75: Business Of Belief: Creating A Supportive Culture with Tom Asacker
Social capital dictates a business owner’s position in the market. With this kind of business of belief, opportunities rise for every member of the organization. Instead of building a culture that punishes employees who fail after they take a risk, companies should focus on building a supportive culture; work place that recognizes advantages and weaknesses that will help when problems arise as well as opportunities. Tom shares how this social culture also promotes freedom.
Business Of Belief: Creating A Supportive Culture with Tom Asacker
My guest is a business expert who holds medical patents and product design awards. He is recognized by Inc. magazine, MIT, the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization, and a past member of their Birthing of Giants Entrepreneurial Executive Leadership Program. He’s the author of five books. His first book, Sandbox Wisdom, has been a worldwide bestseller. Welcome, Tom Asacker.
Thank you. It’s great to be here with you.
I love the message of the Sandbox Wisdom book. It’s impressive and it’s fun to read. I want to know a little bit more about how you got started in business.
I graduated with an Economics degree in 1978, which was probably during the worst recession that we’ve had in recent times. There were cars backed up at the pumps. There was a gas shortage. Not much work. I took a job with an electronics firm. Soon after that, GE bought the firm out. I was under the tutelage leadership training of GE. Jack Welch came in a few years later and decided that they couldn’t be one or two in their marketplace. They were going to sell the businesses off. I got together with some managers of the company and we purchased that electronics manufacturing business from GE. That was my first foray into the world of business and world of work.
You just get out of school and the next thing you know, you’re buying a business from General Electric. That’s pretty heady stuff.
It wasn’t the day after I got out of school, but it was soon after I graduated. It was an interesting and educational experience.
Maybe you could walk me through some of what you had to struggle with in this new business, which was an old business that is now new for you. What did you go through? What jobs did you have and how did you progress through that process to the point of when the business was sold?
It was a challenging time. When I started with that business, I was in strategic planning and production management, production control. We weren’t embracing any of the new technologies like ERP and MRP II and Just-in-Time manufacturing techniques. We were like the GM and Ford of all. We were creating a lot of inventory. We’re creating a lot of errors and problems. I was trying to get the business to understand that the only way out of all of this was if we implemented this entire new system and philosophy and MIS system and approach. I convinced the executive team and they said, “You’re going to run this thing.”They gave me the funding to do it. I had dotted lines to all of the Senior Executives at the company. It took about two years to implement. It was the worst and best experience I’ve ever had in my life because I had an opportunity to understand people and the social conditions in businesses. A lot of people believe, and it’s a false belief, that everyone in a business is interested like a scientist, in discovering the best approach to make whatever objectives reality. That’s not true at all. A business is a big social organism. It’s all kinds of politicking going on constantly. That is probably one of the biggest problems with large organizations and why they can’t change. That’s what gives all of these small startup organizations the impetus. Their advantage is their ability to look at objectively the marketplace, to know what decision needs to be made in order to give the marketplace what they’re looking for and what they value, and then making that change. Because they don’t have all of that social capital that they have to worry about. They just go and make the decision and off they go.
Social capital, for me, means something different. It means how well your social profiles or social connections are. What I’m hearing is that it’s the weight of the social community inside of a company that bogs it down. Do I understand that correctly?
Absolutely. I understand from an entrepreneur standpoint or if you’re trying to do an internet business, there’s social capital in the connections that you make with the external world, with influencers. Within organizations, you’re always looking at your social capital because that dictates your position, that dictates your advancement opportunities, your pay, your bonuses. That’s what everybody is looking at. If you do something risky and you fail, then you look at that and you say, “I’m going to lose some of that social capital because now I’m not someone they can believe in as much and trust in.”Risk taking within organizations is not something that is embraced by individuals because that could have a detrimental effect on where they stand within that order in the organization.
Someone could lose their job if they make a risky decision and it doesn’t go well, which these days in smaller companies, it’s the opposite. You’re encouraged to fail quickly and to learn from your failures. How many times do you remember, in your career, failing and being told, “That was bad. You failed,” but you learned and that’s valuable? Has that happened to you in your career?
In large organizations? Not usually. That is the challenge. The only way that that is embraced is when an organization runs into some type of crisis, and then they’re looking for ways out.
We focus on building a supportive culture, a culture that surrounds each and every person and supports them as opposed to beats them up and punishes them. That was a great contrast to what I think many of us are used to in smaller companies.
The other point is whenever you’re this small organization or a startup and you’re looking at the big guy and you’re saying, “They have this huge advantage over me”, you’ve got to realize what the huge weaknesses are as well. They are going to have a problem shifting if the customer comes up with something that they desire that may stretch or create some risk for them or create some identity issue with, “That’s not us. We don’t do that.” That’s your opportunity to step right in there.
I go back to the early days of my own software startup when we were on CompuServe. We were chatting with lawyers who were working with our software and said, “It would be nice if there was a field here that recorded this or that.” My partner would read it right off the screen and he’d go to work and add that field. We would compile a new build and it would be out in the mail in the morning. It’s huge to be able to respond quickly. The power of a small business is in its flexibility and its strength in getting things done quickly and in an agile environment. You were in this big social organization. You were young, out of college, and now you’re part of a brand-new business. What happened? How did the business progress? You tried to introduce this software platform. It sounds like you got it done, but it wasn’t comfortable.
It was a struggle the entire way, which tells you that you’re trying to accomplish something through others. You really need to understand the people’s desires and their beliefs. If what you’re trying to do conflicts with those desires and beliefs, it’s not going to happen through them. They may be this passive-aggressive people and you never know what’s going on. I ran into that when some executives where I thought that they were actually helping me move the thing along. I found out later that, in fact, they were doing things to blow it up, make it not work because they were worried about where they were going to be in the future if this thing was successful. That’s really important is to understand each individual that’s involved in this movement that you’re trying to create so that they can see themselves successful in the future by working with you. If they can’t see it, I guarantee you they’re going to do something to try to disrupt it.
If it threatens their job, if this new software system threatens their existence even on the fringe of it, they’re going to find a way to stop it if they can.
This was during the mainframe era, prior to personal computers making it onto people’s desktops. One of the things that IBM was doing with the head of information systems, in order to stop them from getting rid of the IBM mainframe and putting personal computers in organizations, they actually had a strategy called FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Create that in the information manager and prevent them from taking us out of the organization.
Back then, that was a key element of how you would either promote or sell a big brand like IBM. Introduce FUD into the equation and discourage people from making a decision to try a new startup that might be half the price for twice the power.
They didn’t want to lose their job if there was a problem.
We’ve moved into a different world. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t companies out there, decades old companies, that still operate this way. We’re in a different place where entrepreneurial organizations are really focusing on the needs of our staff members. Do you see that in the work you do?
When you say that, is that the employees that work with them?
Everybody. The employees, the contractors that are still part of the way that the company operates. When I talk to CEOs, were talking about it used to be in order of importance, the customer comes first, then the company, and then the employees. I’ve seen that turned completely upside down in the last ten years. It’s almost like your employees come first because if they’re happy, they will produce and take care of your customers. If your customers are happy, your company’s going to be successful. What do you think of that?
I would go beyond that and say that it’s impossible in this dynamic environment because it’s very chaotic. It’s very dynamic. Things are changing all the time. It’s impossible to create some type of top-down structure and creating any type of rules or behaviors and say, “Follow the script.” It doesn’t work like that. You’re trying to get everyone in the company to do improv. You’re trying to get them to step onto stage in the morning with each other, with their customers and say, “What is the best result that we can create together for everyone, and how do we move forward?”You can’t do command and control in a chaotic environment. It just doesn’t work.
There’s a place for, as you say, command and control, but it’s not until much further down the road. That’s when all of your processes have been perfected. Sales force has a script. We use scripts as part of our selling process. That, in itself, is important. What I’m really hearing here is the creation of culture. For many people, culture has a different meaning than the way I mean it. I believe culture starts out as a set of boundaries. These boundaries help people understand exactly what they can and can’t do, but they have total freedom within those boundaries. Once you build a culture that looks like that, what ends happening is that people feel free to roam within those boundaries and can be very creative and productive. Part of the culture means you have to treat people a certain way. You can’t steal intellectual property. That’s part of what you have to lay down in terms of your culture. I’m sure you do that with your clients as well.
The worst thing you can do for people to ask them to be creative is to not give them a frame within to work from. If you say to an artist, “Go paint,” and he says, “Where’s the canvas?” “There isn’t one.” The best thing you can do for any creative person is to give them some boundaries because that’s what inspires them and allows them to create without boundaries. These boundaries can be flexible and porous, but they have to understand this is the playing field. Let’s go get creative on that field and make things happen.
What was the name of the company that you bought from GE?
Back in the day, it was called DATEL. It was sold to Intersil. Out in California it was called DATEL Intersil. DATEL Intersil was bought by GE and it was called GE DATEL Intersil. GE sold Intersil and kept DATEL and it was called GE DATEL. That all happened within two or three years. All that selling and buying and changing names.
How long did you end up staying at that company?
A total of ten years. My first two or three was climbing the ranks and becoming a manager. Here comes GE. I started to grow within that new organizational structure. The project came along and there was a couple of three years of the project. I stayed a few years after that. The total was about a decade.
After you wrapped up there, what was your next move?
I had a friend of mine telling me that he had some idea or a patented idea or close to patented for a medical device that would not only help patients recover quickly but would save hospitals and insurance companies huge amounts of money. I said to him, “What do you want from me?” He says, “I know what you did down there at that other company. I want you to come up here and help me do that here because we’re going to be a manufacturing company and a development company. I told them, “When you get sales of x amount of dollars, call me. I’ll know you have something.”He did and he called me. I came up and visited. One of the partners, one of the developers, was a healthcare guy and I really connected with him. I took a shot and left the company where I was, and I went up and joined the startup with a couple of guys and a dog and some products, and we scale that. It took us about five years to get every investment banker in the country coming after us trying to figure out how to take us public.
A lot of us are in a position where we’re creating and companies. Many of us are starting with not a lot of money. Talk a little bit more about what that process was. How did you build a company after you joined? Now that you’re a part of it, how did you build it with hardly any money at all?
There were three financial investors and two operating partners. I was one of the operating partners. The healthcare guy was the other operating partner. The financial investors were digging into their pockets, coming up with money. They were financing the business to get it where it needed to be and to help grow it. It was a struggle. I took a 50 % cut in pay to do it and took some equity. People were working other jobs. It was a struggle. There is no easy way to do it.
The best part is the vision. The vision and the hope are what keeps us going. At that time, you probably had little kids and a wife to worry about. Here you are, taking 50%cut in pay and trying to explain to dearest at home that, “If this pays off, it’s going to be worth it.”
I sold my home and I moved into a condo and put my kids on a mattress on the floor. I’ve always been driven by whatever my passion was. I have gone through some big highs and low lows. I’d rather ride on that roller coaster than ride on some little choo-choo train that goes around and around a track only because it makes life exciting. That’s why I do what I do. I don’t ever have this outcome that says, “Get there and then you’ll be able to buy the big house and the pool.” No, that doesn’t interest me. What interests me is the process. I’m interested in whatever it is that’s exciting. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
We’re all doing the same thing, that’s why. It’s interesting to me because you’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been doing it a long time. I don’t get to chat often with people who have been through those ups and downs, as you said, “The highs of the highs and the lows of the lows.” Talk a little bit about the lows, how you dealt with them, and what you went through so that everybody listening can get a feel for what this is about and what you got to do to get out of it.
I would not recommend that the people who go through these lows do what I did. I was so lost in my story of how I wanted things to be that I took a lot of things personally. When I left with the electronics firm as a partner, I was told by people that I stood up in a board meeting and I had a meltdown. I was telling everybody there that they didn’t know what they were doing. I don’t even remember it. I was lost in the story of who I was and how things weren’t happening the way I wanted them to happen. I was becoming frustrated. Instead of rationally looking at everything and saying, “Time to go,” I blew up. I had a vision collision with these people and I said, “I want my investment back. I want out of here.”It was a dumb thing to do because it was driven by some identity that I had, something that I wanted, something that I wanted to protect, something that didn’t make sense, and that was ridiculous. That was a big mistake.
I did the same thing at the medical company. I ran into a vision collision with my partners because they took all of this cash that we created, and they wanted to start dishing it out to the partners and buy cars. I said, “No, we’re reinvesting in innovation and R&D. We’re in business to help people.” I ran into another one of these vision collisions. I ended up quitting there and starting another medical company. They sued me and I lost everything. It took a lot of self-reflection over the years, going through all of these issues that I went through to realize the big mistake I was making, which was I was putting myself as the central character in all of these stories. Things weren’t working out the way I wanted them to and that was creating pain for me. I was reacting to that pain, wanting the story to play out the way I wanted it to play out, forgetting that I’m not the central character in any of these stories, not when you have partners. There are other people involved in this. It was painful, but it was nothing that I would never go through again. I learned so much about human nature and people. That’s what allowed me to write the books that I’ve written.
That’s part of why you’re here. You are here to help all of us better understand what people go through in these situations so maybe we can avoid some of the pain that you apparently felt.
I’ll give you like one tiny piece of advice to avoid the pain. Never give up less than 51%. Hold on to 51% of your business. Never lose control of your business because then, you can’t make decisions.
It sounds simple, but it’s super important. What it comes down to is leverage. What you want with that extra 1% is enough leverage to control your destiny to some degree.
You’re not going to control it, but you’ll have more influence over it. That’s what you want when you’re running and growing a business. You want to be able to know and be able to say, “This is not right. We are not going to do it.” If you lose the ability to control that decision, you’ve got to start compromising what you’re doing and that’s painful.
Let’s go back to the vision collision. I love that term that you’ve coined. Many of us have been there and many of us will be there. How do you get external from yourself in those moments and see the big picture, the real story, instead of being so sucked into your own story?
The first thing to realize is that if you’re involved in this business with other people, those other people think that they are the heroes of their own little stories. They’re looking at your business as something that fulfills their desires and their goals. It’s unusual to have people’s goals and desires all match up and all be aligned. You think that you are hearing that they’re aligned, but it turns out, in most cases, that they’re not. When you run into that, “We’re not aligned. I want to invest and help people. They want to pull money out and buy boats.”When that happens, you’ve got to say to yourself, “You have to not take it personally.” You have to say, “I get it. He’s the hero of his story. His story says he wants a boat. There’s nothing wrong with that. I shouldn’t judge that. That’s him, but that’s not me. How do I deal with this in order to give him what he wants, if possible, and give me what I want at the same time?” You don’t make it a conflict. You go into it and you ask yourself, “How do I make this work for everyone so that we all get what we’re looking for?” If you can’t do that, then you’ve got to part ways. You do it rationally. You don’t do it as I did. It felt like I was being attacked because I looked at my vision and said, “This makes sense. If they’re not doing it, why?” It felt like an attack on what I wanted and what I believed. It’s not at all because that’s where we make the mistake. We think other people see the world and have the same desires that we do, and it’s not true.
These are the things that as people we go through in work life with partners, with employees, with staff members, even people who change their minds, even leaders who changed their direction are going to impose this on others. There is a way to navigate through that. It is important to make that realization that you’re not the star of this show. More importantly, what is the best way to make everybody happy and get what everybody wants? If you truly can’t do that and you do need to leave and exit the organization, do it with some class. Do it with some care. Try to set it up so that you can preserve the relationships that you spent ten years building, and potentially even get some help as you go off and start or build your next thing.
If you’re not looking at yourself as the hero of the story and if you realize that you are just part of an ecosystem, you don’t control any of that. That is one crazy dynamic thing going on with people and desires and things going on in their lives that you don’t know about. We just don’t know any of that. If you look at yourself and say, “I have a little influence, but beyond that, that’s all it is. I don’t have control.” If you can let that go in your mind, then all of the disappointments of how things aren’t happening the way you want, that goes away because you realize you’re not in control. This is a dynamic environment.
A shift in viewpoint can change how you feel instantly. This shift in viewpoint seems to need to be like a little sub routine running in the background. Am I the hero of this story? Am I the king or am I part of the round table? Let’s talk about hiring. We live in a world where we have a lot of virtual people surrounding us doing things to help us build our companies. We got to hire people. Maybe you know how to do this very easily and can it share it. How do we do this? How do we bring your wisdom into the hiring process at this point?
If I had the solution to that, I would start this big hiring company. I was pre-internet back in those days. I would keep my intuitive sense of me always on alert, especially when I was with people that knew how to make other people feel good about themselves. I could be at a restaurant. If I was waited on by someone, if this person was articulate, knew how to make me feel good about myself, took care of the issues, took responsibility, went out of their way to make the experience a great experience, I had them write their phone number down and I hire them because I can teach them anything. I can’t teach that. It’s just something you can’t teach, to be empathetic, to be creative, to be aware, not just of the people with you or around you, but of yourself, to be self-aware. You can’t teach that to people. I don’t know how you find that online.
There’s a beautiful story that Tony Robbins tells that is exactly the story you told. He tells the story about going to a restaurant and being waited on by an incredible individual who took super care of him and his family. After the meal, he offered the guy a job and said exactly what you said, “It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is you don’t know because I could teach that to you. What I can’t teach you is how you act with other people, how you treat other people, what you are inside.”That so impressed Tony that he hired this guy on the spot.
In terms of bringing people on, one of the things I try to do is I have team members who work with me. In many cases, I never meet them. I’ve worked with them for years and never meet them. I’m looking for a person who is very quick to ask me questions about the things that I say. In an interview, if I’m talking to somebody and I said, “This is what I want you to do.”The last person I hired is a professional writer and she’s going to be churning out two articles a week on a particular topic for me. What I loved about this interview was the questions she asked me. She asked me questions that made me believe that she not only understood what I was doing, but was thinking three steps ahead of what potential problems she might run into. Do you find that that’s helpful in the way you work with people in terms of interviewing them and getting them to work with you?
Yeah, because what that’s signaling to you is that she cares about you. It comes down to a couple of things in the marketplace. You either care or you compare. If you care, it’s the quality of your work. It’s the expectations. It’s how you’re providing value. If it’s compare, it’s “How much are you going to pay me? How long is this going to take? How long are these things?” Those are the questions you’re getting. You realize what people are doing it for. It all comes down to intention. If the intention is, “Be the best I can be at working with Mitch and creating something of value that he can share with his clients,” then that’s what I spend my time talking about. She came across with caring as opposed to comparing.
She focused on my needs and not hers. That was profound. You don’t see that a lot, particularly when you’re interviewing people in a remote circumstance or remote environment. The thing that impresses me about people when I interview them is also the way that they carry themselves. The way that they sound. What I mean is do they sound confident? Do they sound and speak as if they are speaking from a place of experience? Someone could be a good actor and fake it, but not always. What I’m listening for isn’t something you can fake. It’s that sound of certainty about the tasks that they know that they can do.
It’s an interesting dynamic because what you’re listening for simultaneously is you’re listening for confidence, but you’re also listening for a humbleness. You don’t want somebody coming in that thinks they know everything at the same time that they’re being confident. You’re looking for a scientist. Scientists know what they know, but they also know what they don’t know. They’re really humble about that. That’s what you’re looking for.
In the days of old, we’d say the word scientists, today, we call them geeks and programmers. The funny thing about geeks and programmers is that many of them, you might say as a stereotype, don’t have much in the way of social skills. Personally, I’ve never found that to be the truth. I’ve always gotten along great with programmers and technical people maybe because I started out as one. Also, because I relate to the way they think.
They have something to talk about. They’re not making small talk. They were looking to solve problems.
You’re in your second company. This is a startup. You are struggling and building a medical company, no less. What ended up happening? How did you attract the type of clients that you were looking for? I’m assuming the backstory is you came up with an incredible invention, you patented it, and now you’re getting it out to market. How do you get a product like that to market?
This is why I wrote the book, The Business of Belief, because what people don’t realize is that the only thing that drives people’s decisions are some overwhelming desire for something. If you don’t find what that overwhelming desire is or the people that have that desire, you’ve got nothing. There’s nowhere to go. It doesn’t work. You can’t sell in a market place of abundance and confusion. You have to fulfill desire in that marketplace. We happened to find a distributor who is aching for some type of competitive advantage in their area. They were looking for products, something that was unique they could build a story around that could help improve hospital performance. We found that desire. If we had not found that desire, it would never have happened. We bumped into that because we believed in what we were doing, so much so that we were out at every conference, we were exhibiting, we were giving presentations, and that person with that desire, ran into us and said, “I think they’ve got something here.”They did their due diligence, but it was all driven by that desire combined with serendipity. If we weren’t out doing what we were doing, they never would’ve bumped into us.
This is something we talk about on this show a lot is how the universe aligns to bring you the things that you are most focused on and believe, truly, are your destiny and your future. In your case, somebody showed up in your world and brought you exactly what you needed. This is not uncommon. What’s uncommon is to find people who are so committed to their belief that it draws resources to them. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about. When you sincerely believe in your mission and you know that somehow this mission will be completed, you will do whatever it takes to make it happen. I’ve seen it in my own life. I’ve seen it in my friends who are super successful and have drawn to them the right people, the right resources, even without understanding how it happened.
There is no way to fake that. You see people can see that and feel that in you. That’s what turns them on. If you have an actual solution to other people’s problems, and if you feel strongly about that, if you’re compassionate about the people you’re trying to help, there is no stopping you. Nothing can stop you because you become fearless.
You become fearless because you’re driven by something bigger than you. This ties so perfectly into what you said earlier about who really is the star of this show. What your mission, in certain cases could be a benevolent mission like TOMS Shoes, for example. You buy a pair of shoes and they give a free pair to people in need of shoes. Their mission is so focused externally that they are able to generate enough spiritual energy in the world to drive their business forward faster.
It never was about him. It’s about these kids he saw that didn’t have shoes.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you. You are a guy with incredible wisdom and experience. I know people will want to learn from you. What would be the best way someone could either connect with you or connect with your material? Where should they go?
If they go to TheBusinessOfBelief.com, that will land on my website with links to my book, a TED Talk I did with my philosophies about how to appeal to people in the marketplace, and links to other things. There’s also a contact form as well. I answer them all like you do. Why do this if you’re not going to answer people. I always found that interesting way, where people would become so successful that they can’t answer anybody anymore. That doesn’t make sense to me because you and I are in business to try to help people, help them achieve their dreams. If anybody’s interested, contact me. If anything I said didn’t make sense, let me know. If there’s a way I can help, let me know. I like to see passionate people achieve their dreams. That’s what turns me on in life.
Who, in all of space and time, would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
I find so many people fascinating. I watched a documentary about Nietzsche, existentialism, and living your greatest life by realizing your freedom to make choices and decisions and not be constrained by your thoughts of what the other and the external world wants from you. The guy was an absolute genius and madman. To walk in a park with him to try to understand how on fire he was with wanting to see people’s human potential blossom, it gives me chills thinking about it. I would love to be with him in a park and ask him some questions.
Now the grand finale question, and that’s the “change the world” question. This is all about your mission. What is it that you were doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to change the world?
This is going to be a tough one for people to wrap their heads around. I finished a screenplay that I’m hoping is going to be turned into a movie. I wrote a little philosophical book. You can find out about it at a website called IAmKeats.com. I honestly believe that if we can escape the stories that we create in our heads about who we think we are, what our potential is, what the future may look like, if we can escape those stories, that identity that the world has created for us and we can look at ourselves as pure potential while we’re here, nothing would stop people from trying to solve all the problems that we have, because we have a lot of them. Instead of curling up, watching Netflix, sending all these divisive tweets all over the place because their identity feels threatened, if we can get rid of this identity thing that we’re playing, we can get rid of conflict, we can generate new innovations, and we can learn how to make each other happy on this short trip that we’re here in this crazy amusement park that we call life.
That’s a beautiful statement and a beautiful mission. What your mission is the mission of the Buddha. It is the spiritual mission of every spiritual leader that I’ve ever encountered. It is a great mission and one worthy of all of our time and thinking. You’ve been just so valuable to be on this show. I’m glad that you spent your time with me and really shared this with us. I want to thank you because you’re a bright guy and it was great having you as a guest.
I had a lot of fun and the connection was easy because you’ve been there. You’ve seen this. It was great. Thanks.
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