Paul B. Brown is a best-selling author who has written, co-written and “ghosted” numerous best-sellers including Customers for Life (with Carl Sewell.) which has been translated into 19 differently languages and which continues to sell thousands of copies each month, some 23 years after its initial publication. (It has been updated twice.) A long-time contributor to The New York Times, Paul is also a contributing editor to both The Conference Board Review (where he also writes a column) and M.I.T.’s Sloan Management Review.
However, he spends most of his time writing books and has worked with internationally recognized senior executives, such as the president of AT&T and some of the nation’s largest financial services firms. In all, the books he has written–both under his own name as well as those he has ghosted–have sold more nearly 3 million copies worldwide and have made every best-seller list you can think of. A former writer and editor for Business Week, Financial World, Forbes and Inc. Paul is a graduate of Rutgers College and Rutgers University Law School and is a member of both the New Jersey and Massachusetts bar, but he asks that you don’t hold that against him.
His latest book is Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, co-authored with Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer and published by Harvard Business Review Press (March, 2012)
Here is an excerpt from my review of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing Just Start, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Brown: At the risk of being drummed out of the “Writers of Serious Business Books Union,” I have always loved story tellers. So, songwriters (Lorenz Hart; Johnny Mercer), radio personalities (Jean Shepherd, Klavin and Finch) and writers like Mark Twain; Hunter S. Thompson and people who write great murder mysteries really had a profound influence on me. I wanted to grow up and be one of them. When you combine that with the fact that I have always been extremely curious—both professionally and personally—you can see I am very lucky. I get to do what makes me happiest
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Brown: James Walker Michaels, the long-time editor at Forbes. Michaels, and it is not a stretch to say he invented business journalism, taught me how to think like a business reporter. He took someone who majored in theater arts and history, and didn’t know how to read a balance sheet, i.e. me, and turned him into an okay business reporter.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Brown: I have thought about this a lot, and I just don’t know. Clearly, knowing history—especially American history—has been valuable in providing context for what I do. And law school demands that you think logically. So, it was helpful in that sense.
But other than that, I am not sure. The most valuable part of college for me was working four or five hours a day, every day, at the college newspaper. It taught me a) the basics of being a reporter; b) how to write quickly and c) that I loved seeing “by Paul B. Brown” in print.
Morris: What do you know now about business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?
Brown: I can argue this either way. On the one hand, I would have loved to have had a MBA before I started writing business articles and books. On the other hand, there was a huge benefit of not knowing what I didn’t know so that I could ask questions that most people would think were too basic. (They tend to trigger the best answers.)
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
Brown: I can’t think of a single one….although I am partial to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying when compiling a list of fun movies.
Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.
Brown: Let me answer this one generally. I like “big idea” books (i.e. there is money to be made serving people with little money) or books that go into great depth about a narrow subject. (Tracy Kidder’s House comes to mind.)
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
Brown: There are a couple of things I have always liked about this quote. I know, that everyone always uses it as an example of how to lead (i.e. you draw the best out of people and guide and suggest instead of demand and order).
But to me, the most intriguing part has always been “learn from the people.” This is something smart people struggle with. They are so used to being able to come up with the right answer on their own, that they cut off other ideas and options.
Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Brown: I have never heard this one. I like it. I have always found much too hard to be other than what I am. It takes much too much work.
Morris: From Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
Brown: I used to think this too. But I no longer do. The problem with this quote is that the approach does not let you repeat an experience.
Here’s what I mean. We just came back from wine country. (Our oldest lives in S.F.) If I were to strictly endorse the Keller quote, we would have only gone to wineries we had never visited before. Sure, we would have found some great new wines from places we didn’t know before, but we would have missed out on what some of our favorite wineries were doing today.
We split our time between wineries we love and finding new ones. It worked out quite well. I guess what I am saying is don’t rule out revisiting old experiences to see how they—and you—have changed.
Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Brown: I am in total agreement. The problem, for most of us, is figuring out what needs notbe done.
Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
Brown: This ties back to the Lao Tzu quote, and explains why I like the first part of the quote so much.
Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ’Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?’” Your response?
Brown: Ah. You have touched on one of my favorite subjects. And I am a fan of Schoemaker (and have reviewed him favorably in The New York Times.)
And yes, I think this is right. One of my favorite quotes, there is some debate about whether Twain said it or not, is: “It is not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It is the things we know that just ain’t so.”
But, I think people don’t think deeply enough about just how important it is to make mistakes. I would put it this way: If you haven’t failed today, you are never going to succeed.
It would be nice to think that our best ideas come to us fully formed. I don’t think I have ever found that to be the case. (Although, once in a great while a perfectly formed book title will pop into my head.) You have to keep playing with just about every idea.
That’s my inarticulate description of what we call in “Just Start the Act. Learn. Build. Model.” You come up with an idea. Try it. Judge the market reaction. Fold the market reaction into the next iteration, and try again. The process repeats until you come with something you want, or decide either it is never going to work, or there is something else you would prefer to do more.
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Paul cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Amazon: Just Start
Amazon: Paul Brown Page
Harvard Business Review Blog