Lose Weight, Get Rich, and Change the World
Maybe that sounds like the dubious title of some shameless self-help book, but it’s pretty much the most accurate way to describe the life of Jean Nidetch. Jean was a plus-sized housewife who enlisted her friends to help her stay on a diet. What she ultimately accomplished is remarkable. But how she accomplished it is something every single one of us needs to understand.
Jean was overweight. She was overweight as a child, she was overweight in high school, and despite endless diet regimens, her waistline kept expanding throughout her twenties and thirties. Eventually, this five-foot-seven-inch woman weighed 214 pounds, wore a size 44 dress, and fit the medical definition of “obese.” Jean tried diets and pills that promised to take off pounds, but she always gained back the weight she lost.
In 1961, at age thirty-eight, Jean started a diet sponsored by the New York City Department of Health. After ten weeks she was twenty pounds lighter, but starting to lose motivation. She realized that what she needed was someone to talk to for some support.
Her inspiration: Since she couldn’t get her pals to make the trek with her to Manhattan to sign up for the official health department regimen, she brought the “science” of the program to their living rooms in Queens. Jean and her friends would all lose weight together. Out of those first meetings grew Weight Watchers, today widely recognized as one of the most effective weight-loss programs in the world. Nidetch’s idea was simple: Losing weight requires a combination of dieting and peer support. She held weekly meetings with weight check-ins and goal setting to promote accountability, coupled with honest, supportive conversation about the struggles, setbacks, and victories of losing weight.
Eventually, Nidetch, who’d lost seventy-two pounds, rented office space and started leading groups all across New York City. In 1963 she incorporated. The company went public in 1968 and was sold to H. J. Heinz in 1978. (In 1999, Weight Watchers was again resold, to a unit of the company Artal Luxembourg.) As of 2007, Weight Watchers International had retail sales of over $4 billion from licensees and franchisees, membership fees, exercise programs, cookbooks, portion-controlled food products, and a magazine. Nidetch retired in 1984, leaving behind a legacy that has saved the lives of literally millions of men and women. As the company’s current CEO, Dave Kirchhoff, notes, “Though the science of weight loss has evolved over the years, the core of Jean’s program–support and accountability–has remained a constant.”
What’s so extraordinary about all that? Jean just wanted to get skinny, but through an inner circle of friends offering expertise, wisdom, honesty, and support she achieved far more than she ever imagined possible. Jean discovered what the great leaders and peak performers throughout history have always known: Exceptional achievement in work and life is a peer-to-peer collaborative process.
Behind every great leader, at the base of every great tale of success, you will find an indispensable circle of trusted advisors, mentors, and colleagues. These groups come in all forms and sizes and can be found at every level and in nearly all spheres of both professional and personal life, but what they all have in common is a unique kind of connection with each other that I’ve come to call lifeline relationships.
These relationships are, quite literally, why some people succeed far more than others. In Who’s Got Your Back, I want to give you a practical guide to building an inner circle of lifeline relationships so you can do for your life what Jean Nidetch did for hers.
Well Connected and All Alone
Ten years after leaving the executive committee of Deloitte Consulting, I had been, at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, one of the youngest chief marketing officers in the Fortune 500. In 2003, my first book, Never Eat Alone, promoting the power of genuine relationships and generosity in our lives at work, had become a national bestseller. And from everything I heard back from readers and clients, the book was helping people change their lives for the better. I felt as if I was beginning to find my real purpose in life–helping others improve their careers and their companies. It felt so much more meaningful than putting “butts in beds,” as I would joke, as the chief marketing officer at Starwood. Shortly afterward I had fulfilled a lifelong dream by starting my own consulting and training company, Ferrazzi Greenlight–or FG, as we called it. To the outside world, I seemed to have it all–success, money, recognition, well-paid speaking engagements, a stack of appreciative fan mail, and a professional and social network the size of a midsized metropolitan phone book.
On the surface, life was great. But beneath, everything wasn’t as it seemed. The fact is, in terms of where I wanted the company to be, my business was disappointing me. I was feeling overwhelmed and isolated. It felt as if I was at a pool party, surrounded by friends and acquaintances, but instead of mingling and passing drinks, I was alone in the deep end of the pool, struggling just to keep my head above water . . . and no one seemed to notice.
I realized that I was behaving like a mediocre manager. Too much of our client work required me to execute it personally. Although I’d hired a handful of skilled executives to help me build FG, I hadn’t prioritized the time to coach them to do what I do, or to figure out a business that didn’t involve me doing most of the legwork. When my colleagues tried to intervene and take the burden off my back, too often I was disappointed with the results. My solution: I put my head down and tried to bulldoze through my problems, taking on even more, which caused me to neglect even more of the day-to-day management of the company and spend even less time coaching my team. I was on the road constantly, an absentee CEO. Our work was more than just a job to me; it was a mission I believed passionately in. I believed in it so much that I couldn’t let go when I should have. So I was racing around the country like a crazy guy. And yet FG was turning down business because I couldn’t do it all by myself.
It was an old behavior that I knew in my gut was tripping me up, yet I couldn’t see a pathway beyond it. It was a downward spiral.
People would tell me constantly that my energy level was contagious. But the fact is, drive and ambition can take you only so far. I was too busy getting on planes, meeting new or prospective clients, giving speeches, and grasping at every shiny new idea that came along, hoping the next one would somehow eclipse or fix all our problems.
How did it look to people around me–those people at the pool party, smiling and sipping their drinks while I was desperately treading water in the deep end? Got me–I never bothered to ask them. I never talked about my problems or shouted out for help. The people I needed were within arm’s reach the whole time–but I couldn’t see it.
Most of my team just tried to do the best they could with a CEO who was missing in action. But the irony wasn't lost on them: Keith Ferrazzi, the guy nicknamed “Mr. Relationship” by the media because of the success of Never Eat Alone and the size of my network, was failing at managing the relationships in his own company.
So often we know something in our lives isn’t working, but we ignore what our gut is telling us and keep on doing it anyway. I only wish I’d had the courage to tell the people around me, “Guys, I need help. I’m drowning here.”
Know Who You Are and Where You Belong
At their essence, my problems weren’t just business problems. For so many of the daily and strategic issues that a company faces, I relied on the world-class network I had put together, using the insights and guidelines I described in Never Eat Alone. I could turn to any number of clients, lawyers, bankers, vendors, or board members in my network for specific advice. But the help they could give me was relegated to a call here or a coffee there–dribs and drabs. I didn’t have anyone in my life whom I could turn to at any time for a completely candid, no-holds-barred discussion of what was really going on in my life and my business. I hadn’t established the kind of close, deep relationships with a few key people who would do whatever it took to make sure I never failed, and for whom I would do the same. The kind of relationship I’d had with my team at Deloitte.
On one level, I had lost touch with a sense of my strengths and weaknesses. When that happens, we lose the power to manage our shortcomings, and the result is self-defeating behaviors. Overcoming them is about, ultimately, knowing thyself.
Look at it this way: Success is the ability to create the results in life we truly seek and not, say, just the amount of money you make. People who have a clear picture of what makes them tick, who know their true inner motivations and priorities, simply don’t get in their own way. They can focus with energetic intention on their goals. It’s what allows ordinary people to live extraordinary lives.
Acquiring that knowledge is a journey with no single destination–and yet somehow we all still get lost at times. When we do, we need the external perspective of a lifeline–an eye-opening kick in the butt.
For me that kick came from a friend of mine, Peter Guber, the film producer and former head of Sony Pictures. In the course of one incredible day, my life began to change.
I’d dropped by Peter’s home to offer some advice on a book he was thinking about writing. In his living room, surrounded by memorabilia from Peter’s movies–the actual Batman suit from Batman, and the gleaming awards he’d brought home for producing such hits as Midnight Express and Rain Man–I was rattling away, giving him feedback on the book idea, when all of a sudden Peter sat back in the sofa and started to shake his head softly.
“Keith,” he said, “I think you need to consider being a little more elegant.”
I was dumbfounded. Elegant? Was my advice too direct? That was impossible with Peter. Elegant? Few words in the English language were more loaded for me. I instantly flashed back to the fancy private grade school that I’d attended as a kid on scholarship. My working-class parents in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, couldn’t afford the school uniforms, so we had to buy them as hand-me-downs from the “nearly new” shop. I hated going into that store and would hide in the racks for fear I’d be discovered by a classmate–which of course I eventually was. “Hey, Ferrazzi,” the kids would say, “whose name is written in your jacket today?” From my clothes to my “Pittsburgh-ese,” I was made painfully aware at an early age just how inelegant I was.
Peter noticed the expression on my face and shook his head affectionately. His smile reminded me we were friends and this was a man who cared about me, not some high school classmate out to give me a hard time.
“Keith . . . that look on your face. I’m not talking about your clothes or your poise,” he went on. “I’m talking about elegance of purpose and activity. Keith, elegance is the art of exerting the minimum amount of effort for the maximum effect, the maximum amount of power and achievement in our life. You work so hard, Keith. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I see you scramble constantly. I get e-mails from you at all hours. You’re among the smartest people I know, but you’re working so frenetically. With all that effort, and given your talents, you should be a lot further than you are now.”
He paused, looked me in the eye, and leaned his head in.
“Keith, let’s walk through this together. Do you know where you’re going and how your business is going to help you get there? Because it’s not clear to me. Can you say that your almost superhuman efforts are aligned and focused on whatever that place is?” Noticing my astonished expression, he added, “Keith–am I the first person ever to say this to you?”
I knew that Peter’s insight and wisdom were dead on. But no one had ever put it to me so directly. I also knew that Peter’s candor, while tough to swallow, was as strong a sign as any that he was invested in my welfare. It was as if he’d seen me flailing around in that pool and taken the time to toss out a rope.
For some reason, I felt completely safe and respected, hearing what Peter had to say–I wasn’t embarrassed or defensive, even with Batman staring me down from the corner. I was grateful, touched, and relieved. I’d spent most of my life trying to be so much for so many other people–I wasn’t good at admitting my weaknesses. Yet sitting here, alone with Peter, it was all so easy. He wasn’t implying I was weak. Just human. That I had strengths I wasn’t utilizing and behaviors I had to address.
Peter made me realize that I needed help. I needed more support of the kind Peter was offering. There was no way I could get to where I knew I wanted to be and develop my full potential in my business without it. I didn’t have to be afraid to let my guard down, because there were already plenty of people around me who saw me for what I was and still respected and cared for me.
The truth is, I had plenty of relationships in my life. But I had few close, intimate relationships with people I could really open up to, share my fears and failures and goals and dreams with, and ask for help. I had started to think that because I was the boss and people looked to me as an expert, I was supposed to be the one with all the answers. But I didn’t always have them. The really powerful relationships I did have–my family, some intimate friends I’ve had for years–couldn’t deliver the kind of insight and feedback on my career and life that I most needed to hear. I needed people I trusted who understood my professional goals. I had those people in my life, too! I’d just never asked for their help. I was too afraid I would come across as weak or flawed; I was frankly embarrassed by some of my behaviors.
Why risk undermining other people’s perceptions of me by admitting my weaknesses? But inside I knew I was fooling myself if I thought they didn’t already see it for themselves.
Then it hit me. While I’d been anxiously trying to design a new road map to achieve my personal best, both I and my crack team of researchers and consultants at FG were already hard at work exploring ways to sustain behavioral change for all manner of companies. The answer that we had alighted upon was the power of peer-to-peer support, much like the support Peter Guber had offered me. It was a new and fascinating area of practice for FG, born out my own interest in the use of peer support in highly successful self-help programs like Weight Watchers (which helped my sister Karen) and Alcoholics Anonymous, a rich set of new psychological studies, and firsthand experience from people like Morrie Shechtman, a deeply insightful and wonderfully candid consultant, speaker, and author, and Dr. Mark Goulston, a hostage negotiator and the noted author of Get Out of Your Own Way. (In fact, both Morrie and Mark ultimately joined our research institute at FG.)
What if, we hypothesized, we could adapt the don’t-do-it-alone advice that is the bedrock of twelve-step programs, Weight Watchers, and faith-based support groups and apply it in the corporate environment? Leverage the same basic methodologies found in the most successful behavioral change programs in the world to keep organizations and employees focused on positive change and targeted goals? Empower people with the tools to help each other identify and resolve issues that held them back personally and professionally?
Eureka! It was a triumphant moment.
FG had started facilitating peer-to-peer environments within structured groups like sales forces and executive teams. The returns were measurable and almost immediate, not least in the renewed excitement of their people and the companywide commitment to develop new skills and improved behaviors. For our clients, these improvements were typically reflected in increased revenues within a couple of quarters. We were seeding companies with new tools and techniques, allowing their people to establish lifeline relationships with each other.
Peter Guber had helped me to see how alone I had made myself in trying to solve my problems as a manager and leader. And the work we were doing at FG had evolved into the blueprint to overcome it–to allow individuals to use the power of peer-to-peer support from a few close, trusted advisors–to do more, faster, and with more fun, and to become more successful at what they did as a result. I could see that my personal and professional lives had never been more aligned.
I hoped to get more of Peter’s input and time. But I realized I also needed support and advice from more people like Peter, trusted people with whom I could establish lifeline relationships. I needed a few key people in my life who had my back, whom I could talk to about anything and who would encourage and support me, give me feedback and perspective, tell me the truth even when it was a truth I might not want to hear. People who would hold me accountable every step of the way. I had served in that role for others over the years; now I had to start letting others be that for me. I had to let others in more deeply.
Why Do We Need Lifelines?
Each one of us is a salesperson, leader, and entrepreneur, seeking answers. All of us work hard at our jobs and careers–and I include stay-at-home parents in this category. We’re all entrepreneurs of our own ideas, whether we own our own companies or work for someone else. We’re all leaders in our own lives–with our colleagues, with our employees, with our kids, and in our communities. Each one of us is a salesperson of ourselves and our opinions, if not of business products and services. And most of us come up against personal and professional problems that are just too big to solve alone. If we want to be as successful as we know we can be, we need the help of others.