Life is what you give back

A son and his father are walking in the mountains.  Suddenly, the boy falls, scrapes his knee and screams, “AAAhhhhhhhhh!!!”

To the son’s surprise, he hears his voice repeating, somewhere in the mountains,


Curious, he yells, “Who are you?”  He receives the same answer, “Who are you?”

Angered at the response, he screams, “Coward!”  He receives the answer, “Coward!”

He looks to his father and asks, “What’s going on?”

The father smiles and says, “My son, pay attention.”  And he screams to the mountain, “I admire you!”  The voice answers, “I admire you!”

Again the man screams, “You are a champion!”  The voice answers, “You are a champion!”

The boy is surprised but does not understand.

Then the father explains:  “People call this echo, but really this is life.  It gives you back everything you say and do.  Our life is simply a reflection of our actions.  If you want more love in the world, create more love in your heart.  If you want competence in your team, improve your competence.  This relationship applies to everything, in all aspects of life.  Life will give you back everything you have given it.”

Graduation season is upon us, and today I will devote my column to those who are about to embark on a new chapter in their lives.  That isn’t limited to new grads, by the way – every day is a new chapter for each of us.

HarveyGraduationWaking up every morning hoping something wonderful will happen, or someone will appear who will change your life, is the equivalent of letting something or someone else control your life.

You need to be in charge.  You need to decide what actions you will take that will come back to you. And then, integrate those actions into your daily life.  That may be a tall order for someone just starting out in a career, but you do have choices.

If that all sounds vague, it is because I can’t recommend specifics.  What I can do is remind you of a few basic rules of life.

  1. Life isn’t fair.  You’ve heard this over and over, and yet when someone else gets the promotion, makes more money or takes credit for your work, you beat yourself up wondering what happened.  Don’t!  If the situation is beyond your control, get over it and move on to the next opportunity.  Wasting time being bitter will never make you better.
  2. Don’t just let things happen to you, make things happen for you.  If you need more training or education, find a way to make it happen.  If you truly hate your job, figure out where the problem is and fix it if you can.  If you can’t, look for other employment or let your entrepreneurial instincts take over.  When Woody Allen said, “90 percent of life is showing up,” he didn’t mention that the other 10 percent is what makes the difference in your life.
  3. Sometimes it’s risky not to take a risk.  Making a dream come true only happens when you step outside your comfort zone and chart new territory.   And a funny thing will happen:  After you start out taking small risks, you will become more comfortable taking larger – and more rewarding – risks.
  4. Pay attention.  Stay on top of trends, developments, technology and opportunities.  If you can see changes ahead, you can plan and position yourself rather than reacting and regretting.  Few things in business stay secret for long.  Listen and observe so you can be prepared.
  5. Give back.  My father drilled this lesson into my head from the beginning.  There is always someone somewhere who needs your help, your financial support or your expertise.  Give without expecting anything in return.  You’ll benefit in ways you never anticipated.

These rules are simple enough.  Following them is not.  You need to decide what is truly important to you, what values you will live by.  Give serious thought to how you want to live so that you can be content with what life gives you back.

For all the new graduates staring at their futures and wondering what’s ahead, as well as students of life in general, my wish is that you will never feel like life just happened to you.  I wish you success, happiness, wisdom in your decisions and the power to live your dreams.


Mackay’s Moral:  Life is what you make it.  Make it great!

Lessons learned from my parents

As we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I get a little nostalgic thinking about some of the life lessons I learned from these two remarkable people in my life.

When I speak to corporate audiences, I often include a lesson about integrity and corporate ethics: “Act like your mother is watching.”   I’ve lived my life that way, and it’s never failed me.

My mother was a school teacher and taught me the power of education.  I didn’t always listen eagerly, but it instilled in me a desire of continuous education throughout my life.  You are not in school once in your lifetime; you are in school all of your life.  Education is an investment, not an expense.

My father taught me about time management.  I still remember him telling me if I wanted to go fishing, I should be on the dock at 2 p.m. sharp.  There I was at 2:05 p.m., waving bon voyage to my dad who was driving away in the boat without his fishing buddy.  Tough love, lesson learned.

HarveyFamily                                                        (Harvey (top left) and his sister, Margie                                                                                                                                 with their parents)

There were several tough love lessons that really helped me in business.  I remember one in particular.

“Just slide down the banister, and I’ll catch you,” he urged.

“But how do I know you’ll catch me?” I asked.

“Because I’m your father, and I said I would catch you.”

I slid and landed on the carpet.  As I dusted myself off, my dad announced, “Be careful whom you trust when it comes to business.  Remember that business is business.”  This bumpy ride lesson stuck with me and helped me make sure that any business arrangements are backed up with yards of paper.  Agreements prevent disagreements.

My folks also taught me that I could make a difference in the world.  They always pointed out how ordinary people did wonderful things.  It only takes one person to make things better.

My dad insisted that 25 percent of my time should be spent on volunteering, advice I’ve continued to follow.  When you volunteer, in addition to the benefit to the organization, you have an unusual opportunity to hone your selling skills, learn how to run meetings, prepare reports, serve on committees, supervise others, handle rejection and many other skills that can help you in your career, all while serving your community.

One of the most powerful things you can do to influence others is to smile at them, my dad said.  Not to be outdone, my mother used to tell me that a smile is an inexpensive way to improve my looks, “If you’re happy, tell your face.”

About reputation, my dad quoted the adage, “You spend your whole lifetime building a good name and reputation, and one foolish act can destroy it.”

I took his words to heart, and aside from building long-term relationships, there is nothing more important than a good reputation in building a successful business.  Without a positive reputation, success is elusive.

There are many people who were at the top of their game when they made one fatal mistake – due to poor judgment, arrogance or the inability to do the right thing.  Reputations are destroyed, and all the money in the world can’t buy them back.

Also important, Jack Mackay taught me about networking.  I was fortunate.  My father headed the Associated Press in St. Paul, and was a master networker.  He got me started at age 18.  He sat me down and gave me the simple yet effective suggestion of putting every person I met for the rest of my life onto a Rolodex card, now called a contact management system.  He told me to put a little information about each person on the back of the card, and to update it.

And now here is the real key.  You must find a creative way to keep in touch.  Little did I know how much my father’s advice would dramatically help me in the future and actually change my life.

When I was a kid, my dad would take me to his office.  It was a wonderful place.  The walls were covered with photos, tickets and other memorabilia.  Linking everything together were my dad’s favorite aphorisms.  Some were straight from fortune cookies.  I discovered that these little gems were a great way to remember a lesson.  As a result, I’ve been an aphorism junkie all my life, and end all my book chapters and columns with a Mackay’s Moral.  Thanks, mom and dad.


Mackay’s Moral:  Lessons learned in childhood are anything but child’s play. 

For long-term success, give up these detrimental traits

Success isn’t always about dominating the landscape.  Sometimes, to be successful, you have to be prepared to give up some counterproductive behaviors that are holding you back – and you may not even realize you’re guilty.

Old habits are hard to break. And if you don’t even realize that you are practicing some of these behaviors, you may not see a problem.  But if others perceive you as a difficult co-worker, it’s time to take another look at what you are doing.

Be brutally honest with yourself or ask a trusted associate, and see if any of these traits describe you.  If the answer is yes, an attitude adjustment may be in order.


  • The need to be right.  Concentrate on getting results, not on proving your own intelligence and accuracy.  Be open about your mistakes.  Don’t worry about who gets the credit for victory.  Help others succeed, and you’ll share in the glory.
  • Speaking first.  You don’t have to dominate every meeting and conversation.  Ask for others’ ideas and opinions.  Give them the opportunity to share their thoughts, and they’ll become more comfortable communicating with you.
  • Making every decision.  Ask others what they would do, and be willing to accept that there may be more than one way to accomplish a task.  Don’t insist that everyone do things your way.
  • Control.  You can’t stay on top of every task and decision.  Identify what you really need to handle, and delegate responsibility for tasks that others can do just as well.  Accept that some things are beyond your control so you can concentrate on the influence you have.
  • Inflexibility.  If you find yourself balking at new ideas, or resisting change with “but we’ve always done it this way,” it’s time for an attitude adjustment.  Different situations demand different solutions.  And it’s better to be part of the solution than part of the problem.
  • Disloyalty.  Bad-mouthing your company, co-workers, products or services never improves any situation.  Disagreement is not disloyalty.  It’s natural to have differences of opinion.  But it is not professional to disparage another in an attempt to make yourself look better.  Criticism must be constructive, not destructive.
  • Dishonesty.  Just tell the truth.  Honor confidential conversations.  If you prefer not to answer a question, say so, but don’t lie or evade questions.  Trust is the most important word in business, in my opinion.
  • Tunnel vision.  Projects that require cooperation among departments should not provoke competition, but teamwork.  But if each department sees its contribution as the most important, rather than focusing on the big picture, the big picture will be way out of focus.
  • No sense of humor.  It’s important to take your work seriously, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun at work.  In fact, I’m a big fan of enjoying your job and making work enjoyable for those around you.  As long as the language is appropriate, i.e., not offensive, demeaning or vulgar, a dose of humor can bring people together and make situations more comfortable.
  • Poor listening skills.  There is a difference between hearing and listening.  Pay attention to what’s being said, and ask questions if you are unclear about the message.  Avoid interrupting, evading eye contact, rushing the speaker and letting your attention wander.  You can win more friends with your ears than with your mouth.
  • Disorganization.  A messy workspace does not demonstrate how busy you are.  Clutter gets in the way of clear thinking.  If you can’t find what you need the moment you need it, you need to get organized.
  • Lack of accountability.  Blaming mistakes or poor results on others, refusing to take responsibility for obvious errors, making excuses instead of finding solutions – it can’t always be someone else’s fault.
  • Poor time management.  First things first.  Setting priorities and meeting deadlines is fundamental to the success of an organization.  If one of the key players operates on a different schedule, the whole project suffers.  Wasting time is wasting money.
  • Impulsiveness.  Learn to think before you speak or act.  You can’t un-say words, and apologies often ring hollow.  Count to ten, count to one hundred, count to whatever it takes to prevent rash and regrettable actions.
  • Vulgarity.  Watch your language.  Even as more and more four-letter words creep into everyday use, they have no place in a respectable business.


Mackay’s Moral:  Clean up your act, or be prepared to clean out your desk.

Mistakes teach great lessons

In the book “The World According to Mr. Rogers,” children’s television star Fred Rogers passed along the following story about the value of making mistakes.

An apprentice carpenter applied for a position with a veteran master carpenter.  During the interview process he became very aware of the young worker’s pride.  He did this perfectly, and that perfectly.  Finally the master carpenter asked the apprentice if he had ever made a mistake, to which the young man proudly said no.  He thought the job was his.

However, to his surprise, the master carpenter said he would not be hiring the skillful apprentice.  The reason:  “When you do make a mistake, you won’t know how to fix it.”

His reasoning was shockingly practical.  You learn from making real-life mistakes to show people you can handle them.

I completely agree with that hiring decision.  It’s okay to make mistakes.  But you have to learn from them.  If you just keep making the same mistakes, one of two things is happening:  You are not paying attention or you just don’t care.

So often, the person who never makes a mistake takes orders from the person who does.  The risk-takers tend to become the entrepreneurs and managers.  And some of the mistakes they have made are costly and embarrassing.  But the lessons they learned taught them how to “fix it,” as Mr. Rogers would say.

Thomas Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, said of mistakes:  “Double your rate of failure … failure is a teacher – a harsh one, perhaps, but the best … That’s what I have to do when an idea backfires or a sales program fails.  You’ve got to put failure to work for you … you can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it.  So go ahead and make mistakes.  Make all you can.  Because that’s where you will find success.  On the far side of failure.”

The person who makes a mistake and then makes an excuse for it is making two mistakes.  People respect those who take responsibility for their own errors.  Regardless, you will be better off admitting them than spending considerably more energy trying to avoid the subject.  If you seize the opportunity to learn what went wrong, you’ll be a lot less likely to make the same mistake again.

In the words of our favorite baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra, “Don’t make the wrong mistakes.”

Embrace mistakes as opportunities to grow.  In today’s business climate, people are making split-second decisions.  That presents the likelihood for mistakes.  But keep in mind that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking any risks.  And that could mean you’re not making progress.


“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,” said my friend William R. Brody, former president of Johns Hopkins University.  “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.  As a nation, we’ve become downright pantophobic.  We are like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, afraid to do anything.  Being risk-averse is hurting our global competitiveness and stagnating our incomes.”

Managers have a specific role in dealing with staff mistakes.  You want your staff to make as few mistakes as possible.  But workers do need to know when they make mistakes so that they can learn and grow in the workplace.

As a manager, you need to think about the problem and assess how important the mistake is.  If the mistake was made out of lack of awareness, let the person know what has happened, and explore whether he or she knows how to prevent it in the future.  If the mistake was made out of carelessness, then talk to your employee.  Find out if something is distracting him or her.  If the worker is feeling overworked, see if you can provide some help.

Remember, when an employee fails, you share the blame, just as you share the credit for your workers’ successes.  Make sure that you don’t abdicate your responsibility.  Verify that you have communicated clearly so that employees know what you expect.  And most importantly, be available to help.  Because if you fail your employees, you are making the worst mistake.


Mackay’s Moral:  If you don’t learn from your mistakes, there’s no sense making them

More street smart ideas to drive success

A man went to a rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, you’re a wise man, how is it that you’re wise?”
The rabbi replied, “Study and hard work.”

Then the man asked, “What made you study and work hard?”

The rabbi replied, “A lot of experience.”

Then the man asked, “And how’d you get a lot of experience?”

The rabbi answered, “I had good judgment.”
And the man then asked, “What gave you good judgment?”
The rabbi said, “A lot of bad experiences.”

Over the past few years I’ve written three columns on street smarts.  After all my years in business, I’m afraid I just scratched the surface.  Here are some more ideas:

Idea #1A plan isn’t a plan until you have a backup plan.  You may have made the best-laid plans, but what if something unexpected happens?  I can’t emphasize enough how important backup plans are.  You should always have a plan B and possibly plans C and D.  The bigger the deal or event, the more detailed your backup plans should be.

Next IdeaUse your network for referrals to save money.  More than once, I’ve been able to negotiate better deals by offering referrals.  The results can be even better than bartering.

For example, I was 29 years old and couldn’t afford to build a new envelope manufacturing plant.  But because I had a network, I was able to find a builder and guarantee I would get him other business.  I got him four other buildings, and he gave me a down and dirty price.  I did the same with my architect.  Talk about a win-win situation – and an excellent way to put your network to work.

Next IdeaFollow the fleet.  Starting out in sales can be tough.  When I began selling envelopes at age 21, I studied the phone book for leads for a week.  Then my dad suggested that I might try to ingratiate myself with one of the battle-scarred veterans of the envelope wars on the sales staff.

I did exactly that, and we drove to our arch-competitor’s plant.  We parked about 50 yards away from the shipping department and waited until one of its trucks began to pull out to make the day’s deliveries.  The rest of the day we followed that truck.  What leads we got!  What a treasure-trove of information!  What would you give to have your biggest competitor’s customer list?

Next Idea – Don’t forget people from your past.  My father taught me you must have a good memory.  What he meant by that is no one becomes successful on their own.  There are a lot of people who help you.  You never want to forget those people.


For example, I had a friend from kindergarten who went on to become a successful entrepreneur.  He gave me a lot of advice and counsel when I started my envelope manufacturing company.  I stayed in touch with him.  One day I picked up a newspaper and read that my friend had just become CEO of the largest retailer in the United States.  Is it any wonder that they became one of my largest envelope accounts?

Next Idea – There is a right way and a wrong way to lose a customer.  Let’s face it, everyone loses customers.  The trick is to position yourself to get that customer back some day in case their new supplier doesn’t perform.

Immediately schedule a one-on-one meeting with that customer.  Never do it by telephone or email or text.  Do it in person.  Tell them how much you have appreciated their business in the past and that you will move mountains so that it will be a seamless and smooth transition to their new supplier.  Also, tell them that you will always be ready to help out in any way whatsoever in the future.

Next Idea – Nothing motivates people like crisp, crunchy, crackly, cold, hard cash.  I have found there is no better way to reward people, including sales managers, entrepreneurs, project leaders and so on.

For many decades I used to hand out cash at our company sales meetings as a reward for attracting new accounts.  The place gets very hushed as I pull out all those crisp brand new $100 bills.   You should see those people.  They’re mesmerized.  In short, the results are stupendous.


Mackay’s Moral:  Let street smarts help you navigate the bumps in the road.