Many of us write but fail to get the traction we want for our business or brand to thrive. In this episode, Michael Zipursky talks with Dan Rockwell, the author and owner of Leadership Freak, to share with us his success story of building a world-class leadership consulting practice from writing. He talks about his writing process, how he consistently creates content, and how he drives people to view and consume his content. On the other side of it, Dan then shares his view on leadership, coaching, and training, letting us in on what he does to help others become successful.
In this episode, I’m with Dan Rockwell. Welcome to the show, Dan.
It’s good to be here, Michael.
I’m excited about this conversation. You’re the author and Owner of Leadership Freak, which is a great name. You do leadership coaching and run your training business. Your work has been featured in Inc. Magazine. You are at Top 50 Leadership and Management Expert. You’ve written for the American Marketing Association, Deloitte Leadership Academy, Huffington Post, and a whole bunch more. Let’s talk about your blog because it seems that a lot of what you’re known for or where people find you is through your blog. What impact has your blog had on your career?
It totally changed my life and our life. I said to my wife, “Writers would love to make money writing,” and in the end, everything that I’m doing comes from that. I started many years ago. I had no plan. I did not use it as a business tool. I wasn’t writing so I can get speaking engagements, but about 1.5 years in, I got my first speaking engagement and it’s all a history since then.
I want to dive deeper into that. You started writing, but there are people out there that also write and don’t necessarily see much traction from it. Why do you think that your work specifically led to then people reaching out to you? What were you doing to promote it, if anything at all?
I started the writing thing, I got on Twitter approximately the same time and I was experimenting. I didn’t have a plan, but why did the traction happen? I’m not exactly sure, but I can tell you that there are 2 or 3 things that people mentioned to me. One is, it’s brief and there’s a reason why it’s brief. People will say, “I love to read your blog. It’s short.” It’s not like, “I love to read your blog. You’re such a great author. You put together the words wonderfully.” They never do that for me.
It’s brief because everything you see on the page is for me. I’m writing for me. I write what I want to write on the page and what I want to say. I never think about, “I wonder what the people in the health sector would like to say here.” I have a short attention span. I do not like reading long articles, especially online. We were talking about books before we got on. Paper is fine but online, I don’t want long articles. I write briefly because I want to read briefly, so I do that for me.
When you say that you’re writing for yourself, tell me a little more about that. Do you mean the actual words that you’re putting on paper, you’re doing that for yourself or you’re thinking about what would you like to read?
I’m doing it mostly for myself. When I say that, I don’t mean what I would like to read. It’s a form of expression and I love to write frustrated. There’s a problem somewhere. I’ve had a conversation with a leader and something’s going wrong in the organization. Sometimes coaching clients will send me a note and say, “I see myself in that one and that’s awesome.” Nobody knows who it is and I’m always protecting people’s identity. I write to solve my own problems and things that are bugging me.
I’m trying to do it more the day before now, but I love to get up in the morning, put my hands on the keyboard, and have something that I’m angry about. You don’t publish the anger. The anger is fuel. What I’ll do is sometimes I’m using the I voice. When I first write, it’s I but I always turn that around to you. I want to shift the focus and the anger stays here. The solution and the process go out. Maybe I’m frustrated with something. I don’t want to read some raging maniac.
Also, you mentioned that your posts are quite short. I think 300 words or less. It reminds a little bit of Seth Godin in terms of his very short succinct to the point posts that obviously has great traction and then a very strong following. How many website visitors do you receive roughly per month?
Unique visitors would be somewhere around 75,000 to 100,000.Give up on perfection. Part of the problem with all of us is we keep perfecting. Click To Tweet
From our research here, you have over 400,000 people on your email list.
That’s not the email list exclusively, but subscribers and there are different kinds of subscribers.
I’m bringing this up because there are things like vanity metrics, people throw big numbers and what do those numbers mean? The reason why I mentioned this is because a lot of people will tell you, “You need to write thinking about Google and search engine optimization.” You strike me as the kind of person that probably isn’t thinking too much about the different words to use to be ranked higher and you’re certainly not writing for length, which is something that Google is known for appreciating or giving more favor to. Yet you’re getting a lot of inbound visitors and building your list. Any thoughts about that specifically?
I do know about keywords and I do know how to search for Google on what people are looking for. For years, I never thought about it at all. I’ll tell you that by accident I was using a title and the language in the blog post matched the title and understand that’s good, but I need to get 500 words or more to get Google’s attention. I did make a change that helped and that is I started linking out more. I didn’t link out. Now, I’m putting at the bottom added resources, or in the blog post, I’m linking off my site. I noticed an uptick.
There are certainly some people who believe that linking out to trusted sources can help with your search engine optimization. That certainly would be the case. I’m not an SEO expert by any means. We’d like to write for humans, not for robots and things of that in nature. You’ve been writing for many years. You built up this very large following. To me, that resonates because Consulting Success has been around for many years. We started very similar writing content, not thinking too much about monetization. We only wanted to put stuff out there.
What does your schedule look like when it comes to writing or your approach? I’m thinking because there are a lot of people out there who deep down inside know they should be maybe writing and creating more content, but they don’t. First of all, what would you say to those people who are experts and they have a lot of experience? They can add a lot of value and can help people, but there’s something holding them back from not creating content and even if they do, it’s not consistent. Here you are consistently creating content. What would you say to those people who are maybe on the fence or haven’t committed to it fully yet?
Give up on perfection. Part of the problem with all of us is we keep perfecting and I made a commitment to myself that I would write five days a week. That first year, I had no idea what that meant, but it meant that I had to get something out every day. Now, I have a basic deadline. My best deadline is 7:00 and the latest deadline is 9:00 AM Eastern Time. I put it out there. I wasn’t even having anybody else read it. It was having grammar errors. My wife was good and she reads these which means I used to write in the morning, post in the morning and I still do write in the morning, but sometimes the post would have been finished the day before. I like that short timeline and the pressure, “I’m going to do this.” Give up on perfection and start putting it out there. Someone asked me one time, “Are you concerned that you’re going to contradict yourself?” I said, “I hope I do. In over many years, I hope I changed my mind on something.”
What if I say the same thing or I cover the same point? We should be talking principles, not always creating new ideas. You mentioned that a little bit about your schedule. You’re focusing on between Monday to Friday, one piece of content, ideally done by 7:00, if not by 9:00. What does your approach look like? A lot of people would look at the screen and go, “I don’t even know what to write about.” How are you coming up with ideas to create the content that you then sit down and bang out?
I’ve never had a problem with ideas. I have a short attention span and I have lots of ideas. I’m looking here. I have a gazillion starts. It says, “Last words express first priorities.” Now, I have five questions. What do I want to have said at the end of the day? What do I want to say at the end of a meeting? What do I want to say at the end of one-on-one? I have no idea. That might be tomorrow’s post. I may never use that, but I’ve got a gazillion of these little things.
Are you using like Evernote or pen to paper? How are you capturing these ideas as they come to you?
If I’m walking, I’m doing an audio note with my cell phone. I use Word and I have two files. One is potential posts and one is actual posts. If I happen to get up in the morning and I’m not sure what I want to write about, I can always go there. There’s a gazillion of them there. By the way, when you look at them, it’s like, “What were you thinking?”
I have those where I take notes and I don’t even know what I was writing. I can’t comprehend what I was trying to say, but maybe it will come back to me in the future. You’re noting things down and have you found that once you start to commit to publishing consistently, but the idea is that before maybe you thought, “What would I write about and how could I keep it up?” There are ideas everywhere. You’re never running out of new ideas because you’re always thinking of things. Is that true for you as well?Success is about having the real drive to serve, the real drive to bring value to people. Click To Tweet
Absolutely, because I know tomorrow morning, I want to post something. It’s always on my mind. I have a coaching call. I had a call with a client before we got on. I don’t know if I’ll use anything from it, but there are lots of fodder and things going on and I’m seeing it everywhere.
Let’s say you’ve sat down, banged out that piece of content, what do you now do to promote it? You have obviously hundreds of thousands of people that are following you in your email list, but walk us through what you’re doing to drive people to view and consume that content?
There are people who have subscribed. They’re going to get this in email. I have email and WordPress subscribers. I’m using a tool called MeetEdgar. It will manage my social media posts. I’m posting to LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I put much more content out on Twitter and posting 2 or 3 times a day on the other channels. With MeetEdgar, I put the content in, I’d label it, it’s gets scheduled and it’s all my content, but I’m not there all the time having to put it out. That has been a great asset.
Are you doing all that yourself or is someone helping you with that?
Everything you see, I’m doing, except for editing a post. For grammar or spelling, somebody else is doing that. I take the pictures and I get them from a place that doesn’t require attribution. This is how technically agile I am. I use PowerPoint, write on the picture and save the whole thing as a JPEG and put it on there myself. I want everything out there for me. I want it to be what I want to see. For example, the heading. I don’t read a webpage, I scan it to see if I want to read it. I know people do that. I want people to go to my website and be able to scan that’s why you get all the headings and the quotes so you can say, “That’s not interesting to me.” I’m not trying to get you to stay. I’m trying to bring you value. If you stay for that, that’s fantastic. If it’s not valuable, go somewhere else.
At this point, you have a blog that creates opportunities for you. You have coaching clients and so forth. Before the blog was up and running, what were you doing to grow the business or create conversations with buyers?
I was not working for myself at that time. I spent fifteen years as a Workforce Development Consultant at the local Penn State affiliate. That was a staff position. I’m an external consultant. I did a lot of training. I’ve worked with companies in the community. I did staff development for the college. That was the stepping stone and then I started writing.
You start writing while you were still working your job before you went out as an independent coach trainer or consultant?
Do you do anything else aside from writing on your blog to create a business?
My original life way back is I went off to have a degree in Theology and always been involved in church ministry. Church ministry has been part of my life all my life. That’s part of what I’m doing.
I want to shift from about the writing and the content, the authority building and not the whole side into the work that you’re doing, which is leadership, coaching and training. Leadership is interesting because it’s so broad. There are many people who say, “I’m a leadership coach,” “I’m a leadership consultant.” To you, what does leadership truly mean? What should people be able to think about when they think about leadership itself?Coaching is a lot about curiosity and forward-facing questions. Click To Tweet
I’m going to come at this from an individual point of view. You can have organizational leadership and things that deal with strategy. I’m the guy who will want to talk to a leader, a person and develop them so that then they can be effective in whatever they’re doing. That’s going to be my focus. The foundations are servant leadership, character, humility and curiosity. I will sometimes teach coaching skills. It depends on the person, but my focus, I work with teams and I work with leaders, but it seems like it’s almost always a very similar focus and that’s learning how to connect, relationships, being effective, setting priorities and some of these skill-based things.
You’ve worked with a lot of people over the years. When you look at those who you feel are the most successful, I don’t mean only financially successful. You look at them and they’re good people and making a real impact, but they’re also successful from a financial perspective or career perspective or business building perspective. What are the common traits or characteristics or beliefs or principles that you would say that they’ve done very well or that they are using, which is what creates success for them?
I feel like maybe they don’t have a real need to succeed and be in front of people and they don’t have a lot of that. They have a real drive to serve, a real drive to bring value to people. They have a general sense of generosity and some of them grapple with this, don’t get me wrong. This is not like a magic formula because you have an aspiration for yourself and sometimes if someone outshines you, for example, you’ve got to grapple with that. I definitely see generosity in the people that I’m working with is a big one. Sometimes they’ll come to me because I’m good with curiosity, questions, coaching and they want to expand their influence with their team.
When you sit down with a new client, what’s typically the first thing that you’re doing with them?
I’m going to send them a coaching profile. That’s going to give me 5 or 6 pages of stuff. “What assessments have you taken?” We’re going to debrief. It’s a pretty typical approach in that you want to clarify their expectations and if we succeed, what is that going to look like? You’re trying to manage the expectation of the client and make sure that they’re seeing value because you can do things for them that they don’t value and then you lost a client.
What will you say is one thing that you’ve found and discovered that you’ve implemented into your own business and to your own body of work that’s had a big impact for you?
Coaching is a lot about curiosity and forward-facing questions. Coaching is not therapy. We’re going to move forward. Banter, advising and saying what I think, it’s taken me quite a while to become comfortable with that. I am finding that people do enjoy hearing what someone else thinks. They value my opinion, they know that I’ve talked to a lot of leaders and curious. There’s been a move to include a little banter in the sense of, “I can be a machine gun with questions,” and that’s not always the best.
What I’m hearing you say is that maybe previously the old Dan would have asked more questions, let the client do a lot more of the talking because you were trying to draw it out and helping them to see things without you telling things. Now, the shift that you’ve found is that at the appropriate time if you can jump in and share something or a best practice or different way of thinking or something that’s worked for someone else’s story that would be helpful. Maybe allowing that client to reach clarity or to make greater progress faster, you are now starting to do that. Is that accurate?
That’s pretty close. Sometimes I would say, “Would you like me to coach you? Would you like advice? Would you like me to listen?” I want the client to be in the driver’s seat. I do a little bit of mentoring. I’m in the driver’s seat. I’m going to take guests where you want to go, but I’m going to do it my way. Mentoring is a little different for me, but in the coaching relationship, I want to let you be in the driver’s seat and you can tell me. I’m constantly checking with my client’s like, “How’s the ratio of curiosity to advice? How’s that going for you? What’s working?” They can still be in control of the conversation.
You ask those almost every coaching session or once a quarter or how frequently are you trying to keep a pulse on it?
Early on, I’m going to do it a little bit more. For example, I’m going to have a second call with a new customer or client. One of the first things I’m going to ask is, “Talk to me about the ratio of the question to advising or suggestion that we had in our first call. What felt good to you?” I’m going to do that regularly. I’m going to start the conversation by saying, “If this conversation is a fantastic conversation, what will happen?” I’m serving them.
Dan, thank you for coming on here. I appreciate your insights and some of the stories of how you got to where you are and what you’ve been doing with your blog. I hope that encourages others to commit, to putting all their content. Whether that’s in written form or it’s an audio or video, you can make a greater impact by putting it out there. You’re a very good role model for that. I also want to make sure, if we can learn more about your work and see it firsthand, where’s the best place for them to go?
They can send an email to [email protected]. If you go to Google and type in Leadership Freak, you’re probably going to find me there.
Thanks so much, Dan.