Look Out! It’s Barry Maher

With his new book, Filling the Glass, set to become a management bestseller, Barry Maher is a man we may soon be hearing a lot about. So what’s he got to say?

By L.T. Lefner

Reprinted from Decision: Ireland’s Business Review. Copyright L.T. Lefner and Dillon Publications Ltd.
Used by permission.

 

As usual, Barry Maher arrives at the meeting room an hour before he’s scheduled to speak. He checks out the room and the facilities and reviews a few notes. Then he stations himself by the door and greets the audience of Louisiana software executives as they arrive.

One of the last to appear is a pale, heavy-set man in his early 40s, well-dressed and impatient, smelling of expensive cologne.

“So you’re the motivational speaker, or is it the motivational clown, they dragged in to speak to us tonight?” the man demands.

Maher looks at him thoughtfully. “Define clown.”

“Buffoon, joker, jester.”

“Bozo?”

“Absolutely.”

Maher smiles. “That’s me, then.”

Like the executives gathered in that room, most people have never heard of Barry Maher. Not unless they’ve heard him speak. Or unless they’re salespeople. Or business ethicists. Or devotees of obscure American novelists.

But though he might not be famous—at least not yet—Barry Maher is rapidly becoming one of the country’s most highly-regarded leadership, sales and motivational speakers. His audiences range from middle managers to CEOs, from entrepreneurs to electrical contractors, from production workers to professionals.

Tonight, at the beginning of his presentation, Maher picks up a drinking glass. Without saying a word, he slowly pours several inches of water into it.

“Half empty?” he asks the audience. “Or half full?”

“Half full,” they invariably respond, feeling that they’re on familiar ground, that they know where this is going.

“Call it what you will,” Maher says, slowly emptying the glass onto the bare tabletop. “It’s still only three ounces of water. Maybe it’s time for a new metaphor. The person I want to be, the person I want to hire and the person I believe will ultimately be more successful and more valuable to his company, his family, his society and himself is the one who takes a look at the glass and is concerned—not with whether it’s half empty or half fill—but with figuring out how to fill it up.”

Filling the Glass is the title of Maher’s best known presentation. The book inspired by that presentation is Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business. And in the words of Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks CEO, Jerry Colangelo, it’s “One of the few must read books of the year. Packed with useful, practical advice, it’s also entertaining and frequently laugh out loud funny.” Jay Conrad Levinson, the author of the Guerrilla Marketing series says Filling the Glass is, “Uplifting, enlightening and inspiring . . . I’d [make it required] for any MBA program because [Maher] transcends mere business and moves up onto the spiritual plane with commonsense and yet rarely practiced wisdom . . . brimming with insights.”

Though Maher is a polished, accomplished speaker, he doesn’t fit the stereotype. He doesn’t have the perfect televangelist/TV weatherman hair or the preternaturally white teeth. Originally, he made his mark as a world-class salesman. Then he became a sales and management consultant. He developed an expertise in helping sales people improve their motivation and their productivity, often dramatically. Speaking was a natural outgrowth. Selling Power magazine declared, “To his powerful and famous clients, Barry Maher is simply the best sales trainer in the business.” And it soon became apparent that the strategies that were so effective in helping sales people succeed worked every bit as well with non-sales people.

Today Maher is as much in demand for general business audiences as he is for audiences of salespeople. And he does more sales and management consulting and training than ever.

“Whether as a speaker or a consultant,” he says, “I’m hired to get results: to improve productivity and attitude and ultimately, the bottom line. To make my clients money. As a speaker, I’ve also got to be entertaining; I’ve got to create an emotional as well as an intellectual bond. You can’t be dull or boring and expect to move people.”

Norma Landry is one person Maher certainly moved. An administrator in a small religious denomination, Norma had a problem with her boss, the new bishop.

“Suddenly, everything we did was measured in money,” she explains. “And I’m the one who was supposed to do the measuring. I was constantly dunning the ministers to improve their collections. And then improve upon the improvement. That’s hardly what I took this job to do. The old bishop measured our success in souls.

“I went to one of [Maher’s sessions] almost by accident,” Norma says. “But it’s made all the difference. It showed me how to turn the job I had into the job I wanted. It helped me develop an honest, open-hearted enthusiasm for everything I do.”

How did Norma fill the glass? Among other things, she created a breakdown of how the money the church raised was being used. She made it a matter of church pride that they become more efficient than other comparable non-profit groups. Then she reported the results to the ministers, to share with their congregations, and to the press, earning the church some impressive PR. Contributions increased, and Norma felt far better about her job. She wasn’t dunning people for money; she was feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, helping the helpless.

Her bishop says, “Nowadays, Norma is so good [at her job], she makes me a better boss.”

“Often,” Maher explains, “what I call ‘filling the glass’ is about integrity. Not integrity as some vaguely-reassuring concept in a mission statement in the company manual. But integrity in the sense of wholeness, oneness, relief from the disconnect between what we believe we should be doing in our careers and our lives and what we actually find ourselves doing.”

As one key employee of an industrial supply company wrote, “Until I met Maher, I was never completely comfortable with the person I felt I had to be to [get results]. His brand of muscular, aggressive integrity has been the roadmap for virtually all the success I’ve had since.”

This “muscular, aggressive integrity” has led some to consider Maher a leader in the business ethics movement. Maher himself quickly dismisses the idea. “I don’t moralize. Besides, this isn’t really about morality; it’s about doing what works best—short term as well as long term—for individuals and for companies.”

As a consultant, he believes he can help the individual by helping the company and help the company by helping the individual. John Henning, chief operating officer of Cameron Communications, reports that Maher’s work with Cameron’s various divisions resulted in a dramatic and immediate increase in productivity. Henning adds, “Most consultants make their money on repeat business. Maher is going to have some problems with repeat business because he does such a great job the first time.”

The techniques Maher uses can be startling. One widely-reported story deals with one of those “powerful and famous” clients that Selling Power alluded to: a well-known senator. The senator was in the midst of a diatribe when Maher apparently told him to shut up. Startled, the senator did just that—momentarily. But every time he tried to speak, Maher interrupted, lecturing him, then shaking a finger in his face. Just when the politician seemed about to explode, Maher flipped on a videotape of the senator doing the exact same thing to another legislator the day before. The point was made.

Maher won’t confirm the story. What he does say is that “the more powerful we become in business or in any other arena, the more those we have power over feel they have to act interested in what we have to say. So we start believing we’re fascinating, and we talk too damn much. If power corrupts, the first thing it corrupts may be the little voice in our head that tells us when to be quiet.”

Maher may also be the only consultant in the country who ever goes undercover. He’ll pose as an applicant and go through the hiring and training process. Or he may actually work undercover within the company, sometimes even as a manager. “Often,” he says, “that’s the best way to determine what’s actually happening as opposed to what upper management believes is happening.” Recently one corporate giant was negotiating to buy another. With the consent of both parties, Maher was surreptitiously placed inside the company being acquired. His assessment of the corporate culture had a multi-million dollar impact on the eventual selling price.

Though Maher works with small organizations as well as the giants, over the years he’s been associated with many of the most impressive names in American business: like ABC/Capital Cities, the American Bar Association, the American Management Association, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, and Budget Rent a Car: “to name just a few at the beginning of the alphabet.” The list of publications where he’s received coverage is equally impressive: from the likes of TIME, The New York Times, The San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal all the way to—what he insists is his personal favorite—Funeral Services Insider.

But none of those clients and none of those publications know Maher the way Paul Sheehan does. Sheehan is CFO of the Dyer Sheehan Group, Inc., an investment real estate brokerage based in Ventura, California. He’s been a friend of Maher’s since their freshmen year at Notre Dame.

“As a salesman,” Sheehan says, “Barry was always number one, sometimes out of 800 or 900 reps. And he was a top sales manager. But he may be the least money-motivated salesperson you’ll ever meet.”

Maher and Sheehan had sold coupons books—with offers for free meals and entertainment—door to door in the dorms to help them work their way through college. Eventually they took the idea to California. “We always made sure it was an exceptional deal,” Sheehan says. “Six or seven dollars for several hundred dollars worth of coupons. And if you used less than what you paid for the booklet, we’d refund the difference.”

“Once,” Maher remembers, “a attorney from the local District Attorney’s office contacted me. He thought it was a scam: too good to be true. He ended up buying a couple of books himself.”

Coupon books led Maher to yellow pages ad sales and to his astonishing track record as a salesman and sales manager, first with GTE, then as a consultant for other companies. Yellow pages also led to the 1988 niche book that became his first successful business book, Getting the Most from Your Yellow Pages Advertising. (“I wanted to title it Blood, Sex and Yellow Gold,” Maher insists.) In its current edition, it’s still considered the definitive guide to the subject.

Then he wrote and edited the Marketing Yearbook series for Prentice Hall, which has been called “one of the greatest assemblage of marketing talent ever in print.” When Maher was asked how he managed to corral luminaries like Bill Gates into contributing, he replied, “I wish I could say it was my incredible powers of persuasion, but it was probably just dogged persistence. What can you offer the man who has everything?”

And then there’s, Maher’s novel, Legend. Recently, it’s been revived by a small press and become a minor science fiction cult classic. “Legend is not only a gripping adventure, it’s literature,” one critic wrote. “[But] if all literature were this wondrous, high school and college students all over the country would be rushing to class.” Another called it, “a book that may even change who you are, just a little.”

Maher scoffs. “In 1988, Legend made the UPI ‘Ten Most Underrated’ list, along with the New York Knicks and a Meryl Streep movie about a dingo that ate a baby. The book probably was a bit underrated, and it stayed that way until it became overrated. Way overrated.”

Life is good for Barry Maher and so is business. Though, as Sheehan point out, money has apparently never been one of Maher’s prime concerns, “His attitude towards money gives him a great deal of freedom.

“Not that he works cheap; he values his time. But I’ve seen him walk away from some very large piles of money when there wasn’t anything in it but money. That may be because he doesn’t particularly like stuff. He lives in Santa Barbara, California, a block from the beach, but he doesn’t need the biggest or the grandest house in the city. He drives a Honda Accord, and I doubt if he’d care if it were a ’88 Yugo as long as it started when he turned the key.”

Barry Maher is a man of many parts. They all seem to come together when he’s in front of an audience. His website says, “Motivational speakers are not enough” but there’s no doubt the expertise he’s displayed has also been extremely motivational. By the time he finished talking to the software executives that night in Louisiana they were leaning forward in their seats, riveted. The stories he used to illustrate his points made it clear that he’s a first-rate storyteller, and probably a pretty fair novelist. The ideas rang true, attesting to his years of practical experience. And if Maher is a master salesman, it’s safe to say the software executives were thoroughly sold.

Even the pale, heavy-set man—the one who wanted to know if Maher was “the motivational clown”—was nodding in agreement, perhaps in spite of himself.

Later, after the presentation, Maher fields a phone call from one more writer seeking one more interview. He’s asked about his wide range of activities: as a motivator, a consultant, a business writer, a reluctant ethicist, a trainer, a novelist, a salesman and even a poet. He quotes Lily Tomlin, “I always wanted to be somebody. I guess I should have been more specific.”

Author, L.T. Lefner is currently working on Voices of Transformation, a book about the world’s leading motivational speakers.  

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