In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Steve McKee. He is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork, a nationally recognized marketing advisory firm that made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America in its first year of eligibility and has twice won the prestigious Effie Award for marketing effectiveness from the American Marketing Association.
Steve’s new book TURNS: Where Business Is Won and Lost, takes a deep dive into the physical, historical, and metaphorical nature of turns and can help you make better decisions.
Every decision made in business is a turn that has the potential to impact the trajectory of the organization. Whether it is a big decision or a small one, it can change the direction of our business and is crucial to reflect on past turns/decisions and learn from them. Steve emphasizes that recognizing and embracing the turns is essential for success in business, and learning to navigate them can provide a competitive advantage. Finally, it’s important to be adaptable and learn from hindsight to make better decisions in the future.
Questions I ask Steve McKee:
- [01:36] What is a turn in business?
- [02:15] What’s a typical day of turns for an entrepreneur?
- [03:25] How do we recognize what things we should decide about?
- [04:27] How much is hindsight a role in analyzing?
- [05:39] How much does business mentality get in the way of intuition and in opportunities that arise?
- [11:35] How does the metaphor “but the fork in the road” for businesses, how does that play out as a turn?
- [12:58] You mentioned eight principles, give us a flavor for what they are, and most importantly, how we apply them.
- [17:07] What role does regret have in understanding turns?
- [19:41] What is the best turn you ever made?
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(00:57): Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsh, and my guest today is Steve McKee. He is the co-founder of McKee Walworth, a nationally recognized marketing advisory firm that has made the Inc 500 list of the fastest growing private companies in America and its first year of eligibility and has twice won the prestigious Effy Award for marketing effectiveness for the American Marketing Association. We're gonna talk today about his new book called Turns, where Business is Won and Lost. So Steve, welcome to the show.
Steve McKee (01:30): Great to be here. Thanks, John.
John Jantsch (01:32): So I guess we need to define what you mean by turns. I mean, what is a turn in business?
Steve McKee (01:38): The, it's, that's a really great place to start it. The original concept for the book started as a book about turnarounds, corporate turnarounds. Mm-hmm.
(01:46): And I just got very intrigued with that whole metaphor of the turn. And so it certainly includes big turns, like a corporate sweeping corporate turnaround, but little turns as well. The decisions that we make every day in business, either intentionally or that are foisted upon us that change the destiny
John Jantsch (02:09): So I, I think it's like a lot of those things that, that you don't know they're happening while they're happening all day long. Right. So, I mean, what's a typical day of turns, you know, look like for an entrepreneur?
Steve McKee (02:19): It's really remarkable. I start in the book with, I, I kind of get pretty, pretty narrow about it. Just the simple fact that the route you take to work in the morning could affect your whole day, could affect your whole life. The what you decide to have for breakfast, I mean, there are little decisions we make, little turns, if you will, that can have a big impact. In the day of an entrepreneur. Really any decision you make is a turn, because by definition a turn is when you're heading one direction and you're no longer heading that direction, you're heading a different direction. So it could be a sweeping turn, like a new product launch or, you know, refocusing your company, or it could be a minor turn like, uh, or a less sweeping turn like who you hire or who you fire or how you price your products. Really, literally, every day we're making decisions that are turning our organizations, and as I said, our careers, whether we realize it or not.
John Jantsch (03:11): So I can almost start to think of if people start realizing, you know, it's like breathing. We don't realize we're breathing all day. Right. And then somebody tells us, you should pay attention to your breath. And you're like, wow, I do this thing. You know, we can only do it for about two minutes. Right. But I can imagine people starting to say, oh, well, if I start to look at every decision I make and like start to analyze it, I mean, I'm gonna be exhausted by like 9:00 AM Right? I mean, so, so how, I mean, how do we take this like, okay, recognition, this is happening, there's these decisions making, I mean, how do we decide Yeah.
Steve McKee (03:47): Yeah. I, the best analogy I've come up with this, it's like driver's ed, I don't know if you remember back when you were taking driver's ed, however you took that, when you're trying to keep the car between the yellow lines as a new driver and you're swerving back, it's, and your hands hurt and your arms hurt and you're panicked and the whole thing. Yeah. Once you learn the principles of driving, you can almost forget about it and it's muscle memory. Yeah. This book, there are eight principles of turns and it's meant to be a reflection on those things so that you can think about the turns in the past and the turns in the present, of course the turns in the future and how they work and the ramifications. But then yes, you have to sort of let whatever sinks in, sync in and then go about your day.
John Jantsch (04:27): What role does hindsight
Steve McKee (04:54): It's how we learn honestly. Right? Yeah. One of the, of course I go into the example of auto racing in the book, and if you're on an oval racing in IndyCar or a nascar, how you took the last turn is gonna affect how you take the next turn because of the conditions of the track and the wind and the, and so forth. And the same is true in business, the physics of it, right?
John Jantsch (05:39): All right. So I've got my three year plan and it's mapped out exactly what's gonna happen, you know, 36 months from now where our revenue's gonna be and this is a plan and we're sticking to it. I mean, how much does that sort of mentality in business get in the way of intuition turns and opportunity that arises or the opposite of that have just lost a focus? Because I'm willing to take anything that looks like a new direction.
Steve McKee (06:03): Yeah, it's that delicate balance in life. One of the things I've said about this book is we tend to think of life as a series of straightaways interrupted by occasional turns.
John Jantsch (06:09): Mm-hmm.
Steve McKee (06:10): And I actually believe that life is a series of turns interrupted by occasional smooth stretches of road. So we have our five year plans. Just as when I left the house this morning, I had the route I was gonna take to work in mind, but when I came across a closed road, which literally happened this morning, I had to adjust. And I think there's a balance there. What is it? Eisenhower said, plans are nothing but planning is everything. Yeah. We have to have the plans, but we also have to recognize that they're not gonna happen e exactly as we laid them out. And how we navigate those turns can make all the difference. That's why the subhead is where business is won and lost. You don't win or lose typically on the straightaways. You learn when things are dynamic and changing. You have to outmaneuver your competitors, you have to make sure you don't run off the road, all those sorts of analogies.
John Jantsch (06:56): Do you find that, that if somebody embraces kind of this idea that they will actually find themselves avoiding turns or maybe looking for turns as opportunities in a heightened way?
Steve McKee (07:07): I think probably the latter, honestly, because the exciting thing about the more we learn about turns is the more confident we are in taking them and making them, I don't see a desire to avoid turns because really the lesson of the book is too bad,
John Jantsch (07:45):
Steve McKee (08:08): I spoke to the roadway engineer who literally wrote the book on roadway turns and he educated me. It was, it's, it is really remarkable what goes into that. And he says that what engineers reali recognize that it's better to have a number of shorter turns in a row for a driver than to have straightaway and then interrupted by a big turn. Because we get conditioned if thing, if the road is turning regularly, we get conditioned to it turning in. So we're more ready and able to do it. Yeah. Yeah. So that too, if you are on a long straightaway, well that's when you put on the cruise control, that's when you fall asleep and up comes a turn and you can run right off the road. Whereas if things are continually turning, you're alert to it. We talk in our business a lot about turns in business and that, you know, like the tech industry turns so fast, uh, I wouldn't wanna be in it, give me an answer, but at least tech are aware of that. Yeah. Whereas in, in other industries that turn more slowly, what we see in our consulting practice is that there are companies that are being run off the road and they don't even realize it until it's too late. Yeah. Because they think that everything's just gonna continue the way that it has in the past.
John Jantsch (09:10): Yeah. And to some degree, even if they see the writing on the wall, they kinda stick their head in the sand sometimes because it's, you know, the change that they see coming is gonna be them killing the golden goose, you know? And that's a hard one for somebody to swallow, isn't it?
Steve McKee (09:24): It is a hard one for somebody to swallow. And that's again, one of the messages in the book is the turn is coming. It doesn't matter whether you want to take it or don't want to take it, it's happening. Yeah. So learn how to do it. Yeah, yeah. And embrace it.
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(11:35): So how about the, the, maybe it's a metaphor, maybe it's not actually a metaphor, but the fork in the road, you know, for a lot of businesses. Yeah. Because when you think of a turn, you think of, oh, I need to go this way, but what about that? Like, which way
Steve McKee (11:57): That's probably the most common kind of turn. We tend to think of turns as like 180 degrees. Very rarely our turns 180 degrees. Most of the time it is that fork in the road that there's a decision to be made that, let me put it this way, that what's happening today is not gonna continue indefinitely. We're aware of that so therefore we can go this way or that way. Or maybe sometimes there's a third or fourth way that is a turn. Any, even a one degree change technically is a turn cuz you're headed in a different direction. That's really the probably the most common thing that we face in business. And I believe we face it literally every day. Yeah. It's in big and small, dark,
John Jantsch (12:33): I don't fly airplanes, but I've heard pilots talk about this idea, you know, when you talk about a one degree change, you know, you take off from Denver and if you're one degree off the entire way, you're gonna end up in Tulsa instead of, you know, Kansas City
Steve McKee (12:47): That's right.
John Jantsch (12:51): Yeah. Yeah. Well I don't want you to read the entire book because we don't have time for that. Give us a flavor of, you know, you, you mentioned the eight principles and I know that, you know, change and contest and cause and moment. I wonder if you could just kind of pick out a couple and and give us a flavor for what they are, but then more, probably more importantly, you know, how do we apply?
Steve McKee (13:11): Yeah, I'd be happy to do that. One of, one of the surprises that I've gotten from my readers is the, one of the early chapters is called the Principle of the Object. And I thought it was more of a setup chapter, but it turns out it's really affecting people. And the idea behind that is distinguishing the turn from that witch is turning is important. So the example I give is we call a turn in a roadway, A turn, but it's really not, it's just a non-linear distribution of asphalt. It only becomes a turn when something turns on it. And access is only an axis when there's something turning on it.
John Jantsch (13:41): So it's a philosophical book.
Steve McKee (13:43): Well it is, but the lesson there is if you, we need to separate ourselves. Yeah. Or our companies from the turn or else we risk getting our emotions all tied up in our decision making. Yeah. And as it turns out, no pun intended, I've had several people say to me that realization alone was worth the, you know, the price of the book. I think my favorite chapter is the principle of the contest and the whole idea is there, I went into the world of physics and looked at all of the forces involved in a turn from inertia to lean to torque, to friction, to gravity. Every one of those has a parallel in the business world. Yeah, yeah. And it's just, it was just really fun to uh, basically provide a toolbox of a lexicon, if you will, that people can use to describe and characterize the turn that their business might be going through. And I actually suggest in the chapter that you get out, if you're dealing with a turn, go to a whiteboard, write all those physical principles down and say, okay, what's friction in this situation? What's gravity, what's torque? And it can be a very much a learning experience.
John Jantsch (14:43): You know, it's interesting I've commented over the years, another thing people talk about is like what book has influenced you the most? And really for my work in creating marketing system and the IP that I've created, it's a book on architecture and it's kind of the same idea about building community and you know, about things being in a place and having a systematic approach to, and I think other subjects other than what, you know, we think we're writing about or reading about or trying to teach, you know, can really inform, you know, like just as you said a whole nother language.
Steve McKee (15:15): Yeah. I was just meeting with someone this morning who's in the middle of the book and the book is called Turns where Businesses Won and Lost and he said, this isn't a business book
John Jantsch (15:32): So I mentioned that, you know, I've had my business for 30 years and I've often used the term seasons, you know, I have, you know, I've remade my business, you know, as we all have had to, especially in the marketing world. I mean I started, we didn't have the internet, you know, as one of our channels so to speak. And so, you know, I've married, made my business at least five times probably, you know, substantially. And I've always referred to those as seasons, you know, that certain things would happen and then another thing would happen and that meant I was supposed to do this. And I don't think I certainly, I wasn't applying the idea of tur of turns, you hadn't written the book yet, but you know, I feel like that's another metaphor that would apply to to, to turns. I mean there's a season, a turn for every season, so to speak.
Steve McKee (16:14): That's right. And I actually talked about seasons in the book because Yeah. I had a realization one day as I was watching the Golden Leaves fall was during the fall off the trees. My realization was if this was the first time that ever happened, I'd be freaking out. Right now,
(16:43): It's just different phases. Yeah. Different seasons, different turns. And when you look back, when you look back over your life, and I can do this with my business and I'm sure you can with yours, yes there are turns that happen every day, but there are some notable market that day or that moment or that season was when we made this decision or this happened to us and that changed everything. I think everybody can reflect on that.
John Jantsch (17:07): I wasn't gonna ask you this question, but just as you mentioned that I had Dan Pink on recently talk about his, one of his most recent books about regret or you know, no regret. And I wonder how, you know, when people start thinking about turns, you know, they start thinking about defining moments and sometimes there's a defining moment that you can go, ah, I blew that one. You know,
Steve McKee (17:39): I think that's actually a helpful part of the book. What the technique I use is I go back and look at terms in history and science and religion, business as well. Sports, it's a sweeping overview of turns and one of the things that, I dunno if I can say this is universal, but I think it certainly could be is rarely has there ever been a turn that starts positive and is only positive. Yeah. Or starts negative and is only negative. And like a very recent example was how awful Covid and the lockdowns were for all of us. But so much innovation has come from that, for example. Yeah. So it's rare that you can find a turn that is entirely bad or entirely good and I think that softens the regret. It also causes you to be a little bit humble on the upside. Yeah. That, you know, not everything we do is brilliant.
John Jantsch (18:24): Yeah. That's interesting though. I mean you can make a case for saying in some cases you need to be pushed into a corner. Yep. You know, to make the turn right
Steve McKee (18:34): Yep. Something come to that dead end and there's that arrow there
John Jantsch (18:38): Yeah. But I mean, I guess what I was getting at is that that, you know, a lot of times people can just float on, buy everything fine and then they like get pushed into the corner, they're bar ready to go bankrupt and then they can make the right decision because they have no choice in some ways.
(18:51): Or feels like if it's, if it's not, if it's not too late, which yeah. Yeah.
Steve McKee (18:54): Master the turns before you're forced to turn to avoid going off a cliff
John Jantsch (18:57): Before the steering wheel comes loose. So Steve tell people we're where you might invite them to connect with you, but then certainly also to, I know you can pick up copies of turns anywhere you buy books, but where would you like to invite people to connect with you?
Steve McKee (19:12): Yeah. Turns: Where Businesses Won and Lost. You can get on Amazon, Barnes and Noble anywhere, my company is mckeewallwork.com. But just as easily you can go to steve mckee.com, it takes you to the same place I'm on LinkedIn if anybody wants to link up. And I'd really love to hear from people who've picked up the book and have some thoughts about it because everybody seems to be getting something a little bit different out of it.
(19:31): And I love that.
John Jantsch (19:33): Okay. I said I was done, but I'm not
Steve McKee (19:44): I
John Jantsch (19:47): That's gonna be a hard question.
Steve McKee (19:48): Well, I mean, the obvious answer was marrying the woman of my dreams 37 years ago. I mean, that's not only the correct answer, it's also true. I would say that I was forced into a turn to start my own company. Yeah. When a succession plan fell through at a previous, it was not a turn of my choosing. It has ended up being remarkable.
John Jantsch (20:06): Yeah. Yeah. I suspect answering that, anybody answering that question is tough because again, I, you know, I think most of it's made in the hindsight, right,
Steve McKee (20:16): It's and it's genuinely hard to say.
John Jantsch (20:18): Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. And who knows how many we missed, right. That we have no idea that we missed it,
Steve McKee (20:23): No idea that we missed it. And yeah. Who knows how many we're gonna miss today.
John Jantsch (20:27): Exactly. Well Steve, it was great catch up with you again, as we pointed out when we were talking, it's been 20 plus years
Steve McKee (20:45): Thanks for having me.
John Jantsch (20:46): Hey, and one final thing before you go. You know how I talk about marketing strategy, strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that, what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the Marketing Strategy Assessment. You can find it @marketingassessment.co, not.com. Co. check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketing assessment.co. I'd love to chat with you about the results that you get.
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