It all starts with a great idea

J.M. Haggar was fascinated with Henry Ford’s idea of the production line and mass production.  He thought if cars can be mass-produced, why can’t men’s fine trousers and at popular prices?

Many clothing manufacturers doubted Haggar’s potential.  But he proved them wrong. Using leftover suit fabrics instead of denim, Haggar made a new kind of dress pants called “slacks,” and in the process revolutionized the men’s clothing industry.

The first lesson in all my corporate speeches is creativity.  I think it is that important.  Creativity is not rocket science.  It’s just finding a new or improved way to do anything.

J.M. Haggar did exactly that and became a household name.

When I am giving a speech, I prepare by talking to 8-10 people who will be in the audience to try and find creative stories.  I hit the jackpot recently when I spoke to a couple real estate agents.

One told me that he traveled to India for his brother’s wedding in 1999.   He brought along a portable SOLD sign and posed with it in front of the Taj Mahal.  He used that photo as a postcard to send out to his clients.  It read “One man built the greatest monument to love the world has ever seen.”  Below, in smaller print, he wrote, “I just sell real estate, but I do it with great passion.”

His clients still talk about that postcard years later.  He’s done other versions featuring Buckingham Palace and Mount Rainier.  These have helped him stand out in his local market.

Another realtor told me that she scours current listings by competitors.  She then sends out a large red mailing tube with a fuse that looks like a stick of dynamite.  Inside is a large flyer that reads:  “BAM!  Your listing has expired!  Do you want to know why?”  She gets lots of replies.

She also mails letters introducing herself.  Then she sends a second mailing – she crumples up the first letter and writes on the outside – “Don’t throw me away again!”  She gets lots of responses to this second mailing.

Another realtor in the Twin Cities told me about a marketing opportunity that she jumped on.  She is a big fan of the Cities 97 Sampler – a music CD produced by a local radio station – that Target sells exclusively every November to benefit local charities.  On release day, people line up hours ahead at every Target store, waiting to buy the disc.  Nine years ago, while waiting in line, she realized that she had ready-made prospects.  For the last eight years, she has passed out hot coffee, breakfast bars and hand warmers along with her contact information, introducing herself and working the crowd.  She donates 3 percent of her commissions generated from this event to the same charities.  She lists and sells 5-6 homes each year from this event.

What do they have in common?  They took something familiar in a different direction.  That’s creativity.  Here’s how to follow their example:


  • Crossbreed your ideas.  Instead of looking for one great idea, grab hold of two good ideas and look for interesting connections and juxtapositions.  Reptiles and airplane disaster movies were unrelated concepts until someone came up with Snakes on a Plane.
  • Refine other ideas.  Don’t directly steal anyone else’s work, but look at what’s been done with an eye toward doing it differently.
  • Repeat.  Analyze what you’ve already done, and try creating it all over again.  Chances are you’ll find a way to improve it, or at least give it a fresh angle.  You may also find a way to save time or use new resources by exploring what you’re already comfortable with.

But back to Henry Ford.  He hired an efficiency expert to go through his plant.  “Find the nonproductive people,” he instructed.  “Tell me who they are, and I will fire them!”

The expert made the rounds with his clipboard in hand and finally returned to Ford’s office with his report.  “I’ve found a problem with one of your administrators,” he said.  “Every time I walked by, he was sitting with his feet propped up on the desk.  The man never does a thing.  I definitely think you should consider getting rid of him!”

When he learned the name of the man the expert was referring to, Ford shook his head and said, “I can’t fire him.  I pay that man to do nothing but think – and that’s what he’s doing.”


Mackay’s Moral:  Great ideas don’t have to be new – just improved!

A lesson in making mistakes

Try to remember the last time you uttered the words, “I made a mistake.” Was it painful? Expensive? Career-changing? Or therapeutic?

When my kids were young, they used to sing along with a little ditty on “Sesame Street” that went something like this: “Everyone makes mistakes, so why not you?” That’s the wisdom of children speaking: Everyone makes mistakes. Including me. And you.

“Humans have learned only through mistakes,” said engineer and inventor
R. Buckminster Fuller. “The billions of humans in history have had to make quadrillions of mistakes to have arrived at the state where we now have 150,000 common words to identify that many unique and only metaphysically comprehensible nuances of experience.”

He added: “So effective has been the non-thinking, group deceit of humanity that it now says, ‘Nobody should make mistakes,’ and punishes people for making mistakes . . . the courage to adhere to the truth as we learn it involves them, the courage to force ourselves, with the clear admission of all the mistakes we have made – mistakes are sins only when not admitted.”

In business, mistakes can derail a career. But is that fair? I completely agree with what my friend William R. Brody, former president of Johns Hopkins University, said in a 2005 speech: “Mistakes are the downside of risk-taking. And it seems as if we’ve become very unwilling to tolerate mistakes. We’re willing to risk failure in our games, in extreme sports, in our competition on TV reality shows. But not in our business. Not in our research and development – not in our careers or in our medicines or homes, our schools or our personal lives. . . . Being risk-averse is hurting our global competitiveness and stagnating our incomes.”

So when you risk something new or different, you must be prepared for both good and disappointing results. And try as you might, you may not be able to avoid business mistakes. Keep your boss, employees or associates informed and make adjustments as issues arise.

And when a problem develops – as it often does – here are some thoughts on how to turn around your mistakes:


  • Be honest. Never try to cover up mistakes. The earlier you ’fess up, the faster you’ll be able to correct the problem while maintaining your credibility.
  • Take responsibility. Your bosses and employees don’t want to hear excuses. It’s a powerful way to show a sense of accountability for your actions and those of your team.
  • Don’t blame. Focus on solving problems, not finding someone or something to blame. Good managers and employees analyze what they did wrong and learn from it. When the manager takes this tack, employees will be encouraged to learn to look objectively at their own performance.
  • Follow up and follow through. Sometimes simple mistakes point to more complex problems that need to be corrected. A thorough evaluation can reveal something about your habits or the work processes that need to improve
  • Use the opportunity to turn around a situation. Mistakes often are prime times for people to turn bad situations into positive ones. Any customer service guru will tell you that a complaint can be the perfect time to provide the best customer service you have to offer.
  • Move on. Beating yourself up publicly or privately doesn’t do much good. You need to keep your focus and not get distracted when things go wrong.

A story from the book “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland, illustrates the power of taking chances and risking failure when you’re trying to achieve something of quality. On the first day of class, a ceramics teacher announced that he was putting his students into two groups. Half the students would be graded on quantity of works produced, the other half on the quality of just one work.

On the final day of class, the instructor looked at the pots from both groups and realized that the best pots – those with the most creative designs and those that seemed most beautiful – all came from the group graded on quantity.

As the authors put it: “It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Mackay’s Moral: The biggest mistake you can make is pretending that you didn’t make one.

Create a ‘trust fund’ with your team

I am convinced that T-R-U-S-T is the most important five-letter word in business – not sales or money or any other replaceable commodities.  Trust can be fragile, especially in the workplace.  Once it’s broken, few companies, managers or employees ever win it back.

At every level of every organization, workers need to understand the importance of keeping their word and living up to the organization’s values.  Customers and co-workers want to know they can depend on management.  Trust between managers and employees is crucial to the long-term enthusiasm, loyalty, and productivity of the company.

If you have ever been on the receiving end of a broken promise or a warranty that doesn’t cover whatever is wrong with your item, you understand all too well why trust is central to a working relationship.

“Trust is a calculated risk made with one’s eyes open to the possibilities of failure, but it is extended with the expectation of success,” said Robert Levering, former Ohio congressman.

And although I preach this message constantly, I’m always surprised at the people and companies that just don’t get it – they think the rules don’t apply to them.  Believe me, they do.

The late Peter Drucker, American management consultant and author, said of trust:  “In the ethics of interdependence there are only obligations, and all obligations are mutual obligations.  Harmony and trust – that is, interdependence, require that each side be obligated to provide what the other side needs to achieve its goals and to fulfill itself.”

Your “trust fund” grows in many large and small ways.  To develop a healthy balance of trust in your work relationships, make these “deposits” every day:


  • Tell the truth.  Never assume that certain people “can’t handle the truth.”  Be as honest with your employees as you expect them to be with you.  If you get caught in a lie, your employees won’t trust you.  You may get a second chance, but don’t count on it.
  • Share information.  By demonstrating that you are willing to keep employees informed, you help them make good decisions on their own.  And it builds their confidence while increasing their willingness to actively participate in the growth of the organization.
  • Speak one-on-one with employees.  There’s no better way to build a relationship of trust than through personal, face-to-face contact.
  • Resolve conflicts quickly.  Whether a dispute is between two employees or two departments, promptly resolving the situation will prevent its escalation and minimize disruption of productivity.  Better yet, allow the disputing parties to find a solution.  Doing that shows you trust them to use their best judgment.
  • Avoid showing favoritism.  Equal treatment must be practiced to promote trust, teamwork and respect.
  • Don’t guess when you don’t know an answer.  When you make a mistake, admit it so you can move on and start fixing it.  Honesty is the best way to show people you’re dependable.  Be straightforwardAdmit that you don’t have a ready answer rather than waffling or throwing out a haphazard reply that lacks credibility.
  • Show flexibility in your decision making.  Make exceptions to the rules when common sense dictates it.  And consider unusual alternatives for problems that can’t be resolved by typical methods.
  • Put other people’s interests before yours.  Focus on what’s best for your organization and people, not just about what will benefit you and your career.  When employees see your good intentions, they’ll often make heroic efforts on your part.
  • Keep your promises.  Don’t commit to a promise you can’t deliver.  Think about what’s realistic, and do your best to live up to your word.  Your employees will notice.
  • Behave ethically.  Do the right thing in all your dealings with others.  Stand up for your employees, and at the same time, refuse to accept anything but the best from them – and from yourself.

A remarkable example of trust exists in the deep blue sea, an arrangement between the shark and the pilot fish.  Sharks, as we know, will eat almost any ocean dweller – except for the pilot fish.  In fact, they invite pilot fish to join them for – not as – lunch.  The smaller fish act as an automatic toothpick and eat the leftover food between the sharks’ mighty teeth.

In this unlikely partnership, the shark gets clean teeth and the pilot fish get nourished.  Both swim away satisfied.  And trusting that the next encounter will be just as successful.


Mackay’s Moral:  For any successful working relationship, trust is a must.

Communication is a vital management skill

A construction worker walked up to the reception desk at a doctor’s office and was asked why he was there.

“I have shingles,” he replied.

She asked for his name, address and insurance information and told him to have a seat.

Ten minutes later, a nurse called his name, took him back to the examining room and asked him again why he came to the office.  Again, he answered, “I have shingles.”  She asked him some medical questions and told him to stay there until he could be seen.

Another fifteen minutes passed, and a different nurse entered the room, took his blood pressure and temperature, and asked him to change into a gown.  She assured him the doctor would see him shortly.

Thirty minutes later, the doctor finally appeared.  He said, “I understand you have shingles.  Where are they?”

The construction worker replied, “Outside in my truck.  Where do you want them?  And can I get dressed now?”

Talk about a breakdown in communication!

It’s been said that a message sent is only as good as the receiver’s perception of it.

Verbal communications tend to create confusion and misunderstanding for a very simple reason: the 500 most commonly used words in the English language have more than 14,000 definitions.


To make communication really work, we have to make sure the people we’re talking with understand what we are saying as well as we do.  Communication requires both effective sending and receiving.  To avoid a breakdown in communications, break down your message so that everyone can understand it.

The most basic yet crucial leadership skill is communication.  From time to time, re-evaluate your performance in these fundamental areas:  speaking, listening, writing, leading meetings and resolving conflict.  Let’s examine those one at a time.

Good verbal skills are essential.  You have to be able to explain your requests and instructions, your ideas, and your strategies to people inside and outside your organization.  Look for opportunities to hone your speaking skills at conferences, in meetings, and among friends.

Pay attention to the people around you.  Repeat and paraphrase what they say to make sure you understand – and to show that you take their opinions seriously.

The paper trail you leave tells people a lot about how clearly you think and express yourself.  Don’t send even the simplest email without rereading it critically to be sure it says exactly what you want.

Sharpen your ability to keep meetings on track and elicit productive comments.  You should encourage other people to share their ideas without letting discussions meander aimlessly.  Remember that every meeting should begin with a solid agenda and conclude with a commitment for action.  And it is helpful to circulate a written recap so that no details are overlooked and everyone has the same information.

Conflict can be subtle, but you still must defuse it if you want things to get done.  You’ll use a lot of the skills already discussed to encourage people to open up and clear the air about their disagreements.  Maintaining good communication is most important when conflicting ideas arise.  Don’t shy away from the disagreements:  often a combination of ideas can result in a great outcome.

Finally, never underestimate the value of not saying something.  Silence can be a very effective form of communication, and can prevent problems.  Even carefully chosen words can be turned against you.  As the Greek philosopher Publius said, “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”

Consider the challenge facing Thomas Edison.  The Western Union Company wanted to buy his newly invented ticker.  But Edison had no idea how much he should ask for it, so he requested a few days to think about the price.

Edison and his wife discussed the offer.  He was stunned when his wife suggested he ask for $20,000, a huge price tag in those times.  But he agreed to float that figure.

When he met with the Western Union representatives, he intended to ask for $20,000.  But he just couldn’t get the number out, and remained silent.  After an uncomfortable silence, the Western Union rep finally said, “How about $100,000?”  For the second time in a few days, Edison was stunned.  His silence said much more than his words.


Mackay’s Moral:  Talk is cheap, but misunderstandings can be costly.

I’ll never forget what’s-his-name

A man had gone to a circus as a small boy and decided to return years later.  He was sitting in a cheap seat when an elephant came along, reached up into the stands, wrapped his trunk gently about the man and carried him over to the best seat.

The man turned to his neighbor and said, “That elephant remembered the last time I was here years ago.  I fed him peanuts.”  Just then the elephant came back, lifted his trunk, pointed it straight at the man and blew a stream of water in his face.  “I forgot I gave them to him still in the bag,” the man added.

MemoryThis is a classic story about memory, or what I call that thing I forget with.  But memory is no laughing matter.  It’s serious stuff and can help you a great deal in business and in life.

If you read this column on a regular basis, you are familiar with one of my important lessons – “Pale ink is better than the most retentive memory.”  In other words, write things down.

I have many coaches, including a memory coach.  His name is Benjamin Levy.  He’s been profiled in “Fortune Magazine” and many other media outlets.  He’s one of the best memory experts around.  He’s even performed at the White House for President Obama and friends.

I’ve seen Benjamin meet more than 100 people at a dinner party and be able to say goodbye to each person by name.  How does he do it?  He says we just need to “wake up our brain,” tell it to pay attention and not just let new information slide past.  Here are a few of his techniques:

First is by the power of association.  For me, if I meet someone named Neil, I immediately think of all the Neils I can recall – Neil Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Neil Patrick Harris and so on.

In Benjamin’s case, he uses the acronym “A NOVEL” to enhance the mental images he makes that help him remember names and other things.  “A” stands for active pictures or an action movie.  For example, if you meet a woman named Fern, he would imagine throwing ferns at her or her throwing a fern.  Things are more memorable with action.

“N” is for new.  You want a new image, one you haven’t seen before.  You need something exceptional.  “O” is for obscene.  “The big dirty secret of memory training is a tremendous percentage of it is having obscene and sexual thoughts in your head,” Benjamin said.  “The more you make images interesting and memorable, the better you’ll remember them.”

“V” is for violent.  The more stuff you have going on the better – a broken window, bleeding and so on.  “E” is for emotional.  “When you make your visual pictures, if people are having emotions or feeling emotions, your images are more memorable,” Benjamin said.

Finally “L” is for ludicrous.  Try to make it really ludicrous or funny in some way.  Benjamin explains:  “So for instance, if I meet a woman named Karen, for me Karen is always carrots.  Will I somehow connect a carrot to the woman named Karen?  No, I will visualize a giant carrot connected to Karen, or I will picture hundreds or thousands of carrots connected to her.  More ludicrous.”

Benjamin adds one other ingredient – color.  Make your images as colorful as you can.

He also uses a lot of metaphors.  “Memory work is about transformation, transforming one thing into another, to create the most powerful and memorable mental image possible,” Benjamin said.  For example, when Benjamin spoke to our group, there were three Bills in the audience.  If you transform Bill into something you can see, he turns Bill into ball or bowling ball, which makes for a solid memory.

In memory training you are constantly associating or linking or connecting one thought with another.  This quadruples your retention.  As Benjamin says, “You have to give the brain the material the way it wants it.”

If you remember one thing from this column, it should be the title of Benjamin’s book, “Remember Every Name Every Time.”  I’ve only scratched the surface of his valuable advice.  He shares a variety of practical techniques that have worked for me, such as rhythm and repetition.

We may not all be blessed with Benjamin’s gifts, but he’s given us a remarkable present:  memory techniques that we can all use.


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t just make memories – make your memory work for you!