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Is Reading the Newspaper Really Too Much to Ask?

I was recently booked to give an after-hours speech in a major health care system in Missouri. While people were partaking of the buffet and drinks, I chatted with three hospital presidents and two board members preparatory to the session formally commencing.

It seemed like a great opportunity for me to be able to develop some relationships which might lead to consulting work in the future. I chatted with the hospital presidents about bed utilization, cooperative care centers (in which family members take on some of the responsibilities for recovery), reimbursement problems, and nursing credentials. I talked to a board member, who owned one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, about the bankruptcy of Consolidated Freightways, and to another in the oil business about consolidations in the industry and the reliance of nearby Oklahoma on the industry.

This certainly was superior to “Where are you from?” and “Have you ever been here before?” and “Where are you staying?”

How could I do this “on the fly,” especially with board members whose actual professions I couldn’t have known? It’s simple: I read the daily newspapers.

Every day, I read two newspapers: The Wall Street Journal and my hometown paper. If I’m on the road, I’ll read the local paper or The New York Times if the local paper is poor. On Sundays, I always read The New York Times. That is sufficient to allow me to talk conversantly on virtually any topic that comes up in social conversation or casual business conversation (as opposed to more formal business conversation about technical matters or proprietary interests).

The importance is that we all need to be perceived as business professionals first, and consultants second. There is a legitimate rap on many consultants that they are expert in extremely narrow and cloistered specialties and, at best, need to be relegated to the appropriate company experts. But they aren’t of any interest to high level people and major decision makers. (This is absolutely worst in IT consulting, and not much better in human resource consulting.)

It’s vital to relate to prospects in terms of their environment, their business, and their interests. That doesn’t require technical proficiency (I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how to schedule freight by truck or how to evaluate nurses), but rather a conversancy about what’s happening within that industry and what’s affecting it (or likely to affect it). The trouble is that too many consultants simply aren’t reading.

Make no mistake about it, you’re better off taking an hour during the day to read two newspapers than you are taking three hours to read the latest fad on management from some academic guru who has just invented the “nine personality quirks of success” or believes that managers are from Pluto and employees from Neptune. If you’re traveling, this is simple to do on a plane or train. If you travel by car, then do it in your hotel room or at the bar over a drink. If you’re at home, allot time before or after dinner.

If you’re not reading the newspapers (and relying on television sound bites or casual conversation) to learn about the contemporary business environment, then you’re not serous about doing business in the contemporary business environment. This is a small cost of operating as a professional, in terms of both money and time. If nothing else, scan the headlines and read the editorial pages. Choose those articles that have the most potential for your own learning and your likely prospects. And don’t rely on the computer, because you’re not going to be able to access the Internet most of your day (and are chained to the machine to read anything).

Buy a newspaper, sit back, and READ. It’s a small price to pay for success.