The Magic of Involvement

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For this installment I take a temporary break from Peter Drucker to share with you a truly inspirational story about the importance of involvement.

Have you ever received one of those promotionals in the mail which includes two stamps. One reads "Yes, I accept your offer!" The other, "No thanks!" You are asked to affix the proper stamp to an enclosed card and return it to order whatever product is being promoted. You may have asked yourself, "Are these guys crazy? If I want to order, I’ll just send the enclosed card. Why waste my time with this nonsense about the stamps?"


Involvement’s Magic

Would you be surprised to learn that the number of orders received might increase by 100% based on getting involved in affixing a stamp? There is tremendous psychological power having to do with getting someone involved in a task, even something as simple as licking a stamp.

If you can get others involved in what you want done, they will frequently adopt your goal as theirs and become committed to its attainment. Psychologically, they have ownership in your project. Corporations have discovered this concept and found it so powerful that an entire management movement has grown up around it called "engagement." The idea is to get employees "engaged" or involved and committed in their work. This leads to a significant increase in productivity. Involvement is a very powerful magic.

The $1.8 Million Man

Joe Cossman passed away several years ago, but he made millions of dollars without a college education due to his heroic leadership and frequent ability to involve others in his projects

During World War II, Cossman served in Europe. After the war, with no formal education, he got a job working for an import company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His pay was $350 a week. Actually, it was less than one tenth of this amount, but I want to tell you his story more in terms of today’s dollars so you’ll understand the magnitude of Joe’s accomplishments. On his small pay check, Joe supported himself, his wife, and a baby daughter.

After his regular job, Joe worked part time from his kitchen table trying to find products made in the U.S. for export. He had little success for about a year. Then, one day he saw a small classified ad in the New York Times. It was for laundry soap, which was then in short supply overseas. Joe answered the ad, and sent query letters to several overseas contacts. Almost by return mail, he received an order with a letter of credit for $1,800,000 in today’s dollars. Think of what this meant to someone supporting his family on $350 a week!

The letter of credit said that a New York bank would pay him the amount of $1,800,000 as soon as Joe presented the bank with bills of lading. Bills of lading are documents showing the product received on a ship and ready to depart bound for the buyer. There was also a deadline. The bills of lading had to be presented to his bank within thirty days, or the letter of credit would be worthless. This protected the buyer from having his money tied up indefinitely.

How to Getan "Impossible" Leave of Absence

Cossman went to see his boss and asked for a leave of absence. His boss told Joe that this was impossible, that this was their busiest season. Joe couldn’t afford to quit his $350 a week job. He got his boss involved in the project by telling him the whole story. After hearing it his boss said "yes." Joe withdrew his life savings from the bank. It was a few hundred dollars. Then, he left for New York.

Overcoming the Effects of a Telephone Strike

When he got to New York, Joe telephoned the man who ran the advertisement. The line had been disconnected. The man’s "company" was simply a mailbox. With no orders for soap, he had simply disappeared.

Joe didn’t give up. He went to the New York Public Library and got the names and addresses of every soap manufacturer in the United States. Then he locked himself in his hotel room and started to make the first telephone call. Immediately he ran into another problem. There was a telephone strike. It took thirty minutes before he finally got a manager who was acting as an operator. Joe asked the manager to stay on the line. He told him his story, answered the manager’s questions, and got him involved. Because he was now involved in Joe’s project, the operator agreed to help him. He promised to keep Joe on the line as he continued to make calls, but with no success.

When no manufacturer on either coast was still open, Joe fell into bed exhausted. When the sun came up he started again, repeating the process with the new manager. After many more calls he finally found a company in Alabama which had laundry soap. Joe had a telephone bill of several hundred dollars, but he had located the soap.

He was ready to fly to Alabama. Fortunately he didn’t need to do this. Their corporate offices were only a few blocks away in New York.

Two Company Presidents Get Involved

Before long Joe was telling the story to the president of the soap company. He got this president involved and completed the deal with no cash, but in his inexperience, he made a mistake. Joe took delivery of the soap in Alabama, not New York City. So it was Joe’s responsibility to get the soap to New York.

Joe looked for a company that would loan him the trucks and drivers on credit. This took several days. He finally found a trucking company president willing to order his trucks to Alabama even though Joe had no cash. He used involvement to get what he wanted again.

During the trip he borrowed money for meals from the truck drivers. They too were involved. They finally arrived in Alabama and loaded 1000 cases of soap on the trucks. They immediately turned around and headed back to New York, but time was running out.

Another President Gets Involved

They arrived back in New York twenty-four hours before the letter of credit was due to expire and started loading the soap on smaller boats to take the soap to a freighter. Joe and the dock workers worked all night loading the soap and through the next day until noon. They now "owned" Joe’s soap project and were involved in it, too.

At noon he looked at the boxes still to be loaded and he realized he wasn’t going to make it. The banks closed in two hours. Then, his letter of credit would be worthless. He wouldn’t get his "on board" bills of lading to give to the bank until it was too late.

The offices of the steam?ship line were near the docks. Cossman left the dock workers still loading the soap and found the president’s office. He hadn't washed or changed clothes in a week. "I thought I might have made good use of a case of my own soap," he told me. First he got the president’s secretary involved. She told the president that there was a strange-looking man that wanted to see him, but she thought he should hear his story. Involvement once again. He met the president got him involved. "If you've gone this far, you're not going to lose the deal now," the president told him.

The steamship line president pushed a few buttons on his desk, and people appeared from nowhere. Within minutes Joe had his bills of lading. This was at risk to the steamship line, because their insurance didn’t begin until the soap was on the ship. The president even sent his limousine to take Joe to the bank.

Joe got to the bank just fifteen minutes before closing time. He rushed in and presented his bills of lading. The teller gave him a check for $1,800,000, and he went outside to get a taxi. Only then did Joe remember that though he had a check for $1,800,000, he didn’t have taxi fare to take him back to his hotel."

Cossman went on to build a multimillion-dollar corporation. His company sold dozens of unusual products, from 250,000 "Fisherman Joe’s" fishing lures to 1.8 million ant farms for children. His employees, and others outside his company, never failed to follow Joe’s heroic leadership. He always got them involved with his projects. Moreover, Joe simply would not quit. So, rarely would anyone else that he dealt with, even though he frequently had no official authority over them at all.

The Lessons of Involvement

  • The task is simply to involve others in your project
  • Involvement is useful in many different situations
  • Involvement doesn’t require official authority or money