Why “Are You Relevant?” is a Must-Read Book – Even if you Don’t Own a Business
Lately in the business news, major companies that were once juggernauts in business – Barnes and Noble, House of Fraser (UK), and Sears (US) – have fallen under hard times. If someone would have said to me back in 2003 that in 15 years, Barnes and Noble would be at risk of going out business, I wouldn’t believe it.
These recent stories reminded me of a book that I’ve read from author Ross Shafer called Are You Relevant?. Although this book was published in 2009, the overall topics are still valid today. The book’s primary audience is business owners, focusing on ways to be successful in owning and operating a business by learning from those businesses who ended up failing because they became complacent with their past sucesses.
So why is a book that’s aimed at business owners a “must read” for managers and employees? A number of points that Mr. Shafer brought up in the book regarding relevancy apply to employees and managers.
Need to keep up with what’s trending in your industry
The best case study in the book about the consequences of not keeping up with the trends is the fall of Kodak. The main reason why they fell is they didn’t keep up with what was trending in photography – the switch from film to digital. They arrogantly believed that it was a “passing fancy”. Keeping up with the industry also applies to your career. Thanks to innovation and culture changes, the vast majority of industries are changing, and if you’re not keeping up-to-date with emerging trends and technologies, you will fall behind and lose your worth.
Need to keep up with what’s going on in other industries
Many people focus on what’s going on in their own industry, which is a good thing, but understanding what’s going on in other industries will help you. Not only could a change in one industry affect your industry, but you may be able to learn about innovations that are happening that can be applied to your own industry. One of the funniest suggestions that I saw in the book for learning about what’s happening in another industry was to sneak into a conference or seminar for the other industry! I’m not sure how easy it is to do today with better attendance tracking, but one thing that is easy to do is to join trade organizations and subscribe to magazines outside of your industry. I would also add subscribing to YouTube channels and podcasts that focus on topics outside of your industry, since the book was published in 2009, and YouTube and podcasts weren’t as widespread as they are now.
One of the things that I’m working on is a way to help bring health and fitness ideas and methods to people with mobility issues and health challenges. There are a few industries that I need to know about the trends in order to be successful:
- I need to keep abreast of the trends in health and fitness. There may be potential viewers who want to do the exercise craze-du-jour, but they don’t know how to do it with their health challenges. Learning about the trends allows me to adapt them so I can show potential viewers how to do it, and in turn, gain more viewers
- I need to know about social media trends. Are people still watching YouTube? Are there other video channels that are getting more eyeballs (like SnapChat and Periscope)? Are blog postings still worth doing? Knowing the trends helps me make good decisions on where to publish my message.
- I need to stay in the loop on healthcare. There are new developments and discoveries happening every day in that field, and many of these developments could apply to my messages, or even affect how I develop my content.
Need to be willing to share information and ideas
I talked about this in my article Why Performing Knowledge Sharing Is Important for Your Career. There is a hesitation with sharing knowledge, because people are afraid that someone else will take their job. There is a point that Mr. Shafer talked about in his book that I didn’t mention in my article – having a culture of sharing ideas. Being able to share ideas freely and with no fear can help you work more efficiently and solve problems quickly.
Thanks to the Internet and YouTube, it’s so much easier to get and share information now than it was 20 years ago. If I want to learn how to bake a gluten-free cake from scratch, I can look it up on YouTube, and there will be a video that someone did with step-by-step directions and a demonstration on baking a cake. 20 years ago, I’d have to either go to the library or the bookstore to find a gluten-free cookbook that has a cake recipe. Conversely, if I want to share a discovery, I can post a blog or a YouTube video that’ll help save others from spending hours of time trying to learn how to do something.
To illustrate how sharing does work – when I was doing SharePoint programming 10 years ago, I posted blog articles and YouTube videos demonstrating tips and techniques for getting the most out of SharePoint. I also made a point to answer questions that people had on the content. It not only helped me get recognized and asked to do seminars, but it also got me a job without applying for it, because one of the people that I regularly helped recommended me to their manager.
If you’re a manager, you need to find ways to keep your direct reports loyal and engaged
Too many managers, executives and business owners have the wrong focus. Yes, the primary objective to a business is to make a profit, but these people don’t understand that the most vital player in helping a business make a profit is the employee. The employee is the company’s best customer, salesperson, and advocate.
If the employee loves coming into work and feels like his or her role is making a difference, that employee will sing the praises of the company to anyone who will listen, including their social media network, and in return, that employee will be a high performance, loyal employee. If the employee hates his or her job, they’re only going to do the bare-minimum that they have to do to not get fired, they’ll spend their time on the clock looking for a new job, and when they finally get that new job, not only will they tell you to kiss their backside as they walk out the door, they’ll go on social media platforms like Glassdoor to talk about how it sucks to work for the company (and you).
There are some really great cases in the book on how companies are keeping their employees engaged and loyal. Here’s a hint – they understand and appreciate the role that employees play in a business success.
The best story in the book is about The Watch Man. That company “got it” on understanding the relationship between employee happiness and a profitable business. The motto “lifetime employee” stood out to me. (Side note: Since the book has been published, the store changed owners, and based on the reviews that I’ve seen customers post lately, unfortunately these new owners may have lost the plot.)
Managers – by taking a cue from the success stories in the book and implementing those techniques in your team, not only will you get a productive and loyal team that’ll make your job easier as a manager, but it’ll get you kudos from your bosses for how well your team is contributing to the business success.
If you’re a manager or executive, you need to listen to the people in the field
Your KPI and revenue reports may give you a big picture of what’s happening in the company, but the people in the field are the ones who reallyknow what’s going on. They see the issues that customers are having, or the inefficiencies of a particular manufacturing process, or a lack of training that’s affecting a service level. Not only can they tell you what’s really going on, they may also have ideas on improving this so you can build customer loyalty, save on operational costs, and improve business. Mr. Shafer encourages business owners to do this throughout the book, and he uses real scenarios to illustrate how well this works. Even more recent examples are Ford Motors, Audi, British Airways, and Amazon.
Ford Motors implemented incentive programs to encourage its employees to build better mousetraps, which has helped improve Ford’s operations AND provided new ideas for the marketplace. Thanks to employees’ suggestions, Audi saved over €100M in operational costs in 2017, and British Airways regularly saves over £600,000 in fuel costs. As for Amazon – guess who came up with the idea of Amazon Prime? Two Amazon non-management staff members.
Listening to the people in the field can help you gain ideas on making your team run more efficiently and effectively, or it could find the next big thing to take the company to the next level.
Need to know how to be a salesperson and marketer of the most important brand out there – you
There is a chapter in the book called “Like It or Not, Everybody Sells”. The chapter talks about how every employee in a company is a salesperson for the company, even if they’re not in the traditional sales role. It even touches upon how many people don’t like the term “salesperson” and don’t view themselves that way.
Although the chapter focuses more on building a business, the concept is true for people who want to grow in their career. If you want that promotion, or if you want that dream job, you need to sell and market yourself. How will people know who you are and what you do if you don’t advertise your brand? I’ve seen too many potential stars who were left on the shelf because they thought that they didn’t need to say anything about themselves because their hard work would be recognized. Despite what some people claim, people aren’t psychic and they can’t read minds. If you don’t advertise the most important company out there – You, Inc. – no one will know what you have to offer. Many of the suggestions in the book – creating relationships, using social media – can be used to help sell and market you to the world.
Need to be willing to NOT rest on your laurels
In the few opening lines of the book, Mr. Shafer wrote about how he interviewed Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, because seven out of the eleven companies featured in Good to Greatwere failing. Two of the main reasons why were complacency and resting on their laurels. These companies thought that they’re so great at what they do they would never fail. This applies to people, too. You may be the rock star manager or employee now, but if you get too cocky and stop evolving because “you’re the best around”, some other rock star manager or employee will take your place in a few years, or if the industry changes but you don’t, you won’t be marketable.
I’ve seen people who have fallen hard in their career because they rested on their laurels on what they were able to do in the past. Here’s an example of this: Around 1998, there was a real fear of infrastructures and computer programs failing when we enter the year 2000. That fear was valid, because businesses and technology makers discovered that their business applications and equipment will not work when the year 2000 hits. Many of these companies were so dependent upon this technology to run their business. Upgrading the business applications was not an option because it was cost-prohibitive. As a result, there was a big demand for programmers who wrote in CoBOL to help fix these programs. Many of my friends were making up to $125/hour (about $195/hour in 2018 money), and they believed that they were going to always be in demand and make this kind of money for the rest of their career. Guess what happened? When the year 2000 came along, and everything was back to normal, by April 2000 companies laid off all of my friends who worked the high-paying gigs. Unfortunately, those same friends struggled with finding work because they found that their skills were not up-to-date, and there wasn’t enough work for CoBOL programmers because these same businesses scaled back on (or completely halted) their CoBOL projects due to the excess spending to make their IT systems Y2K-compliant. Many of them ended up starting all over again because the skills that they had were no longer in demand.
Need to be ABL – Always Be Learning
A number of stories in the book profiling the successful companies had the same message – companies who continue to innovate and learn, even in the best of times, are still powerhouses in the industry today (*cough*Amazon*cough*). This applies to people too. If we don’t continue to learn and innovate, we will be become irrelevant.
It’s not just learning about the latest things in the industry – it could be something completely out of left field that can help give you the advantage over others. Mr. Shafer tells the story about how he used knowledge that he learned from attending a grocery chain conference (At 4:00PM, 42% of customers have no idea what they will be having for dinner that night) to get a restaurant chain client of his to adjust their advertising campaign (start advertising at 3:00PM), and by doing that, the restaurant chain’s sales were up.
Again, the book is a good read, even if you don’t own a business, because there are so many excellent case studies in the book that others have done to stay relevant that you can apply to your career. The book is still available to purchase on Amazon ($7.99 for the Kindle edition), and no, I don’t get any commission from the sales.
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