As a family business leader, I’ve been lucky enough to inherit decades’ worth of business knowledge from my father and grandfather. And if I had to pick which of those early lessons was the most formative, the first time I accompanied my dad on a sales call would be at the top of the list.
Back then, rather than an email or phone conversation, “sales call” usually meant a genuine, in-person visit. This one was pretty typical, including hours of travel, a lengthy lunch with our local representative, a candid and in-depth discussion about our retailer’s business, and a good, old-fashioned sales pitch about how Jelmar products could help the retailer meet his business goals.
My dad, I realized, was sort of a performer. He’d always had a tendency to mumble when he spoke, which I’d always believed was just a quirky habit. But now it seemed like a brilliant bit of added intrigue that encouraged buyers like this one to lean in, listen a little more closely, and let themselves be persuaded. Anyway, it was impossible to know for sure, and maybe that was the point.
In other words, my dad’s physical presence—his unrushed face time with our retailers—was an indispensible part of his work.
And, yes, there were numbers. Like any good salesperson, my dad had the data to back up his claims. But in his day, selling was so much more than that. It was about giving the data context and meaning, enhancing numbers with added color. A skilled salesperson, I learned, knew how to build relationships, becoming a trusted problem-solver whom retailers could rely on to help build their businesses.
Selling, then, was less of a science then an art. And nowadays, it’s rapidly becoming a lost art.
Too often, today’s “sales call” is more of a data dump than an opportunity to build relationships. Salespeople may have 15 minutes to review sales from the past year and sell new products. There’s little or no time to add context to the numbers, let alone build any sort of personal rapport with the buyers. And the final decision may not be made by the buyer we meet in person, but by a corporate team that makes choices based solely on data.
There’s a big problem with that: numbers can lie. For example, it’s far more common than you’d think for a severe snowstorm to decrease sales or for an in-store promotion to boost them significantly. Without a knowledgeable salesperson to provide explanations for these anomalies, it becomes far too easy for decisions to be made without understanding the context. Face-to-face, relationship-based sales, in other words, benefits both the salesperson and the retailer.
And yet, it seems that many business leaders and top salespeople don’t see any problem with a data-driven approach to sales. For example, I came across an article in Forbes that advises salespeople to “sell remotely,” celebrating the fact that technology has made “the traditional face-to-face sales process a thing of the past.” It certainly has, but the author seems to have very different feelings about it than I do.
Of course, technology provides businesses with new levels of efficiency and freedom that I’d never want to give up. But I also believe that if we let the pendulum swing too far in that direction, we can actually end up inhibiting communication. In a world in which email makes it all too easy to lose the complexity and nuance of real-time, face-to-face conversation, an in-person meeting can go a long way.
Another argument for reviving the lost art of selling? It isn’t just about business. It’s also about selling yourself. Due to the prevalence of technology, opportunities to make an impression—to develop a strong presence—are increasingly rare. And yet, as long as there are in-person job interviews, they’ll be no less important.
So when it comes to my two young kids, I’ll continue encouraging them to develop their skills in science and technology. But the same goes for art: the art of shaking someone’s hand, looking him or her in the eye, and telling a compelling, persuasive story.
If you’re a family business leader like I am, there’s a good chance this statistic will resonate with you: only about a third of family businesses successfully make the transition to the second generation.
Sure, that seems pretty low. But there are all sorts of things that can make it challenging—or, in many cases, downright impossible—to pass down a family business. A younger generation might want to make drastic changes that cause conflict. Or, after growing up around the family business, your kids might just want to branch out.
But take it from me, when you try to pass down a family business to a third generation (like my dad did), things can get even more complicated.
How do I know? Well, let me tell you a story.
I’d worked for my dad at Jelmar for several years, building my career, working my way up the ranks, and gaining valuable knowledge from all my Jelmar colleagues. As they know, the happiness of those years was accompanied by sadness, as my mom suffered a long illness that finally took her from us a few years ago.
Near the end, my mom urged my dad to step back from the company and let me lead. I was ready, she told him. It was time. So my dad had to let go of someone he loved, while also letting go of the company he’d spent his whole career nurturing (after watching his dad do the same.)
In a way, my mom asking my dad to let go—and his promise to her that he would—was their way of unburdening one another. It couldn’t have been easy for him, but handing over the company to me became my dad’s way of honoring my mom’s memory.
At most companies, the board would’ve just voted on it.
So it’s easy to see the ways in which family businesses can complicate things, turning what could be objective, rational situations into subjective, emotional ones.
Plus, families are a lot more complex than they used to be. A few generations ago, for example, a business probably wouldn’t have been handed over to a daughter. And with many parents postponing having children until later in life, it’s increasingly common for family businesses to require interim management to bridge the gap between parents’ retirement and children’s coming of age. And that, of course, brings new concerns about whether the non-family manager will maintain the family’s traditions and standards.
That probably means today’s family businesses face more hurdles than ever before—so there’s a good chance that they’re even more emotionally fraught.
What’s a family business leader to do? In my opinion, it’s important to recognize that some of the challenges family businesses face are broader, cultural challenges that reach far beyond the business. I’m a great example of what’s been termed the “sandwich generation”—people who have responsibilities to both young children and older parents, usually on top of a demanding career. If that sounds like you, I guarantee that the society in which you live is primarily to blame, not your leadership skills!
And sure, you have to have a certain kind of outlook to deal with the ups and downs that come from working with family. Watching your promotion at work become inextricably tied to one of your most profoundly emotional family memories isn’t for everyone.
But in my case, the dialogue between my parents that resulted from my role in the family business imbued that difficult time with even greater meaning. In the end, it provided a sort of catharsis for all of us, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What does reality TV star and social media maven Kim Kardashian West have in common with The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik (who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience on screen and in real life)? If you said, “Nothing whatsoever,” I’d have been inclined to agree with you—that is, until I attended BlogHer in Los Angeles earlier this month.
This annual conference draws thousands of women bloggers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders to discuss issues ranging from career building to work/life balance to personal self-confidence. I was thrilled to have the chance to see keynotes from Kardashian West, Bialik, and other prominent speakers—and I was honored to deliver my own talk on my experiences as a female business leader and working mom.
But back to those two incredibly different keynote speakers. On the one hand, you’ve got a young woman who thrives in the spotlight and seems to be one of those personalities who’s “famous for being famous.” On the other hand, you’ve got a neuroscientist best known for playing a brilliant, quirky, and decidedly unglamorous TV character—and, more recently, for starting an online community featuring intellectual content by authors she admires.
And yet, as I listened to each keynote, a funny thing started to happen: even while discussing very different subjects, the two women began to touch on similar themes. Kardashian West answered questions about why she posts nude photos (“I do what makes me feel comfortable. … If you’re not comfortable, don’t do that”), while Bialik discussed her many interests (“Why do you talk about so many things? Because I THINK about so many things; I’m allowed!”).
In other words, regardless of what you think of Kardashian West and Bialik, one thing seems clear: both were advocating for the importance of authenticity. In her own way, each woman spoke of the need to remain true to one’s own personality, character, and beliefs, despite pressure to do otherwise.
And here’s the part that’s even more interesting: so did I.
In the breakout session I participated in, we had a wonderful discussion about why knowing yourself and what you stand for is critical for success in business. For example, no one should try to be an expert in everything, but being an expert in the things you’re passionate about will help you stay focused on success.
That’s not always easy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten distracted by what I like to call “head trash”—things that are easy to obsess about but that just don’t matter, like how I look. But staying focused on being my authentic self can help me overcome those thoughts and keep sight of what’s really important: the success of my business, the wellbeing of my employees, the happiness of my family and friends.
And those, of course, are nearly universal values, whether you’re a celebrity, a company president, or anyone else with the passion to pursue ambitious goals for your life and career.
As much as I love the barbecues, picnics, and fireworks that have become synonymous with July 4th—and believe, me, I do—as I grow older, I always try to find time to pause and reflect on what the holiday really means. And as the president of a family business that was built on three generations of American ingenuity, I’m reminded of the reasons why I’ve chosen to continue a family tradition of manufacturing Jelmar products in the U.S.A.
A generation or two ago, we were surrounded by products that were made in the United States. Your grandfather’s car? It’s a safe bet that it came from Detroit. Buying American was, well, the American way.
As many of Jelmar’s loyal customers are well aware, we’re proud of the fact that Jelmar products are made right here in the United States. In addition to keeping money circulating in our local communities and supporting U.S. jobs, manufacturing in the U.S. enables me to have greater control over quality. As a company president, I can tell you that nothing beats knowing that your longstanding customers are still getting the same caliber product that they did a few decades ago (or maybe even better!).
And while manufacturing in the U.S. might seem a little old-school to some, there’s another huge benefit that addresses a distinctly modern concern: I only need to transport my products hundreds of miles instead of thousands, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Given the steps we’ve taken to produce “greenvenient” reformulations of CLR® products, it’d be pretty silly—not to mention hypocritical—if we undid all those efforts in shipping.
Attention to quality, caring for the planet, supporting local economies—these are actions anyone (young or old) can get behind. And for Jelmar’s products, they go hand in hand with being American-made, on July 4th and every day of the year.
Sure, I should have known not to cut my own bangs. And yes, I should have known that curved manicure scissors were not the way to go. And, admittedly, when things went predictably and horribly wrong, I certainly shouldn’t have continued to cut my bangs shorter and shorter in an attempt to straighten them out!
That was just another invaluable life lesson, courtesy of summer camp. Whether it was late-night missions to steal popcorn from the kitchen, running away from camp only to get caught and dragged back by my older cousin, or my aforementioned revelation that I should never become a hairstylist, summer camp always gave me the sort of freedom that leads to large and small mistakes.
And that’s exactly why I send my own kids to camp every year. After a long school year of rules, schedules, homework, and adults planning and overseeing nearly every moment of their lives, they deserve a break. More to the point, they can benefit from a less structured environment, in which they learn how to succeed—and fail—without me to fall back on. Without experiencing that sort of independence, kids simply can’t understand or appreciate everything they’re capable of achieving.
New research in education and child psychology supports my point of view, suggesting that the overprotectiveness of recent generations of parents may have done children more harm than good. Consider the rise of the “adventure playground”—a space that’s filled with things like tires, boxes, old furniture, and pieces of wood instead of standard playground equipment. Kids are given almost total autonomy: adults keep watch for impending accidents but otherwise don’t interfere. The point of this somewhat radical idea? To let kids figure out lessons about safety, camaraderie, fairness, and self-reliance on their own.
Of course, independent play in a potentially dangerous environment may be on the extreme side, but I send my kids to summer camp with similar goals for their development. For example, last year at camp, my 9-year-old daughter learned to water ski—a structured activity to be sure, but one that posed a challenge and even a bit of a risk. She fell down countless times, facing frustration and discouragement; however, by conquering that risk alone, without me standing by her side, my daughter had to summon a level of courage and self-confidence she’d never had before. She still considers learning to water ski one of her biggest achievements.
I can hardly begin to count all the ways in which my summer camp experiences as a child and adolescent have contributed to my career success as an adult. Those couple months away from my parents every summer prepared me for the adult world in ways I never could have imagined at the time. In addition to building courage and having the opportunity to surprise myself with what I could accomplish, camp helped me strengthen my own identity by enabling me to pursue things I loved, like theater. That’s why I believe the best way to help my kids grow into confident, happy, independent adults is to let go—just a little.
- Why We Need to Rediscover the Lost Art of Selling
- The Unexpected Challenge of Generational Succession
- My BlogHer Experience: Why Authenticity is the Key to Success in Business
- Why “Made in the U.S.A.” will never go out of style
- School’s out for the summer, but life lessons for kids are just beginning
- 3 key tips for balancing work and family
- It’s time for everyday environmentalism that works for everyone
- My advice for any rebranding project: listen to your customers
- Why the best business knowledge can come from the most unexpected sources
- The benefits of embracing the messiness of life
- Think bigger: my thoughts on thankfulness this holiday season
- Why an imperfect holiday dinner can be totally perfect