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Business Lessons from an Unlikely Source: Children’s Books

Business Lessons from an Unlikely Source: Children’s Books


    Being the father of a 5-year-old, my reading on succeeding in business often includes two classics of business that my daughter also likes: ‘The Little Engine That Could’ and ‘Green Eggs and Ham’.

    These business books take two very different approaches to business and to me, ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ is the clear winner.

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    Both books deal with the same scenario: you face a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, Sam I Am (our protagonist) needs to sell a plate of food to a customer who presents a valid argument against the purchase: he doesn’t like green eggs and ham. For the engine in ‘The Little Engine That Could’, he needs to climb a mountain while hauling clowns and animals.

    ‘The Little Engine that Could’ is the guidebook for people who confuse effort with results, and is a triumph against the odds. This theme makes for great movies (or children’s books), but is a bad strategy in business. Here’s what’s so terribly wrong about The Little Engine and his chances of succeeding:

    • He is totally unprepared. He wasn’t in shape to climb the mountain.
    • He had no resources. He was an Engine on tracks; he had no flexibility in his goal.
    • Despite this, he lost his focus on getting over the hill — reducing his chances to overcome his obstacle by taking on more clowns and animals at each stop. while well-intentioned, he risks failure by reducing his chances of success.

    Our little Engine — our Rocky Balboa of the railroad set — certainly achieved the impossible. He was setting himself up to fail, yet didn’t because of the author’s simplistic, misguided belief of the following:

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    “If we just try hard enough, it will happen.”

    A lot of business books appear to be based on this. That said, a lot of business books are fit only to keep wobbly tables from rocking back and forth.

    Let’s compare this with Sam I Am from the Dr. Seuss classic:

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    • Sam is prepared – nothing in the book indicates that he was somehow unfit to do the pitch.
    • Sam has multiple resources – foxes, boxes, trains, planes, cars & boats are all at his disposal in order to help sell through the situation. Sam had a network to support him.
    • Sam was focused on his goal – to sell-in those green eggs and ham, but was willing to change his approach.
    • Sam built upon the sell-in incrementally. He didn’t start with all the resources at his disposal, he started small and built upon them incrementally. During this time, he was building a rapport with the potential customer, even though repeatedly rejected. Sam didn’t let rejection stop him, and never took it personally, but used it to alter his approach, and his positive attitude throughout prevented him from becoming off-putting – his customer never rejected Sam as a person.
    • Sam was clear in his message and did not make the mistake that many salespeople do: he asked for the business, clearly and unequivocally.
    • Sam did not dilute his message by offering green coffee, or throwing in a complementary happy meal toy to attempt to get the sale in the face of obstacles. He believed in his product and showed persistence, dedication, and flexibility by offering the customer numerous options while staying on-message.

    In the end, Sam I Am showed the more realistic business approach — combined with a solid work ethic — and was provided the resources and training to succeed. (It is also perhaps the only business book written that rhymes.)

    While both protagonists had the will to succeed, Sam was set for success with his adaptability, focus, and understanding of the marketplace.

    So…would you rather have Sam marketing your product or that Engine?

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    (Photo credit: Children Enjoying Reading via Shutterstock)

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