‘I’m actually shocked at what writing now means to me relative to what it would have meant before I wrote two books. I used to dread writing… now it’s a way to structure my learning, it’s a place to put my creativity. It’s a place to create a sense of intellectual flow in my life.’
Amanda Setili runs a consulting business, and she very deliberately uses her books to explore what fascinates her and what she loves to work on in order to attract the clients she’s most interested in working with. In this interview she reveals how she goes about creating the models and tools that accompany her books, and how she learned to shift from dry, technical writing to a more creative, story-led approach.
This is an episode full of practical, usable insights for anyone wanting to make their book not only more useful to read, but more enjoyable to write.
Amanda’s site: http://setili.com/
Amanda on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AmandaSetili
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge (starts 18 September): https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I’m in here with Amanda Setili who is the president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. She’s also the author of The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World, and her new book is Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets. Welcome to the Club, Amanda.
Amanda Setili: Thank you Alison. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Alison Jones: Great to have you here. So start off by telling us a little bit about Setili & Associates, why did you set it up and what’s your vision for that company?
Amanda Setili: My vision for Setili & Associates is to help more leaders be more strategic more of the time, and why is that important? Well, the world is changing very fast and I believe that there are going to be more opportunities, more opportunities for growth than ever before but there’s going to be shorter windows to capture them. So it use to be that you set your strategy once a year and pursue it for many months at a time or even years at a time with no need for altering course, but now you really need to be continuously thinking and adapting and modifying your strategy because new stuff is coming at you all the time. I wanted to help leaders be able to adapt in that way.
You need to be thinking strategically nearly all the time and if your part of a big company that can be hard to do. Not only that but you need more of your people to be thinking strategically. You need everyone to be keeping their eyes and ears open for change on the horizon so that your company can adapt quickly. I wanted Setili & Associates to be a fast and focused helper to make that happen. When you’re with a big firm you tend to have big teams that stay in there for several months and I often will come in for a short period of time and make a big difference with clients who really have something coming at them that they don’t know what to do with and want to be able to respond quickly to market change to take advantage of what they’re seeing in the market place.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. I recognise the landscape that you’re describing there completely. I remember being in corporate, being in those board meetings where you’re setting out five year strategy and a three year budget and it happened once a year. I absolutely remember that and now being an entrepreneur and your strategy is something that … it’s more agile, it’s something that you know you’re doing and maybe have a year plan but every quarter you’re reviewing it and every day you’re also thinking about new opportunities that are out there.
Amanda Setili: Right, and big companies need to be more like that.
Thankfully, I think that because partnerships are actually more easy than ever, outsourcing is easier than ever, crowdsourcing is easier than ever … these big companies can actually take advantage of short lived market opportunities by partnering with others and using other resources to be able to react quickly and jump on opportunities. I enjoy helping them do that because it’s not a natural muscle that they’ve built. Up until now, they tend to have different skills than that.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and for big organisations, change is hard, isn’t it, for all sorts of reasons.
Amanda Setili: It is.
Alison Jones: Now one thing about Setili and Associates that’s very, very obviously, as soon as you look at it, your own name and your personality are central to that brand, to that business; what does that mean in terms of how you market the business and particularly in terms of the books that you’ve written?
Amanda Setili: It’s actually just … when I first started up the company, my husband and I were really thinking about all these creative names and one of my clients said, “Well why don’t you just call it Setili and Associates? Setili’s a really good name.” And I go, “Oh, yeah!”
It’s a unique name. It’s phonetically spelled. It has a lot of advantages and it’s really worked well for us to just name the company after our name.
Alison Jones: I’m very envious, speaking as a Jones. I’m very envious of distinctive surnames…
Amanda Setili: That’s been very good. The other point that you made, which is personality, I think is absolutely essential because I think that everybody, whether you’re working in a large organisation or whether you’re running your own small company, works best when they work on what fascinates them and how they love to contribute.
I think that I’ve been very, very lucky to be able to work with some really wonderful, wonderful companies likes Delta and UPS and Home Depot while still pursuing things that really fascinate me that I love working on. That’s kind of my MO, is to write books that explain what fascinates me and what I love working on so that I will attract clients that are also excited about those things and therefore we’ll have a great working relationship and partnership and that’s worked really well.
Alison Jones: That’s interesting because so often people recommend that you start with the reader, start with their preoccupations and their need and you think about where the opportunities are in the market, and that’s all really, really good advice, but if it doesn’t triangulate with, as you say, what fascinates you, what your passion is, then it’s not actually going to work because you might end up upsetting people that you don’t actually care about that much.
Amanda Setili: Exactly. Right.
Alison Jones: In terms of the books working with the business, do you market the books as books or as business tools … how does it fit alongside your business?
Amanda Setili: Well I really use the books as a way of explaining how I think and what I love to work on and what I’ve … has been kind of a pleasant surprise for me is that by writing the book, you really advance your own intellectual thinking. It’s really a way of teaching yourself and so, if you pick a topic that fascinates you and pursue that topic to do the research, to do the learning, to interview the people to write the book, then you’ve really advanced your own expertise exponentially.
I use the books, I give them to clients, I hold meetings where I have joint speakers with me. I speak a lot and I give out the books wherever I speak or sell them but … typically I give them away cause I like to get them into people’s hands. I just want people to use the book to get to know me. I would love it to be massively famous but that’s not really my focus.
Alison Jones: Yeah, somebody – I can’t remember who it was – said that you make more business from the books you give away then the money you make from those you sell. It’s so true, isn’t it?
Amanda Setili: It is, definitely.
Alison Jones: It’s not just the business that has your name, obviously the books have your name on them also and the business is branded as you but you’ve also created frameworks, which I really, really like. You got those models, like the Setili Agility Framework and they’ve been featured in the books, they’re on your website, why do you think they matter and how did you go about developing them?
Amanda Setili: Well that’s actually kind of my spike. I’m really good at creating graphics. I think graphically, like if I’ve got a problem to solve, it often helps me to just open up a blank PowerPoint and just start creating. It’s a skill that comes very naturally to me and it’s something that I enjoy and think is really, really useful for solving problems. Whether you’re just sitting in front of a client and you just quickly draw a two by two matrix on a piece of paper with two axis and say, “Where would you plot yourself on this chart,” or whether you’re standing with a flip chart or whether you’re using it in a book or whether it’s in a PowerPoint, graphics are really helpful to get people to think and also to get them to collaborate with each other.
I think they’re very important and I’ve used my name in the graphics often because they are something I’ve created that’s distinctive and I think that people tend to remember them better when they associate them with me. Just like when you name a pet, you then can think of that pet as that name. It’s a way to just attach a handle to a concept that works well, I think.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I totally … I’m nodding energetically and I particularly love that you picked out the two by two matrix, which has got to be the single most useful model ever.
Amanda Setili: It is.
Alison Jones: If you can’t plot something on a two by two matrix, there’s probably something wrong with your thinking of it. Is that the McKinsey background coming out as well?
Amanda Setili: Yeah, I think that helped a lot. I think, working at McKinsey, you just get so used to creating graphics, it just becomes very second nature to you.
Also, I was an engineer, I was a chemical engineer and I loved all that graphical part of chemical engineering and even back in 9th grade when we would learn about parabolas and ellipses and things like that. I just love graphical concepts so that’s a very useful way for me to work with people because I think that a lot of people that I work with have a similar mindset, or I can bring out the best in them using graphics I guess is the best way to say it.
Alison Jones: It’s not just the graphic way of describing something, is it? You can actually interact with your frameworks and plot your own place on them. I think that’s really powerful as well and there’s something almost playful about it.
Amanda Setili: Exactly, right.
Alison Jones: You put the book on the site for free, which is great. Tell me about what the thinking behind that was. Quite often, people say to me they actually just couldn’t figure out how to put them behind a password. Some people kind of keep those resources closed on their site but you’ve got so much of the books up there for free on your site.
Amanda Setili: I just want to help as many people as possible. I figure that if people can come to my site and find something useful that they can adopt in their practice or in their company, that’s good because my motive in life is more to help people than to make money.
Even when I’m doing consulting projects, I’m really thinking more about how much impact are we having here then how much money am I making. I know that might sound unbelievable but it is true. I just really want to get the content out there so that people can use it and frankly, when you’re trying to just be a little bit more visible, a little bit more top of mind in social media, it helps to have things that you can refer people to so that they can come and find something useful on your site that will maybe later remind them of you and if they need in-person help, they’ll know who to call.
Alison Jones: I think that’s an excellent point and the fact that they are branded and they have the name on them, means in a sense that, yes they’re resources that have great value themselves, but also they’re marketing, because any person who’s looking at it, they’re looking at your name.
Amanda Setili: Right, and they know where to go if they need more help.
Alison Jones: Yeah, the URL’s on there, yeah, fantastic.
Let’s talk about actual writing. What does writing mean to you? What does your writing routine look like?
Amanda Setili: I’m actually very shocked at what writing now means to me relative to what it would have meant before I wrote two books. I used to dread writing. I was always a very good logical writer, coming up with an engineering and McKinsey background, you learn to be extremely logical, never leave anything out, never be redundant. Use a pyramid structure and all that kind of stuff, but I didn’t know how to write in a relatable way that used a lot of stories and things like that. I now do know how to do that. It’s become much easier for me and now I find what writing means is a place to put my creativity.
I’m a very creative person and I’ve always been kind of just interested in learning and even in grammar school I’ve always sitting on edge of my desk just… I was always very oriented towards school and learning. It’s a way to structure my learning. It’s a way to put my… it’s a place to put my creativity. It’s a place to create a sense of intellectual flow in my life.
Alison Jones: I love that, but I’m going take you back because I can imagine lots of people screaming at their MP3 player right now going… Okay, you were doing that thing where you were writing scientifically and it’s a pain, and then it was all beautiful, tell me how that happened. Tell me how that shift came about.
Amanda Setili: I actually worked with another of the people that you’ve interviewed, Alan Weiss, and I urge people to listen to the podcast that you did with him.
Alison Jones: It’s a terrific podcast.
Amanda Setili: Yeah, and he does a thing called the writer’s circle, I think it’s called and what we did is we got maybe 10 people from all over the world and he would given us an assignment each month and we would each write a couple pages on that assignment, a full blog post and send it to him and send it to each other. We would each critique each other and move on.
You learn two things from that experience. One is, you learn that you’re not bad at writing. You’re basically equal to all these other nine people. Secondly, you learn to use examples and stories. Every point that you make, you put in an example or story. Now why that’s important is not only to communicate to others, but also it helps you remember and it helps you make it more interesting.
For instance, in this last book that I wrote, every chapter that I was writing, I would have experiences during that two or three weeks that I was writing that chapter. Well all of those experiences I would say, “Well how does this apply to the topic that I’m writing about this week? How does this apply, does it apply? Is there a way that I can use a version of this story in this chapter?”
It really helps you think about what you’re … the experiences that you’re having and how they can be useful to other people to learn from. That’s been very valuable to me as a transition to make it more fun and to make it more useful to others.
Alison Jones: That’s terrific. You’re almost thinking like a novelist. Did you go through life just reflecting on it and almost, I won’t say fictionalising, it’s … you need a different word, don’t you? But taking those things that happened and picking out with a writer’s eye, what you could use in the day to day experience? That’s really interesting.
I can imagine as well, Alan has such a bracing kind of approach to writing. He’s just like, “Just do it, just do it, just do it. Get it out.” I can imagine it was really challenging but also quite liberating just to have that sense of … Do it. Don’t waste time faffing about what’s good, just put it out there, and believe in it.
Amanda Setili: Yeah, you’re exactly right. One of the things that I learned from him that just really stuck in my mind, it was very freeing, was … he does this little thing where you give him a topic and he outlines the ten chapters that he would write on that topic.
Alison Jones: Wow.
Amanda Setili: But you can also give him the opposite of that topic and he can do the same thing and it just dawned on me one day, I said, “Oh, you mean you could write the opposite of any book you’ve written?” And he said, “Oh sure, no problem.” And I just thought, okay, I don’t need to worry so much about whether every one of my points is the most important point or whether I’ve included absolutely every single angle that you could look at this issue from, I just need to put enough in here that it’s very, very helpful to people and to me.
It ends up that you still get it 99 per cent right but you’re just not so worried about the one per cent because you realised there’s a lot of different ways to be helpful and a lot of different points that you could point in here that would be helpful to people. You don’t have to be perfect.
Alison Jones: That’s really helpful because I think it’s very easy to get quite precious about you’re writing and trying to get absolutely everything in and make sure that every point has evidence. And all that’s great, all that’s really good, I’m not dissing it down, but I remember that feeling of talking to Alan and hearing him talk so bluntly and kind of cheerfully about writing as though it was … not as important that, you absolutely have to do it, but you really shouldn’t get too hung up on it and it’s … I was really impressed by that. It’s interesting to hear you … to hear somebody study and promptly learning that as well.
Amanda Setili: Yeah, he’s really good at that. He could just wake up in the morning and write a chapter.
Alison Jones: And does every day, doesn’t he, just amazing, he writes every day, fantastic.
What would you … here you are, I’m making you the writing guru now. This is your chance. What’s your one best tip for somebody who is maybe struggling with writing their first business book?
Amanda Setili: Well there’s kind of two steps of it. One is thinking of the idea and writing the proposal, which does take me a while to kind of mull that over and play with it and I’ll write a draft outline and I’ll let it sit for a couple of weeks and then I’ll pull it up again and see if I still like it and still think that it would be fun to write about and I’ll play with it a little more.
I do kind of take my time with those steps. Once it’s … the proposal has been … I’ve got a contract with a publisher and I’m sitting down to write, I think that a tip that works well for me is, I visualise a situation in which I was in a state of flow, or this is a what I’m recommending for beginning writers at least.
A situation in which you were enjoying a challenging but rewarding way of contributing. It might be that you’re good at creating PowerPoints, or you’re really good at writing emails to clients or you’re really good at sitting in a room and telling a client a story. Just pretend that you’re in that environment and start creating.
What I did was actually just pretend that a particular client had asked me a particular problem and this was my answer to him or her and I would just start typing, this is my answer to Sally who asked me XYZ, this is how I would answer her and if I was creating a work plan for a project, this is how I would do it. If I was creating an interview guide, these are the questions that I would ask. If I was creating a graphic for the team to work on tomorrow, this is what I would create.
I just put myself in the mindset where I know that I have been successful. I know that I’ve been successful in a client’s service role and I know that this is how I’ve done it, so just translate that capability into writing a book. You’ll have to tweak it up and polish it but it will be more of your own true self and your own true capability without sweating about … this is a book, which can cause some anxiety.
Alison Jones: That’s nice. It taps into what you know you could do. It puts you in your zone of genius doesn’t it? This is where you know where you absolutely can operate and it takes the fear and the unknown out of it.
Amanda Setili: Right.
Alison Jones: It’s the resourceful self, isn’t it?
Amanda Setili: Yeah, and it also personalises it because I think it’s daunting to think of writing a book that thousands of people will read. It’s easy to think of writing something that will help your favourite client.
Alison Jones: And of course if you’re talk to the favourite client you’re not going to sound like you’re speaking from the podium at the front of the stage.
Amanda Setili: Right.
Alison Jones: That’s a really great tip, thank you so much. I always ask my guests to recommend another guest for the show. Lisa Macleod recommended you so that was fantastic. Who do you think would be a really good fit to have on the show. Someone with something interesting to say about this as a business books.
Amanda Setili: I think you would really enjoy talking with Val Wright who wrote Thoughtfully Ruthless and I will enjoy hearing your podcast if you ever do one with her.
Alison Jones: I love that title. It just reminded … thank you actually, definitely going to get in touch with Val. It reminded me though something that I did mean to ask you, I forgot, about that title, Fearless Growth, which just … I love … the hairs on the back of my neck, they were … I love that the title … What comes first for you, the concept, the title, the book, how does it all fit together?
Amanda Setili: I actually wrote a large part of the book before I thought of the title. I kind of felt my way into that title. It came time to give a title to the book. Career Press, my publisher suggested a title that I didn’t love and I was in a panic to come up with something that would be so mind blowing to them that they would say, “I love it.” And throw out the title that I didn’t like.
I called Mark Levy, who’s the writing coach that I work with. I sat down with my husband, I … just in the space of one evening, wrote like 15 titles that I thought would be good for the book and over the weekend, I was thinking it over and I was thinking, you know what? Fearless Growth is by far the best of those 15. I’m going to write to them in the morning and tell them that I really want to call this book Fearless Growth.
The next morning I woke up and there was an email in my inbox and it said, the title will be Fearless Growth, the decision is final.
Alison Jones: Wow!
Amanda Setili: I never even sent the email to them saying that was my favourite of the 15 but it obviously raised to the top for them as well and I just love it. It’s been so energising for me because I think it’s such an important topic. I think that fear holds us back no matter how much of a big bad brave CEO you are, there are definitely things you are afraid of. You’re afraid you won’t make your numbers. You’re afraid you’ll have to lay people off. You’re afraid that your next product launch is going to fail. You’re afraid that stock holders won’t understand what you’re trying to communicate.
There’s a lot of real and tangible things out there that people are legitimately afraid of. The thing is, you have to give up control to gain control. What I advocate in the book is, doing things that at first might actually seem to increase your fear, such as empower your employees, getting product into customers hands earlier, accelerating the speed of learning and innovation. Partnering more, crowdsourcing more, investing in building an ecosystem, all of these things can actually be fear inducing initially but once you get them going and you’re really riding the bike, you get to a place where you’re actually much, much safer because you’re more agile, you’re more flexible, you’re responding to market change and you’ve got all these people out there with their eyes and ears open, helping you to adapt.
Alison Jones: Wonderful. It really is wonderful, the hairs are still up on the back of my neck.
What I love as well is that you, as you say, you felt your way into the title because it sounds like a title that dropped fully formed from heaven and then you wrote the book so I think that’s quite encouraging because I think the lack of a title, we’ve all got a working title, but the lack of the perfect title can sometimes hold people back.
I know some authors on the show have said that the title comes first, if you didn’t have the title you almost couldn’t write the book. It’s just interesting to see that you actually can turn it around. Alan Weiss, he was a last minute title man as well, isn’t he? Million Dollar Consulting.
Amanda Setili: Mm-hmm, he was. He was.
What Mark Levy advised me to do that night was just look through the manuscript and highlight the words that really did it for me. That really caused me to get excited and seemed to capture an essential idea. So I went through the manuscript and just highlighted words and that gave me a lot of fuel for coming up with these 15 ideas, which we finally landed on Fearless Growth.
Alison Jones: It reminds you what it is about the book that hits home. We had to… Mark, who’s on the show a few episodes back, he’s fabulous and people listening, if you haven’t heard the Mark Levy interview I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend it. He talks a lot about fascination as well and that sense of picking up what it is that fascinates you and using that as your springboard to your readers.
Amanda Setili: Yeah. I would say Mark Levy can be very useful in helping you develop your idea. If you’re at that stage, he would be a good person to partner with.
Alison Jones: Yeah, he’s terrific and also I love his book, Accidental Genius, talking about writing as a thinking tool, which is something that I love.
We’re a part of the Mark Levy fan club here, definitely. Thank you so much, Amanda. It’s great to talk to you. Now if people want to find out more about you or about Setili and Associates, more about the books, where should they go and I could put up links on the show notes.
Amanda Setili: Yes, so our website is simple, just www.setili.com so phonetically, so S E T I L I dot com. You can find me on twitter, you can find me on LinkedIn. We have a Facebook page and we try to update it at least daily with new ideas that are useful and we hope that you’ll … if you’re listening to this podcast, that you’ll give us some good feedback.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. I’m sure people will. Thank you Amanda, this is absolutely fantastic.
Amanda Setili: Thank you Alison.