Bill Flynn | Connecting with Alan Mulally, Ford’s Success, and Strategies for Focusing on Core Customers

Bill Flynn 11:44

Yeah, so let me touch on I went through a lot, because would be a forever. But I’ll touch on the ones that I think are super important and make the biggest difference. One is vision. A we do vision wrong. We think vision is like a statement. You know, it’s a bunch of words. And if you read people’s vision statements with their just one sentence, they all sound the same thing. Or the same way, right? We’re going to change the world by, you know, whatever. And it’s really generic. That’s not a good vision. A vision, literally is a painting with words. And you should, you should be able to write it in such a way that when the person who reads it says, Oh, I know exactly what it will look like when we get there. You know, and Cameron Herold talks about a vivid vision or a painted picture. That’s what it should be. I make I ask every single one, Lisa did this. All of my leaders do this, or I actually I fire them. If they don’t write a vision within the first few months and share it with their team. I say look, you’re not really serious. Because if you want people to follow you, because leadership is is much more amorphous than followership. followership is is can be scientifically proven, right? What, what do you need to do to attract followers, one of them is have a compelling vision, I want to do that I want to help you create that thing, part of his charisma and whatever, you know, it’s sort of a personality called the personality. But even that sort of a vision of, you know, I want to be like that person, it may not be as explicit. So we just don’t do that wrong. It needs to be less of a sentence and more of a painting. The other thing that we do the two things we do really, really badly, which I think is fundamental to it is our decisions and change. If you want to grow a business, decisions and change are inherent. Yet, when I ask people I say, Well, how do you make decisions? What’s your framework? They don’t have one? Well, we get in a room and we talk about it. And we make a decision. I said, Well, do you track how well you did that? You know, do you have a journal of decisions that you go back to? And look at? No. So do you use a particular process every time you do it? No. I said, then how do you know you’re making good decisions, right. So I’m about have a framework, I don’t really care what the framework is, as long as it works, I like one. But it doesn’t have to be that one. I actually like to together. But there’s tons of decision making frameworks out there, pick one or make up your own but but use it consistently, whether you’re moving a mailbox, 12 feet across the room, or whether you’re changing your strategy dramatically, it should be the same way you make a decision. The other thing is changed, we do change backwards, we implement first and then sell. And what you should do and what happens is the people like above, say, Oh, we must do this, you must change it. And don’t ever consult the people whose were the changes affecting the most and actually who know more than you do, probably about the practicality of the change. And then so what happens is, according to I think it was an article years ago from from HBr, which is 70% of all change initiatives fail. And I think it’s because you do it backwards. You know, you should say oh, here’s the idea. Then write a vision about it. Okay, if it if it changes this way, and it works, this is what it look like, then make sure that people get that. Then you involve the people who’s going to say okay, the people who are going to actually be involved in it. You know, once you’re on board, we’ve sort of fleshed that out. Could you write up the plan to do the implementation of the change because we don’t want to do it, you should do it, then you start the change, we usually do the change first, and then we’re selling and backpedaling and whatever takes forever.

John Corcoran 15:11

But let me, let me press you on that a little bit, because we’ll take for it as an example, you know, 2006 2008 time of a lot of change in the, in the auto landscape, and even coming up today into 2022. Like electrification of the, you know, auto industry has been taking place, and Ford kind of was a little bit of a late comer to that. What are you saying that, you know, that that Ford should go to, you know, the the workers and say, Hey, guys, there’s major changes happening in the auto industry, Tesla and other electric car makers are coming along, we need to make a change, how should we do it is that would, would that be the approach that they should take to change?

Bill Flynn 15:55

But I’ll tell you what, what Alan did, I don’t know exactly everything he did, because, you know, we haven’t had that depth and depth of a conversation. But when he came in, he just didn’t come in and say, I’m the smartest man in the room, and I know what to do. And here’s we’re gonna do, he went and talked to dealers, he went out to the plants, he talked to everyone and said, What the hell’s going on here? Right? How come? How come we’re struggling so much. And he ne found out that you know, that we weren’t selling they weren’t selling the cars that people were buying. They were making cars that they wanted to make. So if you remember, he jettisoned Volvo, he jettison Jaguar, he just said, let’s focus on what’s really the thing and to be honest, his vision wasn’t his own. He said, let’s just go back to what Henry Ford said. That’s our vision, democratize the automobile. And and I don’t know if most people don’t know this. But in 2015, the year after he left Ford, for a very brief moment in time, became the number one car maker in the world again, the last time that happened was when Henry Ford ran the business well, 75 years earlier. And by the way, he didn’t add more brands. He shrunk the business and focused on what they do really well, because he gathered all this information. And Mocha, he did the same thing when she turned around Xerox. Lou Gerstner did the same thing when he turned around IBM jobs, the same exact thing when he went to Apple. Yeah, jobs. 2.0 was way better than sub jobs. 1.0. He was the genius for the 1000 helpers. And one Oh, and two. Oh, he said, Okay. I’m much humbler now. I don’t know everything. And right. What I’m going to do is he said, I’m going to build a team around me that believes what I believe and I can trust to make the things happen. And he still was great at figuring out what was out there because he’s super curious. Right? And he’s a first principles thinker as well. Elon Musk, I think is one of the best, even though I’m not a big fan of big first principles. Thinker. Yeah. He’s a first principles thinker, which and he’s completely revolutionized the rocket industry. He’s completely revolutionized the electric car industry and the solar industry, all at the same time. Yeah, well, risking his entire personal fortune. It’s pretty amazing. Yeah, it’s pretty cool. And yeah, those people that are curious, right, that’s what it is. You just got to be curious and realize you don’t have the answers. You gotta go out there and pull in the information and then figure out how to make it happen. Right, just don’t do that. We just don’t do that enough.

John Corcoran 18:13

Right. And to their credit for it was, I think the only American carmaker that didn’t go bankrupt, and after the 2008 or have to be sold, and Chrysler was sold. And you know, a couple of

Bill Flynn 18:25

them had trouble. Yeah. Well, not only that, no. So so if you read the book, it’s the book is really great. The book reads like a mystery novel, Bryce does a really good job. It’s a fun book to read, which most business books are boring and dry and difficult. And mine, I hope isn’t one of them. But you never know. And so what he did is not only did they did they not go bankrupt, they were going to lose $17 billion. The year he took over and they did 17 billion with a B, wow, that’s a lot of money. That’s some countries don’t have that much money to lose, they lost $17 million. Not only that, he took a small payment from the government, part of TARP, but he paid it back immediately and never took a dime. That GM and and Chrysler, yeah, yeah, never took time. And still made it happen.

John Corcoran 19:17

You know, another thing you’ve written about, and this ties into your engineering, scientific background, you said there’s a meaningful gap between what science knows and business does, for example, a core customer is worth about 16 times more than an ordinary customer. I think that dovetails nicely with what you were saying there about, you know, with with Ford and other companies really dialing in on who your core customer is and focusing on that. So talk a little bit about ways in which you get clients to focus on that.

Bill Flynn 19:45

Yeah, so um, you know, as you know, we’re in Western culture were enamored of new and more. We think the new thing is going to solve everything and if you get more of something, right if you go to if you go to a restaurant, if you go eat in Europe and you go in you hear the portions are dramatically different, right? And people say, Oh, I just got a ton of pasta. And that’s like supposed to be great like, but I got less food and it tasted so much better. It was a much better experience. But we don’t have that. That’s an interesting culture issue we have. So I’m with the core customer thing. Yeah, it’s so that’s basically applying the Pareto Principle, right, which is the 8020 rule. And if that’s true, it’s actually I’ve done a survey really not scientific in any way. So I’ve spoken to probably three or 400 CEOs over the last three or four years. And I would always ask them the same question. So when I was doing Vistage, or EO or YPO. And I said, you know, how do you talk to your customers? Well, first, they said, who talks to their customers, and you know, maybe half, maybe three quarters, because those groups like EO and YPO, they’re, those are the kind of folks who are going to talk to customers more likely, if they’re going to join a YPO. They have some curiosity, they have some humility to them already. So they’re much more likely to do that. But then I say, What do you ask them? And they say, Well, I asked him, what do they want? And they and I say, Well, do they tell you? And they said, Yes. And I said, Well, that’s too bad. Because they don’t know what they want. And it’s not their job, to tell you what to make for them. Their job is to complain and tell you their problems. Your job is to take that information and figure out how to fix it. Yeah, it’s a huge

John Corcoran 21:18

being afforded reminds me of the famous quote from Henry Ford. Right. If I’d asked people what they want, they would have said faster horses.

Bill Flynn 21:25

Which is apocryphal, by the way, but it’s still a great quote. I’ve done that, you know, research the quotes, and no one can find him actually saying that. So often the case. Yeah, right. But I use it all the time. Yeah. All the time. But that’s exactly true. So I’m a big fan of jobs to be done if you’re familiar with jobs to be done. But for those

John Corcoran 21:43

times, yeah. I’ve interviewed. Yeah, a friend here who who’s big into the jobs of the unframed Park? Yeah.

Bill Flynn 21:50

Okay. So for those who don’t know, it’s, it’s around 3035 years old, it was there, there is a the origin story is is in dispute and has been, but somewhere in the 80s or 90s, some some folks basically reverse engineered the product process because either the cars weren’t being sold, or, you know, the IBM PC Jr. wasn’t selling or whatever it was. And they said, why aren’t people buying this, we, we made it exactly the way they said, and they still didn’t buy it. And they found out that people don’t buy for the reasons that we think they buy for. And the person that I know most about it, is this guy called Bob mesta. And he’s in Michigan, he was a really good friend of Clayton Christensen, who’s an HBr. Professor, he passed away in last few years. And Clayton is kind of credited

John Corcoran 22:31

with it as an A or is credited with the

Bill Flynn 22:34

theory, okay. He wanted to turn it into a theory which he did. But it wasn’t his he, he had a few people in the world who came to him and, and he worked with all of them. But Bob was very Bob would go to as Bob would go to Clayton’s class and do a come in as a visiting lecturer and that kind of stuff. But basically, the premise is that people don’t buy products and services from you. They hire them to do a job that they would like to get done. And that job that they want to do is about making progress or or addressing a struggle. And the struggle often isn’t what we think it is. So for instance, I can tell a story that I use with my with my with my business. So I went in 2005, I started with a company called Live vault. And my vault was an online did online data backup company really early on ln data backup world did they start now it’s everywhere. But at the time, it was unusual. And I came in as a VP of sales, I replaced another guy. And they said, hey, you need to help us grow and figure this thing out. I said, Great. I want to interview our existing customers. So I went to our existing customers, I asked most questions, but I asked one really important question, which was, what is the most valuable thing that you got from using our service? I said thing on purpose. And I wanted to know what they got out of it. Not what do you like about us? But what did you get out of it? How do we make your life better? But before I did that, I went to the head of marketing, I went to the CEO and I went to my boss, who was the head of sales and marketing, and said, Why do you think our customers buy from us? And they all told me the same thing. Insurance said it’s an insurance. So people are gonna pay us a little bit every month, just in case, something happens, a hurricane, or some power surge or something. And I was like, that’s a really good answer. Because I’ve been doing this for a few years. And most of the answers were not most of the answers I get as well, because we’re awesome. People buy from us because we’re the greatest, like, Well, no, they don’t really care about you. They care about themselves. So I said great. I said, but I’m still going to do the interviews. And I did 17 interviews. The only reason I did 17 I should have stopped the 12. But I didn’t believe the consistency of the answers I got. Because I think 10 or 12 of the 17 said the exact same words when I asked him that question, which was set it and forget it. So we were selling insurance. They were buying time. They were super busy, small to medium business owners, and they said, Wait a minute, so I don’t have to buy all these tapes. Put them in, take them out, label them, make sure that they’re safe. What I get to go online, hit a couple of buttons, and I never have to think about it ever again. Yes. How much does that cost? And that’s what I tell my team. I said, Say these words, whenever you’re talking to a prospect, say, our best customers like us, because we already set it and forget it model. You can don’t worry about it, we got your back. And we all knew, I knew as well, that data was exploding. So it almost didn’t matter what we charge them. Because it’s a multiplication problem. We charge them per gig. Yeah, gigs, were always going to go up. So about 18 months later, Iron Mountain bought us for 10x revenue. And they’ve been a partner of ours for years. And it wasn’t because of what I did. There was lots of other stuff. But yeah, we proved that it can be done because we kept every every month and quarter I was there. We beat the previous month and quarter. Because my team was on it. They knew what to say they knew how to do it. It was really cool. That’s great. So so that’s what happens. That’s that’s an example what happens we think we know why people buy from us. And I And by the way live all have been business for nine years. Before that. It wasn’t like they didn’t have time to figure it out.

John Corcoran 26:09

By the way, I want to mention So Jay Haynes was the Hey, yeah, no J S, tears, kids, my kids actually go to school together, For those who want to check him out. We’re running a little short on time, I want to leave time for our our job story, your Steve Jobs story. I want to I want to touch on one other thing, though, that you have written about is the importance of leaders firing themselves from the day to day in order to focus more of their time on predicting the future and your words. Yes. Easier said than done. Right? Getting leaders so far that those are the day to day? So how do you make that happen as a, you know, a leader of a company that probably ought to fire myself from certain other roles?

Bill Flynn 26:52

Yeah, so it’s, it’s a really long answer, John, but I’ll try to make it short for you. Um, so here’s the premise, and they don’t always buy into it. But this is the premise is that your job? Once you get through the knothole, of a product of a product market fit kind of thing, and you’re starting to see some scalability and repeatability in the business, you need to go back and revisit every critical decision, because most of them were just happenstance, or, or circumstance. And you have to make sure that deliberately like are those are decisions that get us the next layer. And those are some pretty important decisions. What partners should we have? What people should we have? Are they in the right places, really critical decisions that aren’t easy to make, they’re difficult to make? One of the reasons we don’t do it is because they’re hard. And we don’t want to fire people or, or demote them or whatever, because we like them. And so that’s one of the things that’s really hard. And I actually asked that question of Alan Mulally, before I got to know him. I had met him two or three years earlier, at a Vistage event, actually, where he was speaking, which blew my mind cuz I’m like, I’m only speaking to visit events. That is a $200,000 speech guy. But I found out later, his daughter was the head of marketing for one of the, the local chapter. Can you come into our event and speak? So it’s pretty cool. It’s good in? Yeah, good, and very good. Um, so, uh, I’m a neuroscience geek. And what I’ve learned in neuroscience, Neuroscience for 20 years, what I’ve learned is that you you can’t, your mind can’t focus on two things. At the same time. This is the multitasking debate, right? There’s no such thing as multitasking, there’s context switching, which you can do really fast, which seems like multitasking. But it’s not your brain can only do one thing at a time. And there’s some really cool, like, demonstrations are people driving and doing math and running through cones, and like, oh, I can look task in the writing our code? Well, they can’t do the math, you can do a few things at a time, you can walk and chew gum, and but that’s not focus. Yeah, you’re not focusing on chewing the gum, you’re just chewing the gum, or you’re not focusing on the walking, you know, you can also be on the phone and do that. But as long as you’re you’re not focusing on, you focus on one thing at a time. So if you’re doing then, then you’re not able to think because you can’t do and think at the same time. Because that’s just again, the way the brain works. You have to let your brain relax. And I ask this of everybody. So I’m gonna ask you, John. So it’s so when you when you create a new company, when you want to grow a company, it’s about creation. It’s about insight. It’s about innovation. So when you get your best ideas, your best insights, what are you doing? Do you remember sort of, generally, what are you doing at that time? When the flash happens to you?

John Corcoran 29:27

Yeah, it’s funny, you know, for me, it’s frequently completely out of context. It’s not at my desk, it’s somewhere else walking around, or riding a bike or on an airplane going away to some event somewhere else. Yep,

Bill Flynn 29:41

in the shower on a run, whatever. So your brain is actually quiet. And it’s something called the edge effect or the week. So it’s called weak single effect, where there’s these two things that are pieces of data that you have in your brain that are loosely connected, but you haven’t connected. It hasn’t connected them yet, and you literally rewire Brain, when you have that insight, there’s actually wiring going on in your brain, those those, those two neurons, sets of neurons are connected. That’s when you like, oh. So your job as a leader is to keep collecting information, right? Talk to customers, look at the marketplace, all this because you don’t know when you might need it, even look at things outside your industry. And then once in a while, you’re going to get this insight. And the way to get it is to quiet your brain. So if you’re doing if you have the line of people outside your door, if you’re always in meetings you’re always doing, you’ll never give your brain a chance to do that you have to become bored. And that’s when you get your best ideas. So in order to do that, you need to fire yourself from running the company, which is a day to day operation, you need to teach everyone how to do the things that you do, you may not be able to teach them everything depends on the size of your company, all that kind of stuff. Because your job is to predict the future. And I think it was Abraham Lincoln, this might be another one of those apocryphal things, right, is that the best way to predict the future is to create it. And so what I do with my clients is I help them to create their own future. So we work through a thick a three year planning process, which says, okay, at the end of three years, what is it going to look like? Okay, what do we need to do over the next 12 quarters to make that happen? Let’s break that down into years. Let’s break that down into smaller quarters, etc. And we’re just going to march slowly through this process. And as it’s not something that they say, Oh, you’re right, Bill, and I need to do that. They realize it as they go. So Lisa is an excellent example. He said the talent. She said to me that, you know, I asked her I said, so I did a I did a tell me what I’m doing right, tell him what to do and wrong start stop continue kind of thing. And she said, you know, you’ve allowed me to step back from the day to day, I’ve basically I’ve a really good team. They’re doing a great job. And her husband, who was running the company with her has been in effect left the business to do other stuff. And it’s because, you know, it’s it says because of me, but it could have been from any coach that she worked with, that allowed her to realize that her job is not to run the business anymore. And as she as it got easier and easier, and she had less time thinking about and she’s now running the EO chapter of New England, I guess or something right? She’s Yeah, you know, Boston. Yeah. But Boston. Yeah. So it gives you more time to do other stuff. Yeah. So it I think it dawns on them as they go. I wish I could say I was super convincing. And you know, I had this compelling argument like, Oh, my God, where have you been? Bill, you’ve totally changed my life. I don’t think that ever happened. But as they see it go and their team starts to get involved and, and to contribute in ways that they never thought they would. Because now they’re letting them. It’s amazing. If you trust someone and let them do their job, how they will do it. If they believe what you believe they’re not a good teammate, then that’s different. But assuming you hire well and train grow them, it’s amazing the things that you’ll have them do.

John Corcoran 32:43

Yeah. And I forced my business partner to do a 16 day vacation. Actually, I insisted on three weeks, he did 16 days, we compromise this this December, and I said the same thing. Like the team’s gonna be great. They’re gonna be proud of and they did, they did a great job. I want to almost about to wrap things up with the last question of the gratitude question that I was asked. But before that pitching Steve Jobs, how did that

Bill Flynn 33:06

happen? So I was 27 or 28 years old. Steve was at NeXT computer, which was the sort of hiatus between Apple one and Apple two. He also did Pixar in there somewhere as well. And I was a speech recognition, I was selling speech recognition. And I went yeah, this was 1992 93 I was going up and down one to one right meeting with all the manufacturers, your Acer and Pat Hewlett Packard Bell and the HP and whoever made a, you know, thing Microsoft went up to, to Redmond and did that. And actually, the stuff I sold was Microsoft sound system. It was they were using our technology there. And I was I was working with them as part as part of the team there. And I went to next because, you know, they were they were on my list. And I was meeting with a couple of product managers. And I walk in tonight, and I have this bulky, you know, horrible looking, you know, 9091 I’d like a compact lunchbox looking thing where was was really hard to carry in a plane was super heavy. And I walk in, I set up and they said, you know, take your time. Because, you know, see my joints. And I’m you know, I’m not thinking at all and hell is Steve and I we waiting for I never talked to Steve. And I still didn’t get it until the door opens. And there’s Steve Jobs. Yeah. Like, and you know, and I try not to be you know, completely insane. Like, oh, yeah, no, so it’s trying to be cool. And, and he sat down, he’s like, Alright, go. And we talked for 20-25 minutes. And he asked me a bunch of questions and you know, and was totally technology thing. And he said, Great, thank you. And off he went. And you know, I saw I had friends and family that work for Apple through the 80s. And so I knew of him has a reputation. And I’m Luckily I didn’t have enough time to think about because I would be like oh my god, he’s gonna like skewer me and whatever

John Corcoran 34:59

well you do. hear stories about that. But it doesn’t sound like that was your experience? No, it was it was,

Bill Flynn 35:03

it was a wonderful conversation. I could I could not in any way tie what I knew of his reputation. To to, to, to the 20-25 minutes I spent with him he was it was he was gracious and kind and really insightful as really great questions, which I think I, some of them I had to say, Look, I’m just a sales guy. And let me get back to you. So you know, I get back to him and his team on some of them. But it was it was it was a wonderful experience. I get to tell the story, you know, 20 something years later.

John Corcoran 35:30

Yeah, very cool.

Bill Flynn 35:31

Did you get the sale? No, next never did it. So he left really before next shift. They basically folded the company into Apple, right, right over the operating system. That next hat is what they used for a Mac. So nothing really came of it. Hmm,

John Corcoran 35:48

yeah. Well, cool that what a great story. It’s so neat to have that experience. So I want to wrap things up with the question I asked. I was asked so I’m big fan of gratitude. So if you look around at your peers and contemporaries, others in your industry, however you want to define that because you you’ve done a lot of different things, putting yourself back to the admire who’s someone that you would want to acknowledge publicly?

Bill Flynn 36:11

Yeah, so a few few old, really old people in some, some newer folks. Let me do the newer folks first. So gratitude, actually, there’s, there’s a wonderful man that I met in the last couple of years, or a year and a half. His name is Chester Elton. And he is the gratitude guy, he is all is all about gratitude. He sends out on LinkedIn every single day, what he’s grateful for and grateful for kids. He’s grateful for knowledge. He’s grateful for the sun, he just comes up with something he could be grateful for. And he lets people know and he’s very good at calling you and saying how grateful he is. And we’re both hockey fans. And he’s a New Jersey Devils fan. And I’m a Boston Bruins fan. And they were playing and I say I went to the game and I was texting him during the game. And I was sort of ribbing him a little bit. And I’m like, I’m here and we’re like, looks like we’re gonna win. And he didn’t he was gracious to each other really playing well, and it’s so good that you’re there and, and you’re there with your daughter. And that’s isn’t that wonderful is the great spend time. I couldn’t get them at all to jump in and fun. You wouldn’t do it. So it’s sort of full recently, um, if someone I would I would definitely say that as part of that. If I go back, I’m this guy Blair heavey, who’s hired me when I was 26 or 27 years old at open market, which was the Netscape of the East it was a really hot internet commerce company. 1995 So I was in the I was in the internet. 1995 You know, so we’re Why was 9094 and I was working for a company in E commerce 95. And we work together for four different companies. I learned a ton of stuff from him, he was always loyal and, and really was great to me. So I’m always grateful to him. For everything he did in there was a couple of people recap to another guy worked with during those years, and I’m still friends with Rick, we still hang out at least once a month. Along the way, and then there have been a bunch of other company people that I just like Alma Lally, who I would never expect to be sort of friendly with Amy Edmondson who is the psychological safety woman is also she endorsed my book, and you know, and she read my book, which was really cool. And Bob mesto is the job’s done guy, he and I are connected as well, and just just these wonderful human beings that you know, I’m sort of in awe of because they’ve influenced influenced me over the years. And now that like, you know, friends is probably too strong of a word, but I’m definitely like, I can send alum allele an email and he will get back to very cool No, me ever since, you know, talk to me and said, You know, I read your book and his stuff I love about it. And I said, Can I write that down and put it on my website? Absolutely. So it’s great people like that, who were just humble and wonderful people who are trying to make a difference. I just love those kind of people.

John Corcoran 38:40

That’s great. Thanks for sharing those Bill. Where can people go to learn more about you and go check out your book?

Bill Flynn 38:46

Sure. So my website’s the best place which is Everything’s on them I actually give away my book for free I’m a more about the message than the money but you can certainly download it from Amazon or audible that kind of stuff. I write a blog post or newsletter if you will, every twice a month really short when the two minute read always hopefully a do it yourselfer. It’s a help. Now my book is a do it yourself book. It’s not a look how smart I am. And when hiring me later. Hopefully you see that I’m useful. But I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a deal from from from that. So you can download that for free there. My Calendar links on there all sorts of stuff is on there. So you can go to

John Corcoran 39:23

Further, Faster: The Vital Few Steps That Take the Guesswork out of Growth. Bill, it’s a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much. 

Bill Flynn 39:25 

John, thank you very much.

Outro 39:27 

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at And while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.