Interview posted on Herby Fabius' website Billion Success, March 22, 2021
Christopher Novak is a former human resources executive, leadership coach, and author of multiple professional development books. His business expertise includes senior positions in manufacturing, higher education, and more than a decade as an entrepreneur.
Chris has a dual bachelor’s degree in aeronautics-mathematics and a master’s in business management. Retired from corporate life, he consults for his oldest son’s gourmet chocolate business, Chocolate Pizza Company.
Chris’ most recent book was self-published on Amazon. Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence is a quick-read, themed-learning book on mentorship and leadership framed against 4 critical instincts of the king of beasts.
Chris’ previous books include Conquering Adversity: Six Strategies to Move You and Your Team Through Tough Times; Lead Like a Pirate: Leadership Secrets of the Pirates of St. Croix; Inspired to Lead: 12 Powerful Lessons on Making a Difference<; Inspired to Succeed: 12 Powerful Lessons to Develop Leadership Excellence.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up writing a book?
My business experience started as a human resources executive for Syracuse China Company, a century-old, unionized manufacturer of ceramic dinnerware. I moved on to be the director of human resources for Campus Life at Cornell University before leaving to start my own leadership consulting business, The Summit Team. I was an executive coach, leadership trainer, and professional speaker for more than a decade.
In 2010, my oldest son Ryan bought a small-town chocolate shop with dreams of turning it into a national brand. He asked me to help so I stepped away from my business and walked into the world of gourmet chocolate. Chocolate Pizza Company is now Central New York’s largest chocolate maker and has been featured on Food Network, Hallmark Channel, Discovery, and CNBC among other national media.
My first book Conquering Adversity was published by Cornerstone Leadership Institute in 2004 and became my signature keynote and training curriculum. The backdrop to that book was the death of my pregnant wife, Cynthia, in 1998 by a man high on drugs who ran a stop sign. Our son Ryan was 9 years old at the time and the tragedy shattered our lives.
What I learned moving through that horrific experience about the hero inside each of us became my first book and launched my writing career. Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence was a book I actually started writing right after Conquering Adversity but didn’t finish. Over the years, I wrote pieces for it here and there but it wasn’t until 2017 that I made finishing it a priority. That year, I had open-heart surgery and during my long recovery, I promised myself I would put it in print. The goal gave me something positive to work toward as I healed. In late 2019, I kept my promise and self-published it on Amazon. The pandemic struck shortly thereafter and shifted my priorities but hoping that we can restart the book’s promotion in 2021.
What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
I want readers to identify with the importance of mentorship and learning moments. As leaders, we are only as good as those we learn from so finding people who can be resources for our continuous growth is critical. Mentors – plural – is a theme throughout the book as we learn from many different sources at different times and in different ways.
Mentorship can be a formal, structured relationship where one person intentionally guides the development of another, or it can be an experiential one where we learn by doing or observing alongside someone with a particular expertise.
There are also learning moments in everyday experiences both bold and ordinary, so we should be alert to these episodic opportunities to grow as leaders. All of these are dimensions of mentorship and professional growth that I try to illustrate in the book and that I would like readers to take with them.
What were the top mistakes you made writing or publishing your book?
Fortunately, I have written a half dozen other books, so the larger process was not new to me. The self-publishing route was a new wrinkle that I am still learning. My biggest takeaway with any of my books has been to be the writer, not the editor. It is worth every dollar you spend to hire professionals to do the fine-tuning work that takes a manuscript from raw to finished. Invest in proof-readers, layout specialists, copy editors, and illustrators.
In my book, Lead Like a Pirate, I hired an illustrator to do original artwork that brought the characters to life and added depth to the book’s leadership focus.
In my first book, Conquering Adversity, I relied on the publishing expertise of David Cottrell from Cornerstone Leadership Institute to trim the text of an overwritten, emotionally charged manuscript into a concise, tight resource that is appropriate in rising above both business and personal crises.
In this book, Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence, it was designer Melissa Farr from Back Porch Creative who added the right look and copy editor Brenda Quinn who tightened the storyline down into a fast-flowing pace that makes it an easy book to read in under an hour. Be the writer, not the everything-else-person, is the best advice for avoiding publishing mistakes.
When will you consider your book a success?
I never consider that question because I don’t write for success. That may seem naïve or foolish for a project that consumes so much time, energy, and resources, but it is the truth in my mind. I imagine the broader answer to that question is why do you write?
If you write to make a living, then obviously sales and revenue are critical measurements of success. If you live to write as I do, then writing is not about book sales as much as the impact made. Writing for me is a labor of love, a conversation started, a perspective shared. I consider my efforts well spent if the book has a positive impact on someone.
Conquering Adversity came out in 2004 and I still get cards and emails from people who read the book and found it to be profound in helping them get back on their feet. I keep one card on my desk from someone I have never met who dropped it on my laptop after a Conquering Adversity speaking engagement that I did many years ago. It reads simply, “You changed my life today.” That kind of impact never shows up on best-seller lists, or in sales numbers, or social media following but that would be my definition of a successful book whether it never sold another copy. My hope with Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence is that it motivates others to find mentors, invest in their own professional growth, and become more effective leaders.
Can you share a snippet that is not in the blurb or excerpt?
URGENCY WITHOUT FOCUS IS A STAMPEDE
“Instinct number 3 is where it all happens,” he added. He said there’s a time for preparation and a time to act. Executing a plan is a fusion of urgency and purpose. Everything is in place – meaningful skills assessment of terrain, selection of an objective, meticulous planning. The stage is set for an explosion of effort – all that is missing is a spark. Urgency is nature’s catalyst. It ignites the moment and imbues the lions with a physiological response that heightens senses, sharpens skills, and hastens decision-making. It allows the lions’ natural instincts to take over.
What advice do you have for new authors who want to write and self-publish their first book?
I think they would find my advice right on the dedication page of Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence. I wrote, “Fourteen years separate this book’s first words from its last. A reminder that dreams don’t age; they just wait to be rediscovered.” I think as authors that is an important concept to internalize. There is not a shelf-life for your ideas. There is no expiration date for your passion. Writing is not as much about what you say as it is THAT you say it. Stick with your thoughts, pursue each thread of your written journey. Listen to the voice inside that wants to find its way out into the world. There are people waiting to listen. Life has a way of reintroducing us to things we have lost track of, reconnecting us with things that had faded from view, and inviting us to reengage and reignite that moment. Accept the invitation whenever it comes – the time is always right to write.
What is the one thing you wish you knew before publishing your first book?
I wish I knew how valuable the role of editors is in the process. As a first-time author, you believe your manuscript is perfect; that every word is necessary, every chapter moves the storyline along as you intended. You cannot imagine someone taking a scalpel to your text and removing, rearranging, or rewriting what seems like significant portions.
What could they possibly know about what you are writing? What qualifies them to redirect your angle, shift your focus or drop a section altogether? It feels almost hurtful to have an editor kickback your manuscript with tough love comments or redline edits but trust that they know their craft as well as you know yours.
In the end, the separation they have from the subject gives them an objective perspective that is value-added to the final book. David Cottrell was that guide for me on my first book Conquering Adversity. The book that I initially sent him was twice the length of the final product so he had a lot of work in reigning me in but the result was a book I am infinitely proud of and that has helped many people.
Can you share some of the marketing techniques that have worked for you when promoting your book?
Send chocolate. That’s only half humor because when you are sending out copies of your new book to key contacts and potential corporate clients the more unique the first impression the better. And trust me, gourmet chocolate gets nearly everyone’s attention quickly. If you want your book to stand out from the pile, sweeten the introduction! I’m naturally biased to Chocolate Pizza and Peanut Butter Wings from my son’s Chocolate Pizza Company – there isn’t a more unique gourmet chocolate anywhere – but you get the point of adding an unexpected element to your complimentary copy to catch the recipient’s attention.
Other tips would be to use social media to your advantage. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are easy resources to amplify visibility and broaden your exposure. The goal should be to drive eyeballs to your website or your publishing links. To that end, make sure your website looks as professional as possible with great visuals, meaningful background on you, your expertise, and other information.
Finally, learn to be a dynamic public speaker. Next to the fear of death, they say public speaking is people’s greatest fear. But if you want to promote your book, then become its chief spokesperson. The pandemic won’t be with us forever so eventually we’ll be back to conferences, meetings, retreats, and trade shows – places where speaking engagements are possible.
Start small. I gave my first few presentations in church basements, VFW halls, a cabin on a lake for a dozen execs. The more experience you get, the more comfortable you get and the easier it is to book bigger venues. Eventually, I was doing keynotes for conferences with thousands of people and holding book signings before and after every speech.
If you had the chance to start your career over again what would you do differently?
Life doesn’t give us a reverse gear. We are where we are at this moment because of the choices and chances that defined our journey. When my wife was killed, I struggled with the painful question of “Why?” It tore me apart because it was unanswerable.
The secret I learned was that it was not about “Why?” but rather “How?” How do I move forward? How do I get back on my feet? How can I find purpose and passion again? When we shift the focus from why to how we change the input of our energy from passive to active and slowly but surely find our way out of dark places. Across the top of Cynthia’s tombstone, I had etched, “For some questions, there are no answers but in love there is peace.” We need to make peace with our lives not look backward at things we cannot change.
Can you recommend a book, a podcast, and a course for entrepreneurs and why?
There are so many excellent resources these days and Kindle, Audio or other recorded mediums have made learning part of our commute or lunchtime routines. Consume as much of it as you can and you’ll expand your leadership toolbox. But don’t overlook the less obvious.
Go off-grid from the traditional sources and you are likely to discover some excellent insights for growing as a leader and entrepreneur.
For a quick burst of inspiration, read the article published in the New York Times (Dec. 24, 2011), “Leadership Lessons of the Shackleton Expedition” by Nancy Koehn.
The A&E series titled “Shackleton” starring Kenneth Branagh is superb viewing for an evening of entertainment with leadership lessons in nearly every scene.
Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (1948) is a unique book that is credited with introducing Zen to the west and while it has nothing to do with entrepreneurship it has everything to do with the entrepreneur. That is, it is an open study on staying centered, calm, and focused – traits in high demand for entrepreneurs navigating stormy waters. Be a voracious consumer of ideas and techniques. Expose your mind to history, psychology, biographies, and documentaries that offer nuggets of wisdom.
What helps you stay driven and motivated to finish writing your book?
Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence was a 14-year project from the first words to the last so persistence was evident in its publication journey. But that long winding road also revealed that motivation isn’t always a boiling pot; sometimes it’s a slow simmer. As I recovered from my open heart surgery and began searching for pieces of this manuscript, I found segments written here and there over the years.
The drive for the book had never extinguished as I wrote sections periodically; bits and pieces that at the time rolled off my keyboard but never quite made it across the finish line. Graced with plenty of time during my recovery, I compiled these pieces, rewrote them, discarded some, expanded others, and eventually finished the manuscript to my liking. I was writing for myself again and that is the greatest motivation for an author. I made finishing the book part of my healing.
What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
I am a night owl. I burn the midnight oil when I write because that is when my life quiets down enough that I can hear that inner voice. I find that I gain energy the deeper in the night I go with my writing sessions. I get excited when a train of thought hits me and have been known to be still on the keyboard as the sun rises. I don’t recommend all-nighters as a productivity tip but I offer it as evidence that you know you were meant to be a writer when time becomes irrelevant.
I can offer this tip – write whatever comes to you easiest at that moment. Don’t try to write chronologically or sequentially or anticipate how your chapters will flow; just write. Put the words down now and figure out later where they go – or if they even go.
Writer’s block is when you try to force words into a stream of consciousness that isn’t flowing. It’s like trying to open a locked door when the window next to it is wide open. Leave the door and go through the window!
If you only had 1000 dollars to promote a new book, knowing everything you know now, how would you spend it?
I would take $500 and run highly targeted Facebook ads aimed at decision-makers in the organizations that best-fit my book’s demographics. I would utilize Facebook’s “speak with an expert” feature and schedule a call with one of their pros who can help you design the ad and develop the target audience. I once spent 2 hours on the phone with one of those experts who walked me through every stage of the process. It was a free consult and worth every minute.
I would use the other $500 to send copies of the book – along with a Chocolate Pizza treat (makes your book stand out when it arrives) – to about 25 carefully chosen influencers, bloggers, reporters, and business leaders who would be in a position to review my book or buy it on an organizational scale. Fish the deep waters for the trophy catches. Don’t be shy about approaching well-positioned people because those are the ones you need to impress.
Finally, I would sign-up for HARO notices (it’s free) and scan the daily lists for any opportunity to tie my book into a reporter’s request for feedback or input.
What is your favorite quote?
Hannibal’s response to his generals when they told him that it was impossible to march his army of war elephants across the Alps on their way to attack Rome has always been a favorite.
We will find a way or we will make one.