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Editor’s Note: Below is an excerpt from Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, John Addison’s new book released in March. In Real Leadership, Addison shares his straightforward practices for successful leadership through his personal and professional journey, helping leaders at any level understand and emulate the nine principles that fostered enduring results on his path to success. For more information, visit www.JohnAddisonLeadership.com.
I love the University of Georgia football team. I’m a big Bulldogs’ fan and go to every game I can. Like a lot of sports fans, I have some peculiar habits in relation to my team. For example, I’ll wear the same socks to every game, the same shirt, the same hat. If they get behind, I’ll stand up and move to a different place. If they start winning, I’ll stand right there in that exact spot for the rest of the game.
Why do I do these things? Out of the completely irrational sense that anything I do could have the slightest influence on the outcome of the game. Of course, that’s just plain silly. The reality is that I have no control whatsoever over the next play or any player’s behavior. I know that. There’s a portion of my brain that fully understands that Georgia did not lose the game today because I couldn’t find my lucky socks this morning. That’s nothing but pure superstitious nonsense—and I do it anyway, laughing at myself as I do.
But not when it comes to business.
When it comes to the things that really matter, there’s no room for indulgence or superstition. When it comes to business, I pay very close attention to what I can control and what I can’t.
I cannot control Congress or the state of the economy. The president of the United States has so far not called me up and said, “Hey, John, what do you think we should do about this?” Neither has the chairman of the Federal Reserve. The reality is that I don’t have any more influence on the state of the overall business climate than I do on the outcome of that Georgia ballgame.
What I have control over is what I do and how I behave every day.
“In our world,” wrote Tolstoy, “everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” Whatever change you want to see in others, you have to be that change. If you want people to be more excited, then you’ve got to be more excited. If you want people to work harder, then you’ve got to work harder.
If more people spent more time working on themselves and less time complaining about everyone else, it’d be a much better world. People would be able to accomplish a lot more. I’m not preaching morality here. This is simple physics. There are things you can influence and things you can’t. Why waste time and energy on the latter?
People tend to be attracted to their distractions, but distractions are just places where you’ve got no traction. Because businesses are nothing but collections of people, businesses do the same thing. So many businesses pour enormous amounts of time and effort into trying to change things that will never change. You can push against the mountain all you want, but that doesn’t mean the mountain’s going to step aside.
So, back to the strategic question we faced [at Primerica Inc.] in 2000: How do we increase the percentage of people in our sales force who are doing a significant amount of business? We could spend the next decade trying to come up with solutions to that puzzle, or we could just cut to the chase and accept the commonsense answer: We don’t.
You could take all these thousands of people who haven’t done anything in years and send them an inspiring letter about all the changes you’re making and all the great things you’re doing and how exciting this is gonna be. Will they suddenly start getting engaged? No, they won’t. Sure, at the margins you can improve people’s productivity, but by and large, when someone’s done, they’re done. Throwing alarm clocks into the cemetery won’t raise the dead, and planting a dead stick in the ground doesn’t make it a tree. You can plant it, water it, and fertilize it all you want. It’s not going to grow.
You can’t change human nature. You can’t force people to be what they’re not or do what they don’t want to do. People are people. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. You can’t change their buying habits. You can’t change their preferences.
Apple became the largest technology company in the world by building devices people could use the way they wanted to, instead of trying to make people adapt themselves to how the devices wanted to be used, which is what everyone else was doing. Southwest Airlines became the number one carrier in the United States by letting people fly the way they wanted to—no penalties for changing flights, no penalties for booking flights one leg at a time, no extra charges for luggage—instead of trying to force their customers to accept the way the airline wanted them to do it like everyone else was doing.
These companies became incredibly successful by facing the realities they were dealing with, and working with them instead of trying to change them. They focused on what they could control, and didn’t try to affect what they could not control.
The reality we were facing in our business was that it’s a volunteer army. In our business, we attract part-time people. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. We don’t get to decide who joins. And we’re always going to attract a lot of people who join just because they like to join things. There are plenty of people who will join anything. They’ll go to the meetings, and they’ll have a great time being part of the excitement. They love the feeling of belonging to something. The majority of them aren’t necessarily going to really do anything major. We’ll never change that.
What we needed weren’t more joiners. What we needed were leaders. A lot of people start out as joiners, maybe without even realizing they have leadership in them, and develop into leaders only once they’re in the right environment with the right support. But you can’t tell who’s who when they first join. You have to just let them be who they are. The only way we were going to get more leaders was to bring in a lot more people and let the leaders show up, like cream rising to the top. The reality of our business is that you have to attract a ton of joiners to find a handful of leaders. That’s just the way it is.
We didn’t need our people to do more. We just needed more people.
And there was our answer. Our growth strategy starting in 2000 boiled down to three words: Focus on recruiting.
Our corporate leaders throughout the nineties had viewed recruiting as one part of the whole equation, but that wasn’t going to do it. It had to be the most important part of the equation. Recruiting had to be the tip of the spear. Without that sharp point, all we’d have was a big stick.
To explain the strategy to our team in Duluth, I told them about the car I had had back when I was a college freshman, a red 1973 Ford Maverick. That car had terrible alignment, and there wasn’t one darn thing you could do about it. You could leave it at the best shop in town and get it adjusted absolutely spot-on perfect, and when that thing hit a bump in the road five minutes after you picked it up, Blam! There it went, right back out of alignment again.
This, as I explained to my team, was a condition that was beyond my control.
Pretty soon I figured out what I had to do. If I wanted to make that thing go straight, I had to oversteer it to the left. It was that simple. I had to accept the condition I couldn’t control, and compensate for it.
“This business is just like my red ’73 Maverick,” I told the team. “The thing that drives our field is human nature. People have problems in their lives. They have challenges. They quit. We can’t stop that. We can’t make them not quit, and when they do, we can’t make them come back. There’s not one thing in the world we can do about it. That’s how they’re aligned. If we want this company to grow, we have to oversteer it toward recruiting. We have to focus everything we do on supporting the field to recruit. The message has got to be consistently recruiting.”
That was our rudder.
The thing that made our business work was pretty simple: new people bringing in new people. If we didn’t have that happening, we weren’t growing. And if we weren’t growing, then we were dying.
You’re either green and growing, or you’re ripe and rotten.
This business is all about momentum. The thing is always in motion, at all times either growing or declining. It never stays put like a constant number. Any time you take your foot off the gas and try to coast, Murphy’s Law tends to take over and make hash out of things. Momentum is a lot easier to lose than it is to build, and when you lose it, you better fight like a junkyard dog to get it back.
John Addison, now President and CEO of Addison Leadership Group and Leadership Editor for SUCCESS magazine, engages and inspires audiences with his relatable messages. Most recently, he served as Co-CEO of Primerica Inc., a company he joined more than 35 years ago.