Nancy Laichas, editor of Direct Selling News, asked me to contribute 1,500 words for the December “Top Desk” column. She asked me to write about something that would benefit my peers—something I was passionate about. I decided to give it my best shot.
Next month I’ll celebrate two important milestones—my 54th birthday and the 35th anniversary of the day I was recruited into direct selling by a man wearing a polyester leisure suit with white platform shoes. For the record, I was wearing bib overalls and sporting a set of Elvis-like sideburns. It was the beginning of a life I could not at that time anticipate.
There are many paths that lead to the top desk in our industry, but none as enlightening as the one that starts at the bottom of a compensation plan. It is not the path less traveled. In fact, it is the path most attempted. It is the steepest climb over a mountainous ego and a dangerous traverse across unfamiliar land. It is a trail many begin but few complete. It is a path I began as a short summer walk during my freshman year, one which has become my life’s journey. When I became lost along the way, a quick look over my shoulder allowed me to see where I’d come from, revealing the path ahead. This is the enormous advantage enjoyed by starting at the bottom. If it’s easy to see where you’ve been, it’s easy to be confident in where you’re going.
The difference between success and failure has everything to do with the human competency of faith, the ability to believe in a future that can’t be proven.
With this in mind, it doesn’t surprise me that so many intelligent and academically prepared executives with great track records in other business disciplines have sat at top desks in our industry, lost their way and failed to discover the road ahead. Exceptional business skill can carry you to base camp, but there is a human competency that is as critical to the leader as oxygen is to the climber attempting to summit. Without it, a startup is doomed at the start. Without it, a company can’t survive the succession of its founder. Without it, even the most professionally managed direct selling enterprise will fail to realize its true potential. This human competency can’t be copied or purchased. Rather, it is always acquired on the ascent from the bottom by those who make it to the top and very rarely by the occasional traveler who comes to our industry from the outside.
Many confuse the human competency I’m referring to as vision. One of my favorite biographers, William Manchester, once described vision as “the ability to see beyond the horizon a future invisible to others.” While it is essential to have vision and an ability to communicate that to others, vision, by itself, is not enough. Plus, vision has nothing to do with billion-dollar empires, huge office complexes or private jets. The vision that results in success is never about the company or the leader; it is always about the future of the person contemplating the path, the young mother or the middle-aged man starting at the bottom of the compensation plan.
To win, each individual player would need to have faith in their teammates.
If you didn’t start at the bottom of a compensation plan, then you have never truly experienced the miracle of our industry and the power of that moment when fear and desperation are supplanted by hope and possibility. You might understand it intellectually, but you’ll never know the exhilaration of the empowerment that comes with the delivery of a starter kit. It will be difficult for you to understand the enormous leap of faith required before the first step down the path. At the very foundation of our business model, from decorative products to skin care and from network marketing to party plan, it has always been a business built on faith, the belief in a better life through direct selling—a belief that can’t be proven. It’s the belief of the prospective consultant that if she joins our team, follows our marketing plan, works hard and doesn’t give up, she will succeed. We can easily communicate a vision of a better life to everyone, but it is the confidence required to join and the determination to stick it out that requires faith, the rarest competency of all. Working against faith in your business opportunity are those skeptics who tend to consistently point out all the reasons why something won’t work and why your prospective consultant will fail. People will always stand in line to talk someone out of their dream, or you, as an executive, out of the actions you instinctively know to be right.
I’m not a religious person, but I have a deep and profound belief in God. The correlation between those who believe in God and their success in direct selling is more than coincidental. After 35 years in this business, I can say without hesitation that the difference between success and failure has everything to do with the human competency of faith, the ability to believe in a future that can’t be proven. You either have it or you don’t. Wanting to believe doesn’t get it done. For years, I’ve searched for a better analogy for faith, but I always come back to God.
There is a human competency that is as critical to the leader as oxygen is to the climber attempting to summit.
Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, when contemplating the draft of a player, paid very little attention to his speed or strength. Instead, Lombardi chose to investigate his character. Coach Lombardi’s philosophy was to draft players of faith. He wasn’t attempting to build a team around a bunch of choir boys; he was building a team that had the capacity to believe in something. Lombardi knew that sometime, somewhere, his team would be down in a game with time running out. They would have one improbable chance to drive the length of the field for the winning score. To win, each individual player would need to have faith in their teammates, their coaches and their own ability to succeed. Lombardi knew that players who lacked this ability to believe and have faith would simply give up and accept the inevitable loss, but players who possessed a deep faith in God could transfer the capacity to believe to other endeavors and circumstances. That’s what he looked for in players, coaches and executives in the organization—the human competency of faith. The requirement to believe wasn’t just limited to players; for Lombardi, it must permeate every level of the organization.
If Vince Lombardi were alive today, he would tell us that it is not acceptable to say that faith is only a requirement for the players who, in our case, are our sales fields. You can’t draw a line on an organizational chart and say that this is the level of management or area of discipline within which faith becomes less important or nonessential. You can’t lead from the top desk without faith any more than your salespeople can succeed without it, because there are always skeptics standing in line to talk us out of our plan, to remind us we might fail. I’m not saying you shouldn’t surround yourself with competent executives who point out liability and assess risk, nor am I saying you should surround yourself with “yes people.” I am saying there is no place at any direct selling company for a skeptic, the person who points out the negative for the sake of negative or the person who is incapable of the dream you’re selling at the bottom of the compensation plan. If the people you surround yourself with aren’t the kind of people who believe in you and your direct selling business, then you have the wrong employees on the bus, period.
I remember the words of Amway Founder Rich DeVos. He spoke to a group of direct selling executives at an association meeting a few years back. He said, “I go to work each day because it’s opening day for someone, somewhere.” I knew exactly what he was saying. This afternoon, a FedEx® truck will deliver a starter kit with an Entertaining at Home or a Southern Living At Home logo on it to someone, somewhere in America. The truck is in her driveway today because, about a week ago, her faith in her sponsor gave her the courage to sign up with our company. She’ll open more than the kit today; she’ll open her mind to a world of possibility. It might not work out, but then again, she might end up at the top desk of a direct selling company. At least she believed enough to try. Can you say that about your employees? Everything you need to know about running your company you can learn from the person who signed up with you today. The rest is in the details.
Bill Shaw is CEO of Southern Living At Home and Entertaining at Home.