powerful impression, and you don’t want this person to think your business is predictable, an also-ran, or, God forbid, boring. And because you want her to like you and want to spend more time with you before sliding your brochures into her bag and moving on to meet your competitors, each of whom wants the same thing: to be the one she prefers.
Mostly, though, you’re struggling because you don’t have some great, supercool things to say—even though, dammit, you know you’re supposed to and thought you did—that would make her feel supercomfortable in your presence and glide off your tongue to confidently say who you are, what you do, who you do it for, and why people should choose you over everyone else.
You know, stuff she’s never heard in a business conversation before that would pull her toward you, engage and delight her, make her curious to hear more, and spark a deeper conversation. Stuff she’d remember and repeat.
So you do what most people in this situation do and fire off a quick, “Okay. Here’s what we do” elevator-type speech (tell) that, for the umpteenth time, feels okay to you, but fails to trigger much of a reaction because it’s devoid of anything distinctive and sounds like something she’s heard many times before. (This is a trade show, remember? She’s heard those same “What we do is . . .” lines minutes ago from someone else. And another person before that.) And that’s when things take a turn for the worse. You realize you’re about out of fuel . . . and the silent pause is killing you . . . your important somebody isn’t saying a word (still a tell) . . . so your mind starts racing and . . . that’s when you deliver your most dangerous blow.
Now you’re thinking and talking at the same time, an uber-risky maneuver everyone knows is a pileup waiting to happen, but you feel emboldened by your ability to keep your lips moving. Your flailing arms shake loose a torrent of buzzwords, business-speak, and industry jargon (tell times three) that sound impressive to you but disappear into the ether when they fail to spark a reaction (because, again, she’s heard this same gobbledygook from others today). The silent pause returns.
Realizing it’s now or never, you go for broke, put on your imaginary Evel Knievel cape, gun the engine on your stunt bike, and start blasting toward the launch ramp into glory by describing who you aren’t (tell)—and name-checking competitors (tell)—rather than who you are, to distance yourself from the pack. Because you’re different than they are, right?
You’re also roadkill. And it took less than a minute to lose control, skid, flop over the end of your launch ramp, and finish your Knievel show in a mangled heap. Your unimpressed important somebody witnessed the whole thing, won’t forget it, and is starting to shuffle about uncomfortably (tell) while looking over your shoulder for an escape route. Even though you’re essentially lifeless now, you somehow manage to cough up a few lines about your “commitment to quality” (tell) and your “unique customer-first philosophy” (tell). Those are death rattles! And all they earned you was a polite nod and a “see ya later” (tell). She didn’t even drop her business card in your fish bowl (tell), hoping to win the free dinner at Texas Roadhouse (love those fried pickles!) you’re raffling.
Off she goes just in time for the next prospect to waltz in. The show begins anew.
Oh come on, man! What just happened here?! And how many more times today is this going to happen? You know who you are, what you do, who you do it for, and why people should prefer you over others inside out and backward. You live and breathe this stuff every day; it’s in your DNA. You’re not just good at it, you’re very good at it and you love it. But she doesn’t know that, does she?
Somehow the right words—and the supporting visible emotions and actions that would convey them and trigger positive reactions—didn’t seem to come when you needed them the most. So you played it safe for a while. Then when you noticed you weren’t getting anywhere, you tried way too hard, went places you shouldn’t have and crash-landed. Without even being aware you were doing it!
Just about everybody handles the situation you just lived through the same way, so don’t feel bad. And I’m sure it was familiar to you because you’ve been on the receiving end of blown attempts like this many times over the course of your life at trade shows, places of business, or even at your kitchen table (ever sit across from a window salesperson?). But I hope you see how easy it is—it’s practically standard operating procedure in the corporate world—to kill any chance of building preference and demand for who you are and what you do. And to connect the dots to larger competitive issues.
The exposed tells raise some serious (I might say obvious) questions about your competitiveness, like:
Why did everything about your booth or display area—and your presence therein—look familiar and predictable to your visitor, as evidenced by her “trade show face”?
How did you not realize the danger of putting yourself in front of people your business needs to impress when you’re ill-prepared, unrehearsed, and not primed to kick some major ass?
Why did your business permit that to happen?
“How ya’ doin’?” Seriously? That’s your opener to the person who could potentially become the biggest customer you’ve ever had? That’s as bad as “Can I help you?” (I already threw you a bone: “Wanna see something cool?” works 100 percent of the time).
How can you describe your business with words that instantly engage listeners, are memorably different, distance you from competitors who do the same things you do, and make those listeners want to hear and learn more?
How can you do that if your business is among the millions out there that are “dull,” “unsexy,” or “not cool”? And if you sell or do things that are “invisible” and/or only appeal to a very small, highly specialized market segment?
How can you describe your passion for what you do in ways that are sincere and believable—and use it as a contagious, powerful differentiation tool—when passion’s such an intangible, personal thing that even Shakespeare and the Beatles struggled to connect with it?
What, in the name of every god in the universe, are you doing mentioning—and, thus endorsing—your competitors when the conversation is supposed to be about you?
If you’re having trouble impressing that important somebody you just met, what are your fellow employees—sales staff, customer service reps, field people, the other studs working the booth, the person answering your phone, new hires—saying and doing when they’re in that situation every day, in front of the people your business most needs to turn on? Do the math! That’s a lot of potential crash-landings!
What do the other vehicles that carry your go-to-market messages when they can’t be delivered personally—stuff like your website, ads, show booth signage, go-to-market materials, and social media posts—say? The math just got a lot harder!
That’s a lot of big, important stuff to think about (and please tell me you’re thinking about them), but I’m not done yet, because there are even bigger questions that best all of those, some of which you’ve already been tipped to and were perhaps top of mind as you read the last few pages:
What must your organization do to develop and implement a dominance strategy to maximize the probability that every facet of your go-to-market
approach, and every interaction with important publics, are instantly recognized as different from competitors who are essentially selling the same thing you’re selling?;
What must your organization do to develop the language needed to communicate your strategic differences and distance your business from your competitors in ways that customers, potential customers, and all other important publics find appealing and—equally important—will repeat?;
What must your leadership do to ensure this language becomes embedded in your entire organization’s DNA and gets routinely and consistently used in all critical communications? And;
What must your leadership do to ensure your entire organization “lives” this language and your dominance strategy by exhibiting behavior that brings it to life in ways that important publics notice immediately, find attractive, and remember?
I know, I know. That’s a lot of stuff to process. But get this: the most crucial question of all from our trade show adventure couldn’t be more obvious, yet you probably overlooked it, even though you’ve been tipped to it several times already. It’s the one that ultimately determines your competitiveness, makes or breaks your business, and takes us straight back to that important somebody you just flopped in front of:
What is she going to say about you?
Boom! That’s your noise! Remember what I said earlier: Contrary to what most of us have been led to believe, competitive advantage doesn’t come from what you make, do, or sell, how well you do those things and the people and processes involved in doing them. It can’t. Competitive advantage lies in what the people who are most important to your business say about your business. Period. There is no industry on earth where this doesn’t apply. That’s why making noise is so important!
Let’s say that very important somebody at the trade show today is a potential customer (because she is, right?) and a group of other potential customers she’ll meet at the show’s cocktail party tonight asks her about you or if she met anyone (and/or any business) today who impressed her—a conversation that happens multiple times at every show. This should have been a slam dunk for you, but I’d bet the odds of her being a passionate advocate for you and sending these people your way are slim to none, wouldn’t you? She has to say something, doesn’t she? What’s it going to be? (Hint: She won’t mention your “commitment to quality” statement.)
Or what if she’s a reporter writing a big story for the main publication
your target market reads and was simply looking for something or someone noteworthy to write about and provide some great sound bites? Since you didn’t make it past, “How ya’ doin?” by saying anything worthwhile, she’ll end up writing about one of your competitors. So without even realizing it, you just blew a golden opportunity to tell your story to a huge audience of prospects. (I’ve been that reporter so I know of what I speak.)
Or what if she’s one of those people who seem to know everyone important in your industry? Or in the local marketplace you serve? Like your potential partners, suppliers, bankers, bloggers, social media mavens (like those trade show tweeters who can’t stop tweeting and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t been to a show recently #relentless), recruiters . . . you name it? Every industry has lots of influential people like this you need to have on your side.
Now you see why I said competitive advantage lies in what the people who are most important to your business say about your business. So, obviously, that means it’s vital that they’re saying the right things. Which means it’s more vital that you’re saying the right things. That gal at the trade show was a live, in-the-flesh, honest-to-God “gimme.” You were in a rare and valuable position to have tremendous influence on what she’ll remember about your business (and you), what she’ll say about it to others, and how she’ll say it. She gave you every chance in the world. If you’d played your cards right, she’d be making noise for you by repeating what you told her, building your reputation the way you want it built, and referring you to others. Pretty simple, no?
It doesn’t take much reflecting to realize how easy and common it is to overlook opportunities like this. Or to think back on how many of these your business has failed to capitalize on.
The bottom line is you can’t be a dominator if your customers and other important publics can’t tell you apart from your competitors, aren’t advocating for you, and aren’t bringing you new customers. Tattoo that onto your brain so you don’t forget it.
I’ll ask this question of you again and again to ensure that it’s always on your mind: What kind of noise are you making?
I learned about the competitive power of noise—and how to harness it and the destruction caused by lack thereof—in the same place where I learned many of my most profound lessons about life, business, and how the world works: the global motorcycle market. You’re going to do the same, because you’ll see direct parallels to your own market. And your own life.
Here. I’ll show you. Were you to take a quick look into it, you’d see that the bike market isn’t just fiercely competitive, it’s also commoditized, just like yours. That’s right: even with their mind-blowing innovation, technical brilliance, and cool factor, motorcycles are commodities. Meaning, the marketplace—prospective first-time customers, in particular—can’t tell the difference between manufacturers (even with household names) and their amazing, but look-alike products. All I have to do is park a black Harley Sportster next to a black Yamaha Bolt and cover their name plates to instantly confuse people. Even people who’ve been riding a long time will do double takes and say those bikes are practically identical twins. So how does someone choose?
When prospective customers believe all players, products, and services within an industry are interchangeable, they tend to use lowest price (and/or convenience) as their primary purchasing criteria. So companies that aren’t interested in competing, or don’t know how, take the path of least resistance and “compete” with price. Sounds like your industry or market, doesn’t it? Everyone who competes on price—with the very real exception of the Walmarts of the world that are specifically designed to do so and have the scale to pull it off—regrets it. It’s a death trap.
Harley-Davidson, with its fiercely loyal and passionately vocal customer base attracting new customers into its ever-expanding family, stopped playing the product and price game years ago and doesn’t play it now. They intentionally make a different noise and stand for things that not only resonate positively among their important publics, but transcend the hardware they make and sell. The company dominates its segment of the overall market and its dealers dominate their local markets because they’re specifically positioned and managed to do so. Everyone you know who owns a Harley bought it because he (or, increasingly, gods be praised, she) was talked into it by friends, coworkers, or other trustworthy people. That’s the power of noise and that’s where you want to be. And by the time we wrap up here, you’ll be well on your way there.
Teaching businesspeople the lesson that competitive dominance is powered by distinctive differentiation and vocal advocacy—noise—and sharing what’s required to make that happen is the premium fuel powering every facet of a wonderful career that’s taken me around the world and given me access, as you read a few minutes ago, to leaders of more than one thousand businesses, serving every conceivable industry. So it’s not only taken me on a long, mind-expanding road trip that I selfishly hope will keep me up on
two wheels until I’m so old I’ll need three, it’s rewarded me with up-close, current, first-person perspectives on how and why businesses struggle to compete when they could be dominant. It’s amazing what I learn just by sitting across from big kahunas and hammering them with (often uncomfortable) questions. More so when we’re out riding bikes together.
And speaking of riding together, now that you’ve got your first rides with me out of the way and have proven yourself road-worthy, you’re officially riding along with me. That you’ve stayed with me this far tells me you’re tired of playing the same games your competitors play and busting your butt day after day only to find the payback for all of that effort comes in shorter than you think it should. And that you want to learn how to take advantage of skills and talents you and your coworkers currently possess so you can dominate those competitors and leave them in your dust.
It also tells me you’re ready to do what it takes to move forward, rather than simply talking about it and waiting for someone else to create a miracle (rebranding, anybody?) that will likely never come.
Even more positively, it tells me you’re about to have a good time, because I insist on making everything I do fun. Otherwise, what’s the point? And who deserves a good time more than you? There’s plenty of work involved, but don’t worry. I always make it priority number one to ensure that business trips with me are as educational as they are pleasurable, so it’s safe to assume you’re going to learn a lot and enjoy yourself as we roll along.
And while I’m on the subject, the fact that you’ve joined me on a business trip means that you should feel free to write off the cost of this book and any food and beverages consumed while reading it, so by all means, do as I do and go for the good stuff. If you’re reading this on a plane, write off the airfare, then upgrade to first class for your next leg and write that off, too. If you’re sitting poolside at a hotel, wave that waiter over, order up appropriate refreshments, and write everything off, including the room. Don’t sell yourself short! If you don’t treat yourself, who will? Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen?
The best thing about riding with me, though (tax code know-how notwithstanding), is you’ll be pleasantly surprised as I share stories you’ve never heard and lessons that, I promise, will change your view of how the business world works. And how you fit into it. And how you can use that knowledge for competitive advantage. Unlike the stories and descriptions you’ve read in, shall we say, more traditional business books that stick to the nuts and bolts of, well, business, mine take a decidedly different path. My
business stories and lessons are typically disguised as motorcycle-related tales. And I’ve got lots of them. You already read one. And you were in it!
There’s a deliberate method to such madness: My motorcycle tales are used as easy-to-visualize, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-repeat (so you can share them with others) launch points for lessons on differentiating your business, making beautiful noise, and becoming dominant. My motorcycle stories will even show you how to leverage basic drivers of human behavior for competitive advantage in ways that, I guarantee, you’ll never forget and will use often. Nobody—and I mean nobody—ever sees this coming.
To whet your appetite, my human behavior lessons will show you how to understand and leverage basic human needs to attract people and turn them on (you’ve seen your last “trade show face” and uttered your last, “Can I help you?”), improve business and personal relationships, and make loyal, vocal advocates out of those you depend on. They’ll also help you determine which behaviors you and your fellow employees will need to exhibit in front of your important publics to bring your differentiation to life. You’ll see what I mean. And dig the hell out of it.
With motorcycle themes recurring throughout Make Some Noise and because Harley-Davidson is the driving passion behind my effort, I can see why you might be inclined to think this is going to be a Harley-Davidson book. Two words: It’s not.
Publishers not as astute, sophisticated, and brilliant as Simon & Schuster have asked me for years to write the kind of “Harley” (quotes intentional) book that would go heavy on drama, include lots of photos of tattooed, bikini-clad women and assorted Hell’s Angels types, and be devoid of any words with more than three syllables. Their false assumption being that’s what it takes to sell “Harley” books. (Any quick scan of a bookstore’s Discount section will yield all the evidence necessary to back me up on that. Emphasis on “Discount section.”) Writing a book that perpetuates ridiculous stereotypes, offends good people, and sells zero copies has never interested me.
Other publishers have asked me about writing a Harley-themed “branding” book, since the company is largely recognized as a great “brand” success story. One word: ugh. I’d rather do one of those discounted tattoo/bikini books than go that route. Or be waterboarded. I’d much prefer to tell you how to make your business successful than share the intricacies of how another one, that you can’t possibly replicate, did. And as you’ll learn, I’m not a fan of branding in the sense most people know of it. That’s putting it lightly.
With Make Some Noise I’m going to teach you how to become a dominant competitor in both your business and personal lives by sharing actionable lessons I learned helping revitalize what today is the one of the most successful market dominators in the universe—that motorcycle company mentioned five times in the last three paragraphs—as well as those gleaned from the thousand-plus businesses I’ve worked with or spoken to in my lifetime. And to do so in a way that anyone, from the CEO of a multinational behemoth to the owner of a one-person cake decorating business, can understand and apply.
See, the operative word here is “actionable.” Some people get scared by that word, but business owners know what I’m talking about. This isn’t the Harvard Business Review (with all due respect). You’re not Intel, Amazon, or Google (ditto that respect) and you’re not going to be because they beat you to it. And your customers probably aren’t going to tattoo your logo onto their bodies like Harley’s do. So telling you specifically how these companies do what they do wouldn’t help you much, would it? You don’t work in a dream world. Nor do you have bottomless bank accounts to play with like these behemoths do (but call me if you do!).
Based on the conversations I have every day with business owners, leaders, and aspiring leaders who are hungry to learn how to improve their businesses and their personal performance—and sincerely want to take action to do that—I know what you’re hungry for. You want to:
Stop working harder than you ever have just to be an also-ran, when you’d much prefer to be a dominator.
Learn how to set your business, and yourself, apart from competitors who do the exact same things you do, sell the same products and/or services you do, and present themselves the same way you do.
Bust out of the commodity mindset that’s invaded your work culture and led everyone involved to believe that low price (or convenience) is the only competitive lever in your arsenal and the only thing customers expect.
Discover how to inspire loyalty among those you serve and make them vocal advocates for your business (and you).
See what behaviors you and your fellow leaders and employees exhibit every day that turn people off and what turns them on. And even if you’re like most businesspeople who’ve never given this a
second of thought, you want to learn what every human being on the planet needs but only few find. And you want to be richly rewarded for helping them find it.
Uncover how and why “a great quality product” (or service) fails to offer you or anyone else competitive advantage and spearhead your business’s evolution away from one that lives and dies on “product” (or service) to a humanized, people-first business that customers seek out, want to buy from and recommend to others, no matter what business you’re in or how “boring” it is. (And for those doubters who passionately cling to a “product trumps all” philosophy, I’m going to prove you wrong and you’re going to thank me for it.)
Learn how to get people to like you, follow you and want to spend more time with you;
Get to the bottom of why social media likely isn’t working at your business (Hey! You just gave me a thumbs up! #Disappointed), learn how the collective failure of the business world has fueled its sad rise, and how to uncover the opportunity hidden behind it.
Find out what’s required to improve your personal visibility and value, and, if you’re like every other underappreciated and passed-over worker in the universe, shorten your path to promotion and higher pay.
As if all of that weren’t enough, you also want to have some fun and enjoy some good stories while learning these invaluable lessons that you can put to work immediately.
Well, that’s what I’m here for and what Make Some Noise is all about. I’m guessing you can see how hard it would be—to say nothing of bizarre—to shoehorn bikini babes and outlaw bikers into this.
But while I’m (sort of) on the subject, allow me to address the noisy, two-wheeled elephant in the room. Look, I get it that not everybody on the planet loves bikes as much as I do. Lots of folks obviously do, but way more can take them or leave them. Some, of course, don’t like them at all and have nothing good to say about them. I understand and respect everyone’s point of view on this.
I’ll tell you straight up, though, that no matter where I am in the world, whether I’m working with household-name behemoths or mom-and-pops, CEOs or CSRs and everyone in between, I don’t talk about business without
talking about motorcycling, because in my world they’re inseparable in ways you probably wouldn’t expect and quite understandably wouldn’t presume to learn from.
You’ll soon see, as millions of others I’ve shared my passion with have, how their profound visual, aural, and emotional attributes make motorcycles powerfully potent, memorable, and fun learning tools. And why my email inbox and voice mail have been jammed for years with business leaders inviting me over for some show-and-tell. Or, when I’m having a lucky day, inviting me over for some show-and-tell followed by a long ride (those calls and emails tend to get returned first).
Uh-oh. I heard that. Do I detect a little bike-related discomfort and skepticism here? That’s okay, I’m cool with it. Lots of people question whether they’ll be able to see any immediate connections between motorcycling and business learning and/or believe that, because their business isn’t “sexy” and “cool” like motorcycles, my lessons might not apply to them. This is most prevalent, naturally, among people who’ve never ridden before (which, tragically, is most people), nor spent any time with me. It doesn’t last long, though.
In fact, I’ve seen the toughest skeptics on earth—from actuarial software developers to heart surgeons to elderly nuns who run managed care facilities—whoop with glee when I’ve taken them on the journey we’re about to share. They made the connection. And so will you. I kid you not. Now picture those nuns in your mind, with leather jackets over their habits, sitting on bikes, with lit Marlboros dangling from their lips, revving their motors and looking tough. See what I mean about profound and memorable visual attributes? Now picture a balance sheet or Net Promoter Score report. I rest my case.
Even if (you think) you’re not a bike person, I promise you this: You will learn from motorcycles, you will remember what you’ve learned from them, and you will use motorcycles when you teach what you’ve learned to others. You’ll also (think of the nuns!) enjoy yourself.
There’s a helpful adage I love to invoke anytime I’m discussing the whys of motorcycling—as a sport, lifestyle, and teaching aid—with those who’ve not experienced it. It likely goes back over a hundred years, has been inked across a gazillion black biker T-shirts, and concisely answers just about every question motorcycle people get from nonriders, including:
“Why do you ride motorcycles?”
“Aren’t motorcycles dangerous?”
“Why did you spend so much money on something you can’t use every day?”
“What are you doing here?”
“What the heck took you so long?”
“What makes you think I’d want to do that?” and, of course,
“What would possess a person to get a Harley logo tattoo on his forehead?”
The answer to all these is simple: “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”
What it means, simply, is “How can I describe how great something you’ve never personally experienced feels?” Any person who’s ever navigated high school should see an easy parallel there.
Rather than trying to rely on words alone to describe the unexplainable—and to set the stage for everything we’ll experience together here and how we’ll learn from it—let me paint some pictures for you that will trigger your imagination, bring motorcycling to life for you, and ramp up your comfort level.
See (he said, arms on his lap, sitting sidesaddle on a beautiful black-and-chrome motorcycle), all of us have things in our nonwork lives that we’re passionate about—sports, hobbies, literature, the arts—and our world is full of exciting, challenging, engrossing, and fun ways to enjoy them. But, unlike, say, golfers or trombonists who can handily describe their passions, motorcyclists know that every time we’re up on two wheels, we’re in an impossible-to-describe universe that transcends everything. So there just aren’t any handy words we can use to describe how, when we’re riding, we’re intensely exhilarated yet relaxed at the same time, a paradox that shouldn’t be possible. When’s the last time you felt that way? And when’s the last time every one of your senses was simultaneously assaulted so pleasurably that you couldn’t stop grinning?
If you were to ride the same road on a motorcycle that you’ve just driven in your car, you’d begin to know what motorcyclists know. From behind your car’s wheel, fully enclosed and temperature-controlled, you statically observe scenery (while texting, talking on the phone, and doing other stuff you have no business doing). Sure, that’s okay and you’re getting from Point A to B, but you’re completely separated from the world and sense only what you can see. And because your mind easily drifts and you lose focus (see texting, talking, etc.) you miss a great deal of what you really should be seeing. If that isn’t a great metaphor for a tragic life, well, what is?
But on a bike, you’re in the scenery. You’re not just soaking in the beauty around you, you’re feeling it in the sun’s heat and the cooling breeze. You’re hearing the wind over the roar of your engine. And you’re inhaling—even
tasting—the richness of your environment, like pine trees, salty sea air, or the freshly cut hay you smelled on our virtual ride. All at the same time! Your brain synapses are firing like machine guns, keeping you hyperalert and focused on everything around you and in the distance, while you’re fluidly shifting your body in concert with every twist and turn in the road. But here’s the best part: In the midst of all of this, somehow, incredibly, your mind is completely clear. This is freedom. Beautiful, euphoric freedom. Hence the grin.
See what I mean, though, about “If I have to explain . . .”?
Luckily for everyone, riding offers a sublime gift that anyone can understand: Motorcycles, hands-down, are the world’s greatest social lubricants. They always—always—start conversations. Which is why a CEO who’s guarded in his office will spill his guts about the problems he’s battling when we climb off our bikes at a scenic overpass. We simply communicate more and better when we’re enjoying and challenging ourselves and sharing the experience (instead of competing with each other like, say, on a golf course or at a Battle of the Bones trombone throwdown, or sitting through long training sessions). How great is that? Watch what happens anytime two or more riders—complete strangers—share the same place, because I promise you there’s going to be storytelling and laughter. And ain’t that a beautiful thing?
The last time strangers at a gas station introduced themselves to you while you topped off your minivan and shared stories about what lies ahead on the road you’re traveling was exactly when? Never, right? Well, that’s an everyday occurrence in the riding world. Take a seat on a plane next to somebody reading a motorcycle magazine, ask, “What do you ride?” and settle in as she delights you with stories (and cell phone photos) of her adventures until the plane lands. You know how vegans and CrossFitters can’t shut up? Motorcyclists are worse! Wouldn’t it be awesome if your important publics were that vocal?
Motorcyclists, you’ll come to appreciate on our journey together, know what everyone else hasn’t figured out yet. We see and experience the world from a spectacularly different point of view. We challenge ourselves while discovering incredible beauty in places most people haven’t bothered to look. But it doesn’t stop there, because we share what we’ve found with others so they can discover it, love it, and share it, too. There are two underlying truths at play here: The pleasure of discovery never grows old and passion grows when it’s shared. So discover and share we do. It’s why we’re here!
And speaking again of passion, I’ve loved motorcycles nearly all of my life, since long before they housed, clothed, and fed me (and completely
overtook my garage). From imitating Evel Knievel on my twisted and bent Schwinn Typhoon bicycle to my first ride on a minibike to the disastrous teenage blunder of buying a fixer-upper Honda with an older brother (let’s just say we didn’t communicate well when it came to schedules and expenses; I think he still owes me some gas money), their ability to spark my imagination wouldn’t let go. If you swoon at the sight of old minibikes, step-through lightweights, dirt bikes, or any other vintage bikes that make that glorious ring-ding-ding-ding sound (if you know it, you’re hearing it right now), you know of what I speak. If that isn’t you, there’s somebody within earshot of you right now who matches this description. I was lucky enough to be alive in motorcycling’s boom years of the 1960s and ’70s and to fall in love with something that’s never failed to love me back. Who grows tired of passion?
So imagine my glee, way back in the fall of 1985, at having hustled my way into a meeting at Harley-Davidson, the most storied motorcycle company in the universe, to discuss PR strategy. I remember striding through the massive old door at the company’s red-brick headquarters building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as clearly as I recall seeing the diamond at my first major-league ballgame as a kid. If I have to explain . . .
Just standing in the ancient lobby, looking at the company’s first motorcycle from 1903 on its (to me much-justified) pedestal, then walking well-worn halls that smelled of decades of gasoline and cigarette smoke—while seeing motorcycles or parts thereof scattered everywhere—was intoxicating. I entered the company’s marketing department, which then was shoehorned into the basement of the company’s ancient parts warehouse, to find it was physically so small it would fit into my basement. It had a dull linoleum floor, wires hanging overhead, mismatched desks, and furnishings from decades before the Mad Men era (in other words, the place was a shithole, which I hope I’m allowed to say here). In the bonus column, though, it was staffed by a crew so passionate and dedicated that they each did the work of at least two people. Tellingly, they laughed at their obscene workloads and the fact that they had next to no budget to work with. Great and lovable folks, all. Who cares what a place looks like when it’s inhabited by wonderful people?
My buzz went from sky-high to intergalactic when I was introduced to one of the bike industry’s all-time legends, Willie G. Davidson, grandson of one of the company’s founders, bike designer without peer, bearded face of the company, and owner of a well-earned reputation for being impossibly cool. Upon shaking his hand, I spied a photo behind his desk of him with Evel Knievel and, well, I guess you know how I felt about that. To this day,
Harley enthusiasts from all over the globe make the pilgrimage to Harley headquarters with hopes of being able to say, “I met Willie G.” Google his image some time and you’ll find thousands of such personal encounters. I know of no other leader in the corporate world who’s given as much of his time and his heart to customers as Willie G. And I feel sorry for any business leader who doesn’t see the lesson in that.
Oddly enough, my strongest memory of that first day was how freaked out I was to see that Harley employees wore ties to work. What da?! That said a great deal about how painfully anchored the company was at that time to outdated traditions that were draining the life from it. Ties on Harley people? Unthinkable! Even those nuns would’ve winced. (Willie G. didn’t wear one, though. God bless him.) I couldn’t help but wonder why employees lacked the nerve to speak up and say, “Let us wear the clothes we sell in our dealerships so we look like we love our stuff!” And which leader would argue against it. But since then I’ve learned time and again that fear is never in short supply in rigid, old-school, command-and-control working environments.
I knew the company was near broke and on borrowed time, largely due, I’d eventually see, to the same self-inflicted wounds that I’ve watched bleed life from much of today’s business world, in every industry (we’ll get into that a little later). I also knew I’d have the rare chance to throw my energy into something that I loved and to work with others who felt the same way—the greatest thing anyone working for a living could ever hope for. I figured that if we, the perfectly average people flying the Harley-Davidson flag, could make this business attractive and competitive again, I’d be part of an extraordinary resurgence. The odds were less than favorable, but at that early point in my life, and in sharp contrast to many of the company’s longtime employees, I had nothing to lose. I did, however, have a motorcycle license and a rack full of ties.
What I couldn’t have known driving home after that first day, with overly charged nerves and a bag full of Harley swag, was that I was about to start a journey that would ultimately teach me things far more valuable and important than the business of motorcycles. I’d eventually see and discover for myself that the most valuable lessons a person can acquire are precisely what they don’t teach you in college (because they’d rather stick to predictable, time-honored curriculum with supporting charts and graphs). It’s also the stuff that’s never discussed in the business world because it’s hidden—as the truth often is—under layers of “just shut up and do your job” tradition, hierarchy, needless complexity, and excuse-making.
I’m talking about seeing how the world, once you’ve stripped away all the folklore, technology, consultant-speak, buzzwords, and business-book acumen, actually works. I’m talking about what instinctively turns people on and what turns them off. And the simple, yet counterintuitive reasons why businesses that compete against each other actually imitate each other rather than creating distance between themselves. And understanding basic human needs—which couldn’t be easier—and leveraging that simple knowledge into improving business and personal competitiveness. And you’d better believe I’m talking about the amazing competitive advantage a loyal, vocal customer base can bring any business. Any business. Your business.
These rich, personal discoveries came to me not as the result of implementing brilliant business strategies—like you, I’ve not seen many of those—but by simply observing, as new improvement tactics were attempted, what worked, what didn’t and, most important and typically well after the fact, figuring out the why behind each. It’s those whys that give me golden access into CEO offices and keep me crisscrossing the globe to share what I’ve learned. Great leaders (emphasis on great) don’t just want to learn methods to make things better; they want to know why, and be able to explain why, the stuff works. And so do you, if you ever want to see the view from the corner office.
I hope you’re like me. I was the kid who took apart his transistor radio, bicycle, and family lawn mower to see how they operate (disclosure: I’m not claiming there weren’t parts left over after reassembly). I’m one of those guys who habitually attempt repair of virtually anything before calling in experts, if only to gain know-how of what they’re working with (and, of course, the possibility of enjoying that great buzz that comes with solving tough problems themselves). Curiosity is a gift I wish we all opened more often because it encourages us to look deeper into what’s happening right in front of us, rather than just accepting things at face value.
Most business leaders I talk to don’t even know answers to simple, basic questions like why their customers buy, or don’t, from them or why they can’t retain great employees—because they’ve never asked! If you’re not asking questions like this, who is?
My curiosity has served me well as I’ve had the rare opportunity to work with businesses of every size and scope imaginable since leaving Harley-Davidson—and question everyone with my hunger for learning how and why things work or don’t work. If you’ve ever met me, you know this: I’m going to hammer you with questions and keep on hammering until I
understand you, how you do things, why you do them, and how you know they’re working. You can’t tell me too much.
To my great joy, I’ve learned that curiosity—especially asking, “How do you know this?” and “Can you prove it to me?”—doesn’t just uncover a lot of what’s hiding in plain sight; it also pays really well, something new hires and those just starting their careers should take to heart.
I recall with immense satisfaction the day the CEO of one of the world’s largest tech companies—I promise some of their gear is in your workspace right now—asked me to fly all over the country, sit across from his most senior lieutenants, plus a few board members, and “clobber the hell out of them with the same questions you just asked me. And don’t let anyone off the hook.” Yes, sir!
Not only was the payday as epic as the opportunity to learn from some of the biggest names in technology, but I got to relearn, for the umpteenth time, the sad truth that not even the most senior execs in some of the world’s biggest companies are immune to the disease of telling the boss what they believe he or she wants to hear rather than what needs to be heard. And in every case where I’ve witnessed this sorry phenomenon, CEOs and other top leaders believe or suspect it’s happening and speak ill of it. While tolerating it. That says something, doesn’t it?
Given the extraordinary access I’ve had with such a vast number of businesses (many of which you’ve been buying from your entire life, some of which are one-person operations) and the intimacy I’ve enjoyed with their leaders and their people, I’m always asked what I’ve seen and learned and if I’ve discovered any common threads that run through the working world, regardless of business size. So I’ll answer that here, quickly.
I’ve seen time and again just how painfully easy it is for companies of any size to unknowingly mimic competitors, commoditize themselves, and become struggling also-rans (or worse) in the markets they serve.
Whether I’m talking about large corporations or small family operations, I’ve met very few business leaders who’ve included any element of “competition” in their overall business process, let alone made it the first priority of that process. They’re driven by the notion of competing yet they don’t formalize it, preferring to believe that if they do what they do well, their business will prosper at the expense of competitors.
I’ve listened too many times as disgruntled workers at underperforming companies described how uninvolved, invisible, or dispirited leadership limited their desire to work and improve. Or destroyed it altogether. And
I’ve heard leadership in these same businesses lament that they can’t retain employees, while saying their employees are way more eager to complain then to “speak up and tell the truth.” (We just saw this, didn’t we?)
I’ve rarely seen a struggling business where two employees, including executive leadership, can answer very basic “Who are you? What do you do? Who do you do it for? And why should I do business with you?” questions the same way. How can they possibly expect prospective customers to know who they are when they don’t even know themselves? (Sounds like your workplace, doesn’t it?) Man, that’s crazy!
But you want to know what’s more crazy? Most of these leaders answer those basic questions using the exact same, trite descriptions (“Quality!” “It’s an experience!” “Our people make the difference!”) that their competitors use and was spewed earlier in our trade show visit. Uh, in what universe would anyone in business want to be described the same way as a competitor? The craziest part of all, though, is the fact that few business leaders even think about something as simple as this, let alone make it a priority to address it. Talk about a real and present danger!
(Go ahead and google the term “People Make the Difference” and see how many hits you get. Would you want to be buried in that mess? Are you?)
By far the most common thread that runs through most of the businesses I’ve met with over the years—in every corner of the world and among people of all ranks and ages—is the defensive belief (hope?) that “somebody, somewhere, is going to do something that’s somehow going to make my life easier and my job better. So until that happens, I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing.”
Know what I mean? You probably hear it (and say it) all the time: Once that new website comes online . . . or once those new products get approved for sale . . . or the management shakeup or reorg happens . . . or our social media strategy gets implemented . . . or our trade association pressures new legislation . . . or raw materials prices recede . . . or interest rates go down . . . or we get that new truck . . . or our merger is completed . . . or our rebranding is introduced . . . or . . . You get the picture. Somewhere along the line, leaders stopped telling their charges that the people most impacted by problems are the ones who stand to gain the most from solving them. So. Together. They. Wait.
(Quick question: Do you think that dominant businesses—and people—wait for someone, somewhere, to somehow solve their real and imaginary problems?)
All the news isn’t bad, of course. Far from it. Very positively, I’ve learned that anyone, and any company—even in the dullest industry imaginable—can transform to become visibly and meaningfully different from competitors in ways that drive success and make them dominators. Anyone.
I’ve seen many times that perfectly ordinary people—given constant, enthusiastic encouragement, and a say in what they do—are capable of doing extraordinary things to the delight of their marketplace. That goes double in businesses where those perfectly ordinary people understand the concept of “accountability,” a word that, in a business managed to be a dominator, has positive connotations. Tellingly, it’s seen as a negative in also-rans. You’ve experienced this, haven’t you?
And I’ve taken great pleasure in seeing that every business that makes it their daily mission to make vocal advocates out of the people they depend upon for their livelihood defeats those that don’t. The same goes for everyone who works for a living.
I’ve learned time and again that Visible Passion (you’ll see later why the V and P are capitalized) is the key ingredient to building and sustaining not just great work cultures, but customer and employee loyalty—two very much endangered species. Is it not the common denominator with every business and person you admire?
I’ve joyously found that what I’ve believed my entire professional career is undeniably true: The best way to teach, foster curiosity, and inspire change is to share stories and lessons that are applicable to everyone, easy to visualize, and, above all, trip emotional triggers. That way we don’t just remember and use what we’ve learned, we also remember how to best describe what we’ve learned when we’re sharing it with others. And no organization can be successful, let alone hope to be dominant, if its people aren’t modeling the positive behavior of their leaders and sharing their knowledge with each other.
But my greatest delight? That’s simple: As soon as I start talking about motorcycling and the conversation turns to “being a dominant competitor,” nobody ever says, “Count me out.” Everyone wants to join in and hear more.
So let’s get rolling.