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Archive for March, 2010

Back in the early eighties I was watching Johnny Carson one night. The actress Shelley Winters was Johnny’s guest. Shelley Winters flounced herself out and sat her fat amplitude into the guest chair. Johnny Carson was obviously fond of her, as he frequently had her on. Johnny, as I recall began with something like, “So, Shelley, how’ve you been lately?” Shelley Winters paused a moment, gave a great sigh and said, “Well John, the problem with me is that wherever I go, I go too.” It was funny but also sad. Winters was a notorious neurotic whose problems with drugs and men often played out very publicly. Nevertheless, there was a compelling sincerity to her lostness that was poignant and illuminating.  She was deeply authentic in a morose and melancholic way.

Shelley Winters was a most troubled woman, but, in reality, it should be a good thing that “wherever I go, I go too.” It goes to the soul of what I feel is crucial in good salesmen—authenticity. It seems to me that personal authenticity should always be a primary and ongoing quest of the salesman for at least two reasons. One, it makes for long-term personal health. Two, it results in successful sales.

People like what is real and they trust it instinctively. And there are a million different equally valid ways to be real.  It’s a lifelong task to imbue a rooted, unconscious integrity, a “real selfness”, to all interactions.

I have always been and continue to be distrustful of people who talk about magical sales techniques. Sales folk who turn for silver bullet solutions from various sales gurus ultimately will be disappointed. Because, like any other vocation, happiness and effectiveness for the salesman is only rendered dynamic and sound when placed on a bedrock of self-knowledge and integrated personal values—that is, an earned and lived integrity.

President George Bush, Sr. was visiting a nursing home in 1992 and, in his tour of the home, he met an Alzheimer’s patient who he asked, “Do you know who I am?” The patient’s answer was, “No, but if you go down the hall there’s a nurse who can tell you.” If only it were that simple.

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There is a famous German novella I read in college called Kleider Machen Leute by Gottfried Keller. (It is usually translated as “Clothes Make the Man”.)  It’s about a poor tailor who takes a coach journey and, through an odd set of circumstances, he is dressed in a fur trimmed cloak much above his real ability to afford and his station in life. He is mistaken for a rich man and the results of this misidentity and various people’s reactions guide the tale.

This novella is highly applicable to entrepreneurs. I believe many of us entrepreneurs don’t think enough about clothes in business. And we should. Here’s why.

Most of us spend large amounts on branding, marketing, and advertising creating the apt image for our firms. Yet it constantly amazes me how little thought owners give to how they present themselves sartorially.  It is relatively inexpensive personal branding we’re talking about here.

This most certainly does not mean an entrepreneur needs to be a fashion plate. Any styling from the funerial to the flamboyant can be appropriate, but it should be consistent with your chosen messaging and branding. Making strong, identifying statements through your attire can create a defined presence before you say a word. It can telegraph a context and corporate definition.

I’ve had clients who accomplish this bespoke branding very well in t-shirts. Some of my creative clients will choose bold colors. If you sell beer you might want to look like a guy who is comfortable in a bar. I am sure Anna Wintour spends extensive time each day ensuring her personal clothes visually affirm her authoritative fashion leadership as editor of Vogue Magazine. Personally, I try to look like a banker. My company Corporate Ran International is mostly known for creating high-quality meetings with real financial corporate decision-makers. My clients often entrust me with their most proprietary information and secrets. So, even though my personal history and proclivities are quite bohemian, I want to create assurance of stability and discretion. I do this partially by investing in expensive, highly tailored suits and by insisting that my associates always dress high when meeting with Corporate Rain clients.

You don’t need a personal makeover to brand yourself through your apparel. You do need to know what you have to offer and who you are. Then sartorial branding becomes simple common sense.

As the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus states, “Know first who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.”

Thank you, Epictetus.

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My employees are more important to me than my clients. Yup. Even more important than my clients.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I can almost always gauge the health of a firm when I walk into a reception area. If the receptionist is happy, professional, and can tell you the basics about the firm, it is almost always a healthy company.

Employees are very much the real heart and soul of most service enterprises and, certainly, of my own company Corporate Rain International. This is not to say I don’t love my clients. I do. I work for them with passion and zeal. I worry about them at night. I like them personally. They often become my friends. However, I can get clients. What is harder is developing a cadre of associates that truly brands and inculcates my firm’s ethics, quality, and essence in their very being. That is Corporate Rain’s real value and capital, and why companies hire and stay with my firm.

Ken Makovsky

I was reminded of this in recently reading Ken Makovsky’s excellent blog “My Three Cents” (January 27, 2010 — www.makovsky.com/blog). He states, “Employees are the face of the company.  They are the ambassadors who make a difference.” Makovsky goes on to cite a study in The New York Times that found strong sales growth was closely correlated with employees who thought more highly of their company than did society at large. Ken Makovsky is profoundly correct.  I’ve always believed every employee should be a rainmaker and a P.R. touch point.

Dr. Steven Balder of NYU (In Crain’s New York Business) has noted that great workplaces have in common a sense of community that  is built upon respect for the employee.  He says,  “People are seeking more than just a job.  [Good companies] are validating people and making them feel respected.” He goes on to state that such firms are much better suited to survive the current recession. (I personally  try to be bluntly honest with my own associates in explaining my company’s financial basics, as we work our way through this “Great Recession”.) There is mutual respect and a sense of a communal shared risk in embracing this process. A culture of respect and equality activates the acceptance of entrepreneurial vision and leadership and the empowerment of collaborative, creative, vibrant business enterprise.

If you are interested in reading further on this subject try The Power of Respect by Deborah Norville, the anchor of Inside Edition.  She concludes her useful book with these words:

“If you run a business, why wouldn’t you want your employees to be more creative, to be more loyal, to give that little extra to their job—especially when all it takes to encourage it is to let people do their jobs with a little acknowledgment of what they do and recognition of their efforts….Consideration, deference, and inclusiveness require nothing but a respectful mindset.”

Thank you, Deborah.

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Lida Askew with daughter Kathy

My mother, Lida Askew, died yesterday of Parkinson’s Disease. She was 83. My four sisters and I took turns holding her desiccated body and stroking her waxen features as she slowly shut down. The end was a gentle, hospice assisted descent into the sweet arms of…whatever comes next.

My mother was a good old girl who lived a full, useful life and she died without regret. She enjoyed her life to the end.  She enjoyed herself even while confined to a wheelchair and shaking with Parkinson’s. But, particularly interestingly, hers was a most conscious and generous death.

My mother was very decidedly not an entrepreneur. In fact, I think she looked a bit askance at my late in life embrace of capitalism. But she was a tremendous long-term planner, and, as such, an inspiration to me in thinking about succession in my own life and in the life of my company. She foresaw and directed every aspect of her own end. This included a very rationated, specific splitting and dispensation of her estate to prevent family friction, as well as detailed instructions on how she wished to die–that is, in her own bed and not in the hospital. She was very precise about pulling plugs and not extending her life artificially. (My sister Kathy has chronicled this process in her excellent blog www.thenewelder.com.)

I want to have the forethought to create an equal grace around the succession and inheritance issues of my firm Corporate Rain International. I don’t know much about those issues yet, but I want to be just as smoothly efficacious and wise in thinking about my employees, my clients, my family, and myself when things end. In her modest way, my mother created a splendid suggestive road map.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how I deal with very bad days. Harking back to that posting, I remember being depressed and distraught one day years ago and turning to my mother for solace and advice. (I think it was about a failed love affair). She was appropriately sympathetic, of course. That’s a mother’s job. Then she said, “But you know, Timothy, there’s little I can say that will cheer you up.  There’s only one thing I know to do on really bleak, dark days. The only thing I know to do on such hopeless days is spend that time cleaning my toilets.”

Thank you, my dear mother.  Goodbye.

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Silence. It’s certainly not the first thing that pops into mind when you think of sales. However, I’ve got laryngitis this week and have to largely shut up, so the topic is on my mind.

My forced quietude, while frustrating, has had a positive effect on me personally and, strangely, a salutary outcome on my limited sales interactions. I find myself very focused on being succinct and making my words count. Also, I find myself sharply concentrated on listening. It’s quite centering. When I do speak I am to the point and responsive to the particularity of my clients and associates. I simply don’t have the voice for bullshit.

I admit to occasional prolixity. It’s hard for me not to throw in the whole kitchen sink when I’m talking about my wonderful company Corporate Rain International. I love my company. I’m passionate about it. Yet my health coerced stillness reminds me that silence is a necessary and efficacious value in sales, as in life.

Quite aside from my laryngitis this week, I’ve always found a judicious use of planned silence a help with everything. There are two things I personally try to do each week to create moments of stillness. Simple, but helpful to me. One is I go to church. That one hour of quiet thought and physical non-activity, sans cell phones, children, chatter, etc., is clarifying and revivifying (quite aside from deeper issues of truth and faith). Two is I try to take a half day every week to go to the movies by myself, where I can be alone in the anonymous dark. I try to pick undemanding “B” movies (think American Pie, Jennifer Aniston, Police Academy VI, etc). Sometimes I go right to sleep, but frequently new thoughts come when I let go with no agenda. (Of course, if you’re a better man than me, a formal discipline of meditation, yoga and prayer is lots better.)

Maybe that’s enough for today. But here’s an interesting thought about silence from the avant guard composer John Cage. In his 1961 book “Silence” he says, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

Thanks, John.

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