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I recently stumbled across a bit of autobiography by one of the most successful salesmen in the country. It was a colorful little piece, in which he wrote about quite a few of the little tricks and techniques he had devised to foster his own prosperity. However ingenious he was, though, he based his approach to his job on a very simple foundation: the development and maintenance of a sound network of contacts.

He cultivated introductions to and relationships with people at social and business gatherings, but he also recognized the importance of maintaining such relationships. He did this by sharing information. Whenever he wrote something of general interest, or whenever someone wrote something about him or his recent accomplishments, he made a point of circulating the story among his hundreds of contacts, just as you or I might pass along an article on Facebook. Whenever he came across a useful and interesting aphorism, like “The largest room in the world is room for improvement” or “The surest way to go broke is to sit around waiting for a break,” he would distribute it throughout his network, the way you or I might send a message on Twitter. When he realized that two or more people in his network might be able to help each other in their businesses, he would arrange an introduction, the way you or I might act as an intermediary on LinkedIn. In this way, he became literally the most successful salesman in his field.

He was doing this in the 1940s.

His name was Elmer G. Leterman, and, mainly, he sold insurance. He dabbled in other things; for instance, there was a time when he was a big name in macadamia nuts. He ended up spending a lot of time in Hawai’i, where the nuts were grown. On his first visit there – on his honeymoon – he noticed that residents of the islands would often greet incoming friends and relatives, disembarking from their newly-docked ships, by draping orchid leis over their shoulders. Leterman figured that everyone should enjoy such cordiality, so the next day he showed up at the dock with his own stack of leis and presented one to every person who came off their ship – and invited each of them to join him for a pancake breakfast later that week. (I suspect he realized that, in those days, anyone taking a cruise to Hawai’i was probably wealthy enough to be a potential customer.) He made a lot of new contacts that way – and soon the Hawai’i Chamber of Commerce saw the appeal of greeting every visitor with a smile and a lei, and began to do the same thing themselves.

Leterman also claimed that he came up with the now-famous idea of insuring movie stars against the loss of their trademark features – Jimmy Durante’s nose, Betty Grable’s legs. I had never imagined that the same person was responsible for both that and the universal lei greeting. Clearly Elmer Leterman was an unusually creative and enterprising man.

Elmer G. Leterman

Elmer G. Leterman

In the 1950s and ’60s he achieved some fame in the business world after publishing a series of books on his craft, including The Sale Begins When the Customer Says ‘No’ and Personal Power Through Creative Selling. In the 1968 book that I came across, They Dare to Be Different, Leterman and his co-author Thomas W. Carlin tell the stories of fifteen different people who achieved “a successful and satisfying career” by doing things their own way. The names of almost all of those people, including Leterman himself, would be unfamiliar to most people today, even though they all clearly had a fair amount of notoriety in their time. Reading the stories of these people – who were undeniably accomplished in their fields of business, science, politics, and philanthropy – imposes a certain wistful perspective on the idea of success. They each made a splash 50 years ago, but the ripples they left behind have become indistinguishable in the churning sea of history.

And yet, at the same time, there is something comforting and inspiring in Leterman’s own story. We live in a world of instantaneous communication to multitudes, with the promise that social media is changing everything about the way relationships are developed and business is done. Yesterday I thought it was quite marvelous – a modern wonder, like GPS guidance or Breathe Right strips – that I could write an essay like this and distribute it to thousands of people in my network. But 20 years before I was born, Elmer Leterman was taking newspaper stories about his marketing activities, having them professionally reprinted, and then mailing those reprints to his extensive network of contacts, just to let them know what was going on in his world. He was collecting catchy little sayings and distributing them on business cards and calendars to everyone he knew, well before anyone thought of making the people who thought of making Twitter.

And these things worked. They probably worked particularly well for Leterman because he was doing this kind of mass outreach at a time when it wasn’t so easy or commonplace. But even in today’s busy, crowded world, people want connection, and they respond to people who connect sincerely, consistently, and adeptly. They respond to people for whom connection is not simply a means to an end, but an expression of genuine curiosity and warmth.

Notably, in the entire autobiographical article, Leterman never once referred to the people he connected with as “contacts” or his “network”. Whether or not he did business with them, he always referred to them as “friends”.