Do you know IKEA’s origin story? I didn’t. Or did you ever hear about the David and Goliath tale of a small company defeating marketing monolith Procter & Gamble? I was vaguely aware of it, but didn’t know the details. Then the light bulb went off when I stumbled across a story about a Zen master’s teachings and recognized the story of Trump-loving American football coach Lou Holtz.
Years ago I would have relegated these factoids to my mental trivia file, good for storytelling over a drink and not much more. But I’m not living in years ago, even though I still have the occasional drink. My life since then lets me place these apparently random stories into the larger picture of life’s puzzle. My tool: the Tao Te Ching, a 2500-year-old collection of Chinese verses.
If you’d asked me about the Tao Te Ching back in the day, I would have said that I didn’t even know how to pronounce it; much less wade through its arcane verses, which vary in verbiage and meaning, depending on the translator. Then a friend gave me a book with magnificent photography accompanied by deadly translations written by and for academics. I put it aside, picking it up every now and then to look at the pictures while I dreamed of seeing all these places in real life China. I’ve never made it to China, unless you count three hours in an airport lounge on a layover between Sydney and Amsterdam. Then, in the way life works, I stumbled upon a well-written version of the book that resonated with life as I was living it at the time.
To my business-trained Western eyes the Tao was still somewhat disjointed. But I was intrigued. Enough to learn that it wasn’t written in the 81-verse format we see nearly everywhere the book is published. That Lao Tzu is a title that roughly translates as Old Master, not the name of a man who most likely never existed. And enough to start questioning things that I couldn’t find answers to.
You’ve heard the adage, “If you can’t find a book about what you’re looking for, write it yourself”?
I couldn’t, so I did.
Sure, my book has a clunky title, but all the really good ones – short, catchy and alliterative – have been taken through the years by books with varying degrees of success. The title says what I want it to say today. And a few years from now, if the mood hits me, I’ll write another Tao-based book as a corporate management book-du-jour. At first, the thought of a high-energy, high-powered PowerPoint-clicking seminar leader using it gives me the creeps. Until I think of the good it’ll do, being translated into another vernacular. Just because you don’t care for the messenger doesn’t mean you should throw out the message. Besides, I used to be one of those seminar leaders, preaching to groups and making a living doing one-on-ones and site visits with the people who sat in hotel conference rooms where I spent way-too-many hours.
Have you ever noticed that these meeting rooms are freezing at polar levels in the mornings and sleep-inducing warmth in the evening, even though technology exists to maintain uniform temps, no matter how many warm-blooded attendees are in the room? I know the tech is there, because one of my clients manufactured and sold it. The problem wasn’t mechanical, it was – and is – human. After investing in expensive HVAC systems, building owners and managers never paid attention to training their employees, or their employees’ replacements, through the years. You can apply the same principle to governments that spend a fortune on school buildings and equipment and – except for football coaches – never budget payroll for people to work and teach in them.
In the days when I was helping businesses increase their sales and market share, I never told them that I had the same one-size-fits-all answer to each of their challenges: You do well when you do good. For most of my clients, this was an entirely new way of looking at their business, from the outside in, rather than inside looking at their bottom lines. I’ve always believed that you increase profits by increasing sales, not by cutting costs. The key is targeting your do-gooding. My only selection criteria were that the target charity had to  be local and  have a support base that matched my client’s target market. Good relationships, paired with appropriate long-term programs and publicity, build goodwill. And people who became aware of this relationship began to spend their money with my clients instead of their competitors. The result: more sales at full markup. Quality continuing business instead of sporadic traffic from the no-loyalty low-price brigade.
You may have heard the proverb about short-sighted people mistaking a pointing finger for the moon it’s pointing toward. When people are caught up in their business’s natural tendency to preserve its structure and short-term earnings, they’re pointing at yesterday, not the moon. “We’ve always done it this way,” is the absolute last reason for doing anything. Or, if you want me to drop another proverb on you, “Old keys don’t unlock new doors.”
If you want more stories like these, you’ll need my book. If you already have a copy, here’s where you’ll find the references I mentioned above. I shot the photo at the top of today’s piece in Namibia. I you look at it carefully, you’ll notice that the car’s backup lights are on. It’ll take me a while to tell you the full story, so I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions and create your own story. Isn’t creating our own story what life’s all about?
- IKEA – pages 45-46
- P&G – page 70
- Zen master Soen-roshi – page 35
- Lou Holtz – page 34
And if you don’t have a copy, here’s how you can order one –
Thanks for listening to my sales pitch!