Interview With Mark DeMoss: Head of Atlanta-Based The DeMoss Group

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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As head of the Atlanta-based PR consultancy The DeMoss Group, Mark DeMoss trades in right words and good judgment. In The Little Red Book of Wisdom, out this month from Thomas Nelson Publishers, he writes candidly about that—and his imperfect and unfinished pursuit of wisdom, both professional and personal. In 23 brief chapters, he lifts the curtain on insights gained in difficult times, unbearable loss, comments caught, lessons learned, people encountered, and one Old Testament book in particular.

"Everything foundational in my personal and professional life is recorded in this book," he writes in his preface. "My request of God for years has been for wisdom to handle relationships, manage a business and advise clients, to be a good husband and father. Most days I begin by asking God for wisdom; most meetings I enter silently asking for His insight."

Mark, why does the world or any bookstore need another book on wisdom—and why are you the one to write it?

No one I know would say they have enough wisdom—it's a quest and it takes a lifetime. As for my credentials, I'm still a relatively young man who still has probably half a life to acquire wisdom but who's learned one or two things in 44 years. I've been fortunate to spend most of my life around wise people. Maybe more than that, I am a longtime student of what I consider to be the textbook on wisdom. I've read the book of Proverbs through probably 250 times—read it through every month.

How would you say you define wisdom?

It comes out in how we live, and it differs from knowledge. Anyone can acquire knowledge by reading or listening. But two people can read the same texts or graduate from the same school or take the same course and apply what they learn very differently. I think the judgment used in those cases reveals wisdom.

What qualifies this book on wisdom for the bookstore business section?

It's not that it's a business book, but for someone in business, it has great applications and insights. Also, I believe that anyone from high school age and up, male or female, employee or employer, pastor or lay person, religious or not, wealthy or not will find something in this book to connect with on some level. I don't expect to hear, "Wow, all 23 chapters really hit me profoundly." But almost everyone who reads it and comments back to me mentions particular chapters. Someone will say, "I've started reading Proverbs a chapter a day." Or, "I'm a big email addict but that chapter on letter writing really hit me, and I'm writing letters again."

You devote half of the book to wisdom at work. Can you talk about some of that?

Quite a bit of what I have to say is counterintuitive to today's workplace culture. One example is a chapter called "Work Less, Think More." Just the title flies against almost every contemporary work ethic. Our culture values the people who stay past closing time, work at night, produce more, more, more. I didn't write an anti-work chapter—I simply propose that in our doing, in our busyness, we're putting out a lot of mindless activity. Good thinking requires nontraditional work time. Henry Ford called thinking "the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few engage in it." To actually think, one has to be pretty deliberate. It might require leaving the computer screen for three hours, eating lunch alone instead of with socializing with colleagues.

Another business wisdom principle is a chapter called "Technology Isn't Everything." Right now, technology rules all. And for all the good it offers us, the workforce is enslaved to a computer screen continually popping up email messages that we instinctively believe we must answer in the next 12 seconds. This happens all day long in millions of offices around the country. Breaking out of that trap requires deliberate action also—like choosing to work away from a computer, at a table or conference room, or a different office, or on a sofa.

Another chapter says money isn't everything, but good people are. The conventional wisdom is that we work for money, period. And you get good people by paying more than the other guy. To keep them, you keep paying more. I submit that there are a number of reasons why good people work where they do, and while money's on the list, it's not at the top.

Every five years, you pay your employees to take off. . . .

We have a sabbatical program for our employees after five years and again after 10 years. From my research, this is an unusual package for companies of any size, unheard of for companies our size. After five years, we give a one-month sabbatical and travel stipend. This is not to take a business development course or attack required reading. You go anywhere you want and we'll pay you. And our people come back refreshed and energized and enthusiastic. After 10 years they get six weeks, a $10,000 bonus, and a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip for two to any Ritz-Carlton in North America. In a company of 20 employees, we've had eight or nine people take a first sabbatical. Next month our third person takes the 10-year, and our company's only 15 years old.

You also advise business professionals to under-promise and over-deliver.

This originated for us in PR advice we'd give to clients when dealing with numbers, estimating crowd sizes in stadium and arena events. We saw many cases when an organizer would publicly predict, say, 40,000 people and draw 20,000. The sad thing is that 20,000 is an accomplishment, just not when you announced 40,000. Organizations shoot themselves in the foot with grand pronouncements. After a while, our advice to clients to under-promise and over-deliver became something of a mantra for our entire business. No giving rosy pictures to potential clients hoping it will win us some business. We'd rather paint a realistic, subdued picture about what we can achieve. Then if you hire us, we'll probably exceed your expectations.

Let me emphasize that I'm not talking about calculated behavior. I'm talking about integrity in communications. It's a business philosophy and one particularly counterintuitive in the PR industry, which turns on overstatement and exaggeration. I didn't want to be part of that stereotype.

Do you have an opinion about what wisdom you think is most lacking in the professional world?

I think the wisdom to balance one's life might be the most lacking among business people. By that, I mean balancing work and personal life and family life and physical health requirements. I talk about that a little in the chapter called "Anticipate Deathbed Regrets." A wise person takes deliberate steps to avoid regrets at the end of life. A wise person takes pains to avoid: "I regret that I traveled too much, didn't take care of my body, didn't exercise, eat better, take care of my family, my soul, my spirit in addition to my bank account." I might put that at the top of the list: the wisdom to appropriately balance your life.

Was there a defining moment in your life when you recognized the value of wisdom?

I couldn't point to a specific moment or incident or occasion. But I could definitely say that as a young person, probably around middle school or junior high, I became aware that my father, who died when I was 17, was a wise man. I saw it in how he lived at home. I saw people seek him out. He was in demand as an advisor and a business leader, and people came to him. They asked him to sit on their boards of directors. I saw something special about him, and it was all stuff I wanted. From him I learned the practice of reading Proverbs every day, a chapter a month.

Any comment you'd like to close with?

As a general observation, let me say that American society seems to think that wisdom is reserved for the people at the top of the heap: society's best-educated, highest paid, and most powerful. We behave as if the people who attend the finest universities and have the primo jobs and are presidents of companies and countries have a monopoly on getting it right. And that's wrong.

Wisdom doesn't favor education or sophistication. Some of the wisest people I know are uneducated, certainly not wealthy, presidents of nothing. I hope people who read this book gain hope that wisdom is open to anyone and available for the asking.