Illuminating the Path

It’s Not What You Don’t Know…

It’s what you know that just isn’t true.  Mark Twain said it in a more elegant way: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about “emotional intelligence,” which is defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” 

Clearly having the ability, as a business leader, to be able to handle interpersonal relationships well is an important skill, and many HR departments have questions designed to seek out those candidates that have a strong EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient).

But today I want to focus on a type of intelligence that I have been thinking about, exploring, and conceptualizing for several years now – that of “mercantile intelligence.”  Mercantile is an old school word that you don’t hear much these days.  It means “relating to trade or commerce.” 

So…

The concept that I am building is that business leaders, in order to be truly successful, must have an ability to understand how to sell things.  Sure, that seems obvious, but – a bit like conventional wisdom (one of my favorite oxymorons), it isn’t as common as one would think.

As the head of an agency, I work with a lot of clients.  Each client has its own set of challenges.  Maybe a competitive landscape that is preventing them from gaining traction, perhaps a product that isn’t connecting with consumers, and so on ad infinitum.

Once, back in 1998, when I was managing The Coca-Cola Company’s business in Hungary – Doug Ivester, then the CEO of the company, came to visit our market.  I was having dinner with him on the night that he arrived, and it struck me that, for the entire meal he did nothing but ask me questions.  Not only did he ask a lot of pretty challenging questions, but he listened carefully to my answers, often following up with additional queries after each reply.

At one point I replied to one of his questions and he asked, “How do you know that?”  I replied that my experience in the market and the industry informed my understanding.  He looked at me deadpan and said “Mark, you are not the customer.  Regardless of what you think you know, you really don’t know anything unless you have gotten the answer directly, in a timely fashion, and without bias – from a real customer.”

Doug was a great business leader and I think that his legacy at The Coca-Cola Company understates his deep and abiding understanding of some core fundamentals of business.  Doug has immense mercantile intelligence.  He is a finance guy that rose to the top of one of the world’s leading companies, entirely because of his ability to understand, at the core, those things that truly matter.

In my experience running an agency, I often have similar conversations with business leaders – CEOs, Presidents, Marketing VPs, etc.  Early in my conversations with these leaders, I try to gain a sense of how they think, what informs their wisdom, how in touch they are with the market and their customers – and, most importantly, how much mercantile intelligence they exhibit.

One of the quickest ways to get to this view into the mercantile intelligence of a leader is by asking them questions about their brand, their product, their competition, their customer, etc.  And then, listening carefully to their answers.  Is their perspective informed by insights?  Have they done research into why things are happening as they are?  Are they truly curious about their consumer and their market?

Some leaders spend a lot of time talking about themselves.  They want to tell you about their experience, their education, their knowledge, their past successes.  While sometimes this can be interesting, it is often a key indicator of the fact that they have dug themselves deep into a quagmire of confirmation bias.  They think that they know a lot because they have been around a long time and they have been successful in the past (to varying degrees, of course).  When I ask, “really, how do you know that?”  Or, “that’s interesting, what insight led you to that point of view?”  I almost always get some version of “Oh, I’ve been doing this a long time and I really understand this business.”

Huh?

Believing something to be true without deep insight and continuous curiosity, fueled by an intense desire to learn and to know more – is fraught with peril.

As a leader, you should seek to learn more.  You should be in the market, personally talking to your customers and partners.  You should be spending a minimum of 10% of your advertising budget on research.  Why 10%, you may ask?  Well, doesn’t it make sense to spend ten cents out of every dollar that is designed to grow your business to learn what will actually grow your business?

Of course, not all research is equal, and it is possible (even easy) to do research that is either meaningless (or worse, harmful), by arriving at misleading conclusions.  That’ why one of your most important team members, whether it be an employee or an agency, is the people that are getting you these insights.  This person (or team of people) need to have education and training in how to arrive at deep insights that are free of bias and which inform the organization on facts that are useful, helpful, and actionable.  They need to help you answer key questions about the who, what, when, where, and how – of your market.  They should help you to make good decisions that are informed by insight. 

They are illuminating the path for the organization.

Invest deeply in your own mercantile intelligence.  Seek insights that will inform your decision-making.  Don’t drink your own “Kool-Aid.”  Recognize that your experience and education bring a Jungian “shadow” along with them.  That is to say that anything that you think that you know is probably preventing you from knowing something that you don’t.