501: Staying Human In The Age Of Data, Part 1 | Rishad Tobaccowala

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Rishad Tobaccowala is an author, speaker, and advisor with four decades of experience specializing in helping people, organizations and teams re-invent themselves to remain relevant in changing times. Rishad’s best-selling book “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” was published globally by HarperCollins in January 2020 and focuses on helping people think, feel, and see differently about how to grow their companies.

In the first episode of a 2-part series, Rishad is going to go over restoring the soul of business and what it means to remain human in an increasingly digital landscape, the 6 C’s in how to navigate change, and curing your inner dinosaur disease. As mentioned in the episode, the 6 C’s include: Cognition, Creativity, Curiosity, Collaborate, Communicate, Convince. Join us again next week for Part 2 where Rishad covers the ABCDE of marketing re-invented.

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George: This is the Conquer Local podcast, a show about billion dollar sales leaders, marketers leading local economic growth, and entrepreneurs that have created their dream organizations, and they want to share their secrets here. We give you the distilled version of their extra ordinary feats and connect their stories to your everyday life so you can rewire, rework, and apply the tangible takeaways we leave you with in each episode. I’m your host and creator of the show, George Leith. And we’re very proud this week to feature Rishad Tobaccowala, an author, speaker and advisor with 40 plus years of experience specialized in helping people, organization and teams reinvent themselves to remain relevant. In his seven years as Chief Growth Officer at Publicis, Rishad led an 80,000-employee firm comprising of companies like Epsilon, SAPIA, Digitas, Leo Burnett, and the famous Saatchi & Saatchi, those brilliant minds behind the It’s a Tide Ad. In January of 2020, Rishad wrote his book, “Restoring the Soul of Business.” It focuses on helping people think, feel, and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams, and themselves in these transformative times. In 2020, he started his own consulting agency. He hosts his own podcast called “What Next?” and was recently named by Business Week as one of the top business leaders for his pioneering innovation. TIME magazine has dubbed Rishad one of five marketing innovators. Get ready, Conquerors, for one of my favorite speakers and thought leaders, Rishad Tobaccowala, coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local podcast. Well, a couple of reasons why I’m excited to make this intro, number one, I’ve been practicing for months on how to say Rishad Tobaccowala. Is that how you say it?

Rishad: Absolutely perfect.

George: I was thinking this morning as I was prepping for this episode, the first time that I saw you speak was at Gordon Burrell’s convention three years back in New York city. And obviously, super impressed with the content that you brought to that presentation. And by the way, from all the people that attended that show, they voted yours the best presentation. So congratulations. And I’ve been watching your career over the last couple of years and during COVID, consumed a lot of the content that you had out there and very excited to bring you to the Conquer Local universe here and have some conversations around your career and your book. But what I’d like to talk about to kick things off is, what’s different today from when you and I met back in New York three years ago, in your opinion?

Unprecedented Change And The Continued Relevance Of Human Relationships

Rishad: I think the single biggest difference today versus when we last met is the long-term impact of COVID on society. Since this is now about two years old, my sense is what COVID did, is it put us through three phases: a phase a fragility, but that fragility was not just as individuals but as businesses and a society, regardless of how small or big your business was. We began to realize that there were fragility. We then moved to a second phase, which I call resilience, which will be figuring out how to go through. Obviously lost lives, et cetera, but we managed to persevere and now we’re in resurrection. And to me, the big difference today versus the three years ago is no one questions either A we’re living in times of unprecedented change, that B the way business will be done at every level will be different, but at the same stage, human relationships will continue to matter.

George: Yeah, I would definitely concur with that assessment. It is the one thing that we do need to embrace is that everything’s changed. And,

Rishad: Yes

George: A return to normal, it’s gonna be different. Like it won’t be normal like we remember it when we do return to normal. When I was doing the intro earlier, we talked about your career at Publicis as the Chief Growth Officer. What do you think would be one of your biggest takeaways from that tenure that you had with that very large organization, 80,000 people around the world working for that company?

Rishad: I would say that the biggest takeaway is at very large organizations, given a leadership team that wants to make change happen, willing to make certain bets and investments can actually change and evolve and become something different than what they were. Often, we hear of only small companies or startups being able to do that. But my basic belief is, it took longer and it was more dramatic. We made three big shifts and it took us five, six, seven years versus two, three years. So one is, we went from being primarily a communications agency to being a marketing and business transformation agency. We went from a company with maybe a 100 engineers to a company with 15,000 engineers. We went from a company that had 20% of our business in digital to 75% of our business in digital. And as of last week, even though we have 35% less revenues than our competitors, we became the most valuable holding company on market cap. And so, when they say elephants can’t dance, elephants can, but it takes longer for them to dance, but they can dance.

George: Prior to us meeting in New York city, I was actually in your offices in Chicago, working on a deal with one of the partner companies there and was always impressed with the Publicis organization; very impressive track record over the years. Well, let’s talk about what you did during COVID. It’s not like you were sitting on your hands, you were quite busy because you wrote a book, “Restoring the Soul of Business,” and had a chance to read through that book. And there’s an interesting thing in the forward that I noticed that I wanted to call out and get your feedback. And it’s almost like you don’t like data, when I’m reading through it, yet you were the Chief Growth Officer of an 80,000-person company, and I find that I just want to dig into that a little bit.

Rishad: Sure

Combining The Spreadsheet And The Story: Data Needs Friends

George: The problem with being data myopic.

Rishad: Sure. So for your audience, they should be aware of three facts before I go off on my Jihad against this. So one is, I have an advanced degree in mathematics. Number two, I have an MBA in finance and marketing from the University of Chicago, which was very quantitative. And number three is, I, for many years, led a lot of our digital and data practices. So let’s, for a second, pretend that I know something about data. Just pretend, okay? And so my underlying story is that data is like electricity. You cannot do without it, it illuminates the way ahead, but very few companies today can differentiate themselves because they use electricity. And to me, the big mistake is we have started to use data as an excuse and as a crutch. And to me, data is a input. In my book, I call it the spreadsheet, but I believe successful companies and individuals combine the spreadsheet with the story; and the story of things like culture, talent, values, purpose, and the realization that why we’re living in a data-driven, digital, silicon world, we are analog, carbon-based feeling people. We choose with our hearts and we use numbers to justify what we just did. So I don’t understand why all marketers and business people think the opposite. Because as I remind people, none of us would have been born if it was all data-driven decision-making because the ROI on children is negative. Right? And then I say, “Okay, what watch do you wear?” And they give me the name, and I say, “Okay, first of all, I don’t know why you need to have a watch because if you are data-driven, you would have much better watches on your phone. And if you’re not wearing a Swatch, why are you paying so much money? There’s no difference between what you’re paying. And what car do you drive? Are you driving anything better than a Toyota or more expensive than a Toyota Camry, why?” And all around every day you make decisions where data is an input, but you’re actually making decisions on a lot of other criteria. And then we go to work and we say, it’s all data-driven decision making. My stuff is like this total and complete BS.

George: I was having lunch the other day with a channel partner, customer of ours. And I think you understand our business model, we use resellers, and a lot of those resellers are agencies and media companies. And we were talking about a campaign that they ran for digital subscriptions of this former newspaper company now online. And I heard something that I hadn’t heard in a number of years and my colleague, tBone, who handles our sound engineering. I know he feels this way. But the buyer was talking about the creative and the message. And they were leading with that, saying, “The reason that our campaign didn’t perform the way that we wanted to is because our creative and our message was off.” And I’m like, wow, that’s the first time in a long time I had heard somebody talk about the messaging and the creative of the campaign. Usually it’s around impressions, engagement, leads, what audience we’re reaching and back into the human side of it, the connection and the creative. Is that what you’re saying?

Hypothesis: Anyone Who Is Fixated On Data Doesn’t Understand It

Rishad: Yes, so to me, there are three statements I make in the book. One is obviously, math is important and data is important and systems are important. And that, I basically call; one, I call it the spreadsheet, but I say, what about the story? What your potential buyer or client was talking about was I just can’t fixate on the planning, I need to think about the poetry, right? And the third is, let’s not fixate too much on the math if you can’t get any meaning out of it. So on one hand, we’ve got the spreadsheet, we have the planning and we have the math, all of which are important. But because we’re tilting so much towards it, we forget the poetry, the meaning, and the story. And successful individuals, teams, and companies, regardless of market or size, combine the two. And you might say, how does that happen? So, in the US, we have two of the three big airlines. One of them is called…. Two of the four big airlines. One of them is called United and one of them is called Southwest. They fly the same flights, the planes, pretty much to the same airports and the same FAA rules. One has never lost money till COVID. The other has gone into bankruptcy twice. One has a 2% turnover rate in talent. The other one is 25%. And so my basic belief is if you ran those businesses as math businesses, which is what United does, it hasn’t turned out to me that’s successful. On the other hand, Southwest, which has married math and meaning, story and spreadsheet, has turned out to be more successful. You see that in industry, after industry, after industry. And my whole staff is like, anybody who fixates a lot on data, I will put forth a thesis that they don’t understand it. And they’re using it as a cloak of insecurity.

George: I find that you can pretty much make it say whatever you want too. Like you can have it tell whatever story you want if you’re good.

Rishad: Oh, absolutely, look, let me say this very clear. Everybody in the world by May, 2020 have the same information on COVID. Same data. How come the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil followed one path and Vietnam, Germany and New Zealand followed another path? You tell me the people who are in the room and I’ll tell you what decision is being made, more than if you tell me what data is in the room. Okay? And usually most people have the same data. This is what I’m trying to get people to realize, is just because you have lots and lots of data doesn’t mean you have differentiated data. And what makes the data differentiated is what you bring, your company brings, your culture brings, your team brings, your expertise brings. And all of that happens to be people and ideas and insights, and we are confusing the two. And which is why the book’s been very successful, because as someone who is a math person and who understands how to run spreadsheets, I’m just reminding people that alone is not enough, and you have to combine them, which has, for many years, been out of favor because everyone is constantly talking about the planning.

Change Sucks, But Irrelevance Is Worse

George: In your book, you say, “Change sucks, but irrelevance is worse.”

Rishad: Yes.

George: What are you referring to there?

Rishad: So I’ve worked for the same company and I no longer work there, but I have a new career in which I still am a senior advisor and my key card works, et cetera. So potentially, I worked for the same company for 40 years. I met my wife when we were 12, which is now 50 years ago. I’ve lived in Chicago for 42 years. So you’re looking at somebody who doesn’t like change. When someone comes to me and says, “Change is good,” I say, “I’m happy, why don’t you change?” Okay? If comes to you with a bottle of wine and they say, “This is really good,” what do they say? “Let’s share it.” If they hear about an event, a concert, they say, “Let’s go together.” Why is it that when it comes to change, they tell you it’s good and they ask you to do it. And the reason is very simply, where you are successful or even moderately successful, changing is difficult. You have to learn new skill sets. You make mistakes; it’s hard. It’s like riding a bike, you fall down. And at that particular stage, you don’t really want to do it. But on the other hand, when people see my career, they say, “The guy kept changing.” And I basically say, that’s because while it was difficult, I had to in order not to become irrelevant. But unless you acknowledge with your teams that change is difficult, they are not going to change. If you say change is good, they’re not going to change. And every organization, small organization, medium-size organization, organization of two people, as long as there’s one other person besides you, even if there’s only you, right? What we normally do is say, we will go into the future and what do we do? We do the following three things: we come up with a strategy, we get some new skillsets, and we do some kind of reorganization, and then we put out a poster saying, look how cool we are. It never works. With this, we’ve forgotten four, five, and six. And four is, why is this good for the people in the organization? Number five is, how are you paying them to behave differently? And number six is, what training are you providing? And all of those are about people. And today, one of the reasons, by the way, that we have whatever we call the great resignation, the great reassessment. In May, 2020, I called it the great reinvention. I anticipated this calling of the great reinvention. And part of it is because people are fed up of their leadership, because the leadership don’t talk like human beings or in English over empathy or vulnerability, they talk about crazy shit like going back to the office. Okay? Which is the most ridiculous thing in the entire world to think about. Why would someone in 2022, unless you were a dentist or working in a warehouse, when you’re looking for agility, flexibility, and diversity of talent, why would you force people to return to a container of the past? Why? And that is a crisis of leadership. It’s got nothing to going back to the office. And so my basic belief is, I’m spending a lot of time at senior management saying, “Listen, people, what you’re hearing, this great resignation, is people are rejecting, not work, not the office, they’re rejecting you.”

George: And maybe the mission.

Rishad: Yes.

George: At the end of the day, to go back to what you’re saying is, it’s about that change component. I got to ask you this because you’ve done a lot of research around this, Rishad. Do you think this feeling of, “Wow, they’ve been doing it for a while and they don’t want to change,” I’m actually finding that the change is harder in the younger generations to set that stage. Like even when you’re hiring, we’re going to change. Like we’re going to change next week, we’re going to change next month, we’re going to change next quarter. That’s just the way we operate and that’s why we’re still here and growing it, right? If you set that stage, are you finding it across the entire spectrum of the workforce that this change thing is something that people just need to get on board with?

Rishad: Well, here’s what happens, is what people are basically doing is they will accept change that’s not difficult, but if it’s difficult, they’ll say like, why is it now? You’re running an organization where you’re basically providing explanations, incentives, or training. If you did not, you just said change. People would say, for what, where, how? Right? So what I basically believe is, yes, change is important, but you have to put these things together. Specific to your question, it depends on what people are looking at. So young people would like to come back to the office, some of them, not all of them, primarily because it’s the way they got two things which they can’t get at home. One is some form of social interaction, which was very, very important. And as important, networking and learning from others. And what is starting to happen is, of the, I think this is the United States number, 5.5 million people have dropped out of the workforce this year compared to last year. 3.2 of those 5.5 million are over 55 years old. Right? And they are the ones who are basically saying, we can operate very well from home, why are we going back to the office? Or if they’re frontline workers, because they’re older, they’re more likely to get ill. So they say, we aren’t going. So those are the seismic shifts that we have to think about when we think about change.

George: In the book, you talk about six Cs to thrive in the connected world. And I really wanted to unpack those because I think that those Cs really give us a bit of a roadmap of things that we need to be considering.

Rishad: Yeah. So some of those are basically very simple ones, like collaboration. Because if you’re living in a connected world and you can’t collaborate, you have a bit of a problem. Another one is creativity, which is connecting dots in new ways is what innovation is. And in a connected world, how do you connect things in new ways? So creativity becomes extremely important. The entire idea of being competent, the idea of being good in communicating. And if you actually start thinking about all of those things, you begin to realize almost all of them have got to do with EQ versus IQ.

George: Exactly.

Rishad: And there have been a lot of books, including a book called “The Second Machine Age,” where basically what we do know is that it will be people working with machines that will succeed versus people versus machines or machines by themselves or people by themselves. But what do people bring to a machine or to an algorithm? Algorithms, by definition, while they are written by people, tend to be backward looking, right? Also, what’s interesting is they can do amazing word processing stuff, but they can’t do nuance and shifts. They can’t read an emotion. And while they can do fantastic things by deciding which package goes where, they still are not very good at lifting the package. And so what tends to happen is we’re living in a world of math plus people. And if that’s true, then let’s make sure that the people continue to hone the skills that people are really good at versus trying to be mini-machines.

Curing Your Inner Dinosaur Disease: Gracefully Embracing Change

George: Now that’s great advice. I also wanted to talk about it, ’cause I’m worried about this, the inner dinosaur disease. But when I read about the inner dinosaur disease in the book, it wasn’t necessarily referring to people with the gray that I have in my hair. I think you were referring to anybody could become a dinosaur if they’re not ready to embrace change.

Rishad: Yeah, and one of the big things with, I basically call it, like, how do we slay our inner dinosaur disease? And the way we do it is at work, we do two kinds of things. Instead of making real change happen, we do what I call the deflection dance, right? And so the deflection dance is, I’m not changing because my boss is silly. I’m not changing because my business profit pressures don’t allow it, or my customers don’t support me; or I’m surrounded by a bunch of crazy employees, right? And then let’s say you get past that. If you go past the deflection dance, you then move to what I call the change botox, which is little injections of temporary surface embellishments. So you announce the retention of a consulting firm, you launch a vision or change 202X, you hire a talent agency or you’ll try to do something with a small brand, and none of those work. And so one of the key things I’ve been suggesting to people is they should own change, they should empower iconic class in their organization, they should leverage the fact that organizations actually are slow, therefore, start doing stuff because they’re also very slow at saying no. We ourselves should try to figure out how we can cross the boundary, obviously, not do anything that’s as ethical or illegal, but how do we cross our boundary? But more important, recognize this. If we do not change and we become irrelevant, we won’t get a job in the future. And so I keep explaining to people, “Listen, the reason you are changing is not just because changing will keep your job here, but without changing, you’ll become not marketable outside.” And in fact, what you’re doing is you’re dooming your company and dooming your career. And that wakes people up. And so the way I get people to think about change is why is it good for them versus why is it good for the company?

George: One of the things that you talk about is leveraging organizational inertia.

Rishad: Yeah.

George: And I’d love to unpack that and understand it a little bit more. What advice do you have around leveraging this? ‘Cause I think I know where you’re going with it, but I’d love to dig into it a little bit more with you here on the show.

Rishad: So often what we find is, to get anything done or get anything approved, we have to fill in what I call lots of forms and presentations and justifications. So I had thought for a second, if it takes so much trouble to get a yes, what if I start doing whatever I want to do, again, as long as it’s not ethical or legally challenging, and the same organization won’t able to stop me because they’re too busy thinking about paperwork they have to file. So in fact, instead of looking at the organization’s slowness as a way that prevents you from starting, think about the organizational slowness as something that will not stop you from actually doing good things. Because they are just inert. Their whole stuff is, we can’t move. So they can’t move to say yes, but they also can’t move to say no.

“If You’re Moving Too Fast, I’ll Tell You”

George: Over the last 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some very large organizations, and I think that, I can’t remember who it was, I think it was a former CEO of General Motors or something said that trying to get General Motors to change is like moving a cruise ship with a tug boat. And I’ve noticed these larger, and I know you consult a number of large organizations. So what you’re saying is, ask for forgiveness, not permission 101.

Rishad: Absolutely, just go do it and just make sure that it’s not illegal or ethically problematic, but otherwise just go do it. And literally, the organization wants you to do it. That’s the reason that they’re so slow at stopping everybody because they don’t know what to do. So they don’t want to take the risk of saying, yes, do it, but they don’t want to stop you either.

George: I had a boss one time tell me, “If you’re moving too fast, I’ll let you know.” In other words, just keep doing stuff.

Rishad: It is, it is. And then they can then guide you, if you want, but they can’t necessarily start it. And so I am very optimistic about the future. I’m very optimistic, especially about small and medium businesses, because my belief is, I’m a business of one now, I used to work for a company of 82,000, I’m now a company of one, and people are quite surprised how I leverage technology and relationships and plugging into different people to scale. And so I think we are one of the things that’s come out of COVID. In addition to all of us relying on technology and cloud-based technology and a lot of other things, what has come out of COVID is the disadvantages of being small or medium-sized. There are obviously advantages, but there were disadvantages of becoming less and less prevalent because almost anything you need, from finance to technology to support, is available in the cloud.


George: Well, I’m just getting a wave from Bret and Colleen and tBone and they’re saying we got a lot here. So Rishad, I’m going to call an audible. We’re going to break this thing into two episodes and have you back next week. So do you think that’ll be okay?

Rishad: Absolutely. I’m looking forward to seeing you again next week and hopefully, your audience won’t get bored.

George: ABCDE; standby for that coming next week. We’re going to bring Rashad back next week for even more on the Conquer Local podcast. Here are our team’s top three takeaways from this episode. The first, we got to make sure that we cure our dinosaur disease. How dare some pompous, young pop, some fresh ideas, some innovative technology, some fearless startup or bossy consumer challenge us? Curing your inner dinosaur disease. Just one of our key takeaways from Rishad’s episode. We use data as a cloak of insecurity because you can make it say what you want it to. It’s a big mistake. We’re using data as a crutch and neglecting to apply that data to the human touch. And it’s human nature to chase purpose. It involves adapting to change, which changed does suck, but irrelevance is way worse. If you liked Rashad’s episode, be sure to listen the next time you’re waiting for coffee or in the car or walking your dog. Episode 356: Emotional Intelligence in Sales with Jason Forest. Low EQ prevents salespeople from achieving their success potential, impacting many areas of their sales performance. Or you could try episode 101: Adapt or Die, from the master sales series. In the age of, “I’ll just Google that,” it takes a lot of effort for salespeople to become and stay the go-to market experts for their local business clients, but it can be done. We learned about that in episode 101. Or episode 414: Finding Success Through the Pandemic with our friend Mitchell Slater. It’s about keeping local businesses informed and helping them, because if they succeed, you succeed. Just three of the over 200 episodes we produced in the last four years to help you conquer local. If you found value in this episode, please leave us a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. This feedback helps us grow and better adapt to what you want to hear in future episodes. Be sure to subscribe to the award-winning Conquer Local podcast as we continue to welcome extraordinary sales leaders, marketers, and entrepreneurs. My name is George Leith; I’ll see you when I see you.