Change the Conversation



In many ways our lives are simply an answer to the questions we are asked and that we ask ourselves. It is true for the life of a person and for the life of a business. In my work as a manage-ment consultant, one of my roles is to change the conversation. Sometimes I am required to change the conversation in a board meeting; other times I am required to change the conversation in a strategic planning session; often I am required to change the conversation for a marketing campaign; and occasionally I get to change the conversation for a whole industry. People, businesses, and whole industries often get stuck in the wrong conversations.


The banking industry provides a perfect example. It doesn’t seem to matter what city I am in, or what highway I am driving down, I see billboards announcing FREE CHECKING. I have been seeing them for more than a decade. Free checking is no longer a new offer, but the billboards persist.

Now, banking is a highly competitive and massively commoditized industry. That is, the services provided by your bank are widely available and interchangeable with the services provided by every other bank. In such a market, innovation (and hence market dominance) comes not from new products or services but rather from changing the conversation.


The same banking industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on advertising— television advertisements, print media placements, radio spots, and billboards. And what message do they choose to deliver? Free checking. At this point isn’t free checking a given? Isn’t it clear that if you want free checking, you can get free checking? Someone needs to change the conversation, and the bank that does (and does it properly) will capture market share at an alarming rate.


How would a bank change the conversation? Simple. Easy. A new media campaign. Core message: “What’s Your Dream? We Can Help. XYZ Bank.” If you are driving to work and you see this message on a billboard, you are going to have a very different reaction than you would to the “Do you want free checking?” message. Both messages contain a question, but one question leads to entitlement and the other leads to empower-ment. Are banks in the “free checking” business or the “partnering with customers to fulfill their dreams” business? I know which business I would rather be in.


Sometimes in business we just get stuck on the wrong question. It happens in life too, and when it does you need to change the question.


Your life today is an answer to the questions you have asked up until now. The good news is that you can change the questions anytime you wish. Ask better questions and you get better answers. Sometimes changing our lives can be as simple as changing the questions we habitually ask ourselves and others.


When I was a child everyone asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” When I was in high school everyone asked, “What do you want to do in college?” When I was in college everyone asked, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” So I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do and a lot of time doing what I wanted to do. The question made me think that life was about doing what you wanted to do. I constantly tried to create situations where I could do exactly what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. Fortunately, I was quite successful at this and quickly real-ized that satisfaction was not to be found in doing whatever I wanted to do. I have never found any lasting happiness doing what I wanted to do. But that was the question society kept placing before me, so that was the question I kept asking myself.


As the years have passed other questions have emerged. How is the best way to live? How can I best engage my talents and abilities to make a contribution? What helps me become the-best- version-of-myself? How can I lighten the burden of those less fortunate than myself? Where do I find genuine satisfaction? But in truth, these questions have been slow in surfacing, and it has taken several cycles of chasing what I wanted with reckless abandon, achieving what I wanted, and experiencing a certain emptiness for me to take these other questions more seriously and make them a more constant part of my inner dialogue and reflection. And, even today, I still find myself oc-casionally falling back into those old questions.


Questions shape our lives. The good news is that if you change the question, you can change your life.


How is the best way to live? It is a beautiful question. Allow this question a place in your inner dialogue. Start to ponder it. Pause deliberately to reflect upon it. Experiment with it. Explore the best way to start your day. Try several ways and note how you feel as your day begins and ends, your energy level rises and falls, your focus and efficiency wax and wane. Once you have discovered the best way to start your day, experiment with the best way to end your day. Having answered this question, you can move on to the best way to live a weekend. How is the best way to live? It is an incredible question, but let me warn you, do not flirt with this question. A casual affair with this question is not enough, and more than that, a casual fling with this question may do more harm than good. The question needs to be approached rigorously and strategically. If you think you are not willing or able to do that, set this book down and do not look back upon it until you are ready to fully embrace the question.


Imagine. What would happen if you started to take this one question seriously? What would happen if you approached this question as strategically as Procter & Gamble approaches the development of a new product or as rigorously as Coca-Cola approaches a new ad campaign? This rigor and strategy are the elements that have been missing from the work-life balance experiment of the past twenty years. This same rigor and strategy are just what this book will help you to adopt so you can design and build a deeply satisfying life— personally and professionally.


Matthew Kelly, Off Balance





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