Staying Street Smart in the Internet Age: What Hasen't Changed about the Way We Do Businessby Mark H. McCormack
How has business changed in the wake of e-mail, e-commerce, the net, the Web, mobile fax machines, cell phones, beepers, pagers, voice mail, palm pilots, and laptops? Simple: It hasn't. As Mark McCormack makes clear, today's business world still hinges on those basic elements of human interaction, intelligence, creativity, and efficiency that have always meant the difference between success and failure. By calling attention to what should be obvious, Mark McCormack once again revolutionizes the way business is done, cutting through all the buttons, beeps, and flashing lights to get back to the handshake, the face-to-face conversation, and good old-fashioned common sense.
As in his number-one bestselling What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, Staying Street Smart in the Internet Age offers advice you can put to work today, focusing on the real issues of doing business: managing with efficiency and the right etiquette, staying competitive, staying creative. Each of the ninety brief chapters illustrates one practical rule of thumb, such as "People Who Count on Luck Rarely Get Lucky," "The Best Ideas Cannot Be Stolen," and "Be Wary of Unanimous Agreement." Of course, technology has had a major effect on the speed at which business is conducted, and McCormack attacks this fact from both sides, bringing traditionalists up to speed and reminding "speed junkies" that people skills need not be sacrificed in their haste. Throughout, McCormack cuts directly to the point while still finding time to include enlightening anecdotes from his forty years of experience as the founder and head of the most successful and prestigious celebrity management agency in the world.
No matter how soft your wares have grown, the power of the personal touch is what ultimately seals a business deal. How you actually conduct your day, how you treat your employees, and how you deal with clients and competitors are the keys to creating a successful, profitable, and stable business. Whether you're a seasoned CEO -- or have plans to become one -- Staying Street Smart in the Internet Age should be an indispensable element of your business plan.
- Viking Adult
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- 1 AMER ED
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- 6.28(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
A person would have to be deaf and blind and locked away in a cave today not to notice the emergence of the Internet as a powerful and legitimate field of business, an "industry" as real and dynamic as auto manufacturing or oil refining or filmmaking. That's certainly the overwhelming impression you'd get if you relied on coverage of the Internet in the business media. It's not just the bootstrapping stories of entrepreneurs plunging into Internet-based businesses, raising venture capital, and becoming instant millionaires (if not billionaires) when they take the company public that feed this impression. It's also the tidal wave of stories about how traditional companies are responding to the "challenge" of the Internet. The Internet will completely change how we sell and buy, how we gather and distribute information, how we communicate, even how we behave-and if you don't get on board with that concept, you'll be left in the dust. You'll be the twenty-first century equivalent of horsewhip manufacturers who insisted that the first automobiles would never displace the horse and carriage as the preferred means of transportation. In the media today, the overwhelming message seems to be "The Internet changes everything!"
It's probably true. But let's say I'm a reluctant convert to the Internet gospel.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not a complete Luddite who thinks the Internet is a fad. It's here to stay. There's too much money-trillions of dollars-invested in the Internet infrastructure for it to do anything but grow. And, if past is prologue, it will grow more rapidly than any business we have ever seen. My onlyproblem is that I don't understand what it will grow into. I can barely comprehend its impact today, so I certainly don't have a clue what it will be a few years from now. And, frankly, I don't think anyone else does, either. We're all wishing, hoping, or praying that we'll be there when the money starts rolling in.
You could argue that my lack of evangelical fervor for the Internet is based on ignorance. I don't use a computer. But that would miss the point. While computers and the Internet may not intrigue me personally, I recognize that I could not lure talented people to work for me if I didn't provide them with at least the same office equipment that the rest of the world is using. As a result, I've spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to make sure that each of the twenty-five hundred people in our company's eighty offices in thirty-one countries has a computer and is connected via the Internet to everyone else in the company. While you may be agonizing about spending two hundred dollars to upgrade to Windows 98, I have been writing enormous checks to Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard and Oracle and SAP to make sure our company keeps up the pace with everyone else. So, don't blame my skepticism on a reluctance to accept new technology and change. Heck, I even have my own web site- www.successsecrets.com! I may not be computer literate but I still know how to compete.
My skepticism stems from other issues.
For one thing, to me computers and the Internet are now a fact of life, not a phenomenon. They are like the telephone or automobile. I appreciate the value of a telephone. But I don't need to know how it works or what the whiz kids at the phone company are doing to improve the device to maintain that appreciation. I simply accept that I need the telephone to conduct business. Likewise, a car. I don't need to know how the car was built or where that car company's stock price closed that day to appreciate that I need a car to get around.
The Internet is no different. It's an immutable fact of life. We can't turn back the clock and pretend that business will not be changed by it. I accept that. I can deal with that.
What I'm not ready to accept, however, is the notion that "The Internet changes everything"-because some things remain unchanged and they remain the most important things.
I have the luxury of being in the sports business, which, as far as I can tell, is one "industry" that's immune to the Internet. There's nothing happening on the Internet that poses a challenge to our company's slice of the sports marketplace. People have always enjoyed watching talented athletes compete in a stadium or on a field-and I don't see anything on the Internet that threatens to erase that simple emotional urge among human beings. (The Internet may be taking "eyeballs" away from traditional media such as magazines, books, newspapers, and television, but sports continues to grow and proliferate in all those media. There's more sports programming-that is, more hours of sports-on television around the world than ever before. Newspapers' sports pages are thicker, not thinner, than they were ten years ago.) Quite frankly, if the sports business is a steady-growth business, then the Internet-with its web sites that attract fans who want updated scores and more facts and statistics than traditional broadcasts provide-only adds to that growth. It doesn't detract from it.
As for the nuts and bolts of our business-which is representing athletes, creating events for them, and making sure those events are seen by as wide an audience as possible-the Internet is not a threat. We are in the personal services business-and the Internet can't provide our kind of personal service. The Internet can't help us discover a tennis prodigy. It can't recognize talent or talk to a young athlete's parents about nurturing that talent properly. It can't help us negotiate a contract or construct a tournament schedule or hire a coach. We have to rely on our experience and judgment to do that.
That experience and judgment is the most valuable "product" we sell in our business. And you can't learn these or, for that matter, any other worthwhile interpersonal skill from the Internet. That's the big reason I feel so indifferent to both the challenge and the opportunity posed by the Internet. Our business is largely a one-on-one people business. It consists of salespeople talking to customers and managers talking to clients, each dealing with the other as an individual rather than a commodity or a statistic. And that sort of connection will never be threatened by the Internet.
It's easy to forget that, however. The other day, one of our executives was boasting to me about how he and a new customer handled a client endorsement contract from start to finish via e-mail. He pitched the idea via e-mail. He negotiated the deal points back and forth with the customer via e-mail. They even did all the contract drafting and revision via e-mail.
"We didn't have to talk on the phone once," said the executive.
I wasn't sure what this executive was bragging about-was it the ease of doing business via e-mail or was it the way he avoided the nuisance of endless phone calls to make the transaction work?-but I wanted to burst his bubble slightly about the wonders of e-mail. I didn't want him thinking that e-mail was somehow a substitute for actually seeing customers face-to-face. So I asked how he knew the customer.
"He invited me to lunch a year ago because a friend had recommended me as someone who could help him with a problem. He wanted to pick my brain," said the executive.
"How do you know you can trust him?" I continued.
"We're friends now. I've kept in touch with him and invited him to a golf tournament a few months ago when we both happened to be in the same city. In fact, we cooked up this endorsement idea walking the course following Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara. The gallery was so big we couldn't see any golf, so we discussed business."
I rest my case.
The endorsement deal may have been concluded on the Internet. But in my mind, the business that was done via e-mail-for example, the negotiating over deal points and the drafting of the contract-was nothing more than rudimentary housekeeping, the endgame of a long process. The sale itself began a year earlier when these two individuals decided to meet and became friends. But what sealed the sale in my mind is our man displaying the common sense and gumption to invite the customer to the golf tournament because they were in the same town that weekend.
That experience and judgment and urge to connect-that increasingly rare brand of people skill-is something you'll never learn on the Internet.
This book is all about people skills and using those skills in a time of eye- blinking momentous change.
It's been fifteen years since I wrote my first business book, What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School. Back then there were no such things as plain-paper fax machines or mobile phones. Our company didn't own one personal computer. Human beings still answered their own telephones; there was no voice mail. Microsoft was still a small privately held company. Nike sold running shoes and almost nothing else. The Lexus and Acura automobile marques did not exist. There wasn't a Fox TV network. ESPN and MTV and CNN were minor media curiosities seen on cable television which hardly anyone in the United States could subscribe to. Of course, there was no e-mail and no Internet or World Wide Web.
I could go on listing dozens of now-everyday phenomena that didn't exist in 1984. There's nothing particularly interesting in the fact that some things that are ubiquitous now didn't exist fifteen years ago. I could do the same comparing 1949 to 1963, citing the arrival of jet planes, color television, and the Beatles. But I cite these specifically because (a) everyone reading this is surely aware of mobile phones and Nike and the Internet and (b) those three items (out of thousands I could have chosen) are emblematic of what is surely the biggest change in how business is conducted since 1984-that is, the speed of change in business.
Back then, it would have been unthinkable that you could contact anyone anywhere anytime with a mobile phone, regardless of where you were, and that you would reach them because they had a mobile phone, too. If the other party was out of the office, you would have to wait, which took time.
Back then it was unfathomable that a Japanese auto manufacturer could introduce an expensive model such as the Lexus and turn it into a raging success in three years. Building a powerful luxury brand was supposed to take a decade or more.
Likewise, it was hard to conceive that someone would have the audacity to challenge the three major American television networks with a fourth network called Fox and, even more inconceivable, that the challenge would work with hit programs such as The Simpsons and The X-Files.
When I wrote my book, progress in business was steady but slow. Those were the halcyon days when business schools still taught their M.B.A. candidates how to write exquisite five-year business plans-because companies still thought in five-year time frames. (Back then, major Japanese corporations prided themselves on envisioning their businesses ten and twenty years out. I doubt that they would be as confident or reckless today.) Today, if someone showed me a five- year plan, I'd toss out the pages detailing Years Three, Four, and Five as pure fantasy. If I were a business school professor, I'd tell my students, "Anyone who thinks he or she can evaluate business conditions five years from now, flunks."
You can reach someone, get information, make a decision, build a brand, finance a start-up, and create a personal fortune a lot faster today than you could fifteen years ago. Of course, the converse is also true: you can be overwhelmed by your competitors and wiped out of business a lot faster today.
Some people, particularly those in the high-technology sector where the speed of change is blinding, know this intuitively-and behave accordingly. They build their businesses to respond to change, not to follow a business plan.
But there are also a lot of people in slightly more glacial sectors of the economy who haven't adapted as well. They're still thinking in terms of the calendar and their one- or two-year plans while circumstances are changing around them on a daily basis-and not according to plan. Their business clock is out of synch with the times.
I hope this book, which focuses on the need for both agile thinking and humane behavior, will help both kinds of people. I hope it provides a brush-up course in people skills to the speed junkies out there whose impatience and brusqueness often comes at other folks' expense. I also hope it adds clarity and a sense of urgency to the folks out there who are befuddled by the rapid changes around them.
It Takes Talent to See the Need to Change
One of the most interesting aspects of the rapid growth of the Internet is how quickly some people have come to embrace it as an engine of entrepreneurial promise and wealth. I have never seen so many people thinking and exploring ways to get in on this phenomenon. It's the end-of-the-century gold rush. People with minimal interest in information technology and even more minimal computer skills are dreaming up web sites and forming teams of talented friends to write business plans for viable e-businesses, all in the hopes of finding a venture capitalist who will fund their start-up that will ultimately lead to the dreamy wealth that comes with taking the business public.
They've seen it happen for other people. Now they want it to happen for them.
There's nothing wrong with this. The people I've been observing are talented and successful in their traditional lines of business. But they see something going on (how could they miss it?) and, to their credit, they're not ignoring it or denying its significance or writing it off as a passing fancy. They're diving into it. They don't want it to pass them by.
These folks are displaying a skill that you can't learn on the Internet: recognizing the need to change sooner rather than later. It's a talent that certainly predates the Internet-by centuries. In every era, there have always been people who recognized social or commercial or technological forces that would change everything. And there have always been people who couldn't see what was plainly in front of their eyes.
I'm not sure how you develop this perceptiveness, this eye for change. But I do know that the first step is accepting that it is a valuable skill in its own right.
I remember having lunch with a very successful magazine publisher in September 1997, about two weeks after the death of Princess Diana. Like everyone else in the restaurant, we couldn't avoid discussing the tragedy. The facts of Diana's life, the circumstances surrounding her horrible death, and the unprecedented outpouring of grief among the British and American people were the only thing the news media were interested in covering at the time. All Diana all the time was the news story that month.
I couldn't help noticing that it confounded my publisher friend and even pushed him into a career crisis of sorts. As he explained it, "As a publisher, it's my job to know what people are thinking and feeling. I'm supposed to have my finger on the readers' pulse. But this Diana circus has taken me by complete surprise."
And that worried him. It made him feel that maybe he was out of touch, that he had fallen a step or two behind in spotting important trends and shifts in taste in his business. After all, even the lowliest editor on his staff knew that. When Diana was alive, putting her on the magazine's cover was the easiest way to boost newsstand sales. So why was he surprised by the massive interest in her death? If he had been on top of his game, he would have seen it coming miles away.
I didn't give much thought to this discussion. I assumed it was the usual lunchtime banter about current events before we got down to discussing real business.
So I was a little taken aback about six months later when this publisher called me to say he was leaving the magazine to explore new opportunities. He wasn't being forced out. He wasn't jumping to a new job. He was just leaving. "What's going on?" I asked.
Apparently, the Diana episode (and other events in his life) had precipitated a career crisis in this very successful executive. The fact that he had missed this shift in public taste surrounding her death made him question his ability to recognize important swings in the public temperament and in market forces. And in turn, it made him re-examine some of the changes in his own career. Was he alert to all the changes swirling around him? Or was he missing a critical signal or two?
In this man's case, he concluded that the ground was shifting under his feet. There had also been a change in leadership at his magazine's parent company.
Remarkably, he hadn't given much thought to the new leadership. Why should he? His job was safe. His magazine was tops in its field, and the incoming management knew he was responsible for this success.
The Diana episode, however, shook him out of his comfort zone. After all, only a fool ignores the fact that a new set of bosses signals new (and possibly big) changes in any organization. And yet, when you work inside an organization, you not only grow comfortable with the day-to-day routines of your job, you become sheltered from the significance of internal or external changes, even major ones. You can even be blithely unaware that a new group of bosses almost always means a new way of doing things.
Fortunately, my publisher friend regained his "eye for change" and his ability to adapt accordingly. In this case, he concluded that it was time to move on. He had peaked in his job, hit all his financial targets, and done everything he was asked to do, but he could see there was no room for advancement for him in the organization. At best, he would be a valuable and respected outsider. So he decided to leave.
He wasn't troubled that he was leaving with no job in place. What would have troubled him more, he said, was if he had missed the signals and stayed in the position too long, when it might be too late to leave on his own terms.
He likened this recognition to hiking with friends in the woods and getting lost. There is always someone in the group who realizes early in the hike that the group is lost. Then there are others who only acknowledge it deep into the trip when the evidence is overwhelming. And then there are a few people who simply refuse to admit they are lost, despite the evidence; they always believe the right path is just around the next tree or hill.
As the publisher put it, "I didn't want to be the kind of guy who's always in that last group, refusing to see or admit the truth."
How about you? Could you say the same thing about your career and seeing the need to change? Do you have your finger on the pulse of your business? Have you thought about the nature of your business and where it's headed in the next few years? Is it an industry with a future, and one you want to continue in? Is your company in a strong position and likely to succeed? Do you have the skills to succeed as the industry changes? Do you have the support and confidence of the people leading your organization in this new landscape?
If you've been blithely going along, never thinking about these factors, you might be more lost in the woods than you imagine.
Find the Human Moment in Every Transaction
There is no doubt that the ease of communication the Internet provides has changed the way people conduct business. But I wonder if that's a good thing. Is it possible that our slavish connection to the world via a computer screen is eroding our people skills?
This occurred to me the other day when one of our executives reported on her meeting at a major Internet company. I had asked her to call on the company because they had just sponsored their first sports event. I wanted to know if our company could fit into their plans.
Her report was not encouraging-and it all centered on people skills. "The sponsorship director, a woman in her early thirties, met me in the lobby. I thought that was nice," she said. "But then she led me down about a quarter-mile of hallways without saying a word. That was awkward. When we sat down in her office, the first thing she said was that she would have to end the meeting in twenty minutes because something else had come up. That didn't bother me. Twenty minutes was enough for a first meeting. But I wasn't sure I would get the full twenty. I certainly didn't have her full attention. She had a computer on her desk that beeped to signal incoming e-mail. It beeped several times during the meeting, and each time she turned to the computer to check the message while I was talking. That was rude (though I suspect she couldn't help herself).
"Even worse, she didn't know anything about our company, even though I had sent materials the week before. I outlined the kinds of events we had produced for other sponsors. She had no follow-up questions. I asked her the most basic questions about their budgets, their timetables, the consumer they were trying to reach, and what sports interested them the most. She ignored each of these questions, saying she was not at liberty to divulge that information. I wasn't asking her to share nuclear secrets with China. I just wanted to know if her CEO liked golf!
"It was the strangest, most hostile sales call-and it was going nowhere. I politely told her I had taken enough of her time. The coup de grâce, though, came as I showed myself to the door. I turned around to say good-bye, but she was already glued to her computer screen."
I was disappointed for our executive. No one should have to bear such oafish behavior. But a part of me wasn't surprised. I've always worried that as people rely more on technology for communicating, particularly e-mail and voice mail, they rely less and less on their face-to-face personal skills. And slowly but steadily, those everyday skills-the common decencies like politeness and sensitivity to other people's feelings-erode away.
At some point, people may be so reliant on technology, they won't even feel the need for human contact. After all, if you can get your message across via e- mail, who needs face-to-face contact?
I'm seeing this in its infant stages at our company. I had to resolve a dispute between two executives the other day. They each came to my office armed with an e-mail history of their communication. Seventeen e-mails went back and forth, each stating their author's position. It was interesting to see how each successive message was written. As the dispute continued, the messages became shorter and testier, with the net effect of escalating the disagreement rather than resolving it. They were torturing each other with e-mail.
I tossed the e-mails in the wastebasket and said, "You both work in the same building. Why didn't one of you visit the other's office and talk this over?"
They looked at me as if the thought had never entered their mind.
I guess that's another thing you can't learn on the Internet: the value of human contact.
It's a factor that will only increase in importance as we become more dependent on technology for communicating. The people who remember that something meaningful and constructive happens when two people are in the same room having a face-to-face conversation-and conversely, that something destructive happens when people hide behind technology to communicate-will be happiest and most successful in the new environment.
E-mail is certainly a major culprit in this new environment. It shields people, so they gradually become coarser, blunter, more aggressive in their communications. They say things in e-mail that they would never say to someone's face.
In 1999, like many people, I was mesmerized by the U.S. government's antitrust case against Microsoft. The trial went on for months in a federal court in Washington, D.C., and received daily coverage in the business press.
I wasn't interested in the legal issues. I didn't have a strong opinion about whether Microsoft had abused its monopolistic power in the software industry (as the government contended and the judge ultimately agreed) or whether Microsoft was simply a very aggressive competitor in an ultra-dynamic industry (as Microsoft argued).
What fascinated me was the evidence the government prosecutors were using. It was all e-mail.
It seemed as if the government attorneys had combed through every memo and e- mail ever written by Microsoft executives and made their findings the center of their prosecution. The government strategy was simple: Whatever Microsoft's executives say on the witness stand, don't believe them. They have no credibility-and we have their e-mails to prove it.
Thus, during weeks of endless testimony, whenever a Microsoft witness made a statement favorable to the defense, there was a government attorney brandishing an e-mail that clearly contradicted the testimony.
That's what fascinates me. U.S. v. Microsoft is the most significant corporate trial of the decade, and it may be the first ever to hinge in large part on e- mail.
The media feasted on this sort of thing. Producing proof that someone is not telling the truth makes great courtroom theater-and the media e-reported every scene where the prosecution cornered a witness into saying something contradicted by an e-mail he had written. I can't blame them. Such a scene is clear-cut. It's dramatic. It has a hero and a villain. It provides glory for the prosecutor and shame for the trapped witness.
It was also incredibly unfair. The problem with e-mail is that it only reveals a fraction of the message: The terse, blunt, just-the-facts side. What's missing is the nuance, the tone of voice, the irony or humor underlying the same message that comes when you say it aloud to someone else. Depending on the tone of voice, a conversation using the same words from an e-mail exchange can sound conciliatory, skeptical, even innocent.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, everyone at the company, from the chairman on down, communicates via e-mail. They should have had more face-to-face meetings.
The lesson is no different for the rest of us. Technology is wonderful and seductive. But it's also insidious, especially if it chips away at our appreciation of the value of constant human contact-because without these moments of face-to-face exchanges, we lose a vital regulator in our lives. Human contact controls our behavior. Remove it and people's baser instincts appear. It's the reason an executive can walk into my office and complain in the most vicious way about a colleague. But if I invite that colleague into our meeting, the complaining executive will totally change his tune. He may not back down completely, but his tone and choice of words will become more civil. He won't repeat to the colleague's face what he was willing to say behind his back.
Remember this as you march into the future with your laptops, PalmPilots, and digital communicators. No matter how tempting it is to hide behind technology, there's more to be gained by looking into another person's face than staring at a screen.
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