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How to Differentiate Yourself by Mike Figliuolo

How to Differentiate Yourself by Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo, co-author of Lead Inside the Box

Mike Figliuolo of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, joined me for this audio discussion in which we talked about how he and co-author Victor Prince differentiated themselves as authors with their book, Lead Inside the Box. And what their approach teaches about how to differentiate yourself. Not least how to think about your market challenges in fresh and compelling ways.

To begin with, Mike explains the core message of Lead Inside the Boxwhose unique model is illustrated below:

Differentiate Yourself: The Leadership Matrix


Now listen to our discussion:

Dr. Liz discusses differentiation with Mike Figliuolo

If you’re listening carefully enough, the market tells you exactly what's different about your offering @Figliuolo Click To Tweet

What follows is the transcript, which you can also download here.

Dr. Liz Alexander Interviews Mike Figliuolo of thoughtLEADERS, LLC

How to Differentiate Yourself in a Crowded Space

LIZ (L):            Well, I went on to the Amazon site a few minutes ago to search for leadership books and got almost 150,000 results. So there’s certainly no shortage of books already on the topic of leadership, many of which I suspect say a lot of the same things, not least how smart leaders can guide their teams to exceptional results. Which of course just happens to be the subtitle of your new book, Mike: Lead Inside the Box. But what I really like about your book is that while it offers a fresh and different angle on leadership, there’s nothing so far out that the model and argument isn’t easily and readily grasped, which to my mind is the best of both worlds. So that’s why I wanted to talk with you about how it’s possible to own a really different perspective on a well-worn topic like leadership that our listeners can apply to their own challenges around differentiation of their brand or message, which is something Gallup calls the sine qua non, or essential element, of branding. But before we get into that, Mike, please tell us a little bit more about the book Lead Inside the Box and the model it showcases.

MIKE (M):            Yeah, it’s about how do you lead your team members more effectively. And the way the model works is it’s a 2×2 matrix, which is the box, and we call it the Leadership Matrix. And on one axis you look at individual results. So what are the results the team members are turning out, from low to high? And on the other axis you look at what we call Leadership Capital Invested. So how much of your time, energy and effort as a leader do you have to put into them to drive those results? And you end up with more boxes in the matrix. Depending on where somebody’s performing, they’re going to end up in one of those boxes. But they can shift depending on their performance changing or your performance as a leader changing. So that’s what it’s all about. And it was interesting to come at it from that angle. And the piece that’s really different is so many leadership books out there focus on the individual team member and say, “This is what’s wrong with them. This is how you change them.” And we said, “Well, what’s missing here is the leader’s behavior and the impact that that has on the individual’s performance.” So that’s sort of the new wrinkle on this that I think really differentiates it.

L:            That’s great. Well, let’s take — you’ve had two experiences now Mike writing books. There’s One Piece of Paper, which you wrote by yourself, and then Lead Inside the Box, which is co-authored — the latest one. So maybe we can take, you know, both of those experiences and use it to unpack how anyone, whether they intend to write a book or not, can begin to think more about their market challenges in a fresh and compelling way. I mean, in short, how differentiation happens in a practical sense. So to start with, were you conscious of how much competition you had around the topic of leadership when you decided to write both One Piece of Paper and Lead Inside the Box?

Differentiation and Emotions

M:            Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve been working in this space running my leadership firm for over a decade. You know, spent time in leadership roles prior to that. I’ve been on Amazon. I write my blog. I get guest submissions all the time from other leadership bloggers who want to do guest posts on our blog. So I was very cognizant of what that space looked like, yes.

L:            So it always seems to me that the ability to truly differentiate hinges on a couple of key emotions: fear and passion. So maybe from what you’ve just said, we can start with the fear factor. I mean, you know, that most human beings stick to a herd mentality that says if you stray too far from the herd, you’re likely to get attacked or killed off. To what extent was fear — I mean, not necessarily fear as such, but you know, this awareness that there was a lot of competition around the topic of leadership — did that worry you in any way around how you were going to be able to successfully differentiate your books given the vast competition?

M:            You know, and maybe this is just me being stupid or naïve or reckless — I didn’t care. SO there’s this element of fearlessness to it that says, “Do you believe in the topic” — which we’re going to get to in passion in a moment — “do you believe in it? Do you believe you have a perspective, and do you have indications that there are people out there who value it — people whose opinions you value and say that their thoughts are valid?” And therefore you’ve just got to believe that OK, it’s going to work. And maybe it goes back to my experience starting my business. I left a very successful corporate life and went out on my own. And I had some indications that my courses were going to be well-received and there was client demand for them because I had done a little bit of piloting for a couple of years. But I didn’t know how big it would be or could be. But you believe in the product. You believe in the passion. And I threw caution to the wind on that one, and it worked out great. So the book was like, “OK, well, it worked last time, so let’s try it again.”

L:            Oh, that’s fantastic. And I mean, we both operate in the space of thought leadership as well, and one of the things that Craig and I always say is that thought leaders are brave. I mean, you may call it stupidity or, you know, “Oh, I wasn’t aware” or what have you, but at the same time there’s something driving you that says, “Hell, you know, I’ve got something to offer here. I’m going to do it and I don’t want to be the same as everybody else.”

The Courage of Thought Leadership

M:            Yeah, exactly. And we teach our course on thought leadership, and one of the principles we espouse there is courage and endurance. And that’s what it takes to be a thought leader. Because people are going to throw rocks at you. I mean, I got another awesome review on Goodreads the other day on One Piece of Paper, and it was two stars. And the guy’s like, “I didn’t get anything out of it other than write some inspirational stuff on a piece of paper.” And I was like, “OK, then you completely missed the point and I’m really not worried about your perspective because I wasn’t writing it for you.” I’m writing it for the people who read it and go, “Oh my gosh, this is such a different way of looking at things. It’s incredibly helpful.” So if I was afraid of getting bad reviews, well, you know, it’s one of those things where I probably shouldn’t be writing a book. And I watch a lot of animated movies. I don’t know if you have ever seen Ratatouille, but there’s the critic in the movie, Anton Ego, the food critic. And he writes this one thing about the way that critics really have no courage. And the people who have true courage are the creators because they’re putting themselves out there to get kicked and spit at and, you know, have their work derided by people who create nothing. And he says the critic takes no risk. It’s the creator who takes all the risk. And that really speaks to me a lot in my perspective. And it’s like, “Alright, if you’re going to critique, how about you go write a book and then we’ll see how it goes?”

L:            Yeah though, you make an interesting point or a useful point there too regarding that two-star reader that it’s knowing your target audience. I mean, we’ve had a conversation before where I know, you know — it’s so important to be client-centric, to be really focused on who am I speaking to and what will they most be receptive to and how can I help them. So it’s also about knowing who you’re trying to help and why you’re trying to do that, isn’t it?

Know Your Target Audience

M:            Yeah, it is. And I guess writing the blog has given me that a lot too. My perspectives on the blog can be a little bit in-your-face, edgy, provocative, snarky, sarcastic. And some people love that writing, and other people hate it. And it’s like, “OK, go read another blog. I don’t care. I’m not writing for you. I’m writing for the people who are looking for these types of perspectives delivered in this manner.”

L:            Yeah, I mean, listen, I write very, very similarly. And I think it speaks to the second emotion that I’d like to speak with you about, and that’s passion. I mean, when you’re passionate about something, you’re so driven by a strong desire to do your own thing that in a sense saying and doing things that are so different from anyone else means you automatically find yourself holding fresh ground idea-wise. Would you say that was true for you for both writing One Piece of Paper and Lead Inside the Box?

A Different Perspective

M:            Yeah, I think so. On One Piece of Paper, I think the very different perspective there was — and I didn’t go into it thinking about this necessarily, but it was something that I realized as I was writing it and as people were reading it — is so many leadership books out there tell people, “We want you to be an authentic leader.” And then they’re highly, highly prescriptive that says, “For you to be authentic, you have to walk, talk, dress, act like this.” Wait a minute. I’m telling you to be yourself, but then I’m telling you exactly how to behave, which may be completely counter to who you are. And what I realized with One Piece of Paper was what I had written was a book that said every leader is different, but the questions they ask themselves are all the same. But that the responses they’re going to give are going to be very different. And it was really interesting to see the reaction. People would write me and say, “I loved the book because what you’re telling me is it’s OK to be myself. I just need to understand who I am and be able to explain it and translate it to the work I do.” And it was a very counterintuitive perspective that didn’t, you know, dawn on my until after I’d written it and had people read it. But that was the new ground that I found myself on.

L:            Now that’s — and that’s fascinating too. Because you know, when I work with clients, they’re all so — you know, at the beginning, having — knowing exactly what it is they want to do. And I always say, “Look, you know, if we’re just going to be able to take what’s in your existing head and putting it onto paper, I’m not sure that we’re going to get something that’s that different from what, you know, someone with the same background and experience has.” Don’t you think sometimes there’s a discovery process around this differentiation — that, you know, as you’re actually doing something, you find what your new ground is rather than necessarily determining what it is before you start the project?

M:            Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. As I — with this one, with Lead Inside the Box, as I’ve talked with people and explained the book to them — and you know, people hear you’re working on the project and you start explaining what it’s about or as you’re doing guest blogs and interviews. It really starts becoming clear what are people interested in. And what they’re interested in is what’s different. And you’ll hear them say, “Wait a minute. It’s different. That’s an interesting way to look at it.” And when they say that and you hear it 10 times in a row, you go, “Oh, that’s the differentiated piece of this book that people hadn’t thought of before.” So it’s really neat the way that the pitch evolves. And you may have an interview with somebody and you say something a certain way and they really latch onto it. They say, “That sounded really good” and then that was the whole encapsulation of this idea. I’m going to say that again and again and again. And it gets further and further revised. So on the back end I think you do have a much clearer perspective of what’s different. You don’t necessarily have it going in.

L:            Yeah, and the whole thing about being successful around, well, anything I said I guess, but differentiation certainly, is that it’s not a one-way train. It’s not about, you know, “Let me speak all the time.” It sounds like there’s a lot of listening, too, to be aware of what your target market is saying and to leverage and focus on those things where they’re saying, “Hey, that’s different. That’s new. I haven’t heard that before.”

Your Market Tells You What’s Different

M:            Yeah, absolutely. If you’re listening carefully enough, the market tells you exactly what different about your offering. When I started Thought Leaders, I had been teaching a course on communications when I was at Capital One. And after class, people would come up and say, “I really loved the class, and the framework’s cool and the process is cool. But what made this awesome that was different was you’re a business guy and you understand how this applies in the real world.” And after you hear that 10 times and go, “Huh, that’s interesting. That’s what people are valuing.” And when I started Thought Leaders, I said, “I’m going to hold that up as a point of differentiation — that all of our instructors are practitioners of the concepts we teach.” And then you go to the marketplace and you hear your clients sourcing vendors for training, and you tell them, “Go ahead and ask the vendor who they’re going to put on the podium and ask for that person’s resume. And when you get the resume, are they a career trainer or a career facilitator, or are they a business person like me?” And every single time the clients come back and go, “Yeah, you have a much better business background. You and your instructors understand this stuff because you’ve done it, so we’re going to go with you.” The market will tell you exactly what’s different.

L:            Oh, I love that. It’s something I’ve been saying all the time. It’s actually easier than we think. The hardest thing is putting your ego to one side and stop thinking that you know what other people need or you know what other people are attracted to and listen to what they say.

M:            Yeah, exactly. I mean, it applies in software development when people build websites and you look at some of the Agile principles and the whole “fail fast.” It’s like, you know, build something, throw it up, and then look at the analytics. Look at how people use the site. It’s like Craigslist. That thing is a visual disaster, but guess what? It works, right? Because they understand — they’re letting the users dictate what the best experience is for them. They’re listening.

L:            Yeah, absolutely. Mike, I always love speaking with you and I wish we had more opportunities to do. I’m sure we will in the near future. But thank you so much for sharing your time and insights. And good luck with Lead Inside the Box.

M:            Thanks so much. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Please be a part of this discussion. What challenges have you faced around differentiating yourself from your competitors? What insights can you share about what you learned from that experience? Contribute your comments below. We will respond to all comments. 

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