Note: I recently re-read this book and found the information and insights more valuable now than they were when I first read it seven years ago. It should also be noted that Amazon sells a paperbound edition for only $12.99. If that isn’t a great bargain, I don’t know what is.
From “acorns” of ideas to “oak trees” of business success
Ross and Holland provide mini-profiles of 100 quite different companies, some of which were later sold before they became dominant in their respective industries, others that continue to thrive under the leadership of their founders or second-generation successors. What these remarkable companies share in common (other than their great success) is that each is based on an insight with regard to how to solve a problem. Here’s an example of such an insight that resulted, not in one great company but in a product that transformed an entire industry. George de Mestral was irritated by the fact that burrs stuck to his clothes and to his dog’s fur on their walks in the Alps. He examined the burrs and saw the possibility of binding two materials reversibly in a simple fashion. He devised a hook-and-loop fastener in 1945 and later patented the device, naming it “Velcro” after the French words velours and crochet meaning “velvet hook.”
With all due respect to such insights, however, Ross and Holland repeatedly remind the reader that coming up with a “great idea” is only the first stage of what is almost always a very long and especially difficult journey. Few who embark on that journey eventually complete it. In this context, I am reminded of Thomas Edison’s observation “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Also of Darrell Royal’s suggestion that “potential” means “you ain’t done it yet.”
Here are six mini-commentaries, each of which includes a brief excerpt or two from the narrative.
Baby Einstein: Dissatisfied with videos, books, and other baby products then on the market (in 1997), Julie Aigner-Clark began making a homemade video for her infant daughter Aspen. The result was the “Baby Einstein Language Nursery” and it attracted so much attention so quickly that in the first year, sales were about $100,000 and she added other videos (e.g. Baby Bach, Baby Mozart, Baby Van Gogh, and Baby Shakespeare). By the time she and her husband Bill sold the company to Disney, sales exceeded $20-million. The Disney resources (especially marketing, promotion, and distribution) drove sales to more than $165-million in 2003. There are now 70 Baby Einstein products available. “That’s always where we hoped the brand would go but didn’t have the ability to take it.” Aigner-Clark continued as a consultant to Disney insists that she is happy with the sale.
Calloway Golf: The Big Bertha driver is probably its most famous product, certainly the one that accelerated its most rapid and most profitable period of growth. Working with his chief club designer, Dick Helmstretter, Ely Calloway developed a BB-3 prototype and tested it on a driving range and as he recalls, “neither of us could do anything but hit it great. We just sort of looked at each other and said, `”Wow, we’ll never be able to make enough.’” Calloway renamed it “Big Bertha” after a large howitzer used by the German Army during World War One. Pro golfers as well as hackers soon found that they could hit drives with it longer and straighter than with any other club. Two years before his death in 1999, Calloway explained, “Up until 1991, what was wrong with drivers is that everyone hated them. The driver was the least favored club in the bag, or the most feared. They bought them but they did not like them. Big Bertha changed the attitude of the masses from one of fear about the driver to one of affection.”
Liquid Paper: Betty Nesmith Graham was a single mother who returned to the workplace to support herself and her young son. She immediately encountered difficulties with the recently introduced electric typewriter. Making only one mistake required that an entire page be retyped and she was constantly making mistakes. Then she decided to experiment with a white, water-based tempera paint. Using a thin paintbrush, she easily corrected her mistakes. She called this liquid “Mistake Out” and began to give and then sell small bottles of it to other secretaries. By 1957, she was selling about 100 bottles a month. The next year, she renamed it “Liquid Paper.” Graham retired from the company in 1975 and died in 1980 at age 56, just six months after selling her corporation to Gillette for $47.5-million. Liquid Paper is now owned by Newell Rubbermaid.
Dyson: James Dyson built 5,127 vacuum cleaner prototypes before he got one to work properly. His was hardly an “overnight sensation” and, in fact, most of the 100 business successes that Ross and Holland examine in abbreviated accounts were achieved after several years of very hard work despite repeated failure and rejection. Dyson offers an excellent case in point.
Super Soaker: In 1982, while an employee at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1982, Lonnie Johnston was working on an environmentally friendly heat pump that ran on water. He decided to attach a homemade high-pressure nozzle to the sink in the bathroom “and was startled when it fired a blast of water across the room. His first thought was, ” Gee, that would make a great water pistol.” He began to experiment with a series of prototypes (e.g. a soda bottle, plexiglass, lengths of PVC tubing, and a bicycle pump), confident that his idea had commercial possibilities. He filed a patent for “Pneumatic Water Gun” that eight years later went into production as what we now know as the Super Soaker. In 1992, David Letterman included it on one of his “Top Ten Items on the Bush Yeltsin Summit Agenda”…number ten was “Sign arms pact limiting number of Super Soaker squirt guns.” Annual sales now exceed $1-billion.
3M: The Post-it Note story is probably the best known of all the stories that Ross and Holland recount in this volume. It certainly offers still another example of the equally familiar aphorism that necessity is the mother of invention. An employee of 3M, Art Fry was a member if his church’s choir and was frustrated by the fact that the slips of paper he used to mark hymns repeatedly fell out of his hymnal. What he needed was a sticky bookmark that did not harm paper. He knew of a new adhesive being developed by Spence Silver at 3M and realized that perhaps, just perhaps it could solve his problem. It did but only after five years of additional research and development. The Post-it Note was finally launched in1980 and was an instant success. There are now more than 1,000 varieties of it on the market and together, they generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales. After a 40-year career at 3M, Fry retired. “If we discover something, we have a chance to stop and look at it. This is very important because lots of things are discovered and passed by because everybody’s too busy.”
These brief comments of mine by no means do full justice to the mini-profiles that Ross and Holland provide. However, I hope they encourage those who read this review to obtain a copy. Yes, it is highly informative but also consistently entertaining. I also highly recommend Daniel Gross’s Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time. Don’t let its publication date (1997) fool you. Once a great business story, always a great business story. There are 20 of them in this volume (including those briefly discussed and the paperbound edition only costs $13.06.
I’ve finished reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. It is a treasure, with story after story worth pondering.
One of his exemplars of creativity is Yo-Yo Ma. Here is a brief excerpt.
For Ma, the tedium of the flawless performance taught him that there is often a tradeoff between perfection and expression. “If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing,” he says. “You will have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something.” Instead, he reviews the complete score, searching for the larger story. “I always look at a piece of music like a detective novel.” My job is to retrace the story so that the audience feels the suspense. So that when the climax comes, they’re right there with me, listening to my beautiful detective story. It’s all about making people care about what happens next.” (emphasis added).
“Make people care about what happens next.” Now this is your communication tip of the day. In your speeches, your presentations, your blog posts, your articles, even your emails, make people care about what comes next. Always.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Shellye Archambeau, C.E.O. of MetricStream, a firm which helps companies meet compliance standards. In her career, she says, she wouldn’t directly approach anyone about becoming her mentor, “but I would just start treating them like it.”
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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How to Adopt Mentors Without Really Asking
Bryant: What do you consider some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Archambeau: My mother had a definite influence on my leadership style. She was very involved in the community. She would say that whenever you run into challenges or you’re trying to make things happen, you’ve got to understand what makes people tick, what motivates them. Even though she was a business major in college, I think psychology was more of a passion for her.
Bryant: What else?
Archambeau: I was involved in sports early on, but I went through this amazing growth spurt, and my bones grew faster than my ligaments, so I ended up in knee braces. I couldn’t play sports anymore, but I took that same energy and got involved in clubs like the French Club and the National Honors Society. I learned that you have to figure out how to make people want to do something, and then make them believe they can.
Bryant: Other lessons?
Archambeau: Another big one is about mentors. Throughout my career, I had a lot of mentors, and I just adopted them. What I found is that, especially if you’re young, when you go up to people and say, ‘Would you mind being my mentor?,’ their eyes widen. They literally step back. What they’re thinking about is the commitment and time involved if they say yes. And time is something they don’t have. So I would not ask them to be my mentor, but I would just start treating them like it. And that worked very well for me.
Bryant: How did you do it?
Archambeau: It depended on the person, but it can be really simple.
Let’s say you interact with someone, and at the end of the conversation you just say: “I’ve got just a quick question for you. Any thoughts on how … ?” It has to be quick, and it can’t be something big. And usually people will throw out an idea.
I know this sounds odd, but I find that a lot of people don’t take the advice they’re given. But I would do what they suggested, and then follow up with them and say: “Hey, thanks so much. Here’s what I did. It worked out great.” Now what happens? They feel pretty good about giving you the advice because they had a positive impact. So when I reach out to them again, they’re more likely to actually respond to my e-mail or my call. And then they might be more willing to have coffee with me.
Bryant: Tell me about your approach to leadership.
Archambeau: A big part of my job is coaching and developing. I’ve hired the right team. But everyone has areas where we need to improve. One of the things that I do is discuss a leadership topic at our regular meetings. And it makes a difference, because through these leadership topics, I get to reinforce our culture, the style, what’s expected.
Bryant: What are some examples?
Archambeau: One is, don’t be a mama bear. What that means is, when people come to you with problems or challenges, don’t automatically solve them. As a mama bear, you want to take care of your cubs, so you tend to be protective and insulate them against all those things. But that doesn’t help. If you keep solving problems for your people, they don’t learn how to actually solve problems for themselves, and it doesn’t scale.
Make sure that when people come in with challenges and problems, the first thing you’re doing is actually putting it back to them and saying: “What do you think we should do about it? How do you think we should approach this?”
Bryant: What other leadership topics have you discussed?
Archambeau: Another one that resonated for people was around, “Who’s got the ball?” When you’re in sports, and the ball is thrown to you, then you’ve got the ball, and you’re now in control of what happens next. Which means you own it. So it’s important to know who’s got the ball. If you’re in a meeting and you’ve had a great conversation and then everybody leaves, who has the ball? It becomes a very visible concept for making sure that there’s actually ownership to make sure things get done. And it’s one thing if you always catch the ball if people toss it to you. It’s another thing if you are proactively going after that ball. As leaders, you’ve got to make sure that you’re actually going after that ball.
Bryant: What are your thoughts on culture?
Archambeau: I’ve definitely been in places with cultures that were harsh. I was at a company once where you went through a whole series of interviews to get hired. Then, once you were hired, you still had to prove something before people would accept you. So what happens in those kinds of environments is that there’s more fear than there should be.
I don’t think people perform well when there’s fear. Maybe people aren’t physically afraid, but they feel fear. And when people are afraid, the whole chemistry in their body changes. You just can’t be as successful in that kind of environment. I think the best environments are when you enable people to actually perform their best, but you’re still clear about what’s expected.
Bryant: Tell me a bit about your culture.
Archambeau: Everybody understands that no matter what your day-to-day job is, when something happens, everybody gets involved to get it fixed and make it right. It really comes down to teamwork. We all play a role to make things happen. When people come into the culture and see that, they also act. When people don’t, then it just doesn’t work, and they don’t make it.
Bryant: What career advice do you give people?
Archambeau: I think people in general don’t take enough risks. Some people feel that before they can take on that next challenge they need to be 100 percent ready. It’s just not true. Even people in their jobs aren’t perfect at their jobs.
So my biggest advice to people is to step out there. Take the risk and deal with it. What is the worst that could happen? It’s about thriving on risk instead of shrinking from risk.
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.