Ralph Heath has led his agency, Ovation Marketing, for over 31 years and twice was named to Inc magazine’s list of America’s 500 fastest growing companies. He’s a John Caples International Award Winner and has been recognized as Direct Marketing Association Midwest Direct Marketer of the Year.
Ralph’s also a 4-time Triathlon All American by USA Triathlon Association and twice has finished the Ironman Triathlon.
He recently published his first book, Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Thinking Big. It's a great book, well-written. But, it’s more than good writing. Ralph shares his stories of taking risks, making mistakes, falling down, getting back up again and how they have led him to his success today.
We spoke last week about all of these interests of his and the role of failure and playing with matches. You can listen in streaming on-demand at this link.
I don’t encourage stalking from our listeners, but where are you and what cool things are you working on with your agency?
We are doing some interesting things: helping some companies with strategic positioning, doing some research on branding, so it is all strategic think ahead stuff that I love to do.
My friend, Erika Andersen, coined the phrase reasonable aspiration or hoped-for goal in her book, Being Strategic. What was your reasonable aspiration for writing your great book?A lot of things I do, I set goals, like an IronMan. When I get into business things, I say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be really interesting to write a book?” I go with the flow from there. I think I hit the satisfaction level when I read 2-3 of the reviews. They were so complimentary. It came out in July.
When will you know you’ve reached it?
I am there! It happened one night and I was on the Internet reading Executive Book Summaries and saw their review of my book. I knew I had made a touch down.Your first chapter is titled Starting Fires and it’s a tale about playing with matches. How does playing with matches and starting fires work in business?
It is more about starting the fires. If you have a group of people that you are working with and you are trying to motivate them, you want to plant new ideas; see if they will pick it up. Will they think it is a new idea? If they do, then they will champion it. If you are the leader of the organization you don’t always have the time to facilitate and project. The employees will push it forward.
Why are so many managers and executives afraid of setting fires, generating new ideas and failures?
Whenever you go above the radar to try something new, you are opening yourself up for failure and criticism. Chances are if you do come above the radar and try something new, the very first time you try it, it will probably work. It is counterintuitive to what you are doing. It is new.
People sometimes tend to stay quiet and not want to start something new. They just want to go day to day, but if you hold this position, someone else will come along and figure out a better way to do it and knock you “off your spot.”
You have to keep moving forward: changing, growing, researching and developing new markets and ideas- failure will come of this.
You don’t celebrate every failure do you?
I guess, pretty much. You have to develop a culture that when you make a mistake, you quickly analyze it and I guess that is what I mean by celebrating it.
You have to set up a culture by where there is a process to go back and look at it and sometimes this can be painful. If you have this outlook, you will learn from it. Keep a positive attitude.
It also tells me that I am trying stuff. I know something good is just around the corner. When it is quiet, then nothing is happening.
When did you decide to celebrate failure in general and yours in particular?
It happened early for me in sports. I was elected Captain of the Swim Team and the head coach was not there that night. The assistant coach ran it and since I was not his favorite, he ran the election again. I felt like quitting but I hung in there and had a great year. It is those kinds of experiences that taught me to like it.
I had an almost identical experience in business 10-15 yrs later. We were fired by an account that we had taken from zero to being nationally known. He fired us but offered to take me down to “show me how the big boys do it.” I wanted to choke him!! It was an invaluable learning lesson to sit in the boardroom of this other agency – I learned quite a bit, but they also made some tremendous mistakes. 30 days late the client fired them and rehired us. I could have run from the situation, but I chose not too and it was so beneficial in the long run.
When we fail, we are not losers. You tried something and it just didn’t work. It happens.
How do you personally celebrate failure with your company?
It is the automatic reflex to go into a mode to find out why. We recently pitched an account last week and found out we didn’t get it. I wanted to find out what happened – where we went wrong. From this, I will be that much stronger. Failure is a chance to learn and grow.
You have to tell stories all of the time. You can’t just say failure is a great thing. That is not enough. You have to work constantly that you want people to try crazy wild stuff. Failure is okay.
In your interview process, do you discuss this celebration process of learning from failure?
Not so much. I probably ask one or two questions about it. There is a great video – someone asked George Bush what was his biggest mistake regarding 911 and his presidency. For 60 seconds he was tortured and couldn’t think of anything. Someone like that is not a good candidate for our company. The book is loaded with great celebrity quotes.
What happens when someone has their first public failure: how long is it before they learn to trust that failure is celebrated and looked at as a learning experience and there is a reward for standing up, taking a risk and doing unusual things? When do they show signs of getting your message?
Some of them, NEVER. Most of the good ones get it right away, but there is that ingrained fear of failure.
Let’s say a business owner is listening. There’s usually a few. And they think, Great idea. For you. But doesn’t that encourage irresponsibility in a company?
You have to separate the difference between sending out an email and not performing a spell-check; that is just sloppy. OR going to a presentation and thinking I am just going to wing it. That is being foolish and being unprepared. There is a fine line – there are bold ideas and also not doing your job correctly. There is a difference.
Has your agency always been open to celebrating failure?
It permeates the culture. We try to be open about everything except salaries. I guess when I used to get frustrated and explain things to the staff; I knew I had to be open. Treat them like adults; be honest and upfront to get people to understand the ups and downs and how that drives the company and decisions.
And this same company owner says Ok, great. Still, I can’t do that. What are baby-steps, if you will, they can take to organize their first celebration of failure? What will that do for them and their company?
1. I would invite them to look back and trace their history of when good things happen. Then find the failures or learning experiences that helped them achieve those good things. There is a connection between failure and success.2. Read a book like mine or quotes from others with similar experiences.
Chapter 14 is titled Never Threaten to Quit Anything. And you share a great quote* by Alabama’s legendary coach Bear Bryant. Where does cutting your losses or not throwing good money after bad, come in to this discussion? Or when do you realize your initial expectations were unreasonable?
It is interesting because I don’t know if there is a definitive line. When something doesn’t work you are able to tweak it a few times, but at some point it is time to blow it up. I don’t think there is a formula, but for me it is a gut thing.
Let’s say another listener has just had one of those life-changing setbacks, a failure of enormous proportions in their mind. What are three things they can do to get through and possibly sometime soon, celebrate this experience?
Let's say they didn't get the job they interviewed for.
1. Call up that person who did not hire you and ask why for example. Find out what you could have done better. You will also so stand out in the HR Director’s mind. It is a win-win.
2. Get as much information as you can. You will have so much more information for the next time.
3. Put the failure behind you and learn from it.
Are businesses better or worse now at accepting failure within their walls?
The other day I read this McKinsey report that said 70% of the companies in this country don’t allow flextime. I cringed.
I would guess the majority of companies who struggle with what time to let their employees come to work are also struggling with failure as well. I am not particularly optimistic that companies are embracing this philosophy.
What’s been a great example of a company who failed and turned it into a celebration with positive results for their stakeholders?
Apple is the poster child of innovation and one that went the wrong way. They hired the gentleman from Pepsi who was the President and put that corporate culture into effect and it just didn’t work.
You’re an elite age group athlete. And I’ve completed two marathons. Neither one of us will likely ever win a race. But, we’re not failures, either. Why?
The competition and the journey is so much fun. You win from what you gain in the experience. It is the same in business. Go beyond yourself.
When’s your next race?
1st week in April – Northern Wisconsin. The race is about 45 miles.
Let’s talk a little bit about social media and advertising. What do you tell your clients about social media? What forms of it do you use? Why?I grew up on the traditional side so I am a little more comfortable with it, but you do need to focus on both sides. I embrace both forms of communication.
Senator Russ Feingold has a testimonial** on the cover of your book. How did you obtain a book endorsement form a United States Senator?
Before I became an author I was continually looking for new life experiences. I have always admired him because he is so honest. I had heard he was possibly going to run for President. I wrote him a letter to offer my skills-he said okay, but I have to tell you there is a chance I might not run. I worked with him for one year and it was an incredible experience. So, when I wrote this book I did reach out and ask him for an endorsement.
Are you planning on 2nd edition? Where would you get your stories?
No, but I am going to write a second book on a different topic: something on leadership. It will be out within one year.
What are your plans for 2010? Let’s say we talk again in 2011. I hope we do. What failures will we celebrate?
I am just having a great time doing what I am doing with my book and promoting my company. I am more in the trenches right now – digging in and writing strategy plans ...etc.
Your book has so many great quotes in it. What’s your favorite quote that celebrates failure?
Bill Walsh, former coach of the San Francisco 49ers:
“When you are determined to use failure as a school for success, you will find that it is easier to hold a strategic court and refine the plan rather than constantly second guessing yourself. Panic subsides along with depression, humiliation and all of the other unhappy by-products of perceiving failure as an unmitigated disaster.”Thanks, Ralph.
* Bear Bryant quote:
Never quit. It is the easiest cop-out in the world. Set a goal and don't quit until you attain it. When you do attain it, set another goal, and don't quit until you reach it. Never Quit.
** Senator Feingold's testimonial:
Heath's book tells us how even the toughest failures can, in the end, fuel tremendous success.