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April 2012

The World's Toughest Question!

Apr 18, 2012 12:30 PM
Bruce Hunter

Jack Palance and Billy Crystal in the movie “City Slickers” spent no more than 30 seconds on-screen to provide the best advice you could ever receive about your personal or business life. Here is that exchange.


Jack Palance: “Do you know what the secret of life is?”


Billy Crystal: “No, what?”


Jack with one finger raised: “This!”

Billy: “Your finger?”


Jack: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”


Billy: “That’s great but what’s the one thing?”


Jack: “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

Absolutely brilliant! I would have altered the question slightly. “What’s your one thing?” It is the simplest, most difficult question in the world to answer…for yourself or your business. Why? Because it takes about a nano-second to start adding new things - all the while thinking we are adding value. The concept is far from new. Literature abounds with advice on sticking to one thing and the inherent benefit of focus. “Differentiate or Die”; “Blue Ocean Strategy”; “Made to Stick” and almost any book on branding and marketing extols its’ virtue. Personal branding and the concept of the “Elevator Pitch” also have roots in the question.

In my former position as VP marketing for one of the largest Consumer Packaged Goods companies, I had occasion to get advice and counsel from some of advertising’s best and brightest creatives (the people writing the ad copy). In advance of setting out to create an advertising campaign, the client and agency would detail a Creative strategy. The core of that document was to answer the “one thing” question. “What is the problem our product or service is solving for our target group?” Then, what are three “reasons” why or points of proof we can provide to the consumer/customer that will help convince them of that brand benefit.

It was in one of those meetings that I was first taught about the “one thing”. The head creative was seated beside me and was listening to both of our teams discuss the creative strategy. Finally he let a small groan of frustration out and leaned over. Under his breath he said, “Oh to have the freedom of a tightly written strategy.”

“What do you mean?” His answer helped me understand the power of one thing.

“It sounds easy when we all sit here in this room pontificating about the benefits of the product, the customers and the tremendous insight we’ve got about them. However, when we turn off the lights and my team and I are back at the office we just get confused if the brief isn’t focused. Think about it. WE have to figure out what’s important and what’s not? What takes priority? How much time and energy should we dedicate to communicating the messaging? What messaging? The list goes on. More means less.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in the people I meet often (and unfortunately) going through what’s politely called “Transition”. A change in career that’s usually not of one’s choosing. Virtually all suffer from the fatal flaw of not communicating clearly their “one thing”. Truth be told, I’m just as guilty. Meet someone for the first time and I find myself spitting out a paragraph when asked what I do. Ideally, the answer should be mind-numbingly simple and arresting. It’s the lightning bolt.

One of the CEOs with whom I work, gave me one of the best examples of a “lightning bolt” the other day. Having survived the hallowed halls of corporate life, he was now the head of a smaller organization trying to grow. They definitely needed a plan so he sat down and did the natural thing. Being from a larger company, he outlined the Vision, Mission and Values of the company and proceeded to share those for input with his staff. After two hours it was clear he wasn’t hitting the ball out of the park. Thankfully, one of his hourly workers provided the lightning bolt.

“I don’t know about you” said he, “but all I want to do is get big enough to move out of this place!” To his credit, my CEO ran with this input and the focus of the “Vision” was “Big enough to move!” Now, everyone got it and they then spent the time talking about what needed to happen and where to focus to be “Big enough to move.” Simple. Motivating.

Finding your “one thing.

Most people feel that the discovery process starts with self-reflection. I disagree. It starts with an outside-in perspective from those who know you. Perception is reality.

For those trying to understand their personal “one thing” ask your closest friends and family. Get them to answer a couple of questions on your behalf.

“If you had to sum me up in one word, what would that word be and why?”

“What do you value most about me?”

“What’s my strongest quality?”

At minimum, you’re going to get some great and sometimes surprising feedback. On the other side, the feedback is going to help focus you on what your “market” believes you do best.

For those of you that are trying to answer the question for your business, the questions work virtually the same way.

A Jack Palance said it so eloquently, “One thing. Just one thing. Stick to that and everything else is just shit.” So what’s your “one thing”?

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March 2012


Mar 19, 2012 8:58 AM
Bruce Hunter

“To Grow…Let Go!”


I was presenting to a group of Business owners in Quebec recently, outlining a major study’s findings that had summarized the fundamental and profound differences between the psychology of the entrepreneur and the “executive”. The stereotypes, which I’m sure you can describe, hold true. Entrepreneurs are “action Jackson’s”. Full of energy, quick and responsive to market place changes, engaged 24/7 with their businesses, resilient and risk tolerant, sometimes autocratic and self-oriented. In short, they are largely self-reliant and self-made. Executives, are a different beast. Team oriented, wisdom-seeking, strategists, process-driven and sometimes bureaucratic.

Following the discussion, one of the business owners leapt to his feet and exclaimed, “My God! Now I understand why I’ve been having all this pain the last three years.” He went on to explain…”Three years ago my company was bought by a much larger company. They have been trying to get me to look and act like those people you’ve described as executives. I DON’T EVEN LIKE PEOPLE LIKE THAT!”

Oil and water. 

Risking the stereotype, entrepreneurs see executives as diplomatic, talk-a lot, bureaucratic do-nothings that sit around talking all day putting on airs. Executives, on the other hand, see entrepreneurs as loose cannons, with no sense of decorum, me-oriented, non-strategic autocrats. An interesting mix. No wonder there’s an Entrepreneurial Divide.

They’re both right.

The skills needed to transform an idea into a company are very different from those needed to drive it forward. I was asked one day by a 35 year “in the trenches” coaching veteran whether I believed an Entrepreneur could take his/her company across that divide. After careful consideration, I answered him this way….

“I wish I could play Tony Robbins and tell you that I believe the Entrepreneur could do it. The simple answer is that they can’t. It’s not that they’re not smart enough to do it. They are. It’s how they’re built. They abhor process. They are action and growth junkies. They are also smart and self-reliant. Unfortunately, what’s needed is to build predictability into the organization through process and procedure. Metrics trump anecdotes. And the two can’t live in the same environment if the Entrepreneur holds the power. It’s like having a Japanese fighting fish trying to live with a goldfish. Guess who’ll survive?”

Gates, Jobs and Ellison are examples of founders who were able to achieve the transformation of their companies. They also were able to give up control of the “process” to focus on where they excelled…providing the vision for growth while ceding control of the day to day to those with a different skill base.


Crossing the Divide.

1. Start with hiring a Sherpa(s).

The most important step will be to hire either an individual or individuals who will provide the outside-in perspective for both you and your organization. They must be people with the experience and confidence to help you “know what you don’t know”. These are trusted advisors who have your best interests at heart but will not shirk or be bullied into giving you answers you want to hear.

2. Next..hire Spock.

Specifically, a CFO or someone with CFO skills. You most likely need someone to ask as your right hand when it comes to process, metrics and managing the detail. The important thing is that this is NOT your bookkeeper! This is well beyond that. They are going to form much of the bedrock for the “new” company and culture.

3. Create a roadmap and the discipline to execute it.

Planning. A four letter word to most Entrepreneurs I know. The entrepreneur that offers some of his company up to Private Equity gets this in large doses…and very quickly after the honeymoon period. Much better to drive the process yourself and get the added benefit of a higher buy-in or multiple.

4. Redefine your role.

Up to this point, you’ve been working “in” the business. Not only do you have to make a move from an owner to an investor mindset, you’ve got to get the buy-in and understanding from your employees. Many, if not most have been with you from the outset, so just as you need guidance in changing your role, they do as well. This is tough stuff…for you and them. It won’t happen without a lot of communication and discussion. They’ve relied on your direction for many, many years. They will need some hand-holding to take on higher responsibility and accountability. Be prepared. Some will make it some not.

5. Put transformation into someone else’s hands.

To grow, you’ve got to let go. Focus on the things in which you excel and that you enjoy doing. Identifying new opportunities and competitive insights. Building your external contacts. Thinking about new businesses to create and which to buy. Turn the job of creating process, metrics, rules and guidelines to those with a penchant for those things. Get back to what you really enjoy!


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