Eighteen years ago, as I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises beside a crackling fire, snoring dogs at my feet, I became obsessed with an idea. The implications hinted at my raison d'etre. Obsession with a second idea a few months later kicked the first into motion and brought me to where I am today. More about those ideas in a bit. First, let’s talk about obsession. Dictionaries would have you believe that obsession is a problem akin to stalking:
“a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling”
“compulsive preoccupation with an idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety”
I prefer this definition:
“something or someone that you think about all the time.”
My obsession wasn’t unwanted or unreasonable and created no anxiety in me, but rather a compulsion to share it with others. To do this on a large scale required people who were as obsessed with the ideas as I was. Of course, I had to determineif there were customers – individuals, organizations - who saw the implications of my obsession and wanted what I wanted enough to pay for it. Turns out there were, there are. But I knew that the success I hoped for would not be handed to me by an investor or a partner. It was something I had to find and nurture on my own, driven by obsession.
Most companies were launched by an idea – Amazon, Google, Facebook, GoPro, WhatsApp, HomeAdviser, Airbnb, GoFundMe, Uber, Miracle Mop, Stitch Fix. The founders had a desire they imagined others shared and their obsession fuelled the energy to build a company, which is no walk in the park. You gotta really want it, love it and your idea must have a clear and compelling “why” behind it. In fact, without that “why” and your obsession with it, it’s possible to spin ones wheels and considerable bucks on the what and how and end up frustrated and possibly broke, which explains why so many ideas never get off the ground.
The ideas that led to Fierce, Inc. were like kaleidoscopic pieces that, when they shifted, changed my view of the world, of myself in the world, and therefore, what wasrequired of me. They were the “whys” with which I remain obsessed.
In The Sun Also Rises, a character is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” He responds, “Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.” At the time I read this, I had been running think tanks for chief executives for 13 years and had had more than 10,000 hours of conversations with industry leaders worldwide. I thought back over important events in the lives of my clients. They all wanted to have conversations that got results but many felt that most of their conversations and meetings were a waste of time and money. And they were right. A piece within my internal kaleidoscope dropped.
Our careers, our companies, our relationships, and indeed our very lives succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time.
On the failing side, sometimes the questions were: How did we manage to lose our biggest customer—the one that counted for 20 percent of our net profit? How did I lose my most valued employee, for whom I had great plans? How did I lose the cohesiveness of my team? Why are we experiencing turnover, turf wars, rumors, departments not cooperating with one another, unengaged employees, long overdue reports and projects, strategic plans that still aren’t off the ground, and lots of very good reasons and excuses why things can’t be any different or better?
And on a personal note: How did I lose an 18-year marriage that I was not prepared to lose? How did I lose my job? How is it that I find myself in a company, a role, a relationship, a life from which I’ve absented my spirit? How did I lose my way? How did I get here?
Once the members of my CEO groups reflected on the path that led them to a disappointing or difficult point and place in time, they remembered, often in vivid detail, the conversations that set things in motion, ensuring that they would end up exactly where they found themselves. They lost that customer, that employee, the cohesiveness of their team, their marriage, their joy – one failed or one missing conversation at a time.
On the positive side, here was pretty amazing when a company finally landed that huge customer, the one their competition would kill for. Or successfully recruited a valuable new employee. Or a leader discovered that her team was committed to her at a deep level. Or a team blew their goals out of the water. And personally, celebrating another happy year of marriage.
They got to these good places in their lives, these amazing achievements, these satisfying career paths, these terrific relationships, gradually, then suddenly, one successful conversation at a time. And they were determined to ensure the quality of their ongoing conversations with the people central to their success and happiness.
Imagine you are standing on a game board – the game of life. Your life. How did you arrive at this square on the board, with all of your current results – professional and personal - spread out in front of you, some you like and some you don’t? You arrived here one conversation at a time. And when you project yourself into an ideal future, how will you get there? The same way you got here. One conversation at a time.
Shortly after the gift of Hemingway, I heard Yorkshire-born poet and author, David Whyte, speak at a conference. David spoke of the young man, newly married, who is often frustrated, even a little irritated that his lovely spouse, to whom he has pledged his troth and with whom he hopes to spend the rest of his life, seemingly wants to talk – yet again - about the same thing they just talked about last night, last weekend. The topic? The quality of their relationship. He wonders, “Why are we talking about this again? I thought we settled this. Could we just have one huge conversation about our relationship and then coast for a year or two?” Apparently not, because here she is again.
Around age 42, if he’s been paying attention, David suggested, it dawns on him. David smiled. He was 42 and married. “This ongoing conversation I have been having with my wife is not about the relationship. The conversation is the relationship.”
The conversation is the relationship.
To say this landed with me would be an understatement. The idea was simple, even obvious, but I had missed the formula. Conversation = relationship.
As the idea dropped, my internal kaleidoscope shifted. I had just left a long-term marriage and was deeply sad. I felt David was talking just to me and learned later that all 400 people in the room felt the same way. We all had a strong desire to run out into the parking lot and phone home.
If you recognize that there may be something to this, that the conversation is the relationship, then if the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship
become smaller and the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller as well, until one day we overhear ourselves in midsentence, making ourselves quite small, behaving as if we’re just the space around our shoes, engaged in yet another three-minute conversation so empty of meaning it crackles.
For me, this is a seriously big deal. Our most valuable currency is not money, nor is it intelligence, attractiveness, fluency in three-letter acronyms, the ability to write code or analyze a P&O statement. Our so-called pedigree doesn’t get us as far as we might hope. Our most valuable currency is relationship, emotional capital, without which we have nothing, accomplish nothing. Superficial relationships – How are you? I’m fine – are not going to cut it. It is the depth of our relationships that determines the meaning of our lives. And the depth of our relationships is created gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time. Each conversation we have, each phone call, each email or text enriches a relationship, flat lines it, so what’s the point, or takes it down. In other words, we are building relationships that thrill or disappoint us one conversation at a time.
I founded Fierce, Inc. due to my obsession with these two ideas, having become hyper-tuned to how conversations profoundly impact our lives. In this world of asynchronous communication, where we are face down in our screens, not to be distracted by what’s happening around us, it seems that when we speak, we skim along the surface of a topic and/or withhold what we’re really thinking and feeling, so that we say nothing of interest, really. And we say it over and over. Even when we recognize our prejudices as prejudices, we continue to feud. Consequently, nothing of value emerges and today is a lot like yesterday.
The usual chitchat doesn’t get us much. The conversation chaos of people who disregard competing views and attempt to peddle self-serving agendas does not advance us. We want to be ourselves, to be heard, yet growth is the process of extending our views, seeking to understand the views of others and abandoning views that no longer serve us, so we can embrace the possibilities no single person – except a few great minds such as Einstein - could have grasped. I am not an Einstein. I need input and if you’ve got a clear and compelling case, I’m not that hard to persuade, especially if you’re obsessed with your idea.
I am obsessed with making people great conversationalists. We should know how to talk about the things that matter. Fierce Conversations teaches people what to talk about, how to talk about it effectively and why it matters to the bottom line. The result is that they stop wasting time and money having pointless conversations and instead have great conversations that get results.
I am always interested to know if people have something in their lives they love beyond all reason. A person, a place, a product, an activity – cooking, painting, hiking, traveling. Or an idea. The problem is that our ideas, our obsessions, are often degraded by our rational minds. We talk ourselves out of our ideas, which leaves the field open for others to capitalize on them.
I encourage you to ask yourself these questions:
- What thought or idea has been your frequent companion?
- Is there a compelling “why” connected to your idea?
- If someone has created a business around your idea, is there a missing piece? Is there room to improve and enhance such a business? Or room to implement your idea and improve things right where you are.
- What are you waiting for?