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Lessons from Sam Walton: Learning from Failure

Sam Walton (1918–1992) experienced failures and setbacks. And, like all successful people, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club prided himself on learning from those experiences.

Lessons from Sam Walton's Autobiography: Learning from Failure

Walton’s Initial Success … and Then, in a Heartbeat, Failure

By 1950, a 32-year-old Sam Walton had established himself as a successful retailer in Newport, Arkansas. In 1945, Walton had purchased a Ben Franklin variety store and set up a five-year personal goal to make it the most profitable variety store in the region. By 1950, Walton had a record $250,000 in sales and $30,000 to $40,000 in profit (some $2.5 million in sales and $300,000 to $400,000 in profits in today’s dollars.) His success had attracted a lot of attention.

Not only that, the young Walton family—Sam, his wife Helen, and four young children—had firmly established itself in Newport. Sam and Helen were very active in the community and had taken up prominent civic and church duties.

An innocuous legal oversight cost him this success. When he had signed the lease on the property rental for his Ben Franklin variety store in 1945, thanks to inexperience and excitement at becoming a merchant, Walton had agreed to give back the landlord 5% of sales. He later discovered this was the highest any retailer had paid for rental.

More significantly, Walton had also neglected to add a clause in his lease that would give him the option to renew the lease after five years. Therefore, in 1950, when the lease on Walton’s Ben Franklin store expired, his sneaky landlord knew there was nowhere else in town for Walton to relocate his store. The landlord refused to renew Walton’s lease at any price! The landlord bought Walton’s well-established store along with its fixtures and inventory and transferred the store to his son. Walton was devastated; he had no choice but to give up his successful store. In his best-selling autobiography Made in America, Walton recalled this as the lowest point of his business life:

I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It really was like a nightmare. I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community, done everything right, and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn’t seem fair. I blamed myself for ever getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious at the landlord. Helen, just settling in with a brand-new family of four, was heartsick at the prospect of leaving Newport. But that’s what we were going to do.

Walton family: Sam Walton, his wife Helen Walton, and four young children

Sam Walton Was Not One to Dwell on Disasters

All the hard work he had put in to build a successful store and the earning power he had established over five years had become worthless because of an innocuous mistake. Nevertheless, Walton didn’t let this disaster get him down.

I’ve never been one to dwell on reverses, and I didn’t do so then. It’s just a corny saying that you can make a positive out of most any negative if you work at it hard enough. I’ve always thought of problems as challenges, and this one wasn’t any different. I don’t know if that experience changed me or not. I know I read my leases a lot more carefully after that, and may be I because a little wary of just how tough the world can be. Also, it may have been about then that I began encouraging our eldest boy—six-year-old Bob—to become a lawyer. But I didn’t dwell on my disappointment. The challenge at hand was simple enough to figure out. I had to pick myself up and get on with it, do it all over again, only even better this time.

This Newport experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Walton. His family relocated to the relatively obscure Bentonville, Arkansas, for a brand-new start. Walton started over and established himself as a retailer again—only in even bigger and better ways. In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. His strategy of buying low, selling at a discount, and making up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory, made Walmart the most successful retailer ever. From 1985 until his death in 1992, he was the richest man in the world.

Successful People Learn from Failure and Get On

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) Walton’s was a typical entrepreneurial response to failure—successful people take risks, fail sometimes, but pick themselves up, ask what they can learn from the experience, and try again, even harder the next time.

On a related note, Bill Gates, the most successful entrepreneur of his generation, once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Complement this lesson on failure with J.K. Rowling’s reflections on the benefits of failure in her famous 2008 commencement address at Harvard: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

Ten Rules of Management Success from Sam Walton

Sam Walton (1918–1992,) the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. He was passionate about retailing, loved his work, and built and ran Walmart with boundless energy.

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) “Made in America” is Walton’s very educational, insightful, and stimulating autobiography. It’s teeming with Walton’s relentless search for better ideas, learning from competitors, managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage, asking incessant questions of day-to-day operations, listening to employees at all levels of Walmart, and inventing creative ways to foster an idea-driven culture. “Made in America” is also filled with anecdotes from Walton’s associates and family members—in fact, some of their opinions are less than flattering.

Former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch once said, “Walton understood people the way Thomas Edison understood innovation and Henry Ford, production. He brought out the very best in his employees, gave his very best to his customers, and taught something of value to everyone he touched.”

Here are ten insightful management ideas from “Made in America” with the relevant anecdotes from Walton or his associates.

  1. When hiring employees, look for passion and desire to grow. Having the right skills and qualifications is no doubt essential in a potential employee, but a better predictor of long-term success and career advancement is his/her passion for learning new things, commitment to a task, and a drive to get things done. A former Walmart executive recalls, “Sam would take people with hardly any retail experience, give them six months with us, and if he thought they showed any real potential to merchandise a store and manage people, he’d give them a chance. He’d make them an assistant manager. They were the ones who would go around and open all the new stores and they would be next in line to manage their own store. In my opinion, most of them weren’t anywhere near ready to run stores, but Sam proved me wrong there. He finally convinced me. If you take someone who lacks the experience and the know-how but has the real desire and the willingness to work his tail off to get the job done, he’ll make up for what he lacks.”
  2. Delegate and follow up. Delegation is indispensable; yet it remains one of the most underutilized and underdeveloped managerial skills. One element of effective delegation is consistent follow-up. Far too often, managers will delegate a task and then fail to follow up to see how things are going. Such failure to follow-up is tantamount to abdication of accountability for results, which still lies with the manager. Former Walmart CEO David Glass recalls, “As famous as Sam is for being a great motivator … he is equally good at checking on the people he has motivated. You might call his style: management by looking over your shoulder.”

Management Ideas from Sam Walton

  1. Persist and rally people to the cause. Passionate managers demonstrate the energy and drive needed to rally their teams around a shared vision. They engage their employees with the same messages over and over, escalate their sense of urgency, and get their vision implemented quickly. Former Walmart CEO David Glass recalls, “When Sam feels a certain way, he is relentless. He will just wear you out. He will bring up an idea, we’ll all discuss it and then decide maybe that it’s not something we should be doing right now—or ever. Fine. Case closed. But as long as he is convinced that it is the right thing, it just keeps coming up—week after week after week—until finally everybody capitulates and says, well, it’s easier to do it than to keep fighting this fight. I guess it could be called management by wearing you down.”
  2. Mentor, critique, and inspire employees. Mentoring employees is an effective way to improve employee performance and build trust and loyalty. Effective mentoring is not merely telling employees what to do. It is helping them broaden and deepen their thinking by clarifying their goals and asking the right questions. Effective mentoring is also about supporting employees as they learn and practice new skills and habits. Walton writes, “I’ve been asked if I was a hands-on manager or an arm’s-length type. I think really I’m more of a manager by walking and flying around, and in the process I stick my fingers into everything I can to see how it’s coming along. I’ve let our executives make their decisions—and their mistakes—but I’ve critiqued and advised them.”
  3. Invest in frontline employees for better customer relationships. Much of customers’ opinions about a business come from the myriad interactions they have with customer-interfacing frontline employees, who are the face of any business. If a business doesn’t get these customer experiences right, nothing else matters. Walton writes, “The way management treats the associates is exactly how the associates will then treat the customers. And if the associates treat the customers well, the customers will return again and again, and that is where the real profit in this business lies, not in trying to drag strangers into your stores for one-time purchases based on splashy sales or expensive advertising. Satisfied, loyal, repeat customers … are loyal to us because our associates treat them better than salespeople in other stores do. So, in the whole Wal-Mart scheme of things, the most important contact ever made is between the associate in the store and the customer.”
  4. Treat employees like business partners and empower them by sharing information. Effective managers foster open communication by treating employees as co-owners of the business and sharing operational data regularly. Managers empower employees by helping them understand how their contribution makes a difference, discussing opportunities and challenges, and encouraging them to contribute to solutions. Walton writes, “Our very unusual willingness to share most of the numbers of our business with all the associates … It’s the only way they can possibly do their jobs to the best of their abilities—to know what’s going on in their business. … Sharing information and responsibility is a key to any partnership. It makes people feel responsible and involved …. In our individual stores, we show them their store’s profits, their store’s purchases, their store’s sales, and their store’s markdowns.
  5. Never be satisfied. There’s always room for improvement. Effective managers never rest on their laurels and are persistently dissatisfied with the status quo. They possess a pervasive obsession for discovering problems and improving products, services, and people. Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus recalls, “If you ask Sam how’s business, he’s never satisfied. He says, ‘Bernie, things are really lousy. Our lines are too long at the cash registers. Our people aren’t being helpful enough. I don’t know what we’re gonna do to get them motivated.’ Then you ask some of these CEOs from other retail organizations who you know are on the verge of going out of business, and they brag and tell you how great everything is. Really putting on airs. Not Sam. He is down to earth and knows who he is.”

Insightful Management Ideas from Sam Walton

  1. Appreciate employees and give honest feedback. A key determinant of employee engagement is whether employees feel their managers genuinely care. Do the managers provide regular, direct feedback, both appreciative and corrective? Do they coach employees in their learning and career growth? Walton writes, “Keeping so many people motivated to do the best job possible involves … appreciation. All of us like praise. So what we try to practice in our company is to look for things to praise. … We want to let our folks know when they are doing something outstanding, and let them know they are important to us. You can’t praise something that’s not done well. You can’t be insincere. You have to follow up on things that aren’t done well. There is no substitute for being honest with someone and letting them know they didn’t do a good job. All of us profit from being corrected—if we’re corrected in a positive way.”
  2. Listening to employee’s complaints and concerns could be a positive force for change. Effective managers provide their employees the opportunity to not only contribute their ideas, but also air concerns and complaints. By fostering an environment of open communication, managers who handle employee opinions effectively not only boost employee motivation, performance, and morale, but also benefit from learning directly about problems with teams, organizations, and businesses. Walton writes, “Executives who hold themselves aloof from their associates, who won’t listen to their associates when they have a problem, can never be true partners with them. … Folks who stand on their feet all day stocking shelves or pushing carts of merchandise out of the back room get exhausted and frustrated too, and occasionally they dwell on problems that they just can’t let go of until they’ve shared it with somebody who they feel is in a position to find a solution. … We have really tried to maintain an open-door policy at Wal-Mart. … If the associate happens to be right, it’s important to overrule their manager, or whoever they’re having the problem … . The associates would know pretty soon that it was just something we paid lip service to, but didn’t really believe.”
  3. Learn from the competition. Effective managers understand that keeping tabs on competitors, copying their innovations as much as possible, and reaching out to customers the way competitors do is a great strategy for growing business. Sam Walton’s brother Bud recalls, “There may not be anything (Walton) enjoys more than going into a competitor’s store trying to learn something from it.” A former K-Mart board member recalls, “(Walton) had adopted almost all of the original Kmart ideas. I always had great admiration for the way he implemented—and later enlarged those ideas. Much later on, when I was retired still a K-Mart board member, I tried to advise (K-Mart) management of just what a serious threat I thought he was. But it wasn’t until recently that they took him seriously.”

Lessons from Sam Walton: Cost and Price as a Competitive Advantage

I recently finished reading “Made in America”, the bestseller autobiography of Sam Walton (1918–1992.) The book is very educational, insightful, and stimulating.

Walton, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. From 1985 until his death, he was the richest man in the world. On the 2015 list of the world’s richest individuals, his descendants ranked at #8, #9, #11, and #12.

Despite his immense fortune, Walton lived a humble life right up until his death. He as an enthusiastic outdoorsman and lived in a modest home in Bentonville, Arkansas, for 33 years. On quail hunting trips, he slept in smelly, old beat-up trailers and ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He even drove a red 1985 Ford pickup and famously said, “What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”

Sam Walton's Red 1985 Ford Pickup Truck

Cost and Price Control

One of the book’s key takeaways is to “control your expenses better than your competition.” Walton says that this focus on cost-efficiency contributed more to Walmart’s enormous success than did any other aspect of his business model:

This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For twenty-five years running—long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation’s largest retailer—we’ve ranked No. 1 in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales. You can make a lot of different mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

A Child of the Great Depression Takes to Retail

Walton was a child of the Great Depression. The poverty he experienced while growing up in a rural Missouri farming community taught him the value of money, hard work, and perseverance.

Walton learned the value of a dollar early from his parents, who financially struggled to raise their family. The two squabbled constantly, except on one topic. “One thing my mom and dad shared completely was their approach to money: they just didn’t spend it.”

Walton was just plain cheap. His devotion to bargain became Walmart’s underpinning. He lived by a simple formula: pile it high, sell it cheap. “Say I bought an item for 80 cents. I found that by pricing it at $1.00, I could sell three times more of it than by pricing it at $1.20.” He refused to increase profit margins at the expense of price: “I might make only half the profit per item, but because I was selling three times as many, the overall profit was much greater. Simple enough.”

The Lasting Impact of Sam Walton

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. He studied his competitors and borrowed liberally. His strategy was to buy low, sell at a discount, and make up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory. Over the decades, Walmart has relentlessly squeezed as much value as possible from its supply chain and passed those savings on to consumers.

Walton’s passion to serve as the “agent” for consumers has changed retailing forever. It’s hard not to overestimate Walmart’s influence on local communities and economics. Walmart’s obsessive focus on low prices changed the way Americans shop. Its bargaining power, superlative size, and logistical efficiency not only dampened inflation, but also brought about productivity gains throughout retailing and manufacturing. Its dominance has attracted backlash from labor unions, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and anti-sprawl activists. Critics also blamed Walmart for contributing to the movement toward overseas production jobs, and for destroying small-town merchants.

However, Walmart’s business model has struggled overseas, especially with profitability in countries where it operates three fourths of its international stores.

Sam Walton’s Influence on Entrepreneurs

Walton inspired legions of other entrepreneurs who thrive on managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage. Prominently,

  • Dell’s Michael Dell kept costs low by using direct sales as his primary sales channel and orchestrating Dell’s supply chain with that of its suppliers.
  • Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary used absurdly low fares to generate demand from fare-conscious travelers who would have otherwise used alternative means of transportation or would have not traveled at all. O’Leary’s operating costs (aircraft, equipment, personnel, customer service, airport access, and handling) are one of the lowest in the airline industry.
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos used innovative sales-discounting methods and a strong emphasis on customer service to grab market share from traditional retailers. Without the burden of operating physical stores, Amazon’s efficiency has played a key role in the structural shift away from brick-and-mortar retail.

The “wheel of retailing” theory in corporate strategy posits that a lower-cost innovator eventually undercuts every dominant merchant. To combat the risk of cost-leadership from Amazon and other online retailers, Walmart has made major investments in e-commerce, even at the risk of cannibalizing its in-store sales.

Want to be more likeable? Improve your customer service? Adopt Sam Walton’s “Ten-Foot Rule”


Walton Ten-Foot Rule

Sam Walton, Founder of Wal-Mart Stores Sam Walton, Walmart’s iconic founder and perhaps the most successful entrepreneur of his generation, demonstrated considerable charisma, ambition, and drive from a very young age.

Sam was a committed student leader when he attended the University of Missouri, Columbia. One of the secrets to his reputation in college was that he would greet and speak to everybody he came across on campus. If he knew them, he was sure to address them by their name. In a short time, he had made many friends and was well-liked. Small wonder, then, that Sam triumphed in nearly all the student elections he entered.

From his bestselling autobiography, “Made in America”:

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) I had decided I wanted to be president of the university student body. I learned early on that one of the secrets to campus leadership was the simplest thing of all: speak to people coming down the sidewalk before they speak to you. I did that in college. I did it when I carried my papers. I would always look ahead and speak to the person coming toward me. If I knew them, I would call them by name, but even if I didn’t I would still speak to them. Before long, I probably knew more students than anybody in the university, and they recognized me and considered me their friend. I ran for every office that came along. l was elected president of the senior men’s honor society, QEBH, an officer in my fraternity, and president of the senior class. I was captain and president of Scabbard and Blade, the elite military organization of ROTC.

When Walmart became sizeable enough, Sam realized that it could not offer prices lower than those of other retail giants—yet. As part of his customer service strategy, he institutionalized the very trait that had made him popular when he was a student. He insisted on the “Walton Ten-Foot Rule.” According to the rule, when Walmart associates (as Walmart calls its employees) came within ten feet of customers, they were to smile, make eye contact, greet the customer, and offer assistance. As Walmart grew, Sam added greeters who would greet customers at the door (and control “shrinkage” / shoplifting.) Even today, the Ten-Foot Rule is a part of the Walmart culture.

Likeability: A Predictor of Success

Likeability for success in life Likeability is an important predictor to success in life. Some people seem naturally endowed with appealing personalities. They tend to complement their talents by being personable and graceful, presenting themselves well, and by possessing the appropriate social skills for every occasion. They often win others over effortlessly. At school and in college, they are their teachers’ favorites and are chosen by their peers to represent their classes. They are invited to the right kind of parties and gatherings, and infuse them with life. At work, they are persuasive; they get noticed and quickly climb the corporate ladder.

From my observations of the traits of the talented and successful, I offer you a few reminders to help you become more personable, develop rapport, and thus maximize your chance of success:

How to Handle Conflict: Disagree and Commit [Lessons from Amazon & ‘The Bezos Way’]

How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Propels Innovation

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos once remarked that it takes five to seven years before the innovation seeds that Amazon plants flourish enough to have a significant impact on the economics of the business.

Since its founding in 1994, Amazon has made endless investments in expanding its business models. It has successfully used its money-making ventures to bankroll explorations into peripheral lines of business. Many of its capital allocation decisions haven’t yielded strong profits; yet, Amazon has flourished beyond everyone’s expectations and its growth potential is undeniable.

Central to this innovation strategy has been Bezos and his leadership team’s foresight, early commitment, and stubborn confidence in the prospect of R&D. Under Bezos’s direction and long-term focus, Amazon still operates as a founder-driven start-up in several major areas.

Bezos has a compelling cultural influence and has institutionalized his distinctive entrepreneurial mindset across the company. His core values are codified as Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, one of which is “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”:

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

“Disagree and Commit”

Jeff Bezos’s latest short-but-compelling annual letter to his shareholders contains pearls of wisdom on leadership, management, and teamwork. Read the letter; it won’t take long.

Speaking about high-velocity decision making in an ingenious culture, Bezos says he encourages Amazon’s leaders and employees to use the phrase “disagree and commit” to disagree respectfully and experiment with ideas:

Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos: Disagree and Commit Bezos’s “fail-and-learn” refrain echoes what he wrote on risk-taking in Amazon’s first annual shareholder letter in 1997: “Given a 10 percent chance of a 100-times payout, you should take that bet every time … Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” That letter has become Amazon’s manifesto on the benefits and methods to long-term thinking and Bezos quotes that letter in every year’s annual letter.

To “disagree and commit” compels people to step out of their comfort zones and to sincerely commit to a project’s success. There is no room for sabotage and disruption—neither can people wait in the wings to exclaim “I told you so.” To “disagree and commit” is to be willing to take prudent risks by acknowledging that others may have diverse beliefs, approaches, ideas, and styles.

Idea for Impact: Embrace Failure because it Leads to Innovation

Many people want to be curious, creative, and experimental—they like to take initiative and investigate new products and solutions. But, when facing difficult choices, they’re naturally afraid of what they don’t know. Self-doubt sets in. They resort to safe and predictable processes. This mindset stifles the very inventive approach they want to apply and foster.

Fear of failure and self-doubt are not usually rooted in facts. They’re emotional. Don’t let this emotion make you play it safe. Don’t overthink your way out of challenges. Understand the types and amounts of risks that are acceptable to you. When facing the prospect of failure, you’re more likely to get unstuck by trying low-risk actions. Experiment. Fail. Learn. Innovate.

Success may instill confidence, but failure imparts wisdom.

Books I Read in 2016 & Recommend

Personal Finance: Thomas Stanley and William Danko’s The Millionaire Next Door summarizes anthropological research from the ’90s on the attributes of unassuming wealthy Americans. The authors discuss the fancy trappings of affluence and the high cost of maintaining social status. They explain that prosperous individuals prioritize financial independence over a high social status. Key takeaway: It’s easy to get rich by living below your means, efficiently allocating funds in ways that build wealth, and ignoring conspicuous consumption. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'Taking Advice' by Dan Ciampa (ISBN 1591396689) Decision-Making / Problem-Solving: Dan Ciampa’s Taking Advice offers an excellent framework on the kind of advice network you need on strategic, operational, political, and personal elements of your work and your life. Taking Advice offers important insights into a seemingly obvious dimension of success, but one that’s often neglected, poorly understood, or taken for granted. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Creativity / Decision-Making / Teamwork: Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats describes a powerful problem-solving approach that enriches mental flexibility by encouraging individuals and groups to attack an issue from six independent but complementary perspectives. Key takeaway: The ‘Six Thinking Hats’ method can remove mental blocks, organize ideas and information, foster cross-fertilization, and help conduct thinking sessions more productively than do other brainstorming methods. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Presentation / Communication: Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint argues that presentations reduce the analytical timbre of communication. In other words, presentation slides lack the resolution to effectively convey context, “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.” Tufte contends that, by forcibly condensing our ideas into bullet point-statements, phrases, and slides, we break up narrative flow and flatten the information we’re trying to convey. Key takeaway: Well-structured and succinct memos can convey ideas comprehensively, clearly, and meaningfully. {Read my synopsis in this article. Also, learn about Amazon’s ‘Mock Press Release’ discipline and Procter & Gamble’s ‘One-Page Memo’ practice to communicate ideas.}

Happiness / Relationships: Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries. For one year, Kaplan maintained a gratitude journal and wrote down three things that she was thankful for each day. She also decided to “find one area to focus on each month—whether husband, family, friends, or work—and … see what happened when I developed an attitude of gratitude.” Key takeaway: A grateful heart is a happy heart. Stop whatever you’re doing, take stock of your blessings, and be grateful for everything you have in life. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'Man's Search for Meaning' by Victor Frankl (ISBN 1846042844) Psychology: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. When subject to brutal treatment at Nazi concentration camps in Germany, Frankl changed his initial reaction from ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why is this happening?’ to ‘What is life asking of me?’ Such profound shifts in thinking, Frankl argues, could help you find meaning in life, regardless of what is happening on the outside. Key takeaway: The one power you have at all times is the freedom to choose your response to any given set of circumstances. Uncover a sense of purpose in life and you can survive nearly anything. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Psychology: John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The book’s central theorem is the much-debated “muscle metaphor” of self-control, which states that willpower is like a muscle that tires out—or runs out of energy—as you use it, but can be replenished and purposely fortified through practice. Key takeaway: Budget your willpower and spend it where and when you need it the most. Eliminate distractions, temptations, and unnecessary choices. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) Biography / Leadership: Sam Walton’s Made in America is the Walmart founder’s very educational, insightful, and stimulating autobiography. It’s teeming with Walton’s relentless search for better ideas learning from competitors, managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage, asking incessant questions of day-to-day operations, listening to employees at all levels of Walmart, and inventing creative ways to foster an idea-driven culture. Takeaways: ten rules of management success, learning from failure, cost and price as a competitive advantage, and Walton’s ‘Ten-Foot Rule’ to become more likeable.

Biography / Leadership: Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon’s Andrea Jung offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of the former Avon CEO. Jung initially led six consecutive years of double-digit growth and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.” Key takeaway: Spectacular success, especially those attributable to external circumstances, can often conceal on organization’s or an individual’s flaws. When the tide turns, the deficiencies are exposed for all to see. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) Biography / Leadership: David Packard’s The HP Way recalls how Bill Hewlett and David Packard built a company based on a framework of principles and the simplicity of management methods. In addition to their technical innovations, Bill and David established many progressive management practices that prevail even today. Starting in the initial days, the HP culture that Bill and David engendered was unlike the hierarchical and egalitarian management practices that existed at other corporations of their day. Key takeaway: The essence of the “HP Way” was a strong and clear set of values, and a culture of openness and respect for the individual. {Read my synopsis in this article. Also learn about management by walking around and Bill Hewlett’s ‘Hat-Wearing Process’ for decision-making.}

Leadership: Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas’s Geeks and Geezers. The authors posit that all potential leaders must pass through a “leadership crucible” that provides an intense, transformative experience. Only after they “organize the meaning” and draw significant lessons from their “crucible experiences” can they become leaders. Key takeaway: Find your “leadership voice” by reflecting on transformative experiences in your life and examining what you’ve learned from them. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Look at my articles on how to process a pile of books that you can’t seem to finish, and on how self-help books bring hope that change is possible.

Also, see a list of books I read in 2015 and 2014 and recommend.

How to Increase Your Likeability: The 10/5 Rule

Air India Maharajah illustrating the 10/5 Rule of Customer Service The 10/5 Rule, also known as the “Zone of Hospitality Rule,” is a well-known guiding principle for extending courtesy to customers in the hospitality, healthcare, retail, and other service industries. The rule instructs,

  • Whenever a staff member is within ten feet of a guest, the staff member must make eye contact and smile to greet the approaching guest.
  • When a staff member is within five feet of a guest, the staff member must also look the guest in the eye and acknowledge him/her with a salutation such as “Hello” or “Good Morning, Mrs. Smith.”

Many companies have adapted versions of the 10/5 Rule to improve friendliness, customer-service, and responsiveness. As I’ve written in a previous article, Walmart’s iconic founder Sam Walton instituted the ‘Ten-Foot Attitude’ and said, “… I want you to promise that whenever you come within 10 feet of a customer, you will look him in the eye, greet him, and ask him if you can help him.” At Disney theme parks, “cast members” are encouraged to make eye contact, smile, greet, and welcome each guest as part of Disney’s famous “Seven Service Guidelines.”

Courtesy is an Influence Technique

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) As expounded in Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book How to Win Friends & Influence People, we are much more likely to feel warmly toward any person who sincerely makes us feel good about ourselves.

Likeable people not only succeed in their personal relationships, but also tend to be more successful at the workplace. Indeed, highly competent but unlikeable employees do not thrive as well as their moderately competent but more likeable peers.

Idea for Impact: Be courteous. Even simple acts of courtesy (making eye contact, smiling more, listening, showing sincere interest in others, for example) work as an influence technique because folks are much more likely to do things for—and accede to requests from—people they perceive as likeable.

Adapt to Your Boss’s Style: Cases from Andy Grove and Steve Ballmer’s Expectations in Meetings

Andy Grove’s Meeting Style at Intel

Andy Grove's Meeting Style at Intel Intel’s former Chairman and CEO Andy Grove (1936–2016) was known for his brash management style. He habitually resorted to fear as a management technique. In an effort to aggressively pursue the right answers, he devoted his focus to facts and data, as I wrote in my article on lessons from the Intel Pentium integer bug disaster.

In meetings, Grove expected his employees to be self-willed, clear-sighted, and obstinate. Grove wrote in his autobiography / management primer Only the Paranoid Survive (1996,) “Don’t sit on the sidelines waiting for senior people to make a decision so that you can later criticize them over a beer.”

With an “in-your-face” interpersonal style, Grove bellicosely challenged his interlocutors and called his meetings “constructive confrontations.” In contrast, his executives recalled them as “Hungarian inquisitions” in reference to his childhood in Hungary under Nazi and Communist regimes.

Recalling Grove’s technique for meetings, one executive said, “If you went into a meeting, you’d better have your data; you’d better have your opinion; and if you can’t defend your opinion, you have no right to be there.” In pursuit of accuracy and rationality, Grove would rip his employees’ ideas to shreds even while they were still on the first page of their carefully prepared presentations.

Steve Ballmer’s Meeting Style at Microsoft

Steve Ballmer's Meeting Style at Microsoft Another case in point is how Steve Ballmer conducted meetings. For most of his career as Microsoft’s CEO, Ballmer expected his employees to deliver a presentation he hadn’t seen before, take the “long and winding road” of discovery and exploration, and then arrive at the conclusion. This allowed Microsoft employees to expose Ballmer analytically to all their contemplations and postulations before steering him to their conclusions.

Years later, Ballmer reflected that this meeting style wasn’t efficient because, as a high-energy person, he couldn’t bear longwinded narratives and grew impatient for the conclusions. Ballmer changed his expectations of meetings and required employees to send him the presentation materials in advance. He would read them and directly venture into questions, asking for data and supporting evidence only if needed. This gave him greater focus in meetings.

Idea for Impact: Attune to Your Boss’s Communication Style

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, your ability to work well with others can mean the difference in whether your career progresses or stalls. To advance professionally, it’s particularly important that you have a good working relationship with your immediate supervisor.

Attune to Your Boss's Communication Style Bosses, like all people, differ greatly in their capacities and communication styles. You and your boss may be reasonably compatible or you may have entirely different communication preferences, temperaments, and styles. Regardless, you need to achieve a beneficial and cordial way of working with your boss.

Invest time and energy in understanding how your boss works, her ambitions and goals, her priorities, her strengths and weaknesses, the specificity she expects from your projects and decisions, her hot buttons, and her flash points.

Accommodate your boss’s work style. Discuss communication preferences and seek feedback. Be flexible. Ask questions to clarify what you don’t understand.

Management by Walking Around the Frontlines [Lessons from ‘The HP Way’]

President Abraham Lincoln visiting the Union Army troops during American Civil War In the early part of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln regularly met the Union Army troops and made informal inquiries of their preparedness.

Decades later, on the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Dwight Eisenhower paid a visit to American and British paratroopers who were preparing to go into battle. As I described in two previous articles (here and here,) the Normandy invasion’s success was wholly dependent on the weather across the English Channel, something Eisenhower could not control. Eisenhower famously told his driver “I hope to God I’m right” about his wager with the weather in launching the Allied attack.

These two leaders were carrying out what is now called Management by Walking Around (MBWA.)

Without MBWA, managers rarely emerge from their offices-turned-fortresses

General Eisenhower addressing American paratroopers on 5-June-1944 before the Battle of Normandy MBWA is a widespread management technique in which managers make frequent, unscheduled, learning-oriented visits to their organization’s frontlines. Managers interact directly with frontline employees, observe their work, solicit their opinions, seek ideas for improvement, and work directly with the frontline to identify and resolve problems.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) was the first company to adopt MBWA as a formal management technique. In The HP Way (1995,) co-founder David Packard attributes much of the success of his company’s remarkably employee-oriented culture to managers’ good listening skills, employees’ enthusiastic participation, and an environment where employees feel comfortable raising concerns—all cultural attributes directly engendered by MBWA.

Fostering open two-way communication

The American quality management pioneer Edwards Deming (1900–1993) once wrote of MBWA, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Acclaimed leadership guru Tom Peters popularized MBWA in his bestsellers In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence. Even today, Peters advocates that leaders and managers use MBWA to not only personally spread the company’s values to the frontline but also to accelerate decision-making by helping employees on the spot.

Sam Walton with Walmart's Frontline Employees » Management by Walking Around

Learning about problems and concerns at firsthand

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) MBWA is comparable to the Toyota Production System‘s concept of gemba walks” where managers go to the location where work is performed, observe the process, and talk to the employees. By enabling managers to see problems in context, organizations can better understand a problem, its causes, and its negative impact. Gemba (Japanese for “the real place”) thus facilitates active problem solving.

Because of MBWA, managers’ presence on the frontlines sends a visible signal that a company’s management connects with the realities of the frontline and that leadership is serious about listening to employees’ opinions and resolving problems. MBWA thus complements an organization’s open-door management policy.

Idea for Impact: Practice MBWA

Employees will appreciate that their managers and leaders are open-minded and will sincerely listen to what employees have to say.

Don’t use MBWA to spy on employees or interfere unnecessarily with their work.

Silicon Valley’s Founding Fathers / Book Summary of David Packard’s “HP Way”

Bill Hewlett and David Packard: Silicon Valley's Founding Fathers

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) David Packard’s The HP Way recalls how he and Bill Hewlett started one of the world’s most successful corporations in 1937 with just $538 (today’s $8,850 when adjusted for inflation) and a rented one-car garage in Palo Alto, California. That garage is recognized today as the birthplace not only of Silicon Valley, but also of a new management approach.

Bill and David first met as electrical engineering students at Stanford University. Despite their different dispositions, they shared a passion for the outdoors and, with a professor’s encouragement, started Hewlett-Packard (HP) to commercialize the latest “radio engineering” theories. Over the decades, HP invented many groundbreaking electrical gadgets that were crucial to the development of radars, instrumentation devices, computers, and other technological revolutions.

In addition to their technical innovations, Bill and David established many progressive management practices that prevail even today. Starting in the initial days at the garage, the culture that Bill and David engendered at HP was unlike the hierarchical and egalitarian management practices that existed at other corporations of their day.

HP Garage: Birthplace Silicon Valley & New Management Style The essence of the “HP Way” was openness and respect for the individual. (Bill Hewlett once sawed a lock off a tool-room cabinet and left a note, “HP trusts its employees.”)

Management by objectives, managing by wandering about, nursing-mother facilities, flextime, decentralization, intrapreneurship, catastrophic medical insurance, profit sharing, employee stock ownership, tuition assistance, and many other management principles that dominate human resources practices today were all pioneered—if not invented—at HP.

Recommendation: Read. The HP Way tells the story how Bill and David built a company based on a framework of principles and the simplicity of their management methods. Good to Great author Jim Collins once wrote in commending David Packard’s The HP Way, “The greatest lesson to be divined from this book isn’t so much how to create a similar company but how creating a company based on a strong and clear set of values can lead to outstanding success.”

Postscript: Notes from ‘The HP Way’

  • Like Sam Walton, the other illustrious entrepreneur of their generation, Bill and David grew up witnessing Americans’ hardships during the Great Depression. This made them risk-averse; they vowed never to incur long-term debt to expand their fledgling company.
  • On the day Hewlett-Packard went public in 1961, David Packard took a subway instead of a taxi to Wall Street, lost his way, and reached the New York Stock Exchange late.
  • The foundations that Bill Hewlett and David Packard established individually with 95% of their stakes in HP are today two of the most prominent philanthropies in America.