Rick Wong, Singer, Songwriter and Entrepreneur

Interview and article done by Yvonne Erickson

Rick Wong 2015

Rick and I met when he was part of my interview loop for an internal job  at Microsoft.  Rick was a Vice President (VP) in the group I was interviewing with. Not unlike external candidates, Microsoft employees were required to provide our resume to each person on the hiring loop.  By tradition, the last person you interviewed with was the “as appropriate” meaning you had basically made it through all the other interviewers.  The “as appropriate” was normally the most senior of all the interviewers and could make or break your chance for a job.  

Rick was a tough interviewer but asked excellent questions.  He also provided additional positive insight into the group. After waiting several weeks, I received a job offer.

Both Rick and I worked in the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) division. He was one of our groups VP’s and I was the groups Senior Business Manager.  Rick is one of the nicest people you will meet.  He is gracious to everyone he encounters regardless of position. He has the best heart but can also drive a hard line in business.  He is very analytical and loves to work utilizing group consensus. Which doesn’t mean he won’t override you, but it does mean he welcomes alternate opinions.  He has a wicked sense of humor which came in handy many times. He was always a great sport in the many goofy activities we/I imposed on our  sales teams.  There was the time I got  Rick to present to 1500 people dressed up as Indiana Jones and then there was the time I had him do a Jackie Chan video. Those were very demanding yet fun times. All in all, I count Rick among the blessings of my time in OEM. 

He’s a most interesting man. Please enjoy my interview with Rick. 

You started your business career approximately 40 years ago as a sales rep selling checks and new account sales and service training to banks. You’ve held a wide range of sales related roles since then with Hewlett Packard and Microsoft. Your most recent role is the CEO and founder of The Five Abilities®sales methodology. Tell me a little bit about the highs and lows of your career thus far and how you arrived at your latest role.

First of all, I’m blessed—my career is full of highs that far outnumber the lows. I didn’t get to the highest levels and I’m not a celebrity, but given how my life started, I’m living the American Dream.

My dad passed away from a sudden illness, when I was 10 and my brother was 9. Within two years we were on food stamps. If not for very generous help from family and friends, we would’ve been homeless.  While many people have equally tough starts, I was fortunate to have relatives who always pushed me to be better. Growing-up, I stocked groceries, washed dishes, worked construction, and played music, to pay for college.

After college, I continued pursuing a music career, while selling checks, and I applied for MBA school as a backup. My undergraduate grades were so bad that registrars checked to confirm that I had, in fact, graduated. Somehow, my GMAT score, essay and interview, got me into the University of Washington (UW) MBA program, an event that changed my life.

Here are some of my more memorable highlights.

Highlight 1: Build Relationships. The second quarter of MBA school, I got an internship at Hewlett Packard (HP) which was one of three technical internships offered to UW MBA students that year, the others being from IBM and DEC. Everyone applied as you’d expect. The then General Manager of HP’s Pacific Northwest Area, Irene Bjorklund, took a chance on me. She was  an early adopter of hiring for both emotional intelligence (EQ) and traditional intelligence (IQ) rather than just the latter. To this day she remains a mentor and good friend and I’m grateful she was willing to take a chance on me.

Highlight 2: Never Underestimate Yourself.  I was very surprised to be the only UW MBA intern hired by HP that year. I was equally surprised to see that my first paycheck was 5% more than I made selling checks in a month! Two weeks later I received a second paycheck for the same amount. I thought it was a mistake. I took the check to Human Resources (HR) and said they’d made a mistake. The HR representative thought I wanted more money and advised me that this was starting pay for all interns. Further she told me if I did well, I might qualify for a raise in three months. She wanted to know if I would be willing to stay. It wasn’t a mistake! An HP MBA intern made more than twice what I made selling checks. It seemed there might be something to this tech thing.

Highlight 3: It’s Still About the Relationships. (Notice a pattern here?) From very early on, the major high in my career has been the incredible people I get to work with, (Yvonne, for example) both in for-profit and non-profit orgs. Another example is a highlight that started as a lowlight.

In 1997, I took a job at Microsoft simply for the purpose of a promotion and a title. I was ill-equipped and spent 18 long months in that role making myself sick, all the while expecting to be fired at any moment.

A relationship in the form of a Microsoft Senior Vice-President of the Enterprise Partner Group, Debra Willingham, rescued me from that job. She was my skip level manager and felt I was a good employee in the wrong role. She helped me get a role in Microsoft’s Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) Division and in eight years I went from nearly fired to being OEM Vice President of Asia. (More on this later under “worst decisions I’ve ever made”.)

I went from poverty to independence by working great jobs with great people who taught me things that still help me today. It really is all about the people who choose to help you and who in turn you help. Through help from family, friends, peers, superiors, etc., I’ve been able to work hard and in turn, give back to my community while also providing a comfortable life for myself and my family

The role of the sales representative, buyers and consumers have changed significantly over the past 30 years.  How does the methodology of The Five Abilities factor these changes into a successful business relationship?

Artificial intelligence (AI), automated selling, cloud technologies, etc., have significantly changed the role of a salesperson. Twenty-five years ago, before everyone had a website and a LinkedIn profile, salespeople used to be the avenue through which customers and clients got the latest product and service information. VISABILITY and CREDABILITY were a major focus for salespeople.

Today, customers and clients find the information they need through multiple sources on the internet (e.g. social media, websites, reviews, rating services, etc.) and through traditional networking (e.g. word-of-mouth, face-to-face networking events, etc). The days of salespeople relying on PowerPoint slides and demos are over. Because of this evolution, many startup CEOs feel like salespeople aren’t needed. They feel that a good offering will sell itself— they’re wrong.

Customers still look for the same things, just in different ways. People still make business decisions for personal reasons—the bigger the deal, the more personal it gets. People still look for five things when deciding with whom they will do business—The Five Abilities®. The components of today’s sales pipeline are the same but where salespeople spend their time is different.Let’s look at the components.

VISABILITY– Being seen in the right way, by the right people, at the right time. Cold-calling isn’t effective without first being seen in the right way. Having a book, a LinkedIn profile, a blog, videos, etc., is the low bar to being visible today. The core requirement of being seen in the right way, by the right people, at the right time, is still relevant but it’s mainly done via marketing and automated selling tools.

CREDABILITY– Demonstrate, educate, and advocate to show your superior knowledge of the customer’s industry and their needs. Clients still expect me to demonstrate that I’ve had success in sales. They still expect me to educate them on how I did it, in a way that is repeatable for their people versus just being someone with ideas. It needs to be a simple and memorable framework. Customers still look for the salesperson to advocate for them both inside their company and inside the seller’s company. The advocacy role hasn’t changed.

VIABILITY– Ensure that both buyer and seller have Need, Expertise, Success history, and Time to be successful. The only thing worse than not winning a customer is winning the wrong customer. We still must qualify business opportunities and it’s still something that can only be completed via a deep understanding of one’s customers. Customers can fill out questionnaires and AI tools can predict buyer behaviors, however getting to know decision makers and learning their personal and company challenges, is the only way to determine the VIABILITY of a customer and, equally important, that you are a viable seller.

CAPABILITY – Deliver on the personal reasons that lead people to make business decisions. You can’t know what drives decision-makers, without knowing them—without executing the sales role. You will likely deal with a wide range of individuals as you deliver on your capability. You must know what motivates people: Is It safety, simplicity, rewards, recognition, or revolution. What does your offering need to deliver for decision-makers and influencers to get the win they’re looking for?

RELIABILITY – Be accountable when the unexpected happens—it always will. The customer wants a teammate, not just someone who delivers goods and services. No matter how big a company and no matter how strong an offering, decision-makers will always have days when they experience buyers’ remorse. The salesperson must be there to re-sell the relationship and the value of the offer. The bigger the sale the more times this will happen.

It can happen in any type of sales environment. (The topic of my next blog.) As I type, I’m considering my next car. My wife, Marilyn, and I have purchased the same brand of car from the same dealership, for the past 21 years. Their sales and service people were great. Recently, a national company bought the local dealership and the service quality has declined significantly and, unlike before, the salespeople no longer have influence over how their customers are treated. I sent email to the manager and got no response. Our next cars will be from a dealership that is not owned by that national auto company. They failed on CAPABILITY and RELIABILITY. They failed on 60% of why we bought from them before.

Customers still want to do business with sellers who can deliver all of The Five Abilities®even in today’s digital world. We now have tools that give us significant help in the front end of the sale (or pipeline), but as of today, personal touch is still required to execute the later stages of an enterprise sale. Again, people make business decisions for personal reasons. The bigger the sale, the more personal it is.

Your career has spanned multiple roles. From which role did you learn the most and why?

I learned from all my roles. Given what I do today, I’d say I learned the most relevant skills as a salesperson at HP. HP was not a market leader. Their commercial computing business was way behind IBM and DEC when I was there from 1984 to 1995. I had to constantly sell against very strong incumbents and the belief by customers that ‘nobody ever gets fired for buying IBM.’ You don’t really learn to sell until you’ve sold a commodity and/or sold for a market laggard.

At HP, I also learned that whether you’re the salesperson or the CEO, you are a seller in the eyes of the customer. Lew Platt, former CEO of HP, embraced his role as a seller whenever we had him meet customers. A recent study by Inc. Magazine supports this by finding that the majority of Inc. 5000 CEOs are the company’s rainmaker.

Another great learning has come from working with and mentoring young professionals. I’ve met many through volunteer work at Centered.com which promotes intergenerational, faith-based, relationships in and around the Seattle area. It’s true that teaching is the best form of learning and helping these young people whether it be in learning to sell or learning how to approach life, has helped me become sharper in the way I coach and the way I help people.

I enjoy reading your blog. Two of my favorite posts are “Dogs: How Can They Teach Salespeople To Work Better?” and “5 Ways to Become More Reliable to Customers”. Building long term relationships is key, not only in business but our personal lives. How do you recommend we teach and reinforce the interpersonal skills referenced in these posts to employees today?

The Five Abilities®is simply relationship common sense put into a repeatable framework. If everyone acts in ways to be seen in the right way, at the right time, by the right people, and we internalize the value in serving others, relationships come as a natural result.

We teach best by showing how we want others to act. It’s a version of Luke 6:31 – Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

You also have had a successful career as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. (Your work has had positive reviews in Billboard and USA Today.) What are you most proud of specific to your music career?

I don’t know if I’d call it a successful career. Mostly I’m just pleased that I was able to use my music skills to write songs that my kids will always remember as music that was written for them.

It’s also a blessing when I hear from parents who bought and played my album, for their kids.

Each of us have different talents and I happen to be given the skills to create and play music. Creating and playing music is similar to other’s skills; such things as golf, cycling, hunting, etc. It’s just something I need to do in order to feel complete.

How has music influenced your “day job” in a positive manner?

My ultimate day job is being Marilyn’s husband and dad to Bobby and Jacqui. Marilyn first noticed me because I played piano in the college cafeteria. I wrote all the music for our wedding. Marilyn’s dad walked her down the aisle to a song I wrote, and a second composition was played after we were declared husband and wife. After 38 years of marriage, I’d say that was the most important thing music did for me.

From a work perspective. there’s science that suggests math and music are related (Reference this article.) Music stretches your ability to recognize patterns and to recognize them in different situations. Music also enhances your ability to improvise and create. Whether analyzing a revenue report or employing a sales strategy, we look for patterns and trends to determine if we’re making progress or not. I think early experience as a musician made me more experienced in pattern recognition and creativity. I simply had more practice than some.

If you could sum up your career in the title ofas a song title or lyric, what would the song title or lyric be?

Giving back to the community is an important element to you. As part of your music career, you donated the children’s CD to the YMCA and Seattle Children’s Hospital who sold them and kept all the revenue. Additionally, you and your wife, Marilyn, are long-standing supporters of breast cancer research and funding. You regularly walk in support of funding and research as well as donate financially.  (You’ve contributed to both Dana Manciagli & my own breast cancer fundraising efforts. THANK YOU!) Why is giving back so important to you?

Giving back is important to me because if others had not given their time and money to my mom, she would have been a homeless single mom with two young boys. While I know what it’s like to be poor, I never knew what it meant to be homeless and unsupported. I never believed that my future was hopeless. All because family and friends, more fortunate than us, chose to give back.

The same goes for Marilyn. Her family’s house burned down when she was 10, and her family went years on welfare. A wealthy family moved out of their home so Marilyn’s family would have someplace to live while her dad rebuilt their house. People brought them food and the church helped them with clothes, blankets, and money. They were homeless but had support that kept them from being permanently scarred. Marilyn graduated high school co-valedictorian, graduated college, and went on to be VP at Bank of America and later a successful entrepreneur.

We give back because it’s part of us. It’s a means to say “thank you” to those who gave to us. Hopefully, others will learn from us the same way we learned from those who gave to us.

Think back to five years ago. Did you envision this is where you would be?  

Yes. I knew in 1991 that I would someday write a book and consult on The Five Abilities®. I knew in 2010 that I’d leave Microsoft, write the book, and hopefully find someone who wanted my training and coaching.

Think ahead five years from now. Where do you envision yourself?

My goal is to establish The Five Abilities®as viable enough for others to franchise as a business model. I plan to still have income but have more time to give back. My professional focus from here on out is about growing my capacity to give back via meeting new people, learning about new causes, learning new skills, and having enough income that I can help.

I also want to be playing and writing music way more than I do today. I just participated in a gig at a local brewery, and had a blast playing everything from Fleetwood Mac and Neil Diamond, to Ed Sheeran and Maroon 5. I also wrote a song, at the request of our church’s music director, for Easter 2019. A parishioner asked where he could buy it and when he found out I wrote it, he offered to pay to have it recorded. We’ll see where that goes.

We’ll also downsize and relocate.  Where that will be is still undecided.

You’re a busy person. Husband, father, musician and business owner. We hear so much about the continual challenges of work life balance. How do you achieve work life balance while remaining professionally successful?

Sometimes it takes a brick to the head to wake us up to finding balance. In my case it was multiple bricks in the form of illnesses.

In 2009 I came back from India with a 104.3 fever. I was so sick I almost couldn’t walk out of the airport. I lost 15 pounds in a week and they never diagnosed what I had.

In 2010, I had bleeding ulcers. A number of people at MS got Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) from too much flying. They recommended an aspirin regimen for people like me. I was on a migraine medication that had aspirin in it, which I stupidly didn’t know, resulting in me over-dosing on aspirin. After a trip to Brazil, I had passed out. My wife, Marilyn called the paramedics who took me to the hospital. The paramedics came to the house three days later to ask Marilyn if she needed help thinking I had died. My blood pressure was 60/40 when they left me at Overlake Hospital, in Bellevue, WA..

In 2011, I contracted a staph infection in China and was in a Singapore hospital for five days being infused with multiple antibiotics every two hours. The doc said that had I flown home, versus walking into the emergency room in Singapore I would have died somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

So not ONE brick to the head. It took three life-threatening health emergencies to finally get it through my thick skull that if I didn’t slow down, I’d be making Marilyn a widow very soon.

I know balance is a popular topic today. It’s too narrow to define balance as time spent on work and life. The more important aspect is happiness and for me, I truly enjoyed every job I had, save the one I took purely for the promotion. While many considered Microsoft a hard company to work for I considered it a great place to work. Health issues aside, I will always feel blessed and lucky to have worked for HP and Microsoft as well as American Bank Stationery.

Having good role models is very important to people today. What do you feel we can offer each other to ensure that we are a good role model to each other?

I think helping each other is how one becomes a role model. In today’s business climate there’s lots written about servant leadership which, at its core, is really about helping each other.  In both work and social settings, we are given opportunities every day to use our unique skills and expertise to help others. The more we exercise our helping abilities the more we are likely to be a “role model” to each other.

In corporate America, trying to be a servant leader, can often be viewed negatively. The person may be viewed as indecisive or weak because he needs everyone to be happy. The person is not a leader because all he/she can do is what others ask of him.

These were all perceptions people had of me and, in some cases, people proclaimed these weaknesses as reasons why I should be working for them versus the other way around. I think you and I discussed this when you were leaving Microsoft—that not everyone on my team was on my side. I knew that there were members of my leadership team who were incensed that they now worked for someone who they once out-ranked. They wanted my job and were stabbing me in the back to get me out of the way. Many people like you, who watched out for me, like a role model would do, told me things you thought I was unaware of.

I was very aware. Jeff Raikes taught me very early in my Microsoft career that, “The higher you get the more untrue, negative rumors there will be about you. There will be lots of negative buzz in the hallways and many people stabbing you in the back. If you spend even a second trying to change those opinions beyond doing the best job you can do, you’ll be wasting your time.”

This made me a horrible politician, and some say it hindered my advancement. Others still consider me a mentor and have even mentioned me in their writings. There are also many young professionals who ask me for advice. I think I did find a way to climb the corporate ladder, albeit not to the highest levels, without leaving too much destruction in my wake. If that’s true, great.

What figure has influenced you the most in your life and why?

There are several people who have influenced my life.  First, it was my dad through my eyes when I was a 10-year-old. At that age, my dad was perfect. He had a lot of friends, people who genuinely wanted to be around him, and with all the stresses of his entrepreneurial ventures, he still found time to play catch, teach me chess, and to come to my baseball games. He taught me to read stock prices and trends in the Wall Street Journal when I was 8. I’d read him the numbers, he’d manually log them on a graph (no Excel back then), and he’d talk through how he evaluated the trends. All that and he was a successful businessperson. I fall way short of that role model except for one thing—to date, I’ve been around to support my family, 12 years longer than he. He died from bleeding ulcers. I survived mine.

Next. My aunt, my mom’s sister, was a second mom to me after my dad died. She was the one who kept after me to focus on school. She was the stereotypical “Chinese dragon mom”, and even though I wasn’t her son, she was no less dragon mom to me than to my cousins. She, and two uncles, were my adult role models. I feel I fall short when compared to them too, but I would not be the man I am today had they not been in my life.

Also, a teacher, Tom Schwerin, who just passed away in April, got me started on guitar. There were three boys in his 6thgrade class who had no fathers. Me due to death, the others due to divorce. Tom would stay after class two nights a week, and we’d sit in a circle to play music. I later played in a band, with Tom and his wife, which was my introduction to being a professional musician.

After I blew out my knee in high school, and could no longer play sports, he helped my mom find me a cheap amplifier and my uncle sold me a nice guitar. That allowed me to become a prominent part of the music programs in high school. In one year, I went from being the short Chinese guy hoping that girls liked athletes, to the short Chinese guy, hoping that girls liked musicians.

Lastly, another teacher, Helen Mason, who kept me late after social studies class one day my senior year. After everyone left, she literally slapped me on the side of my head and said, “Listen mister. You’re not living up to your potential. So what you can’t play sports anymore. You aren’t big enough to play anything in college anyway. Wake up and start using all the talent God gave you. He doesn’t give it to everyone. Nobody will help you unless you start to help yourself. Get serious.”

What are three key pieces of advice you have for today’s job seekers?

Treat everyone like a customer. (This is something Dave Packard, of Hewlett-Packard, taught all of us.) You benefit when people are happy to have worked with you and treating them like a valued customer will do that. You might need their help someday and they’re more likely to help you if you treated them like a valued customer.

You don’t find a dream job—You make it. Too many young people are looking and waiting for that dream job to fall on their doorstep. I was just happy to have a job and once I learned how to do it, I made it my own—a dream job.

It’s about the people. Almost without exception, when I ask people what they miss most about a long career at a company, they say the people. For me it’s all about the quality of the people I get to work with, and I’m blessed with many. Savor the time with the people around you and if you like what you see, know that you’re one of them.

Knowing what you do today, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

  • Treat everyone like a customer. (Do you get the sense there’s a pattern here?) I’ve had multiple experiences where I treated a person poorly or without respect, and later felt really bad and in three cases learned they were potential customers and friends. Some would say I had an excuse, because I was busy or tired, but I really just screwed up. I also had people treat me like dirt during my early years at Microsoft. A few later found themselves working for me, needing a job in my group, or needing my support for something. I think I displayed grace but I’m human. One guy treated me horribly in my first year with MS, partly because he thought I was his competition and partly because he didn’t like Asian people. A decade later he drew me as his “as appropriate” interview in OEM—I asked my standard first question, “Why do you want the job?” He started to answer, looked at me like he was going to vomit, and passed out on the floor. I called 911, the guy apparently had a panic attack. I never saw him again. The message—Treating everyone like a customer is as good for you as it is for them.
  • You will always be more than your job. I think because I was so focused on just having a job to support my family, I never saw myself as anything but Marilyn’s husband and the dad of Bobby and Jacqui. Letting a job define you often leads to doing stupid things to keep that title. If you allow yourself to be defined by how well you support family and friends, life is much more rewarding, and you won’t risk your health for things that don’t really matter. I’ve bounced between the two. I’m lucky that the 10-year-old memory I have of my perfect dad is what centered me throughout my life. To me, he wasn’t the president of a company, even though he was. He wasn’t good friends with the then governor of Oregon, even though he was. He wasn’t the guy who was written about in the Oregonian fairly frequently, even though he was. He was just the guy who played catch with me, who cheered when I got a hit, and who cheered the first time I beat him at chess. I feel I failed to be that dad to my kids, and I’ll be trying to rectify that for the rest of my life. To 20-year-old me… do it right when you’re young and keep it going.
  • You will never have enough money so focus on something else on which you can apply your passions and God-given talents. When I was in MBA school, a measure of success was how much you earned as a multiple of your age. At first it was 2X your age. Then 3X, 4X, 5X, etc. In 1984 some were saying the measure was to be earning six figures by the time you turned 30. The problem is that if you’re fortunate enough to hit the target, there’s another on the next hill. If money is your measure, you’ll never have enough.

What are the top 1-5 things that you are looking forward to in 2019?

  • Downsizing – Want to move into a smaller, single-level, home that has little to no yard maintenance. We will pay cash so that we can be debt free for the rest of our lives.
  • More family time – With our kids, including my brother’s son who has a great wife and two great kids as well as with Marilyn’s 98-year-old mother, and the rest of her family.
  • Music – I’m playing more now than I have since I was still performing and recording in the early 90’s. We have a very unusual situation at church where we have four former professional musicians. Our band is filled with talent that isn’t rented, like in many churches today. We’ve already done a few non-church gigs which was a blast. And, I’m composing again.
  • Autobiography – I didn’t get the benefit of knowing my dad past age 10 and my mother’s side of the family didn’t talk much about their family. I want my kids to know who their dad is/was warts and all. It’ll be just for them, and I’m betting I remember things I haven’t told them yet.
  • Business – I’d like to introduce The Five Abilities® to 8 new company leaders this year as I believe it has the potential to help entrepreneurial business owners.

Please include any sources that people can use to purchase from you or connect with you. 

Corporate Website http://www.thefiveabilities.com

Read my book “Winning Lifelong Customers with The Five Abilities

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Winning Lifelong Customers with The Five Abilities
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