Episode: 29 |
Mike Figliuolo:
Corporate Training:


Mike Figliuolo

Corporate Training

Show Notes

Our guest today is Mike Figliuolo, a McKinsey alum and West Point graduate.

Mike is the founder and Managing Director of ThoughtLeadersLLC, which provides training to corporations that is inspired by the types of internal training that consultants receive at McKinsey and other top firms.

He is also the author of three books

One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership

The Elegant Pitch: Create a Compelling Recommendation, Build Broad Support, and Get it Approved

Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide Their Teams to Exceptional Results, which Mike co-authored with Victor Prince.

I heard about Mike’s firm from several Umbrex members, who have helped deliver some training sessions for Mike, and I recognized his name because Mike was the very first person to interview me when I applied to McKinsey, seventeen years ago.  So it was nice to reconnect.

In this episode, Mike gives an overview of his most popular courses and talks through lessons learned he has had in building a training firm. Lesson 1 – somewhat counterintuitive – don’t customize your training! I like the metaphor he uses to explain why: you need to be at the baseline or at the net.

Mike shares the business model of how the fees get split four ways each time a session is delivered: one share for the person who wrote the course; one share for the person who sold that particular session; one person who delivered the session; and one share for the house.

Do take a look at his firm’s website: thought leaders llc.com

Mike is happy to write a check to consultants who help him develop new business, so if know some clients that could benefit from his firm’s services, he’d love to hear from you.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman: Our guest today is Mike Figliuolo, a McKinsey alum and Westpoint graduate. Mike is the founder and managing director of Thought Leaders, LLC., which provides training to corporations that is inspired by the types of internal training that consultants receive at McKinsey and other top firms.

He is also the author of three books. One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful Personal Leadership, The Elegant Pitch: Create a Compelling Recommendation, Build Broad Support and Get it Approved, and finally Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide Their Teams to Exceptional Results, which Mike co-authored with Victor Prince.

I heard about Mike’s firm from several Umbrex members, who have helped deliver some training sessions for Mike. And I recognized his name because Mike was the very first person to interview me when I applied to McKinsey seventeen years ago. So, it was nice to reconnect with him. In this episode, Mike gives an overview of his most popular courses and talks through lessons learned he has had in building a training firm.

Lesson one, somewhat counterintuitive, he says, “Don’t customize your training.” I like the metaphor he uses to explain why. You need to be at the baseline or at the net, not in the center of the court. And he explains how that makes sense. Mike shares the business model of how the fees get split four ways each time a training session is delivered. One share for the person who wrote the course, one share for the person that sold that particular session, one person who delivered the session, and one share for the house.

So, do take a look at his firm’s website: thoughtleadersllc.com. Now, Mike says on the show, he is happy to write a check to consultants who help him develop new business, so if you know some clients that could benefit from his firm’s services, he would love to hear from you.

I learned a ton from my discussion with Mike, and I hope you find it valuable.

Mike, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show. I don’t know if you remember it, but I think seventeen years ago, we had our first discussion when you were my first interviewer when I was interviewing for McKinsey.

Mike Figliuolo: Yeah, and it was really cool to get your call out of the blue. And I’m glad that interview went well and you thought highly enough to call me seventeen years later.

Will Bachman: We’ll definitely have to do this again in seventeen years. I don’t know if it went well, but it went well enough. You passed me on to the second round, so thank you for that. We’re both at McKinsey for a few years and you have a fascinating firm, and I have heard about you from a number of folks who have done work with your firm, or seen it, or worked as subcontractors. So, tell us a bit about your practice, Thought Leaders.

Mike Figliuolo: Sure. We’re a leadership development and training firm. Most of what we do is comprised of in-classroom training. We fly to the client, we spend a day or half day teaching, and then we go home and send an invoice. And as far as the topics that we cover, we touch on leadership, communication, problem solving, decision making, strategic planning, and a bunch of others. I like to say that we teach all the things that your professional staff needs to know that nobody ever teaches them.

I’ve been running the firm since 2004, and went full-time with it in 2008, and it’s just been an absolute blast getting to serve some really awesome companies, and work with some incredibly talented people.

Will Bachman: That is really cool. It sounds like some of the topics that you teach, and I have also looked at your website quite a bit, it sounds like a lot of them are at least somewhat similar topics to you’d get at the McKinsey trainings. In my day, it was the initial leadership workshop, and then the BCR, Basic Consulting Readiness. Is that a fair statement? Or correct me.

Mike Figliuolo: Yeah, that’s a very fair statement. The work we do in problem solving and what we call structure thought in communication are essentially directly consulting skills. It’s a five step problems solving process. It’s a process of creating a presentation that has a clear narrative. We do some work on chart design to help people make their slides not be awful. And a lot of those skills, a lot of us did pick up during our consulting days. What we’ve done is simplify the methods a little bit because we don’t have two weeks to teach people, we get one day for these topics. So we’ve simplified the methods and we’ve also tried to make them a lot more relatable to a corporate environment, versus trying turn people into consultants.

So, that’s a big part of our curriculum, but we do a lot of other work that’s related to leadership, things that we picked up in corporate or in the military, decision making, some strategy stuff, which isn’t really BCR kinda stuff. But it’s more things we learned as consultants combined with what we learned in corporate strategy groups in 4-2-1000, etc.

Will Bachman: I think you said one of your most popular courses is the structured thought and communications. Can you talk to me a little bit about what that day looks like if I were going to attend that day, and I was telling someone about it afterwards? What would have transpired during that day?

Mike Figliuolo: All or our courses are pretty much structured the same way. We start by giving people an overview of the methods, so they see what the entire process looks like. And then good ol’ adult learning theory. It’s, “Here’s a step in the process, here’s an example, now do an exercise.” Step, example, exercise. So it’s very heavy on the experiential, in the classroom, and then the last third of the day, we tend to do a case study where we give people a more complex situation, and they get to apply the method again to that more complex situation.

As far as the content in the class for that particular course, we talk about defining the question. So, what’s the issue at hand that you’re trying to solve? Then generating a core idea, which is essentially the elevator pitch. What’s the answer, and why should you stake there? Then we talk about building the architecture. So what’s the structure of your argument? Then, how to turn that architecture into a story, that clear and simple narrative. Then we walked through syndicating the story with key stake holders, and defining it and understanding their objections. We talk about identifying the required facts and analyses that you have to do. Conducting your analysis to prove or disprove your case, and then packaging your idea in whatever the relevant communication vehicle is, whether it’s a presentation, a memo, and email. We really touch on that communication piece right at the very end, in terms of the format.

So that’s the content of the course, and really heavy on exercises, and participants just absolutely love it. It’s my goose that has laid many golden eggs.

Will Bachman: It sounds like you’ve done it a bunch of times. How has it evolved over time?

Mike Figliuolo: It’s kind of funny. When I built the course initially, there were a few iterations of it to really get the exercises right and to get the flow of the day right, get the timing right. But then once we had that timing and that slow right, and people were giving really favorable reviews on the score sheets after class, we stopped tinkering with it.

We worked on a seven point scale on our feedback forms, and we’ve been asking the same fourteen questions for fourteen years. And on the seven point scale, when your results come back between 6.2 and 7 for every one of those answers, you stop tinkering with the course. It’s like you got it right. Every once in a while one of my team members will say, “Hey Mike, we should really revise the course.” And I stop and I say, “Okay, so if we revise it, our scores are going to move up how much? From like 6.2 yo 6.3?” And they say, “Yeah, maybe.” I said, “Okay, is the client going to pay us any extra money for that movement?” And the answer is no. So then, why would we revise the course? It’s being brutally pragmatic.

Will Bachman: You’ve reached a local optimum, and it’s working. Don’t mess with success. Definitely something to be said for that. Tell me about some of the other popular courses that you deliver.

Mike Figliuolo: The problem solving course is a great complement, and actually a predecessor to structured thought and communication. So, it’s really clearly pinning the problem, defining the issue, and success criteria, etc. Then generating options, which is really about understanding, we call them logic maps, other people call them issue trees, they all have the same functions, just different names. So, building that logic map and starting to generated possible solutions. Then, once you have those solutions, narrowing those options using 80/20 and 2x2s. Then conducting your analysis, and then pulling it together into a recommendation.

So the problem solving course really sits underneath structured thought and communication because problems solving’s about getting to the right answer, and structured thought and communication about taking that answer forward and getting people to believe it. So problem solving is really popular.

The course we teach on leadership, about articulating your personal leadership philosophy on a single page, it’s really about teaching leaders about how to be authentic, how to tell their own personal story, and how to bring that forward in the form of a leadership philosophy that they can act on on a daily basis.

And another one I’ll highlight is our strategic planning course. And we do two flavors of that. One is the one day version, where we’re just teaching people a basic strategic planning process, and giving them some of the tools to do that. Things like Porter’s Five Horses, and how to do a good slot, how to build strategic filters to assess opportunities that they’re pursuing. And the other version of it, we actually do with intact leadership teams, and we do it as either a two day or three day intervention. And we do it for two reasons. One, to teach them the method, and two to let them work on their strat plan applying the method. So, it’s a little different than the consulting approach of going in and doing their strat plan for them. We’re giving the tools that they can do it themselves.

Will Bachman: That’s very powerful. I can imagine where you give the structure, and here’s the steps, and then help walk that team through it. What are some of the biggest gaps that you see of these kinds of skills? Like for the structured thought and communications, what are some of the areas that you find people have the biggest “AHA!” during the course?

Mike Figliuolo: I think it’s really about flipping the way they approach communications. So many times, folks come in and we ask them how they’re building their presentations, and they start with the, “Well, I have all the information, and then I boil it down to get to its essence.” And that’s they symptom, right? So rather than saying, “What am I trying to communicate,” and then going and getting the relevant information, they’re starting with all the information they have and trying to distill it down. And we all know that when you do that, you just end up with this burnt sticky mess on the bottom of the pan because you don’t have a clear structure, you don’t have a clear narrative, and you darn well don’t have a sense of what your audience really wants to hear when you take that distillation approach.

I think the big “AHA!” for folks in class is starting with that answer. And then the main folks will go, “It’s answer first.” Then folks will talk about pyramid principle and governing thought. It’s all the same notion. What’ that answer you’re trying to get across, and then how do you structure it, and then what analysis do you do? And that’s the big shift that people make in that class. And it’s just so cool to see that and realize I need to write my story before I get the data. Then it’s like, “Yeah, exactly.”

Will Bachman: You know, I felt at McKinsey, that sometimes the one week of training that went through; basic consulting readiness, initial leadership workshop, the EM training; that one week was more useful than often a whole semester of business school, and more memorable. Particularly all the exercises and the role plays, where you feel it in your gut. And it sounds like you’re incorporating a lot of those adult learning principles in what you deliver.

Mike Figliuolo: Absolutely. At the beginning of every class that we teach, we tell people this is going to look really simple to the level that you’re going to ask, “Wow, we’re actually paying for this?” And then you’re going to do it, and it’s going to hurt because it’s really hard. Simplicity is difficult. And it’s just so fun to watch them go through that experience, where we explain the concept and they say that it totally makes sense. Then we show an example, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I totally get it.” And they go to do it and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is so hard to do.” It’s like, “Yeah, exactly.” You gotta think, you gotta invest the mental energy. And they have a hard time because first, they have to set down their own baggage in terms of the way they’ve solved problems, or the way they’ve communicated before. So that’s the first step, is just setting aside those old habits. And then the second step is picking up these new tools and playing with them.

But by the end of class, everyone’s got it. They had time to play with it a few times. They’ve done several exercises. And it really starts driving that point home.

Will Bachman: One question I have about courses like this is, and I’m sure you get asked it a lot. That night and the next day, the lessons are fresh, people are, “Okay, I’m now going to be structured in my communications and lead with the answer, and think first about what my story is.” What have you found about one week, one month, six months later? How long does that training impact people? How much of a half-life does it have? And how have you tried to extend the impact?

Mike Figliuolo: I think we all know that a training, some can’t be fully trained in something with just one intervention. Now that intervention goes a long way to doing it, but there are a lot of things that we do to cement this training and give them all-along support.

One is: every single class that we teach can get distilled down to a one page laminated cheat sheet. And people walk out of that class with that one page cheat sheet. And it’s laminated, so it is durable. And it has the entire method on there, and tips and tricks, and suggestions for each step of the process. So, we put those in their hands. We work with their leaders to talk about accountability, and have those leaders attend the class, so they know the method and the vocabulary, then hold their people accountable. The next time Mike comes to you with his presentation, ask him to explain what step of the process he’s in. Have him show you his architecture or his storyline.

So, that leader reinforcement can drive a lot of behaviors. We also provide after-the-fact coaching. So, if somebody’s working on a board presentation, and they want to get coached, they can email it to us. We get into it with them, work on the structure, etc. Do it via phone call or email or Skype. We’ll do anything, we’ll do office hours, and we’ll go back to the client anywhere from four to twelve weeks later and just be there for a day. And people can schedule time with us to work on the stuff, and get additional coaching. 

We also have applied concepts versions of the class where, once the go through that foundation course, we can go back anywhere from the next day to ten weeks later, and we do a half-day version of the course, but they bring in a presentation they’re personally working on, and we apply the entire method to that presentation. 

And then the last two things we do as far as reinforcement, on is for the structured thought and communications course, I just had my book come out on that subject. And basically the way I wrote the book was, I opened my instructor presentation for the course and I started typing, literally. So that book is there with additional detail beyond what they get in their presentation and their course guide.

And then the last thing that I’m really excited about … I don’t know if you’re familiar with Linda.com, which was bought by Linkedin, and is now Linkedin Learning. It’s online video-based training, and I’m a Linda offer. I’ve got 15 courses in the library, and I’ve got another four that are being put through post-production now. One of those courses is on structured thought and communication, another is on problem solving, another is on decision making. So a lot of our courses have follow-on video versions of them, and people can use them for that ongoing reinforcement.

So across all those tools, we’re constantly able to touch them, and provide that ongoing support, which improves the likelihood that they’re using the methods. The record, so far is, I was back at a client one time, and it was five years later. And they guy stopped me in the hall as I was walking to the classroom. He said, “You don’t remember me, but I remember you.” He reached in his portfolio, and he pulled out his cheat sheet, and he said, “I use it all the time.”

Will Bachman: That is awesome.

Mike Figliuolo: Yeah, it was really cool to see that. And it’s not a one-off. I’ve had that happen several times over the years. I know the methods are valuable, and the tools are something that they’re using to reinforce those behaviors.

Will Bachman: That’s really cool. Now, you said “we” a lot. Talk to me about who delivers the training. Is it a set of employees, or do you work with subcontractors? What kind of folks are delivering your training?

Mike Figliuolo: I’ve got a team of 28, and they’re all independent contractors. They all have day jobs. Some are executives at large corporations, some are at smaller companies, some are entrepreneurs, some are full-time executive coaches. So, they all have a practice, but when it comes to the training stuff, they do that under the thought leaders umbrella. I’ve been working with some of them since the beginning of the firm, and some of them I’ve just brought on recently. And the way the model works is: They go out, they teach, they go home, they get their cut of the commission. And it’s a pretty good model because it gives them flexibility and it gives me flexibility for obvious reasons.

So, that’s just delivering the training, and all of them have pretty varied backgrounds. Some are ex-consultants, some are long-time corporate folks, so it’s a bit of an eclectic mix, which I really like, too, because we can put different backgrounds on the podium for our different clients.

Will Bachman: And that’s cool. And tell me about the business development side.

Mike Figliuolo: From a business development side, actually the incentive is all with the instructors. For any engagement that we do, and an engagement is one day in the classroom, we split the proceeds of that engagement four different ways. A portion of it goes to the house, cause it’s my house and I built it, and I have to insure it, and heat it, and gather some margin in there. It’s not a ton, but some of it goes to the house. Some of it goes to the person who wrote the content. Essentially that’s an intellectual property royalty, so if you write a class, and somebody else teaches it, you’re going to get a check because you built the product. Some of the proceeds go to the person who made the sale, whether they’re the one who delivers the training or not. If you make the sake, you get a cut. And then the remainder goes to the person who’s on the podium, delivering that training.

And what’s cool about that model is, it lets instructors do what they want. And I’ve got some people who are out there, and they’re selling, and they’re writing content, and they’re delivering training. I’ve got other people who are just selling and delivering. I’ve got other people who say, “Hey look. I don’t want to write anything. I don’t want to sell. But if you need some bandwidth in a pinch, just give me a call, and I’m ready to go.” It’s flexible for them, too, and the incentives are aligned.

Will Bachman: I’m curious with that sales model, how do you avoid people stepping on each other and pitching the same client? Does that not come up or is there a system behind it?

Mike Figliuolo: First of all, we’re pretty small. When you look at a professional staff of 27-28 people, it’s pretty manageable. And any time a prospect comes in, I know about it, and we talk about it. And it’s to avoid exactly that. So any time Joe is talking to Acme and Kim is talking to Acme, I know that they’re both starting to talk to Acme, and we try to figure out how to do that in one case to the customer approach, and prevent any of that toe-stepping. So, it doesn’t happen very often. I think it happened once where we weren’t aware of it.

Will Bachman: A lot of listeners of this show are independent consultants, and the broader category is independent professionals. For an independent consultant, or really anybody who’s thinking about setting up a training firm like you’re running, what are some lessons learned that you have, that you’d share for someone who wants to put together some kind of training for that corporate market?

Mike Figliuolo: First is understanding that you’re a trainer, not a speaker. I think a lot of folks who have really good intellectual property, when the go to put together their first full-day training course, they realize they put together an eight hour monologue. And you’re not there to show everything that you know. What you’re there to do is help people apply what you know. And it’s a big difference. It’s really distilling down one of the most important concepts, and then creating the exercises and the case studies the people get to then apply. And that’s a little bit unsettling for some people who have a ton of content. They go in with the belief of, “I have to show them how smart I am, and how deep my knowledge is, and that’s going to get them trained.” And that’s not what does it. I’d say, if you’re going to do training, brush up on adult learning theory, and the way to run a good classroom environment. 

I think the second thing is, we talked about a little bit ago, is once you’ve got your content nailed, stop messing with it. It’s very tempting to pull out that presentation time after time, after time, and change it because you had an experience in a classroom, and a new insight. You just gotta ask, “Is there real value in making this change, or is it change for change’s sake?” And I go to that just because you know this, as does pretty much everybody listening, that time is your most important commodity. You can either spend time messing with the presentation, or you can spend time selling. And I know where I want to spend my time.

I think another dynamic that folks should be aware of when they’re entering this training space is: There’s always a request from clients to customize. And I call it the “C” word, and it’s a dirty, dirty word because what happens is, clients will say, “Well we know you have generic examples, but we want you to make a specific example for our company so it will be really relevant to the learners. So interview a bunch of us and then build a case study that’s just for us.” And you want to do it. There’s these pull of, “Oh yeah, I’m going to create this awesome thing for my client, and it’s going to have value, and it’s going to be an awesome training experience.”

The way it always goes down; and I will tell you it always goes down this way, and doing this for fourteen years, it always goes down this way. First, you invest a ton of time in doing that, and sometimes you can get a client to pay you for that time, other times you can’t. So, that’s wasted effort if you can’t get them to pay. Second, you don’t get leverage and scale out of that if you’re creating a new case study every time you’re teaching. You’re spending a lot of time and not getting a huge return on it.

And then the most important thing is … I use a tennis analogy. And in tennis, you’re either at the baseline, or you’re at the net. And if you’re in the middle, you’re dead. It doesn’t work. And I liken that to this whole notion of customization.

So, if I go in and create a custom case for my client, the first thing the participants do is tell you everything that’s wrong with that case study. They’ll tell you, “Oh, those aren’t the numbers, that’s not updated, that’s not really how we do it.” So you get in this big argument about the actual information in the case. And then the second thing participants do is they solve the business problem of the case, but they don’t learn the method because they’re so focused on getting the right answer. And it just ends up being a bad experience.

Layer on top of that: you think you’ve built something custom that is going to be relevant to people in the room, but the problem is you built that case study, let’s say with the sales team, but when you go to teach, you’ve got people from the sales team, and the IT team, and HR, and finance, and marketing, and product development, and supply chain. And the only people who the case is really relevant to are the sales team. Everybody else in the room is lost.

So you didn’t even get the benefit you were trying to get of getting close to their reality. That’s playing in that middle space, where you’re not at the baseline, you’re not at the net. And the approach we’ve taken is: The baseline is we’re doing Acme and widgets and generic case studies during those foundation courses. And then if we come back and we do the applied concepts course I mentioned earlier, where they bring the problem that they’re personally working on into the classroom, well then that’s playing at the net. You’re up close, you’re personal with a a real problem that is relevant to them. And you’re just coaching them on applying the skills they learned in the foundation course. That model works.

And every time that I’ve capitulated and said, “Okay, I’ll customize,” every single time, at the end of that class, I said, “Why did I do that, I shouldn’t have done that.” So I don’t do it anymore.

Will Bachman: Wow. That is a big warning: No customization for the training.

Mike Figliuolo: No customization.

Will Bachman: You talked about leads a little bit, and just on this issue, how does the selling work? Do you cold call heads of training, or is it more about you’re raising your visibility, speaking at conferences and people approach you? How do those leads come about?

Mike Figliuolo: It’s varied and sundry. Some of it is our former colleagues, especially McKinsey folks. You bump into one of them or [Baine 00:27:33], or [PCG 00:27:33], or whatever our alma mater is. And you bump into them, and they’ve taken on a new role at a big company, and you ask how it’s going, and they’re like, “Oh my god, it’s terrible. They write these massive presentations, and they’re horrible, and the charts are terrible.” And all we have to do is say, “We teach how to do that.” And it’s, “Oh my god, when can you come?” So, that’s one, it’s just the network works great.

Some of it is, we do get leads from our books. A lot of my instructors are authors. I’ve written three books. And people read the book, and they reach out to us and say, “Can you come teach this?” Some of the leads come in from our blog, or from podcasts like this. And people read an article, they learn what we do, and they reach out. And some of it comes from speaking at conferences, speaking at events, doing keynote versions of our courses, which is essentially a one hour distillation of the course itself.

Those are the most common lead engines that are out there. The other nice thing that’s been happening for us in recent years is we’ve been around long enough that now we have the dynamic where I worked with Susan at one company, and now Susan is at another company, and Susan just calls me up and says, “We have the same problem here. Can you come in?” And just having those clients move is starting to bring us into new organizations as well. 

Will Bachman: So, it just builds on itself. You mentioned your book, and let’s give a pitch for those and talk about them. You have three books, right? One Piece of Paper, Lead Inside the Box, and Elegant Pitch. Could you tell us a little bit about each one of those?

Mike Figliuolo: One Piece of Paper was my first, and it’s about how leaders can articulate their personal leadership philosophy on a single page. And what I encourage them to do, and teach them how to do, is use stories and examples from their personal history, and then distill those down to a set of rules or principles that they want to lead by, and then be able to put that down on a single page.

And what’s cool about the method is, rather than just walking in and telling your team, “My leadership philosophy is do the right thing,” and just throwing out a whole bunch of empty platitudes, what you end up doing is sharing your experiences and your stories so they get to know you. They get to understand you. And those stories end up being a lot more memorable than “Do the right thing.” That’s what the first book is about. And it’s actually based on a course I had taught for years up until that point.

The second book is Lead Inside the Box. And I co-authored that with Victor Prince, who is a Baine alum. And you know what happens when you put a couple of consultants together in a room and tell them to write a book, well they draw a 2×2 matrix and they base the book on that. The 2×2 is: On axis is leadership capital invested, which is your time, and your energy, and your effort that you put into your people. The other axis is results that are generated by that individual.

In each of those quadrants, you end up with different behavioral archetypes. What we talk about is: How do you change your behavior as a leader? How do you get them to change their behavior to basically get a higher return on the effort that you’re putting into them?

And then the third one, The Elegant Pitch, is the structured thought and communications course distilled into book form. And I cover a lot of examples, some additional smaller techniques, some finer points on applying the method.

Will Bachman: Got it. And The Elegant Pitch book, what would be the ideal reader of that book?

Mike Figliuolo: For The Elegant Pitch, it’s those folks who are being asked to make the decks. In consulting parlance, I want the folks who are the analysts and the project managers, all the way up to the VPs and SVPs because that’s the target audience for the structured thought and communications course. And those are the folks who are going to benefit from reading that book.

Will Bachman: Tell me a little bit about how you have used these books to help raise your visibility, and what sort of results you’ve gotten from all the effort that you put into creating these books.

Mike Figliuolo: If you’re getting into the book business to make money, you’d make more money making sneakers in a sweat shop, when you look at your hourly rate. You don’t write books to get rich, unless you’re John Grisham. What I found the books to have been invaluable for is first as credibility, and when you have a conversation with a client and say, “I wrote the book on this and literally had it published.” That drives some credibility, which helps in the sales process. Some of the benefit is people read the book, and then they call you up, and say, “I loved your book. Can you come teach?” And that’s where you make the money, when you go in for a keynote presentation on the book, or you go in and you end up teaching classes, and that becomes a long-term client.

So I’ve gotten an [RLI 00:32:33] on those books hundreds of times over from these types of situations. And in terms of the real use of the books, ongoing from a learning standpoint, when you attend the course, you get the book. It’s there to serve as that artifact from the class that you can refer back to and say, “I don’t remember how to do this. Let me go to that chapter in the book, and just read it again,” and get that depth that you may not have captured from your notes in the course lecture.

Will Bachman: Talk to me a little bit about the keynote speech arena. How does that work? What would a typical forum be that you’d be speaking at?

Mike Figliuolo: Keynotes are really cool from the standpoint of: It gets you in front of a large audience, and it gives you anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes to get your message out there. The typical audiences that I would call a keynote run from 30 people up to 2000. And it’s pretty intimidating, at first, to be this person in front of 2000 people, but it’s helpful when they’re literally a bunch of little old ladies who are in an educators’ sorority. It’s kind of a gentle experience speaking to crowds that large.

During the keynotes, what we do, and I’m a big believer in is, make people smarter in that keynote. I’ve seen a lot of people make the mistake of, when they get a keynote opportunity, they say, “Well, I’ve got this class, and I want people to buy the class, so I’m not going to give away all the secrets. I’m not going to give away the entire message.” And the keynote’s going to consist of, “I have an eight step process, and today I’m going to show you three of those steps. And if you want to learn the other five, you gotta hire me to come teach it.” And it just turns people off when they realize that it’s kind of an infomercial.

When we keynote, it’s, “Hey, I have an eight step process. And I’m going to walk you through all eight steps of the process. I’m going to give you the entire message today so you can think about it and figure out how to apply it.” What happens is, they realize, “That’s really cool, and I really like that message, and I can apply some of it, and boy would I love to have a deeper cut at that. Can you come in and teach?”

That’s sorta my philosophy on when you go over a keynote, give them everything. Don’t hold anything back. From an economics standpoint, keynotes are good. You can make decent money on them. For me, I do them much more as business development tools. There are times I’ve done keynotes for free. There are times that I’ve paid to be a sponsor at a conference, and my sponsorship bought me a one hour slot on the podium. And the RLI on that was huge because it got me in front of my buyers.

Will Bachman: Really, that’s insight. I did not know that happens. I’m so naïve. How do you go about, either way, when you’re getting paid or paying, how do you collect information, contact info, from the audience. Any tips like, “Hey, if you email me at this address, or if you sign up on this form, I’ll send you this presentation.” Anything like that to gather the contact info?

Mike Figliuolo: Some of it is, and this is more philosophical, and maybe it’s because I hate being pounded with spam, I also acknowledge that this can probably adversely effect my business results. I don’t try and list build. I don’t go out and when the keynote folks bring me in, I say, “I need everybody’s email address, and I’m gonna send them emails afterwards.” It’s just a turn-off in my book. For me, one of the questions I ask when we make any decision as a firm is: Would McKinsey do this?

And when I think about how McKinsey acquired clients, and what that ethos was like in terms of serving clients, I just ask, “Is this something that feels McKinsey-esque that we would do?” And me going out and trying to vacuum up a ton of email addresses, and then getting their inbox constantly doesn’t feel like the firm, in my gut. So, I tend to stay away from it.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t try and get to them. And the ways that I do that are first, I ask the conference providers to send out my presentation along with any videos or links to articles on our blog, or links to the books, to put those resources in peoples’ hands. And it’s purely, “Hey, here is some additional resources for you. Here’s some great articles, some great videos you can watch, and it’s helpful for you.” I’m getting to them that way.

Another way is, for some of the conferences, when you do sponsor them, they will provide you a list of the people who were there, and you may want to selectively reach out to people. I won’t carpet-bomb the list, but I will reach out to the people directly, who I shook their hand, I said hello. And I just make it a point of: I show up early for the keynote, usually the night before. I’ll try to go to any dinners or networking events they got that night and the next morning. And then I make sure I can hang around plenty after I speak. So, for me it’s purely: I’m playing the networking games at those types of events.

Will Bachman: I see. You’re inspiring me to get a wristband. “What would McKinsey do?” “WWMD” 

You’re a writer. You’re obviously thinking a lot about through leadership. And I’d love to hear some of your favorite books. Not necessarily business books, but what books have you either most gifted to other people, or that have meant a lot to you?

Mike Figliuolo: One that I really enjoyed was … And you’re going to have to forgive me with authors. I remember titles, but I’m terrible with authors. One is: The Obstacle is the Way. It’s a book on stoicism, and the inspiration for is Marcus Aurelius. And it talks how to be a stoic, and the value of being stoic, and how it can help you get through obstacles and challenges. For me, the book really resonated, given my background. I went to Westpoint. And if you want to talk about a stoic institution, spending four years at the military academy is about as stoic and spartan as you can get. So the lessons in that book really resonated for me.

What I liked about the book was first, it’s relatively short. And the first half of it has a lot of examples of famous people who were stoics. And then the second half of the book is all about: How can you apply the principles of stoicism to your life and to your business. So, that is a really good one.

Another one that I just read recently was about a founder of kayak.com, and the book is called A Truckful of Money. Just a really interesting read about a guy who built multiple startups, and what it was like taking them through the development phase, the growth phase, the scaling phase, failures, successes along the way. So it was a fun read as well.

Those are two that just sorta jump out as ones that I recommend.

Will Bachman: Awesome. I’m always interested in, aside from the professional accomplishments in life of folks, any thoughts or personal practices you have around wellness, or mindfulness, or how you run your to-do list, or your personal life. Anything you’d like to share around that?

Mike Figliuolo: Yeah. We teach, actually, some concepts around mindfulness and resilience. One of my guys, John Workman, is a huge expert on mindfulness. He actually coaches folks who are professional golfers and executives. He’s written a few books on it. One book, one of his most recent ones, is call Hijacked By Your Brain. And it talks about the amygdala, and your alarm system, and how stress effects it, and then how you can quiet it down. So, that’s another one I’d recommend. And I make no money from recommending that. It goes in John’s pocket, I think like 50 cents a copy. This isn’t a commercial. It’s a good book on the subject of mindfulness.

For me, this stuff got real, real fast for me back in 2013. At that point I had been running my business full-time for about five years. I had my first heart attack. I had some things going on in my personal life that were contributors to it, and it was also the pace at which I was running my business. I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wasn’t being mindful, and I had a freaking heart attack. My right coronary artery was 100% blocked. And I went to the hospital, then put in a couple of stints, and then the next day I changed my life. My diet changed fundamentally, I dropped 15 pounds, I started exercising as soon as I was able, and started taking the meds, and really got my house in order. 

Things got a lot better, I was more resilient, I had better energy, and then, unluckily, I was on a flight to a client engagement in Salt Lake City, and we’re about 45 minutes from landing, and all of a sudden I start feeling chest pains again. And when we land, I get the EMTs, and it turns out I was having my second heart attack. And what had happened was a chunk of plaque had broken off in one of the arteries, and had lodged itself in another artery, and that caused the second heart attack. And I looked at the doc afterward, I said, “What do you want me to do? I’m doing the [Stattons 00:42:17], I’m doing the exercise, I’m doing the eating right. What’s left?” He looks at me and says, “What about caffeine?” And I told him he was fighting pretty dirty, but again the next day I changed that habit, and now it’s only green tea.

So, look, this stuff matters. When you’re running your own shop, you gotta take care of yourself. Nobody else is going to. So, the excuse of, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time to work out today. I don’t have time to eat well. I’m always on the road.” Here’s a hint: They sell salads at O’Hare airport. I swear they do. They have bananas every once in a while, too. It’s a horrible excuse to say, “I’m too busy to eat well.” That’s not true. “I’m too busy to exercise.” It’s like, okay, well, can you afford to be laid up in a hospital for a few days? Can you afford that? The answer is, “No.” It’s all a question of priorities.

So for me, it’s a topic I’m passionate about. I push people on it. I push the people that I’m an executive coach for, making sure they’re taking care of themselves. I dropped a huge amount of money on a new bed a couple years ago because I wasn’t sleeping well. I went out and bought a Sleep Number bed, and you see the commercials, and you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yes.” I will tell you, Will, it is life-changing. It’s like all of a sudden I was sleeping so solidly, and it’s just because my old bed was old and wasn’t meeting my needs anymore. These things make a huge difference.

So, somebody who’s listening to this and realizing that, “Hey, you’re not exercising, you’re not eating well, you’re not sleeping well.” You need to get it in order, or bad things do happen. 

As far as managing day to day, managing to-do lists, that’s something where I have got my routine. I get up at 5:30. I hit the desk at 5:40 and check out the news, clean out a couple of emails, build out my morning, and then get back to the desk. Maybe do some writing during that quiet time from 7:00 to 9:00. And then I’m on email and phone calls for the majority of the day. And then I’ll work out at the end of the day, usually around 3:30-4:00, I’ll hit the elliptical machine. and then in the evening I’ll do a little more cleanup on some more documents. So I’ve got that routine, which does serve me well.

And as far as task management, I’ve just gotten brutal about saying no. I get unsolicited requests a lot of times to write a blog post, or be on a podcast, or whatever it is, and in the past I used to even write people back, and just say, “Hey, I’m not interested.” Or vendors would pitch me, I’d write back and say I’m not interested. Now, it’s like look, I didn’t invite you in my inbox, I’m just going to delete your email. And I’m not going to feel bad about it because I’m not going to let you consume any more of my time for me to read your email. So, prioritization and not feeling bad about saying no is kind of key.

Will Bachman: Well, thank you for saying “Yes” to my invitation, and also-

Mike Figliuolo: Well of course.

Will Bachman: And thanks, Mike, really, for sharing that personal story about the heart attacks and the change. That’s a really powerful thing for people to hear, and such an important message to not wait for that to happen. For folks that are running your own show, your own body is your factory. And you are running a factory, you’d want to put in some CapEx from time to time, and do some maintenance.

Mike Figliuolo: Exactly.

Will Bachman: And if you’re an independent professional, that’s your fixed asset, right?

Mike Figliuolo: Yeah, and it’s a great way to think about it. You wouldn’t run your factory without your reports and your dashboard. It’s like, when’s the last time you had your blood pressure and your cholesterol checked? And for folks who are listening, and don’t know me personally, and see me physically, it’s not like I’m some 500-pound guy. I’m 6 foot. When I had my heart attack, I was 215 pounds. And right now, I’m kinda at my sliding weight, at about 200. I’m in good shape. I’m 46 years old. And this happened three years ago, the first one, four years ago, for crying out loud. I was 43 years old. This happens, folks. This isn’t just for folks who are obese. It happens. 

Will Bachman: So, green tea, getting up early, and I love what you’re doing. For people that are listening that say, “Hey, my firm could use a shot of this sort of McKinsey style training,” Mike, what is the best ways for people to contact you?

Mike Figliuolo: They can just reach out to me on our website at thoughtleadersllc.com and I’m delighted to talk about it. We partner with a lot of professionals who don’t do the training stuff, and we end up being that training provider that works alongside them. And conversely, there are situations where clients are asking us for consulting services or coaching services that we don’t do, and I love referring people into those situations as well. That’s good for all of us small players, cause this is your model, right? It helps us small players compete with the big ones.

Will Bachman: Fantastic. Well, Mike, thank you so much for being on the show.

Mike Figliuolo: It’s my pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Related Episodes


AI Project Case Study

Karen Friedenberg


Why and How to Become an Adjunct Professor

Panel Discussion


Building a World-class Professional Services Firm

Russell S. Reynolds, Jr.


AI Project Case Study

Paul Gaspar