All of us encounter twists and turns every day—whether in our personal lives or at work. Steve McKee’s new book “Turns: Where Business Is Won and Lost” offers a guide for which turns to take to live a better life.
McKee, co-founder of the McKee Wallwork marketing agency in New Mexico and author of several acclaimed books, has navigated turns throughout this own life and successful career. He joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain how he navigated the ups and downs as an innovative leader.
Listen to the full interview or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: It’s not too often that we have folks from New Mexico in here at The Heritage Foundation studio with us. What’s the mood in Albuquerque these days?
Steve McKee: These days the mood is kind of cranky. We’ve had a big overreach by our overreaching governor. It’s been national news, so probably everybody knows about it, with her trying to suspend the Second Amendment with a public health order. And I’m actually very proud of my fellow citizens because the local sheriff says, “I’m not going to enforce it.” The Democrat attorney general says, “I’m not going to defend it.” And nobody really seems to be complying. So it’s a little bit cranky.
Bluey: It’s interesting. We have covered it at The Daily Signal. Our Second Amendment expert here at The Heritage Foundation, Amy Swearer, has paid close attention to this, as she does all matters involving gun rights, and certainly something to keep a close eye on.
This is one of those issues that we know that the Left is concentrating a lot of attention on. We see it in Tennessee and other states as well. So thank you for that perspective.
We are here to talk about your new book, but I always like to hear a little bit more about the author’s life before we delve into the heavy content. So you have had quite a journey in your own life. You’ve had many turns, to use a phrase on the title of your book, and I’d like you to share with our audience how you got to the point you are today.
McKee: I’m a homegrown kid in New Mexico. I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there in public education all the way through, kind of had to make my way. And nearly 40 years ago I found myself in the advertising business and I guess what you’re good at you tend to like and what you like you tend to be good at. And I was pretty good at it.
And one thing led to another, and 27 years ago we started McKee Wallwork. And we’re a marketing advisory firm that actually helps companies become what they’re intended to be, especially when they run into rough water. So very often that involves a turnaround, which is kind of where this whole idea came from.
Bluey: And in your own case, you’ve had a couple downturns at McKee Wallwork.
McKee: Oh, yes.
Bluey: So how did those experiences, the highs and the lows in your own business, help shape your thinking as you prepared to write this book?
McKee: My first book is called “When Growth Stalls: How It Happens, Why You’re Stuck and What to Do About It.” And that was a memoir. We grew very quickly for five years when we first launched and then we nearly went bankrupt. We had a very difficult time.
It’s a long story, but we commissioned some market research that basically we were looking for the keys to growth. And what we found were the keys to failure, which is the same thing, just hold it up to a mirror. And we turned our company around using it. And so that was the first big downturn. That was in the early 2000s. That was really an eye-opener for us.
Then, of course, we all lived through the Great Recession beginning in 2008, 2009, that went on for a decade really, that everybody had to cope with. And so those are the very personal aspects of turnarounds. And then, of course, doing consulting for companies on those very issues.
It’s really remarkable because the first title chapter of “When Growth Stalls” is it’s not just business, it’s personal. And that’s the way I look at it. We consult with companies and help them turn around, but we’ve been through it more than once. And it gives us a real empathy and I think a good perspective from which to consult.
Bluey: Absolutely. What you’ve described are that sometimes, and you say this in the book, that turns happen to us, but we can also make turns happen ourselves.
And so tell us about this new book. First of all, I love the first chapter, and you just described in very plain terms how turns are a factor in our lives in so many different ways. And we don’t even think about it sometimes. But the word itself is quite prominent in almost everything we do every single day from the moment we wake up.
McKee: Yes, exactly. First of all, physicists tell us everything in the universe is turning literally all the time, which is kind of crazy. To butcher Cicero, paraphrase Cicero, he basically said, “There are a few new things that we look at and we marvel at them, but there’s marvelous things around us all the time that we ignore.” And that’s the way I felt about turns.
I am a swimmer and there’s not a lot to do in the pool. You can’t check your email in the pool, so you think a lot. And I realized that a swimming turn is one of the most complex things in sports, and yet good swimmers do it without thinking. And when that occurred to me, I thought, “What other kinds of turns do we do without thinking?” And so I was just inspired.
I did about a year of research and I began with looking at turns in the physical world, the actual physics of turns, whether you’re turning a car or turning on your own foot or what have you, and began to understand that as a sort of a meta-metaphor for turns in life, turns in history, turns in politics, turns in sports, turns in our careers.
It is remarkable how common the things that we deal with in a physical turn apply to the things that we deal with in our life turns. Not the least of which is, “Yeah, turns happen, but we can also make turns happen.” And that’s really the empowering message of the book.
Bluey: You wrote another book called “Power Branding,” which had a big influence on my life. As somebody who was trained in journalism and has spent most of my career doing journalism, I now have this responsibility of wearing my other hat at The Heritage Foundation, working with our marketing team. And so it was very helpful in that context.
“Turns” is a business book, but it’s also about life, as you’ve talked about. What was the motivation to devote the time and energy into producing a book like this?
McKee: I would say two things. One is just a general curiosity. You have to be curious and I was just curious. And once I started doing the research, it was kind of a vortex that sucked me in.
But the second thing is, given what I do for a living and how we help companies turn around, what we’ve learned over the years is when things go south, we tend to naturally blame external events. We all do it just as human beings and certainly as business people. And yet we have so much agency, personal agency and personal power to be able to turn things around, not to overuse the word.
It’s really remarkable.
So one of the things I say in the book is turns, of course, everything in the universe is turning, including you. If you don’t like where you are, you can always initiate a new turn, which is true in your career it’s true in our politics, it’s true in economics, it’s true in your personal life. There’s a real empowerment to that.
So as both the curiosity of this fascination I had with this thing, but also the motivation of trying to help people recognize that we can always change things.
Bluey: You say that and yet at this time in our society and our culture, it seems that people … don’t like the direction of the country. This consistently, poll after poll, they give the president and Congress terrible approval ratings. The same thing with the news media, frankly, and other institutions in America.
What’s your advice then to turning this around so we can get back to a situation where we’re proud of our country and we don’t have people who are questioning the founding principles that this great nation has built upon?
McKee: The beauty of the principles upon which this nation is founded, among other things, is that we have freedom and liberty and agency. And so my advice is not to wait for somebody to fix it, especially our politicians.
Politics is very important. We need to elect the right people, we need the right kind of public policy. But each of us has a sphere of influence. And if each of us takes the initiative to initiate whatever turn needs to be made in our sphere of influence, it’ll all get better. There’s no shortcut to it. But that’s the main thing, is, don’t wait for someone else to fix it.
And don’t just complain. Get out there and start to create a turn. Every great turn in history was begun by an individual. One of the beautiful things, and I love this part about the book, is, I tell several stories of how individual people at individual moments in time made an individual decision to take an individual act and everything changed.
And that’s true of every decision we make. Sometimes you change the whole world, sometimes you might just change your family or the life of a kid that it’s all worth it, but we have to initiate.
Bluey: Talking about principles, you have your own principles that you go through in the book. Share with us some of those. And in the context of thinking about how somebody who is [reading] this or is going to go out there and purchase the book, how is it applicable in their everyday life?
McKee: One of the first principles is called the principle of the object—and this sounds really simple and simplistic and it kind of is. But since everything in the universe is turning, it means that every turn requires a thing. And the principle that I draw out there is that if we can separate ourselves from the turn mentally and psychologically, it’s freeing to us.
So when my company started struggling the first time, I gave myself too much credit on the way up, and I gave myself as the leader too much blame on the way down. It was only after I was able to separate the fact that I might not be such an idiot, that maybe what’s happening to our company is normal, and I wasn’t blaming myself that I could creatively look at how to fix it.
And so I have a line in the book that a number of people have mentioned: “It’s not my fault, is my problem.” If you can distinguish between what’s your fault and what’s your problem, that’s very helpful because very few things are going to be your fault, but many, many things are going to be your problem.
And that itself, the principle of the object is just separating yourself mentally from the turn, gives you the perspective you need to make the turn.
The principle of the moment, that every turn has its time. Moment is actually a physics term that physicists use to describe a turn, which I find fascinating. So you literally can’t separate a turn from time.
The principle of the contest is one of my favorites. If you look at a turn in the physical world, there’s friction and there’s momentum, and there’s lean and there’s entropy, and there’s all kinds of physical forces that are competing. The only reason a car turns is because the tires are having friction with the road. Well, that’s a wonderful metaphor for the ways we deal with turns. And I expand and explain upon that.
And then the last one, which is probably the most conservative thing—it’s a very conservative book, which I’m very proud of—is the principle of the consequences, which is, every turn not only changes something, but it changes many things. And it behooves us to think well in advance of the secondary and tertiary consequences that could come of it.
Bluey: You’ve talked about already in this interview some of the historical events and the notable things that have happened in our own time on this earth, but there are a number of individuals who’ve made significant turns in their own lives and careers. And I am curious to get your take on a couple of them.
First of all, Elon Musk making this turn to focus on the incredible power of social media and the freedom that it provides people in terms of sharing truthful information. And then a second person whose life intersected with Musk in a way that he didn’t imagine. And that’s Tucker Carlson, who found himself facing a situation where he was canceled by Fox News and without a home and then turned to Twitter now acts to reach a massive audience through these interviews that he’s now doing.
McKee: Two great examples. I mean, Elon Musk, I mean, many, many, many turns from launching Tesla to SpaceX to—but his acquisition of Twitter was a turn that he followed my advice, not that he heard it.
He decided that he was concerned about free expression—I mean, putting words in his mouth, but this is what I’ve read. And he chose to spend a lot of money, a lot more money than it turns out it was worth to invest in that. And that’s changing the world. Not everybody’s on Twitter, but it is changing the world.
Tucker Carlson, on the other hand, who has made a lot of decisions in his life as well, this most recent big turn he did not choose. He was canceled by Fox News on a Monday. That’s when he heard about it. And now he’s figuring out where he’s going to go from here. But that’s a good example of sometimes we choose the turns we make, sometimes we don’t. But in every case, we have agency and we have decision.
Bluey: On that last point, you talk about the fact that we do have agency and that we have the incredible ability to make significant changes in our communities, in our cities, in the country, frankly. What are some favorite stories that you have about people who’ve maybe just been ordinary, everyday Americans, who have really embarked upon significant changes that we can read about in your book or that just strike you as role models for those listeners to this program?
McKee: For some reason, when you say that the name Riley Gaines comes to mind. Here’s a young lady who, recent college graduate—when I was a college graduate, I didn’t know anything and I was afraid of everything. And here she is standing up for herself and a whole lot of other people, and certainly not single-handedly because a lot of people are involved, but she really is a tip of the spear. That’s very inspiring.
She says, “This isn’t right.” And so she decided to stand up for herself and a whole lot of other people. And as a result, some things are happening. We see same thing happen with Sen. Tommy Tuberville right now, who is initiating—well, let’s just put it this way, had he not stood up for what he’s standing up for, nothing would’ve changed. Nobody would’ve known about it. So here he is standing in the breach, getting a lot of flack.
One of the principles I talk about in the book is that in order to affect a turn, you have to be first willing to be thought a fool. If you think about all the great inventors—Copernicus, Einstein, Musk—it’s easy for people to call them fools at the beginning, but then when the turn happens, they’re looked back upon somewhat differently. I think Sen. Tuberville might be one of those people in that position now.
So they’re all around us. We see it in business all the time. The unsung heroes of small business across America, Moms for Liberty, the people who are just doing what’s in front of them based on their gifts trying to affect change. It’s inspirational.
Bluey: Megyn Kelly recently interviewed former President Donald Trump and asked him about the turn that he made from being a popular entertainer and entrepreneur, businessman in New York City to a relatively divisive candidate for president and president who now seems on a daily basis to enrage the Left in America and inspire the Right. What do you make of his turn and what lessons can we draw from it?
McKee: When he made the turn in 2015, nobody believed it, including me. In fact, I had seen him in the years prior talking about running for president. He was interviewed 30 years ago or somebody said, “You’d be a good president.” And none of us believed it, but he did. And boy did he believe it. And sure enough it happened.
What’s so incredible about it is here’s a guy who saw a future that he wanted, went after it. A lot of things had to go right for him, but they did. And he became president of the United States. Now he’s facing a different kind of turn with all the lawfare that he’s going through, and that’s the life we all have to live. So I gave him a lot of credit for being determined. So much of life is just being determined.
Bluey: Going back to your previous answer, the Riley Gaines example is so notable. We have interviewed on this program so many parents who have decided to speak out at school board meetings or run for office because they are frustrated with things in their own life and they talk about the turns that they’ve made. They never expected that to happen. They always thought that they would be that parent who dropped their kids off at school and would never engage in that level of activism or even public service. But we’re grateful for them stepping up.
And those who might be inspired to do so as well, we certainly wish you the best and encourage your involvement.
Steve, any closing words, parting thoughts about what our audience would gain from your book and why it’s something they should pick up? Again, the name of the book is “Turns: Where Business Is Won and Lost.” But as we’ve talked about, it’s so much more than just a business book. It’s really about everyday life.
McKee: I would just say that turns—we all have to deal with change every day. Again, sometimes is change we want and we initiate. Sometimes it’s change we don’t. This book will help you understand change better, understand your role in it better, and understand how to navigate it better. And I think my goal was to encourage readers that we don’t just take turns, we make turns.
Bluey: Excellent. Well, very much appreciate you being here in studio with us, Steve, and keep tabs on things that are happening in New Mexico. We expect an update on what your governor is doing and any other things that are happening in your state. Steve McKee, again, author of the new book “Turns: Where Business Is Won and Lost.”
McKee: Thank you.
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