Global thought leader and growth strategist David Nour shares how being an immigrant built his expertise in relationships, how Americans differ from the world in business, and his idea of relationship economics.
David is the author of multiple books including Relationship Economics: Transform Your Most Valuable Business Contacts Into Personal and Professional Success and Co-Create: How Your Business Will Profit from Innovative and Strategic Collaboration. To order copies in bulk for your event, please visit BulkBooks.com.
Beyond Speaking Podcast host and president of Premiere Speakers Bureau, Brian Lord has conducted hundreds of interviews with the world's top speakers. The Beyond Speaking podcast is designed to dig deeper and reveal the stories behind these people to give you greater insights you can use.
Full podcast transcript:
Brian Lord: You have a pretty cool accent. Are you from Atlanta originally?
David Nour: Actually, I was born in Iran. I came on May 23, 1981. Fun fact: with a suitcase, 100 bucks, didn't know anybody and didn't speak a word of English. I landed at JFK with a badge around my neck that read "put this kid on an Eastern Airlines flight to Atlanta" and I came here to go to school. I lived with an uncle that I hadn't seen since birth, and the first couple of years were really tough because I had English tutors and did well in math and science, but I failed my first history exam because I couldn't understand what I was being asked.
Brian Lord: Oh wow. When you learned English, what was the first thing that your family taught you? Or what's the first thing you learned? Do you remember that?
David Nour: Oh my gosh. So, I was a teenager and we went and got first through tenth grade English literature books. And if you remember, you know, kindergarten: "This is a cat. The cat is on the roof. The roof is tin." I mean, it was that level of granularity. And the other fun thing, believe it or not: Sesame Street. Sesame Street was phenomenal in learning phonics and learning the base. Most native speakers don't understand how difficult English is as a language because of all the nuances and exceptions. We spell things 15 different ways. The joke I usually like to tell is "I don't know what a dangling participle is, but I'm still looking for it."
Brian Lord: Well, you're a soccer player, too. Did that help out in the transition?.
David Nour: I did, yeah. I tell friends that there are two things I did in finishing up high school and college that really helped. I played soccer which is, you know, especially with the soccer kids, you're ahead. And I dated a cheerleader, which is instant popularity! You just instantly get invited to parties!
Brian Lord: Oh, wow! Go high or go home!
David Nour: I think she felt sorry for me. But, you get invited to parties, you get in the in-crowd, and I was everybody's best friend until they found out I was from Iran. Then, I was suddenly Ayatollah's cousin. And of course, it was right after the hostage crisis.
Brian Lord: Oh, that's right, '81.
David Nour: Yeah, it was rough. It was a rough, rough patch. Growing up in the outskirts of Atlanta, there weren't a whole lot of Iranians there. And they would go home and see all the news about what was happening and they'd come to school and I'm their favorite punching bag the next day because I'm the only Iranian kid they knew. So, it was a little rough the first few years. But you kind of adapt and learn and kind of grow through that.
Brian Lord: Well, that's kind of the crazy thing: You're famous for relationships. Being an expert on that, do you feel like that played into who you are and how you became so good at that?
Yeah, and I intentionally talk a lot about genuinely feeling blessed. I wrote in the Relationship Economics book, I didn't get it then, but I certainly get it now. I think I was five or six years old walking through the bazaars of Iran with my Dad on our Friday errands. Dad not only had a list from Mom of the things she needed around the house, but Dad also had a relationship list. He made sure we went and visited with the people that were important in our lives. Whether we needed access to a plumber at the house, or to a local politician, Dad knew how to connect the dots. That stayed with me at a very young age and even now. Having lived abroad, having worked abroad, every international trip I take reiterates for me that the rest of the world builds relationships first from which they do business. Unfortunately, as Americans, we're so focused on the business part. Whether it's a checklist, or a project plan, or a pipeline that if and only if, those things work, we may come around to asking about the relationship part. Hence, the disconnect when we go to places and people don't look like us, or sound like us, or come from our backgrounds.
Brian Lord: What are some of the things that your dad did to build relationships?
David Nour: So Mom, which she learned from her mom, is a phenomenal cook. And Dad would always take sweets or something else Mom made to people. I grew up learning about the power of unexpected gifts at unexpected times as well as things you can't buy places. Those are always a favorite treat. Mom and Dad were fairly social. In a lot of ways, entertainment options are limited in other parts of the world. You and I have a thousand different channels on our TV. There, because entertainment options are limited, typically you're at somebody's house. Either a family member's, or friend's, or a neighbor's. The other thing is, they deeply believe in the idea of relationships. It's not an afterthought, it's part of who they are. My dad's been shopping at the same butcher for like 50 years. He's been going to the same baker for 50 plus years and is now literally dealing with the grandson of the baker Dad started with. Both of my parents are retired teachers now and they've taught half the city we live in. Everybody knows them and there's this reverence and an enormous amount of respect for teachers in Iran. So, more consistent visits, unexpected gifts at unexpected times, and more social gatherings than just business needs are what I consistently remember from a Mom and Dad and that culture.
Brian Lord: What made you decide to start your own journey with relationship-building here?
David Nour: It's crazy to believe this is year 18 of my business. My personal background was a lot of sales and sales management and marketing. After grad school, I was consulting and I ran a company. Then, I spent a number of years on a private equity firm. In the private equity world, over six years, we bought and sold 110 different companies. In looking at what set some companies apart from their competitive peers, one of the nuances that I noticed was that they built really strong relationships. Both inside, like with the leadership team, but also phenomenal customer relationships. When we went to interview their customers, they said, "We didn't just buy their best product or service, we bought because of them and their attention to details. They went above and beyond to make sure we were successful." The early part of my work really relied on that genesis; That relationships were this fundamental differentiator for individuals, teams, and organizations. So, the private equity job moved us all over the country. When I decided to go out on my own, we were blessed with a daughter in Denver. My wife wanted to be a full-time mom, so we went back to Atlanta. When we came back to Atlanta, I couldn't find anything I got really excited about. I went on a listening tour and I reached out to 35 friends who knew me, who I liked, who I trusted, who I respected. I now use this technique in my coaching. I went to them and I said "What do you think I do exceptionally well?" and consistently, they said, "You network." That was their term. "You network better than anybody else we know. If you can teach other people how to do that, you'll succeed." And of course, the first couple of years, you're stumbling like "How the hell do I do this? Am I teaching them how to schmooze or...?" So I embarked on reading and I read a whole bunch of books on networking, and guerilla networking, and event networking. A lot of that really came across as cheesy. And it came across as transactional and came across as just the snake oil that we all cringe at and I said I don't want to be that. So that's where Relationship Economics came from. I started talking about it, I started consulting around it, and finally, I wrote the book, and here we are 18 years later.
Brian Lord: What's kind of the bottom line thing? Because some people inherently understand that relationships are important. Other people, you have to prove to them they're important.
David Nour: I would submit that most people fundamentally understand and intellectually understand that relationships are important. Very few people I meet understand their significance. The inherent difference is becoming more intentional, becoming more strategic, and becoming more quantifiable in the relationships you choose to invest in. Now, anytime I say that it's really important for me to clarify that I'm not out there teaching people how to be more manipulative or how to use people to get things. That's not it at all. As a matter of fact, I often tell others that most people have a B.S. radar. If you're not being authentic, if you're not being real, they'll see it and they'll disengage. Be you, be real. If you genuinely believe the notion that relationships are an investment, none of us can invest in everybody all the time. You just don't have the bandwidth. As a matter of fact, sociologists tell us that an average individual can proactively manage about 100 to 150 relationships. Here's my million dollar question of you and your listeners. Which ones? And how do you know? And if you can invest in everybody equally, how will you then prioritize what relationship you're going to invest in? That's where the discipline, that's where the consistency, that's where the focus comes in.
Brian Lord: What gets in the way of investing in relationships?
David Nour: The consistent reason most people aren't more proactive in building strategic relationships? Drum roll: it's that they're too busy. Whenever I hear somebody say "I'm too busy," you know what I hear? Is that it's not important enough. Because if my wife tells me that I've got to be the kids' school at three o'clock this afternoon, that's where I am. We'll make time for things that are important. Unfortunately, most people think about relationships as yet something else they have to do. You'll never really succeed at it that way because it becomes a patch. It becomes a Band-Aid. It reverses the dye in the fabric that defines the fabric, right? So integrating relationships in what you do day in and day out is really the formula for success. And I often talk about leading with the relationship first and business will come from it. You have to invest and you have to give. You have to really think of them and how are they would be better off. How can they be better off because of you? If you do that those who get it will seek you out. They will want to know more about what you do and find business connections through the relationship.
Brian Lord: From our intern, Olivia: How should a recent graduate start to grow relationships?
David Nour: First and foremost, don't lose touch with some of your classmates from school. That's one of the biggest challenges. We think of our life as buckets versus truly a journey. So go back as your life becomes much more professional versus social. For example, LinkedIn is a really good way to do that. Connect with some of your classmates, connect with some of your professors on various social channels, and keep up with them. Two, don't lose touch with your school. Go back for alumni events. I still go back to Emory and I still go back to Georgia State. I've been on panels. I've been a judge at marketing competitions. Don't forget about that important chapter. And the reason is, just like your career is going to evolve, so are your classmates' careers. Your professors are going to do consulting work or they're going to be on panels. If you stay in touch with them, they will find ways to bring you into opportunities. You'll remain relevant with not all, but some of those professors and classmates. Number three. Get involved in your community. Getting involved in a lot of different diverse groups really help to build out and really nurture your relationships. Get involved with local politics, get involved with local civic organizations. Go find something your passionate about, whether it's kids, or it's elderly, or its pets, or whatever, but go get involved and balance that. The fourth point is to never stop learning. I am blessed. I speak 50, 60 times a year, but also force myself to attend at least one conference a quarter where I sit in the back of the room and have no responsibility whatsoever. They don't know who I am, they don't care, and I can just sit there and be a sponge. It's amazing what I've learned from other speakers. When you hear General McChrystal talk, when you hear Colin Powell talk, they're not making this stuff up! They lived it. They did it. Condoleezza Rice- unbelievably impressive. You hear some of these people talk and you can't help but learn. But also, the people you sit around become fantastic opportunities to learn and grow. Another thing: don't ever go anywhere without business cards. You know, again, for the next generation, business cards seem a little passé because we all have digital footprints, but some people still like the feel of business cards. Don't ever go anywhere without a pen- just having something to write with, write on. Those become part of your identity. Those become part of your chance to give and get and really invest in others. But really work on building. Your 20s and even your 30s are really a good chance to really build. Really plant those seeds and start building the early relationships that you then will cultivate the rest of your career.
Brian Lord: One of the things you also talk about is disruption. Where do you see disruption coming from and where do you see companies can use relationships for disruption?
David Nour: Sure. I'm gonna ask you a question. Do you remember being kids and playing dodgeball? When that ball came at us, did you stand still? Not if you didn't want to get hit. So what do we all do? We moved. We pivoted. I would submit that disruption is all around us. A lot of the work that I do is with senior leadership teams and boards. And I took a leadership team and a board to the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas which is a big event. This one board member in his mid-70s fought me throughout our entire planning. He said, "I don't know why we have to do this, we're not in consumer electronics, it'll be a waste of time and money." He literally pulled me aside after we'd been there 15 maybe 20 minutes and said, "Now I know why we're here." And I'm like, "Okay Jim, Why do you think we're here." He said, "I get it. That every business is or soon will be under attack." And he's right. They were not in the consumer electronics business. What I wanted the leadership team and the board to see is all the different ways those without baggage are disrupting your business model. Your go-to market strategy, your products, and services. It's the classic Airbnb. Those guys didn't come from the hotel industry. I've worked with a lot of hotel brands and why didn't they think of this underutilized asset? Again, the Airbnb came to that business model without all the baggage. We talk about how disruption is all around us, so get used to the new normal. Number two, your relationships are your biggest asset when it comes to identifying what we call faint market signals. Develop relationships as what we call signal scouts. If you have diversity of your relationships and a lot of different parts of the market and I talk to you and you tell me about something, maybe that's an anomaly. But, if I hear the same thing two or three different times in a condensed amount of time from different sources, now the lightbulb goes off. That's just not one person's thing, or not just a Nashville thing, or not just the industry thing. That's now more prevalent. And those faint signals become some things that now you pay more attention to and you look for it. So what's our answer? Do we have a product, do we have a solution? Is this a trend? Is this a fad? Is this going to come and go? Or is this something we're going to get more aggressive and more proactive in building and taking the market. Your relationships become a feeder for not just hearing about interesting ideas, but for experimentation pilots. There's a reason restaurants do soft-openings. We invite our friends and say "Hey here's the menu. What do you think? Here's this new product. It's not completely baked but here's what we're thinking. What do you think?" It's a good way for you to also practice speed and agility and nimbleness.
Brian Lord: What are some things that leaders specifically should take away from this?
David Nour: Let me give you three. Number one, get out of your head. Get out of your office. Get out of your industry. Real innovation seldom comes from within the industry. It often comes from outsiders. If you're in manufacturing, go see what service companies are doing. Go see what the travel industry is doing. Go see what other mature companies in mature industries are struggling with. Number two, I'm a huge believer of fresh thinking, fresh perspective. One of my clients hired a really bright woman, 32-years-old from Amazon. She's done more in six months than this entire team was able to do in the past two years because she didn't come with all the baggage.
Brian Lord: Like what? Any examples?
David Nour: These guys are in a B2B space and they were always afraid of who went directly to a consumer. If we're gonna sabotage the cannibalize our B2B business. She's like, "No. What about those consumers that are not buying from those business sources or channels?" So she launched this direct to consumer model and we helped them with an acquisition. I think that business did about 10 to 12 million dollars year one 30 some odd, year two, it'll do 80 some odd million. This year, three. It's completely taken off and it's been unexpected and she's gotten promoted several times. But again she came to that role without all the baggage. She didn't say "I've been in this business for 30 plus years." So executives, get out of your head, get out of your industry, get out of your company. The ideas are not going to come to you in mahogany row. Number two, fresh thinking and fresh perspective. Number three, a quick story. The first time I took my young daughter to London she was like, "Dad look they're driving on the wrong side of the road." I said, "No honey, they're driving on the other side of the road." As industrialized as our country is and as forward-thinking as we are, we don't have all the answers today. I am a big believer that we're all products of the advice we take. A mentor drove into me that if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room. Go seek out others. Go be a student of how they do and what they do. Steve Jobs dropped out and he took a calligraphy class and that's where Adobe fonts came from. Get out of that comfort zone. An element for diversity of thought, for unique perspectives, for independent insights. Unfortunately, I still see a lot of leaders that are surrounded by people that want to please and appease. So really getting that fresh lens- that unbiased kind of sounding board. Those are all really helpful.
Brian Lord: I know you're a big fan of reading. What are the three books that you'd recommend in general?
David Nour: I'm an avid reader. I read about three, four books at a time. I go back and actually reread some of these things. I still love the feel of paper and I write in the margins, I earmark, I highlight. I red pen like John Madden of the NFL with my books! I've really liked Lords of Strategy. I've gone back and read that one a couple of times. Alan Weiss is a friend and a mentor. I've gone back and read Value-Based Fees several times. It's all about positioning your value very differently. Not based on any kind of units but the value you create. And then Marshall Goldsmith is another kind of mentor and coach. I love his book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. I've read that book three times and Chapter Four talks about 20 habits we all have that keep us from reaching the top. I've read that book and I've got that list in front of me and I kick myself saying, "Stop doing those things because they're not helping you." Reading to me is like food, it's like fuel. You never know when or how you're going to use it but it becomes intellectual Red Bull. It gives you wings and it gives you a chance to look at scenarios with a different perspective.
Brian Lord: You were talking about your parents and how much they imparted to you. You've got teenage kids. Is your daughter still a teenager?
David Nour: She's my 17-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.
Brian Lord: What are some of those things that you're passing on to them? What are some things that you've really made sure that you impart to them?
David Nour: When we first had kids, my wife found the book What To Expect When You're Expecting. Because there's no handbook in life and there are no instruction books for us young dads of how do we help them be happy, be confident, be capable, and go live a productive life? So through our kids' school, they have something called Men's Fraternity for Dads. We meet at 6 a.m. on Friday mornings. And we go through these programs and a lot of it is faith-based. There's a phenomenal author named Robert Lewis and he talks about the search for the authentic man. What I love, and the reason I bring it up is he talks about how our roles as dads evolve over time. And when they become teenagers, there's an example of that critical milestone where you now become a coach and you become a mentor and you become a cheerleader and you become a sounding board because you've hopefully taught him the difference between right or wrong. I'm trying to not just tell my kids, but really help them experience it. I've taken my son to keynote speeches and I got him on stage with me and oddly enough the event was about building relationships with Generation Z. So I said, "I could show you a bunch of research but why don't I bring one with me?" I interviewed him on stage and afterwards they're asking him to sign my book. He didn't have anything to do with it! What is this all about? My daughter doesn't wanna do anything with that. So he's a ham, and he gets onstage and I don't know where he gets it from.
Brian Lord: Yeah, who knows!
David Nour: I'm trying to help him create experiences where they experience me not just telling them, but doing it. The daughter, yeah, they have an amazing mom. They both just got back from mission trips in Ecuador. We're big believers of service to others above and beyond ourselves. They go to a very strong faith-based school. My daughter works in the art gallery and she also teaches young kids. So giving them as many different experiences where they can experience some of the things I teach. But they've heard me speak at TEDx and they've both read my books. It's required reading at our house! They kind of get what their Dad does for a living and, more importantly, I think is for them to see us living an authentic life where this isn't a front. I don't just talk about relationships. You try to live them. And you try to pass on what we learn from our parents and they need to see that. But kids, as you know, they're sponges and they pick up on your behaviors much more so than what we say. When they see you invest in relationships, when they see us go and visit people and take them gifts or we take them sweets from Mom, they kind of know what we're doing and why those things are important.
Brian Lord: So David obviously you've done a lot of things. You've done 10 books now. What is the next thing for somebody who's always growing, always thinking, always innovating?
David Nour: I've got seven more books in my head in various stages. The books for me have to percolate. So it takes me about three to four years and you kind of start with a hypothesis and you start to look at different clients and as I said earlier, you kind of see these faint signals across different industries and they're in different development stages. But I'm really excited about the idea of the future of work. I think in the advent of technology, we've actually identified 15 forces that I believe are going to dramatically alter how we work, how we live, how we play. I'm really intrigued by the intersection of future of work and strategic relationships. And there are some people that come in our lives and we fight them. That's an interesting perspective, though, as, in essence, they change both our direction and our ultimate destination. I've tentatively started calling them curve-benders and that's the next book that I'm kind of working. I'm really excited about this future of work, what does that look like, how do relationships come in? While everybody is talking about blockchain and A.I. and cryptocurrency and drones and all those things, what's the role of relationships in that future of work? I'm excited about that and that's what I'm working on next.