September 2009
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TD Magazine

Steve Piersanti

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Piersanti founded Berrett-Koehler, an independent publisher of progressive books on current affairs, personal growth, and business and management, in 1992. Its mission statement includes providing books that promote positive change on individual, organizational, and societal levels. Former positions held by Piersanti include president of publisher Jossey-Bass, where he began his career as a promotional copywriter in 1977. He founded the Jossey-Bass Management Series, which became the company’s largest and most successful publishing program. Piersanti’s distinctions include receiving ASTD’s Champion of Workplace Learning and Performance Award in 2003.

Q| What was your first job, and what lesson did you take away from it?


When I was 8 or 9 years old, I sold candy door to door. I lived in a little town that had no stores, and I bought candy wholesale and put it in a box. There were only trailers where I lived, and so I went from trailer to trailer selling candy in a box. I learned that you had to hustle. If you didn't go out and knock on people's doors, you wouldn't sell anything. You had to be fairly entrepreneurial.

My first professional job was as a promotional copywriter at Jossey-Bass Publishers in 1977. I learned that you have to get your message out quickly. When I started out as a copywriter, I would develop these long chains of logic of why someone needed to read a particular book. If you followed through my seven or eight sentences that were very tightly connected, they made a compelling case. By the time you got to the punchline near the end, you absolutely had to buy the book. As I got wiser, I realized the advantage is to put the punchline in the very first sentence so that people can get the message right off the bat.

Q| What inspired you to found Berrett-Koehler Publishers?

The idea was to create a book publishing company that operated for the benefit of all of its stakeholder groups. My point of view is that various groups contribute to the success of a publishing company. Authors, employees, customers, suppliers, service providers, sales partners, and investors - they all contribute to a publishing company being successful.

Yet, in a standard publishing company model, often it's skewed so that only one or two of these groups really has all the power and gets most of the reward, such as corporate ownership. My motivation was to create a publishing company where all of the different stakeholder groups (authors, customers, employees, suppliers, service providers, sales partners, investors, and others) are involved in the company. And it was recognized that they all contributed to its success; all the groups were involved in the decisions about the company, as well as the operation and management of the company, so everyone is balanced.

Q| How do you envision the future of book publishing?

The sales from book publishing are increasingly going to authors' and publishers' communities. People have so many different sources of information coming at them, that what they're reading today is mainly what their community says is important to read. So you have to create communities or recognize the communities that are there, and publish for them rather than for a general market.

The other thing is that everything is becoming digital. And it's not a case of digital replacing print, rather the two are existing side by side. We're publishing all of our books simultaneously in both digital and print versions, and we're marketing by both means as well. The new technologies don't really replace the old technologies, but rather they add to it.

Q| What are your thoughts on the role of human resources professionals and trainers today?

I attended my first ASTD convention in 1982 when I was finding out what the fields of human resources and development and learning and development were all about. In 1983, I attended for the second time, and that was when I got really excited about the field. There was a general session in which Pat McLagan was speaking about the ASTD Competency Study, and as I listened to her speak and as I thought about the different people that I was meeting there at the conference and the conversations I was having, what became clear to me was that this event focusing on the field of human resources and development (HRD) was very qualitatively different from a lot of the other business events that I had been to, and it was very exciting. The reason was that I could see that the underlying motivation of the people in the field was to develop human potential. There was a passion and a focus on helping people to contribute more to the organization, and to advance their own knowledge and skills.

The field wasn't just focused on the bottom-line, but rather on people and how to make them more successful, help them to contribute more, and develop their knowledge, ideas, and skills. It was very exciting to me as a publisher that that was the ethos and motivation of the field. Many of the people coming to the field have worked in education or are attracted to human development and performance. The HRD field is the soul of the corporation because it's looking after the potential of everyone in the organization.

If you go to a business school or some other publishers, they look at it as executive leadership and corporate strategy being on top. Then you have human resources under that, and a subset of human resources is the training field. The conventional view is that the status and power of human resources and training are much lower in the organization. I have just the opposite point of view that this field is in the power position because it determines what much of the rest of the organizational world is reading, learning, and talking about.

Workplace learning and performance professionals often have this focus that they have to get a seat at the table and they have to be more recognized within the organization. I think that people in the field should realize they're gatekeepers for what everyone else is learning and developing, and can effect enormous amounts of change to make the organization work better because of it.

Q| What is one change you would like to see in the literature on training and development?

People are overworked and have a lot of challenges and stressors in their lives - both economic and time-related. Everyone has more to do than they have time to do, and so I would like to see more materials and programs addressing how people can deal with the overload. It goes beyond time management and gets into the question of what really matters. How can you have the most impact? What, in the end, is going to improve performance and increase contribution? I think that the field needs to do more in the direction of helping people to choose among conflicting priorities, and to balance many different demands.


Q| Are you currently working on any new projects?

At any given time, I'm working on 20 or 30 new book projects.

One new book I'm working on is Managing by Henry Mintzberg. Mintzberg is one of the top management scholars in the world, and it's a project about what is the nature of managing; what do managers really do; what makes managers successful; and how can they deal with the conundrums or the challenges of being a manager.

Another book I'm working on that is due out at the beginning of 2010 is a new edition of the bestselling book called Leadership and Self-Deception. The original edition has sold over 700,000 copies.

I'm also working on the third edition of a book called The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders that was published about 15 years ago. It's about active followership and how followers can make a huge difference for leaders.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

I play basketball twice a week at local pick-up games at my church, and I also go hiking and backpacking.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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