Linda J. Popky: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

PopkyAward-winning marketing expert Linda J. Popky, the founder and president of Redwood Shores-based Leverage2Market Associates, transforms organizations through powerful marketing performance. Her clients range from small businesses and consultants to mid-sized companies and large Fortune 500 enterprises. She’s been involved with many of the Silicon Valley companies who developed and deployed the technologies that have changed the world over the last twenty-five years, including Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, NetApp, PayPal, Plantronics, Autodesk, Applied Materials, and others.

A consultant, speaker, and educator, Linda has been named one of the top women of influence in Silicon Valley and inducted into the Million Dollar Consultant® Hall of Fame. She is the past president of Women in Consulting and is a member of the Watermark Strategic Development Board. The first marketing expert worldwide certified to offer the Private Roster™ Mentoring Program for consultants and entrepreneurs, Linda has taught marketing at San Francisco State University’s College of Extended Learning, University of California Santa Cruz Extension in Silicon Valley, and West Virginia University’s Integrated Marketing Communications program.

Linda holds an MBA and a BS in Communications from Boston University. A classically trained pianist, she has also produced Night Songs, a CD of classical piano music. Her latest book, Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters, was published by Bibliomotion Books+Media (March 2015).

* * *

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

Popky: Probably my dad. He was a businessman and a community leader. He set a high bar for me to follow. Of course, back then no one talked about entrepreneurs, but he brought a real can-do attitude to everything he undertook, from building an insurance business to creating and leading a non-profit foundation to build housing for low income senior citizens.

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

Popky: I’ve had the good fortune to work with Million Dollar Consultant Alan Weiss over the last 10 years. Alan has coached and mentored some of the most successful solo consultants in the world. Not only have I learned about best practices in consulting, I’ve also had the opportunity to see those praactices put in action by members of his community.

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.

Popky: I’ve always been a writer, as well as a classical pianist. When I realized music was unlikely to be an appropriate career choice for me, I focused on ways I could be creative within the business environment. I’ve kept up the music, and am now looking at how I can integrate some of what I’ve learned over the years into the business environment The concept of noise, for example, comes from my musical background. Some sounds we consider noise and avoid, others we consider music and lean towards. How do we capture our audience’s attention and add that musical aspect to their lives?

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

Popky: I’m probably one of the few people you’ll meet today who actually has a career related to what they studied in college. I have two degrees from Boston University, an undergraduate degree in Communications, and an MBA. I got a strong foundation from BU and built upon that.

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?

Popky: It’s not about what you know or how hard you work. It’s about who you know and who knows you. And it’s critical to build a personal brand so you stand out from the crowd.

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

Popky: Probably my favorite movie of all time is The Sting. Newman and Redford taught us that you have to have a solid strategy. You have to know both your audience as well as who you need to influence to be successful. And things are not always what they appear to be at first glance. A more recent movie, Inside Man, applies many of the same principles. These are movies you can watch many times because you just don’t catch everything on the first or second go-round.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

It’s just about impossible to pick a single book. I’ve belonged to a great book club for a number of years and we read a wide variety of works that I wouldn’t necessarily choose for myself. This includes fiction, memoirs, history and historical fiction, among others. Everything I read informs my thinking, and I am constantly looking for business lessons in everything that goes on around me.

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.”

Popky: It’s amazing how much we can learn from listening to the people we want to influence. Once we understand their point of view, we can tailor our message to have a higher likelihood of being received. Great leaders know better than to try and impose new ideas on those whose behaviors they’d like to change. There’s a huge difference between compliance and wholehearted support.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Popky: He’s right about not worrying about people stealing your ideas. If you have good ideas, get them out there, show people the value, and they will come back to you to learn more. There’s no noise if you don’t make it, so it’s important that you get out there and let people know what you’re creating. However, no one wants an idea rammed down their throat. Better to have people hear what you have to say and come back because they want to be part of what you’re putting together.

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

Popky: As a musician, I’m fascinated by the concept of dissonance, which is the tension that occurs by combining two sounds that together are harsh or nonharmonious. Our concept about what is harmonious and accepted changes over time. This is true in business and society as well as music. So what we considered to be dissonant and jarring a decade or two ago, today is mainstream and eventually will be passe. I think what’s what Dawkins means when he says we go from dangerous idea to orthodoxy to cliché.

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….’”

Popky: Noticing what’s different or unexpected is an important step to enable innovation and creativity. “Eureka” implies you knew what you were looking for and now you’ve found it. “That’s odd” is more open-ended—something’s different and unexpected…how do we capitalize on that? The lesson is as important in business as in science.

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

Popky: Edison’s on to something here. All the visions in the world don’t matter if you can’t execute against them. However, what he’s missing is the inverse: Execution without vision is a terrible waste of time and resources. We see this much too often today—people so eager to execute they get ahead of the vision.

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

Popky: I’m with Drucker on this one. Too often I see technology and tools that help us automate processes we should no longer be doing at all…but now we’re doing them faster and more efficiently. That’s because it’s much easier to focus on tweaking something that’s already in existence, rather than looking outside the box—or perhaps even blowing up a few sacred cows—and having to rethink how to do something to start with.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, 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?

Popky: The key word here is “control.” We live in an age when it’s much harder to “control” people and information than in previous eras. Information is so much more accessible and available today than ever before. This allows more people to be better informed on any given subject and provide useful insights and opinions. However, when the rubber meets the road, someone still needs to be on the hook to gather the input and make an informed decision. I have not seen management by group consensus work effectively at great scale for an extended period of time.

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?

Popky: I love his approach! However, I don’t necessarily believe you should choose the mistakes you’ll make…in that case why bother to make them? I’d say it’s more important to be aware that there will be mistakes as a normal part of the process. We need to learn what went wrong and why, and then to incorporate that learning back into our process.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Storytelling creates empathy and shared experiences. It appeals to the emotion in us. It also requires one to understand what motivates and moves an audience. Great storytellers adjust their stories to the audience—it’s not one size fits all.

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?

Popky: I’m reminded of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Borg said, “Resistance is futile.” Only in totalitarian societies (or ones where cyborgs are in charge!) can we take such a stance on resistance. People resist change for several reasons, including what O’Toole says—we are comfortable just where we are now. The best way to get people to change is to show them why the change is in their self-interest. Asking people to change because “we told you so” is unlikely to provide a lasting effect, and usually results in a backlash.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m exploring the concept of dissonance. In music, as in life, it’s not the dissonance itself that is so powerful, but how it resolves. Change initiatives by their nature cause dissonance. Successful change happens when the key parties find and agree upon a way to reach resolution. Too often, the resolution is incomplete…or doesn’t happen at all.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Popky: Too many business school programs focus on theory at the expense of real world applicability. This shows up in several ways. First, while you need to understand basic principles, you also need to understand how to apply them in actual business situations. Second, many B-school students come out of school expecting the workforce to adapt to them. More training in soft skills—negotiation, communication, influence—would be valuable for business school grads. Third, it would be helpful for these students to develop a deeper understanding of how their chosen specialty interacts with other aspects of the business, such as product development, sales, customer support, and, more and more importantly, IT.

* * *

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

Leverage2Market Associates link

Linda’s Amazon page link

Marketing Thought Leadership link

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.