by Emelie Rutherford

Career: Write a Book! Coin a Phrase! Be a Guru!

Apr 01, 200114 mins

The Nasdaq is falling, and the dotcoms are failing, but the guru business is booming. n The echoes of their punditry are everywhere. We read their pearls in business magazines (including CIO). We listen to their wisdom in our conference halls. We sit enthralled in the privacy of our own corporate boardrooms. We business folk eat this stuff up, and it’s no mystery why. Business is scary. It’s always been scary, but these days it’s scarier than ever. Between dotcoms and Dilbert, managers are being downsized, rightsized, transferred and transported out of their sinecures. Those of us who survive are inundated by calls from our bosses to embrace whatever the higher-ups think will save their bacon that day–whether it’s TQM, ERP, CRM or SCM.

We’re also besieged from below by staffers demanding that we DO SOMETHING to keep our increasingly egalitarian workplaces happy, happy, happy!

At the same time, there are evermore young turks out there ready to snatch our jobs. The United States produced more than 75,000 MBAs in 1996 (15 times the number churned out in 1960).

So, looking for some port in the storm, workplace warriors spend lots of money–$750 million a year in the United States–on books like The Change Masters (Rosabeth Moss Kanter) and Managing in a Time of Great Change (Peter Drucker). Of course, buying these tomes is easy, but who has time to read them? Fuhgeddaboutit. So we shell out fortunes to go to conferences to bring these pundits to our organizations for a little personal, customized, hands-on attention.

And the bigger we are the more we spend. Companies with sales from $10 million to $10 billion spend around 0.2 percent of their revenues on outside advice, and companies with sales that top $25 billion fork over a whole 0.3 percent, according to the Kennedy Information Research Group, a consulting and research shop based in Fitzwilliam, N.H. Brian Sommer, CEO of IQ4hire, a Chicago-based consultant placement service, estimates that the annual global price tag for punditry of all sorts comes to $20 billion.

That’s a lot of money going to a relatively small industry, and, rest assured, the gurus know how to spend it. Tom Peters, a leading management speaker, trainer, consultant and best-selling author of In Search of Excellence, owns an 11-building farm in Vermont, complete with a swimming pond and a sap house for making maple syrup. Ethernet inventor, 3Com founder and venture partner at Waltham, Mass.-based Polaris Venture Partners Bob Metcalfe runs a farm in Lincolnville, Maine, that breeds endangered livestock. Anthony Robbins, the business-motivational pundit, owns an 8,000-square-foot house, known as Del Mar Castle, in San Diego and a resort in Fiji. Edward de Bono, a prolific writer and lecturer on creative thinking, hosts seminars on his private island off the coast of Italy, near the lovely city of Venice.

These well-sunned sages don’t have to integrate Web and legacy systems, and they don’t do data modeling. Not one of them submits a budget to some gimlet-eyed CFO, and none of them spend any time trying to figure out how to retain some mumbling Java whiz kid who just received a job offer promising to triple his salary while letting him work out of his bathtub.

It’s great work being a guru. If you can get it. The question is, How do you get it?

Write A Book.

Only a select few gurus such as Vinton Cerf, who coinvented the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet, can achieve guruhood without having written at least one book. Hmmm. Writing a book. Sounds hard, right? Don’t worry. There are short cuts.

For starters, don’t worry about your qualifications. If you have any experience managing an IT department, a project or even one single, solitary person, you have more hands-on experience than, say, Michael Porter, author of the best-selling Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage. Porter, who founded Monitor, the Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting business, started as an academic and has still never managed anyone.

OK, what should you write about? Hot topics include: strategy, creativity, innovation, learning, managing change, managing people. It’s best to combine several of these topics, such as Managing People for Change or Learning About Innovation in a Time of Change. If you hit all of them, you win. For example, Learning the Creative Strategy for Managing Innovative People in Changing Times is a best-seller waiting to be written.

All you really need to write a book is one of these topics and some dough for a ghostwriter. Oh sure, these writers-for-hire would love you to have a fleshed-out concept or even some prose in need of editing, but some of the biggest undercover scribes have crafted 300-plus page management bibles out of little more than a title. Ted Kinni, a successful Williamsburg, Va.-based ghost (who won’t divulge his clients’ names), says he’s pulled books together out of old PowerPoint presentations, crumpled memos and scribbled notes.

Tip: Include as many matrixes and diagrams in your book as possible, as Geoffrey Moore does throughout The Gorilla Game. They reproduce nicely in PowerPoint slides and will save you time preparing your presentations.

Name It Right.

Without a snappy title, the other 2,000 new business books that appear on U.S. newsstands each year may overshadow your masterpiece. You need a title that your audience will remember. (Just look at what did for the visibility of e-business consultant Patricia Seybold.)

We businesspeople like to think of ourselves as locked in a Darwinian struggle for survival, so titles that refer to evolution or ecology do well. These books have all spent time on best-seller lists or received accolades from the press: The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems (James F. Moore); Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment (Thomas H. Davenport, a CIO contributor); Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World (Kevin Kelly); The Alchemy of Growth: Practical Insights for Building the Enduring Enterprise (Merhdad Baghai); and The Biology of Business: Decoding the Natural Laws of Enterprise (John Henry Clippinger III).

Tip: Consider using the word manifesto in your title, as Christopher Locke and crew did in The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual, Guy Kawasaki in Rules for Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services, and Michael Hammer and James Champy in Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. Calling your book a manifesto may make people think you’re leading…a revolution! (Something we seem to like in business but not in Third World nations.)

And you can’t go wrong by coming right out and declaring the revolution, as Gary Hamel did in Leading the Revolution, Kawasaki did in Rules for Revolutionaries (Kawasaki gets an additional point for the word manifesto) and Peters did in Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution.

And remember: Nothing motivates like fear. See: World of Risk: Next Generation Strategy for a Volatile Era (Mark Haynes Daniell); Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy (Philip Evans, Thomas S. Wurster); Living on the Fault Line: Managing for Shareholder Value in the Age of the Internet (Moore); and Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition (Jack Trout, Steve Rivkin).

Make Up Words.

By inventing words, your ideas will seem fresh whether they are or not. Examples include:

  • Co-opetition–“a revolutionary mind-set that redefines competition and cooperation,” created by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff in their 1997 book, Co-opetition.
  • Hypercompetition–what Richard A. D’Aveni and Robert Gunther call “managing the dynamics of strategic maneuvering” in their 1994 book by the same name.
  • Delayering–what Doede Keuning and Wilfrid Opheij advocate readers of their 1996 Delayering Organizations do to beat corporate bureaucracy.
  • Turbo-capitalism–the name of a 1999 book by consultant Edward Luttwak that predicts the disastrous consequences of a free market.
  • Webolution–what futurist Frank Feather thinks is happening to consumer shopping habits.
  • Cybercorp–the name of the 1996 book by James Martin about incorporating the Internet into corporate culture.
  • Transcompetition–a management model that combines collaboration with competition proposed by authors Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley in 1998’s Transcompetition.

Tip: Simply sticking “e” or “i” in front of a word doesn’t count.

Get Busy.

While being a guru may seem to be a relatively easy gig (compared with, say, working), it does require you to spread yourself pretty broadly. The more you do, the more you’re known for. The more you’re known for, the more opportunities you have for becoming even better known.

Once you have that book under your belt, it behooves you to branch into the lucrative arenas of audio cassettes, video cassettes, newsletters, diaries, calendars, training programs, seminars, speaking engagements, more books, freelance articles and (if you so choose) consulting.

There are a plethora of gurus to emulate. Hamel, coauthor of the landmark book Competing for the Future, for example, started a consultancy called Strategos to make up for the fact that there’s only one of him. His cohorts carry out his business philosophies in their consulting, research and training stints, and through the products they hawk, such as a groupware application called Team Opportunity Generation Application and a tool called Portfolio Management Dashboard, which helps users “manage the innovation pipeline.” This frees Hamel to pursue other endeavors, such as writing books and articles, as well as teaching strategy and international management at the London Business School.

Similarly, Don Tapscott, author of the best-sellers The Digital Economy and Growing Up Digital, presides over New Paradigm Learning Corp., essentially an organization focused on promoting and organizing workshops with…Don Tapscott. He also chairs Digital 4Sight, a Toronto-based consultancy and think tank. In between his many speaking engagements, he writes a monthly column for The Industry Standard (a sister company to CXO Media).

All of this is well and good, but best is turning your name into a brand. There are Stephen Covey binders and planners, the (George) Gilder Technology Report monthly newsletter and the Tom Peters seminars. These guys “get it.”

Be Outrageous.

Obviously, if you want to be heard, you have to make noise. Again, there are many models.

Take Mike Vance, the creative-thinking guru who coined the phrase “out of the box.” A Vance speaking engagement is one-part stand-up comedy routine (think George Carlin crossed with the late Sam Kinison) and one-part lecture. Vance leverages his days with Walt Disney to insist that managers fill their offices with the sound of music and plenty of toys. He instructs them to identify and squelch the “pissing and moaning” that stifles creativity. (In his talks, Vance, like old Uncle Walt himself, makes liberal use of colorful language–a sure attention-getter.)

Another man to emulate is Covey. He hosts executives at the Covey Leadership Center, a ranch near Salt Lake City, where they rescue each other from staged mishaps and watch footage of the Berlin Wall crumbling. That’ll get anyone’s attention.

Stanley Bing, Fortune columnist, television executive and author of the satirical business book What Would Machiavelli Do?, tells readers on his book’s dust jacket: “So start reading. Or get out of here. You’re beginning to get on our nerves.” Insulting readers. How’s that for chutzpah?

Or you could go all out and go the Tom Peters route. Peters posed for the cover of his 1994 book, The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations, in pink boxer shorts.

Make Good Friends.

Famous customers will help advance your career as much as outrageous antics.

It didn’t hurt Covey that former President Bill Clinton was among his biggest fans. Newt Gingrich, the former republican majority leader, regularly quoted Peter Drucker (which probably did more for Gingrich than it did for Drucker). Former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. invited Alvin Toffler, renowned futurist and author of Future Shock, to dine at the White House. Tennis star Andre Agassi turns to Anthony Robbins for guidance, as did Princess Di.

The thinking seems to be: If Anthony Robbins is smart enough to advise and inspire a grinning, bald-headed tennis player who married (briefly) Brooke Shields, then he must be just the thing for me and my company.

Make ’em pay.

Like silver cufflinks from Tiffany’s, gurus are often distinguished by their price tags. The more money you charge, the more seriously you’re taken.

And you can charge a lot. According to Danny Stern, president of the Bridgewater, N.J.-based Leigh Bureau for speakers, corporate customers are willing to pay today’s hottest cybervisionaries, such as Don Tapscott or the MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte, up to six figures per speech.

Tapscott and Negroponte’s secret? “They tell [the audience] things they don’t want to hear,” says Stern.

Telling people what they don’t want to hear flatters them by suggesting that they are so secure that they don’t need to be flattered.

So bone up on your telling-people-what-they-don’t-want-to-hear skills. This is not a difficult task given the fact that what most people want to hear is that they’re doing everything right, which they’re obviously not or why would they have hired you in the first place?

And give yourself a high price tag that’ll make people browsing speaker listings think that you stock a better, stronger medicine than cheaper listees.

Live long and prosper.

In the East, age is revered. In business too. At least when it comes to gurus. Drucker, the guru of gurus, is 91. The chances of him heedlessly hopping on any kind of new economy bandwagon seem as slim as the chances of Drucker hopping, period. In a crowded field of Johnny-come-latelies, there’s comfort in Drucker’s wrinkles.

Live a clean life (like Covey, who is pushing 70 and neither smokes nor drinks), run almost every day (as does the 61-year-old Gilder), steer clear of those dessert tables at conferences, and, like Drucker, you too can one day, well after your heyday, be a sought-after cover model for top business magazines. (Last August, Drucker’s grimace graced the cover of Business 2.0, proclaiming that the new economy had yet to arrive. When it does, rest assured, Drucker will be there to greet it.)

Be Humble.

While you’re busy growing old, remember that humility will help you as much as those leafy greens. When Ethernet inventor Metcalfe was criticized for erroneously predicting in a December 1995 InfoWorld column that the Internet would collapse under its own weight, he ate his own words, literally putting them into a blender and swallowing the resultant swill at the International World Wide Web Conference in 1997. The audience seemed to appreciate the gesture, and Metcalfe is as popular as ever. He even published a book last year titled Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry. Now that’s humble.

More than a few of the aforementioned pundits aren’t afraid to put down their professions. Drucker has said that people use the word guru because charlatan is too long. Peters told Management Today that he writes a new book when he is “disgusted and embarrassed” by its best-selling predecessor. Warren Bennis–best-selling author of 26 books, distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School, founding chairman of USC’s Leadership Institute, consultant to countless multinational companies, and adviser to four presidents and several governments–has said that he admires his more flamboyant guru kin but could never be one because he doesn’t have the necessary drive.

Imagine what he could accomplish with just a little get-up-and-go.

Keep On Keeping On.

“I could never be a guru,” you say. “I think and speak too clearly. I’d be embarrassed to charge all that money just to talk to people. I’m too young. I work for a living.” Well, keep thinking like that and you won’t be. But all of those objections are surmountable with the teeniest bit of effort and just the slightest loss of moral conscience.

Now, repeat after us: “The maximum payback can be achieved by leveraging the totality of an organization’s will to win as represented by each and every individual within the system’s biometric ecology.

“And if you don’t think so, get out of here. I’ve got no time for losers.”

Good luck.