Danny Stern: An interview by Bob Morris

Danny Stern

One never knows how previous experiences and current contacts can spur new ideas and opportunities. Danny Stern is testament to this. He joined Stern + Associates in January 2002 after 24 years in the lecture industry, and is an integral player of the management team as the firm’s consultant – managing business development and providing high-level corporate and marketing strategy to clients. In his career at the Leigh Bureau and as its president for 10 years, he signed, managed and represented many of the great authorities, speakers, and journalists on business issues of that era. He now translates his expertise, skills, and intelligence in helping great thinkers develop and communicate their messages. Stern + Associates’ clients include thought leaders such as Clayton Christensen, Michael Porter, Dave Ulrich, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Michael Beer, Nicholas Negroponte, Dov Seidman, Jim Champy and Sir Terry Leahy (CEO of TESCO), among others.

This interview was conducted a few years ago.

Morris: For those unfamiliar with what a firm such as the Leigh Bureau does, please explain. Also, why are these services so important to its clients? 

Stern: Leigh Bureau had a long held strategy for representing speakers on an exclusive basis. Most agencies today represent speakers on a non-exclusive fashion. Some agencies have a mix of “exclusives” and “listers.”

I spent 24 years there, half of my life. Over those years the business evolved in so many ways. Leigh Bureau was founded in 1924 and became the dominant firm through the next few decades. In the first half of the 20th Century the customer base was primarily made up of town halls and social groups, such as women’s auxiliary leagues, spread throughout the country. The business eclipsed during the Second World War as important figures, both domestic and foreign, would tour and talk to town hall audiences about the experiences on the front lines, or on perspectives from Washington, London, Moscow, etc.

Each year the town halls would book a package or a series of events from an agency for it audiences of popular authors, poets, artists, photo-journalists, journalists, experts on food and travel – even Broadway and motion picture actors offering eloquent evenings of speeches, one-man shows or other forms of entertainment or information. Eleanor Roosevelt was a Leigh Bureau client for many years. These were pre-television days and newspapers, magazines, radio, and town halls were the means by which news, ideas, and entertainment were offered. Flying was too expensive at the time to be justified and thus “speakers” generally moved from town to town via train. Thus the term “lecture circuit.”

So, this is a bit more than you wanted to know but history is context. Every industry comes down to having three or four dominant competitors, ones that you might refer to as top tier, and hoards of other second and third tier players. The speaking or lecture business evolved again in the sixties when college and university budgets for speakers increased dramatically and, as a result, a whole new cast of speakers were in demand.

By the late 70’s, early 80’s the lecture business again changed with the times. At Leigh Bureau we saw the development of executive education programs at corporations, as well as top management meetings, requiring the need for content-rich business and social change authorities as speakers. The early 80’s brought public awareness that the Japanese economy was about to eclipse our own. This coupled with popularity of Ronald Reagan and the Supply-siders as well as the emergence of Apple and Microsoft was a period of disruptive and exciting times for us. I moved from the Beverly Hills office of Leigh Bureau to the East Coast office in Princeton to help with the transition.

We developed a discipline for not only looking to who might be the next big name but also on the next big idea. If we got the idea right, we would then go and sign not only one articulate expert but a group of leading thinkers on the theme. So, while our competitors were busy with their changing opportunities we were signing most of the major business speakers of that era. By the end of nineteen-eighties we essentially represented, on an exclusive basis, most of the top business authorities or gurus.

I had the good fortune of being mentored by some of the smartest people in the world, from Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis to, later, Clay Christensen, Michael Porter and other people from whom I learned. There was also Tony Athos, who probably taught me more about the art of speaking than anyone, as well as Fred Friendly, who challenged me with every engagement about why he should accept an arrangement, and it had to be for more than just the money that was being paid.  Friendly’s Socratic format also taught me that learning comes in various forms. From the Friendly experience we signed all the well-known television moderators and created a mini-industry within the lecture agency.

The implications of information technology were first introduced to me in the early nineteen-eighties, again, a bit ahead of the curve that was going on in the industry. This stimulus actually came from our customer base, whether they were large corporate customers at IBM or small consulting groups, such as Index Group out of Cambridge. Index, under the leadership of Jim Champy, Ron Christman and the partnership with Michael Hammer, would develop reengineering. So we were in the midst of all that. The Internet was beginning to have its implications as we had signed Nicholas Negroponte in 1988, just ahead of the buzz about the Internet and the dot.com explosion.  By the time he was financing Wired magazine, publishing a column of his own in the first few years and then the number one best seller, “Being Digital,” Nicholas was also inventing for us an entirely new new market that was buying at a very rapid rate. I had to go out and find a Don Tapscott and others who could handle the volume and deliver well to an audience. Not only did Nicholas wind up becoming the hottest speaker of that era, it brought along a number of his colleagues from MIT Media Lab and elsewhere in MIT, so once again it was the development of an industry within an industry.

Lastly, I’ll mention that by the time I was leaving the Leigh Bureau in the beginning of this new millennium, the lecture business had expanded to such a degree that half of our volume was from outside of the United States. This had to do with higher fees being paid in order to attract U.S. based speakers to go abroad, but understand that this was simply a complete revolution within the lecture business from the business I had entered in the late 70’s. Also by this time, and part of the rationale for my wanting to make some changes in my life, was the realization that we now had something on the order of 200 to 300 competitors on a worldwide basis. While still a top tier firm, and with no certain knowledge about market share since most of the firms are privately owned, we knew that the business model for lecture agencies was once again fundamentally shifting.

But by this point I had spent literally half of my life working for the agency and it had come to the time where I decided to retire. There was then a four year non-compete which helped me take a little time off and eventually figure that until I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life I’d help Susan, my wife and life partner, in the development of her public relations firm.

Morris: To what extent does Stern + Associates provide comparable (if not identical) services?

Stern: Stern + Associates is actually a public relations firm. We represent a variety of very large corporations and their general public relations interests, including companies that are leaders in the areas of environment, health care, architecture and design, management consulting and other fields. Our business has grown quite dramatically over the last few years, including a thirty-five percent growth during 2009, a year that both Susan and I had anticipated being a very difficult year for us. Instead, it turned out that our reputation and services were getting better and better and more clients come to us. Also, after my non-compete ended, some of my former clients thought it might be best if I started working with them again and those include people such as Clay Christensen and Michael Porter. Clay asked me not only to represent him for speaking activities but also for literary representation (we helped bring out “The Innovator’s Prescription” and “Disrupting Class”, both of which have been the number one bestsellers in their markets) as well as to help on public relations activities for him and his colleagues and coauthors.

This started to develop a model of activities where I would represent speakers but this would be intimately tied to the objective of helping grow awareness for their brands, books and their names. I think that what remains from what I learned at the Leigh Bureau is that you have to look after your clients’ interests, and it’s not about making every deal, but basically looking after the long term welfare of your client – and I mean that in every aspect of our work for them. The transactional aspect of selling speaking engagements is one in which I have had literally thousands of transactions while at Leigh Bureau so there are hardly deals or complications of the lecture business that I haven’t had some experience in. That sort of confidence that exists for somebody in his late forties and now mid fifties is a very different experience than a young person in his early or mid twenties can appreciate since they simply have to go through so many trials and errors to become proficient at their profession.

Morris: In How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), Dov Seidman explains that his book ”offers something that will carry you beyond short-term rewards toward lasting success.” Those who get their “HOWs right” will achieve enduring personal and organizational business achievement. In your own life, what have been the most important “HOWs”?

Stern: Bob, I’m particularly appreciative of your asking this question about How. Dov Seidman is someone I met a few years back while working at Stern + Associates. He was introduced to me by Steve Kerr, the former head of GE’s Crotonville and head of the comparable unit at Goldman Sachs when he introduced me to Dov. Meeting Dov at his office in Westwood, California was one of those unique experiences that I found a privilege to be part of after being in the speakers business for many years and being able to have a one to one conversation of a serious nature with an amazingly interesting person and extraordinary mind. I felt a similar reaction on a few occasions, such as when I first had a conversation with Jim Collins, shortly after Built to Last, or met Michael Hammer before the publishing of Reengineering the Corporation and was impressed with these folks for having a unique set of thoughts and apparatus on how they would express their thoughts and a confidence that how they would share what they were doing would have a big impact on the world. Understand that when I signed Peter Drucker to the Leigh Bureau, by that stage Peter was well into having developed his reputation for being the most influential management authority of all time. In other words, I was not about to make him a star. I think I helped improve his lecture activities and the efficiencies that can take place around a speakers world, but to help launch somebody from a position of being reasonably known in one specific area to being well known across a broad section of business audiences and industries requires a good deal of confidence in the person as well as some bravado.

But talent of that nature aside, there have been a few occasions in my life where I realized that I was just at the right place at the right time to help someone become launched into much broader recognition for their work. I believed that about Dov and his work since we first met. Moreover, I have to tell you that these other people who have impressed me in these respects have also changed me. Dov’s explanations for ethical behavior, and even “outbehaving” the competition as the new means for competitive advantage, have been a sincerely important learning experience for me. This is similar to the experience I had in getting to know Paul Krugman and Larry Summers in the eighties as they taught me about ideas related to economics and my sense that these two had inordinate ability to increase their exposure to audiences well beyond the economic world in which they were mostly known at the time. Then similarly in the nineties, as I say, there were experiences with Jim Collins who also taught me on a personal basis a great deal, and I suspect he would tell you that we taught each other.

But getting back to your question about getting your “HOWs right,” Susan has always run an extraordinarily ethical organization and she has always put her employees first. She is an infinitely better manager than I ever was, and I regarded myself as reasonably successful during my career at the Leigh Bureau as well as here at Stern + Associates, but Susan really does lay the most important ethical and cultural foundations for our organization. Part of getting my “HOWs right” as I got into my late forties and early fifties was to appreciate the growth of the people who work with us. This was not as important to me during my era at the Leigh Bureau because most of the people I worked with were exactly my age or older and it was a more competitive experience where culture wasn’t as important. To some extent, the culture of the place was created in the mid nineteen-twenties. In your own firm you can’t blame anyone but yourself for what does or doesn’t go right.

In Dov Seidman’s How, he has helped to give us words to describe the foundations that were already established. I do believe that without employing what is really Dov’s concept, in a literal sense we have been “outbehaving” our competitors. As a result, corporations large and small and individuals of enormous importance have come to us because they have had experience working with other agencies in the public relations or lecture business and have decided that we are more aligned with their interests in the very long term.

Morris: Looking back over (let’s say) the last decade, what have been the most significant changes in how talent is developed and then marketed?

Stern: The last decade has seen a revolution in how talent was developed and then marketed. First of all, you have to appreciate that the revolution comes from a different source. The ideas of corporate transformation or information technology change, which were fundamentally right in many respects, were quite wrong. Some of the leading business authorities of the last three decades were absolutely right about the need for fundamental organizational change, from the government level to the industry level, but oftentimes they got their “Hows” wrong. Without naming names, there were leading consulting firms and top management gurus espousing the qualities of Enron and Worldcom because they were relying on not their own research on these organizations but on information gleaned from reading the national press. By getting away from their capabilities to study corporations and industries as academics and/or having done serious case studies they had started relying on what the popular press was reporting and how the stock market was evaluating these organizations.

On that basis they felt that the corporate strategies must be the best because the stockholders return was so much higher than their competitor’s. But the truth was that when those companies began to collapse and the dot.com period also blew up, a lot of these very smart people and their ideas were not just put under the microscope but were being thoroughly rejected. Meeting planners needing to still put on an event were understandably cautious about presenting business gurus whose reputations may have been, for the moment, shattered. By the way, this affected even those management authorities who had not been in error about these corporations or comparable problems, but to a certain degree it was a matter of meeting planners throwing out the baby with the bath water. So in the early part of this decade there was a dramatic shift from business authorities to celebrities. By celebrities I would include popular speakers from Colin Powell to Malcolm Gladwell and even Rudy Giuliani. The value there was not so much what was being said as much as the ability of these people to draw an audience.

That would have a predictable impact in that the content of some of these presentations was so limited and the fees for these people were so extraordinarily high (it’s obviously a supply and demand world) that the return on investment should have always been evaluated for more than just how many fannies you get into seats but how much is being learned. Celebrities don’t really teach. What Tony Athos taught me is that great speakers are great teachers. While there was some recovery to this world during much of this last decade, by the time this latest recession hit there was not only a fundamental question about the value of business authorities but now there are questions about the value of celebrity. Now meetings get cancelled entirely. This is not just due to the economic cost of putting on a meeting or the cost to the attendees to get there and to seek lodging and/or pay registration fees, but for the fundamental question of what value is being delivered by these meetings!

In Clayton Christensen’s terminology, this is cause for fundamental disruption in the conference business and all the related industries. Even the internal corporate event came under pressure and some major management meetings that we were working with were cancelled outright. So I would say that consistent with what’s been going on with the rest of the economy and the changes in the world order have been the destructions taking place in the lecture business. The public relations business, by the way, has held up better than most industries. This probably is due to the fact that corporations, investing as they have in the past in marketing, will now put a disproportionate amount of effort into public relations as opposed to advertising. Public relations has always been much less expensive, usually about one-tenth, if not less, in terms of the investment for a corporation as opposed to straightforward advertising programs. Public relations people have become much more swift on new media, contacts with bloggers, developing content material for Web sites, developing thought leadership programs that work in parallel with the general branding and marketing activities, etc. Stern + Associates has become both a public relations and thought leadership firm in that we blend the traditional and non-traditional activities into a uniform business strategy.

When companies and individuals come to us now, it is with the understanding that we can help increase their business! Bottom line, we’re not just about exposure; we’re about helping companies increase revenue. When the investment in our firm is compared to the realized revenue, we are generally regarded as a great return on investment. Without any more self promotional commentary, I would say to you that this last decade has been the most revolutionary and difficult decade for our customers and clients but one in which we have learned more about ourselves, our values, our business propositions and the importance of securing the best possible employees and making them a great team. If I’ve learned one thing in the last decade, it is how to help my wife and her colleagues create great teams, a kind of work that I never understood nor learned when I was in my prior profession.

Morris: Your firm represents a number of prominent authors. In your opinion, given the proliferation of electronic reading devices, is the bound volume an endangered species?

Stern:  That’s the easiest question you’ve asked. Ultimately, I have no doubt, that due to economic and environmental reasons the bound paper book will no longer exist. At this stage, electronic books only account for somewhere between one and two percent of the books sold in America. We can all guess as to how long it will take, but my sense is that within the next five years more than fifty-percent of the books sold will be available in bits and bytes and the inevitable end of the paper bound book is a certainty. By the way, every book publisher knows this. The evolution of that industry is just one in the midst of upheaval and as the dominant incumbents begin to shift, more of the clarity of the future of this industry will become evident.

Morris: Over the years, which persons have had the greatest impact on the development of your career?

Stern: I’d first have to say it’s my wife, Susan, and my father, Arthur. My wife has been my partner since we were married 27 years ago and she has been extremely important in terms of my understanding how the world works and for giving me an entirely different perspective than I might have enjoyed otherwise. My father was an extremely successful businessperson and so I could always rely on his judgment on business and ethical questions. He is still very active in my life as we talk almost every day.

There are too many others to mention among the corporate executives and clients that I have represented over the years and I would be fearful about forgetting one who deserves at least as much praise for everything they have contributed to my understanding of the way the world works. What I will say is that the generosity of my clients has always been something that has struck me. Deep in the characters of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Warren Bennis, Fred Friendly, Nicholas Negroponte, Clayton Christensen, Michael Porter, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and others I have known, was a genuine interest in what I was doing and when they might gently nudge me in a direction different than the one I was going. That generosity of spirit has always been one that has struck me. You might conclude that the fact that I was promoting these speakers’ interests and increasing their compensation might have been at the core of their interest, and I wouldn’t say that was outside of their interest, but I would say that’s uninteresting when you have a relationship.

Ultimately, my making an increase in their revenue per engagement is not terribly interesting conversation. When these folks would ask after how they could help me, or how is my wife and family doing, or how is school with our daughters, it was more than just a passing social obligation; it was a real care.  I would also say that working with these folks and their spouses was part of the rapport and a uniquely rewarding part of that relationship. In turn, there are other corporate executives who were very important to me because they were the ones who provided the partnership opportunities to develop exciting, original programming. This included some of the executives at CSC Index in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, some of the talented folks at Fortune and Dow Jones in the following decade and the folks we talk to today at the World Economic Forum, TED MED, Clinton Global Initiative, Aspen Ideas Festival, etc. These are the people who make us think and work and figure out how to fit our clients into these top tier programs.

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began that career?

Stern: As I mentioned earlier, I am the son of very successful parents, both of whom are Holocaust survivors.  My father and mother came to this country in 1952. My father worked initially for GE as a scientist but rose through the ranks of that company and others to ultimately become president of a large corporation. I saw him work hard and I also saw him come to the top of not just a corporation but also his industry since he also became president of the Institute of Electronic Engineers, the largest trade association in the engineering profession.

Like many first-born sons of successful parents I had decided to strike out into a bizarre industry such as lectures but was quite committed to the idea of being a leader in the field and making my mark. I think I was a little too obsessed with the idea of becoming president of the company. Having achieved that before my forties, I needed to go through evaluations at that stage about what was really important in this world. My wife as my partner and best friend helped me understand that some of the goals that I set in my early twenties had been good propulsion mechanisms but not really very significant. But don’t misunderstand me. I learned a great deal and I appreciate the years that were afforded to me by Bill Leigh. I learned many things from him and from our clients as well as customers and I became pretty good at what I did due to the experiences that I faced each and every day. I guess I feel that my appreciation for my success might have been higher if I wasn’t so focused on becoming successful.

Morris: Based on what you have observed over the years, what is the single most important business issue that is most often ignored or under-estimated by C-Level executives? Why?

Stern:  That’s easy. Corporate executives still undervalue ethics and the obvious fact that the world has become so flat and transparent that there are no secrets that can be held. That probably has always been the case, but it’s ever more so now and one should just assume it’s going to be ever more so in the future. Dov Seidman is absolutely correct and that’s why Tom Friedman has become so enamored with Dov’s ideas. What is simply stunning is the failure of CEO executives and other leaders to appreciate that they cannot beat this game. Worse, if they try and get away with a lie or even an equivocation, their failure to clearly articulate a message and the truth is going to be exacerbated to such a point that it will be out of their control.

There is no managing the traditional and non-traditional or new media.  An error is going to be exploited and magnified to such a degree that the cost for repair will far exceed the cost for telling the truth. It simply boggles the mind that political and business leaders of this last two years still don’t get this.  And because the reactions can be so hyper-negative and so dramatic the costs, not just to their companies and to their legacies can be extreme, but the cost to the rest of the economy can also be over magnified. These folks need to understand that when they make a choice they are not just affecting their own lives and the people who work for them, but that we are all so connected that the choice they make can affect a household in Rakeovic or the ability to fund a One Laptop Per Child program in a small village in Darfur.

Morris: Recent Gallup research indicates that, on average, more than 70% of employees in U.S. companies are either not positively and productively engaged or are actively undermining efforts to achieve their organization’s goals. If true, how do you explain this situation?

Stern:  That’s another great question. I started out earlier reflecting on the culture that Susan has established for Stern + Associates. I am confident that if you spoke to any employee of our company that they would share with you very positive perspectives about working here. I don’t claim we are perfect but I do claim that we are honest.  Noel Tichy wrote a book about Jack Welch years ago entitled Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will. I believe that is absolutely the truth. I think it was actually better said by Rabbi Hillel in the first century B.C. who stated that “If I am not for myself who will be? And when I am for myself what am I? And if not now, when?” We believe that it’s important for everyone to look after themselves as well as their colleagues, and to do so now and don’t delay it. This sense of things creates an atmosphere for expecting the most from yourself but also from your colleagues. Incidentally, not all of our colleagues work out and last with Stern + Associates. Roughly half of the people we hire don’t work out, but it’s not because Susan or I choose to have them leave.  They either realize they aren’t up to the tasks and expectations of the team or the others within the organization feel that they can’t make contributions that are equal to the expectations when they were hired on. It’s a great place to work but we work hard and we work smart.

Morris: Here’s a question you are probably asked all the time. Why are there so many “celebrities” whose only claim to fame is their talent for self-promotion?

Stern:  Peter Drucker used to talk about business executives who become so popular that they’re really not important leaders any longer, they are simply celebrities. We don’t represent celebrities. What we do is represent people who will make a positive difference in this world and will be unique and thoughtful in the way they do it. Michael Porter, Dave Ulrich, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Nicholas Negroponte, Dov Seidman or Clayton Christensen and others we represent are not only their fields’ foremost authorities, they are passionate about what they teach. It’s why they are without peers. They recognize that their abilities to influence the behavior of organizations or individuals are increased by creating greater awareness for their ideas, names and the institutions to which they are affiliated.

When we helped publish Disrupting Class – a book about improving K-12 education in the USA – a couple of years ago there were so many publishers that rejected the book that it was troubling. Essentially, what Clay was proposing was to apply the theory of disruptive innovation to education. The book has been number one in its market for roughly 15 of the last 17 months since it was published. This was never, ever about celebrity. It was about helping to show educators ways to make their work better.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what do you think that reveals about social values?

Stern: On social values I would probably just go back to my training as a younger person but also reflect back on Hillel’s Golden Rule and that is love your fellow man. Hillel’s lessons are simply about respect and tolerance for your fellow man. In a business context it’s a careful blend of generosity, tolerance, reasonable expectations and performance for our clients.


 

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