Helping people grow. For more than 150 years, direct selling companies have been doing just that—providing countless opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds to grow their own businesses and live out their dreams.
During that same time period, another industry has helped millions grow through a focus on individual improvement: personal development—ever rich with the wisdom and enlightenment of social and business philosophers who have taught generations of Americans how to experience more in life by following simple and practical principles.
So it’s no surprise that these two industries are closely aligned. Both believe in change—that it’s completely possible to alter the conditions of one’s life for the better. Both believe in potential—that no matter a person’s background or education, he or she can successfully tap into that unlimited power within. Both believe in training—that individuals must be armed with the appropriate tools for building the professional and personal skills necessary to enhance the quality of their lives.
But perhaps the greatest commonality between these two industries is their optimism—that unwavering belief instilled by the industries’ visionary leaders that says you can be more, you can have more and you can give more than you ever thought possible.
Today, personal development is an integral component of most direct selling companies; for many, it is the fuel that fires that entrepreneurial spirit. The adoption and application of the basic tenets of personal development have led to increased motivation, decreased attrition and higher profitability for many companies. Direct Selling News has observed many companies and their use of personal development material as a part of their strategic plan; we spoke with a few for this article.
Today, personal development is an integral component of most direct selling companies; for many, it is the fuel that fires that entrepreneurial spirit.
A Brief History
It was not until the late 1800s that America was introduced to the concept of personal development. Orison Swett Marden, a farm boy from New Hampshire, read Scottish reformer Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help and, inspired by it, devoted his career to encouraging others to unlock the potential within them. He became a leader of the New Thought Movement, and “right thinking” and “personal power” became the catchphrases for a generation that believed man had the ability to change the conditions of his life.
Part of that progressive generation was another farm boy from Oswego, N.Y. David Hall McConnell had been a successful book salesman when he came upon perfume samples and recognized a unique opportunity. His California Perfume Co. (later, Avon) was novel when it began in 1886, as it was the first salesforce comprised entirely of women. McConnell knew that women had the inherent skills necessary to succeed in business but were lacking confidence in the business world. He also understood that the key to his company’s success was the commitment and dedication of the women.
And so, while Marden was inspiring through his works—including his eventual bestseller, Pushing to the Front, which offered the quintessential portrait of success—McConnell was developing a corporate philosophy that ensured each woman achieved success through an earning opportunity “in support of [her] well-being and happiness.”
He earnestly believed that the opportunity for women to find self-fulfillment was just as crucial as any financial freedom they found. “Deep down in the heart of every person there lingers a spark of hope—secret longing to be, or to have, something more,” McConnell wrote.
Marden had believed that secret longing—that golden opportunity—was found in oneself, and his work influenced such writers as Elbert Hubbard, James Allen, Wallace Wattles and Oswald Chambers in the early part of the 20th century. But perhaps no personal development book was as influential as the 1936 sensation Think and Grow Rich. Written by Napoleon Hill, the motivational classic provided 13 steps for forming a philosophy of personal achievement. The book’s core message—“What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve”—catapulted Hill into the national spotlight.
Jim Rohn, a contemporary of Zig Ziglar and Paul Harvey, was another giant thinker. His soft voice and extraordinary insights on the fundamental principles of human behavior inspired the likes of Brian Tracy, Tony Robbins and current SUCCESS magazine Publisher Darren Hardy. Rohn had actually been a distributor with Nutri-Bio in the late 1950s—building one of the largest organizations in the company—and had been mentored by company Founder and “Millionaire Maker” Earl Shoaff. When Nutri-Bio closed in the early 1960s, Rohn began his speaking career. He spent the next 40 years teaching millions of people how to move beyond their self-imposed limits by sharing the simple disciplines needed to achieve success.
These teachings on personal development inspired countless individuals, including a woman who would found one of the most successful companies in direct selling: Mary Kay Cosmetics.
“Deep down in the heart of every person there lingers a spark of hope—secret longing to be, or to have, something more.” —David Hall McConnell, Founder, California Perfume Co. (later, Avon)
Key Leaders Embrace PD
The Skills Gap
Last month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) offered its latest findings on the skills of American workers—and it was not good news. The OECD report found that the skill level of the American workforce has fallen dangerously behind that of its peers around the world. In assessments of literacy, math and problem-solving skills, American workers ranked in the middle in literacy skills and near the bottom of the other two categories.
Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the findings show “our education has not done enough to help Americans compete in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills.”
The skills needed for the modern workplace has long been a debate. There is a high unemployment rate among recent college graduates, yet there are an estimated 3 million jobs available. The problem? These graduates just don’t have the skills to fill the positions.
Mike Rowe, best known as the host of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs, has taken it upon himself to help return those trade skills that have diminished over time back to the forefront of American workers. His MikeRoweWorks Foundation offers scholarships for students to attend trade schools where they can obtain the training needed, and his Lessons from the Dirt celebrates the idea that anyone can be a tradesman.
“It’s not just about the skill, it’s about a state of mind,” he says. “Kids are in a transformative state, where what happens now will affect them the rest of their lives. I do not think the skills gap is going to close by accident. But I do think over the next five to 10 years we are going to have a real problem.”
What direct selling offers that no other industry can boast is exactly those skills that are missing in today’s workers—and they are offered either at low cost or entirely free. With the personal development programs set in place by direct sellers, today’s workers have the chance to not only work on their business skills, but their life skills as well.
Mary Kay Ash began her eponymous cosmetics company in 1963. She was a dynamic motivator who urged women not to limit themselves but to “go as far as your mind lets you; what you believe, remember, you can achieve.” Ash also advocated praising people—“There are two things people want more than sex and money: recognition and praise”—and insisted that women keep a balance in their lives between their work and family.
But training the women in her company was of utmost importance, because she believed that her company was not in the cosmetics business but the people business. “Most women coming into our organization don’t have professional training,” says Sean Key, Vice President of Sales Force Motivation at Mary Kay. “Our ability to help women become leaders is the secret to our success.”
Helping women grow and excel as salespeople was also a trademark of Ash’s sister-in-law, Mary Crowley, who had founded Home Interiors & Gifts in 1957. Crowley fervently believed, “If you grow your people, you will grow your business.”
Rich DeVos, Co-Founder of Amway, shared a similar belief to Ash’s in that his company was not about the products. “We are first and foremost a people business,” he said. In 1975, DeVos was one of the first direct selling leaders to publish his own motivational book, Believe!, which shared his personal philosophy for success.
“If you grow your people, you will grow your business.”
—Mary Crowley, Founder, Home Interiors & Gifts
A decade later, Art Williams, Founder of Primerica, inspired millions with his 1985 Pushing Up People, offering insight into the four kinds of failure fears and the power of the “little bit more” principle. What was particularly interesting was that Williams noted a change in the American economic landscape: Businesses were relying on college graduates who tested well rather than those skilled workers who had the desire to succeed. Nearly 30 years later, Williams’ words would still ring true. (See sidebar.)
Building the Right Skills and Attitude
Many direct sellers have followed suit, incorporating personal development as a core component of their business plans. Why? Because both industries are about growing people into the best they can be. The introduction of a personal program within the training of a direct selling company enhances the chance of people succeeding, not only in operating their new business, but in realizing dreams they never thought possible.
The combination of direct selling training and personal development tools offers the resources to support entrepreneurialism. The tools to succeed in the business world—skills in sales, presentation, recruiting, communication and time management—are complemented by those teachings that help newcomers find financial independence, health and well-being to build lasting and productive relationships.
Back in 1986, Herbalife Founder Mark Hughes, who had a vision of changing people’s lives through his then 5-year-old nutrition company, met Jim Rohn. They took an instant liking to one another. Rohn had spent the last two decades offering his simple yet profound philosophy: “If you will change, everything will change for you.” Hughes knew that was the message his new distributors needed to hear.
The result was a marriage of like minds, and Rohn spent the next 25 years traveling around the world motivating Herbalife distributors and teaching them that “success is what you attract by the person you become.”
The appeal of Rohn lay in the simplicity of his messages: There was nothing complex or mysterious, nothing the average person could not understand. He offered simple messages of hope and optimism that deeply touched people, allowing them to look inside to find life-changing answers to who they were and who they wanted to become.
Angela Loehr Chrysler, President and CEO of Team National, also believes personal development offers this life-changing opportunity. She says it is “essential to great success in your business and personal life. It can help you be a better leader, mom, dad, spouse, friend and family member.”
Team National promotes and utilizes the programs that help new recruits excel in every area of their lives. “Our top leaders also have a suggested reading list that helps people get started,” she says. “We promote personal growth regularly on conference calls, leadership trainings, at corporate events, in our training material, on our website, in our blogs and in our newsletters. We also have monthly personal growth training with our corporate staff along with additional training with our executive team. We discuss it regularly with our staff in our staff meetings, and we share newsletters and videos that will help our staff grow. Often our executive team will review and discuss material and how we can apply it with our sales field and our corporate staff.”
But along with the viable tools to hone their skills, newcomers also need a lesson on “right thinking.” Consider this:
Job seeker returns home with great news: “I got a job with IBM!”
Response from family:
“Oh, my God! That’s wonderful! Congratulations!”
Job seeker returns home with great news: “I’m starting an opportunity with a direct selling company!”
Response from family:
“Oh, my God! What were you thinking?”
Sad, isn’t it? Yet true, for it still occurs to this day due to the negative perceptions seeded in the long-ago pyramid schemes of dishonest companies, not to mention the constant, ongoing battles still fought by reputable direct sellers who are targeted by the many naysayers who don’t really understand the business model.
Personal development assists people in overcoming the fears, helping them build the right attitude about what they are doing and arming them with the tools to overcome objections from customers and even their own family members. It provides the resilience needed for when times are tough, and that is extremely important in a business that John Addison, Co-CEO of Primerica, has called a “psychology business.”
Does Positive Psychology Really Work?
For years it had been a widely held belief that optimism played a key role in how people approached work and life—and whether or not they succeeded. Four years after Norman Vincent Peale offered his practical techniques for energizing one’s life in his book The Power of Positive Thinking, Chicago radio announcer Earl Nightingale recorded “The Strangest Secret,” with its message being that “the secret” to success is one’s thoughts and habits.
These works, along with David Schwartz’ 1959 classic The Magic of Thinking Big, inspired a generation of leaders and entrepreneurs with new ways of approaching their greatest ambitions, including legendary college football coach Lou Holtz, who based his life’s goals on Schwartz’ work.
But there has never been definitive scientific research to support the belief that optimism truly makes a difference. That is, until now.
Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, collected 30 years of research data that quantitatively measured the effects of training programs on productivity. The result? The No. 1 factor in increasing sales productivity was learned optimism.
Seligman, credited as the Father of Positive Psychology, offered two statistics: Sales teams with trained optimism—that is, repeated exposure to positively influencing input—sold 35 percent more than their counterparts who, left to their own devices, were 200 percent more likely to quit by the end of the first year.
Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, delivered lectures on positive psychology to his classes at Harvard University. In his research on happiness—which is not the belief everything is joyous but that change is possible—he found that a positive mindset results in 23 percent greater energy in the midst of stress, 31 percent higher productivity and 37 percent higher levels of sales.
Clearly, scientific research is now able to provide substantial data on the benefits of optimism: increased motivation and superior achievement in productivity. This bodes well for direct sellers.
Measuring Its Success
But how does a direct selling company measure the return on investment in a personal development program?
Well, that is a little trickier. Personal development is a bit like public relations: difficult to measure and to tie back to a specific return. But the absence of real numbers does not suggest that such a program is not effective, especially in an industry where the focus is on people.
Brian Tracy, author of the best-selling Psychology of Achievement, says that every dollar properly invested has the ability to grow 5-10 percent each year. In looking at the companies in direct selling that have invested in personal development programs as a core foundational aspect of their business, the ROI is quite evident.
An Authentic Community
Personal development books, CDs and DVDs will continue to be a mainstay for many direct sellers in helping their people grow. However, some direct sellers, like energy and essential services provider ACN, are taking advantage of new tools to support their programs, including a leading motivation and inspiration web portal that offers new distributors guided tours through the first 30 days of their careers in direct selling; thousands of articles on personal development; hundreds of interviews, videos and audios; as well as book summaries and daily inspirational quotes. “Personal development is and will always be a crucial building block in our business,” says President and Co-Founder Greg Provenzano.
“The organization will always mirror the behavior, habits, attitude, mindset and pace of the leader.”
Video games are also coming onto the scene. In September, Amway China’s training center released a 3-D online gaming platform for training new salespeople.
Called Amway Life: The First 90 Days, the game is designed to be an efficient and fun learning tool for sales representatives starting their direct selling business. The main objective is to develop an online Amway business by discovering and building relationships with prospective customers of various personalities. Key personal development skills are included in training.
However, what will always be the key to cultivating a successful personal development program is the authenticity reflected in a company’s leaders. So many company leaders echoed what we captured in a few words from Chrysler: “Sharing real examples of the difference it has made in your life and others, and to relate to people why it matters,” makes the difference between talking it and walking it. “If personal development has foundational importance to your company, your passion for personal growth is clearly communicated internally and externally through your culture.”
Darren Hardy agrees that the most important aspect of developing an authentic community is the role the leader plays in creating, fostering and keeping a culture of personal development. “The organization will always mirror the behavior, habits, attitude, mindset and pace of the leader,” he says. “They will do as you do; they will mirror you. It will always start and end with you.”
“ ‘If you want to have more, you have to become more,’ ” Hardy says, repeating Jim Rohn’s classic insight. “ ‘Let it be said that you developed the gift of not just helping people with their jobs, but with their lives as your greater purpose would have you do. Don’t just teach people how to work, but how to live.’ ”
And that’s what direct selling companies have been helping people do. By making personal development a core component in their businesses, they have been able to achieve greater profitability and, most importantly, leave people better than when they found them—which goes a long way in improving the perception of the direct selling channel.