6 Important Lessons Learned in Sales and Business

June 2, 2014


We learned the perils of time travel from Marty McFly’s adventures in Back to the Future. Any change made in the past, no matter how insignificant, will have ripple effects that would change the future. From the world I knew in June of 1980, when I was 22, I could never have predicted the journey my career would take over the next 34 years to get to today. The promotions and the career choices, the opportunities and obstacles, good friends and bad business associations are all blended together into a story that is uniquely mine as are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I wouldn’t dare venture to reverse or change any decision I’ve made because I wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than where I am right here, right now. Somehow I have landed in the perfect job for me.

When I was 22, I had just graduated from Illinois State University with a business degree. I had also completed a respectable career as a college basketball player; starter and Sr. captain on three 20+win Division 1 teams. I was waiting to see what might happen in the NBA draft and then maybe a run in Europe. A footnote to this story is the fact that I am 7 feet tall. Yeah, that’s 2.12 meters. I made a basketball career out of the fact you can’t teach tall. The idea of getting a regular job like my graduating friends had only crossed my mind as something I would do after playing ball somewhere.

Consequently, whatever advice or suggestions I might have given myself wouldn’t have mattered because I had no context to appreciate the meaning. I had dreams of a long and lucrative basketball career. I was looking for a good agent, not business career advice. Little did I know what was ahead of me and how I would learn from it. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that the only lessons that are really valuable are the ones you experience, the things that happen to you. I think to you have to live it, to feel it, for it to have real meaning. The more it hurts, the more you learn. The harder the challenge, the tougher the opponent - the sweeter the win. Imposters and academics will tell you what it should be, but I think you have to experience it to know it.

That June I was drafted by the Indiana Pacers and played with them in the 1980 LA Summer Pro League where a Spanish professional team, Joventut of Badalona, saw me play. This lead to a brief and largely unspectacular three years playing pro ball in Spain. I played my last real game, la final de la “Copa del Rey” in late April of 1983.

Six months later I began my professional sales career selling Sharp, Ricoh and Panasonic copiers door to door for New York Business Products, a satellite office of a Long Island dealership in lower Manhattan. A brief 5 months at NYBP opened the door to 5 years at Xerox, 17 at Gartner and another 5 years with Sirius Decisions to put me in the job I have today leading the MHI Research Institute. (You can check the details on my LinkedIn profile.)

In retrospect, the one piece of advice I would give my 22-year-old self, if I were 22, the one word would be “technology.” From the start of my business career in 1983 to today, the single greatest change agent has been information technology. It has, is and will continue to be the driving force of change in our personal and professional lives. We live on our laptop/tablet/smart phone and depend on Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet – where everything is. History will look back on our generation as the technology age and like the industrial age, iron age and man’s discovery of fire, use it to mark an inflection point in human evolution.

I was there when it started. I began my career in the analogue era when cold calling, real cold calling as in physically knocking on doors, was how you created opportunities. As difficult as it is for salespeople to create opportunities today with the myriad of technology, tools and information available, nothing quite compares to getting told “No” to your face 100 times just to find that one prospect. We filled out forecast forms, prospect lists and activity logs. We had the same conversations with our managers in 1984 that salespeople have today about the business. We just did it on paper.

In the mid 80’s I had a Group II legal assignment in lower Manhattan with Xerox. Copiers were money machines in the legal world costing .07 cents per page but charging back 20 cents to clients. The real boom however was selling electronic typewriters with an amazing 2.5 pages of storage! Yes, that’s right – 2.5 pages of stored text. This represented a huge advantage over the state of the art IBM Correcting Selectric II typewriter of the day. This advanced and sophisticated machine, the Xerox 620 Memorywriter only cost $1995. It was the vanguard of today’s smart desktop technologies. And so it begins….

Interesting point, while everything about marketing and customer service has gone digital today, completely transformed by information technology, the actual selling and buying process – the human interaction between business people as sellers and buyers hasn’t radically changed. It remains a human interaction and by definition, an analogue conversation between two or more humans.

And, as advanced and sophisticated as we think today’s technology is, we’ve only just begun. Today’s technology is the equivalent of the 1920’s biplane when compared to what’s ahead. There are no limits; machine learning, cognitive analytics, neural networks, teleportation (Ok – not teleportation, that’s just the frequent flyer in me wishing for Scotty’s transporter from Star Trek). And as long as we are allowing time travel today, I’d like to jump ahead 16 years and ask the 72 year-old Joe for the one piece of advice, one word he would share with me today. It would probably be “technology.”

Along my journey there have been a number of “teaching moments” I’d like to share.

1. You are only as good as you are today

In sales as in sports you are only as good as you are today. My first year in Spain was probably the best I had played in my career and our team won a European championship. I signed for a second year with a contract increase and went home for the summer anticipating an even better year ahead. Things didn’t go as planned as I returned with a variety of injuries and physical issues that lead to a benching and eventual release. In sports and business you have to be your best every day. You have to bring it every day. Yesterday doesn’t matter and tomorrow doesn’t count. You are what you are – today.

2. It’s not fair the fair is in July

Building on the success of the Memorywriter, Xerox trained us to sell the ATT 6300 Computer. A real computer with real word processing applications – the first of its kind. I immediately saw the opportunity to now crush the IBM Correcting Selectric II in my law firms. I sold a massive number of these computers in combination with first generation laser printers to a large legal customer. I was #1 on the planet… for 10 days.  That’s how much time passed between getting the order and Xerox announcing it was abandoning the computer market. Needless to say we had to reverse the entire order and I went back to being another sales guy. It wasn’t fair. I had sold the deal and was already thinking of the bigger house the commission would provide my growing family. The lesson learned is that injustice will happen, cheaters might win and you may not get the promotion you deserve. Well, guess what. Nobody cares. Its not fair the fair is in July

3. It’s only money

My older brother made a small fortune selling mobile phones in the mid ‘80s when they were viewed as a status symbol. Across the suburbs of North Dallas he was the king of car phones. He instantly scaled his lifestyle to match his exploding income, but like all trends cell phones eventually played out as more competitors with cheaper, better products moved in. At the peak of his fortune he once told me, “it’s only money” – which easy to say when you have lots of it. Fast forward to the tech boom of the late nineties and I, like many of my friends were looking a big numbers on spreadsheets thinking how they would convert into real money soon, only to see it evaporate as the market crashed. The lesson – money doesn’t define you unless you let it. To some, money is all that matters and they will do whatever they need to do to you to get it. That’s who they are. Me, I’ve learned, it’s only money.

4. There’s always someone taller

One of the great things about being 7 feet tall is all the interesting conversations I get to have with people everywhere I go on the planet. In elevators, walking down the street or moving through airports some people just feel compelled to tell me I’m tall. You see, height is perceived as a positive in every geography and culture. I remember being in a Massai village in Kenya in the early 90’s joking with the village elder who happened to be about 6’6” when suddenly he looked to the side, scowled and ran off. It seems the local boys, not part of tourist show and sipping the local brew were calling him out because he was no longer the tallest guy in the village. The guide later told me the elder used to say that he was closer to God because he was taller. Well, he learned a lesson that day as did I, there is always someone taller, richer, smarter, better looking, better educated, better something than you. I am what my DNA made me. I had nothing to do with it. All I can be is the best me.

5. Everything is Possible

I thought I had learned everything about pushing through physical, mental and emotional barriers as a college athlete; double sessions, punishment practices, screaming coaches, endless emotional beatings in front of game film… It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with an advanced case of Lyme’s disease in 2009 that I experienced a new set of mental and physical challenges. In my advanced condition, I suffered from “brain fog”, one of the classic neurological symptoms. It made thinking clearly difficult, an important skill when you are supposed to be a thought leader. I still held myself accountable to publishing my research. I learned that there is always another level of mental toughness; there is always more to give no matter how tired you are or how bad feel. You can and must continue despite all issues. I now believe I can do anything, I have no limits.

6. Any day above ground is a good day

As if Lyme’s Disease wasn’t enough, I went on to have spinal fusion surgery the next year. For reasons only my DNA can answer, the collapsing vertebrae in my neck was crushing my spinal cord.  As the numbness and neuropathy slowly advanced in my feet and hands, I had terrible visions of losing all motor control – and everything that would include. It was with great relief when the surgeon told me it could be fixed, that it was structural not a degenerative neurological disease. The surgery was long and recovery painful, but I gained a greater appreciation for the sunrise. And without being too cheesy – the gift of everyday.

I can tell you how I got here, but I can’t necessarily explain it. We make choices, decisions, do stuff, things happen and another day dawns.  I can only thank all the amazing people I’ve been blessed to work with, work for and have work with me. They have all contributed to, participated in and influenced my journey and I hope to some degree I theirs. I can only look forward to where my journey leads next. I know I have much to learn.