Leadership + People: Episode 34 - Jeff Rust - Part 2 of 2
Jeff Rust, Co-Founder of Corporate Alliance, talks about the importance of humanizing, genuine events that allow attendees to create and maintain authentic connections and reconnections. Rust discusses the three components of a successful event and lessons learned from Corporate Alliance’s 3,500 events.
- The magic of a valuable, humanizing event [01:53]
- Corporate Alliance has done 3,500 events, and successfully taken people from strangers to friends without a big-name speaker [05:10]
- The structure behind Corporate Alliance and the intentional repetition that lends itself to genuine friendships [06:20]
- Incorporating service to diminish self-interest, but strengthen relationships [09:03]
- From friends to customers [10:51]
- Don’t be a slimy sales representative to your friends [13:40]
- Focusing on the people, experience, and content in creating a successful event [14:48]
- Create an opportunity for people to meet each other, feel accepted, and take turns allowing everyone to become vulnerable [16:20]
This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: May 1st, 2018
Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, senior executives and entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies, and what device they wish they knew if they could do it all again.
HOST – JESS LARSEN: This is part two of our episode with Jeff Rust.
GUEST – JEFF RUST: But they miss the one point and how does it — how do you tie the individuals that are there listening to Magic Johnson, having a shared experience with the speaker, come away being closer as a result of that? And there’s just a few things that you can do in two or three minutes.
00:41 JL: If you didn’t catch the first episode, highly, highly recommend it. Jeff, I think we should just jump right off on picking up where we ended the last episode, you know the last 18 years you’ve built Corporate Alliance. You’ve got hundreds — literally hundreds and hundreds of business executives that pay to come hang out with each other because of what you guys have facilitated. You’ve got these long-term relationships from… you’ve been able to get executives from big brands, tech brands like Adobe and eBay and Domo, and all these things.
In the first episode, we talked a lot more about how you have done this as an individual with the one-on-one relationships. But I would love to cover a little more in this next part if it’s ok is, you know, for the listeners who are thinking, “I’ve been told our business needs more of a community. We’ve been thinking we should have events but, you know, they are kind of expensive and they haven’t created great results in the past.” What kind of advice would you say for people or what kind of things would you say are maybe some rookie mistakes that a number of folks make that they may want to look at some blind spots?
The Magic of a Valuable Event
JEFF RUST: Well, I think I’ll answer this question by sharing just an example and a story so… A good friend of mine, John Pestana, who’s also probably been on your show and the podcast, the co-founder of Omniture, sold for $1.8 billion to Adobe. John is an individual who loves people. He’s an extravert and he just said, “Jeff, the hardest thing for me is as you get successful, everybody wants your time.” And he goes, “If you give everybody all your time, you have none for yourself. But yet, I care about people and I want to come up with a way to be able do that.” You know, so he started to have these different events and the events were all meant to be a connecting, validating experience for him to validate those relationships that were important to him. But, he also wanted them to be able to connect with each other and as I looked at that, he said, “Jeff, it’s like my way of being able to go to lunch with 1,200 people is by having an event, and the key is how do you structure the event so that the 1,200 attendees all feel like it was as valuable as going to lunch with John or with you know the other 1,199 people that are there at the event?”
I think that’s the magic of an event is if you can structure it in a way that’s humanizing and that it’s not just the energy of the bodies in the room, but it’s also the energy of what are they working on? How are they striving to be better, and how can it inspire the light in me to be better? That’s the magic of a great event and I think that’s the part that I am most excited about, because it can happen around the dinner table, you know, with four or six individuals in your own home. Or, it can happen, you know, in your office with hundreds and thousands of people with your customers and vendors… and that’s the beauty of an event.
03:42 JL: Yeah. When you think about great events and relationship-building opportunities both for maybe clients to meet each other and for our team to deepen a relationship with clients, can you talk about some of the pitfalls of how you can pay for, you know, Magic Johnson to come speak at your event, you can pay for having it at a fancy location, but that’s probably not enough to get it done for you?
From Strangers to Friends: Taking an Event 100 Yards, Not Just 99
JEFF RUST: Yeah, you know the component is, I always feel like that is going almost all the way to the goal line. But, you can go 99 yards and you can get to the one yard line and you don’t get any points. And, that’s the case with a big name speaker. It’s awesome. It gets you to the one yard line — which those 99 yards are incredibly difficult, but they miss the one point, and how do you tie the individuals that are there listening to Magic Johnson having a shared experience with the speaker, come away being closer as a result of that? And there are just a few things that you can do in two or three minutes at the table to have them share “ah-has” and feel a sense of vulnerability and connection to what’s been shared to where they feel like they’re closer to in this sense, Magic Johnson, but they are also closer to the person they’ve been sitting with.
That’s the, I don’t know if I’d say it’s the secret sauce or the magic, it’s just that we’ve done 3,500 events where we’ve worked to take people from being strangers to friends where someone like Magic Johnson isn’t there. The person in front of the room is somebody that’s just a facilitator that the people that they’re there to meet are the other attendees in the room. I look at that and I think unfortunately people are getting lost in the lights and the camera and the action and the big name speakers — not that we need to get rid of it, but we just need to, let’s take it to the goal line, that last yard.
05:46 JL: Yeah, you know, I think another thing that’s a little bit magic about your methodology is, you guys aren’t lying to yourselves about people are going to become fast friends after an hour lunch together or going on one trip together you guys are now best buddies for life kind of thing. You intentionally designed a program where those of us in your club get to see each other repeatedly, and that familiarity grows and there’s this story and then that story and then, you hear about this story from so and so, and I feel like you’ve intentionally structured it to have enough repetitions over time for a more authentic, genuine type of friendship to happen on its own. It’s not a… it doesn’t feel like a one and done thing.
JEFF RUST: Well, we always had the saying, “easy come, easy go,” and I think that’s the same case with relationships. You know, there are some individuals that boy, you meet them and you feel like you’re lifelong friends. But, that’s one in a thousand or one in a million in some instances with people. And more often than not, we have to share enough experiences that we have laughed at a few things together and we can reminisce on that, or we’ve struggled together, you know. Some of the things that we do are service projects where we have been to some third-world countries and we’ve worked at orphanages or schools, rebuilding some schools. And I’ll tell ya, when you’re on the other end of a shovel, shoveling gravel together, and you’re exhausted, there’s a different level of connection that happens. The key is how can we create that without faking it? Because if you fake it, sometimes it’s even worse than not having done it at all. And so that’s the component — as we try to structure events or activities, is — how can we authentically do things that make it somewhat difficult and somewhat strenuous or vulnerable, without making it awkward? Because every single one of us has gone to some event where they’re trying to make us do things, they’re manufacturing it to a point that it’s awkward. And then you’re like, “Hey, I am never ever going to one of those events again because it felt horrible.”
08:11 JL: It’s like forced vulnerability.
JEFF RUST: Yes! Yes! And the only thing worse than not doing it at all is to do that. And so that’s the piece that I look at and think we have to evaluate things, you know, and scrutinize things with the expertise of the 3,500 events just so that we make sure that we remove the awkwardness and not increase the awkwardness.
08:37 JL: You know, it’s interesting that you brought up having your clients go and do service. You know, I think it’s so easy to think of the cliche of let’s take them to the NBA game or let’s… you know, let’s go to a fancy dinner. Those kind of things. And yet, you hear about the kind of organizations that invite clients to come do service with them and you never hear bad things about those events.
Incorporating Service to Strengthen Relationships
JEFF RUST: You’re right. You know, and the component that comes into play is that at least for me, you know, honestly is… I don’t get excited about a service project, but I don’t ever leave one going, “Man, that was a waste of my time.”
09:22 JL: [laughs] Yeah. It’s like it’s light on self-interest up front and then it has a way bigger payoff than if we had gone to the ballgame, right?
JEFF RUST: Yeah, well said.
09:35 JL: Well, so I think we’ve addressed a lot of the, you know, both in the first episode and here, of the, “Ok, you know, we need to overcome some of our short-term plans, strategies for efficiency, and realize the long game is where you are actually going to get more fruit.” Right?
What about the other side of, “Ok, Jeff, I am someone who has been practicing that, I have been able to conquer myself, as far as thinking more long-term thinking and being helpful to somebody else in a non-transactional way, and earning a real relationship.” What about the ok, but from here to — this actually does need to pay for my business. You know, the boss who is paying me to be here or the shareholders who are expecting me to use the dollars wisely. Now I do need to — we are here for work and in the long game, this does need to payoff.
Any thoughts of, you know, again whether it’s rookie mistakes you see or just things that you wish you would have known earlier about, “Hey, follow up five times, not once,” or just little tips and tricks, or just anything that comes to mind of ok, so we made it from stranger to friend… what about from friend to customer?
From Friends to Customers: Closing the Deal
JEFF RUST: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say a couple of things. Number one, most people attend events underprepared. And so, what I mean by being prepared is just on the simple side of how many new connections and how many reconnections are you going to make at a particular event? So, set a goal. New connections are people that you’re meeting for the very first time. Reconnections are people that you’ve met and in some instance and so, what’s going to be your goal of those conversations? Because most opportunities come from reconnections, not new connections. But you have to have new connections before you can have the reconnections. That’s one component.
The second thing I would say is when people go to events, they’re always on the lookout — the radar’s up for prospects. I would encourage people put the radar down on prospects and put the radar up for advocates. Who are potential individuals who can open doors? Not just once by them doing business with you, but multiple times because they can become a partner or a referral source, or some kind of a strategic advocate in some way, shape, or form.
And then the third thing that I would say is, and you nailed it with the follow up, is have some system with which — after you’ve set your goal of new connections and reconnections, that you have some system for follow up so that that time is worth it. You know, if you spend an hour or an hour and a half at some kind of an event, you know, all you have to do is take maybe ten percent of that time and download with some kind of an action plan for those individuals. That download will increase the odds of retention of who you are in the minds of the people that you met more than any of the conversations that you’ve had because you’ll stand out because you’ll be probably in the top, I don’t know — three, four, five percent of individuals that do that.
12:41 JL: Yeah, it is funny. Again, you know, in the first episode, I talked about being a bit of a conference junkie and I always like to go hear new ideas and stuff and I would say it’s actually less than one percent that ever follow up with me… Right, actually you give them the business card and they actually email you back. [laughs]
JEFF RUST: Right. Right. No, you’re probably right.
13:05 JL: But, it’s kind of back to your handwritten notes thing of like, we make time for the things that mean the most to us. You’re signaling, “I think you’re worth my time,” and it’s just professional and detail-conscious and thoughtful anyways.
JEFF RUST: Yes! You’re so so true.
13:23 JL: What would you add though? What else about making the transition of you know trying to help these people become friends recognize what the benefit would be to them without trying to be a slimy sales rep to our friends?
JEFF RUST: Well, one of the other pieces is someone — and I would say, being in the business where people have to see return on investment for us to be able to have them come back. You know, we’re a for-profit entity where you know, they do have to see the results. And, some of those pieces that come into play is how strategic is your plan coming in? You know, is there a reason — what’s the reason for you needing to expand your network? And some of those reasons are for new business opportunities. Some of those are just to sure up the confidence. Some of them are to sure up the business accumen so that you think clearer when you get with your executive team because the opportunities are there. As we work with individuals to help them have a clear, strategic plan, it makes it easier for them to set goals when they go in to an event, and then to actually action on those goals as a result of the time spent.
14:36 JL: So, Jeff, I like your response there. Tell me this — getting really right down to the heart of it, in your experience, what really is the magic?
The 3 Ingredients of a Successful Event
JEFF RUST: You know, the magic of an event really boils down to… The way we look at it is there’s a couple of different components. So there’s three ingredients to an event: the people, the experience, and the content of that. You always have to have the… The people kind of take care of itself in the fact of what you’re wanting to have, you know, whether it’s clients or prospects. Or, if it’s a family event, your families. Whatever the purpose of your event, the people take care of itself. The content, then the experience are the other components.
So, the experience — if the experience is really high, the content becomes less important. So, for example, if you’re hiking Kilimanjaro together, that experience is going to give you a bonding effect to where you don’t have to manufacture a whole lot of things. Same kind of a thing if you’re working on building an orphanage in a third-world country together and you’re there for a week. That experience is really going to weld people together. Now, if you’re hosting a dinner party in your dining room or if you’re hosting an event in your cafeteria, so to speak, to where the experience isn’t that high, the content is really important.
And so, that’s where I’ll probably talk just briefly about what the content of that and I would say, the more structure that’s put in place, the higher predictability of success. So, one of the things I would say is I would always have, or at least strive to have some sense of a seating chart. You know, people do it at weddings and they do it at weddings because they want to control the atmosphere. That’s the component that comes with a seating chart. You want to make sure that you’re creating an opportunity for people to meet each other. The second reason for that seating chart is that people feel a sense of uncomfortability when they go to an event. They want to feel accepted. By giving them a place, they automatically feel accepted, even if that’s just an assignment.
The next thing I would say relative to the structure is there has to be some sense of a table topic, or some discussion element that again, gives everyone equal chance or some chance to be heard. Because that feeling of being heard is what allows the connection to happen. And so if you’re the host, (Indecipherable), of a dinner party, let’s talk about it in those terms, start off with an introduction that allows you to share an experience that creates and shows vulnerability because if you open up and are in some way vulnerable, everyone’s going to lean in and they’re going to follow suit — which actually helps to building that relationship.
The next component that I would say is then you have to have everyone take a turn. And if people go, “I can’t think of anything,” that person who backs out really puts a wedge between them and the rest of the group. So, you want to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to take a turn. That simple exercise, in and of itself, will create relationships in a way that can start off a dinner party, and start off any event, in a meaningful way.
17:52 JL: That’s awesome. I feel like we got the power-packed ending there with the full layout of how to do it. And, appreciate the time you spent with us today. I know we’re out of time here, so maybe we’ll call this for the end of part two of the episode, and thanks everybody for listening.