Steve Yastrow: An interview by Bob Morris

YastrowSteve Yastrow is the author of three books: Ditch the Pitch: The Art of Improvised Persuasion, We: The Ideal Customer Relationship, and Brand Harmony. Management guru Tom Peters said, “When Steve Yastrow writes, I pay close attention,” and called Brand Harmony “compelling and powerful,” and We a “superb book.” Steve’s fresh, provocative approach to marketing, customer relationships and sales shows organizations how to create compelling customer beliefs that drive business results. As a consultant, speaker and writer he challenges his clients, audiences and readers to answer the question, “Do your customers believe in you?”

Steve’s in-depth, real-world experiences advising hundreds of companies and organizations inform his practical, proven approach to driving business results. His firm, Yastrow and Company, has served such clients as McDonald’s Corporation, The Tom Peters Company, Kimpton Hotels, the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, Agilent Technologies, Jenny Craig International, Great Clips for Hair, Cold Stone Creamery, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Viacord, and many other organizations. Steve was previously vice-president of resort marketing for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.

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Morris: Before discussing Ditch the Pitch, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your professional development? How so?

Yastrow: There are two people who taught me how to look at business with common sense, which is an invaluable perspective. Again, I need to point to my father, Shelby Yastrow, who was a senior executive with McDonald’s, running their legal department and a number of other departments. Dad’s business view is all about common sense. It’s hard to believe he’s an attorney! Also, Jim Noyes, who was my boss right out of business school, is a master of business common sense, and I use what he taught me every day.

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.

Yastrow: I became the vice-president of resort marketing at Hyatt Hotels at age 32, taking on responsibility for a struggling business that relied heavily on advertising for its marketing. It became clear to me, very quickly, that large advertising expenditures were doing very little to drive the business, and that a great customer experience at Hyatt Resorts was creating strong customer loyalty. That opened up a path, which I’ve been exploring for more than twenty years, which recognizes that a company’s most powerful marketing communications are often not created by the marketing department. I can draw a direct line from that realization to the publication of my first book, Brand Harmony, ten years later.

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

Yastrow: My undergraduate degree from Indiana University is in music composition and philosophy, followed by an MBA in marketing, finance and economics from the J.L. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It’s obvious how the MBA has helped me, but I’m convinced that both music composition and philosophy have helped my career immensely. Philosophy helped me learn how to think, and music composition helped me with everything from creativity, writing, aesthetics, ideas about communication and, importantly, the concept of brand harmony. The improv ideas in my most recent book, Ditch the Pitch, are heavily tied to my experience playing improvised music, which I’ve been doing since I was a teenager.

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

Yastrow: I’m going to cheat a little and refer to films of Shakepeare’s plays, which I think are laden with great business lessons. Hamlet, beyond the obvious issues of succession in a family enterprise, teaches a powerful lesson about the gap between knowing what to do and actually executing on what you know. Macbeth is in many ways the opposite of Hamlet, showing how impetuous action without strategic forethought can end in disaster. Romeo and Juliet illustrates how self-destructive it is to focus more on how much you hate your competition than on what you need to do to succeed; Tybalt is an all-too familiar character in business. And Lear shows how the vanity of leadership and the hubris of power can erode a leader’s true power base, to the point where he has no real support.

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

Yastrow: First, The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. She shows how different entities in power, including Troy falling for the Greek’s horse, the renaissance popes, the British during the time of the American colonies’ revolt and America in Vietnam, all brought about their own defeats through their own short-sightedness. This book is a mirror for many bad business decisions. Second, and on a related theme, Jared Diamond’s Collapse shows how strong societies and civilizations can fall apart through actions they could have controlled. His story of Easter Island, and how the building of those large statues destroyed their environment and their economy should be required reading for any company enjoying great success whose executives thinks they can do no wrong.

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

Yastrow: Thanks for introducing me to this quote. It exactly describes Yastrow and Company’s process of involving our clients’ employees in our strategy projects. Not only do employees provide great insights, they appreciate participating in the project and develop a sense of ownership for the strategies that lead to effective buy-in.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Yastrow: A wonderful premise for creating a brand strategy, and for creating a life. So much of my brand work is about helping companies get clear about who they are and who they intend to be. So often they use the competition as their reference point and distracted by wanting to be like – or unlike – their competitors. As Jerry Garcia said about the Grateful Dead, “We didn’t want to be the best at what we did, we wanted to be the only ones doing what we did.”

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Yastrow: What’s profound about this quote is that it recognizes that we create many of our own problems, and that we tend to use the same qualities that got us in trouble as we try to get out of trouble. This is what enables my consulting business to make a difference. I constantly see companies making this mistake.

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

Yastrow: One of the most influential pieces of business advice I ever received was from Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive, which a boss gave me in my 20s. Drucker says that effective executives focus more on “doing the right things” than on “doing things right.” This invaluable nugget of wisdom has helped me beyond measure: focus my energies, talents and attention on the most important actions.

Additionally, it’s amazing how much Drucker’s ideas influence the advice I give my consulting clients. So often they are focused on doing the same unimportant project or marketing campaign, year after year, without questioning whether it is worth doing at all.

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?

Yastrow: I know this sounds like it could be on a silly sales motivation poster, but I truly believe that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Failure is no fun, but I manage to look at every setback as a chance to learn something and benefit for the long term. Shoemaker seems to add a new twist to this by suggesting that we should choose actions with a high chance of failure if we know that this failure will be highly instructive. I like that.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Yastrow: There are many reasons, but the one that interests me the most is that they have not defined the core underlying strategies that direct their organization’s activities. Lacking this shared idea of the activities and strategies that are most important to their organization, they don’t trust that their people will do the right things. Strategy isn’t pie in the sky, 50,000-foot meaningless platitudes, and it doesn’t exist in a three-ring binder on the shelf. Strategies are the approaches your organization uses to reach its goals, and if these approaches are shared throughout the organization a leader should have no fear that work that he delegates will result in outcomes he doesn’t want.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, 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?

Yastrow: “Organizational judgment” is an important concept. The “great man” can’t be present at every point of decision, so he or she displays true leadership not by being involved in everything but by leading the creation of a strategic approach that equips people throughout the organization to make great decisions, based on this approach, no matter what situations they encounter. This is very similar to the thoughts on delegation I mentioned earlier.

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

Yastrow: Communication isn’t about dispensing information, it’s about helping others create an understanding of what it is you want them to believe. Stories are often great ways of doing this. This challenge is to communicate a story in a way that is relevant to the listener, which is really difficult with a monologue. One of the most effective storytellers I know is author Rabbi Karyn Kedar, who improvises her stories off of pre-determined themes, and includes personal, colorful examples that make her stories feel authentic and real. She is also acutely aware of how her story sounds from the perspective of the listener. She told me about a lesson her high school English teacher gave her: “There are three poems in every poem: The poem the writer intends to write, the poem that ends up on paper, and the poem the reader perceives.” Karyn knows that, like the poet, her ability to be an effective storyteller comes from closing the gap between the story she intends to communicate and the story her listeners perceive. Most storytellers are too hung up on the story in their own mind, and the story they tell doesn’t resonate with their listeners.

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?

Yastrow: This is the biggest challenge I face in helping companies change – they have comfort in the status quo, even if the current situation is not good. Overcoming this resistance requires the same communication principles that drive my marketing and sales principles: you can’t convince anyone of anything, but if you involve them in experiences and dialogue that help them come to the right conclusions on their own, they are more likely to see the light. Plato and Socrates taught us this 2300 years ago.

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?

Yastrow: I went to Kellogg at Northwestern University, at a time when the school was ranked as one of the top MBA programs. But my MBA education was lacking in the nuts and bolts of common sense and inter-personal relationships that have so much to do with business success. It’s similar to the way doctors are taught so little about nutrition in medical school.

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

Yastrow: Increasingly savvy, self-reliant, scrutinizing customers.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Ditch the Pitch. When and why did you decide to write it?

Yastrow: The idea grew over many years, as I crystallized my ideas about how not to do sales and marketing. Communication isn’t what you say; it’s how you are understood.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Yastrow: Yes. The key is improvisation. We can’t possibly know in advance what the best approach is in a customer conversation, so we need to be prepared to create a fresh, spontaneous dialogue that matters to the customer.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Yastrow: I didn’t realize, as I started this project, that the book’s form would be organized around the “Ditch the Pitch Habits.” But I realized that improvisation isn’t just “winging it,” it’s giving yourself a framework – these habits – upon which you can improvise.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of improvised persuasion?

Yastrow: Paying attention, creating a flowing dialogue, and focusing the conversation on the customer.

Morris: Why specifically is it preferable to traditional, more formal persuasion?

Yastrow: Simply because it enables you to create a much more relevant experience for your customer, one that not only engages them more but also encourages your customer to reveal more important information to you.

Morris: During a face-to face encounter, how important are body language and tone of voice? Please explain.

Yastrow: Everything. From your perspective, you can learn much about your customer from their body language and tone of voice. And, of course, your customer can learn a lot from yours. So much of communication is not from words.

YastrowMorris: While re=reading your book before formulating questions for this interview, I was again reminded of an observation César Ritz, long before founding the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, that superior service must seem “invisible.” In the same spirit, I suggest that improvised persuasion must seem effortless. What do you think?

Yastrow: Yes, to seem authentic it must not be obvious. My daughter called me today, after an experience trying to buy a sewing machine, to entertain me with a story about how the salesperson tried to force-fit my daughter’s first name into just about every sentence the salesperson said. In trying to be personal, the salesperson sounded formulaic.

Morris: You endorse six habits that, in your opinion, are essential to developing improvised persuasion skills. Which of the six seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

Yastrow: At the end of my Ditch the Pitch workshops I ask attendees which habit they feel the most proficient with, and which habit requires the most improvement. I’ve seen that, in discussing these issues, people have the most trouble with Habit #6, Don’t Rush the Story. We feel compelled to tell our customers our ideas as soon as we come up with them, even if the customer isn’t ready to hear them, and we are afraid to wait too long to tell customers things. The danger is that we often overwhelm our customers with too much information, too soon.

Morris: The effectiveness of which skill seems to be the most difficult to [begin italics] sustain [end italics]?

Yastrow: Paying attention and staying in the moment. We have so many distractions in our lives that we can often miss important cues from our customers because our minds have wandered.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Ditch the Pitch, what is the “dimmer switch”? What is its special significance?

Yastrow: Learning to ditch the pitch is not like an on/off switch, where you go from not ditching the pitch to ditching the pitch in one moment. We can improve our abilities to persuade one small increment at a time, by practicing improvised persuasion in all of our customer conversations.

Morris: Here’s another one of my favorite quotations, from Dale Carnegie. I think it is especially relevant to improvised conversations: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” What do you think?

Yastrow: No doubt. I believe the mantra of todays customer is, “If you want me to think you’re different, show me that you know what makes me different.”

Morris: In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith identifies 20 barriers to effective communication. They include adding too much value; responding to a comment with “Wrong,” “No,” “But,” or “However”; telling the world how smart you are; negativity or “Let me explain why that won’t work”; a need to share negative thoughts even when not asked for an opinion; making excuses; and clinging to the past; and not listening attentively.

In your opinion, what is the single greatest barrier to effective communication? How so?

Yastrow: Marshall Goldsmith has a great list, and I agree with them all. In my opinion, the number one barrier to great communication is trying to explain instead of converse. Number two is talking too much because, ironically, extra words get in the way of effective communication.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, how best to avoid or overcome that barrier?

Yastrow: The six ditch the Pitch Habits, and their related practices, are all designed to address this issue. Two practices that are especially valuable are “Make 95% of the conversation about your customer,” and “The One-Paragraph Rule,” which says that you should never speak more than one paragraph’s worth of information without leaving a break.

Morris: When preparing for and then conducting a brainstorming session, what are the most important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind?

Yastrow:: Chapter 10 of Ditch the Pitch is called “Ditch the Pitch to Brainstorm Ideas,” and it focuses on using the Ditch the Pitch habits to collaborate in creating new ideas. This chapter discusses how The Second City improv theater in Chicago even creates its scripted shows through a process of improvised rehearsals.

My team and I regularly use this principle in our brainstorming sessions. One of the most important concepts for doing this relates to Ditch the Pitch Habit #3, Create a Series of Yeses. You need to build on each other’s ideas by saying “Yes, and …” instead of reflexively shooting down people’s ideas or immediately saying why they won’t work. Second City teaches the principle “Every idea is a bridge to the best idea,” suggesting that you can always “get there from here.”

Morris: Of all that you have learned about and from improv comedy, what — in your opinion — can be of greatest value to those who need to become more persuasive in a workplace environment?

Yastrow: Chicago improv guru Mick Napier defines improvisation as “the art of not knowing what you are going to say or do next, and being completely OK with that.” When I ask improvising actors how they have the confidence to “be okay with that,” they most frequently describe how you will always discover the next thing your should say or do if you are 100% attentive and alert to your surroundings, and 100% open and flexible to acting based on what those surroundings reveal to you.

Morris: You insert dozens of Recaps throughout your narrative. Each offers an especially important insight. Which has proven to be most valuable to you during your life and career thus far? Please explain.

Yastrow: They appear at the end of the descriptions of each of the 18 practices I offer, which correspond to three practices for each of the Ditch the Pitch Habits. The two most valuable have been “Make 95% of the conversation about the customer” and “Obey the One-Paragraph Rule” because they are key ingredients of creating a conversation that is really interesting to your customer. I try to use these principles in every conversation I have, and if I don’t succeed I guarantee I’m aware that I’m missing the mark!

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Ditch the Pitch and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Yastrow: Make Ditch the Pitch a way of life in the company, not just a check box where everyone can say, “OK, read that one.” By modeling good behavior and continually reminding their team about the need to create fresh, spontaneous conversations with customers, a CEO can nurture a culture of customer engagement that leads to more loyal customers and more profitable customer relationships.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Ditch the Pitch, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Yastrow: 50 years ago, large companies had an advantage over their smaller competitors because they could buy more advertising and other mass marketing communications. These days, customers aren’t as easily persuaded by generic, one-size-fits-all mass marketing communications, but they are persuaded by personalized, interactive dialogues with companies. Small companies are usually better equipped to do this than large companies. The concepts in all three of my books, Ditch the Pitch plus my first two books, Brand Harmony and We: The Ideal Customer Relationship, help smaller companies take advantage of their ability to engage and communicate with customers in ways that are much more difficult for larger companies.

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

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