How Spencer Johnson Helped Me Move My Cheese

In 2015, seven years after I began the first iteration of my book, I thought I was close to having a finished manuscript. I had just completed a major rewrite with editor Nils Parker and submitted the work to my agent at the time, Margaret McBride. In our first call after she had read the manuscript she said, “I have some good news and some bad news.” I asked for the bad news first and she confirmed that we weren’t “there” yet. My heart sank. But her good news changed my attitude immediately. Her client, Spencer Johnson, had read the book and wanted to speak with me.

Yes, it was the same Spencer Johnson who co-wrote The One-Minute Manager with Ken Blanchard and who wrote Who Moved My Cheese? A bestselling author for more than 30 years, Spencer was well known to be incredibly private, assiduously avoiding attention and publicity. He refused to have his photograph on his book jackets and rarely did interviews. But his focus on concentrated value in short, impactful stories was legendary. And this literary giant was inviting me to spend a day with him at his Wolfeboro, NH estate. I was elated.

After spending the day together, we sat on Adirondack chairs overlooking a lake while he summarized his feedback. First, he thought there were strong parts of the book that could be stronger. One example I worked in was expanding the story of Mike Willenborg, a clear example of a powerful Chief at the bottom of the organizational chart.

Next, he thought there were weak parts of the book that should be eliminated. I later removed several personal anecdotes that didn’t help the reader in proportion to the “real estate” they took up in the book. THIS was the brilliance of Spencer Johnson. He is a master of concentrating value in every paragraph, as evidenced in his books mentioned above. It’s much tougher to write a great short book than a great longer book.

Spencer mentioned that a few stories I had shared that day should be in the book. So I added the story about my Go Test and one about the quiet Chiefs I worked with at Bell Labs.

Finally, Spencer suggested that the title would be better as Be Chief instead of Being Chief. Overall, I was grateful for the amazing and invaluable feedback from this master craftsman. My next step—another re-write.

Spencer Johnson helped me move my cheese. That is, he helped me change just when I needed to. He taught me to keep working until the book was ready, even if it takes longer than I originally planned. Back then, I thought the book would be published in 2016, and here we are about to publish two years later! It wouldn’t be the book it is today if I hadn’t taken the long road to get there. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed bringing it to life, with a lot of help from others.


Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title is available for pre-order today on Amazon.