Robert Dilenschneider on High-Impact Decision-Making: An interview by Bob Morris

Robert L. Dilenschneider has hired more than 3,000 successful professionals, and advised thousands more. He is founder of The Dilenschneider Group, a corporate strategic counseling and public relations firm based in New York City. Formerly president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, he is the author of the bestselling books Power and Influence, A Briefing for Leaders, On Power, and his latest, Decisions: Practical Advice from 23 Men and Women Who Shaped the World.

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Who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

My father made a huge difference in my life. He always did the right thing. From time to time he suffered consequences but it was always the correct step.

The greatest impact on your professional development?

Understanding that the client comes first, second and third and recognizing what he or she needs. And the client is always right but you do need to push back and help the client understand a different approach is the better way to go from time to time. In the end, the client will thank you for sticking with your convictions.

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

My dad said on my graduation day I had three opportunities to pursue — selling shoes, joining the army or going to New York to plumb opportunities in that City. I went to New York. Getting to know city and all it offers was an eye opener and a challenging experience. And when I landed my first job I found terrific mentor in Dick Darrow. He was tough — he asked me to write, rewrite and write again a two page press release until I had it right. He used every opportunity, good or bad, for it to be a teaching moment and I soaked it all in and learned a tremendous amount from him that remains with me today.

It’s not easy to be alone in a new job, a new opportunity, a new place to live. You have to align yourself with individuals who are smart, who will help you, and that you can trust. If you surround yourself with success, you too will be on that path.

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

My formal education at the University of Notre Dame was invaluable. It taught me to think, reinforced in me that I should always do the right thing, to always raise the bar for others around me, and so much more.  My days in South Bend are some of the best days of my life. University of Notre Dame instilled in me qualities that remain with me today.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes the challenges when having to make a high-impact decision?

High Noon with Gary Cooper. He did the right thing when no one would help him. And I have spent my entire career working hard to always to do the right thing in the face of great adversity.

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.”

Tao Te Ching’s brilliant quotation shows how people can help one another and build on any challenge. The fact that there is no “I” in team is quoted often but very true. It takes teamwork to move mountains, to instill values, to keep a community together.

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

Focus is the key amid so many opportunities. Never lose sight of what your goal is and do not get distracted or stray from reaching it.   Always have a game plan in mind on how you are going to go down the path and stick with it.

From H.L. Mencken “To every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

Every issue must be thought through for all the angles and complications. Every possible scenario needs to be considered.  Every problem has a unique set of circumstances. There is no “cookie cutter” answer. So think through every scenario for every problem before offering the solution.

From Maya Angelou: “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.”

It is important to take people to a higher level. Ronald Reagan encouraged us to look at the grass field over the mountain. And look at what happened.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

My background is in the communications field. There was a time when people actually picked up the phone, had a conversation, and conducted their business.  We hosted events so we could spend time out of the office with clients and friends of the firm.  We did everything we could to find a way to “talk” to people. To bond with our clients. If we weren’t talking with them on the phone we were writing short, handwritten notes, and more. It’s very different now. Most people sit at their computers all day and email and never pick up the phone. Some people actually don’t even have a phone on their desk. And if you pick up the phone most times you will get the person’s voice mail. Many people work remotely and have never met their colleagues.

Organizations need to find ways to communicate with their employees and make them feel that they are part of a thriving organization that relies on them.

And employees need to find ways to communicate with their colleagues, not just the computer, but face to face, over the phone, not a text.

Don’t get me wrong. Technology is a great thing and it certainly has changed the world and the way we operate. But there is nothing wrong with sending a card, a thank you note, making a call to say thank you.

I still put pen to paper and hand write notes of congratulations and thank you. And on most occasions I will receive a handwritten note back, thanking me for taking the time and how delighted the individual was to receive a piece of mail on their desk or at their home.

Now please shift your attention to Decisions. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

My goal in writing the book was to help everyone in their daily lives make the tough decisions that they always try to avoid. We all do this. We delay, we ponder, we put it off until the next day.  And when you look at the 23 men and women and the lessons they teach us all, you and I will hopefully be in a better position to make informed decisions.

What were the criteria you used when selecting those who “shaped the world”?

Every one is a decision-maker. What time to get up in the morning? That’s a decision that could change the course of your entire day. Hundreds of decisions will come into play once that first decision of the morning is made.

What I looked for in writing this book were individuals who made a big decisions that shaped the world. I sought to find recognizable figures that made decisions from which you and I can learn.

And each of the 23 men and women sat alone and made their decisions, much the same way each of us has to deal with a decision, whether it is going for a job, spending money or many other decisions that will shape your life.

In my review of the book for Amazon US, UK, and Canada, I suggested others who — in my opinion — are worthy of inclusion. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Who were some of the others whom you also considered?

The central reason for inclusion was that there was a clear decision or decision point (not a movement, an idea, an invention, etc.) that changed the world. Many ideas have changed the world, but they could not be linked to one specific decision.

In writing the book I tried to come up with a diverse group of men and women. The number 23 is arbitrary, it could have been more or it could have been fewer.

I would prefer not to say who didn’t make this particular book as thought is being given to Volume 2!

That’s good to hear. Your thesis and execution are brilliant. Lots of people make bad decisions and then must decide what to do about them. Any advice?

My advice is, first of all, forgive yourself if you were swept up in forces beyond your control and made bad, stupid or ineffectual decisions. Forgive yourself even if there are no such forces. But this doesn’t mean quit. It means to get up and keep going. If it was a bad decision, why? Analyze what could have been done differently. What happened that turned a smart decision into a bad decision. And use this analysis to develop another path to reaching your goal. The most important thing is to never give up.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Decisions will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

My advice for someone setting out into a career in business is simple. Don’t just focus on the job at hand. Focus on what’s happening in the industry, stay abreast of trends, continue to build a network of individuals you can come to rely on and you can trust. Pay attention to what is happening not only in one’s small world but in the larger world.   Ignorance of reality cannot possibly lead to good decisions. One has to stay abreast of current events. It’s not the person who sits in a corner at their computer all day without engaging with people who will be on the fast track.  It is the individual who reflects not only a penchant for the job but a desire to do more, who has the knowledge to engage in conversation and is well rounded.

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

Please visit my website to learn more about Decisions.

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