March 15, 2015

Don Libey

As news of his passing spread yesterday, a few thoughts came to mind.

Let's go back to January 2005. I was the Vice President of Database Marketing at Nordstrom. We were in the process of terminating our catalog division. Trade journalists called me to mock our decision, telling me how stupid my company and I were. These were the days prior to Facebook, Twitter, and Social Media. It was very hard to get unbiased information, quality information.

For me, the only voice that publicly made common sense was Don Libey. He had frequent columns in DMNews (one of two must-read catalog trade journals at the time), and those columns actually spoke to real challenges.

I don't remember what he wrote about in January of 2005, but whatever he wrote about, it inspired me to reach out to him. Who knows what I wrote, I don't remember, but I do remember that I wrote something passionate, because Mr. Libey responded. Not everybody responds, you know.

We exchanged a few emails, and then, Mr. Libey asked me if I ever considered writing a book? He asked me to write a sample chapter. I wrote the sample chapter. Then, in Spring 2005, he offered to publish a book for me. He took on all of the financial risk.

By the Spring of 2006, the management team that I worked with for the better part of five years at Nordstrom had either quit or been fired as part of what would become a highly positive change in management. I had just downsized my team of twenty-four professionals to just sixteen team members. My job certainly didn't make sense anymore, given that there was no need for the catalog skills I possessed. So maybe it was serendipitous that my book was released in March of 2006. Mr. Libey arranged to have an article supporting the book published in DMNews, and he made sure the book was available on his publishing website, and on Amazon. We agreed that I would write a second book, a book I spent all of 2006 working on. I also launched a blog, at the time designed to support my book. I had no idea how valuable that effort would become.

Go back and Google Don Libey and co-ops, from way back in 2006 (here's an article for you to enjoy). He was saying things back then that nobody but maybe one or two people in our industry will bother to talk about today. He was criticized, loudly. In fact, go read his library of newsletters (click here), you'll probably enjoy the common-sense discussions of his lemonade stand. These newsletters offered must-read content - you actively waited each month to read the content - today, you passively sit there as a 140 character tweet blows by telling your business to be omnichannel or your business will die. Read his content, and compare the depth of information to what you consume today. Something is gained, and something is lost in every technological change.

By early 2007, my job would essentially be eliminated - my department would be assumed by a person who invented the chalupa. It was obvious I didn't have much to do anymore, so I decided to launch my own consulting practice. I asked Mr. Libey for help - not help in getting clients, but help in how to bill clients, help in how to create products, help in figuring out how much to charge clients. Mr. Libey opened up his books, and showed me how he did everything. That kind of information was invaluable. I still use much of his structure today.

By early 2008, as we readied to discuss my third book, Mr. Libey smartly suggested that I self-publish. He saw that the market was changing, and that books were significantly hobbled by the internet. In the year prior, Mr. Libey routinely touted my blog in his newsletter, helping me build an audience. Many of those who became blog subscribers still read the blog today - some became long-term clients. I think he saw the future - a future of smart blog-based content supported by deeper topics explained in booklets.

It is safe to say that my business wouldn't have gotten off to a good start without good publicity from Mr. Libey.

I only met Mr. Libey in person twice ... in 2008 at a Merit Direct dinner ... and in 2009 for maybe one hundred seconds at a Merit Direct conference. That's it. But we did email each other, four or five times a year. He discussed retirement, his hobbies, and his ideas for how to evolve and change a consulting business as times change. If I asked a question, he answered. Advice was always free, and was generously offered. He responded to every single email I sent him, save for one in recent weeks, which sent off alarm bells in my mind.

I think it is good if you can create a list of things you've learned from another person. Here's what I learned from Mr. Libey, or what I believed that his values reinforced in my mind.

  1. Always be honest, even if it means you lose business and you anger vendors.
  2. Trust is terribly important to success in business.
  3. It is important to look at what is happening today, and then project what that means for the future. Mr. Libey liked to look well out into the future, I like to look out into a 3-5 year window.
  4. Business is actually simple - focus on the details more than the technology. This concept never changes, by the way.
  5. It is important to be able to write.
  6. It is equally important to be a very, very good public speaker.
  7. Good > Evil.
  8. Treat young professionals very well.
  9. Freely give.
Mr. Libey had advice for me that was counter to what I wanted to do, or was in my opinion wrong. Still, I always listened. There was a valid reason for the advice he shared, and what he shared wasn't being shared for malicious reasons. So, I listened!

Here's one of the things that I think Mr. Libey did well. He knew that there was a combination of technological change and demographic change, and he knew that this combination of change would have consequences for existing businesses, and for professionals working in existing businesses. I perceive that he knew that it was time for another generation of professionals to deal with the problems.

I expand upon this hypothesis in my current work. I spent a lot of time last fall working with a technology company outside of the catalog industry. The employees were in their 20s and early/mid 30s. They had a very different view of the world than I had. They had amazing energy. They had fantastic ideas. They could self-organize and solve problems. The last thing they needed was somebody like me telling them what to do and how to do it. But they did need help - they needed advice for dealing with Executives. This is something that repeats through the generations ... folks who have been through the wars have knowledge that is helpful to younger generations ... younger generations have technology-specific knowledge that older professionals cannot possibly capitalize on. If you can get the older/younger dynamic to work, you really, really have something! I sensed that Mr. Libey knew this better than most, as he leveraged that knowledge in helping me get my business started.

Change should cause us to pause, to reflect, and to survey the landscape.

Not many of us want to talk about this. But there is a truth, folks, that we have to deal with. We are about to embark on a generational shift. The Baby Boomer generation is in the process of leaving the workforce. My generation, Gen-X, does not have the "numbers", population-wise, to move into all of the positions that Baby Boomers will vacate in the next decade. This means that we're going to have to be proactive at passing our knowledge (only the valid knowledge ... not knowledge of whether to have a 68 or 64 page catalog) to younger professionals, and we are going to have to trust younger professionals with our businesses. Younger professionals are going to make curious decisions, and we are going to have to learn to be patient. Some of the decisions will be brilliant, some will be brilliantly disastrous! We have to do what Mr. Libey did when I started my consulting practice - we will have to exhibit leadership - we will have to give smart guidance without prescribing exactly what an individual must do.

Each time we lose a leader, we have an opportunity to fill the void that is left by the departure of the leader. I believe that Mr. Libey would demand that we fill that void. So let's get busy. Let's get busy freely giving advice when it is asked for, no strings attached, no desire to monetize the advice. Teach. Be kind.

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