Nobody Wants a Humble Expert

This is a special episode.

It’s with one of my favorite people in the world – Alan Weiss PhD.

He’s a consultant, speaker, author, coach and  I’m sure he won’t mind me describing him as this: all round straight shooter and truth teller when it comes to personal and business growth.

It’s a short conversation full of valuable insights and ideas.

Listen to the full conversation on Apple, Spotify or in the browser below.


Marketing Helsinki | Episode 31

➤ The first time I ever read Million Dollar Consulting, in one of the first lines in the first paragraph, you described what a consultant is and the first person that ever gave advice to somebody. I wanted to talk about that because I read it maybe six, seven years ago and I never found [that edition of the book] again. It was something about Egyptian times… do you know what I’m talking about?

Yes it was not Million Dollar Consulting, that’s why you can’t find it. It was in a book called The Consulting Bible. And what I talked about was not Egyptian times but ancient prehistoric times. I talked about somebody trying to make an arrowhead to hunt for game for his family and he was having trouble and a stranger came along out of the bush, who might have been lost or wandering along but he showed him that a better way to make an arrowhead was to use a harder rock for the arrow and to abrade it on a softer rock and get a sharper point.

Well it worked and so the person trying to make the arrow gave him some food and gave him a lion’s tooth as a talisman to hang around his neck and off he went. And consulting was born. 

➤ Thank you so much. I love that story. 

I started my career in fiction. Another one of your books that I really love is The Martial Arts of Language [specific language to deal with client meetings] and I wanted to ask you, how important do you think it is for a successful business person to not be afraid of learning lines?

What I’m talking about is being able to use language in the moment, not learning lines. So language controls discussions. Discussions control relationships. Relationships control business.

That’s an immutable sequence and if you have a command of the language, just like if you have a lot of tools – you can solve almost any problem if you have the right tool –  well, you can dominate, you can influence, you can be persuasive in any kind of conversation or meeting if you have the right tools, which in this case is words. 

So, I don’t propose that you have a predetermined script but that you’re prepared to use words in the moment as appropriate.

➤ So you don’t believe in learning scripts and then improvising on the script later? 

This is a relationship business and once you start reciting something you’ve memorized, people know it.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having an example in your mind. You know, there’s nothing wrong with having a metaphor in your mind. There’s nothing wrong with knowing how you want to open a meeting with what kind of greeting or sentence but if you want to have a script when you’re talking to people either interviewing them or meeting in their office or whatever it is, that’s not going to work. 

Even on stage, you know nobody’s interested in somebody who reads his notes or who memorizes a speech. They’re interested in people who are dynamic and who appear to be extemporaneous even if they’re not. 

➤ Okay. Going back to the concept of advice, do you find that the people who know that they need advice are those people who are already somewhat successful? 

Yes. People who are successful, whether in business or athletics or entertainment or medicine or the clergy or education – you name it – welcome coaching. And if you look at the top people in their fields, they use coaches.

People who are afraid to admit they have a coach or won’t use a coach are usually sub-standard people because everyone needs coaching. They need a breath of fresh air. 

➤ I also like to see it as the external opinion. Just the fact that it’s a voice coming from outside of my head, that’s useful for me. 

Well that’s the fresh air I’m talking about. If we don’t get that, we breathe our own exhaust.

➤ Yes, we do. 

You talk about generalizing instead of specializing and being a process consultant. Generalizing – doesn’t that mean we limit our options? 

No, you expand your options if you’re a generalist. You have more potential buyers and if you’re adept at, let’s say, problem solving or decision making or conflict resolution or succession planning or strategy – you name it – those are processes.

They can be used in any industry, any organization, any market. So the more you’re a generalist with those kinds of process skills and critical thinking skills, the more buyers you have. It’s when you specialize and you just deal with one market or one niche, that you limit your options. 

➤ Yes, but aren’t you bringing more competition for yourself as a generalist? 

Competition opens markets. Competition doesn’t restrict markets. If you’re afraid of competition then go get a job sitting in an insurance company, right? If you’re a solo practitioner, if you’re an entrepreneur you welcome competition because competition indicates there’s a lot of need for what all those competitors are providing. 

➤ Then you don’t worry about differentiating yourself? Or do we do that in a different way? 

You do worry about differentiating yourself, of course you do.

If you’re in a competitive market you’ve got to stand apart. You don’t do it by specializing. You show that you’re more effective. You show that you’re better. You get better testimonials. You have new IP that other people don’t have. You have offerings that other people don’t have, so you can differentiate yourself by providing originality and innovation in your marketplace. 

➤ Excellent! One way you said you liked to differentiate yourself in the early days, you loved to provoke. Do you think that still applies today, especially when everybody so easily provoked? 

Well, separate grievance from provoked. There are a lot of grievances today. People want everyone in the world to respond to their particular position and to cater to them. That’s absurd.

But when you talk about provocation, I’ve got news for you. You know, I was known as a contrarian for a long time and I still am. Right now volatility and disruption should be offensive weapons, not something people fear so if you want to provoke people, then be disruptive. If you want to provoke people, then introduce volatility.

I introduced value-based fees for consultants in the 90’s which was an unheard of concept. Everybody billed by a time unit and today I have the strongest solo practitioner brand in the world. And so let me tell you, you need to be as provocative as you can. 

➤ Even today? Because the message we’re getting is less provocation, right? Because everybody is so easily offended and provoked. 

Everybody is easily offended but you’re making a mistake. Don’t look at social needs, social demands as provocation. I’m talking about business and businesses have to be provoked. Entrepreneurs have to be provoked. The educational system has to be provoked and you provoke them by introducing new ideas by trying to innovate. That’s what I’m telling you. If you look at social issues everybody’s going to be upset by something. Who cares? You have to ignore it. 

➤ I love that but you can say, ‘Who cares?’ but maybe for somebody who’s less advanced in their career it’s a balance between being too direct and being a little bit indirect. 

No, it isn’t. This is the way I’ve been since I was fired and started my career and I hate to hear about, ‘Well I’m brand new, you know’ and all this.

The truth is that people want value, they want expertise and experts talk the way I’m talking to you right now. Nobody calls for a humble consultant, nobody wants a humble heart surgeon, nobody wants a humble trial lawyer. Nobody wants a humble consultant. They want people who are really really good and if you don’t blow your own horn there is no music.

So please don’t tell me that if you’re starting in this business you have to start out humbly or you can’t be too direct. The more you provoke people to think differently the better off you are. 

➤ Wow! I love that. Thank you. 

Okay, it’s 2021. Everything we need to know is available online. So there’s people like you giving all this information – that if anyone were to take and run with, they would succeed. But people are not doing it. So if information is not the problem, what are we missing? Why isn’t everyone successful? 

Because nobody learns to ski by reading a book. Nobody learns to drive a car or ride a bike by going to the internet. You need a coach, you need application, you need to talk to people. I’ve written over 60 books, so following your premise here, nobody would ever call me. All my books are out there. What’s left to do? Yet my books are simply a thriving practice to drive people to me because a book just creates awareness.

The internet creates awareness and a little skills transfer but if you really want application, you need a ski instructor six yards ahead of you showing you how to do it. 

➤ Yes, action. 

I have a word for you. I wanted to find a word that summarizes the idea of humans knowing what to do and not doing it. I was wondering if you’ve heard of this word: Akrasia.

Sounds like procrastination. 

➤ Yes, very similar. It’s just an ancient greek word meaning, we know what to do, we just don’t do it. 

And the reason for that is they’re afraid. And what they’re afraid of is that if they finish something they will be critiqued for it which will damage their ego more than being critiqued for not completing it in the first place.

So they’d rather not complete it and be critiqued for that rather than complete it and be critiqued for their work. 

➤ So Alan – something that not many people know –  you have a connection with Finland! Can you tell me? 

Well, in 1963 I was an exchange student. We had somebody from Finland. His name is Esko Hamilo. Esko subsequently became the Finnish ambassador to Australia and I think to France. 

He came over for a year and we never had an exchange student. It was inner city and it was very special. I and some one other person was chosen to go back but since I couldn’t speak Finnish we spent six weeks with a reporter going through Europe and winding up in Finland.

Esko lived in a town called Jyväskylä and we wound up there but before that we traveled through Europe on very little money. We went at the time, through the Berlin wall and into East Germany and took ferries on the Baltic sea and took ferries on the North sea and so forth. Then we stayed with Esko’s family in Jyväskylä. It was a changing point in my life. 

➤ Amazing! You even pronounce it perfectly. 

Like I said, I’ve been to Finland!

➤ So how long did you stay there? 

We stayed with his parents for two weeks but the whole trip was six weeks. 

➤ Were you as confident and forthcoming as you are today and how did that go down in 1960s Finland? 

Well I’ll tell you something: during the test, the interview process in my high school there were four of us nominated and –  this was the height of the cold war – the question was, ‘How would you defend the United States in Europe?’

And we each went in separately and I assumed that the other three before me gave some defense of the United States in the Cold War and I walked in and said, ‘The United States doesn’t need a defense. I think what we need is an understanding.’

And I tried to explain what we’re doing but I wouldn’t defend anything. And I won 17-1; there were 18 votes. So I was contrarian back then. And I found that when I went there, Finland was, you know, a very different place. It was calm and quiet and I didn’t get involved with business there, I was a kid in high school, I was 17 years old. I did date a wonderful girl in Jyväskylä named Pirkko and I remember that. 

➤ Wow!

Let’s talk about your new book. So it’s coming out next week, is that right?

Yeah, it comes out March 18th. It’s called Legacy. Life is not about a search for meaning, it’s about creating meaning for yourself. And what I found was that every day there’s a page in our lives being written but sometimes it’s the same page as yesterday and sometimes it’s blank and sometimes somebody else is writing it. So my contention is that you don’t wait to create a legacy the day before you die. You create legacy every day and that means you have to create meaning for yourself every day and that’s the subject of the book. 

Yeah, I like that. For me I think the key word is, ‘intentional’ because a lot of people go through life and things accidentally happen so we don’t really have that much intention, would you say? 

Yeah, it’s about forging your own future. It’s about understanding you have more control than you think you have. It’s about not giving up control. It’s about the fact that age is irrelevant. And that it’s all about competency, it’s all about value.

Not enough people have enough esteem to take advantage of these things and I’m trying to help them correct that. 

So it’s a little bit of a move away from business and strategy and tactics and more about life philosophy. 

Yeah, I mean my last book was Fearless Leadership which could be applied to any kind of leadership – that came out in 2020.

And this book is about something for everyone which is: every day you make decisions and you do things or choose not to do things which influence the legacy of your life, which influence your future and the future of others; maybe you should give some more careful thought to that.


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