Alan Weiss on “How to forge your own path to success”: An interview by Bob Morris


Weiss, AlanAlan Weiss is one of those rare people who can say he is a consultant, speaker, and author and mean it. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients such as Merck, Hewlett-Packard, GE, Mercedes-Benz, State Street Corporation, Times Mirror Group, The Federal Reserve, The New York Times Corporation, Toyota, and over 500 other leading organizations.

He is an inductee into the Professional Speaking Hall of Fame® and the concurrent recipient of the National Speakers Association Council of Peers Award of Excellence, representing the top 1% of professional speakers in the world. He has been named a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants, one of only two people in history holding both those designations.

His prolific publishing includes over 500 articles and 60 books, including his best-seller, Million Dollar Consulting (from McGraw-Hill) now in its 25th year and fifth edition. His newest is Million Dollar Maverick: Forge Your Own Path to Think Differently, Act Decisively, and Succeed Quickly (Bibliomotion, 2016). His books have been on the curricula at Villanova, Temple University, and the Wharton School of Business, and have been translated into 12 languages.

Success Magazine cited him in an editorial devoted to his work as “a worldwide expert in executive education.“ The New York Post called him “one of the most highly regarded independent consultants in America.“

He is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Press Institute, the first-ever for a non-journalist, and one of only seven awarded in the 65-year history of the association.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Alan.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Million Dollar Maverick, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Weiss: My grammar school teachers, who are recognized in a couple of my books. They taught me how to read with comprehension, write with expression, listen with discernment, and speak with influence. They were far more powerful for me than any subsequent undergraduate or graduate professor.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Weiss: Working at a training firm in Princeton in the 70s. I traveled the world and learned the business in the trenches, and left as the number two person in the company. I was a globalist before it was fashionable, and I saw what the real problems were on the plant floor and in the customer’s office or home.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Weiss: I was fired as CEO of a consulting firm in 1985 by a clueless, wealthy man who owned it. I resolved no idiot would ever again control my fate. I went out on my own with a vengeance. When people are fired, they become distraught or angry. I was angry.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Weiss: The actual four degrees, very little. They mean nothing from a marketing standpoint. But I made it a habit to read every word on every page of every book I was assigned. I thought that’s why I was there, that’s why I had taken the loans to pay for tuition. Learning how to learn—heuristics—was extremely helpful. I also saw great and horrid examples of teaching and recognized the difference.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why? .

Weiss: That it’s run by people in executive suites with the same personality issues, emotions, politics, and insecurities as the people on the front line and on the plant floor, but they’re just playing with more money. That’s important to know to avoid being intimidated by large offices and big mouths.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Weiss: The Grapes of Wrath: You NEVER give up. Gone With the Wind: A way of life will be subsumed by higher technology and greater industrialization. Titanic: Normative pressure can drive people to participate in even a horrible experience. And: Nothing is unsinkable.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’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.”

Weiss: A platitude. People are seeking strong leaders who can light the way for the journey. If they weren’t, they’d do it themselves. Consensus leadership is one of those things that looks good on paper and fails as soon as you take it out of the box.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Weiss: Another dumb platitude. The essence of strategy is creating a picture of the future which you seek to achieve. You have to cull the non-essential, I’d agree, but that’s a by-product, not the “essence.”

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Weiss: I agree with that. Times change more quickly than anyone realizes. But it’s tomorrow’s dangerous idea that we want to create.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Weiss: I love Asimov and I concur. I also find that science and religion are first cousins, not arch enemies.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Weiss: That’s been proved time and again with clients I’ve observed. No strategy fails in its formulation, where it winds up in fancy binders gathering dust on distant shelves. It’s the accountability for implementation that fails, and that’s what I’ve urged my clients to take great care with.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Weiss: Drucker is drop dead brilliant. I find that “failure work” (doing again what wasn’t done right the first time) kills individual and organizational productivity. Here’s my favorite Drucker quote, very apt in a world of political correctness: “…and laws that result from a “scandal” are invariably bad laws. They punish ninety-nine innocents to foil one miscreant. They penalize good practice, yet rarely prevent malpractice. They express emotion rather than reason.”

Morris: Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

Weiss: Lincoln. He allowed his principles to guide him through horrible times, terrible bloodshed, and nearby rivals. He was concerned with what was right, not what was popular.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Weiss: We must understand that people change every day in every way—on the highway, at their jobs, with their families—and it’s a myth that they resist change. They respond well to an attractive future. It’s the JOURNEY that causes problems if it’s ambiguous. True leaders have to say, “Follow me. I have a light, and I’m on the horse, just keep close. If anyone shoots, they’ll hit me first.” Look around, people aspire to change and to better ways daily, IF they feel the route is safe.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Weiss: Retaining top talent in shifting conditions. Turbulence is the new normal. The jobs lost and people underemployed today are NOT the result of the last recession, but rather a seismic shift in the nature of work. This will continue. Our schools can’t keep up with it very well. Leaders need to create a succession plan and talent attraction based on FUTURE needs, not today’s needs. When Kodak declined in the film business it was still hiring chemical engineers, even though photography was turning electronic.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

Alan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His blog link

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