Please, Let’s Stop Talking About Apple, Southwest Airlines and Zappos

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Like all of you, I go to conferences to learn new things and how to be a better leader. When I do go, I get my money’s worth. I go to listen to every speaker and I take notes. I am a sponge. I am looking for secrets to success, insights, lessons to take home and maybe even shortcuts. Sometimes I AM a speaker at these conferences. Which brings me to my request for all speakers in the future: Let’s broaden the conversation and stop talking about the same companies – usually Apple, Zappos and Southwest Airlines.

At a recent conference in Scottsdale, I showed up early, all ready to learn, and spent the morning listening to two very animated, well-trained professional business speakers. Their PowerPoint presentations and their graphics were impressive and at some point in their careers, they each worked with, not at, Apple, Southwest Airlines or Zappos. They each talked about lessons learned from these three companies. This is not a new conversation and it could have been any conference. Lately, I’ve found that too many professional speakers rant on about lessons learned from the holy trinity of Apple, Southwest Airlines and Zappos.

I was the third speaker of the day scheduled to go after lunch, the worst slot of the day. The theme of this particular conference was all about “How to Grow the Business” and the audience was full of executives who flew in from all over the world. My opening statement was this:

“Good afternoon everyone, I am pleased to be here and I promise not to talk about Apple, Southwest Airlines or Zappos”.

The response was immediate – I received a standing ovation. It’s not often that happens in the first minute of a speech. Although my talk about change management was very well received, at the end of it I did not receive another standing ovation. It didn’t matter. My message about the importance of implementation, and how change happens hit the mark. And, as promised, I never mentioned Apple, Southwest Airlines or Zappos. Sorry, but the world is tired of hearing about these companies.

A caveat: I am a fan of these three companies. I am addicted to Apple products, I often fly Southwest Airlines and I buy shoes from Zappos, but I don’t work there and I may have learned all I can from them. I am envious of their success and I wish them well and I wish I bought stock a long time ago but I am tired of the same old stories. They had Steve Jobs and Herb Kelleher and Tony Hsieh and they had innovators and movies are made about them. They are regaled on 60 Minutes and in books and magazines. They are big and successful and what worked there/then may or may not work for me now. Aren’t there other lessons from other companies? Aren’t there companies that I can identify with more who are eking it out every day? Aren’t there companies where the best talent quits and some months are not so good?

When I hear a business speaker, I want to be motivated, not sorry I don’t work somewhere else. I want to know how I can improve, not how a brilliant leader did it a few years ago somewhere else. And, I want genuine advice that might include some practical tips about how to be better and what pitfalls to avoid.

What can we learn from Groupon? How about GM, coming out of bankruptcy and now facing a barrage of criticism? How about the typical mid-market company who is trying to attract talent in a day when everyone wants to work at Google or Facebook? What can we learn from the turnaround at HP or Yahoo? There are thousands of companies, why does every business speaker only talk about three?

Maybe there isn’t much to learn from the struggling and changing organizations I mention but it’s time to take a look. I suspect there is more to learn there than from the Big Three. Most of the world does not work at Apple, Southwest Airlines or Zappos. Most of the world works for organizations that professional speakers will never cite in their talks.

At my next conference I want to hear about lessons learned from the initial rollout of Obamacare or how GM plans to move from a culture of cost to a culture of quality and safety. The lessons to glean there are current and gnarly and like the ones most of us face. That’s what I want to give speeches about too.

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