As a regular reader of the retail website/blog www.MorningNewsBeat.com, I’ve long been charmed by Kevin Coupe’s writing, analysis and as he puts it, “attitude” (not to mention his wine recommendations). When I learned Kevin and columnist Michael Sansolo had written a book, I knew I had to read it. “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies” will forever change the way you look at both leadership and the movies. Sometimes the best way to find inspiration is to walk away from your desk – talk to a stranger, take a trip, see a movie. Or, read a book. This one is guaranteed to provide valuable insights for your daily business interactions – whether giving a speech or mentoring a colleague. Here Kevin talks with us about the importance of a good narrative, what “Babe” and “When Harry Met Sally” teach us about business, and why he recommends corporate movie nights.
News Splash (NS): Tell us about “The Big Picture.”
Kevin Coupe (KC): “The Big Picture” essentially is a serious business book that was written with what we hope is a light touch - and one that we think is extremely timely. One of our central premises for the book is that every business can be a better one if the people running it know how to create a narrative that appeals to customers, employees and suppliers. If you know how to tell a story, it becomes easier to get everybody on the same page, and if everybody is on the same page, it is easier to work together toward the same goal. But if your employees thinks that your business is about one set of priorities, and your suppliers believe it is about another, and customers don’t have a basic understanding of what your business is about philosophically, it is hard to have a strategic approach to business progress and innovation.
Now, that may sound pretty dry...but when you use well known stories to illustrate your company’s core narratives, then it becomes easier to communicate with people. Movies, it seems to Michael and me, are part of our cultural mythology - they provide common touch points that everybody can relate to.
Interestingly, since the book has come out, one of the common responses we’ve gotten is that “these aren’t business lessons - these are life lessons.” And that’s true. I think you can apply many of the lessons in the book to almost every situation - personal relationships, politics, government, education, etc... (It seems like Tom Friedman of the New York Times writes once a month about how Barack Obama has lost the narrative of his presidency...we should send both of them a book!) But for the purpose of “The Big Picture,” it seemed to make sense to give them a business context. It provided focus, both for us and the readers.
NS: How/why did you decide to write it?
KC: A lot of the inspiration for the book came just out of daily phone calls that Michael and I would have in which we would reflect on this movie or that television show, and draw parallels with some of the business issues we were addressing either in our writing for MorningNewsBeat.com, or in speeches that we give around the country to various companies, associations and business groups. We’d see a movie like”50 First Dates,” for example, which is an Adam Sandler movie about a guy who falls in love with a woman who has no long-term memory - every morning when she wakes up, she cannot remember what has happened in her recent past. And so Michael would say something like, “Isn’t that what great customer service is all about? Romancing the customer every day, never taking him or her for granted, and having to make the case each and every day that you are the preferred place to do business.” And I’d agree with him, and then I’d tell him about a movie I saw - like “American Gangster,” say, in which the drug dealer protagonist seems to understand the notion of branding better than the guys running Krispy Kreme.
Okay, I admit this sounds a little strange. But suddenly we realized, after we’d done this enough, that was a great concept for a book. We were encouraged in our efforts when Michael’s sister, who is a teachers’ union rep, used a reference to “The Godfather” when she was talking about how to enter into negotiations. So we knew we were onto something.
And so we started writing.
Here’s the funny thing. When we started, we were amazed to find out that nobody had really done what we were doing. (We held our breath a little bit, hoping that Tom Peters suddenly wouldn’t come out with such a book a month before us.) And since we’ve been out, a lot of people have been amazed that such a basic concept hadn’t been done before. Go figure. For once in our lives, we actually were ahead of the curve.
NS: You have a very full schedule. How did you ever find time to write a book?
KC: To be honest, it helps to have three things. A publisher. A co-author. And a deadline. That said, I have to admit that I blew the deadlines all to hell, and I was lucky to have a patient co-author and a forgiving publisher.
My website, MorningNewsBeat.com, is a daily “content curator” that requires me to generate anywhere between three thousand and five thousand words a day, five days a week, 49 weeks a year. Some people hear that and think that this must make it easy to generate a couple of thousand more words each day, but I found that precisely the opposite was true. I get up at 5 am, am finished with that day’s MNB by 9 am, and at that point I wanted to go for a run, read the paper, or get other business done - anything but sit back down at the computer. And about a third of the year, I’m on the road. So it took more discipline that I had, and I was probably six months behind Michael on getting my chapters done. (It helped that we’ve been friends for a long time, and Michael understood the MNB demands because he contributes one column a week to the site. And had his own issues - one of Michael’s businesses is developing educational conferences for associations and business groups, and last year was an extremely busy time for him.)
But I’ll tell you something. Once I got into the rhythm of the whole thing - watching the movies, taking notes, and really thinking about the business lessons of the movies I’d chosen, it actually came pretty easily. It just took longer than I would have liked.
NS: Which movies provide your favorite leadership lessons?
KC: Like any parent, I love all my children. But I have to admit to some favorite chapters in our book, which translates into favorite movie lessons. My three favorite chapters of Michael’s are about “Babe,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
“Babe” is a great business lesson because it is about a pig that refuses to be hemmed in by how other people define it...and the farmer/boss that is smart enough to recognize potential in unlikely places.
“When Harry Met Sally” is a fabulous chapter because it addresses the movie’s signature scene - when Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a NY deli - to talk about customer service. (It isn’t actually the orgasm that teaches the lesson...it is about the famous line that comes right after it.)
And “”Kwai” is about the difference between thinking tactically and strategically, and the importance of understanding the long-term implications of short-term decisions...something that I wish more people in the financial community had been doing before they helped plunge us into recession.
As for my chapters in the book....well, I love “American Gangster,” for the reasons I explained earlier. I also think that the chapters on “Rocky” and “Casino Royale” are favorites because they use the development of those two movies to illustrate critical business lessons about the importance of taking risks and being innovative. And I love “Jaws” as a metaphor for dealing with reality in any business scenario - you never want to find yourself in any sort of competitive situation and realize that you’re going to need a bigger boat.
And, of course, there’s “The Godfather” - which is like a master class in business and career management.
NS: How can business folks creatively use examples from movies to communicate and motivate?
KC: Let’s just take a couple of the movies mentioned above.
If you are in a situation where you are preparing for a presentation, or pulling together a strategy to deal with a competitive threat, you might at some point feel like your plans and personnel are inadequate to the task, or not performing to their potential. That’s when you can cite “Jaws” as an example...it is a movie that most people have seen, and if you use the shark as a metaphor, it creates a narrative that may be more compelling and actionable.
And, as I said before, “The Bridge On The River Kwai” is the kind of movie that bankers and stockbrokers should have been watching in the years before the near collapse of the economy...maybe it would have made them think about the consequences of their actions.
I think it is a great idea for companies to have the occasional movie night...to get people thinking about narrative and metaphor, and help them to frame their actions within a broader context. I’m giving a speech next week to a company in the baking business, and I’m recommending that they should all watch “Julie & Julia,” in which one character says, “Everything tastes better with butter!” A little inspiration is good for the soul. And even the bottom line.
NS: What inspires you?
KC: My wife. She teaches third grade, which is a real job, unlike what I do. She also deals with me, which is sometimes like coping with a third grader on a sugar rush.
My kids. I have three of them, ages 23-15, and they keep me young.
A great movie or a great book. I walk out of a movie like “Up In The Air,” or finish reading a Michael Connelly novel, and I’m inspired. It makes me want to be better creatively.
I got inspired the first time I saw “The Big Picture” on Amazon.com, and in the window of my local bookstore. How could I not be?
One of things that Michael and I share is that we also get inspired every time we get on an airplane and go someplace we haven’t been before. I know that traveling isn’t the joy it used to be, but I still love it. I get to meet interesting people, check out the local businesses, drink the local beer and wine, taste the local food, watch the local baseball team...and then I get to write about it, pretty much every day. One week it will be the Pacific Northwest (which is my idea of heaven), another week it will be Ohio (which has some of the nation’s best food retailers, as it happens), and this summer it’ll be Australia, where I’ve never been before and where I’m going in June to give a speech. I’ve been to China and South Africa, Japan and Ireland, Norway and Patagonia, and dozens of other places around the world.
It’s a great gig.