Perhaps it’s true that change is the only constant but when change is sudden and accelerated, even the most forward thinkers can find themselves clinging to an outdated normal. Returning or remaining are no longer options as you lead your teams into the post-pandemic world. 

How will you accomplish your goals in this new environment and stay ahead of the curve? What is adaptation look like for your organization, what does adaptation look like for you, the leader? In, Not Going Back, strategic visionary Paul Blum provides actionable steps for living a happier life, becoming a great leader and delivering results your organization needs. 

Here’s my conversation with Paul Blum. 

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host, Benji Block, and today I am joined by Paul Blum, who has just authored a new book, titled Not Going Back: How Great Leaders Will Create a New Future. Paul, welcome to Author Hour.

Paul Blum: Thank you very much, Benjamin.

Benji Block: So, Paul, you have spent 30 years leading global luxury brands and working with fashion retail firms. For those that are in our audience and maybe they’re meeting you for the first time, would you just provide some context to the work you’ve done and tell us a little bit about yourself?

Paul Blum: I had a CEO role in some large global luxury fashion brands from Kenneth Cole to David Yurman, Juicy Couture, Henri Bendel and my role there was to really build those businesses from the 1990s through the middle 2000s. It was an incredible, interesting time to build retail operations then. It’s when the online world first started to become a strong player in the sales scenario.

So really helping companies navigate eCommerce and how to grow as a percentage of the business is something that I spend a lot of times working on. As well as digital marketing becoming a bigger part of the advertising spectrum.

Benji Block: So, you’re doing all of this work, what is then the lead up to taking on a project like writing this book, Paul?

Paul Blum: Well, I’ve been consulting for the last two or three years. I started about a year before the pandemic, beginning my consulting practice, working with a lot of startups and middle-sized companies, helping them navigate a very difficult environment, fast-changing environment. Then the pandemic hit and all of a sudden, those 10 or 15 clients became very, very intensive projects and I helped those companies navigate and thrive through the pandemic.

So that experience, working with those 10 or 15 companies in such an intensive way, that’s what inspired me to write the book because I learned so much, they learned so much about — I’ll call it realities or the new things that were important to focus on as a business and I just felt that it was something to talk about.

Benji Block: You have these 10 or 15 companies that you’re working with, it’s intense, writing a book is then this extra way of sharing your learnings but who are you imagining, I guess, reading this book? Who do you see it ideally suited for?

Paul Blum: You know, that’s a great question. I mean, I think initially, it was for the people that I advised. That’s founders of startups, people working in larger companies that needed help within this environment but what ended up happening is as I wrote the book, I felt that other people might benefit from it too; maybe someone working in a nonprofit or a community-based operation. 

The principles became very universal because the pandemic really put everyone in the same boat at the same time. That’s an unbelievable thing. I think it’s obvious but it’s worth noting how pretty much the whole world experienced an event at the same time. So, a lot of the principles that I was developing and talking about in the book became, in my opinion, universal and maybe of use to a wider audience than just maybe the founder of a startup.

The Sustainable Mindset

Benji Block: Let’s dive into some of the content here and if I was summing up your book at its core — and you can feel free to push back on this but — I would say that it’s [that] great leaders and great organizations prioritize people, that’s what it feels like at its core this book was saying to me. And you flesh that out in a number of ways by talking about how to create the future and obviously why this title, Not Going Back. 

But, I wonder if I pose this question at you and you have a great graphic in the book around this future cycle, but how will great leaders create a new future? What comes to mind when someone asks you that question and what are some of those high-level thoughts you have on that?

Paul Blum: Yeah, it’s a great question and yes, you know, the point is that people are the priority. I think that the thing that makes it interesting is while they’ve always been the priority, they haven’t always been prioritized and certain companies have been able to grow in the past without prioritizing things around people and I think people got away with it, companies got away with it, there was an ability to maybe operate really well or invent something that was very new and influential and it became something you can do.

I believe, now — and that’s why we talk about the new future — now, if you don’t have your people skills call it or your ability to lead people, to communicate with people, to attract people, then I don’t think it’s possible to have success in business anymore. So, where it used to be great to have and it used to be a great skillset that maybe you would hire and invest someone to focus on, I believe now, how you lead your people is a critical success factor. 

In fact, I’ll go as far as to say, you could be successful for a while, not being a good people person but eventually, it will cause a failure in the growth of the organization.

Benji Block: Is there any sort of – I obviously, business to business can be slightly different but saying at some point, you hit that roadblock. Do you see some recurring themes around when people hit that or does it vary depending on the leader?

Paul Blum: I mean, it varies depending on the leader and the industry but I’m seeing it happen earlier and earlier in the structure of companies. Listen, we’ve all heard about huge companies that are run by people who have no people skills or lack people skills and they crash and burn because of that when they get very large and that’s an interesting story but I’m seeing it happen at the very early stages.

For example, a company not being able to attract the right employees, because they have a bad Glassdoor reviews that are inside of it. Or people just don’t want to go work for them because they see immediately the kinds of people they are or the kinds of operation that it is. So, all of these elements are now in my opinion, a critical success factor. What kind of person are you and what kind of organization or community are you going to build?

Because without the knowledge of that and the ability to tell that story, it’s going to be very hard to attract employees and it will also be really hard to attract and retain customers. What I mean by that is that you know, people don’t want to just buy products today, they want to understand the brand where the company stands behind that product. What does that company stand for? What are their employees like? 

What are their labor practices, what are their environmental practices? All of those things are now transparent to the consumer, so it’s so important to deal with all these issues in the early phases.

Benji Block: You talked about what kind of person are you and then what kind of community are you going to create and so let’s go there because you spend a good chunk of that, the first part of this book, talking around that and there’s a lot of analogies and most, I guess I would say, like self-help or leadership-type books are going to start with you personally, and then, moving out. But one phrase that I found very unique to your book was this idea of a sustainable mindset. Talk to me about why that word choice because I find that framing quite unique but also profound. 

Paul Blum: Interesting, yeah, that’s a great question. You know, sustainability is something that I care about a lot personally from the environment and environmental perspective but I started to think about, what are the important elements of a human being in terms of how they approach their job, their day and what they accomplish. I started to see in some of my clients, a non-sustainable, either lifestyle or an attitude or an approach that would eventually erode the success that they may have in other areas.

So, I look at the resource of a human being or a person as a sustainable resource. It needs to be designed in a way or built in a way that you can get up every morning and feel good about what you do, get excited about it and be able to be successful. I think, working 24/7 and not taking breaks and not really creating the essential boundaries that you need to have could be a non-sustainable approach to work and I don’t think people want that anymore and I think that it’s something to be conscious of.

Benji Block: I love this paragraph on the sustainable mindset and I’ll just read your words back to you but I want our listeners to catch this as well. You say that, “A sustainable mindset is one that allows you to set boundaries, achieve balance and feel comfortable with experimentation. It also allows you to operate from a position of openness as you accept that you will learn from both success and failure and that your abilities can be strengthened by practice.”

You brought up this idea of boundaries and you also talk quite a bit around self-awareness and openness. So what does it look like, I guess, tune us into even your experience Paul, personally with fostering this level of self-awareness as a leader?

Paul Blum: Before we get to practice because that’s the third element but that second element of self-awareness really work, work to be done. And I think that every leader should spend a significant amount of time when they start a project or when they start, even start their day thinking about themselves, you know.

What are the things that are working for you, not working for you, things that you want to improve upon, things that you can do better. And that work of creating self-awareness is something that really can be learned and can be done. In the book, we offer a bunch of exercises, especially in this area of self-awareness because I think it’s a skill, it’s not a quality.

Self-awareness is not something that someone is born with, self-awareness practice in a skill that you develop by having an open mind, by listening to people, by experimenting and trying things and being okay with not being successful and then you know, getting back and trying it again. 

There is this idea of this resilience that comes into play and that is something that I think self-awareness, it’s a journey and in the book, we spend a lot of time on it because I think that ability to be self-aware will help you in a lot of areas in terms of how you develop your people.

Benji Block: Yeah, appreciate the end of most of the chapters having these just practical exercises and really, throughout very easy takeaways, not easy in the sense of actually sitting down to do them but in that you can actually access them are right there in the book.

Paul Blum: One of the reasons why they’re there is because, it’s interesting. I think that it’s so easy to say many of the things that we say and I didn’t want this to be the kind of book that just tells you to be a certain way or believe a certain thing or act a certain way. I wanted to really give practical tools, so that once you realize it’s important or understand it’s important, I wanted to immediately give the activities to help you improve that in yourself.

Benji Block: Yeah, I’m a question collector. So I actually, while I was prepping for this conversation with you, Paul, I journaled out the who, what, why, how, when questions so that I can go back and reference those because I love the questions that you provide as an activity and I think readers will really appreciate that for the self-work but then also again, throughout all these different assessments that we can do for our teams as well.

Paul Blum: Interestingly, I do that in my consulting practice as well. I have that list of questions and it enables you to not forget an important element when you are doing an assessment of a person or a company to go through that cycle of questions and I find it really useful too. 

Benji Block: I think it is extremely useful. One thing I think readers are going to notice in the book is that you frame over and over again that the old way of doing things no longer works and obviously by the title, you also know there’s no going back. So, when it comes to community specifically, I’d love for you to compare what was in your mind the old way versus what you see emerging as this new way? 

Paul Blum: Interesting. Yeah, I think, the old way were a certain series of priorities that people use to approach their jobs or building a business or a community. And there were these kind of things that you thought about that it was metrics for success, you know, looking at what you were trying to accomplish. It was alignment, which was a word that a lot of people kept talking about and focus. 

So there are these areas of alignment and focus that people used to build very, very large businesses in our society. I think in the future, those words are way less important. I think alignment can be a tool but if you are not careful, you can be using alignment to exclude new ideas and not run an inclusive community. So everyone does not have to agree and as you hire people, you don’t have to hire people that are all alike and that follow the party line or the concept and repeat it over and over again. 

That’s that kind of alignment thing that was the traditional first idea to think about when you were building a team or an organization. Now, it’s inclusivity is really the word that I look at instead of alignment, so in a sense it’s almost an opposite. New ideas, fresh perspectives, new types of people, new types of people in terms of where they come from, where they work, what their ethnicity is, all of those diverse opinions are in my mind critical today to be successful. 

It is not something that you kind of invest a little bit in diversity. I think diversity is incredibly important today, so how do you build that? That’s why we spend a lot of time talking about building a culture of inclusivity within the organization.

Benji Block: It’s fascinating how within society as a whole, it does feel like you rewind maybe a few decades and alignment was everywhere, right? Now, inclusivity is everywhere. 

Paul Blum: It should be everywhere, right. 

Benji Block: Obviously that’s going to seep into business. 

Paul Blum: Exactly. So understanding what inclusivity is, is critically important. On the other big call it a buzz word that used to be very important was the word “focus”, Benjamin. I can’t tell you how many books, in fact, there are writers that have written many books on focus. I am not going to name them because I don’t want to embarrass anyone but focus is a really key way of building a business in I would say the 90s to the 2000s when things, a lot of options started to happen in terms of how you would do a business. 

Focus became the big buzz word and I actually think focus today is a little bit of a liability. The way I look at it is adaptable, focused adaptability is the concept that I look at. So, never use the word “focus” without adding adaptability to it. So, you can focus on something for a period of time or you can focus on a couple of things as priorities for a period of time but they must be adaptable, they must be able to be changed. 

Adapting to the New Future of the Workplace

Benji Block: I could spend the rest of our time just talking about those two but I won’t do that to our listeners. I think there is so much there that is insightful. I’ll read just one more quote from you here on this topic. The book says that:

“In the old way of doing things, bosses hired people based purely on the particular skill they needed at the moment but in a world where constant change requires people to pivot in their jobs to take on new and as yet unimagined responsibilities, it now makes more sense to consider the role of your community members, that your community members play in the big picture rather than just taking a snapshot of their current function.”

I wonder if there’s anything you want to add there specifically as people are thinking maybe about the hiring process and the people that are on their teams. 

Paul Blum: Yeah, so reassessment of how people get hired both from the employee perspective as well as from the employer. In other words, you should hire someone that can do multiple jobs or have the potential to do multiple jobs and progress because they will or they’re going to leave. That is from the employee perspective. They are not going to stay if they are stuck doing a boring repetitive job where they’re not growing. 

So these kinds of understandings of what the jobs in our organizations look like is really, really important. You know you just don’t fill a job with a person to do that one job because that is basically a temporary function. If you need someone to do a very specific job and that’s it, you’re probably better off using a freelancer or an agency or a consultant of some kind if it is just doing that one job. 

If you are going to add someone to your team, you want to make sure they’re going to progress, adapt as the company progresses and adapts because otherwise you are going to end up with a group of people that will hold the company back when it has to change and that’s the one thing we know it’s going to have to do. 

Benji Block: So, we’re doing work on ourselves to develop self-awareness. We are doing work to create and lead a diverse team and now, we’re bringing kind of these worlds together and you say that a big way that that happens is through communication. Talk to me about the necessity of communication but you say, while it’s super needed this is often a word that maybe goes unaddressed or not thought of enough. 

Paul Blum: It often fits into like HR or PR or these kind of tangential parts of the organization and what I found in my practice that the communication from the leader and among the leadership team is critical to the success of the organization. It is not something that’s good to have especially — I mean, here is an interesting point, Benjamin, you know everyone is talking about people are remote workers. 

They’re working from home not in an office and then there is a lot of people who are saying that it is hard to communicate with that group. It is hard to create or its pre-décor. It’s hard to keep everyone motivated. That’s because they lack the communication skills and the technical skills to keep those people engaged. So I spent a lot of time in the book on how to run a remote meeting, how to manage or how to lead people in a remote environment or a hybrid environment and there’s a skillset to that. 

To me, it’s part of the future skillset of a leader. And to just say, we all need to go back to small cubicles and be in the same place as a solution is a big mistake. I think the companies that do that are going to be severely disadvantaged in the new world. What we have to do is get better at communicating with diverse remote workers. 

Benji Block: If there was a couple of things that we could implement — because I imagined there is a number of listeners and leaders right now going, “Oh, I need to continue to improve in this area” — what would be a couple of things you would tell us to be hyper-focused on to get better at communication in this highly remote world we’re living in? 

Paul Blum: Once, you’ve dealt with yourself, which is again, I go back to that because making sure you are clear as to what your values are, one of the things about you that are important that don’t change because that gives you credibility and it gives you a basis to start from. So once you’ve gone through that work where you are pretty clear as to what your priorities are, then it really goes to some technical skills on how to run a really good meeting. 

How to listen properly, which is a major skill that people really should learn if they want to be in a leadership role in this environment especially again, if you’ve got a hybrid workforce, how do you listen to people? How do you engage them in a hybrid sense? I think this ability to listen and communicate and tell a story and communicate with this kind of new remote organization is a critical skill. 

Benji Block: Well, I have two questions as we start to wrap up here, Paul, and this one is more of a personal question for you but with the knowledge that you have now, this work you’ve done consulting the last few years and the 30 plus years in different leadership roles, with all of that knowledge, talk to your younger self what would have you encouraged maybe those that are early in their leadership journey to start to focus on with the knowledge that you have now? 

Paul Blum: That’s a good question. I can only say on a personal level, I wish that inclusivity was something that I had prioritized in my whole career. I was very good at leading people but I think that I could have been better at bringing in more diverse points of view and having groups work together better would be something that I would have personally wanted to get better at. But it is really what I would say to myself is that I was really focused on results and focused on building businesses whether they were stores or online business. 

I think that if I had to do it all again, I would have loved to be able to have spent a little bit more time working on myself, making sure my skills were where they needed to be and then spend a lot more time developing the team and making sure the team has everything it needs to be successful. 

Benji Block: When a reader finishes reading this book, what do you hope their main takeaway is? What do you hope they walk away with? 

Paul Blum: It’s interesting because I’ve given a couple of advance copies to people and it’s been a pretty consistent reaction. Everyone enjoys reading through it and they feel great about reading the book just as an interesting book and story and ideas. Then they start to go back to it section by section or we call them sessions and really dive into it and that’s when I get the real questions, it goes deeper. 

So that’s really what I hope happens with this book is that some people will read it quickly, understand it and start thinking about things they need to work on and then they would come back and use it as a resource, as a guide, as a way of diving into these individual skills and challenges and improving with them. I wanted it to be a workbook. I didn’t want it to be a philosophy book or just overall theory of this is what we all need. 

I think there are a lot of people who do that really well and much better than I do it. I wanted to offer practical workshops and solutions to actually get better at these things. 

Benji Block: I love that idea of sessions because I do think in many ways this is a book you go back to. You pick up on a session that you feel that you need to revisit or brush up on and you do that several times throughout your career and throughout your company’s different seasons and when you hit certain potholes or problem areas, you just reference back to this. So I don’t think this is a one-time read. 

I really appreciate how you chose to lay this thing out so, Paul, thank you for taking time with us today on Author Hour to dive into some of the concepts. I know there is so much that we didn’t even have time to cover and that’s why we want people and encourage people to go pick up the book. For those that want to stay connected to you and the work that you are doing, what is the best way for those to do that? 

Paul Blum: That’s great and thank you, Benjamin. Your questions were great. I appreciate it, I appreciate the fact that you’re understanding what I was trying to say, so I really appreciate that, Benjamin. 

Benji Block: For sure. 

Paul Blum: The best way is we’re setting up a website called notgoingback.net. We are going to be taking emails and we’re going to be sending reprints of the various exercises that people might need in charts. So we’re going to make it easy to engage with this book as people go forward. 

Benji Block: Wonderful, notgoingback.net is that site again and the book is called, Not Going Back: How Great Leaders Will Create a New Future. It is available on Amazon, we encourage everyone to go pick up a copy. Paul, thank you for joining us on Author Hour today man, this is a fantastic book and it is going to be a great resource for so many. 

Paul Blum: Thank you very much, Benjamin. I really appreciate it.