Keep it simple. Sounds easy, right? Not so much. It’s one of those things that’s so much easier said than done. But until you begin to simplify your business, as well as the way you think about your business, it’s really difficult to maximize your performance.  

Simplicity is the common thread that runs through my podcast guest Joe Calloway’s life. His newest book “Keep It Simple” has seven simple truths that he invites readers to follow and embrace if they want to take their business to the next level. As Joe says, “If you can make things simple, you can move mountains.”

Follow along with Joe and I as we uncover:

  • Why Joe wrote “Keep It Simple” and how it’s different from his other books
  • What all effective leaders have in common
  • What your vision/mission statement should sound like
  • Why you need to follow Warren Buffett’s advice and say no to almost everything
  • The Gold Standard: doing what you say you will do, the way you said you will do it, when you said you would do it
  • Why you have to set the example inside your business
  • Why you can’t get stuck doing what used to work
  • Being better tomorrow than you are today
  • How to simplify your business and why it maximizes your team’s performance
  • Why you need to be so good at the basics that you are cutting edge
  • Why you need to work on the relationships with everyone you work with
  • Being your authentic self and believing in yourself
  • Why — whatever happens — that’s normal
  • Improving upon your strengths
  • Why your success is dictated by your culture
  • Why you need to get clear on the three things you need to get right

Joe Calloway has been speaking to business audiences for about 30 years. He’s written seven books, including the just released “Keep It Simple.” He has served as the first Executive In Residence for Belmont University’s Center For Entrepreneurship, and he invests in and advises start-up companies, including Gilson Boards, a snowboard manufacturing company. Joe is an active investor in a real estate development group with current projects in Louisville, Nashville, and Chattanooga. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Annette, and their daughters, Jessica, and Cate.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. Why Joe Wrote the Book on How to Simplify Your Business
  2. The Challenges of Branding Your Business
  3. The 7 Principles for Simplifying Your Business
  4. Why You Need to Pick a Lane for Your Business
  5. Immediate Action Steps for How to Simplify Your Business & Your Life

If you are going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to “Build a Better Agency” where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees and best of all more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25-plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of “Build a Better Agency.” Today I am psyched. This is a guest that I can’t tell you how excited I am to introduce you to. Many of you are probably very familiar with him already but let me give you a little bit of background and then I’ll tell you why in particular this is a big one for me. Joe Calloway is our guest today and Joe helps great companies become even better. He consults, he does workshops, he does keynote presentations to develop leaders, create effective teams and help businesses improve their performance. These are businesses who know that they can and should be doing more with the people and resources they already have.

Joe works with companies like Procter and Gamble and Coca-Cola and you probably also know him as an author of many great bestselling books. “Be the Best at What Matters Most,” “Becoming a Category of One,” “Indispensable, How to Become a Company That Your Customers Can’t Live Without,” “Work Like You’re Showing Off,” “Never By Chance: Aligning People and Strategies Through Intentional Leadership” and a couple others and he’s got a brand new book out called “Keep It Simple” which we’re going to talk about. Many of you have probably heard me reference Joe before. There are two business books out there in the world today that I desperately wish I had written and Joe’s book “Becoming a Category of One” which is all about really building a genuine brand is definitely one of them. So I’m elated to have him on the show and to introduce him to all of you. So Joe, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Joe: Thank you for having me, Drew. I’m tickled to death to be here. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

Drew: I appreciate that very much. Your new book is sort of a departure from your other books. Your other books have been sort of best practice teaching books and lots of examples, lots of great stories and “Keep It Simple” is ironically I guess a much simpler book in some ways.

Joe: It is.


Why Joe Wrote the Book on How to Simplify Your Business

Drew: Talk to me about what made you make that shift in the style of book you were writing.

Joe: You know a couple of things Drew. One is and two things happened within days of each other that were just this huge catalyst inside that I needed to do this book. One was, a client that I’ve worked with off and on for years who said, “You know of all the things that you’ve helped us with, I think the most valuable is that you’ve always helped us simplify and clarify what it is we’re trying to do, how we’re trying to do it and what we should be doing on a daily basis.” It’s kind of a vision, strategic and tactical, in terms of getting cleared in and simplifying and he said, “You know, I wish you could write a book just about that. Just about this idea of making things simpler.”  

A couple of days after that I got a call from a publisher who does this, as you just mentioned, this is a very different format book for me. It’s a little baby book. It’s 88 pages but it’s 88 pages of kind of big type and a lot of graphics and a lot of quotes. You can read the thing in 20 minutes to a half hour easily, Well these publisher said, “Would you be interested in doing a really focused book on one of your best ideas,” and I said, “As a matter of fact I would love to” and so that’s how the book came about and I am, I’ll tell you I’m having more fun with it and getting as good or better response to it of anything I’ve ever written. So I’m really, really, really happy with it.

Drew: Yeah, it’s a great read and it does, it’s fascinating. I’ve read all of your books but it does sort of, it is sort of one of the threads that weaves through, one of the messages that weaves through all of the content that you’ve created both in written form and in a lot of your keynotes.

Joe: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. It’s hard for me to talk about anything whether it’s culture, customer experience, leadership differentiation, the entrepreneurship and principles of entrepreneurship. I don’t know how to talk about any of them without really kind of starting with the idea of, okay, let’s simplify the way you think about your business. Let’s get clarity. Let’s get real focus because until you do that it’s going to be difficult to maximize your performance. So yeah it’s very, very much a cool thread that runs through all of my work.

Drew: As I was reading it, I was thinking you know when I am with agency owners they get frustrated that their employees are not sort of marching the march and when I’m with their employees, when I’m teaching workshops with the account folks for example, one of the things I hear all the time is, “You know what my boss is sort of a flavor of the month person.” So they read a book or they go to a workshop and they come back all fired up about something but I know it’s only going to last a couple of months so it’s hard for me to get fired up about it because I’m always waiting for what’s the next flavor of the month.  

As I was reading your book I was thinking this is kind of what they’re talking about, is, you know, let’s really boil down to the example you had about the ambulance company where they had the three page mission statement and the woman said, “You know, we help people when they’re hurt.” I think agencies suffer a little bit from that not really having as honed a focus as they could.

Joe: Well, you’ve hit on. Oh my gosh, give me a dollar for every time I’ve heard that exact same thing, that you’ve heard, which is, you know, what’s next? At our next town employee meeting I wonder what the leader of the company is going to be talking about. The thing is Drew, when you look at organizations, I mean big organizations or tiny in terms of numbers of people, really small companies, what effective leaders all have in common is this constancy of repeating and reinforcing, “Hey everybody, remember what’s important here.” Now, the thing is, you have that foundation of, here are the handful of things that are important and we’re going to talk about those things all the time.

While at the same time, of course, you’re going to embrace new ideas. Of course, you want to be innovated and look at new ways of doing things and possibly even new things to do but unless you’ve got that foundation of, “Look everybody, come back to center. Here’s what’s important.” You know, Hewlett Packard started with a great, great metaphor. Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard said, “We’re going to be like a gyroscope.” The center of a gyroscope never moves. The outside of the gyroscope moves all the time. We’re going to have these core values that will keep us steady, keep us centered, keep us constant and at the same time we’re always going to be moving forward and innovating but without those core things that leadership reinforces and talks about all the time, it’s really hard to get people committed and completely on board.

Drew: Yeah, it’s so true. It’s such a good example. You think, I mean, there probably is no industry that’s moved faster or in a more divergent directions than the HPs of the world but and this I talk to agencies owners about all the time. You’ve got to have sort of who, it’s like being a person. Here’s who I am and no matter what situation I am in, this I stay true to and agencies need that as well.

Joe: Yeah they really do. It’s that idea of what is true north for me. It goes from and I mean real hard stuff, gut stuff which in the business translates to your culture. Who are we? How do we behave with each other? What are we absolutely steadfast about? Then that carries into strategically what are the principles that guide us and then tactically it comes down to when you sit down at your desk every morning, “Okay, what should I work on today?” Well, let me go back to what I know is most important and of course there are going to be the interruptions and the immediate priorities and all of that but you can really increase your productivity and your effectiveness dramatically if you have this constant guide of…

For example, for me, it’s a no-brainer. I know what I’m going to work on every day because I’ve decided in advance what’s most important and all of the interruptions and the changes that I have to react to every day, those are guided by this absolute knowledge of I know what is most important. That always brings me back to true north and keeps me centered.

Drew: Yeah, and it can’t just be about making more money, right?

Joe: Well, here’s the thing. Making more money for me is one of the facets of the scoreboard but I don’t play the game by looking at the scoreboard. I mean, I make more money by knowing what’s important particularly as it relates to my clients and the scoreboard takes care of itself. It’s like coach Nick Saban of the University of Alabama football program. He says, “We don’t worry about motivation, we don’t worry about the score, we worry about process. We think about process all the time. If we get the process right, if we execute correctly, the score takes care of itself.”


The Challenges of Branding Your Business

Drew: Yeah. So, one of the sort of tenets of a lot of your work is about this idea of knowing who you are and being true to who you are and that’s in some ways, that’s a big kernel of this new book as well.  But in the book that I referenced in the intro “Becoming a Category of One” which really focuses on what is brand really and how do we build authentic brand. You know that’s, you and I were talking before I hit the record button, that’s a challenge for agencies although they do it for their clients all day every day. When I look at agencies and I hear them talk about themselves, the way they often describe themselves is some variation of we’re a full service agency that partners with our clients which is exactly what they all say. Talk to us a little bit about the challenges of branding yourself and seeing yourself through that unbiased lens.

Joe: Yeah. There are a lot of facets I think to that Drew and the thing is, it can be different and probably should be somewhat different for every agency, for every business. Some, I had talked about this in a book you mentioned called “Be the Best of What Matters Most” but there are some companies, there are some organizations, that are driven by a really kind of a personal mission.  Which is, I mean, it can be as big as we want to impact the world in a way that makes it a better place and that’s fine. There are other companies that have a personality that would resonate with, we create the best advertising and marketing campaigns for our clients, period. It can be a very general statement about the work itself. The trick is this, it has to resonate on two levels. It has to resonate certainly on an intellectual level but it’s also got to resonate on a gut level. You know that example that you mentioned in your introduction about the company that I was working for and it was actually a company that has, it’s not ambulances, it’s private emergency rooms.

Drew: Okay.

Joe: It’s like the emergency room in a hospital except it’s private. They had come up with this long, oh my God, Drew it was so corporate speak. I mean it was just corporate, corporate, corporate and they put it up on the screen and then two hours later I went up on stage and I said, “Okay, what does that vision mean to you guys? What are you about?” I kept prodding and prodding and finally this one woman that I was kind of picking on got a little bit mad at me and she said, “Look, we help people when they’re hurt, okay?” I said, “Wow, wait a minute, I think she might be on to something. How many of you think about that vision statement and get excited about it?” Nobody raised their hands about it. Nobody raised their hands. I said, “How many of you can really get excited behind the idea of we help people when they’re hurt?” Every hand in the room went up. I said, “Well there is your reason for being right there. Why don’t you talk about that?” I think Drew that a lot of times people get stuck in the idea of, well it’s supposed to sound really businesslike in it. No, it’s supposed to sound however it resonates.

Drew: Right, and it’s supposed to sound like you.

Joe: It’s supposed to sound like you. There’s no master’s degree in business form that you have to adhere to. As a matter of fact, years ago I read about an ad agency that was started by four fairly young guys. Listen to this. Here’s what drove everything that they did. Their four rules of doing business. They didn’t have a vision statement, a mission statement which are perfectly good things to have. Here’s what they went by. Number one, do great work. Number two, have fun. Number three, make money. Number four and this is my favorite, don’t work with people you can’t stand. That’s perfectly okay to have those four rules. Yeah, this idea of your brand, it’s an inside out job and I really think it’s important that organizations get clarity and get in touch with their gut level knowing of who they are and why they do this work.

Drew: I think oftentimes and you make this point in several of your books, the desire to be everything to everyone, to not leave money on the table is what gets in the way of you actually defining who you are. For example, the example you just gave of the four guys do great work. That’s not about, that says where their focus is, right? It’s that we want to be known for this body of work. So my assumption is that that’s about it being super creative and being super effective but also that we’re going to be very selective in the clients that we work with because life’s too short to work with jerks, right?

Joe: You know, not only that. I think you just hit on one of the absolute keys to the kingdom in how to simplify your business, which is to understand what you do best, what you love to do most and who you do that for. A real common question that is asked of folks in interviews is, what do you wish you had done sooner? I’ll tell you what I wish I had done. I wish I had been better at saying no because you’re exact…here’s the fallacy and I was as guilty of it as anybody. I’m really good at it now. Is a potential client appears and says, “Okay, I want to hire you to do X” and you know that that is not your sweet spot.  

You know that that’s not what you have decided you really want to do but it’s money on the table and so you say yes but because you’ve said yes to work that you should not be doing, you’re going to take up time space, you’re going to take up mind space, you’re going to take up resources space that could have been better spent on the next client who was the right fit. I really think that it’s such an important principle to learn to say no. Let me throw in my favorite mantra right now. It’s something Warren Buffett said a few years ago. Warren Buffett said, “The biggest difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” Meaning they say no to things that would ultimately be distractions. They’re very focused on what they should be doing, who they should be working with and what they do best.

Drew: Yeah. It reminds me of we have a mutual friend in Steve Farber and it reminds me of sort of his mantra and what he teaches which is, do work you love in service of people who love the work you do.

Joe: Yeah exactly, true and Farber’s nailed it with that. You just can’t say it any better than that.


The 7 Principles for Simplifying Your Business

Drew: Yeah, yeah. I want to get back to the book and back to the sort of the simple principles that you outlined. I want to talk a little bit about one of the things that really resonated with me as I was reading “Keep It Simple” were the seven simple truths that you outline and I thought I was reading it in prep for our conversation. So certainly through the lens of what agency owners need to be thinking about. I want to walk through them for a second and have you expound on them a little bit. Let’s start with the gold standard.

Joe: Yeah the gold standard and I mean this is one of those things that everybody goes, “Oh yeah, yeah, I know that” but I’m not so sure there are that many organizations that actually do it. Gold standard is simply I will do what I promised that I told you that I would do. As a friend of mine says it boils down to this. Do what you said you would do the way you said you would do it when you said you would do it. It simply means, I keep my promises. To be able to say, “Look, to your clients to the marketplace at large, you can count on us. We are rock solid dependable. We deliver on our promises.” That is the gold standard. Is quite simply to keep your word. I’ll do what I promised I’ll do and what’s more I’ll do it every single time.

Drew: Well and you know as I was reading this I was thinking that for many agency owners they espouse this but the one place they violate it is with their own team.  And it’s not that they don’t want to keep their promise to their team but back to what we’re talking about before they’ve committed to too much and they have said yes to too many things and so the person who always pays the price for that is their own staff who has meetings cancelled on them or the owner walks in late or whatever that is. I think this is particularly important as agency owners for us to be thinking about not only do we want to make this promise and keep this promise to our clients but even more so set the example inside our shop because if we don’t set the example inside our shop, we can’t really expect our employees to keep it outside of the shop.

Joe: Listen, I don’t know, there is no company, there is no business that will be any better than the standards that they observe and keep internal. I mean really, it’s like having unhappy employees and expecting to deliver great customer service. That’s not going to happen.

Drew: Right.

Joe: Yeah, you’ve hit on, I think, a real truth which is the standards that you set for how you behave to your clients.  You’ve got to be at least that good internally with your employees. Great point.

Drew: Yeah. Well and you really pound that home in “Becoming a Category of One” that you can’t be one brand to the outside world and a different brand inside your own organization.

Joe: Exactly.

Drew: Yeah. So the second truth really resonates in the marketing world, the agency world. Don’t get stuck in what used to work. For agency owners, I’ve been in the agency business my whole professional life which is 30 some years now and I’ve never experienced the rapid change that we are experiencing in our industry and I know everybody is on outside of our world too. But the way agencies work today is nothing like how agencies worked three years ago and it’s light years away from how we worked 10 years ago and I know that next year it’s going to be even faster change. This principle is really critical today.

Joe: Oh I think it’s yeah and as you say it’s more critical than it’s ever been. Not only the significance of the change but the speed, oh my gosh, it’s…

Drew: Crazy.

Joe: Yeah. It happens at light speed now. My mantra is if I’m successful, if I’m successful up to this point that means that I know what used to work. I’ll love to say, let me do some bragging here. I can compete and win in markets that no longer exist.

Drew: Yeah, right.

Joe: They’re gone. I can tell you how to succeed in 2014, I did it. 2015, I did it. 2016, I’m still figuring out how. So, so far so good but the rules change a little bit, sometimes a lot every single day.

Drew: Well in this case back to your HP example when you have a solid core, a base that you can count on, a foundation that’s solid it’s easier to have all the rest of it be spinning around you in what I call controlled chaos which is how I think our businesses run today because you know you’re standing on solid footing.

Joe: Yeah, and by the way just for the record, HP has had their own problems.

Drew: Oh sure. Right, right.

Joe: In dealing with change.

Drew: Absolutely. So your third tenet which really ties right into the second one which is be better tomorrow than you are today. This, in agencies when I talk to agency owners one of the things that they value most in their employees and I think is sort of how they’re wired to is this lifelong learner mantra of I’ve got to keep learning and certainly as the industry changes as quickly as it is we can’t really afford not to keep changing, right?

Joe: No, I mean it’s not an option anymore. The thing, you know it’s interesting though Drew. I will ask, I’ll been working with an audience, I’ll say, “How many of you believe that it is absolutely a requirement for you and everyone in your organization to be better tomorrow than you were today?” Of course every hand goes up and then I’ll say, “Okay, let me ask you a much, much tougher question.” Think back to last Friday. What did you do in your organization last Friday that made you better than you were on Thursday and everybody’s stumped. Nothing gets more lip service than the idea of continuous improvement. If I said, “Oh, we got to get better.” Well okay, what are you doing today that makes you better than you were yesterday because continuous improvement isn’t a project, it’s a process that has to be built into everything you do. So while everybody gets it, it’s much, much tougher to actually do it.

Drew: Well and it doesn’t happen by accident, right? It has to be intentional.

Joe: Yeah. You just used one of my favorite words in the universe which is, are you intentional about it?

Drew: Yeah. The fourth one, agencies are always talking about thinking outside the box and it’s often one of the things they promise their clients is we’re not going to bring you the same solution. So we’re always breaking the envelope, thinking outside the box, whatever phrase they want to use but your fourth sort of simple tenet is make sure you win inside the box. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Joe: Yeah, it’s kind of counter-intuitive but I say that to get people’s attention but here’s the deal. The way I define inside the box is for example, what are your client’s most important needs and expectations? That’s where you win. There’s an IT company that’s got the greatest, greatest kind of saying that they use which is, I love this. Buzzers and bells wear off, usefulness never does.

Drew: Absolutely.

Joe: Listen, Drew I’ve had the same ad agency for over 30 years because they are so incredibly useful to me. They win inside the box because there are other people that come to me with the buzzers and bells but I keep going back to this agency because number one, they understand me and they have from the very start. They know me exceptionally well and they deliver on those things that are most important.  And of course you want to be innovative.  Of course you want to constantly inject new ideas but look, whoever wins on the basics wins, period.  And it’s very, very difficult to be better on the basics but the way I look at it is this, be so good at the basics that you’re cutting edge.

Drew: Well, I mean this gets to the sort of the heart of what a lot of agencies get fired around. This is about and in some ways ties back to your first principle which is keeping your promise but this is about hitting your deadlines. It’s about no scary surprises for clients. It’s all of the things that are core tenets of the way we work with our clients. Yes, we have to be able to show them the latest mobile technology or geofencing or whatever that may be but the reality is, our clients want to know that they can count on us to do what they need from us when they need it, which ties back to your first principle as well.

Joe: Well, and it also ties into what I think is the biggest of wow factors out there. People said we’ve got to have a wow factor, cool. Here’s your wow factor. Get your clients to say this, “Wow, these guys get it right, they nail it every single time.” There’s your ultimate wow factor.

Drew: Yes. So for agencies who sort of bristle against process and systems but are also losing clients because of typos or bad proofreading or missing deadlines, that to me is what this one’s all about. Yup. The fifth principle is expect to connect.

Joe: Yeah, and that’s talking about connecting with people and as I say in the book it’s one of the simplest and most important success factors in your life which is and I think everybody listening to this could make a list of those clients that they truly have a meaningful connection with and those clients that they’re just doing business with and the ones that the relationships that last, the relationships that will talk about you in such a way that it creates new business for you. They will send you referrals. Those are the ones that you truly have a meaningful connection with and I think it’s become a, it’s a cliche but it’s a cliche because it’s true. The older I get in this career of mine, the more I understand that the quality of my life, the quality of my business is determined by the quality of my relationships, period. That is the most important factor. Is the quality of the connections that I make with people, the people I work with, my sub contractors, my clients, everybody.

Drew: Well, and this gets to sort of what a business owner’s responsibility is and I think for a lot of business owners again big business or small, it’s hard to stay out of the weeds of the business and not get caught up in the day to day workings but really in my opinion the CEO of an agency, one of their core jobs is to create and nurture those relationships.

Joe: Yeah, I would be you know and it depends on what your business model is and what your philosophy is because I would be hard pressed to disagree with you on that. I really think strictly like you say in an agency. I can’t imagine what would be a more important function for the leader of that agency than to be the absolute guardian and shepherd of the relationships that the agency has with its clients and with the community for that matter.

Drew: Right, yeah and that’s a good point. The sixth principle in how to simplify your business, I love because I think everybody suffers a little bit from the impostor syndrome, right? We all look in the mirror every once in awhile and say today’s the day they’re going to figure out that I really don’t have my act together and you had a great quote in this section from Maya Angelou who said, “Each time I write a book every time I face that yellow pad the challenges are great. I have written 11 books but each time I think oh, oh, they’re going to find me out. I’ve run a game on everyone and they’re going to find me out.” Your point is if she’s insecure, all of us probably have a little bit of that in us and yet the principle is be you, we haven’t seen that yet.

Joe: Yeah exactly. This has to do with being an effective speaker, with being an effective writer, with being an effective anything which is, too often we try to be slick and we try to be clever but the answer is exactly what you said, be you. I was sitting in front of 350 banks’ CEOs yesterday in a one hour open question and answer session. Hey and I’ve got to tell you when I first took that stage I thought, “Holy cow, these are 350 guys and girls that run banks and they’re going to be asking me questions for the next hour.” You know, this can’t rule here and yet when I answered from the core of my experience and who I am and what I believe and what I think is useful and valuable, they absolutely loved it and so yeah, I think if we, I think we should have a little more faith in ourselves and with our own judgment, our own expertise and just that. Believe in ourselves a little more.

Drew: When I’m talking to agency owners, if they still own an agency today and they have survived the recession and they still are functioning and keeping their head above water and most of them are doing very well, it’s not even that they’re just surviving, they’ve got it right. They’re doing a lot of things right but I think as humans it’s so easy to focus on the little things we’re not doing well or right or the one goal we haven’t quite hit as opposed to recognizing all the things that we are delivering on and all the value that we do bring on a regular basis.

Joe: You know for me, it’s taken me a while to get here but I can now, you know sometimes I’ll get challenged by a client on, “Joe we r