So often people are spending a lot of time thinking about marketing and what they can do to get the next client. They don’t recognize that the next client is most often around them. Success comes from creating great value and results for those that you’re already serving. Corporate advisor Lance Secretan focuses on only three things to attract world class clients – doing the best possible work he can, writing books, and giving keynote speeches. Lance specializes in leadership consulting and has been very successful at it by creating a differentiation and an advantage so that those in the marketplace want to work with him and his firm over others. He offers some specific advice for those describing themselves as leadership consultants or working in the leadership space.
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Is Leadership Consulting Dead? with Lance Secretan
I’m very excited to have Lance Secretan joining us. Lance, welcome.
It’s great to be here. Thank you, Michael.
Lance, for those who don’t know you and some may not, although I’m sure many are familiar with you and your work, take a moment and explain what you do.
I am a consultant. I help organizations build inspiring cultures and I coach leaders quite extensively. I do quite a few keynote speeches during the course of the year. I’m an author, I’ve written 22 books.
You’ve had great success clearly in so many areas of life and I want to explore as much as we can during the time that we have together. You now consult and mentor globally with leaders. You’ve helped six companies reach Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For status. What steps did you take in your own marketing and the promotion of your business that you believe helped you the most to attract these world-class clients that you work with?
I’m really ashamed to tell you that we don’t do any marketing. We don’t do any print or advertising or anything like that. We don’t do any email marketing. We rely entirely on word of mouth and I focus exclusively really on three things. One, doing the best possible work I can so that lots of other people talk about it and call us and say, “Can you do that for us?” That’s absolutely my best marketing system.
Writing is another very important one. There’s no better business card than a book. Books have been very important to me in terms of generating new business. Then a keynote speech is also very important. Almost every speech I make, someone will come up to me afterwards, often more than one and say, “Can we talk sometime in the future about you working with us because we like to have these ideas in our company?”
That is so important. I think so often people are spending a lot of time thinking about marketing and what they can do to get the next client without recognizing that the next client is most often around them and it comes from creating great value and results for those that you’re already serving. Word of mouth, I don’t know if that played a role, but thinking back to the first client that you engaged with, how did you land them?
I can’t even remember who my first client was because it’s so long ago. Here’s what happened, I helped to build a company, a very successful organization called Manpower and I was the CEO of Manpower Limited. We built it from scratch to 70,000 employees and then I decided I would teach in the university. I arrived in the university to teach MBA students leadership, which is really my field. I found that the material being taught and the books and texts that were written were so awful and so different from anything I had been experiencing for the last fourteen years that I wrote my own book. That book became a bestseller and at that point I was faced with a conundrum because I couldn’t handle my teaching load and also the requests from clients to come and work for them or speak with them and so on. Eventually I left the university and became a fulltime consultant and that book was really the beginning of it all.
Was that an easy decision for you to make to go from the university world and that place of education to going out on your own and running now your own business because previously you were part of a larger organization while you were at the top? What was that like for you?
I don’t think there’s a recommended path that I could suggest here, but I’m a bit of a rebel and I didn’t enjoy working much in the university system. I love teaching and I loved the classes. I had a class of about 60 in my first semester. The next semester, it was about 120 or so. The next semester it was 400 and at that point we had two classrooms and closed circuit TV for the ones that I couldn’t be with directly and then they fired me. They fired me because the faculty would sit down in meetings and say, “Who is this new guy that’s draining all our students out of my classes? Let’s get rid of him.” That gives you some sense of how the university system works. I was actually quite glad when all that happened and thought, “This is probably going to be better for me.”
It’s interesting that you mentioned about having this ability to bring so many people into the classroom. I was on a call with a bunch of consultant clients recently and the topic of presentations came up. Wondering what is the best approach to delivering a presentation that engages people. Clearly, this is what you were doing as a professor. If you think about that time, what was it in your mind that really helped you to engage and to bring in so many students that were obviously very interested in what you were sharing?
Number one I would say is do not use PowerPoint because PowerPoint is now a commodity item and people are tired of watching stick men and bullet points. I think that we have to find a different way and the best way is still the old way, which is heart to heart. You’ve got data to speak about and you want content and you want material to be understood and learned and absorbed by students, but you’ve got to come from the heart. I think what we tend to do typically is we go head to head. My brain is going to connect with your brain, but that’s not how it really works. My heart needs to connect to your heart because the mind will only do what the heart tells it to.
How do you do that? If someone’s here for the first time and they recognize they’ve been leading with their head most often. They see the value in connecting with the heart. That resonates with them. How do they go about doing that? Are there certain words or an approach that someone who’s not maybe familiar with going heart to heart can use to begin making some progress in that area?
I think there’s a couple of things, one is where do you start from? Do you start from you or do you start from the listener? If you start from you and I think most people do, how can I be flashy? How can I be glamorous? How can I be clever? How can I be a striking? There are all those kinds of things. How can I grab people’s attention? Whereas if you start with the other end and start with the audiences, what does the audience looking for right now? What would inspire them? What would make them feel better and have them feel more inspired now than when they first came here? I think that’s one thing that we need to do. The other thing that’s important, I always get asked at the end of every speech that I make is, “How do you do what you do because I want to do what you do?”The best way is still the old way, which is heart to heart. Click To Tweet
Somebody will always say that to me and I will say, “What do you think I do?” They say, “You make speeches all over the world and stay in fancy hotels and you hang out with all the mucky mucks and it’s a pretty glamorous life.” I said, “Honestly, it’s not. That’s not what I do. What I do is I’m a teacher and I teach in every conceivable way that I can, whether it’s writing books, making speeches, consulting, running workshops, seminars, writing blogs, doing things on my web, instruments that we use for research, interviews with the newspaper, whatever it takes, I’m teaching and this is just one tiny piece of that.”
I think that’s powerful. You mentioned previously that you are the CEO of Manpower Limited. You took it from scratch to 70,000 plus employees. That’s obviously very significant growth. What are two to three steps that stand out in your mind that were pivotal, that were central to allowing the organization to grow that much? For someone who is maybe an independent consultant or the owner of a small consulting firm and also wants to grow, what lessons could they maybe learn from your experience there?
Certainly relying on key people, hiring absolutely the best people you can to start with and then relying on them. We certainly couldn’t have done this without a fantastic team that I’d gathered around me. They were simply amazing and I relied on them totally for the things that they were good at. I deferred to them when they were responsible for things that they were better at than I am. I asked them to defer to me on the things that I was better at than they were. We worked that way as a team and we were absolutely phenomenal.
We were so strong that at times we would say, “Should we all just quit and go and start another company?” That’s what we were like. We’re a bunch of brothers, although one of the key members was a very smart and terrific woman but we saw ourselves as a blood team. We’re inseparable, don’t attack us because we’re united and we were just very hot and very good at what we did. I think that relying on good people, but making sure you start with good people is really important, starting with people essentially that you can afford.
For someone who’s reading who says, “I can’t afford,” or in their minds right now they’re saying, “That’s a really scary proposition to go out and bring someone on because I don’t know when my next large project is going to come and I don’t want to promise someone that I can invest a certain amount into them without having that.” They see risks everywhere. What would you say to them?
Of course it’s scary. If you want to do it safely, it’s not going to work. The only way to move forward is to be scary, is to take risks, is to be bold, is to be ambitious. There isn’t any other way. If you just want to be a milk toast, then fine, but you’re not going to get anywhere doing that. Of course you have to take risks and when it comes to talking to people you can afford, I certainly hired a lot of terrific people from large corporations and we were nothing. We were just starting. They were taking a big hit coming to work with us, but it was all about passion and all about sharing in the spoils.
Yes, it’s going to be painful in the short term. You’re going to make less money here than you are right now where you are, but in the future, if we pull this off, you’re going to make a lot more. That was really the pull. I always remember the famous comment that Steve Jobs made to John Sculley. When John Sculley was at PepsiCo and Steve Jobs was recruiting him as a CEO of Apple, Sculley turned him down. Steve Jobs said to Sculley, “You could spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or you can come and join Apple and change the world.” That’s the framework.
The focus of much of your work is on leadership. Your recent book The Bellwether Effect is on leadership. There are so many consultants and firms who say they specialize in leadership. You clearly do and you’ve been very successful at it. How do you create differentiation and an and an advantage so that buyers and those in the marketplace really want to work with you and your firm over others?
I’ve got bad news for people who specialized in leadership. I don’t think that’s going to work. The reason I don’t think it’s going to work is that we spend about $170 billion a year on leadership development in North America. There are 200,000 books on leadership on Amazon.com. Every university, business school is marketing some leadership program. There are consultants from coast to coast marketing and selling leadership. Think about it, leadership is broken everywhere. Whether it’s Washington, Ottawa, healthcare, corporate America, the police, the Roman Catholic Church, the home, you name it. There is no place you can point to where we have successfully pulled off the whole idea of leadership.
Therefore, you have to come to a conclusion in the end that everything we’ve been doing so far and it’s about a 40-year journey we’ve been on in the creation of the leadership industry as it were, has arrived at this place. Let me tell you this statistic, every time I make a speech, I ask this question at the audience, “How many people you think would give up their professional career if they had a free hand and a free choice?” I start by saying, “Do you think it’s 50%?” Immediately somebody will say, “No. it’s 60%.” Then somebody else say, “No, it’s 70%.” Then somebody says, “80%.” That’s where we always end.
80% of the population wouldn’t go to work tomorrow morning if they didn’t have to. That’s a tragedy. If that’s the result of what we’ve built and done together, all of us that are in the leadership business, then we should be ashamed of ourselves. Where I’ve arrived and this conclusion came to me a long time ago, is that we’re not looking for leadership, we’re looking for inspiration, and that’s a whole different subject. What people are really yearning for is to be inspired everywhere.The only way to move forward is to take risks, to be bold, and to be ambitious. There isn't any other way. Click To Tweet
They want to be inspired at home. They want to be inspired at church, in healthcare, at their work, in their jobs, with their friends. They want to be inspired by movies and restaurants and service companies. Everywhere in life, they’re looking to be inspired. By the way, that’s not motivated. That’s a different thing. Motivation is fear-based. Inspiration is love-based. If you can put together a way of becoming inspired and then inspiring others and then inspiring the world, that’s for instance one of my books is called The Spark, the Flame, and the Torch, that’s exactly what it describes.
The spark is how to become inspired ourselves because you can’t inspire it on the people if you’re not inspired. Once we we’ve become inspired, the spark, we’re able to move to the flame, which is how we inspire other people. Finally, once we’re inspiring other people, we can inspire the world. That’s how we differentiate in my business. I’m not saying it’s the only way and I’m not saying it’s the right way, but it is the way that’s worked for us.
I think that is extremely powerful and very compelling. I’d love to challenge you a little bit on that just to become a little bit more tactical for our audience. For those who are and have embraced leadership and have used that in their language when describing themselves as leadership consultants or working in the leadership space, what could they do with that? If they are also resonating with what you just shared, which is very powerful, would you suggest they start talking about not using the word leadership anymore? Even though the marketplace, most likely the buyers out there, are still thinking in terms of leadership, whether or not that is right or wrong? What more specific advice might you offer to people?
Let me be a shameless promoter now. I would say that one of the ways would be to come and study with us. We run a three-day certification program where we teach everything that I’ve developed over the last 40 years to consultants and give them all the tools, access to everything we have in our bag of tricks in our website and help them as much as we can in accelerating their careers. We do this several times a year. We ran about ten of these last year and they’ve been very successful. That will be one way because I think we’ve got a format that really works well. Clients seem to love the work that we’re doing and I think it’s wonderful if other people will do it too.
This topic of leadership is broken. I want to ask you about that and you’ve already talked a lot about that. This maybe ties directly to what you just mentioned, but it’s an opportunity for me to get your position on this and so selfishly I’m interested. We talk a lot about leadership and to many people that means leading others. What we don’t talk very much about is leadership of self. Many people aren’t getting the results they want in their own lives, they aren’t feeling fulfilled, they’re not energized, they’re not motivated or inspired, and as you might say. They’re also not committed.
What would you advise for those people to do that have great potential within themselves, but in their own lives right now, they’re not getting the results that they want or they’re not feeling that sense of energy and motivation as well. What might you offer to them? What suggestions could you share from your own experience?
I think you’ve got to do whatever it is you love doing, the passion for work, and that’s so important. I think you can tell the passion, you can hear it in my voice, I’m passionate about the work that I do. There’s nothing that makes me as excited as watching a large company, like let’s say Microsoft, who is a wonderful client of ours transform from a whacked-out, lost-their-way organization, to one of the preeminent organizations on the planet. 28th biggest company in America.
They have switched their whole approach to how they lead and how they manage in such a way that Satya Nadella, the CEO has added over $300 billion to the value of the company in the three years that he’s been there. That’s the exciting part of passion. That only comes from the fact that we do what we do here because I love what I do and I will do it until I drop. I’m already fifteen years past retirement age and I’ll probably be twenty or 30 years past retirement age or more before I’m done.Motivation is fear based. Inspiration is love based. Click To Tweet
You write, you speak, you coach, you consult and you offer several different programs, one that you just talked about before. How do you keep all this organized? Clearly, you’re also very focused on lifestyle and enjoying life and being healthy in terms of exercise and all of that lifestyle. When I went to your website, I saw there are so many different offerings and so many different books and programs. How do you manage all of that?
A good EA helps. I have a wonderful lady that’s worked for me for sixteen years. Her name is Trisha Field and I love her and she’s wonderful and I rely on her enormously for keeping me organized. Otherwise I’d be a mess and that’s not my strength either. I needed someone to keep me on the airplane and at the right time and showing up right meetings with the right stuff and so on.
From a strategic point of view, you could have just written your books and may put out one specific program for one specific type of client. Clearly you’ve developed many different programs for many different sizes of clients, from individuals all the way up to companies like Microsoft. Why do that? Some people might see this as more complexity or more variables in the business and not keep it very focused with just one or two specific offerings?
I think it’s more about the other person, not about me. I could just satisfy myself by only offering one or two different things, but that’s not what our clients need. Clients basically have driven my business. Somebody will say to me, “I’d like to reinvent my brand.” I don’t know a whole lot of that. I’ve got to study quickly and see what we already have in our toolkit that would help there and then learn the rest but then that puts me into the business of doing odd things for clients that I had never done before.
Another example I can tell you and this is completely left field, that we publish a lot of books and one of the things I learned about publishing is that originally I was publishing with big name publishers, but they are really hopeless in the long term in terms of marketing and keeping energy behind your book because after 90 days there are new books and your book is history.
Over the years, I bought the rights back to all my books and now I have all books except for one under my brand. What I now have found is that other people have called me and said, “Could you help me with my book?” We now publish books for other people and we know everything that you can think of that is necessary for books. It’s the same as I said earlier about people, self-publishing is a messy and honestly a low-level business.
Self-published books look like they’re self-published. They shouldn’t. They should look like they’re published by a New York publishing house. We know how to do that. We help people with editing, with titles, with finding ISPN numbers, with filing with Library of Congress, design, the printing, launching it, all those things are part of what we offer now. I never saw myself as a book publishing consultant. That’s not my wheelhouse, but it’s something we’ve done a lot off and people have asked us for it, so we’ve created a whole business around that for them.
Have you ever had a request for something like that that you turned down?
Not really. I’ve had requests though from companies that I won’t work with, like tobacco companies for example. We have a belief in our organization that we will only work with life affirming organizations. When companies call us and say, “We’re gun makers, we’d like you to work for us.” I say, “No, thank you.” That’s just not something I’m going to be doing. What we do is we help companies do what they do much better than they would have done otherwise. If you are in the business of killing people, I’m not going to help you be better at that.
Lance, thank you so much for coming on sharing some of your wisdom, advice, and experience with us and giving us a taste of your journey here.
It’s been good to be with you, Michael. Thank you.