Adding new skills to your quiver enables painless reinvention.

That’s what Alyson points out so well in the article, The Case For Embracing Lateral Career Moves, published by FastCompany.

If you assume, as so many do, that exponential or total change of your skill set is required, then the prospect of reinvention is daunting. During the worst of the recent great recession, many who lost their jobs appeared to be like a deer in headlights, because they didn’t understand those possibilities. If, however, you understand that reinvention can be incremental, by changing perhaps a few skills, with the result that a new skill set is created, then the prospect seems more readily achievable. There are numerous people who have done just that.

In my book Invent Reinvent Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2014), I relate some of their stories and explain why such reinvention is critical and how incremental reinvention is readily achievable. The stories include (i) a soldier, who became a businessman, then a venture capitalist and a philanthropist and ultimately the Mayor of Jerusalem; (ii) a grocer who understood retail but not the office products industry but who sharpened a few skills to fit that industry and founded Staples; (iii) a solo practicing physician who ultimately became the president of the largest group of physicians in Illinois; (iv) a man who considers himself a failure in school, who first toyed with using computers in his father’s car dealership, who then tried his hand at selling computers and related products that he obtained at reasonable cost from others who didn’t know what to do with such inventory, finally founding CDW which he sold for billions.

As Alyson points out in her article, it doesn’t matter whether you adjust your skills through multiple jobs at different employers or by lateral shifts within the same company. Either way, refining your skill set by refining or changing just a few skills generally is sufficient to achieve a meaningful reinvention.

Reinventing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Someone recently said to me, “the concept of reinvention of you or your business is fine in certain occupations, industries and businesses, but it could not be applied across the board.” I strongly disagreed and for a somewhat ironic example, took the title of John le Carre’s famous book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and applied reinvention to each of those businesses.

In my recent book, In my book Invent Reinvent Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2014), I tell the story of Sam Popiel and his famous invention, the Pocket Fisherman. Sam was on one of his excursions to a practice fishing farm, where he would tinker with his invention until he solved the pending problem. That day he also tinkered with the price that he would charge for the Pocket Fisherman. As a result, he brought millions of additional dollars to the bottom line. The methodology for reinventing his business through this tinkering process is a fascinating, fun-filled story.

Tom Stemberg, the founder of staples and subsequently a venture capitalist who has invested in companies such as Lululemon and a chain of cleaning stores. While those businesses were more like tailors, the best stories of Tom’s career relate to Staples and especially his use of good homework to overcome naysayers.

One of the people I interviewed for my book was Nir Barkat, currently the mayor of Jerusalem but previously an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Prior to all of that Nir was a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. The story — how he was wounded as his commanding officer, standing next to Nir, was killed during military activities — is an exciting read. More important is how Nir took the lessons from the military training and activities and applied them to every phase of his continually reinvented life. He is proof that a soldiers reinvention of himself and later in his businesses can be a remarkably successful and profitable journey.

I was fascinated to read, earlier this year, of a soldier reinventing himself as an entrepreneur as a result of reading my earlier book, Entrepreneurs Are Made Not Born. Civilian Warriors, is a book written by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, a private company that conducted military operations in Iraq. In it, Erik said that Entrepreneurs Are Made Not Born inspired his own entrepreneurship.

Recent news events show that the spy agencies, from the CIA to the NSA, are constantly being reinvented. I do not have any personal knowledge about the spy business. Besides, even if I did and told you, I would have to kill you. 🙂


A Place In-between, Commentary by Lloyd Shefsky

Brigid Sweeney, in her insightful article, “Please Don’t Call Them Stores: Modern Retailers Aim to be Hangouts,” appearing in Crain’s Chicago Business, provides local examples of how retailers are focusing on providing “a place in-between” and customer entertainment, such as including experiential happenings.

Nowhere is the importance of a place in-between laid out more clearly than in the story of Starbucks, both at its inception and later, during its reinvention in 2008. Even when I first met Howard Schultz and interviewed him for my first book, Entrepreneurs Are Made Not Born, I referred to Starbucks as a club, much like the bar on “Cheers,” where the opening song proclaimed “a place where everybody knows your name,” reminiscent of the way Starbucks taught baristas to know frequent customers’ names and even their favorite beverages. In my latest book Invent Reinvent Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2014) I explain how Howard’s clear understanding of that essence of the business (what he refers to as “the company’s soul”) enabled him to avoid the near catastrophe in 2008.

Similarly, in Invent Reinvent Thrive, I tell the stories of Jim Sinegal, founder Costco, and Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear, both of whom believed in customer entertainment and experiential events in their retail businesses, much as those mentioned in Brigid Sweeney ‘s article.

As I said in Invent Reinvent Thrive, “Jim Sinegal decided he’d better reinvent Costco, at least partially from time to time, lest his stores…become uninteresting. He decided to add new items periodically. He constantly reminded himself and his colleagues, ‘There’s no annuity [here]. You’ve got to continually add stuff that’s new and exciting. Otherwise you become boring.’” Likewise, I quote Maxine Clark in Invent Reinvent Thrive: “At the May Company, she was fortunate enough to make a presentation to Stanley Goodman, May’s chairman. He told her that ‘retailing is entertainment and the store is a stage. When the customers have fun, they spend more money.’ His words made an indelible impression on Maxine.”

Brigid is right on!

Family Business Success: What’s the Real Inheritance

Years ago, I wrote Entrepreneurs Are Made Not Born, a best-selling book now in eight languages. There I found that nurture was a far greater factor than nature. My new book, Invent Reinvent Thrive (McGraw-Hill, 2014), deals with both entrepreneurs and family businesses. Most people would say successful family businesses, those that make it successfully into the third generation, beating 9:1 odds, should thank their gene pool. After all, they’d say, they wouldn’t have inherited the business if they hadn’t had the right genes. I agree that inheritance is inherently different than starting your own business. So clearly, succession to family businesses are due to nature, but successors to leadership of successful family businesses may owe as much to nurture as to nature. Most entrepreneurs must search the world for role models, that search in itself being an entrepreneurial quest. Family business successors are dealt their business role models at birth, but how the family deck is shuffled and re-dealt has an extraordinary effect. For most, the deck they inherit is tempered or leveraged by lifetime, or even daily influences by parents, grandparents, etc. Here I’d like to explore how and where ancestors transfer their most important legacy, the values and principles that make up the infrastructure of their family’s enterprise. The common allegories tell us that such principles are obtained: by visiting the office or factory on vacations or weekends; at the dinner table (every day or on holidays); and attending business dinners or events. What really happens in each of those places and experiences? Is it formal lessons, observing the ancestors, or experiencing under the ancestor’s wing? How important are stories, and does it matter when (e.g. when the next generation is young and impressionable) or where (office, dinner table, etc.) the stories are passed along?

The point of this blog post is that when it comes to ancestral family business stories, what matters most is how they are communicated. Many different times and places can work, but the nature of the transmission often is what has the greatest impact—positive or negative. Moreover, how stories are communicated depends heavily on the nature of the family, its business, and specific circumstances. That’s what’s suggested by the examples below, taken from by book Invent Reinvent Thrive.

Col. Henry Crown founded the vastly successful Material Service Corp. with his brothers after World War I. His son, Lester, used to bring his two sons, Steve and James, with him to the office on Saturday mornings. Usually he sent them down the hall to the colonel’s office to spend time with their grandpa. Henry was a great storyteller, with extraordinary stories to share, including how he came to secure the Empire State building for his portfolio and why he failed to acquire the land where the U.N. now sits. The principles inherent in those stories, including those relating to strategy, philanthropy, and Judaism-based values, are still part of the company’s compass. James, the firm’s current leader, remembers the stories well, as does his brother, Steve, and they continue to share them with the next generation.

Tom Pritzker – of the Chicago family that owns Hyatt hotels and many other assets – heard stories from his father, Jay, and his grandfather, A.N. The most impactful may well have been those told after Tom had come to work at the company. He and others in his generation learned about business, investment, and structure at home but Tom’s most important lessons were those experienced at the office. He watched how Jay and A.N. treated non-family founders and CEOs of the businesses the Pritzkers invested in and controlled, with an emphasis on A.N.’s legacy of integrity, reputation, and fairness. Such observations were reinforced by explanations and concrete lessons from Dad and Grandpa. This on-the-job learning became an important way to transmit the Pritzker family values and culture.

Unfortunately, fellow third-generation member and successful venture capitalist, J.B. Pritzker lost his father, Don, before the elder Pritzker could communicate many stories. Grandfather A.N. and uncles Jay and Bob tried to help, but they were in Chicago, over 2000 miles from J.B.’s California home. So when J.B was old enough, he talked with his parents’ friends and pieced together what he could, suggesting that it’s usually not too late to learn from family lore and that family lore can be transmitted by non-family.

From an early age, Linda Johnson Rice sat at the dinner table with her parents —John Johnson and his wife Eunice, who in the 1940s founded Ebony and Jet, the first magazines targeted at African Americans. The magazines and subsequent Johnson holdings, including cosmetics and travel products, were highly successful, and among the Johnsons’ dinner guests were high-profile people from the business, political, social, and entertainment worlds. That meant Linda learned, at the table, how to deal with people of fame and power, as well as the importance of diversity and collaboration. She also worked, first part-time and later full-time, and observed how her father handled complicated and sensitive business matters. He was also a communicative father/manager. She gained insight into why he wanted things done, and he was able to watch her and gain comfort that she understood and could accede to her father’s wishes. He also knew that she had the wisdom and judgment to do things differently than he would, in ways more consistent with and necessary in the “new world.” He made clear to her, in his own way, that she was authorized to do so, and he paved the way with key employees to better enable Linda to lead the company. His style was nurturing to the nth degree.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson, like Linda Johnson Rice, learned from both the dinner table and her time at her family’s business, which often intersected, such as the lessons she learned from father (founder Curt) at Sunday dinner at Carlson’s hotel restaurants. He regaled family with stories of his autocratic style, but seemingly contradicted those with his urging his family to vote on particular family expenditures. He clearly communicated to Marilyn that his goal of creating a business that would last 100 years would and should take precedence over his style choices. What Marilyn learned was especially important when she took over leadership of the family’s business’s —including Radisson hotels, TGI Friday’s restaurants, and Carlson Wagonlit Travel —in 1998, one year before Curt’s death.

The second-generation Bronfmans, Charles and Edgar, became co-chairmen of Seagrams— producer of spirits and other consumer products—after their father Samuel’s death because those were Sam’s orders. But the non-communicative relationships among Samuel, Edgar, and Charles, left little space for the transmission of stories and values, and the second generation was particularly resistant to their father’s style, as they had seen it lead to multiple outbursts and estrangement from others. This history contributed to a particular absence of lesson-teaching on Edgar’s side, with disastrous results. His son Edgar Jr. incurred a multibillion-dollar loss for the family when he sold Seagram to Vivendi, an act that is directly related to Sam’s failure to communicate properly with his sons, as I explain in Invent Reinvent Thrive.

As the examples here suggest, ancestral family business stories are important vehicles for communicating principles, values, and practices across generations. But where and when they are transmitted—whether at the dinner table or in the conference room, whether during childhood or much later—is much less important than how it is done: with a priority on communicating them in the first place and, ideally, doing so in a supportive, constructive manner. Lastly, the use of stories- – from earlier days or even as lessons from concurrent events- – can be powerful.

Describers and Demonstrators: How Great Business Leaders Communicate Their Visions (Part 2 of 2)

In my last blog I discussed “Describers,” or entrepreneurs who are able to sell their visions to investors and others by describing what they see in great detail, using words and graphics. That is, they convince people to invest by describing the picture on the puzzle-box cover, without assembling any of the puzzle. Some entrepreneurs choose not even to try articulating the vision and opt instead to demonstrate it—whether that’s their natural preference or tendency, or because a description isn’t sufficient to paint the vision clearly.

Image: Leonardo da Vinci; Musée du Louvre; Clementoni Products

I call this type of entrepreneur a “Demonstrator” (but not the kind holding a protest sign!). Here I present two examples of consummate Demonstrators, using examples from my book, Invent, Reinvent, Thrive (McGraw-Hill, 2014).

Maxine Clark

Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop, is an excellent Demonstrator. Executive stints at May Company and Payless Shoes (where she was president) helped fuel her vision of a store offering a “stuff-your-own-bear experiences.” But the manufacturers she approached initially about the idea didn’t get it; they couldn’t see the fully assembled jigsaw puzzle—an experiential entertainment venue, not a mere toy store—as she did so it wouldn’t make sense asking them to invest. (This was symptomatic of my old saying, “If you’re not up on it, then you must be down on it.”) In fact, the only people who consistently understood Maxine’s idea were children, who could invest only with their hearts, not their piggy banks. Rather than trying to force suppliers, investors, and others to believe her, Clark decided to assemble the puzzle herself. She funded her first Build-a-Bear store in St. Louis out of her savings. (She could afford to do that; many can’t.) Despite friends’ warnings to “start small,” she built the store the way she envisioned it, with ample space for customers to explore and interact. An angel investor came to see the first store immediately after it opened and on the spot offered to back the business’s expansion. Today there are over 400 Build-a-Bear stores worldwide.

James Freeman

James Freeman had a passion for coffee; it motivated him to found Blue Bottle Coffee. Much like Maxine Clark, James’s vision involved process, the experiential element. He had a special way of preparing the coffee–one cup at a time. In his case, the completed puzzle was the coffee quality resulting from the unique brewing process, rather than the atmosphere that Starbucks offered. He had to overcome doubt that customers would be willing to wait an extra few minutes for an individually brewed coffee. Rather than just talking about it or asking focus groups what they thought, Freeman demonstrated his idea would work by offering the fresh-roast coffee at farmers’ markets. It was a big hit there, but customers strolling through farmers markets aren’t as time-sensitive as commuters. With his own meager funds, James opened a small coffee kiosk in a smelly San Francisco alley; the outlet grew quickly in popularity, including with commuters, proving what he couldn’t with words alone. Having proven the concept, Freeman later opened more stores in San Francisco and New York, where they continue to succeed today.


Of course, many entrepreneurs, including those profiled here, are good at both describing and demonstrating. As I explain in Invent Reinvent Thrive, some business ideas lend themselves better to one approach or the other. But the bigger point is to understand the value of each way of sharing a vision, and to harness describing and demonstrating in service of your own ideas, however big or small they may be.

Family Business Letting Go (3 of 3 Part Blog Series for E&Y)

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Family Business Letting Go“, is the final installment of a 3-part author inspired series, published for the Ernst & Young Family Business Center blog, posted on Sept. 1, 2014.

The “Ghost on the Wall” Theory of Family Control (2 of 3 Part Blog Series for E&Y)

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‘The “ghost on the wall” theory of family control,’ is Lloyd Shefsky’s 2nd installment of a 3-part author inspired series, published on the Ernst & Young Family Business Center blog, Aug. 25, 2014.

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A Grave Matter for Family Businesses (1 of 3 Part Blog Series for E&Y)

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Ernst & Young Family Business Center publishes a 3-part blog series inspired by the book’s author, Lloyd Shefsky. The first installment of the 3-part series, A Grave Matter for Family Businesses, initially appeared on Aug. 18, 2014.


The Mortgaged Future of the U.S.

In the article, “Don’t Blame Age for Declining U.S. Entrepreneurship,” Ben Casselman makes important observations: Overall U.S. entrepreneurship is declining and the average age of existing companies is getting older. He seems to believe that with the millennials turning 40 fairly soon, the recent trend will reverse itself. I beg to differ.

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Article inspired by Invent Reinvent Thrive

In Invent Reinvent Thrive, I talk about several different family businesses, and how they faced and overcame certain challenges as the business passed from generation to generation. In this week’s Becker Spine Review, writer Laura Dyrda took her inspiration from the book to cover three family medical practices facing change at a time of business turnover. Continue reading