University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 90: Mark Sanborn Discusses Intentionality, Leadership, and Public Speaking

September 23, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Mark Sanborn is a leadership speaker and best-selling author. As the president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc, Mark helps others become better leaders in their personal and professional lives. Sanborn is the author of 8 books and was ranked the number five leadership expert in the world by in 2019.

Buy Mark Sanborn’s most recent book, “The Intention Imperative: 3 Essential Changes That Will Make You a Successful Leader Today.”

Episode Transcript


00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.

00:27 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Mark Sanborn, who is a speaker and author, and I in fact, I've read a couple of books of his that I really like. And it's part of the reasons I reached out to him, and he has been at Sanborn & Associates, Inc for 34 years. His books are extremely popular and doing very well, and he has done some research recently that I'm gonna ask him about as well. So Mark, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.

01:00 Mark Sanborn: Well, Dean Waller, my pleasure.

01:02 Matt Waller: So Mark, I just read The Intention Imperative. And not only do I like the content, I like how it's written. It's very well-written. The first chapter really grabbed me, so thank you for writing this book.

01:17 Mark Sanborn: Well, thank you for reading it. I write books, we live by faith. If you think back to Field of Dreams, they said, "If you build it, they will come." Well, when you write a book, you just hope there were people that A, will read it, and then B, will enjoy and benefit from it, so I appreciate the feedback.

01:35 Matt Waller: So Mark, I love how you start the book and you say, you lead people in a thought exercise of thinking about, what are the common characteristics of leaders, and you list some of them and you say, "Well, clearly none of these stand out as the unequivocal traits or characteristics of a leader." But you have worked with thousands of leaders in your career, and at one point, of course, you've written a lot about leadership as well, but at one point you had an epiphany, and the epiphany was that, one, I would call it a necessary condition, a necessary condition for a successful leader is that they are intentional, and you do a great job of explaining why. And you used the metaphor of climbing Mount Everest. People don't just happen to be on top of Mount Everest. So there's more to your book than that, and we'll talk about that, but I do think this is interesting because it's really easy for someone to think they might be a good leader because they're charismatic, or they're conscientious, or because they're extroverts, but we all know counter examples of all that, whereas, it's hard to imagine someone who's achieved great things that wasn't intentional about it, but how did that epiphany come to you?

03:03 Mark Sanborn: I've been asked for so many years, "What's the one thing all great leaders have in common?" Or a variation of that question, "What's the one thing all successful people have in common?" And I've always tried to be intellectually honest and say, "I don't know." because as you talked about having worked with so many leaders, I've worked with leaders that just based on their character and their skill set, you would have thought would have been wildly successful, but weren't. And I've worked with a few leaders that were wildly successful, but maybe didn't deserve to be based on their leadership abilities, and then everything in between. Being intentional is about being clear and taking consistent action on a regular, if not, a daily basis. Intentional, sometimes I think back to my grandmother used to remind me that the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but those are intentions in terms of what we'd like to do or plan to do, but not what we actually take action to do. So intentional leadership is clarity coupled with taking the right action. And in the book, as you know, I talk about the world it is not the world that was.

04:13 Mark Sanborn: And it's funny, the book came out just before COVID, fall of 2019, and after sitting at home for a couple of weeks, I thought I better go back and look at the book and see if COVID has negated or changed any of the premises that I made. And the good news for me as an author is that it didn't, because now I think many leaders are going to have to re-focus, they're going to have to re-examine their intentions, they're gonna have to re-clarify the actions to be taken, and it will be very easy for leaders to stop playing to win and just start playing not to lose, to be defensive rather than offensive, there's nothing like a crisis or a plague to do that. So intentional leadership, very simply, being crystal clear on what you're trying to accomplish and taking the right action every day to accomplish it.

05:08 Matt Waller: Well, and I liked your example in the book too, about Domino's Pizza, where you talk about how no one buys Domino's because it's the best pizza but they buy it because of convenience. At one point, Domino's, as you talk about in your book, they admitted, they didn't have the best pizza, and they also said, "Hey, we're an e-commerce company." That was sort of the clarity, we wanna be a great e-commerce company, we happen to sell pizza. And as you say, everyone who's used the app for Domino's knows how excellent it is, for example, for a year now, for health reasons, I've become a vegan, never thought I would be vegan, growing up in Kansas City, but I am, and so I'm often limited. Well, Domino's, if you're vegan, you'll like Domino's because you can order a thin crust, no dairy, no meat, you put on the ingredients you want, and it's so easy and they do it right every time. Normally, when you try to order something that's vegan, they don't know that that means you shouldn't have dairy as well, but they clearly have taken us to the nth degree, and as you mentioned in your book, the stock price really reflects that.

06:31 Mark Sanborn: Yeah, the stock price has been crazy. What was gratifying to me, even though when you write a business book and you don't focus on a single company, you have to sometimes paint with fairly broad, brush strokes, and a former executive from Domino's endorsed the book and read the story, and he said, of course, there were other nuances and other things that played into it, but that was essentially an accurate story because they were trying to compete on things that they weren't competitive in like taste and price, there's always somebody that can sell a pizza a little bit cheaper or give you a free bottle of soda, but when they realized they were an e-commerce company, it totally changed their orientation. Now, they are an e-commerce company that happens to sell pizza. In other words, they didn't just say, We're gonna become an e-commerce company and compete with Amazon and sell books, they were very clear on their product. Oh, by the way, you said something... One of my favorite parts of that story is when Domino's admitted, their product quality weren't very good in the months that followed, they saw a 200% to 300% increase in sales.

07:41 Mark Sanborn: This was even before the e-commerce epiphany, and what I've always loved is that the customer already knows, it wasn't like people said, "Really? Oh my God, I thought that was the best pizza I ever had." But by being honest and then making a commitment to be better, people really resonated with that.

07:58 Matt Waller: Agreed. I'm gonna take a little different path right now, I know, of course, you've written a lot of books, you do a lot of speaking, you've worked with really well-known companies. I would like to just find out a little bit more about you, why are you so interested in leadership? What got you interested in leadership?

08:20 Mark Sanborn: Well, it's a great question with a bit of a curious answer, I got involved in public speaking, I grew up in Ohio, you grew up in Kansas City, I've eaten red meat growing up three times a day, but having grown up on a farm, I was a member of 4-H, I got involved in public speaking initially it was very, very bad, and that actually is what piqued my interest to learn how to be a speaker, and the more I spoke, the more I realized how integral speaking was to leadership. If you're going to be an effective leader, you almost always have to be a good communicator, so I got interested in leadership through FFA, Future Farmers of America back then, and started speaking in college as an after dinner speaker to earn my way through the Ohio State University and then went into sales and marketing until I could start speaking full-time. And that was kind of a parallel process for me, how to communicate well, and what is it that enables anybody, and one of my book is, You don't Need a Title to Be a Leader. So I don't believe that titles make one a leader, I think a title should confirm leadership, but we've all worked for titled leaders that, as John Gardner famously said, "Couldn't lead a group of seven-year-olds to an ice cream truck."

09:33 Mark Sanborn: So I started studying, what makes leaders effective, and I've been doing that for the past 30 plus years, and when COVID hit, I became fascinated with how leaders did, so we researched, asked employees how their leaders did and found out a lot of things that the highest leaders scored in across five generations was communication, only 50-some percent of one generation said they did well. In other words, there's a lot of room for improvement. You might hope, for instance, that leaders would score a 90 or about 95, but they were scoring well under 50% in most categories. What leaders did least well? But especially Gen Z, the newest level of employees in the workforce was keeping morale up. But the thing that came out of it, that to me, I'm most interested in, is that roughly a third of all the respondents, a 1000 plus respondents were optimistic that life would be better after COVID, about 50% thought life would be the same. Now, I think one of the things that leaders can do is help people make good on that belief, if you have one third of your workforce that already thinks things are gonna be better, don't discourage that, use that optimism and help them find ways to make things better.

10:53 Mark Sanborn: For the 50% that said, "Things will be the same," and that's not a damning indictment, that's to me, a little delusional, I don't think the world will be the same as it was pre-COVID, but again, if you can show them how the world can be better than it was pre-COVID, now you've got a real purpose for that group. Everyone, however scored anxiety is high, so you have an optimistic group of people, but everybody's anxious. So I think that right now the two levers of leadership is how do we reduce anxiety in very real ways, not just pep talks, but in safety and procedures and protocols, how do we reduce anxiety and how do we show people that it doesn't have to be an either/or, that we can have challenges and make things better.

11:42 Matt Waller: I went to my dentist recently, and I was really impressed with how he reduced anxiety, they went out to the car, took your temperature, brought you in at a certain door. Yeah, dental offices have a smell about them because of the chemicals they use and everything, it didn't. And it didn't because they have so much air filtration going on, but they were really clear to me as they were walking me in about all the things they did to make it safe, and I wasn't that anxious about it anyway, but I could see for someone who was, that would take away a lot of fear.

12:19 Mark Sanborn: And I've been encouraging and teaching my clients, that we live in the age of show and tell, not tell and sell, tell and sell says, "You're safe coming in. So come get your teeth cleaned." Show and tell demonstrates why you're safe. It reinforces the messaging, and I was at a Texas Roadhouse, who I first wrote about in The Intention Imperative, and all restaurants, I shouldn't say all, but the vast majority are taking the social distancing and other protocols seriously. But while I was waiting to go in Texas Roadhouse, there was a young woman in a mask with a bottle of disinfectant cleaning off surfaces outside the restaurant, where there was a sign that had the menu on it where people sat, and I thought that's far more powerful than saying, we disinfect both inside and outside. How do I know that you're not just blowing smoke, but when I see someone doing that, that's what I call show and tell versus the old school of just tell and sell.

13:16 Matt Waller: Another chapter in your book that I thought was really interesting was the culture imperative. Looking at culture, you talk about it as an engine for the organization. Would you mind elaborating on that just a little bit?

13:32 Mark Sanborn: Well, I wanted to write about culture for two reasons. One, I think it's one of the three big shifts that leaders have been making and need to continue to make, but more importantly, it's probably the one word in business that is most used and least understood. I define it as everything we think and believe that results in what we attempt and achieve, it's what we think and believe, because being told something is true doesn't mean we believe it, culture is about what people really believe, not what they've been told, and I think COVID was a good example. It was your culture that helped you survive well, or not so well during COVID-19, not your org chart. And in the book, I wanted to talk about what are the levers that you have for creating a positive culture versus just inheriting the one you've already got. And one of my favorites is, hire for culture. If you're in a financial services firm and you're hiring a new accountant, and you've got three really good accountants, don't just hire the most educated, assuming they're all competent and good at what they do, hire the one that most fits the culture you work and in terms of attitude and enthusiasm and professionalism and values, because too often we get utilitarian and we hire for function alone, but you've got a couple of function with culture, and those are the things that make your culture easier to maintain when you surround yourself with people who already are oriented that way.

15:01 Matt Waller: So Mark, the Walton College has over 6,100 undergraduates and about over 500 graduate students, and a lot of them come from... About 40% come from Arkansas, about 33% come from Texas, and then all over the country. We're in, of course, a large public school, many of them come from large public schools, and I think a lot of times, especially those that have come from large schools in big cities like Dallas, they may not have had as much experience or opportunities to do public speaking, and that's clearly one of your strengths. You've done it for many years. Could you give them some advice about what could they be doing while they're in school to become a better public speaker?

15:50 Mark Sanborn: I'll be glad to, but let me first say, I don't know of any skill that'll serve you better in the world of business or organizational leadership than communication, doesn't mean it's the only skill or the most important skill, but it is the one that will most leverage your competency and your skill set. Now, having said that, the best way to learn to speak is the same way you learn to ski or ride a bike, and that is you get them the bike, or the skis or you get in front of an audience and you try. Now, there is a big difference when you speak for the first time or try to ski or ride a bike for the first time, you usually fail to some degree, but that is true with just about any skill.

16:28 Mark Sanborn: People always act like speaking should be something that in our first try we should be amazing at, but it's like most things, you learn by doing it, however, just doing it won't make you better, two things will make you better. Number one is preparation. The number one reason why people fail is they think speaking is easy and they don't prepare, you just have to be more prepared than you could have imagined, if you wanna do a great job. Because whatever you've done, if you have done something to practice before, you get up to introduce a speaker or say an invocation or summarize a book in front of the class, all that preparation is done in the comfort of your dorm room or your apartment or your home, and when you finally get in front of people and that adrenaline kicks in because it is... It can be frightening to be in front of a group of people. Now, all that practice goes out the window unless you have ingrained it so deeply, that it just comes like second nature.

17:26 Mark Sanborn: So preparation is key. The second thing that will make you a better public speaker is to realize that you're not trying to impress people, you're trying to influence them. Because if impressing people is changing how they think about you, influence is changing what they do after they hear you speak. One is about perception, one is about performance. So the question becomes, what do you want them to think, feel and/or do when you're done speaking. If you're introducing someone, you want them to think the speaker is credible and feel glad that they came and give them a warm reception. If you're giving an invocation, you want people to feel it was sincere and think that the words that you spoke were well thought out, and then you want them to do something, at least agree in concept that there is a spiritual dimension to whatever event you've given the invocation to. So I would begin by saying, what do you want people to think, feel and/or do when you're done speaking and then prepare, prepare, prepare.

18:28 Matt Waller: I totally agree. There's no question. Preparation makes a huge difference, and thinking about the audience that you're speaking to. So Mark, again, another rabbit trail I'd like to go now with you. Back in 1998, the Walton family gave our Business School at the time, what was the largest gift ever given to a public business school, and they've given us a lot of money since then, but when we were given the gift and we became the Sam M. Walton College of Business, we went through our first strategic planning process and we came up with our vision and mission and values. The vision and mission actually have changed since then, but the values haven't and the values are summarized by the acronym EPIC, Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality. What's really interesting about this is, we came up with a tagline to tie our values and our vision together, and it really works well, so our vision is to... Through our teaching, research and service to be thought leaders and catalysts for transforming lives, so that part, catalysts for transforming lives. So we came up with this term, "Be EPIC" as our tagline. But do you have anything, any thoughts on our values?

19:52 Mark Sanborn: I do, I love the quote from Roy Disney who said, "When values are clear, decision-making is easy." I say that vision is where you're trying to go, mission is why you're trying to go there, but values determine how you get there, values shape our behavior. So you can have different values and you'll change the process by which you either attain or don't attain your vision. I also think that when you work with an organization, the key to values is that everybody understands them and lives by them, not that they just have them printed on the back of the annual report or on a card that you give new hires, so it's gotta be about commitment, and then it's gotta be about people understanding how you live those values out day-to-day. I love the idea of excellence because we can't always be best, but we can always be excellent in the areas that are important, the idea of professionalism. Professionalism, again, is a choice, these are all values, some things you have to get from others, these are four values that are internal, that you control and professionalism makes all the difference. It's about how people perceive you.

21:06 Mark Sanborn: And I always like to say that when it comes to style and substance, if you had to choose, choose substance, but remember that style leverages substance. We all know people that are deep thinkers, thought leaders, but they just kinda look like a train wreck or they're eccentric or they're unusual in their presentation, and unfortunately, maybe even unfairly, it prevents people from really understanding and taking them seriously. Innovation, I say, "In my work, you emulate to learn, but you innovate to earn." So when you're an undergrad, you learn what the great leaders and the great companies did, and initially you emulate until you learn how to do it too, but you'll only ever be as good as another company or another leader until you innovate.

21:56 Mark Sanborn: Innovate means you do something better not something different, not just do what everybody else is doing. And I think of the four, collegiality is my favorite because it's the word I use, which you don't hear that much. We often hear team building or cooperation or participation, but collegiality means you hold others on the same level as you, even though they might have different responsibilities and skill sets and jobs, collegiality is about being a hail-fellow or a hail-woman who people like because, I think, professionalism is what people think of you, but collegiality is how you treat others, and when we realize that nothing great, including climbing Mount Everest is ever accomplished by an individual, by him or herself, then collegiality is a great way to end that Be EPIC.

22:52 Matt Waller: I'm glad I asked you that question. I like that explanation of EPIC. I haven't heard that, but that's great, thank you. So you grew up in Ohio, you now live in Colorado, and you've spoken all over the country and around the world in all of your travels of meeting with lots of leaders and speaking to lots of groups, what are some things that stand out to you as... For example, with COVID. No one knows what life's gonna be like after COVID, and you've said that, but clearly things are changing. Normally, seriously, before COVID, I did all of my podcast interviews face-to-face. So if I would have interviewed you, I would have flown to Colorado, I would have seen you face-to-face, and now I'm not. That changes things. So what are some things that come out... Stand out to you, that will change in your world going forward.

23:53 Mark Sanborn: It's interesting because COVID has challenged all of our assumptions, and frankly they're assumptions we could have challenged ourselves, but didn't have to. The idea of remote work, we know that remote work can work, but there is an energy and the creativity and enthusiasm that happens when people work together in groups or teams. So I think, again, as I said earlier, most good things in leadership and business, aren't ors, they're ands. Yes, we can work remotely and we need the face-to-face interaction as the times allow us. I think that one of the other things is that we realize that the hierarchy is not nearly as important as the culture, the structure of your organization is less important than how people are committed to your organization and what they're willing to do, and what's changed the most in leadership, this happened before COVID, but it continues to happen, is less about leaders and more about followers, and that is today, if you're an effective leader, you don't treat the people who you need like followers, you treat them like colleagues and contributors and co-workers and team members, because a follower suggests that you simply tell them what to do and they follow instructions, and that might have worked back in 1915 when you were building cars in Detroit, but it doesn't work well in 2020 and beyond.

25:20 Mark Sanborn: I think we should begin with all the common questions we ask and the common assumptions that we make and say, what if that wasn't true, but I think we can do that too as leaders, we can just challenge our own assumptions. For me, what I like most is presenting on stage to a group of 200 or 2,000 or 20,000 people. That hadn't happened since March 1st of this year, and it doesn't look like it's gonna happen any time soon. So I had to challenge my assumptions and realize that I'm in the business of conveying ideas, thanks to Zoom and GoToMeeting and Microsoft and studios that I've partnered with, I can continue to disseminate my expertise just on different platforms. Discipline is the ability to do what you need to do, even if you don't wanna do it. And discipline is gonna be required because if I said, "You know, If I can't talk in front of a live audience, I'm gonna sit on my hands until I can." That would not end well for me, my business or my family.

26:17 Matt Waller: Great points. So Mark, in COVID, leaders are being stressed to make tons of decisions in record times, we've been doing at the university just left and right, but it's scary for leaders to do that because you don't know if you're making the right decision. What advice would you give to them?

26:39 Mark Sanborn: Well, the good news is, you're not gonna get it all right, and that's alright. Nobody in leadership is expected to be clairvoyant, the only thing you should be worried about is not working hard enough to be well-informed on the decisions that you make, important decisions are often compressed into a short period of time, but that doesn't mean you can't use the time you have to get the information you need. And that to me, personally, has been frustrating that there has been so much disinformation and so much contrary information during this time, but you do the hard work of making sure that the information you have is good and you make the decision knowing that your responsibility was to make the best decision you could not to get every decision right.

27:21 Matt Waller: For those of you listening to this, if you want to learn more about Mark Sanborn and his work, which I think is excellent, he's got a website called So it's

27:40 Mark Sanborn: Well, thank you. Yeah, the website is kind of the mothership for my accounts like Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, so as long as people can remember my name, they can find the website, and I do try to provide as much information as I can, that will help people improve their businesses and their lives, whether or not they ever read any of my books or hear me speak live and in person.

28:03 Matt Waller: I really appreciate you taking time, Mark, to talk to me about your book, to talk about communication and to talk about the future. We really do appreciate you.

28:15 Mark Sanborn: Well, thanks for having me Dean Waller, and all the best to you and the students, alumni and listeners of this podcast.


28:25 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us, wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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