Bob MacDonald on Business

Sage Advice for Superior Business Management

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When People Say, “You Can’t Do that,” it is Usually Because They Never Thought To Do It

June 28th, 2015 · Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership

Success is more about doing what others have not thought to do, than it is about trying to do what literally can’t be done.

No one knows how many great concepts, ideas, careers and enterprises have languished because individuals have fallen prey to the admonition of others that what they want to do “can’t be done.”

It is true that there may be many things we can’t do, but that has more to do with physical attributes – or lack thereof – than it does the ability to do something that has not been done. For Reflectionexample, you’ll probably never be able to throw a 97-mile-per-hour fastball no matter how fervently you may want to. You probably can’t hit a 97-mile-per-hour fastball either. But when you put those physical attributes aside, most of those who tell you that what you want to do can’t be done, it is simply because they don’t know how to do it. The assumption is that if they can’t do it, then you can’t do it either. And in the end, this is what separates success from failure, winners from losers.

New Rules for What Can be Done

Doing what others think can’t be done requires three crucial ingredients. First, you need the capacity to recognize when the rules that defined what could or could not be done have become outmoded and should no longer be followed. Second, the timing has to be right to do what others believe can’t be done. Thirdly, those who are successful doing what others say can’t be done also have a plan for how to do it. But with knowledge, good timing, creative planning and effort, it is amazing what can be done.

Nowadays, we have a name for those prescient individuals who capture these three attributes. They’re called “disruptive innovators.” And they’re radically changing the very definition of what can and cannot be done in business.


We take the existence of FedEx and the services it provides for granted now, but that was not the case in 1965 when Fred Smith envisioned a company that could deliver packages and letters overnight. No one in the “mail” business, or any other business for that matter, believed it could be done. Not even in 1971, when on its first day of operation FedEx used 14 planes to deliver 186 packages to 25 different cities, did many believe it could be done consistently. From conception to execution, Fred Smith heard only “you can’t do that.” Yet, that idea that couldn’t be done was done and in a short 10 years FedEx changed the definition of “mail” and became the first company to generate over $1 billion in revenues. Talk about disruptive innovation. FedEx is the very definition.

The reality is that if Fred Smith had proposed his idea in 1950, the naysayers would have been right – it couldn’t have been done. The technologies and facilities to support his idea simply did not exist. So the rule, “you can’t do that” would have been valid. But Fred Smith was in the right place at the right time to break the rule, because technology was available to make it possible. In 1965 Smith was not the only person who could have created an overnight delivery service, but he was the only one who recognized that the “you can’t do that” rule was obsolete; even more importantly, he was the only one who figured out how to do it.

“You Can’t Do That” Is Personal

The reason I find the “you can’t do that” admonishment so annoying is probably because I’ve heard it so often in my career. This was especially true when I formed a small group to start a new life insurance company in 1987. At the time there were well over 1,000 life insurance companies operating in the United States and the industry was dominated by over 50, well-established insurance giants. There seemed little need or opportunity for a new life insurance company. On top of that, the natural barriers to entry in the insurance industry such as heavy regulation and the need for huge amounts of invested capital, made formation of a new company almost as impossible as many thought. Almost.

I guess it should not have been a surprise that every time I broached the idea of a new life insurance company it was greeted with, “You can’t do that.” But the truth was another story. The established Innovation-onegiants of the industry looked strong – even invincible – from the outside, but the reality was that they were weakened by slumbering in a world that was awake with change. The insurance industry had done so well for so long (with little real competition) the leaders of the industry failed to recognize changes taking place in the market and even when they did, chose to ignore them. They were wedded to doing what they had always done because that had always been what they did; the status quo was pleasingly comfortable. Only when problems became obvious to everyone did a clarion call emerge from industry leaders suggesting the solution was to, “get back to the basics.” What these industry leaders sadly did not realize, however, was that the basics of their industry had changed.

It turned out that this was the perfect time to start a new life insurance company. Not a company to do what the other companies were doing, but a company with a plan to do what most said couldn’t be done by taking a different approach to products, distribution and corporate culture.

And it worked.

As the established giants in the insurance industry began to teeter and even fail, our company – LifeUSA – formed as a new life insurance company not only survived but became one of the most successful companies in the industry. It is fair to say that by focusing on products that rewarded people for living, rather than dying, LifeUSA forced the entire insurance industry to change.

As with FedEx, LifeUSA could not have happened even 10 years earlier, but the timing was right and even more important was that the timing of the moment was recognized and a plan to take advantage of the moment was offered, even though all were saying, “You can’t do that.”

And the lesson is …

Never be discouraged by the naysayers who are wont to tell you that you can’t do that. In truth, the more who tell you so, the more likely is the opportunity to do what they say can’t be done. Always remember that most will tell you that it can’t be done because they have not thought to do it and even if they have, they have no plan to do it. In reality, you only can’t do something if you don’t know how to do it. If you can recognize the right time to do what has not been done and have a plan to do it, you can do what others say can’t be done.

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In Corporate Culture the Maverick is Both a Bane and a Blessing

June 21st, 2015 · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management, Effective Leadership

A maverick let loose in a business culture is a disruptive force that can morph into a catalyst for constructive change.

A maverick is someone who always wants tomorrow to be today. Accepting the way things are, because that’s the way they are, is about as uncomfortable for the maverick as running naked through a field of poison ivy. And they seem to come by this independent spirit quite naturally.

There seems to be something hardwired in the internal circuitry of mavericks that causes them to want to fix what others don’t think is broken. When they were younger, parents and teachers referred Independenceto nascent mavericks as the ones with “ants in their pants.” They were the independent thinkers, often viewed as “odd” or out of place. In the Old West a wild horse that could not be tamed, trained or branded was called a maverick; and that pretty well sums up how the business world feels about today’s mavericks.

Since the objective of most business organizations is for things to run smoothly, the focus of management is to codify consistency and eliminate surprise. It’s no wonder, then, that the corporate culture tends to dismiss the maverick as simply a disgruntled malcontent who is unhappy with any and every thing.

But this is a hasty, misjudgment fostered by those who are, for the most part, content with the same old, same old. A true maverick is only discontented when things are not as they “should be” and when no effort is being made to do what should be done. The essence of a maverick – and the real value they can add – is to make others uncomfortable with the way things are so they can be more accepting of the way things should be.

Most of those in business who have to deal with a maverick in their midst, pass through three phases of emotion:

In the first phase they are frustrated and irritated with the maverick for being a nonconformist outlier who is not willing to go along to get along.

In the next phase many managers become intimidated by the ideas of the maverick, because they may force them to change the way they do things. And change is discomfiting.

Finally, it is not unusual for those who initially chastised the maverick to come to wish that, they too, could be a maverick.


Even though any company can benefit from encouraging a maverick mentality, being a business maverick is not easy, because it means being an outsider while being on the inside. Bringing about needed change from the inside is the most difficult to accomplish, because those on the inside are the most resistant to change. This is the reason why troubled companies often look outside for someone to be brought in as the change-agent. Yet the most effective change can only come from someone who fully understands the inside, but does not complacently accept it as the only way, or even the best way. And such a person can only be an embedded maverick.

The Maverick is a Shameless Rule Breaker

Let there be no doubt that successful mavericks in business are those who break the existing rules of how things should be done and chart new, creative courses of action. Often, due to constant rejection, trailblazing mavericks end up running new entrepreneurial businesses, but it is also possible for the maverick to end up running some of the biggest names in business. One thing all successful mavericks have in common is that they changed the company they work for or the industry they operate in from the inside. They had experience and knowledge of how the business was being run, and had an idea to do it better. Think of Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, Steve Jobs, the guru of Apple, Inc., Bill Gates of Microsoft, or Richard Branson of the Virgin empire. Mavericks like these are noted first and foremost for breaking the rules and traditions of their industries that say, “You can’t do that.” Still, true maverick rule-breakers are too few on the American business scene and there is always opportunity – not to mention need – for more.

So You Want to be a Maverick?

If you want to join the universe of successful business mavericks, you’ve got to start by thinking like they do. And the first sign of a true maverick is relentless curiosity. The man or woman who challenges the old, outmoded rules of business is constantly asking questions and confronting the way things are done. True mavericks are never negative just to be negative. Rather they offer positive alternatives to established procedures and mores.

Inveterate mavericks often exhibit other attributes as well:

  • They are willing to explore new perspectives on how things should be done.
  • They are open to try new things or do old things differently.
  • They have a compelling drive to seek out new ideas and test their potential value.
  • They are eager to listen to others and profit from their input; regardless of who gets the credit.

When you get right down to it, all it takes to be a maverick is an openness and willingness to look at the world as it is in new ways. But to be a successful maverick takes more than aberrant thinking. DifferentlyEffective mavericks understand that thinking about a new idea or way of doing things is not enough. The true value of a good idea resides in its implementation. As management expert Peter Drucker wrote, “Ideas are cheap and abundant. What is of value is the effective placement of these ideas into situation that develop into action.”

Admittedly, pushing forward with new ideas or instituting a new approach to the way things are done is more difficult in the stultifying environment of most corporate cultures, but that is what distinguishes the true maverick. And it is the reason why so many who believe deeply in their beliefs go off to become successful entrepreneurs. In fact, entrepreneur and maverick are almost synonymous mindsets.

Mavericks on the Fringes

There is no doubt that mavericks are on the fringes of most corporate cultures, but that is what creates the opportunity to be so impactful. Sure, daring to think and do things differently exposes the maverick to risks and ridicule, but you know what? Being a maverick is the only way to be true to yourself and make a difference in how things are done. Even though you may risk the derision and tsk-tsk of your friends, business associates, boss, and an endless string of others; even though there is a risk that you’ll come up with a dumb idea for which you’ll be chastised; even though some may perceive you as a show-off or know-it-all; even though all of this may be true, when you finally succeed. the reward and personal satisfaction is so much better than the abuse suffered. And it’s not even a contest. Just ask Fred Smith, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and any other successful maverick if the rewards and personal satisfaction was worth the ridicule and naysayers they experienced as mavericks?

Fortunately, even if one is not a born maverick, it is an attitude and way of thinking that can be an acquired talent well worth learning and practicing. It may not be easy, but it will be worth the effort. To do so we have to overcome the way our psyche has been hardwired. We have to stop just accepting the way things are and start asking what they could be. It is my contention that the only way to stand out in a conventional world is to be unconventional and the only way to do that is to challenge convention. No one challenges convention better than a maverick.

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To Be A Successful Leader Followers Must Believe …

June 14th, 2015 · Business Management, Effective Leadership

A crucial component of successful leadership is that followers believe in the leader and what the leader is about.

Authority gives a boss the power to direct the actions of others, but it is a belief system that gives a leader the power to inspire the actions of others. Belief in a leader happens when followers believe the leader can be trusted, is intent on doing the right thing and will always take the best interests of the followers into account. When followers believe in the leader it becomes the oxygen of leadership and without it, leadership is suffocated. Belief in a leader becomes a license to lead and it coalesces individuals into a coordinated effort to support the leader’s goals.

Case in point. Do you remember the two campaign mantras of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign? Change You Can Believe In and Yes ObamaWe Can. It can be argued that these were nothing more than empty slogans, but they did touch a nerve that is at the very core of leadership. The reality is that humans universally not only want to believe in something or someone, they need to. Anyone can exist in life, but it is a belief in something bigger that gives life value and meaning. Earning the deep belief of followers is what gives a leader the power to motivate people to do what others only dream of doing or think not possible. And in this instance, the belief created was so powerful it propelled a virtually unknown young leader to the very pinnacle of power.

Another good illustration of the power inherent in believing is religion. Believing is essential to any religion. It is not possible to quantifiably prove the existence of God, so one must have faith and believe. Yet, it is believing in the very presence of God that allows followers to faithfully accept and abide by religious teachings that may in a world of logic seem improbable. That kind of belief is encapsulated nicely in the Bible:  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Creating this same sense of believing is just as important to the effectiveness of secular leadership. It is the responsibility of a leader to give followers a reason to follow. A leader gives others a reason to follow when they build a deep, abiding belief among followers that they will always act in the ultimate best interests of the followers. When followers believe in a leader, they believe they can do anything and they will make the effort to do so.

Elections are another wonderful example of how the power of believing can override almost any other factor of leadership. Campaigns are often a cacophony of confusion, wild promises and vicious attacks that make it difficult to decide and cast a rational vote. In the end, more often than not, the vote for a leader comes down to who the voter believes in the most. In 2012 all logic suggested that Mitt Romney would defeat Barack Obama. The economy was still sputtering, terrorism was a continuing and spreading threat, foreign policy was constricted and confusing and, maybe most important of all, Obama’s promise of “change you can believe in” had failed to materialize. So what happened? Post-election analysis revealed that the undecided voter – those that swung the election for Obama – simply did not believe in Romney. Even though Obama had failed to deliver on promises made in 2008, the majority of voters decided they could still believe in him more than they could in Romney.

Becoming The Leader They Can Believe In


Becoming a leader who others will believe in cannot be mandated. It must be cultivated and earned based on attitudes and actions that are established over time, not overnight. Remember, the objective is to give the followers a reason to believe.

If you seek to be a leader who followers will believe in, here are a few things (not necessarily in order of priority) to incorporate into your approach to leadership:

  • Demonstrate that you believe in the abilities and talent of the followers, even more than you want them to believe in you.
  • Be consistent in how you lead. Be the same leader tomorrow as you are today and were yesterday.
  • Create, communicate and adhere to a clearly articulated vision of what you seek to accomplish.
  • Align followers in parallel with your interests and objectives by allowing them to share in the rewards of success.
  • Empower your followers to participate in the process in a way that enables them to believe that their efforts can make a difference.
  • Establish standards of performance and accountability for you and the followers and enforce them consistently and fairly.
  • Always search out the right thing to do and always do it in the best interests of those who follow.
  • Unfailingly communicate with followers as you would wish to be communicated with as a follower.
  • Always say what you mean and mean what you say. Followers will never believe in what or who they can’t trust to be honest and consistent.
  • As a leader, never promise followers more than you can deliver and always deliver more than you promise. (One of the reasons so few believe in politicians.)
  • Passionately and unfailingly believe in yourself and what you are about. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?

It’s More Like A Religion

One of the highest compliments a leader can receive is when others refer to the culture created by the leader as “more like a religion.” Then there is the more (maybe jealous) pejorative comment offered by some that the followers “drank the Kool-Aid” served up by the leader. Be that as it may, such comments are to be sought out by a leader, because it means that followers are true believers and that is what real leadership is about.

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