Reflections On Two Decades of Business Interviews & Book Reviews


A 12th century French monk, Bernard of Chartres, once observed that he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” Since 1999, I have reviewed about 3,400 business books (for Amazon US, UK, and Canada) and interviewed about 600 thought leaders. Those are indeed broad shoulders to stand atop and I have learned much of great value.

Over time, my own thoughts about the business world have changed—as has the business world— and so have the thoughts of those from whom I’ve learned so much.

Long ago, Heraclitus suggested that “everything changes, nothing changes.” That is certainly true. The business world today really is much more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than any prior time that I can recall. That said, the basic questions that must be answered remain the same:

1. Who is our customer?
2. What is our core business?
3. Where and how should we do business?
4. How can we create or increase demand for what we sell?
5. How can we create what Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell characterize as “customer evangelists”?

Few of the C-level executives I have known could answer all four accurately. Ignorance can cause all manner of serious problems that are avoidable. (1) You’ll be wasting money trying to sell to those who have little (if any) interest in what you offer. (2) Every core business solves problems and/or improves quality of life. It is imperative to understand that people do not need quarter-inch drill bits; they need quarter-inch holes. (3) Where to fish? Where the fish are. (4) Select “bait” that has maximum appeal. (5) Think of “customer evangelists” as an extended sales force. Prepare them to share the “gospel” (i.e. good news) of doing business with you.

Responding to the “Must Answer” Questions

There are valuable insights I have gained from various thought leaders over the years. I’ve used several of these (and other) insights when composing reviews or sets of interview questions; I also use them when planning and conducting workshops for corporate executives. I urge you to have a lined notebook near at hand (the “Mead Marble” is my personal favorite) in which to record quotations when you come upon them as well as your own comments, questions, and references.

These are among the the insights I have “recycled” most often:

“I look at good leaders like sheepdogs. Good sheepdogs have to follow three rules. Number one, you can bark a lot, but you don’t bite. Number two, you have to be behind; you cannot be ahead of the sheep. Number three, you must know where to go, and you mustn’t lose the sheep.” – Jim Collins

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

“Every company knows what it does and most companies understand how they do it, but very few firms really understand and articulate why they exist— the goal or mission that inspires their employees to get out of bed in the morning… People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek

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

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” – Margaret Mead (again)

“Champions get up when they can’t.” – Jack Dempsey

“Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.” – Sun Tzu

“People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.” – Theodore Levitt

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.” – Warren Buffett

“The early bird may get the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.” – Steven Wright

Here are two questions for you: What specific lesson have you learned from each of these? How can you apply that lesson immediately in your workplace or personal life?

In recent years, I have conducted a few workshops that focus on the power of effective storytelling. I point out to participants that almost all great leaders throughout history used the basic elements of a story to anchor their ideas and calls-to-action in a human context (e.g. Aesop with fables, Jesus with parables, Lincoln with anecdotes). In my opinion, the greatest value of storytelling — other than entertainment— is its ability to establish a rapport with people’s hearts as well as with their minds. The next time you have a major presentation to make, consider using the story format: setting, characters, issues or conflicts, plot developments, climax (resolution), and wrap-up. 

When hundreds of parents wrote to Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer) complaining about tuition increases, this was her response: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” By all means get as much formal education as you can but keep in mind this observation by Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” 

My lifelong learning continues and so should yours. Yes, there is much to learn from today’s world but it is only one of several classrooms. Explore the others with an open mind — but, as Walter Kotschnig suggests, not so open that your brains fall out.

One final insight, from Voltaire, that has really helped my personal growth and professional development: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

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