The Secret to Winning: Look for Patterns of Success

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Would you like to know the secret to winning? It’s a system you can easily learn. It works every time. There’s only one trick. I’m guessing you already know what it is.

I’m a Frank Sinatra fan. That means, like any other Sinatra enthusiast, the song “My Way” inspires. (You can read my thoughts on that in “Ruling the World My Way.”) I thank my parents for this, for it was listening to their records that convinced me the Hoboken Hero deserved my attention.

Of course, I was born too late to experience Old Blue Eyes at his vintage best, but I was born just late enough to catch a glimpse of The Beatles. Like many others, and with the prodding of my older aunt, I rode the wave of Beatlemania. For me, that wave will never crest, even as death has reduced the four lads from Liverpool down to two. (If you want to remember the experience, read “The Morning the Music Died.”)

When it came time for me to audition for a coveted time slot as a AM disc jockey (when AM still played music), you can imagine my delight – and anxiety. Heavily influenced by the popular stylings of WKBW’s most notable radio personalities (including Danny Neaverth and Sandy Beach), I had the voice down. Unfortunately, save for The Beatles and Sinatra I knew nothing of popular music.

What to do, what to do… The general manager expected me to come in and play a demo set of music I selected. Frank and the Fab Four didn’t mix well. Besides, I needed six songs, not two. I turned to my college roommates. They selected five songs (I insisted on picking a Beatles song) and off I went to the studio.

I got the job but faced another dilemma. On the air every Thursday evening from nine to midnight, I was expected to play three hours of rock and/or roll. I couldn’t task my roommates to script a show for me every week. Yet, I hadn’t advanced to the point where I could do it myself. It was then I decided to tap into the crowdsourcing phenomenon decades before the internet would allow the rest of the world to discover its benefits.

Mind you, this was decades after the first radio stations began featuring the “listener call-in” format.

That’s right. I relied on listener requests to consume my three hours of airtime. At first, veterans at the station (including the general manager) looked down on me. Clearly, I lacked both the creativity and the knowledge to match the stature of their shows.

But then they began to notice something about my show that was most unlike any of their shows. I had listeners. Listeners who weren’t just my friends. Pretty soon my show had an audience share far exceeding that of mere mortal disc jockeys. I’d like to think it was because I was as quick witted and funny as Danny Neavereth. In fact, I openly credited my Buffalo virtual mentors for my success.

Deep down, however, I knew the real reason. I listened to people. Strike that. I didn’t just “listened to people,” I actively listened to them. I heard what they wanted and immediately gave it to them – no strings attached.

This would not be the last time I utilized this secret to success. Both the audition and the show demonstrate two variations of the same theme: the underappreciated power of listening.

In the first case, I needed to impress the general manager (so he would hire me) but I didn’t know how to. I found the closest proxy to the GM – my roommates – and listened to their suggestions. That’s third party listening.

The show demonstrated the efficiency of cutting out the middle man and going directly to the intended market. I needed to impress the audience (so they would listen to my show) but I didn’t know how to. The call-in format allowed me to both engage the audience (which attracted them) and identify the music they most wanted to hear (which kept them tuned in).

I used this same approach several notable times after graduating from college. My first job involved coordinating the company computer system. I had no “computer” boss and no staff. I also had no experience with business computers. I was by myself, steering the boat without a rudder. I convinced my company to allow me to join two business associations for computer professionals.

I practiced active listening within these groups. I’d ask other systems managers and technical experts to describe what they did, the problems they encountered most often, and what they felt were the most effective ways to solve those problems. I asked these questions not in the sense of a wide-eyed school boy, but as an experienced reporter would.

Within two years I used that knowledge to design a wholly new management information system. What’s more, I successfully convinced my company to spend a million dollars to install it. Oh, and, by the way, in that same time I was elected president for both those associations.

Speaking of elections, I found the active listening method quite compelling when I served on the Town Board, particularly in my last two years. It so happened that cell phones were just becoming a thing and Rochester Telephone desired to build a cell tower. There were plenty of good choices. Unfortunately for the town, the least expensive option (on town property) was also the most intrusive eyesore location. Still, the board viewed it as a short-term economic opportunity.

My gut told me there was a build option, but I was alone in that opinion. When the neighbors came in to complain, the board listened respectfully (public statements, at least at that time, were not supposed to generate dialog with the members of the board). When the board convened with Rochester Telephone, the public questions were ignored.

That’s when that old AM DJ clicked in. Like the call-in requests of those days, I merely repeated the questions the public had asked earlier in their comments. That changed the entire dynamic. A few moments earlier, the board was prepared to vote to place the tower in the eyesore location. They didn’t. Today we have a cell tower in town. Do you know where it is? That’s the power of active listening.

While active listening is important (I continue to employ it regularly, especially during my public speaking), it’s not the most important takeaway from these memories. These series of stories reflect a consistent pattern. I noticed this pattern of success and purposely repeated it. It’s one of many patterns I’ve seen that often lead to success.

Over the course of your life, have you seen patterns that have produced success for you? How would finding these patterns early help you be more successful? Do you know the best way to learn how to recognize patterns? I learned by playing chess.

But that’s another story.

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