Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

September 11, 2012

Key to business success: Embrace being different

Staff Writer
CNHI

— By Don McNay

CNHI News Service

“I’m older now, but still running against the wind.”

— Bob Seger

I was racing to a church on a hot summer day to watch my wife sing. Wearing a designer suit.

In the parking lot, someone looked at me and said, “Most of the people in the church are wearing shorts and golf shirts.” I responded, “Why would I want to do what everyone else is doing?”

That’s one question that could sum up my philosophy on life.

My key to success is doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

It’s worked so far.

This month marks my 30th anniversary in the financial services industry. No one would have predicted that I would have lasted 30 seconds. I was one course short of a master’s degree in political science and had never taken a business class in my life. I had only lived in the city where I was based for two months.

I’ve never been interested in the trappings of wealth and wanted to do work that made a difference.

I eventually figured out that you could make a difference in the business world. Especially when you own the business.

I took the “personality and suitability test” for the industry seven times and flunked it every time. (Three years later, after I was named to the Million Dollar Round Table, I took it again and still flunked it.)

After the sales manager saw the results of the personality test, he decided to run me off by telling me I had to know everything in the 200-page rate book that life insurance companies used.

I didn’t know I was being run off.

I read the book overnight, got the numbers down cold and the stunned sales manager hired me.

He had me take the personality test two more times and I feel reasonably sure that he took it himself and submitted under my name so that I could be approved by the home office in New York.

The home office had their rules. They wanted us to make a set number of cold calls pitching products to total strangers. They wanted us to hang out at country clubs and suck up to rich people. They had rah-rah pep rallies and encouraged us to use high-pressure tactics to get people to buy something. They wanted to follow detailed scripts and never deviate from their written words.

The personality test said I would not do any of those things. The test was right. I never did.

By doing the opposite of what they preached, I became one of the top producers in the nation.

Just coming out of graduate school at Vanderbilt, I was used to digesting large amounts of information quickly. I threw myself into learning my new career. I racked up professional designations and licenses at a record-breaking pace.

I did things like read the entire U.S. tax code cover to cover. I found niches, like structured settlements for injured people, which required a high degree of expertise.

If I was not going to make sales calls or pressure people into buying stuff, I had to do something where potential clients called me instead of me calling them.

Looking back, I realize that my greatest strength was that I did it “my way.” There was a lot of pressure to fall into line, especially at that young age, but in 30 years I never did.

It’s an interesting American paradox. People with my personality start big companies. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are examples. Once the big companies get started, they never hire that same type of rebellious personality to work there.

The few times I tried conforming, I failed miserably.

I feel sorry for people who are probably free spirits with creative ideas, but get that creativity sucked out of them for the sake of “fitting in.”

A lot of people get sucked up into “keeping up with the Jones.” If they believe, like John F Kennedy, that “history is the final judge of deeds,” they are never going to make it. History tends to celebrate non-conformists, like Thomas More, who battled King Henry VIII, or non-conforming cultural trends, like rock and roll.

I don’t see a lot of biographies of people who played “follow the leader.”

On the other hand, going against popular trends can be tough for the people doing it. Thomas More was beheaded and many of the people who pioneered rock and roll, like the legendary disc jockey Alan Freed, died young and broke.

Sometimes it’s easier to go along with the crowd than to fight it. Others don’t have any desire or interest in breaking ranks. There is a place in the world for them too. In fact, those who follow the crowd are the dominant breed.

Trusting my own instincts has worked for me. I suspect when I check in 30 years from now, I’ll still be running against the wind.

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Don McNay is a columnist for the Richmond (Ky.) Register. Contact him at don@mcnay.com.