Stedman Graham: Building a More Dynamic Brand (No Matter What’s Happening in Your Career)

profile_stedmanNearly everyone calls him Stedman, even those who only know him as the significant other of one of the world’s most powerful women (hint: It’s not Martha Stewart). But this tall, gently articulate, elegant man carries a formidable message of his own, one that requires much work on the part of the listener, as well as considerable effort towards positive change. “There’s always a struggle between what you want to do and what the world wants you to do,” he observes from his high-rise office in downtown Chicago, with its pulsating panorama of the city below. “Someone’s always trying to convince you that you need something,” whether it’s actually the case or not. And when you get caught in situations that fail to serve personal growth, real trouble begins. “People who spend their lives doing what they don’t believe in or putting in time become slaves and are controlled by others.”

No matter what the status of your career — whether it’s rising, falling, or on a roller-coaster due to an unstable economy — there’s much to mine from this motivational speaker, trainer, consultant and author, of among other things, two bestsellers, YOU CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN (Simon & Schuster, 1997, hardback; Fireside, 1998, paperback) and BUILD YOUR OWN LIFE BRAND! (Free Press, 2001, hardback; Fireside, 2002, paperback). The first title outlines a nine-step program for success (see sidebar), while the second focuses on excellence in performance and personal achievement through creating an effective name for yourself. Stedman has also followed up with TEENS CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN (Fireside, 2000, paperback ), which dovetails with his work with disadvantaged youth.

Breaking the Cycle

Stedman’s life is a prime example of carving your own niche, regardless of circumstances. He grew up in a nearly all-black community in New Jersey, with dreams of becoming a professional basketball star. The first member of his family to graduate college — people in his home town of Whitesboro taunted his learning-disabled brothers and told Stedman he’d never attend a university because his family was too stupid — he served in the Army in Europe, getting his Master’s degree in Germany and playing in leagues there. Still, he “never hit the big time in the United States,” according to an article in the Washington Post. “He believes that because when he was younger he didn’t think through the steps it would take to be good enough [for] the arenas he coveted.”

After returning to the United States, Stedman did a seemingly about-face, working as a prison guard in Colorado, then moving to Chicago to become director of education for a penal system. It was there that he became interested in motivation: “Part of my problem was that I’d done fairly well in life without a plan,” he recalls in YOU CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN. “”I was a long time without direction. I just took life as it came.”

A few years ago though, personal and professional crises made him realize that although “I was moving, I didn’t have any control over where I was going. I was a passenger, rather than a driver, in my own life.” Another impetus was his exposure “to people who did seem to be in control of their own destinies.” Regardless of their backgrounds, “they all seemed to have one thing in common: they understood there is a process for pursuing success.” Rather than letting events or people rule them, “they have become the most active and influential force in their own lives.”

Locating a Lucrative Middle Ground

Anyone can take steps towards mastery of their universe, but remaining on course is the real challenge. And it’s even more difficult today, as the gap widens between the rich and the poor, while the middle ground — where most sales traditionally occur — continues to shift and in some cases, shrink.

To counteract negative trends, “you need to know what’s real and what has turned into mind-numbing routine,” points out Stedman. This requires a strong sense of relevance as well as an ability to objectively define circumstances. One effective technique would be to make a list of observations. Not only does this help clarify issues, but seeing something in black-and-white adds a dimension of reality. For example, writing “”My boss is a jerk,” might cause one to wonder, “Why?” or “What can I do to get out of this situation?”

Another would be to take classes and attend conferences, sharpening already existing skills and keeping on top of what’s latest in the field. “Markets are getting smaller, and the trend is towards specialization, customization, and diversity,” continues Stedman. “So rather than being used for what people want you to do, place yourself in a situation where your added education and knowledge of trends and technology provide an invaluable contribution. By recognizing change before it comes, you’re putting yourself in preventative mode.” Were the company to downsize or another shakeup occur, there’s the added insurance of being flexible enough to take on a new position or product, as well as the confidence that you’ve got a solid core of knowledge.

Making a Plan and Checking It Twice

“Being successful in sales is about alignment and balance,” he adds. And the best way to achieve these would be to have a plan. In YOU CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN, Stedman suggests formulating a program of action for each of the nine steps. “But first, ask yourself two questions: Do I believe in what I’m selling? And can I convince others?”

Once a commitment to a product or service is made, it’s a matter of setting priorities and creating a solid road map. The latter is a long-term process and “there really are no shortcuts. Deciding which steps to take can be difficult.” Therefore all decisions need to be carefully weighed, rather than being made as a reaction to an immediate situation or for instant gratification. “Those who take the time to think and plan out their lives get the greatest benefits.” John’s decision to become a top sales manager at Buster’s Widgets (see case study) is an example of a thought-out, in-depth strategy.

Perhaps most importantly, “you need an inner vision strong enough to withstand obstacles,” Stedman goes on. Building a firm foundation or core competency, such as an ability to close deals or achieve camaraderie with clients, will aid in navigating tough times. Having a solid belief in your capabilities communicates itself both verbally and through body language and “helps you connect to the people you’re selling to. It makes them feel unique, and therefore interested in developing a relationship,” be it as an employer or a client.

Everyone fails, but if it’s looked upon as an learning experience, it will only strengthen chances for future success, he asserts. For example, having a established customer abruptly switch to another company offers an opportunity for self-examination. No one wants this to happen of course, but talking with the defector as well as existing clients and getting the opinions of all involved parties may provide insight on how to maintain strong business relationships. Analyzing the reasons behind the defeat is necessary in preventing it from occurring again.

Proactivity: The Biggest Challenge

One of the first steps towards self-determination is to look at sales models of people who have been successful, advises Stedman. In BUILD YOUR OWN LIFE BRAND, he provides examples of what he calls “branding styles of the rich and famous” (including guess-who and Martha Stewart). Among other things, they are unafraid to stretch their abilities and take chances along with paying close attention to the markets, fine-tuning their tactics accordingly. Although these methods may appear to contradict each other, by monitoring “changes in tastes and culture” and reinventing themselves, they continue to pique interest and draw an audience and remain fluid in their approach, rather than static. So far, no one has ever accused Madonna of being stale.

Also self-image is vital to success. “Nobody gives much value to someone who’s sloppy or disorganized,” he states. “It shows if you don’t take care of yourself, if you overeat or fail to exercise regularly.” Salespeople who travel a lot “need to be particularly conscious of health issues” as airline and road trips can be exhausting, particularly the former in these perilous times. Having stamina to overcome these obstacles requires a balanced regimen of diet and exercise. “The amount of time that you invest in yourself helps determine the respect you get from people you sell to.” Every detail, from deciding which type of clothing that best fits the situation to the values of a given client to requirements of a product line need to be attended to.

People are automatically drawn to doers. “Because of your level of commitment, customers have a sense they’ve made a wise investment by choosing to work with you. They know you’ll follow up and see things through, no matter what happens.”

Branding Yourself: Breaking Down the Barriers

But what if you’re one in a sales force of hundreds, an anonymous face in the crowd? What can you do to distinguish yourself? It is possible to be Number One, no matter where you are, according to Stedman. “Your relationships determine the kind of impression you make. Branding is all about excellence, performance, integrity, and consistency.” Everyone may be selling the same product “but it’s how the individual represents him or herself that makes the difference.”

Follows are some steps towards building a quality life brand:

Develop an understanding of the company’s culture. How do things work? What is the management style and organization? What are the company’s overall goals and how can you help fulfill them? In the case study, John not only took night courses in subjects related to his field but he cultivated a mentor within the organization. He also subscribed to and joined pertinent magazines and associations.

Generate a “buzz” that comes from others. “Networking experts say that personal referrals or word-of-mouth recommendations generate 80 percent more results than sales calls to potential clients or customers,” states BUILD YOUR OWN LIFE BRAND. In this book, Stedman cites the example of two teenagers, Jake and Randy, who came to a new high school from similar backgrounds. Randy was a “strong, smart, goodlooking kid. He could have been a standout in the class and a leader.” But he was also a braggart and neglected to follow through on various activities, losing credibility and the respect of his peers. Jake, on the other hand, kept to himself, a quiet observer. He went out for the same sports as Randy, worked hard, gradually becoming an integral part of the team and, later, an essential member of the community. By letting his actions speak for themselves and impressing people with his reliability, Jake created a foundation for success in the long haul.

Recognize your shortcomings. Rather than overselling yourself or trying to be all things to everyone, understand your limitations. Stedman is careful about the causes he lends his name to and groups he works with, staying within his areas of expertise and declining those he feels are outside his platform. “I would much rather spend that time becoming more knowledgeable and better skilled in the things I am passionate about so I can offer even more value in those arenas,” he remarks in LIFE BRAND.

Become a team player. Closely related to this is the idea of building a “team;” that is, surrounding yourself with people who will help advance your goals. For instance, if presentations make you weak of knee and dim of voice, but customer service is your forte, see about combining forces with another salesperson whose talent lies in the former but who lacks your particular expertise. “”You don’t have to be master of all things; you only have to look to others whose skills compliment yours.”

Becoming a Free Agent, No Matter Who Signs the Paycheck

Finally, Stedman recommends staying focused on the larger picture, keeping a clear view of where you want to go in your career. “It’s a constant process of self-assessment,” he explains. “Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why am I taking these risks?” This eyes-wide-open mentality “will take you towards becoming the person you want to become. Rather than being relegated to the role of a ‘salesperson,’ you’re someone who thinks outside that capacity and has an important contribution to make.”

Equally vital, he believes, is finding a favorite project or passion within the community, be it coaching junior league sports or serving meals at the local food bank. Although his own efforts towards helping illiterate and impoverished teens have raised his profile even more, the gain is intangible rather than material. “There are a multitude of opportunities and options for wealth,” he observes, referring to richness of life, rather than the green stuff.

By working on a cherished cause, “You can showcase your brand and demonstrate your talent. If you display leadership, people will respond,” creating a ripple effect that could lead to a new or better career or, at the very least, an improvement in the quality of your life. As with a stone thrown into a smooth pond, the resulting wave could reach far beyond anyone’s expectations.

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