How to Sell—What they don’t teach at Harvard Business School

I was making room for some new books when I came across Mark McCormack’s classic: What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. Published in 1984, it spent 21 consecutive weeks at #1 on the NY Times bestseller list.

I blew off the dust, and started reading. I couldn’t put it down. In a time before faxes, email, mobile phones and the internet, McCormack is as right-on today as he was then.

And what was McCormack’s point? What was Harvard (or any B-school) incapable of teaching you? How to Sell!

I carefully typed up Chapter 1, just for you. Enjoy.

Chapter 1: Reading people

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What they don’t can’t teach you at Harvard Business School?
How to Sell!

LET ME TELL YOU two stories. One involves a future president, the other a high-living golf pro, and though the incidents happened nearly a decade apart, they are linked in my mind.

In 1963, I was in Paris for the World Cup golf tournament where I happened to have two chance meetings with Richard Nixon, once at the golf club when he came by my table to speak to Gary Player, the other, only a few days later at the Tour d’Argent, when he stopped to speak to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, with whom I was having dinner.

Nixon’s remarks were pleasant enough. What stayed with me was that on both occasions he used the same words, the exact same five or six sentences. It was as though he were talking to stick figures rather than to real people, as though he had a fund of stock phrases for every type of person he was likely to meet—five or six sentences for a sports personality, a paragraph for a business leader, another for a religious figure.

The other incident involved the flamboyant golfer Doug Sanders. When we first started representing Doug a lot of people told me we had made a mistake. Doug did have some “Vegas” in him. He ran with a fast crowd, got into his share of scrapes, and was known to make more than just a friendly wager every now and then. Some people thought he was too controversial for us and asked why I trusted him. Quite frankly, I trusted Doug Sanders a lot more than some of the people who were questioning me. Which brings me to my story.

Once Doug played a golf exhibition up in Canada. He made all the arrangements himself. I didn’t know anything about it. But about a week after the exhibition took place, we received an envelope from Doug. There was no letter or note inside, only our commission—in cash.

I recall these incidents now because they demonstrate something important about reading people. What people say and do in the most innocent situations can speak volumes about their real selves.

My accidental encounters with Nixon, for instance, indicated a certain insincerity and a degree of phoniness that I remembered ten years later, when he was forced to resign the presidency. Nixon’s troubles probably had as much to do with his phoniness as they did with Watergate. People don’t like phonies. They don’t trust them, and they certainly don’t want one running their country.

In Doug Sanders’s case, the fee for the exhibition was so insignificant it might not have seemed worth the bother. But to this day I can see Doug going back to his hotel room, pulling a wad of cash out of his pocket, counting out our commission, sticking it in an envelope, and scribbling out our address. This was so totally in keeping with Doug Sanders’s character that nothing else would have occurred to him.

One would like to believe that it was a future American president who exhibited quality of character and a golf hustler who came off as a con man. But the facts in these cases belie those conclusions.

How to sell? Character counts

What does this have to do with business? Everything. In the business world it is easy enough to adopt a corporate persona, or several corporate personae, depending on the situation. Some people will act one way with their subordinates, another way with their boss, and a totally different way with people outside their company.

But the real self—one’s true nature—can’t change color to suit its environment. In any ongoing business situation, sooner or later—either subliminally or out in the open—you are going to find that you are dealing with that person’s real self.

If nothing else, you want to hear what people are really saying, as opposed to what they are telling you; you want to be able to put someone’s deeds—his own business activities—into the larger context of character. Whether I’m selling or buying, whether I’m hiring or (in our capacity as consultants) being hired; whether I’m negotiating a contract or responding to someone else’s demands, I want to know where the other person is coming from. I want to know the other person’s real self.

Selling is Personal

Business situations always come down to people situations. And the more—and the sooner—I know about the person I am dealing with, the more effective I’m going to be.

Good Selling!



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Filed under: Leadership, Selling
  • http://www.skipprichard.com Skip Prichard

    Excellent point. Authenticity is vital no matter our position. It’s also a good reminder that we are judged by quick interactions. Leaders are always on stage.