What I read in April

Charlie “Tremendous” Jones once said, five years from now, you will be the same person you are today except for two things: “the people you meet and the books you read.” Well, thanks to COVID-19, I didn’t meet too many new people last month. But, also thanks to COVID-19, I had a lot of extra time to read.

And, as promised, I’m sharing the best of what I read last month.

The Invisible Leader

According to author Zach Mercurio, most organizations are not tapping into their most powerful leader. That leader isn’t in the C-suite – in fact, it’s not a person at all. That leader is a compelling, authentic purpose for the organization – an Invisible Leader. The reason that this most powerful leader is untapped is that organizations are primarily focused on results: grades for students, quotas or other KPIs in business, etc. At best, these provide short-term motivational pushes – cramming to get a grade on a test, a flurry of activity at the end of the month to achieve a sales quota – but they don’t last. It’s authentic purpose, which Mercurio defines as “a person or organization’s genuine and unique reason for existence that is useful to others in society,” that acts as the ultimate differentiator and motivator.

Marketing Rebellion

We are in the midst of a third marketing rebellion, where consumers are rebelling (for perhaps the final time) against advertising. The first rebellion – in the early twentieth century – brought an end to the lies of the advertising that sold snake-oil and other dubious products. The second came with the internet, bringing an end to the secrets that advertisers had depended on (think MTV VJ turned podcaster Adam Curry saying, “There are no secrets, only information you don’t yet have”). The third marketing rebellion that we’re in the midst of is bringing an end to control. In this new era, two-thirds of a consumer’s purchasing decision involves “human-driven marketing activities like internet reviews, social media conversations, and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family, and online experts.” Author Mark Schaefer points out: two-thirds of your marketing is not your marketing. Then, he asks: So, what do you do? You forge human connections with your customers. Thus the tagline of his book: “the most human company wins.” At FiveFour, we say that your marketing is your customer experience, and most of Schaefer’s examples of human-centered marketing are what we would call customer experience. Consumers can see through lies, there are no secrets and businesses are no longer in control of their marketing. They want a human connection with the companies that want their business. Consumers are demanding remarkable customer experiences. And, as previous rebellions have shown, in the end, the consumer always wins.

Living Life Backward

I can’t remember the first personal development session I sat in that had me write my obituary, but I know I’ve done it several times. The intent of the exercise is to get you – as Stephen Covey has coined it – begin with the end in mind. According to David Gibson, the preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes did that same thing over 2,000 years ago. Life is short – a mere breath. The world is confusing. We have far less control over our circumstances than we would like. The only certainty is our eventual death and the likelihood that none of our accomplishments will survive us. By confronting us with these realities, the Old Testament book asks how we should live in light of them, right now. The answer it provides is to stop trying to escape the limitations of life. Stop treating your life as a problem to be solved. Stop worshiping and depending on stuff. Be content with your circumstances. Be grateful for the rhythms of life, for they are a gift from God. “Gift, not gain, is your new motto.” Be generous with your time and possessions. Pay attention to the world around you rather than the distractions of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry, not because that’s all there is, but because that’s what there is.” What can help us do this? The reality of death. “Preparing to die means thinking about how to live.”

Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Patrick Lencioni has long been one of my favorite business authors and perhaps the best there is on organizational health. His style of writing easily-accessible business fables that teach timeless truths has led to millions of book sales. By far the most famous of those fables is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable and those dysfunctions are worth listing: The first is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. A failure to build trust sets the tone for the second dysfunction, which is a fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. That ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, leading an avoidance of accountability, the fourth dysfunction. Without committing to a clear plan of action, people often hesitate to hold their peers accountable, which creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive: inattention to results. If none of those dysfunctions sound familiar, you’re either not on a team or you are in a state of blissful ignorance. Every team suffers from at least one of these dysfunctions and could benefit from reading both books. While the fable clearly lays out the impact of these dysfunctions, it’s this Field Guide that shows you how to overcome them. And isn’t that the whole point?

the path between us

There is no shortage of personality and behavioral tests: Myers-Briggs, DISC, Motivators, the Five-Factor Model and an endless number of lesser-known models. In The Path Between Us, Suzanne Stabile introduces the Enneagram, an ancient personality typing system that leads to self-discovery. From the Greek words ennéa, meaning “nine” and grámma, meaning something “written” or “drawn” the nine-pointed Enneagram is a typology of nine interconnected personality types, each with distinct strategies for relating to the self, others and the world. It has become commonly used in the Christian community as an aid to spiritual formation. I first heard about it on the podcast of Donald Miller, read The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery and took the Enneagram test. It was fairly easy to identify myself and it taught me some important lessons about how I engaged with the world. Almost simultaneously, my wife was engaging the Enneagram in a study with her friends, so we decided to listen to The Path Between Us during a weekend getaway and it gave us valuable ways to better interact with each other. In my work, I lead teams through the DISC and the most valuable learning is always through their interactions with each other. The Enneagram is the same. It’s one thing to discover my type and learn more about myself. But the real insight comes from how I interact with others. That’s the insight that comes from The Path Between Us.

What You Do is Who You Are

Ben Horowitz is at pains in this book to explode the myth that you can establish culture simply by writing it down. That’s an important first step. You have to first define what you want. But it’s not enough. It’s not even enough to model the culture you want, even though that’s incredibly important. You must make sure that the values you want in your business are actionable, be crystal clear what those actions are, and constantly reinforce them. Horowitz goes back in history to draw lessons from obscure cultures like Haitian slaves, prison gangs and the samurai to show his main point: “Culturally, what you believe means nearly nothing. What you do is who you are.” A good read for those who need to define the culture of their organizations.

Jack’s Life: The Story of C.S. Lewis

This biography of C.S. Lewis was written by his stepson, Douglas Gresham. The book both benefits and suffers from that fact. The benefit was in the first-person account. The drawback was his tendency to cast Lewis in the best possible light, no matter what the circumstance. For example, the falling out between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t even register. Ultimately, the book would have been improved had it included more first-person narrative and less defense of Lewis. However, given the relationship between the two and the fact that Gresham is no author, it’s understandable and the book is worth reading by fans of Lewis.

More

I also read Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham. Many of the lies recast familiar learnings from his earlier books, but my favorite of the lies was #3: the best companies cascade goals. Not true, says Buckingham. The best companies cascade meaning. Crushing It! By Gary Vaynerchuck was a good reminder that, no matter how good you or your idea, success requires total commitment. Due to its role in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was a compelling read. And I blogged about Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi here and here. Finally, I read Lancelot by Walker Percy, which had some profound points while being profoundly weird.

What are you reading? What should I read this month?

Finding order in chaos

In his book, Better Under Pressure, Justin Menkes has identified three traits that enable the most successful business leaders to operate in challenging times: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos.

The ability to find order in chaos seems most applicable today, so I want to focus on the two elements that make up that trait.

First, is maintaining clarity of thought. In times of stress, the best leaders don’t just tolerate the stress. They use it to motivate themselves and the people they lead to focus on the right priorities.

One of the biggest temptations in the midst of a crisis is to become consumed by it to the point that all you can focus on is what’s right in front of you. As Menkes writes, “You’ve got to be thinking about how it’s going to be when you come out of it, not just six months from now, but six years from now.”

That’s where crises can actually be useful tools – if used correctly. They can help the leader focus the team on the essentials of the business and pursue them relentlessly.

Second is being driven to solve the puzzle. Business today, in a rapidly changing marketplace, is little more than a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved. As Menkes writes, “there is always a critical puzzle to solve.”

Successful leaders get curious in a crisis. How can we get through this and come out stronger on the other side? How have people navigated something like this before? What’s the next step?

I’ve talked to dozens of business leaders over the past few weeks, in various stages of the ability to find order in chaos. And here’s the takeaway: it wasn’t their circumstances that influenced this most directly.

One calm leader I talked to was at the head of a company in a good state – still doing some business, no debt, good cash position, and he was methodically meeting the crisis of COVID-19. Another, had completely shut his doors and furloughed is entire staff. He was also confident that they were in a good spot and was focused on applying for the SBA Paycheck Protection Program.

That’s the message of Menkes’ book. Leaders can’t control their circumstances, but they can always control how they respond to those circumstances. How you respond to a crisis – from a small personnel issue to one as a big as a new coronavirus – determines your ability to lead.

Who am I? Why am I here?

It’s that line, spoken in the 1992 Vice Presidential Debate, that made Admiral James Stockdale, famous. But it’s an obvious question. What am I planning to do here on this site? Why start a blog in 2020. I thought those were so 2002?

Nathan Schock preparing to teach Sunday School
Nathan preparing to teach Sunday School

If you know me, you know that I’m a life-long learner. In fact, that’s an understatement. I’m President & COO of FiveFour, a training company where I’m constantly learning, teaching and creating training content for the development of our many clients.

But learning is more than just my occupation. It’s part of my faith (the picture here is of me preparing to teach Sunday school) and my hobby. I also read novels at night in an (often futile) attempt to settle my brain for sleep.

For the past seven years, I’ve read at least a book a week. Two years ago, I increased that to two books per week and last year it was three. If you want to know what I’m reading, check my out on Goodreads.

Those books, along with the many articles and podcasts I consume on a regular basis, and the things I learn running two companies, will form the cornerstone of the content I post here. If you love to learn, you’ve come to the right place. I hope you’ll hang out for a while. And come back.