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Q&A: Daniel H. Pink, bestselling business author

Q&A: Daniel H. Pink, bestselling business author

Posting in Finance

An expert on the world of work, Pink spoke with us about his new book, To Sell Is Human, and his years as chief speechwriter for U.S. vice president Al Gore.

Daniel Pink has been spreading fresh ideas about the modern workplace for years. In his 2005 book A Whole New Mind, he revealed the right-brained qualities that are necessary for professional success. A few years later, he explored the intersections of motivation and business in Drive. Both books hit the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Pink's most recent work-related tome, out earlier this year, is based on yet another innovative theory: While one in nine Americans works in a traditional sales job, so do the other eight. "Like it or not," he writes, "we're all in sales now."

Named one of the top 50 business thinkers in the world by Harvard Business Review, Pink spoke with us about his new book, To Sell Is Human. He also recalled working as chief speechwriter for U.S. vice president Al Gore and walked us through the baseball stadium tour he hopes to take someday with his 10-year-old son.

Your new book is built on this premise that at work, we're all engaged in some form of sales. How did that happen?

There are 15 million Americans whose job it is to get other people to buy stuff, whether it's jeans or computer equipment or aircraft parts or whatever. That's a pretty significant number of people. But I had a hunch that all the other workers were in sales too. We did a little survey research and found that people are spending roughly 40 percent of their time on the job persuading, influencing, convincing, cajoling, trying to get other to people make an exchange. Whether it be pitching their ideas in a meeting or trying to get their boss to give up resources or trying to get a new assignment. It's selling in a different sense. It's a transaction, you're trying to reach common ground, but the twist is that money's not changing hands, the register's not ringing, and the transaction is not denominated in dollars. It's denominated in attention or effort or commitment or energy.

Has this been going on for a while?

I think it's always been true to some extent, but recently it has accelerated significantly for a number of reasons. First, we have a lot more small entrepreneurs and they're selling all the time. It's the nature of running your own operation. Then, if you look inside larger firms, a lot of what people are doing on the job is far less segmented than before. In very predictable, stable business conditions, the functions tend to be fairly separated and segmented. You do marketing. I do operations. She does HR. The trouble is that today we don't have stable and predictable business conditions. As a result, people are being forced to do a variety of things and inevitably part of what they end up doing is a form of sales in some sense.

I wrote about two technology companies: Atlassian and Palantir. These companies, which do hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, have no salespeople. And when you ask them why, they give you this almost Zen-like answer: Nobody's in sales because everybody's in sales. It's not a discrete function because it's part of what everybody does. I see that kind of elasticity happening more and more.

Finally, if you look at where the job growth is in the United States, it's in education and health care services — what I like to call ed-med. Ed-med is all about moving other people. It’s about getting kids to pay attention in class. It’s about nurses and physicians getting patients to change their behavior. Those professions, in my mind, are all about non-sales selling.

So if we're all doing it, why does working in sales still have that reputation of being kind of sleazy — like the caricature of the used car salesman?

The view of sales as sleazy and underhanded and deceitful is really a view about information asymmetry. When the seller has a lot more information than the buyer, the seller can rip you off. The reason I think a lot of us associate this underhandedness with sales is that buyers in the past have been at a pretty distinct information disadvantage. This is the reason why we have the whole principle of 'buyer beware.' Buyers have to beware because the sellers know so much more.

That information asymmetry isn't so prominent anymore. Today it's something closer to information parity, and you see it in every realm. It's a very different world when buyers have lots of information, plenty of choices and all kinds of ways to talk back. That's forcing more and more sellers to the high road.

If we are indeed all selling now, how can we get better at it?

That's probably the key question I tried to answer in this book. To answer that question, I went to the social sciences. What I identified are three foundational qualities that are effective in moving, persuading, influencing people in a world of seller beware. These are what I call the new ABCs: attunement, buoyancy and clarity.

Attunement is perspective-taking. Can you get out of the anchor of your own perspective and see things from other people's perspective? Buoyancy: Anyone who sells anything deals with rejection all the time. It is a relentless, permanent part of what they do. Buoyancy is how do you stay afloat on that ocean of rejection? Then there's clarity, which is also part of this change in information. Today, being able to access information doesn't matter nearly as much as being able to synthesize, curate and distill it to detect the meaningful patterns. Those three qualities, to me, form the foundation that people need in order to get more effective at selling.

Stepping back in time a bit here, you were Al Gore's chief speechwriter from 1995 to 1997. What was that like?

I liked working for Al Gore himself -- he's a good guy and I was grateful to have that great job. That was excellent. But working in politics began to wear on me a bit, so 16 years ago I decided to leave and go out on my own and try to write my own stuff rather than stuff for other people.

What I do now is a very different kind of writing. But the more you write, the better you get -- no matter what kind of writing you do -- so I think just having that experience of writing all the time and being on deadline all the time was really useful. Maybe it made me slightly more attuned to how audiences will react to things. When you're writing speeches, obviously it's going to be said out loud, live, in front of people. I think that might train your ear a little bit to take the audience's perspective into account.

How much were you writing in a given week back then?

The entire speechwriting staff was three people and [Gore] would often give two or three speeches a day. It's a pretty frenzied atmosphere. It wasn't the library-like setting where people are stroking their chins thinking great thoughts. It's more like an inner-city emergency room where you're just stitching up bodies and hoping they don't die on your watch.

Wow. Well, you've certainly found success as an author. You've written several bestselling books that offer business insights and advice, but what piece of advice -- business or otherwise -- do you find yourself turning to most often?

I can think of three broad principles that I think are generally helpful. One is simply the importance of working hard, as hackneyed as it sounds. That is, to me, the secret of writing -- and the secret of anything: showing up, doing your work. As the great artist Chuck Close said: "Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work." I also tend to be very cautious of conformity. I've found that conformity is rarely the path to doing great work. I try to be the best version of myself rather than an imitation of somebody else. And finally, this one is challenged repeatedly, but I also think that there is a lot to be said for simply being generous.

If you had the free time to do whatever you wanted, what would you be doing right now?

At some point, I'd love to go to a bunch of Major League Baseball stadiums I've never been to with my 10-year-old son and just check out the cool baseball parks and sit in the sun and eat hot dogs and watch baseball.

Which stadiums are at the top of your list?

There are so many I haven't been to. My son's never been to Wrigley Field or Fenway, so that would have to be our first stop on the historical tour. I've never been to San Diego Stadium -- it's pretty cool-looking with a grassy area outside where people can watch for free. I'd like to check that out. Oh, Miami! I have to go to Miami Stadium. They have all kinds of groovy stuff there, like a bobblehead museum.

I realize we've covered a lot of ground here, but is there anything else you wanted to mention?

I don't think so. We mentioned bobbleheads, so that's about all I need.

Photo: Rebecca Drobis

Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure