Stan Slap is the Chief Executive officer of SLAP, an international consulting company renowned for achieving maximum commitment in manager, employee, and customer cultures. He is a well-recognized keynote speaker and author of the New York Times bestseller Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. Stan’s latest book Under the Hood: Fire Up & Fine Tune Your Employee Culture, discusses how to maximize business performance through improving employee culture.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Los Angeles, an only child in a family that was barely clinging to the middle class. My mother was desperately ill for much of her life and ended up bankrupting our family through no fault of her own as she blew through my father’s company’s major medical insurance coverage of a million dollars. I ended up living in foster homes for several years as my father balanced working as much as possible to earn money and dealing with the complexity of insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals in his minimal spare time.
I’m not trying to be dramatic nor claim victimhood here—you asked the question—and of course, many, many worse things can tragically happen to a child. But I did get two of the things a child should never get when they are trying to form their worldview: I learned that the people who loved me the most couldn’t protect me and that I couldn’t protect the people I loved the most.
This stopped the world from fundamentally making sense to me and caused me to believe that I didn’t deserve to live my own values. It took me well into adulthood to realize that this was the case and to radically change my life to what it needed to be. Watching my parents suffer so at the hands of often inane and uncaring professionals and organizations taught me the importance of competence, accountability, determination, and empathy—I live my life by these standards today. My utmost criterion for relationships is that they be weight-bearing and I hold myself to that same standard toward others.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I’d realized everything earlier in my life.
There’s this for sure: This is your one and only precious life. Someone is going to decide how it’s going to be lived and that person had better be you.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
My area of expertise is maximizing the commitment of a company’s manager, employee, and customer cultures.
- It’s the culture’s fault. (It’s not: A culture will give you whatever you want but you have to give it what it wants first.)
- A successful strategy is planned well. (It’s not: A successful strategy is implemented well.)
- A brand is a verb. (It’s not: A brand is a tribute that has to be given to you by your internal and customer cultures.)
- Leadership is a position (It’s not: Leadership is a purpose that drives a process, but nobody is a leader by position alone.)
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Several decades ago, before I got married, I had always lived a madcap entrepreneurial life. If my company, which was very small at the time, had money in the bank, then I had money in the bank. My wife was a therapist for severely abused young children, the kind of hugely important work that pays very little. When I got married it hit me hard that I was financially responsible for another person who trusted me implicitly, yet I had no financial security. I would like to awake next to her night after night, terrified of not meeting my responsibility.
The complexity of the problem was intimidating, a roomful of mirrors. How do I fix this, where do I start, what resources can I apply if the problem is that I don’t have the resources? Over the next several months I obsessively divided the problem into categories then reduced it and reduced it into the smallest possible steps that could certainly be done, then turned those into weekly calendar assignments.
It still seemed like an improbable journey to success but no longer an impossible one. I was certain of the path and every step, no matter how small, through the fog-enshrouded forest would get me where I needed to go. I focused on taking the steps, not the size of the steps, and it ultimately led me to the other side. Within six months I had repaid all debt, gotten us fully insured, opened a personal savings account. This was many years ago; my company has long since become large, very stable, and successful, and I’ve reaped the financial benefits. But I have never forgotten this essential method for approaching seemingly overwhelming problems.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I know what I’m fighting for. Culture is where humans gather in business. When my firm repositions manager, employee, and customer cultures as newly precious, workable assets to our clients, we cause our clients to protect them—a company will protect anything that’s an asset, especially if it’s newly leverageable. It can’t protect these assets without protecting the humanity they represent and without discovering or rediscovering its own humanity.
For over 25 years, we have achieved billions of dollars in measurable performance improvement for our clients, but we do this to make the business case for humanity. If we lose humanity in business, we’re doomed. When we save it—company-by-company, manager-by-manager—we will have saved ourselves.
What is your morning routine?
Nothing admirable or teachable. My company does business in 44 countries and so I’m up late and up early.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Several years ago, my company was reeling from a series of horrible hiring decisions that had been made by, well, me. Coincidentally (or not) we found ourselves saddled with a couple of clients that we couldn’t possibly have made successful––if they had tried as hard to work with us as they tried to ignore our recommendations, their performance would have been legendary.
I’d finally had enough and swore that we would operate with an uncompromising criteria for anyone who worked for us, that we worked for, or that we worked with. It initially resulted in some tough decisions, including leaving a couple of executive positions open seemingly forever until we found exactly the right people and firing a large client. But ever since we put what we call The Three C’s into place, the quality of new people we’ve brought into the company is extraordinary and our clients all want to win big with their souls intact.
- CHARACTER. If you didn’t learn integrity, accountability, empathy, and positivity at your mama’s knee, we feel sorry for you. But we’re not going to do without those behaviors and we’re not going to take on the burden of attempting to teach it to grownups.
- COMPETENCE. You have to want to be great at what you do. This means you bench your performance against your own high standards; you are avidly curious and willing to learn; you are open to feedback from every level; and you are self-critical in a healthy way, not in a depressing one.
- COMMITMENT. There is simply no limit to the energy that we will expend to support you as an employee, client, partner, or vendor. We never hesitate or regret to give it. However, we are not going to use that energy to constantly reach behind us and drag your whiny butt along. You have to have your own energy too.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I always start on the right side of the equals sign.
The best way to really solve a problem is to identify the real problem to be solved: What is the one thing that must be figured out to get you what you need? The answer belongs on the right side of the equals sign in your problem-solving equation. It’s often a nuanced answer not easily revealed but if you understand what this one thing is you’re most of the way to resolving the problem.
On the left side of the equals sign is the math that gets you to the right side: What has to be added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided becomes a finite series of clear-cut tasks and allocation of resources to complete the equation. Spend all of your time on the left side without accurately defining the right side, and you’ll be busy, but that’s all you’ll be.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I am answering this from my home library, which contains over 5,000 books, so a disclaimer that I’m a reading slut. And even though I’m a New York Times bestselling author myself and respect many other business authors, it’s fiction that has most influenced me. These books come immediately to mind:
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. The most gorgeous use of language I have ever encountered. It taught me that the emotions, places, original characters, and complex narratives constructed from various combinations of 26 letters can never be equaled by other mediums. You’ve got to read to get it.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. I ended up reading all of the Philip Marlowe books but this was my first many years ago and it taught me a lot about the importance of personal honor in business.
Tune In by Mark Lewisohn. I’m a big music guy and have found the lessons of how certain musicians and bands became killer apps, minted armies of evangelists, and realized often contrarian personal visions have never failed to teach and inspire me. This large non-fiction work details how the Beatles first made it.
The House on the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. A wonderous, stunning story of responding to humanity in business with empathy, kindness, and commitment, regardless of how that humanity may present itself.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Amir, c’est agir.” (To love is to act.)
“If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.
“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then forget all that bullshit and just wail.”
“God is in the details”
— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
(He may not have said it first but it’s who first heard it attributed to.)