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January 01, 2013

Top Desk

See You at the Top: Remembering Zig

by Jennifer Workman Pitcock

Click here to order the Direct Selling News issue in which this article appeared.


“You can have everything in life that you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” —Zig Ziglar

The fact that this central tenet of Zig Ziglar’s philosophy seems like a truism today speaks to the impact Ziglar has had on the field of direct sales. When Zig Ziglar passed away in Plano, Texas, this past November, he’d spent the better part of his 86 years inspiring others.

Ziglar’s passion for helping others launched his second career as a motivational speaker 40 years ago. Before that, he’d been a top salesman at two cookware companies and had a handful of successes selling other products ranging from insurance to cosmetics. But it was on the stage that Ziglar had his greatest impact. His brand of homespun humor combined with inspirational stories from his own life and the lives of others helped drive home the principles he taught—often encapsulated in the memorable catchphrases that were his signature.

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”

Over his lifetime, he spoke to millions, hammering home simple steps to success that somehow seemed attainable when wrapped up in his enthusiasm and sincere belief in what he was saying. His most quotable nuggets boiled down to core principles that, if embraced, changed lives for the better. Be generous. Be honest. Put others first. Set goals. Create good habits. Have a positive attitude. Be grateful.

And people did embrace them—and the man who made it his life’s mission to share the secrets to his success. Countless times in his life, Ziglar had the pleasure of hearing people tell him what he meant to them and how his message had changed their lives.

Stan Fredrick, Chairman of Mannatech and long-time friend of Ziglar’s, recalled getting to know Ziglar when he was a franchise dealer at his second cookware company and Fredrick was the CEO of the holding company. “It was in listening to him teach our dealers how to sell cookware that his ability to change lives and empower people was so apparent,” says Fredrick.

Fredrick also gives credit to Ziglar for positively influencing the public perception of the direct selling business model, and helping to bring it into the mainstream of business dealings.  He says that when Ziglar was first training and beginning his speaking career in the 1960s and ’70s these “were tough times as direct selling fought for acceptance and credibility with the public and protection from government regulators.” Through Ziglar’s personal faith and ethics, his motivational skills and his popularity, Fredrick says he was able to “raise the level of professionalism of salespeople, which has resulted in great credibility to our industry.”

In the wake of Ziglar’s passing, the Internet was abuzz with tributes and memories of Zig. Shortly after his death, Melody Campbell shared what Ziglar had meant to her on her website The Small Business Guru. In a blog entry, Campbell credits Ziglar’s books and cassette tapes with transforming her from a painfully shy 19-year-old girl failing at her first sales position into a successful saleswoman. “The sound of his voice became that of an endearing mentor. He caused me to believe that with a little practice I could be exceptional,” says Campbell. Because of Ziglar’s influence, sales became her lifelong career of choice.

“It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you use that makes a difference.”

Ziglar’s own struggles lent credibility to his message. Born on Nov. 6, 1926, Hilary Hinton Ziglar grew up one of 12 children during the Depression in Yazoo City, Miss. Days before his sixth birthday, Ziglar’s father died of a cerebral hemorrhage. 

After his death, to make ends meet, all the Ziglar children had to work. By nine, Ziglar had his first part-time job in a grocery store. Along with steady employment in the grocery store and later a meat market, he picked up odd jobs whenever possible to contribute a little extra to the family’s finances.

Ziglar credited much of his success to his mother and the lessons she taught him during his early years. He referred to her as his “first and greatest role model.” Despite her difficult circumstances, she managed to give her children a happy, secure childhood.

After high school graduation, Ziglar started college as part of a military program. He wanted to be a naval aviator in World War II. While at college he met the love of his life, Jean Abernathy, whom he affectionately called “The Redhead.” The two married when Ziglar was 20. Soon after, he dropped out of college and began his first full-time job selling cookware.

Over the next 20 years, Ziglar had a great deal of success selling. After a slow start with WearEver cookware, a mentor at the company took an interest in Ziglar. He told Ziglar, “You have the ability to be a great one.” These motivating words helped turn him into a top salesman for the company.

But Ziglar’s success led to a string of failures. He began skipping from opportunity to opportunity, becoming what he called a “wandering generality.” This, combined with unwise spending and a rapidly growing family, led to financial distress. Though he had periods of great success, he could never really get ahead under his own power.

In 1968, Ziglar moved to Dallas to work for Automotive Performance. Ziglar had pursued a career as a speaker since the 1950s, but he wasn’t ready to go full-time. When the company folded, his speaking career had begun to take off, so he didn’t look for another job. Though he was able to make a living, it wasn’t until he gave his life to God in 1972 that he became truly successful.

“I believe He allowed me to struggle for so many years in my business, and in my finances, so that I would know without a doubt that He is the one who is responsible for any and all of the successes I have had or ever will have,” Ziglar wrote in his autobiography.

“The more you are grateful for what you have, the more you will have to be grateful for.”

Zig Ziglar was blessed with success beyond what he ever could have imagined during his hard-scrabble childhood in Yazoo City. He authored more than 29 books, 10 of them bestsellers with sales numbering in the millions. Ziglar was featured in numerous publications and on television shows such as 20/20, the TODAY Show, and 60 Minutes. He shared the stage with six former U.S. presidents as well as many well-known speakers, politicians, celebrities and sports figures. He won numerous awards for his expertise and influence as a speaker, including the coveted Master of Influence Award and the Cavett Award.

But awards and recognition were never what it was about for Ziglar. Back in 1999, when Skip Hollandsworth visited Ziglar in his corporate office for an article in Texas Monthly, Ziglar didn’t show Hollandsworth his awards or brag about his accomplishments. He gave him a hug and a handshake, took the time to introduce Hollandsworth to his staff, then spent 20 minutes showing the reporter his Wall of Gratitude—black and white photographs of the people who had encouraged him throughout his life. Ziglar always remembered that he didn’t make it to the top without help, and his life’s mission was to extend that same encouragement to as many others as he could through his speaking and writing.

And people responded to his message of encouragement. In 1999 Peter Lowe told Texas Monthly, “Of all the great people who speak at our seminars… Zig still gets the best response. It’s like he knows how to reach people in a way that no one else can.”

Publisher and Founding Editor of SUCCESS magazine Darren Hardy told DSN why he believes people felt such a connection to Ziglar. Ziglar’s message was countercultural in the 1970s and ‘80s when he really broke into public speaking. “I think he was many people’s first indoctrination into the idea that you can self-direct your life,” says Hardy. “And everybody remembers the first, that defining moment when an idea strikes that has an indelible impact and changes you forever.”

Beyond that, Ziglar was relatable. “He had a down-home style and nature and character that people could connect with on an emotional level,” Hardy says. “And he had a grounded wisdom that he delivered in an enthusiastic and theatrical way, which made him memorable. His quips and sayings were useful little mental nuggets. I think that’s why he was so enduring over so many decades that he worked his craft.”

But what Hardy admired most about Ziglar was the fact that he was a great human being both on and off the stage. “Zig walked his walk and lived his preach,” he says. “He really did love his wife. He really did respect his spirituality and adhere to it. He really did treat his employees as he would teach and instruct other leaders to treat the people around them. If you met him backstage, no matter who you were or what level of status you had, he was kind, generous and warm. He really made you feel like you were important,” he says.

And perhaps that’s Ziglar’s most important legacy: Whether people met him in person or as part of his audience, they felt like he was in their corner. He wanted to help them succeed. His death is a great loss to the industry, but it feels like something more. It feels like the loss of a friend.

Ziglar considered his family his most significant accomplishment. He began each day of his married life by kissing his wife and telling her he loved her. He delighted in spending time with his children, and he was never happier than when he had his family together. His unique brand of inspiration will live on in his Ziglar Corporation, led by his son, his two surviving daughters and a granddaughter.

“If you go out looking for friends, you’ll find out they’re very scarce. If you go out to be a friend, you’ll find them everywhere.”