Here's a Q&A between CorporateHistory.net President Marian Calabro and Scott S. Smith, author of Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success.
Marian writes: Recently, I was contacted by a fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, freelance business journalist Scott S. Smith, who has interviewed many top CEOs, including Bill Gates, Meg Whitman, Michael Dell, Lee Iacocca, Larry Ellison and dozens of others. He has had 1,200 articles published and has distilled what he’s learned in a new book, Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success (available on Amazon; sample chapter at www.ExtraordinaryPeopleBook.com). Since I’m a firm believer in viewing business history through the lens of leadership, I was eager to learn more about Scott’s venture.
Marian: You mentioned that many executives you’ve interviewed don’t read business books anymore. What’s going on?
Scott: One thing you learn from reading history is that Americans used to read a lot—books, newspapers, magazines—and it’s alarming how few currently read anything more substantial than emails or Facebook posts. Executives tell me that they scan business stories, but many I’ve interviewed can’t even name a business book they’ve recently read because they’re too busy. Our national attention span is shortening to the point that it really endangers society. A couple of decades ago I would get 5,000 word assignments; now, I’m really pushing the limit of readers’ interest at 1,250 words in my columns about leadership and success for Investor’s Business Daily.
Marian: The crux of your subject seems to be this: What do high-achievers have in common? Which of their attitudes and actions can be emulated to help any career? Your book addresses this in readably short chapters.
Scott: Yes, the chapters range from 1,800 to 3,500 words, and I think part of the interest in these figures comes from being able not just to learn useful lessons, but to gain an appreciation of someone they’ve heard of, but don’t really know much about.
Marian: The book includes both contemporary business leaders and famous people past and present in a wide variety of fields. Why include someone like Founding Father Gouverneur Morris? Most people don’t know who he was. Isn’t he far removed from today’s corporate challenges?
Scott: I’ve really become passionate about the importance of understanding American and world history—and I include corporate history for employees. First, there’s a reason medical doctors and other specialties have to get an undergraduate degree first: we don’t want citizens with such narrow technical education that they have no interest in the broader issues of society. Even those with advanced degrees often lack much understanding of what’s happening beyond their own field.
Marian: On the other hand, there has been a boomlet in the popularity of biographies, especially the Founders.
Scott: Indeed. It’s only when you really dig into our roots that you gain an awesome respect for what they did. Yes, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, all of them, were imperfect human beings, but that makes their achievement—the first enduring democracy in history—even more impressive. One of the great ones was Morris, who essentially wrote the Constitution. A successful democracy requires hard work from its citizens—and anyone who thinks politics is hopelessly corrupt isn’t aware of how many times the country has come back from the brink of what one party or another thought was disaster. You have a choice—you can become informed and get involved or you can let people who disagree with you have the advantage in the outcome. History puts everything today in perspective and no matter what aspect you want to study—last year’s annual report, the latest biography on Robert E. Lee, or the proclamations of Cyrus the Great—you have your mind expanded. So I’m on a mission to encourage people to read any kind of history—I think they’ll get hooked.
Marian: Amen to that. Let’s take someone else from the past, Simon Bolivar. What can leaders today learn from him?
Scott: There are a couple of reasons every American should know about him. First of all, he liberated six countries: Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia, which is named after him. As citizens of the world in a country with 17% of the population that is Hispanic, we should know this. How would we feel if we went to Latin America and the people we were doing business with had never heard of George Washington? If you want to build rapport with your partners, you need to know the basics of their culture, including their history. Second, Bolivar is the absolute best example of someone who achieved great things against all odds by always bouncing back after disaster. He also shows what can be accomplished with boldness and imagination—his trek over the Andes in the middle of winter remains the greatest military surprise in the history of the Western Hemisphere. He was also an effective speaker and a writer, with public letters that were widely read. He wasn’t great at speaking at first, but he learned, as anyone can.
Marian: Lest people get the wrong impression, you do write about a number of women.
Scott: A third are women and I would have included more, but ran out of space—I’m saving them for a sequel! One of my favorites is Martha Harper and almost no one has ever heard of her, but she invented franchising. She was born poor and became a domestic servant. Along the way, she learned about a special formula to make hair lush and dressed the hair of the woman she worked for. She told her friends and soon she had a thriving side business and opened the first beauty salon in Rochester, N.Y., in 1888. She realized she could help women become financially independent by letting them copy her first salon and eventually she had 500 under franchise terms.
Marian: So why haven’t we heard of her?
Scott: I write a lot of stories about leaders we should know, but our poor formal education and narrow reading habits deprive us of their inspiration. I come away from every profile just amazed at what I’ve learned. The bigger questions that are related are, why do most startups fail and why are most companies so poorly run, if we really know so much about good management? Within 10 years of opening, over 90% of businesses close. I think everyone who is a line employee or middle manager is painfully aware that corporate priorities are not really them or the customers—just look at the pay and perks for top management.
Marian: Jim Collins and others have written books on the difference between the No. 1 and the No. 2 companies in different industries. The difference rarely involves better technical skills. It comes down to the corporate culture.
Scott: Yes—there has to be a deeply embedded belief that the company has an important mission, and everyone has to be completely dedicated to that. It helps to look at the great companies of the past because you can learn from their example. I’d say it actually is better to look at those outside your industry because familiarity blinds us.
Marian: One of the recent top CEOs in your book is Reed Hastings of Netflix. What did you learn from him?
Scott: It’s easy to forget, with its recent success, that not long ago Netflix almost got killed by one of his strategic decisions. I talked with him in 2009 and by July of the next year the stock had hit $305. Then he announced in a blog that he was spinning off the DVD mail order service from the movie streaming business and customers would need to pay for separate subscriptions. By November, the stock was at $64. His blog got 39,000 comments, compared with the next most-discussed post that had 200. Over 800,000 cancelled their subscriptions. Few CEOs would survive that kind of disaster, but Netflix is thriving again. He is a great example of being able to recover by being genuinely humble and learning from mistakes. Even more interestingly, Netflix has an almost unique culture in which corporate employees—not those working at call centers—have a very flexible schedule. As long as they meet their goals, they can take as much personal or vacation time as they want.
Marian: Nice. Of course, it’s August and most of our counterparts in Europe are taking the whole month off, fully paid. But here we are in the United States, working. One last question: Why do a few leaders, who are otherwise successful, seem to sabotage themselves? Often they threaten their company’s success along the way.
Scott: Watching HBO’s recent series In Treatment can illuminate that point, as you see really smart people with big blinders fail to come to grips with their problems. You wonder why they can’t see themselves more objectively—as if we, the viewers, can really see ourselves. So biography and history let us see how someone great dealt with challenges—the enduring human, political, or business problems. We need inspirational role models and information to help us see our own situations more objectively and imagine better solutions.