ON LONG FLIGHTS, I usually take the window seat and curl up facing the window, mostly to avoid having to make conversation with my seatmate. I was annoyed one day in March 1982, at the beginning of flight 79 from San Francisco to Philadelphia, to find that my tactics were of no avail. “Hi,” my seatmate, a balding sixty-year-old, said heartily. “My name is John Leslie. What’s yours?” He pushed his hand at mine. “Oh no,” I said to myself, “a gabby one,” I mumbled my name and gave him a perfunctory handshake, hoping he’d get the message.
The Explanatory Style of Success
I EXPLAINED the theory of learned helplessness and explanatory style to Creed on. Then I told him about the optimism/pessimism questionnaire (see chapter three). Time and time again, I said, it has been shown that people who score pessimistically on the questionnaire give up easily and become depressed.
But the questionnaire, I went on, doesn’t identify just pessimists. Its scores are continuous and range from deeply pessimistic to irrepressibly optimistic. The people who score at the very optimistic end, I said, should be the most persistent. They’re the most immune to helplessness. They should never give up, no matter how much rejection and failure they encounter.
Testing for Talent
OVER MANY YEARS the insurance industry developed a test meant to discover a person’s suitability for a sales career. The Career Profile is published by the Life Insurance Management Research Association. All applicants to Meet Life must take a Career Profile, and to be hired they need to score 12 or better. Only the top 30 percent of applicants attain this score. Those who get a 12 or better are interviewed, and if the manager likes what he sees, they are offered a job.
Testing Explanatory Style at Met Life
THERE ARE two possible explanations of why in our first study the good sales agents had more optimistic ASQ scores than the bad agents. One explanation confirms the theory that optimism produces success; it says that optimism causes you to sell well and pessimism makes you sell badly. The other explanation is that selling well makes you optimistic and selling badly makes you pessimistic.
The Special Force Study
WE WERE NOW ready for a full-blown study in which the applicants took the test under real hiring conditions. The second goal was much riskier for Met Life. We decided to create a “special force” of optimistic agents-applicants who had barely failed the Career Profile (scoring from 9 to II) but had scored in the top half of the ASQ. Over a hundred agents who no one else would hire, because they failed the industry test, would be taken on. They would not know they were special agents. If this group failed utterly, Met Life stood to lose about three million dollars in training costs.
The Special Force
WHO WAS HIRED into the special force? Let me tell you about Robert Dell, and the day my theory took on flesh and blood.
Success Magazine heard about the special-force study and interviewed me. In 1987 they published an article about optimism and the super salesman, which began with a profile of a man named Robert Dell, who was supposed to be a typical member of Met Life’s special force. Dell, said the article, had worked in a slaughterhouse and had gotten a pink slip after years on the job. He applied to Met Life and, in spite of failing the Career Profile, had been hired because of his high score on the ASQ. According to the article, he had become a star salesman, because he was not only persistent but imaginative. He found customers in places where no one else even looked.
Met Life’s New Hiring Policy
IN THE 19SoS Met Life was the giant of the insurance industry, employing over 20,000 agents. Over the next thirty years, Met decided to cut back its sales force and rely on other means to sell insurance and other products.
By 1987, when we were just completing the special force study, Met Life had long ago been displaced by Prudential as the industry leader and its sales force had withered to just over eight thousand agents. Anew, forceful leadership of the sales force was needed to reverse the slide. John Creed brought in Bob Cramming, a silver-haired dynamo with astonishing oratorical charisma.
Cramming in turn recruited Dr. Howard Maze, an enormously successful trainer and developer of managers for Citicorp, breathes new life into selection and training. Their ambitious goal was to increase the sales force dramatically-to ten thousand the next year and, if that worked, to twelve thousand the year after-and by so doing to increase Met Life’s market share. But they wanted to keep the quality of the force high at the same time.