A study that has been validated by scores of other studies since it was first unveiled in the late 1940s says that what people are looking for in their lives, across the bottom, are food, clothing, and shelter. The problem is there are many companies that are still not paying a living wage, and a lot of Americans are one paycheck away from being out of their apartment or being not able to fix their car. Jason Jennings, a speaker and author of books that transform businesses, joins host Jesse Cole to tackle this issue. Jason believes that a leader’s role is to make everything better for all the members of the constituency. Tune in to this episode and become a purpose-driven leader, because business is not about not all about surviving on your own but having a purpose and helping other people achieve theirs.
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Becoming A Purpose-Driven Leader With Jason Jennings
Our guest is one of the most prolific authors and speakers of our time. USA Today has named him one of the three most in-demand business speakers in the world and he’s lived more than 1,200 speeches in over 100 countries. He’s the author of The Reinventors, Less Is More, The High-Speed Company, Think Big, Act Small, Hit The Ground Running, and It’s Not the Big that Eat the Small… It’s the FAST that Eat the Slow. Personally, he’s made a huge impact on me and his books have transformed our businesses. He’s become one of my mentors from afar. I am fired up to welcome the one and only Jason Jennings to the show. Welcome, Jason.
Jesse, it is long overdue. I am delighted and thrilled to be with you.
I reached out to you and you make it a point to reply to a lot of your listeners, readers and everyone that’s following you. You said, “Let’s have a conversation.” We had a conversation and you asked me about my story, but then you asked the question that you ask a lot of people which is, “What’s keeping you up at night?” I remember thinking about that question and it hasn’t changed for me. I have the same answer about that and I’d love to hear from you. You’re still asking that question. What are you hearing?
For every speaking engagement I agree to do, whether it’s a keynote speech or a half-day or full-day program, I insist on spending about 90 minutes with the CEO. The person who ultimately owns the event. I conduct twelve other interviews with other key leaders or people who will be associated with the event. That’s every year. That’s somewhere between 700 and 1,000 conversations that I get to have. Forget the book research, that’s separate. It’s for speeches and workshops. You’re right about the question I ask everybody. You have to get to know them a little bit, their story and what they’re doing, so they feel comfortable with you. I say, “You sound like somebody who probably sleeps well every night, but let me ask you the question anyway. What’s keeping you awake at night these days? What do you find yourself obsessing about and thinking about? What are the potential speed bumps in your organization, things that could slow you down?” It is amazing what I’ve heard during more than 20,000 of these conversations, but more importantly, what I hear now.
I was in Detroit and India, and it goes to all countries in the world and its people. How do I find, hire, engage, grow and keep the right people? Especially true in this tight talent market, but it’s true all the time, finding great people. That is the number one thing that I hear. I find that most companies, small, medium, and large are like a hamster running around on a little wheel inside a cage round and round. They hire, recruit, train onboard, leave, replace, hire, train, recruit, and they leave over and over again. The reason I have these numerically in order is that I do a report once a year where we review all 800 conversations to come up with the math and the numbers.
Not long ago, I was in the middle of the conversation with a CEO and I started asking the question, “What keeps you awake at night?” He said, “Hold on a second. I’ve got to close my door.” He came back to the phone and he said, “I know that we’ve got some stupid theme for this year’s conference. I can’t remember the theme from last year and I can’t remember the theme from the year before. Sometimes, I wonder why we even do this event. I don’t care what my other people have told you, but let me tell you what the real concern is. I need some help lighting a fire under everybody’s ass. We have to move or we’re going to get chewed up and spit out.” Speed is certainly the number two thing that I hear about.
The number three thing that I hear about is every time we either have a meltdown in the economy as we did with the dot-com burst in 2001 or the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, the uncertainty seems to be perking in the marketplace. I read The Wall Street Journal and there are no signs, but everybody’s getting nervous. It’s been a long expansion that’s gone for many years. The United States has had many recessions and variably, we’re going to have another one. It’s like they’re beating the tom-tom drums and whenever that happens, people want to get sticky with their customers. This is something that you are the maestro and you’ve created a career of being sticky with customers. Most companies don’t.Leaders exist to improve the lives of the many. How could one do that if they don't live like the lives of the many? Click To Tweet
When business is good, people are coming in the door and the cash register is ringing, they’re in hog heaven. However, the moment that it appears, that might go away or something might endanger that. All of a sudden, they want to become solution providers and they want to get sticky with customers. That’s what I’m hearing. I was out with a group of people saying, “Our salespeople have to stop selling stuff. They have to begin selling solutions.” I’ve heard that refrain over and over again during my life. The problem is that people who sell stuff can never be a solution provider. You can’t do it. If you want to have a solution providing organization, you’ve got to fire all the people who sell stuff and replace them with people who are capable of providing solutions to people. Few companies are willing to do that, so they pay lip service to this big sticky with customers. They say they want to be sticky with customers, but they’re not prepared to go there. That’s the third thing I hear.
The fourth thing on the list and I suppose it ties into the first one is how do I get people more engaged? How do I get people shooting at the same target? If I could get everybody shooting at the same target, we would be light years ahead of where we are. Those are the four things I hear most frequently in almost every conversation. Regardless of the region of the world, whether it’s India, Asia, Europe or South America, I hear the same things from all the regions of the planet.
It’s fascinating because you’re talking about the number one, keeping and finding the right people, lighting a fire, the stickiness and the clarity, but you didn’t have any titles of your books there, but they all cover that. If you have a purpose, if you’re reinventing, and you are doing great things, people want to be a part of that company.
Here is another little problem. Let me draw a little picture. I want you to pretend that I’m drawing a triangle and it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s a study that has been validated by scores of other studies since it was first unveiled in the late 1940s and it’s what people are looking for in their lives. Across the bottom is everybody is looking for food, clothing and shelter. In the second little rung on the triangle is they’re looking for safety. They want to know that they’re likely to continue to have food, clothing and shelter. Those are the first two rungs in the triangle. The next rung is being loved and belonging to something bigger than yourself. The next rung is having incredible self-esteem about what you do. The final rung is of the achievement of your full potential.
I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m not way out there in the ether someplace, but the problem is there are many companies that are still not paying a living wage. People are concerned about their food, clothing, shelter and safety. A lot of Americans are one paycheck away from being out of their apartment or being not able to fix their car. If that’s where you are down in the bottom of the triangle in search of food, clothing and shelter barely squeaking by and not sure you’re going to have a continuation of that, you cannot get on board somebody else’s purpose. You’ve already got a purpose and that purpose is called survival. If all you’re worried about is survival, you can’t get on board somebody else’s purpose. It might be the best thing in the world you could do for yourself, but it’s not possible if you don’t know where the monthly rent is coming from and if you don’t know how you can buy food for the kids. Also, if you can’t afford to bring one of your kids to a doctor’s visit.
If I talk to you about getting on board my purpose train, I got a deaf ear. One of the things that I find in all of our research is that truly purpose-driven companies want one thing. They want their people to do financially well and they look forward to taking care of their people. I’ll give you one quick example. You don’t have it on the East Coast or the Midwest, In-N-Out Burger. It’s a fable legendary company and the milkshakes and burgers happen to be good. I don’t do many fast-food hamburgers, but I would say 3 or 4 times a year, I’ll go to In-N-Out Burger. Here I was and I know a lot of your readers are going to say, “This Californian does wacko that’s out of line.” It’s not. There’s a huge sign as I’m going into In-N-Out Burger, “Join our team. Starting wage $18 an hour plus benefits.” What I find fascinating is that the lines are out the door. The prices are reasonable and you can get a burger and milkshake for about $5. Down the road, about 1,000 feet is McDonald’s. They’re advertising that they’re paying their people $17 to $18 an hour. What they’ve done is they’ve increased the price of their hamburgers to $10. I am not paying $10 for a McDonald’s hamburger. I did it once and I’m never doing it again. There’s nobody in the store.
How can In-N-Out Burger do that?
They have an incredible quality product and they get everybody on board the purpose train. It is a brand that everybody wants to be associated with. It is cool. They religiously work the supply chain to keep their costs as low as they possibly can. They run it like a finely oiled machine. There is no franchise of In-N-Out Burger. If you’re running In-N-Out Burger, you will make $200,000 to $250,000 a year if you’re a store manager.
The same story as Chick-fil-A on this side. What Chick-fil-A is doing is fascinating. I’ve heard they’re doing $3 million more per store than McDonald’s. They’re the next best competitor and they’re closed 52 Sundays a year.
The other thing is they want their people to do well financially. I’ve seen some numbers about what Chick-fil-A store manager and people within the operation make. They want to spread the wealth. I put that all in a bag, shake it and take it out. One of the big findings is everybody is going to be in 1 of 2 types of business. You’re either going to be in a purpose-driven business and you’re going to lead it with good stewardship. You’re going to understand that you have five constituencies and you have your people, the workforce, your customers, your vendors and suppliers, owner or shareholder and you have the plant. Your job as an effective leader is to improve the lives of all five members of those constituencies. The day and age of saying, “Screw the little people. For God’s sake, don’t let them know how much money we’re making because if you do, they’re going to want a raise.” That’s over. Those people are dinosaurs. Those people who say, “Screw the environment,” and dump loads, they’re going to get found out.
If you’ve got five constituents, the leader’s role is to make everything better for all of those members of the constituency. That’s the type of leader you’re going to become. I will tell you that the good news is when I start talking about this stuff after they viewed my first book, people would say, “Airy-fairy stuff.” You’d better talk to HR. That’s where everybody holds hands around the campfire and sing Kumbaya. My job is to maximize the profit of this organization. I don’t think there’s a CEO now that doesn’t get the reality of what they have been called to do. You’re going to have those types of businesses or you’re going to have the businesses selling stuff. If the only thing you have to bring to the table is selling stuff, paying people as little as possible and trying to sweep by, we all know what’s going to happen. I travel several hundred thousand miles a year and a lot of that time, it brings me through small towns in America and villages in America. I fly to a metropolitan area and maybe spent Sunday afternoon exploring the area. What have you got in the main streets in America? Shut, closed, shuttered, gone away, and gotten away because they couldn’t get with what the new model is.
The question that every leader should ask themselves is the focus first. How are you improving the lives of your own people and your employees? It’s not how are you improving their life at work? How are you improving their lives in general? It’s fast because companies don’t think like that. Jason Fried from basecamp, instead of cash bonuses, they give trips to go all over the world to see things. They pay for their development and they pay for their gym memberships. They make their lives better. When you start doing that, everything else takes care of itself. It’s tough for business owners to say, “That’s an expense as opposed to an investment.”
He’s absolutely spot on. You have to care about the prosperity of your people. One of the greatest cases I’ve ever written about in my books is the story of O’Reilly Automotive. It’s an incredible story. Back in 1956, the year I was born, Charlie O’Reilly was running a small auto parts store in Springfield, Missouri. He was 72 years of age and the owners brought in a consultant and the consultant said, “The store is doing fantastic, but the manager is 72 years of age. We need to fire the old fart and get somebody new in there.” Charlie O’Reilly was fired. Presumably, at 72, you’d go and sit on a lounge, run your front porch and while away the golden years, but he got pissed off. He ran the building across the street. People said, “What are you going to do, Charlie?” He said, “I’m going to open up an auto parts store.” All twelve people who had worked for him said, “We want to come to work for you.” He said, “You can’t unless you put some money in.” Some people put $200 or $300 in. One guy second mortgaged his house back in 1956 and came up with $2,000.
The night before they were going to open the store, Charlie O’Reilly got them together and here’s what he told them, “We are going to offer the greatest and most engaging customer service in the world.” He didn’t say in Springfield, Missouri, and the United States, he said in the world. He said, “Let me tell you how we’re going to do that. We’re going to offer the greatest customer service in the world by making the customer number two. We have to make you number one. If we make you number one, that’s the only way we could ever hope to offer the greatest customer service in the world.” I find this fascinating that if you go to work for an O’Reilly Automotive store and you’re selling parts over the counter, by the time you’re doing a good job at that, there’s a promotion for you. They continue to grow quickly with a runway ahead of them.Every organization needs one strategy, and that's the achievement of their purpose; everything else is tactical. Click To Tweet
If the biggest thing you ever aspire to is being a store manager at O’Reilly Automotive store. You spend 35 years with a company, everybody has walked away with more than $1.75 million in stock in their retirement account and they leave wealthy. That’s because there’s a company that gets it. I was talking to Greg Henslee, who stepped down as CEO and I said, “Are you doing anything this summer? Any vacation?” He said, “I have already taken my two-week vacation and I’ve only got one week more, so I’m saving that.” This is the CEO of the company. I said, “Tell me about that.” He said, “I get the same modification everybody else gets. In most other companies, the CEO doesn’t come to vacation days.” All the rules of vacation days and sick time off apply to everybody in the organization. It’s an egalitarian organization committed to everybody doing financially well. How could you not love that?
The name of our company is the Fans First Entertainment, but people don’t know internally that our biggest fans are our own people, our employees. We’re trying to make them the biggest fans to make our customers our biggest fans. It’s the way we do it. You mentioned about main streets and we have all been through them. They’ve all shut down and not companies anymore. We think outside like we’re thriving. The economy is doing well but the main streets are dying. You showed them The Reinventors the statistics about companies that are no longer on the top 500 companies. Are companies still dying? I want to get into The Reinventors which inspired me. What are the statistics you’re showing? We see our chronic companies going down every single day.
This is a fascinating bit of information that most people have never processed. When the first list of the Fortune 500 companies was published, 98% of them are gone. These are the companies that had the brawn, brains, financial resources, and the best minds in the business working for them, and they couldn’t figure it out. What does it all come down to? I generally try to stay away from judgments because I’d like to be involved in pure research. The thing that I repeatedly see over and over again is a sense of entitlement. I have been here for long and I’ve earned a right to continue to be in business. I don’t need to change anything and I’m not going to change. It’s my right to exist the way I am. That has played out over and over again, hundreds of thousands of times a year. I track them on an almost weekly basis in The Wall Street Journal that store closing is by July and it’s greater than all the store closings in the calendar year.
The Amazon effect is going to continue to happen. I had a workman and we were doing a few household projects. I like to do that once in a while when I’m off the road at the weekend, but I’m not qualified to do it. I always have to have a qualified handyman to do the work with me. I noticed that the handle on a sliding door from the greenhouse was loose and I said, “Andrews, can you fix this?” He played with it for a couple of minutes and he said, “The screws are stripped. We need to get a new one.” I said, “Let’s go. What’s the name?” He gave me the name and I brought it up on Amazon. It’s a $25 thing that will be delivered in the afternoon. What are you going to do? Am I going to go out in search of a hardware store where the people are nasty and you can’t find anybody to help you? Am I going to go on Amazon and order this $24 part that’s going to be delivered to my home within four hours and installed later that day? We’re going to lose millions of more businesses to this and it’s not because Amazon is a giant predatory horrible company. It’s because they worked relentlessly to improve the experience for the customer. Why would I want to go to a store if I can get whatever I want in four hours?
There is hope for businesses because online digital is huge, but the business that we’re in, everything is about the experience. In our ballpark, we don’t have a digital scoreboard. We don’t have suites. It’s a 1926 stadium and we try to make sure people come out and have a great time. The part of the reinventing is in one of your rules, you said, “Don’t hesitate on letting go. The reinvention killer is yesterday’s breadwinner.” They give you an example of that. It’s like we eliminated sponsorship at our stadium. This sounds crazy, but we believe it doesn’t add to the fan experience. We’re eliminating some that made a lot of money for us, but it doesn’t work. We don’t think and it doesn’t add a great fan experience. The same thing with all you mentioned that a lot of different companies that were able to do this well. Get rid of stock, be willing to kill, and that’s one of the reinvention techniques that you teach.
I was thinking about you, not because we were going to be speaking. On page three of the second section of The Wall Street Journal, there’s a great story about all of these huge stadiums that are being built around the United States without a sports team as the anchor. This is because the concert business is exploding and becoming huge. The concert and entertainment business are becoming big that they see having a sports team in the facility as a hindrance to booking all the dates they want to book. That’s what you sell, of course, which is incredible entertainment. You don’t sell baseball, you sell an incredible entertainment experience. I have to ask you, I’m curious about you. The year before you took over the team, how many fans attended games? What was the average in the stands?
There was a professional minor league team, the Savannah Sand Gnats and they had around 400 to 500 fans coming to the ballpark.
What are you doing now?
We sell out over 4,000 to 4,200 and every game sold out. We’re fortunate we have ways, but it was a challenge. The readers know that we went through struggles and learning it. That is why I was fascinated with the reinvention because you have to go where your customers are going, not where you’re in love with previously. I want to give some tips for these companies because it’s fast. It’d be like the Bill McQueen Funeral Home. I love this. He said a quote in your book, “Every business needs to turn what they do and do a sufficiently memorable experience that people would be willing to pay admission to be a part of a funeral home.” He’s thinking, “How would people want to pay admission to come to a funeral home?”
By the way, he published a book about his experience there and it’s absolutely a great read. I got a copy on Amazon. Let me give you the list of things that people have to be willing to let go of if they have any chance of reinventing themselves. I talk about this often and I was screaming about this list at night. Number one same old. Take a look at Sears. I remember one time, I was going to go on Christmas shopping and the family said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going shopping.” They said, “What store are you going to?” I said, “I’m going to go take a look at Sears,” and they said, “Why?” I said, “Because I want to see how bad it is.” There’s a company that refuses to let go of the same old. At one time, Sears had 1,000 vice presidents in the Sears Tower in Chicago and it was many vice presidents running stuff that they had to have a separate credit union for the vice presidents. They had to have two Christmas parties because they didn’t have a venue big enough to hold all the vice presidents. Imagine what an incestuous, bureaucratic, and horrible mess they had in their hands and none of them were close to the customers. You have to be prepared to let go because what brought you to where you are is not going to bring you to where you want to be. You have to be prepared to let go of the same old.
Number two, you have to let go of ego. This is the hardest one. The ego has nothing to do with confidence. The ego is when the boss has to be the smartest person in the room. When everybody knows that the boss needs to be the smartest person in the room, what happens is anything that disagrees with the boss’s point of view, the sharp edges are filed off. Ultimately, the boss only gets what he or she wants to hear and this is an epidemic. Those are a couple of things that you have to work with religiously and zealously to let go. I have one line that I use in most of my speeches. It generally brings down the host. I tell them that I’m going to explain the Law of Suckage to them and everybody looks, “What’s the Law of Suckage?” I said, “By the time you figure out you suck, you have sucked for a long time.” Everybody goes crazy laughing because they could identify with it because they’ve experienced it in the company that they’re in.
What about kiss a lot of frogs? I love that one. Talk to me about examples of that one a little bit.
You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. I use that to illustrate the story of making lots of small bets. Any organization, I don’t care what size you are, if you’re a local dry cleaner with six employees or if you’re a big multinational company, you have to make lots of small bets. When Howard Schultz came back and took over Starbucks, it had gone from 13,000 stores to 12,000 to 11,000 to 10,000 to 9,000. The revenues were down. It was not quite a third, but it was 27% or 28%. He came back. The first thing he did is he took 10,000 Starbucks workers to New Orleans to help rebuild homes for victims of Katrina. While they’re there, he got together with them and he said, “I want to apologize to you. I’m not apologizing on behalf of Starbucks. I’m apologizing to you on behalf of me. I never had any intention that Starbucks would be dismissed as a neighborhood coffee store. We were going to be a place where people could come to work and a part-time barista could become a full-time barista. The full-time barista could have become an assistant store manager. The assistant store manager could become a store manager and area manager, a regional manager.” It was all about improving the lives of everyone. I happen to believe that in his case.
He and I went to the same university. He was the first person in his family to ever go to school to Northern Michigan University with a football scholarship. I was a freshman when he was a senior, but we got to know each other quite well back then. He said, “How are we going to regain that? To do that, we have to make lots of small bets. If they work, they work and we scale them. If they don’t work, they don’t work and we say, ‘What did we learn from them?’” In most companies, if they had 2 or 3 big initiatives a year, they would be fully occupied. Starbucks did 180 initiatives over an eighteen-month period of time. They began immediately renovating all of their stores to make them look fresh, current and contemporary. They began experimenting with beer and wine. They started Starbucks Petites, the dessert line. They bought La Boulange because they needed a supply chain to get sandwiches and foods inside the store and they were the first to offer Wi-Fi.Great purpose-driven leaders have allowed their head to meet their heart. Click To Tweet
The changes were coming in and one day, they were in a product planning meeting up in Oregon and an intern said, “How come we’ve never done anything with oatmeal?” Everybody said, “I don’t know.” Three weeks later, they were testing oatmeal in 20 or 25 stores. Within six months, they had it rolled out regionally, and within about 10 minutes, they had it rolled out nationally. We estimate because Starbucks does not break out the revenues this way, but my research teams and I have figured that the average Starbucks sells about 25 to 30 oatmeal a day. There are now 30,000 stores around the world. We estimate that Starbucks probably generates somewhere between $500 million and $700 million a year in oatmeal sales. Because it’s such a low food cost, almost all of that becomes incremental profit because it’s incremental revenue, so there’s no fixed cost to cover. A big part of that becomes an additional profit for the organization.
If you’re going to make a lot of small bets as a leader, number one, you have to be prepared to listen to everybody. Number two, I always look out at my audience and I say, “How many of you have ever been skunked?” Nobody knows what I mean by a skunk. I said, “Let me tell you what a skunk is. How many of you at some point in your career has come up with a great idea or something you’ve thought would improve the business? You thought about talking to the boss and you weren’t too sure if you should. Could it be career-eliminating if the boss thinks it’s a bad idea? Finally, one day, your husband, wife, or partner tells you to put some starch in your spine to go on and talk to them. You go and say, ‘Boss, I’d be the one talking about this idea.’ ‘What is it?’ You tell them the idea and you either hear, ‘We’ve tried that before. We’re too busy. Sometime in the future. It’s not going to happen on my watch.”’ I said, “How many of you has that happened to?” Every hand in the room goes up. I asked them one more question, “How many of you have done that to somebody else?” Not a hand goes up and they sit there looking embarrassed because of course they have.
You have to listen to everybody. There can be no skunking. You have to go into it as an educational journey saying, “What will we learn from this?” You have to be prepared to fail fast. If it works, implement your backup plan. If the backup plan didn’t work, you say, “What did we learn from this? Let’s move on to the next idea.” When Dan DiMicco was the Chairman and CEO of Nucor Steel, the nation’s largest steel company, where the average steelworker makes $125,000 to $130,000 a year. They never had a layoff in the history of the company. He says, “We have a motto here at Nucor. If it’s worth trying at Nucor, it’s worth failing at Nucor. We’ll try something else. Keep the hits coming.” You have to be able to embrace change. We live in Marin County, California, over the Golden Gate Bridge, but we go to church in San Francisco and we go to the early service at 9:00. Generally, we come home at 10:00. It’s a little foggy and cool. San Francisco is not known for nice weather until the afternoon, the fog burns off.
One day, we walked out of the church and it was bright and sunny. I said, “I’ve got a great idea. We’re going to go to Fisherman’s Wharf. We’re going to pretend we’re from Iowa, Nebraska or Michigan and we’re going to be tourists at our own city.” “I don’t want to do that.” I said, “We’re going to do it. We’re going to fund two,” and we did. We had a great day, but down there at Fisherman’s Wharf, I saw the greatest teacher I’ve ever seen in my life and it was worn by a man. He had to go 380 to 400 pounds. He was one big Bubba, one big guy with one big belly and he had this T-shirt on. At the top of the shirt, it said, “Change is great.” Down below were smaller letters, it said, “You go first.” We all say that we like change. “Of course, I embrace change. I’m totally in favor of change.” “Who’s there?” “Change.” “Not now, please. I’m too busy. I’m too occupied.” Everybody says how open they are to change. I find that to be buck. I find that to be BS. I don’t mind going out and coming in and I work with companies all over the world.
The only time people are willing to change, there are 1 or 2 types. If you’ve got to do later, you got a chance to embrace change. The other one is that somebody takes the leader by the neck, grabs him by the nape of the neck, opens the door of the blast furnace, and puts their face close enough with their eyelashes and eyebrows get singed because they’ve seen the fires of hell. Maybe they’re prepared to say, “Let’s change.” I’m also going to own that. One of the things I do is I enjoy going to church every Sunday for one hour. It’s been a rule in our house for a long time. If I’m well, I go to celebrate my wellness, but if I’m not feeling well, I don’t want to become well. I liked the people in my Lutheran church in San Francisco. One day, too long ago, I was reminded that it’s a good thing you talk about change because you sure as hell don’t like it yourself. You can’t even scripture it once in a while. I struggle with change, too. We all struggle with it, but we have to own up to the fact that it’s a struggle. Own that, put some starch in our spine, take the first step forward and learn to embrace change.
When you see things that work, you want to continue to do it and it’s hard to try new things. Jason has shared all of our games are all about the show and we know certain promotions work. You get the whole stadium dancing and singing, you have this button, and it works. Halfway through the season, I realized we’re doing these similar promotions over and over again. I was like, “Is it because of my ego because I know that they’ll work?” Finally, I went to the staff and I was like, “Let’s pitch something. Let’s pitch any promotion you’ve got this afternoon.” It was in the morning and we had a whole staff, even people that weren’t even involved in promotions, everyone. They gave some of the most ridiculous, outrageous promotions and we chose three of them. These are the last two games of the year. One was the living piñata where you put a person in a mascot costume, you had kids with little bats hit the costume with a person in it and throwing candy in the air. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but the fans laughed hard because it was something new. There was clear ownership and you have to learn to let go.
Like all leaders, if it’s little bets, it won’t hurt. Do you want to be known as a brand that does things differently and does things new? Do you want to be a brand that does the way it always has done? It’s fascinating. I thank you for sharing that because I finally had that realization. We’re doing the same thing and we’ve got to continue to reinvent. I want to do a quick little game here. This is a reinvention debate. With you and me and technology versus human connection. What do I mean by that? Let’s say the self-serve kiosks that are at the fast-food restaurants everywhere else, they even have robot restaurants now versus being served by humans. Where do you lay on that? What are your thoughts? Do you think we need more of that technology or more human connection? As far as reinvention, I’m intrigued.
Let me take you back to a speech I delivered in Bangalore, India. For any of your readers who aren’t familiar with Bangalore, India, it’s the Silicon Valley of India. Every tech company has a huge presence in Bangalore, India as well. It feels like you’re being in Silicon Valley. As I was interviewing all of these manufacturers, what they were telling me about is that they were concerned about people. That was the first thing they talked about. When I dug a little bit deeper, what I found out is that they’re all concerned about automation, Thomas cars, artificial intelligence and the impact that technology is going to have on them. I’m not Nostradamus. I’m not a seer. I can’t tell them what the future is going to look like, but here’s what I told them that would give you the answer that I would give you your question. I told them, “If you’re the only company with autonomous cars, it’s going to be an incredible competitive advantage. If you’re the only company with artificial intelligence, you’re going to have an incredible competitive advantage. Nobody is going to own those things. Everybody is going to have access to them. What will never be a competitive advantage that will put you in the winning category of autonomous cars, AI or robotics is because it’s available to everyone. The playing field remains level.
At the end of the day, what does it come down to? If technology is not going to be a competitive advantage, that is people. It’s people who are going to be a competitive advantage. I happen to like going in and ordering coffee or ordering food at a kiosk. I first experienced that in Hong Kong and I loved it because I didn’t have to wait in line. I could place my order and I could watch my order being prepared. The number is moving up and I knew exactly when I was going to get it. I enjoyed that experience. Every company has an obligation to experiment with technology, AI and everything that can either reduce your costs, make you more efficient, and give a more delightful customer service experience. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be a competitive advantage. People will continue to be a competitive advantage.
It took us 37 hours to fly from San Francisco to Bangalore, India and San Francisco to London, eleven hours. We waited for 5 hours and a 12-hour flight to Hyderabad, India. We waited for five hours and an hour-long flight to Bangalore. The car from the Taj Hotel was going to be picking us up. It was a nice, affable, and friendly Indian driver. At the back of the car, I said, “How long have you been a driver for the Taj Hotel?” He said, “Driver for the Taj Hotel? Is that what you think I do? Do you think I’m a driver? Do you think I’m a chauffeur? I, sir, am a brand ambassador for the greatest hotel organization in the world. Driving happens to be what I do, but it’s not the big picture.” Imagine if you could get every one of the people that work for you thinking, “I’m not a ticket seller. I’m not a clerk. I’m not a cashier. I’m a brand ambassador for the greatest brand in the world.” When that happens to an organization, they flourish and they achieve the impossible.
You’ll never feel that necessarily with a robot, AI or technology. You won’t see that feeling of, “This person is behind it, the empathy, love and excitement.” I’m with you. I appreciate technology. You talk about speed, but you can’t do speed without having people making you feel special. How do you make people feel?
It’s all people and it comes back to where we began. Any organization that values its people, it fills in that block on the triangle of people’s need to love, be loved and belong to something bigger than themselves. The only way you can give them that is to have a purpose. Most organizations are delusional, I’m sad to say. They think they have a purpose, but what they have is a logo line or they have the purpose written behind the reception desk or they send out a memo. If you’re going to be a purpose-driven organization, you have to think about your purpose and celebrate your purpose every single day. It has to be the first and foremost thing on your mind and on the minds of everybody else. It’s not like a tired, old and stupid vision statement, which has largely been discredited. It’s not like a mission statement, which has been discredited. When young people now hear vision and mission, they roll their eyes back in their heads. Those words are not good for anything. Buzzword bingo, it comes down to purpose.
What happens is when you have a purpose-built around doing well by doing good, that’s the big thing. The purpose can’t be about making money and about growing. The purpose can’t be a metric. The purpose has to be Ingvar-comprehended. I remember my last conversation with him and he was one of the greatest leaders involved. He told me, “Furniture happens to be what we do so we can serve. We could’ve been in any number of businesses. We exist to improve the lives of many. We don’t cater to rich people. We’ve never tried to do a brand extension for wealthy customers. We know what we do.” I was teasing him that day and we had been at a farmer’s market. He wanted to go to the farmer’s market in the afternoon and I said, “Why do you want to go in the afternoon? I’d like to go to the farmer’s market morning when everything’s fresh.” He said, “The prices are lower in the afternoon.” Here’s a man reputedly and worth about $50 billion. For the first time ever, I said, “Ingvar, I have to ask you a question.” He was refolding aluminum foil to use it again in the future. I said, “Are you cheap?” He looked at me and he said, “Mr. Jennings, sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t.”
He was a man who had never flown business class in his life, even if the airlines wanted to upgrade them for free. He never stayed alone in a hotel room in his life because company policy says, “You share a room, steal the toilet paper and the pens, and bring it back to corporate headquarters.” The most expensive trip he ever took was with the founder of H&M. They would take a two-week bicycle trip and stay in hostels in the Swedish countryside during the night. He said, “It’s not because I’m cheap. The bottom line is we exist to improve the lives of the many. How could we do that if we don’t live like the lives of the many? If I flew, I ended up a private jet. Everybody else in the company would want to fly in a private jet, too. How can you fly a private jet and serve the lives of the many? If I stayed in the $2,000 a night hotel suite, everybody else would think they deserve the same thing. How could we be improving the lives of the many?”Once you know people’s stories, dreams, hopes, and wants, then you can be an effective leader. Click To Tweet
The purpose has to be short. If it takes more than seven words, it’s not a purpose. If you have to explain it to someone, it’s not a purpose. It’s got to be short and memorable. It has to cause an a-ha effect. People either have to say, “I get that and I want to be part of it,” or they’ve said, “I get it. I understand it, but that’s not my cup of tea.” It has to have an effect. You have to get rid of the people who aren’t part and who don’t want any part of the purpose. You just have to say, “John, I had invited you onboard, our purpose bandwagon many times and I’ve explained the immense pleasure that it gives all of us to have this great sense of purpose. It’s obvious that you don’t want to be on board. John, if you don’t want to be on board, it must be painful for you to do what you do. I’m not firing you, but why don’t they help you find a position someplace else where you’re happier?”
More organizations have been damaged by accident and internal subversiveness than they have by acts of external aggression by competitors. You can’t have people go along. I had a woman who’s president of a healthcare company and she jumped up to the little speech and said, “Aw man.” Look at the way we interview people. When we have a job opening, what do we do? We interview people for their qualifications. That’s stupid. We should be interviewing people, talking to people about our purpose, and finding out if they want to be on board our purpose. If they want to be on board our purpose, then we can talk to them about their qualifications. If they want to be on board our purpose, I’m going to find a slot for them.
The challenge for a lot of people is how do you simplify a purpose that resonates? You gave a few examples, but even so, it improved the lives of the many. Will everyone resonate with that? Do you have other simple examples of great purposes? We only talk about fans first, but that may not be necessarily a purpose. We’re saying about bringing fans first to the world, but I’m trying to get how can you simplify, not only for us, but for other businesses.
Let me give you a couple more. This is one of my favorites and I wrote about them in the book, The Reinventors and The High-Speed Company. There’s a bank based in Denver that nobody’s ever heard of. It’s called CoBank. It’s not a small bank. It’s about a $110 billion to $120 billion bank. They’re active in all 50 states and they have international lending offices. Why has nobody ever heard of them? Because you can’t go on and deposit a check or open an account there. They exist to serve farmers, ranchers electrical, rural utilities, grain cooperatives, blueberry cooperatives, cranberry cooperatives, rural telephone cooperatives, and water cooperatives in rural areas. When Bob Engel stepped down as the CEO, it took over the company in trouble. In a short time, he transformed the organization. The average bank in the United States will generate about $50,000 in net profits per employee per year. If you ever want to know what their profits are, ask them what their full-time equivalent headcount is multiplied by about $50,000 a year. CoBank does $1 million a year in profit. They outpaced the competitors by about twenty times.
I remember asking Bob Engel, “How in the world have you done this? How in the world have you pulled this off?” He said, “Four words. That’s all it took. The transformation came about because of four words and the words are ‘We serve rural America.’ Jason, I can’t wait to jump out of bed in the morning and put my feet on the floor knowing that we are serving rural America. What I tell people is when anybody asks you what you do at CoBank, don’t say loan officer, underwriter, in collections or an HR. Say what we do. We serve rural America. I had to get rid of all of the people who didn’t want to serve rural America. I had to fill up the rungs with people who wanted to serve rural America and who could get moist in their eyes at the thought of talking about serving rural America. That led to everything else within the organization.” It’s one of the greatest turnarounds and business success stories in the United States. I’m glad I was the first one who got to tell that story.
The great question would be, who do you serve and how do you serve to help get you there?
We serve rural America. You identify who rural America is and who your target customer is.
Any business could ask that question. Who do you serve? How do you serve that may help someone get closer to finding their purpose?
I’ve got the answer for you, but I’m going to have to give you a slow waltz around the room. Let me tell you a story, which will be the answer to your question. Several years ago, I was about ready to give a speech in Florida and I was introduced to the woman who is the CEO of a company who was going to introduce me. She had the introduction. She walked up on stage and I shook her hands. She’s a nice lady and a nice woman. She’s the CEO of a large company and it was a great introduction. When she came up on stage, I shook her hand and thanked her and then she went to sit down in the front row. One of the things I noticed the most is that most CEOs don’t sit in the front row and take notes because they’re always looking around to see who is watching them take notes. After all, they’re already supposed to know all of this stuff. While she was writing like a little kid starting school, she was running page after page of notes.
I never heard from her again until about 1.5 years later. I got a call from her chief of staff who wanted to know what it would cost for me to come and talk to their top 300 or 400 leaders. I’m like, “How am I going to do this one?” I agreed. What had happened is she had gone back to Chicago, the Midwest, and she had a challenged organization. She’d become the head of young and smart people who were leaving in droves because the business is not seen as sexy. She called a meeting of her top leaders and she said, “Why do we exist as an organization? What do we do? They came up with four words that describe their purpose and they began using them in everything. She transformed the organization and became one of the top 2 or 3 most successful businesses of its type in the United States. Her company is owned by a bigger Fortune 100 company. The CEO of the parent owner wanted to talk to me and he read a couple of my books. He called me up and he said, “Your book, Think Big, Act Small, is the best book I’ve ever read in my life. I’m going to have a meeting with our 28 CEOs of our 28 operating units in Chicago and I want to hire you. All we’re going to do is work on purpose.”
I spent a day with these 28 CEOs. They’ve already had a woman who runs one of their units and achieves unbelievable success by having a purpose. It probably would have been sufficient to say, “We don’t need to have a purpose. Let’s get her purpose.” Of course, that would be her purpose. It wouldn’t be my own purpose and egos get involved. At the end of the day, the CEO of this Fortune 100 company comes up to me and says, “This is the best day we’ve ever spent as a company. Do you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to put together a committee to come up with our purpose.” The committee has been meeting for 1.5 years and I don’t have a purpose. Where does the person come from? That purpose comes from Jesse Cole, Jason Jennings, and from that person-in-charge. It reveals everything about the person-in-charge. If it’s a noble purpose-built around doing well by doing good, you will have instant by-end. A purpose never comes from a committee or a group of people.
That’s how those old, stupid vision statements were formulated. They’d have a weekend retreat at a cabin someplace with a cup of cardboard cases and boxes of wine, a couple of cases of beer, sit around doing this Kumbaya exercise and try to come up with a vision statement. That’s not the way you come up with a purpose. It’s the simplest thing in the world. I don’t use many full-time or sports examples because it’s a turn off for some people. It leaves women sometimes feeling that I’m using male-dominated examples, but if you’re in the military and you’re at war with somebody, what do you want to do? What’s your purpose? The purpose is to win the war. That is not only your purpose, but your purpose is also your strategy. You’ve got to remember that every organization needs one strategy and that’s the achievement of their purpose. Everything else is tactical. When I talk to people, I sometimes have to hold myself back, “My strategy for dealing with the kids is this. My strategy for buying a car is this.” That’s all bullcrap. We all have one strategy. What is the one big objective that you’re trying to live, achieve, and get done? Everything else you select is a tactic designed for the achievement of that one big strategic objective, which is also the purpose of the organization.
Where does it come from? It comes from when something happens. Number one, great leaders nowadays who drive purpose-driven organizations for the benefit of all the stakeholders allow something to happen. If you only run your business from your head, you’re going to run a hard-cold calculating business. If you only run your business from your heart, you’re going to be out of business. Great purpose-driven leaders have allowed their heads to meet their heart and they had answered the most important question that anybody will ever answer. I always tell people that the place to ask this question is looking in a mirror. Unless you’re a nutcase, sociopath or psychopath, you cannot look in the mirror and lie to yourself because you’ll start laughing.
I’ve been in the gym six days a week for 36 years in my high school graduation weight. I’m in good shape. I imagine looking in the mirror and saying, “Jason, you’ve got the ripped body of a nineteen-year-old.” I burst out laughing because that’s not the case. I generally look in the mirror and ask the question, “Is my life going to be more about me? Is my life going to be more about others?” The moment that you can say, “I want my life to be more about others and helping other people achieve what they want to achieve and get what they want to get,” then you’re ready to announce your purpose.Figure out what your purpose is and then be unreasonable about it. Click To Tweet
You say not leaders, but good stewards and that is a message that you share all the time. It’s extremely powerful. I do want to finish with a rapid fire. What’s the most important tool you have in your business toolbox? What is one thing that you have that it’s like, “This is great for my business toolbox?”
In my business toolbox, it’s having somebody great who runs my social media, a great assistant and a speaking manager who shares my purpose. It’s remembering to take my gym clothes every time I go on a speaking trip.
You already said one of the best questions is, “What keeps you awake at night?” What’s another great question that you ask? If you want better answers in life, you’ve got to ask better questions.
My favorite question that I ask people, and everybody should know this and everybody who reports to you, is you have to make a discovery conversation and you say, “You’ve been working here now for 6 or 12 months and you’re doing a great job. I want to be a great leader, but I’ve realized that I could probably be a better leader to you if I knew a little bit more about you. Let’s get away for 30 minutes, sit down and have a conversation. I want to know a little bit more about you.” Where that conversation ends up is, “Tell me about you. Tell me about you growing up.” It eventually weighs to, “Where do you want to end up? What are the important things in life to you?” When I know that somebody wants to have a robust family life, they want to have kids and they want to own a home. I know they want to be active in the community and want to be promoted. I say, “What are you willing to do to get there?” All we have are time and money and most of us have more time than we had money. “Are you willing to take night courses and work toward a graduate degree to achieve that?” If you want to be a CEO or whatever it is, are you willing to invest time and money to get there? Once I know your story, dreams, hopes and wants, then I can be an effective leader.
What is one thing that you’ve done to stand out in business and in life?
The most important standout and accomplishment in my life are not being the youngest owner of radio stations in America. It’s not owning a big consulting company that consulted all over the world. It’s not having a string in New York Times bestsellers. It’s not having done 1,200 or 1,300 speeches in 500 or 600 workshops. It is not having health. It is having met and fallen in love with someone when I was twenty. That is the single most important accomplishment of my life. It’s just one and you can never take it for rent. You have to work on it every day.
If you were to give advice to someone, maybe younger, to stand out in business and in life, what advice would you give them?
My advice would be to be unreasonable. When I’m doing speeches, at one point in my speech, not all the time, but it depends on the group and what the speech is, I’ll take a handheld microphone and go to the audience. I’ll go up to somebody and say, “Are you a reasonable person?” “I’m a reasonable person.” “Are you a reasonable woman?” “I try to be reasonable in everything I do.” I asked somebody else, “Are you reasonable?” “Yeah, of course. I’m a reasonable person.” I said, “I feel sorry for all of you. I love what George Bernard Shaw wrote once when he said, “For any progress in any kind, look to the unreasonable man or the unreasonable woman. For the reasonable person will just go along with whatever was being done, but the unreasonable man or woman will force the world to conform to their vision of the way they think the world out of me.” He concluded, “Therefore, for any improvement in any field of endeavor, look to the unreasonable person.” When I’m speaking to young people, I say, “Number one, figure out what your purpose is and then the unreasonable about it.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
When I’ve been studying all these companies for eight books, I ask CEOs who their mentors were and who gave them the best advice. About 98% of all cases because they felt comfortable with me, they said, “I didn’t have anybody, I just had a lot of people that I didn’t want to be like. I promised myself that if I ever got this role, I wouldn’t do the things that they did.” I went to work when I was thirteen as a disc jockey to a local radio station. There were a lot of people who said, “I don’t want to be like them. I don’t want to do the things they do.” I’ve had far more anti-heroes than heroes. The real heroes in my life are strong women. My grandmother, she’s going to scrub floors in her hands and knees in doctor’s offices and I would ride on her feet behind her. She finished high school when she was 72 and went on to university.
My mother went on to occupy a big job in Michigan and never missed a day of work in her life despite snowstorms that sometimes left 3, 4, and 5-feet of snow on the ground. She would hitchhike a ride thirteen miles and she would open up this big office. She starts taking the phone calls from people who were 2 or 3 blocks away saying they couldn’t make it into work now because of the snow. I am a product of a strong woman. The positive influences in my life were all these incredibly strong women. I’ve also been molded and shaped by the people who I said, “That’s wrong. I wouldn’t do it that way. I couldn’t do that. That’s not right.” I’m like Dan Keeley, wooded meals and cashing at one meal for the rest of my life probably to end injustice wherever I see it. That’s my story and I’m starting to do it.
It’s powerful because it’s not just about words, it’s about what you see other people do. Most people answer that question with words, but you, it’s by seeing people and seeing how they are. Last question here, Jason, how do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a hard worker, a good family man, and somebody who spent his life opposed to the injustice of any form and someone who’s thrilled at being able to help people achieve their full potential and make a real difference in their life. Also, someone who got to see most of the world. I am fortunate, blessed and full of gratitude that I’ve been able to do that far and will continue to.
You’ve made a difference and you’ve made an impact on me and on the readers with the wisdom you showed up and brought at, Jason. I can’t thank you enough for being on the show.
Jesse, I love you and I am filled with gratitude for knowing you.
Thank you very much.
- The Reinventors
- Less Is More
- The High-Speed Company
- Think Big, Act Small
- Hit The Ground Running
- It’s Not the Big that Eat the Small… It’s the FAST that Eat the Slow
- O’Reilly Automotive
About Jason Jennings
Jason grew up in Michigan, where at age thirteen, he landed his first job as a radio disc-jockey and eventually a television reporter while attending high school and college. At age 21 he became the youngest radio station group-owner in the nation. Later, he founded Jennings-McGlothlin & Company, a consulting firm that became the world’s largest media consultancy whose legendary programming and sales strategies are credited with revolutionizing many parts of the broadcasting industry. As a consultant, Jennings traveled the world working with and teaching the leadership teams of companies in New Zealand, Australia, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Europe, the US and Canada while flying more than 10 million miles.
In May of 2017, in front of an audience of more than 10,000 people, Jason delivered the commencement address at his alma mater, Northern Michigan University, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Business degree.
Jason’s a fitness fanatic, is always studying a new language (English, French, German and Spanish) an avid adventure traveler with the stamps of more than 100 countries in his passport and he’s as comfortable working in Australasia, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South and Central America as he is in the U.S. He plays his Viola whenever there’s a spare moment and, when not traveling, you’ll find he and his family enjoying life in the quaint San Francisco bayside village of Tiburon, California.
In 2017, Fritz Erickson, the president of NMU, was introducing Jason at a reception the night before his commencement address, and said, “I’ve told you about Jason’s accomplishments, but I want to add one more thing,” concluding, “I’ve spoken to many people about Jason and the one word that’s always used to describe him is that he’s a nice man.”