Never send to know for whom the bell tolls

GraveMy brother Craig died 13 years ago at the end of August, two weeks before 9/11. It was a season of grief and sorrow as one fateful event spilled into another. All those feelings jumbled together—personal tragedy coupled with national tragedy, and no explanation for either.

Craig was 40 and vice president of research and development for a software firm in Atlanta. He was the genius behind his company’s chief product, a computer program he designed that allowed chip manufacturers to view their work in 3D.

He was at the top of his game, or so it seemed. But a few months after his sudden passing, just as we were getting over the shock, the coroner’s report arrived. Cause of death: cocaine poisoning. More grief and pain, and now stirred into the mix: guilt, anger and shame.

The explanation that we were first given, that he suffered a heart attack, stuck as my “official” explanation whenever friends or colleagues asked how he died.

It was a long, long time before I could tell anyone that my brother died of a drug overdose. It was a full six years before I really came to terms with his death. To my friends at Annandale United Methodist Church, if you saw a man standing in the cemetery one afternoon in late October 2007, that was me talking to my brother who is buried there. Tears came streaming down my face as I drove back to the office. I guess that visit was more cathartic than I realized.

My mom took Craig’s death the hardest. I think she sensed more than any of us that he was having difficulty. An anti-depressant was found in his apartment, along with dozens of empty beer cans. Some past behaviors began to take on new light.

Up until then, I had no first-hand experience with mental illness or addiction. When you come from a family of high achievers hardwired for success, these kinds of things aren’t supposed to be part of your makeup. They are viewed as signs of weakness that need to be stamped out, defeated through self-discipline and willpower. Like when you get hit hard in sports, and the coach tells you to walk it off and get back in the game.

I’ve since come to know better.

I can’t say that Craig occupies my mind every day, but I believe his spirit lives on in the volunteer work I do and in a greater sensitivity I now have towards addiction and those who suffer from it. And when someone famous like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of an overdose or Robin Williams commits suicide, a little bit of the protective scab I’ve formed gets pulled off, drawing fresh blood, new hurt.

How many more brilliant stars like Hoffman and Williams must fall from the sky? How long must those with mental illness and addiction feel marginalized or inadequate or outright failures because of a disease they didn’t do anything to deserve and cannot shake off no matter how hard they try?

Robin Williams touched so many lives that maybe this time the dialogue will last a little longer. A few more attitudes will change, and our collective awareness will be raised a notch.

The poet John Donne reminded us that we’re all connected, and therefore diminished, by the passing of another. His words seemed all the more fitting to me when Williams died:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Posted in Purpose | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Are you a good steward or a bad steward?

Bicycle help

Being a good steward means helping others achieve their goals.

Remember the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, asks Dorothy if she is a good witch or a bad witch? It’s right after Dorothy’s house lands in Oz, killing the Wicked Witch of the East in the process.

Dorothy proclaims that she’s not a witch at all, but it turns out she has much more power than she realizes. Enough to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West and return home to Kansas.

So I ask you, are you a good steward or a bad steward? And do you realize the power you have to do good—or harm—in your organization?

You might think that’s an odd question, but stewardship is the best word I can think of to describe the responsibility we have to care for the institutions we work for or derive value from, whether it’s an employer, school, church, club or civic group.

If you’re a leader, you need to learn to cultivate stewardship—and you need to be able to distinguish the difference between good stewards and bad stewards.

A steward is one who manages the property or affairs of another. It’s an Old English word that means guardian or keeper of the house or hall, but it has its roots in ancient Greece where servants were entrusted by their masters to run the affairs of the household. This is in keeping with the Christian interpretation of stewardship, which teaches that we are called upon to take care of what belongs to our Master, who has created everything on our behalf. While we are entrusted with the Earth and all that is on it, we do not own it. We are only its caretaker and in the end will be held accountable for how well we treat the planet and its inhabitants.

Businesses that practice stewardship have adopted a similar ethos of sustainability, future-focused performance, and a sense of purpose and responsibility that puts the well-being of employees, consumers and community above short-term financial gain.

Every organization has its stewards. They volunteer their time and talent for the betterment of the organization. They live the institution’s values, carry on its traditions, preserve its history and instill its culture. They are the teachers, the doers, the fixers, the organizers, the counselors and the peacekeepers.

Here are some characteristics that identify good stewards:

  • Good stewards are committed to selfless service. They have no desire for power. They do not need to be in charge or exert control over others. They are responsible and accountable without any prompting or prodding.
  • Good stewards believe in sustainability. They understand that they are building value not for themselves but for their customers, members, shareholders or future generations.
  • Good stewards practice inclusiveness. They welcome all into the fold. No one is turned away. They always find a way to bring new blood into the organization.
  • Good stewards embrace innovation and change. They understand that while the organization’s principles are unchanging, the means to achieving them are not. They welcome new ideas and fresh perspectives.
  • Good stewards are team players, and they’re quick to give others credit. They work together to reach goals.
  • Good stewards believe in communication and being transparent. They gladly seek advice and feedback from their stakeholders.
  • Good stewards always acknowledge and thank the master they serve.

But sometimes stewards lose their way or get led astray. Here are signs that your stewards need redirecting:

  • Bad stewards perpetuate the status quo only for the sake of preserving it. They resist change and are afraid of innovation.
  • Bad stewards cultivate exclusivity. They may not mean to, but they shut out new volunteers. They stick to themselves and fail to welcome newcomers.
  • Bad stewards don’t share information. They make decisions unilaterally because they know best.
  • Bad stewards develop an ownership mentality. They want to control every situation.
  • Bad stewards let selfishness creep into the organization. They seek to preserve their department or committee at the expense of others.
  • Bad stewards have lost sight of the organization’s founding principles, substituting instead what is expedient or best meets their needs.
  • Bad stewards are no longer accountable. They have amassed too much power to be challenged. They are beholden to no one.

Stewardship makes organizations work. Good stewardship propels us forward, but bad stewardship stymies growth and can lead to an organization’s decline. Make sure you’ve got the good stuff, and plenty of it.

It’s too bad we can’t throw a bucket of water on the bad stewards and watch them melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West. But that is the challenge of leadership, bringing bad stewards back into the fold (if possible) or weeding them out if they are beyond saving. That’s not always easy, but you’d be surprised what a powerful force for change good stewardship can be.

Posted in Communications, Leadership, Management | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘A great day lies ahead in the not-too-distant future’

TimeI have a new Tuesday evening tradition. After my guitar lesson at Music & Arts, I head over to Panda Express for some stir-fry. This is a big change because I’ve always stopped off at Roy Rogers for the #1 meal (cheeseburger, fries and a Coke).

Now that I’m on a health kick, Roy Rogers is out and vegetables are in. Yes, we’re talking those green leafy things. I don’t even get the rice. I go straight for the side order of mixed veggies.

So last night, after eating more broccoli than anyone should have to eat in an entire year, I broke open the fortune cookie that Panda Express had prepared especially for me.

I have to admit, I was impressed by the appropriateness of the message—“A great day lies ahead in the not-too-distant future”—because it summed up some thoughts I had earlier in the day about long-term planning and the choices I’ve made to get to where I am now. It also made me realize that one of the reasons I’ve abandoned Roy’s is because I recognize that what I eat has an impact on my future health and well-being.

In life and work, we’re constantly faced with decisions that are present-focused or future-focused. We must learn to balance these two, often competing poles—planning for the long term, yet dealing with the short term. We have to stick to our plans so we can actually accomplish our goals. It’s that stick-to-itiveness that’s the hard part.

You may have heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the early 1970s. Mischel wanted to know if pre-school children were capable of delaying gratification to achieve a goal. He gave each of his little test subjects a marshmallow and told them they could eat it right away; however, if they were willing to wait 15 minutes, he would reward them with a second one.

Most of the children ate the marshmallow, but about a third waited long enough to earn a second treat. From what I’ve read, this experiment has been repeated numerous times, always with similar results.

Mischel tracked the kids over time and discovered that those who delayed gratification had better life outcomes. They had higher SAT scores and were higher achievers in whatever field they had chosen.

A 2012 University of Rochester experiment found that a child’s belief in the promise of a second marshmallow has a big impact on the outcome. In that study, the pre-schoolers were divided into two groups—one had a promise kept just before the test; the other one had a promise broken. Those in the “promises-kept” group were able to wait four times longer than their peers in the “promises-broken” group.

There’s no doubt that staying focused, learning self-discipline, believing in what you’re doing, and operating from a place of trust and support can help you reach your long-term goals. Sure, the road ahead may be bumpy. Inevitably there are challenges and setbacks, and you may question the decisions you’ve made. But staying future-focused will get you to your destination.

Last year, after being self-employed two years, I considered calling it quits and going back into the job market. I wasn’t where I wanted to be financially, and I had my doubts I would ever get there. To be honest, I was impatient and very present-focused. I was like an investor who hasn’t earned the return he expected in one year, so now he wants to take out all of his money.

But the future-focused voice inside me said, “Don’t throw in the towel just yet. Give yourself another year. Just keep working your plan.” And remarkably, things have picked up. I’m beginning to believe what it said in that fortune cookie: “A great day lies ahead in the not-too-distant future.” I think that might be a promise that gets kept.

Posted in Getting started, Goal setting, Management | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Best practices for blogging and posting on social media

Social media iconsMaybe I should go back to posting my blogs on Tuesdays…or Thursdays. Or maybe Saturday is best?

We’ve all seen those articles about the best times to post on social media if you want to increase visits, shares or click-throughs. It’s enough to make your head spin, and often the research is contradictory.

For example, a few weeks ago, the folks on the Social Media Week blog gave their take on the best times to post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. Here’s a quick summary:

Facebook – Thursdays and Fridays

Twitter – Monday through Thursday, 1-3 p.m.

LinkedIn – Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7-9 a.m.

Google+ – Wednesday, 9 a.m.

Other research by Dan Zarrella shows Saturday is the best day for sharing on Facebook and engaging on Twitter. And Buffer says retweets are best at 5 p.m., and click-throughs are better at noon or 6 p.m.

If you’re like me, you use social media to push out content from your blog. Once I’ve posted on The Wayward Journey, I also put links on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+. I usually do this within a few minutes of pressing the “publish” button. But wait, should I not post until 1 p.m. on Twitter? Or maybe 5 p.m.? Should I hold off until Friday for Facebook? Or wait till Saturday?

Rather than going nuts trying to determine the best time to post, I suggest to my clients (and remind myself) that it’s better to focus on the basics, especially when you first start blogging.

Here are a few best practices to consider (and that I admit I fall down on):

Post consistently. Pick a day and time to post that works for you (e.g., every Tuesday at 9 a.m.) and then stick to it. Readers reward bloggers who keep to a schedule. Followers especially appreciate receiving posts on time. (This is an area where I definitely need to improve. Lately, I’ve been trying to post on Wednesday mornings. Let’s see if that sticks.)

Define your brand and then deliver on its promise. If you start a blog for dog owners and then post articles on cats, you’ve just lost most of your readers. Choose a subject area to blog on and then stay on topic. That goes for all social media channels that you post on.

Use visual elements. Research shows that including photos, videos or infographics with your posts will boost shares. Visual elements also increase readability.

Inspire awe, laughter, amusement or joy. BuzzSumo analyzed the top 10,000 most shared articles and found that positive emotions are far more popular than negative ones. The least popular emotions were sadness and anger. While it may feel good to vent online, it’s not the best way to build readership.

Be aware of what people like. BuzzSumo also found that people love to share lists, how-to articles, and “what” and “why” posts. You may not always have this type of content to post, but it’s good to keep it in mind if you do.

Write clearly and in a lively style. To me, the best blogs are the ones that have a unique voice, a clear purpose and offer up well-written content. Put another way, respect your readers. Take the time to write a good blog post.

Share something about yourself. Blogging is a social media, so engage your readers. Welcome comments and feedback. Avoid using your blog to simply promote your company or repost marketing content. Put some life into it!

Ten is the optimum number for lists. BuzzSumo says 10 is the lucky number, so I’m leaving you with this 10-point summary of its research. Some of these may surprise you.

  1. Inspire awe, laughter or amusement.
  2. Appeal to people’s narcissistic side (think BuzzFeed quizzes).
  3. Long-form content has less competition and more shares on average.
  4. List posts and infographics are more likely to be shared.
  5. Make sure your article inspires trust. Have a byline and bio. Make sure you have a professional logo and design as well.
  6. Mix text with visually appealing elements.
  7. Implement social metadata such as the Facebook preview image.
  8. Reach out to influencers before you write your content.
  9. Promote your articles (after they’ve been published for a week).
  10. Tuesday is the best day to publish and promote content.

Happy blogging!

Posted in Communications, Marketing, Technology | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Five things you need to know about encore careers

Encore careers

Are you ready for an encore career? Make sure you are financially and mentally prepared to fly solo.

Baby Boomers are reinventing retirement. Instead of fading into the sunset to enjoy piña coladas by the pool, they’re choosing to work longer—but not at just any job. Many are pursuing second-act or encore careers that combine their passion with a social purpose.

Encore.org says that as many as 9 million people aged 44 to 70 are getting paid for work that balances personal fulfillment and doing good. An additional 31 million in this age group are interested in making the leap into more meaningful encore careers.

A related trend is the increasing number of Baby Boomers who are starting their own businesses rather than retire. A survey by AARP found that 11 percent of workers aged 45 to 74 plan to start a business and 15 percent in this age range are already self-employed. AARP also found that older people are pretty good businessmen and women. Their success rate is high—71 percent are making a profit.

So here are five things you need to think about if you’re considering self-employment or an encore career:

1. Money

Take a look at the people on the Encore.org website. They’re transforming the lives of prisoners, assisting wounded veterans and helping to eradicate diseases—all really good stuff! But how do they make ends meet?

It doesn’t surprise me that the MetLife Foundation found that 67 percent of those in encore careers experienced gaps in their income during their transition. Fully one-fourth earned no money at all, and 43 percent said they earned “significantly less” than they had in their previous job. Of those who reported little or no income, 79 percent said the gap was six months or longer, and 36 percent said it lasted more than two years. Most (65 percent) said they relied on personal savings to make ends meet.

Based on my experience, I strongly advise anyone who is thinking about self-employment or an encore career to have two years of living expenses in the bank. If you’re married or sharing expenses with a partner or roommate, you probably can reduce that amount. Hopefully, you will not need to draw on your savings too much, but it’s a good insurance policy. It also gives you enough time to fully complete your transition.

2. Time

I’m into my third year as a self-employed PR practitioner, and for the first time I’m feeling confident about my income potential. So give yourself enough time to succeed. Allow yourself two years, even longer for a business. There’s a reason it’s called a “transition.”

At the same time, do set goals for yourself and your business. Have a plan and review it. If you notice that you’re getting off track, you may need to change course. Either you weren’t realistic in setting the goal, or perhaps you need to make some adjustments in your business or career choice.

Understand, too, that changing careers or starting a business is hard work. Are you willing to put in long days and work weekends to make it happen? Do you have the discipline to stay focused? Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Because if your heart isn’t in it, you’re never going to succeed.

3. Learning and networking

Expect to spend a lot of time learning, which can be exciting but also overwhelming. I had never been self-employed before, so everything about managing a solo practice has been brand-new to me. I’ve tried to soak up as much as I can from others, read a lot, and go to workshops and seminars. Transitioning to an encore career may also require you to go back to school or receive special training.

Take advantage of networking opportunities and professional groups that are focused on your business or career area. You’ll meet people who are willing to share lessons learned and give you helpful advice. Look for volunteer opportunities in your encore career field while you’re still working at your regular job. Those opportunities may help you land a paying position.

4. Uncertainty

Starting a new career or business involves a lot of uncertainty. Are you okay with going without a paycheck for a while? Are you willing to abandon your comfortable routine for the unknown? If you are, and you see the possibilities and rewards that come with taking a risk, then maybe you’re ready for the plunge.

Some trepidation is only natural, especially in the beginning when you’re first getting started. But don’t let your fears keep you from doing the things that you’ve dreamed about and made careful plans to achieve. Keep on task. You can do it!

5. The long view

MetLife found that people interested in encore careers plan to work longer, which can boost their lifetime financial security. Having a meaningful job that you want to go to each day helps. You may be giving up some income to pursue your passion, but if you’re happier and willing to work a few more years, aren’t you better off in the long run?

One of the advantages of being self-employed is that it gives you the flexibility to cut back on your hours as you grow older but still stay active in your field. That’s my goal and why I take the long view. If I still like what I’m doing when I’m in my 60s, why shouldn’t I keep working? Heck, Warren Buffett is 83, and he certainly doesn’t need to work. But I bet he likes what he’s doing!

Previous posts you might find helpful:

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’
Dealing with uncertainty
The value of a written plan
8 things you absolutely have to do to make it as an indie
In life, it’s always good to ‘test-drive’ major changes
Hats off to longevity and late bloomers
The ups and downs of a solo career
Accountability groups, success circles and self-discipline
Purpose and entrepreneurship
Extreme career makeover

Posted in Careers, Purpose | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writer’s block? Try tying yourself to a chair

McPhee, Hugo, Schiller

John McPhee, Victor Hugo and Friedrich Schiller conquered writer’s block in unique ways. What’s keeping you from achieving your goals? (Photo of McPhee from Princeton University’s Office of Communications.)

John McPhee tried tying himself to a chair so that he would stay focused on his writing. Victor Hugo had his servant take away his clothes each morning and remained in his room (supposedly naked) until he finished writing for the day. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer, the smell of which spurred him to write.

The lengths to which writers will go to coax words onto paper is a very interesting phenomenon. You don’t expect creative types to have a problem being creative, but they do. In a fascinating piece last year for The New Yorker, McPhee relates that when he was working on an article for the magazine on the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, he had a huge case of writer’s block: “Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker.”

I remember reading a section of “The Pine Barrens” in The John McPhee Reader in college. Man, this guy can write, I thought. The breadth of McPhee’s interests and the details of the subjects he’s tackled are legendary. Nearly 50 years and 29 books later, McPhee continues to write and teach classes at Princeton. Yet, here he was describing in The New Yorker how he feels inadequate to the task of writing. “It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well,” he says of his writing success. “Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.”

This past winter and into the early spring, I had my own bout of restiveness with a lengthy writing project for a client. Some days the words didn’t come, and I would fret because we were on a tight deadline. Other days, the words tumbled out, and it was manna from heaven.

When the muse was absent from my home office, I would go upstairs to a spare bedroom, the cocoon room I called it, and sit in a rocking chair or on the bed with my laptop. I would force myself to write something. Into the night I worked. I fell asleep exhausted, and then I got up the next morning and did it again. I put off other client work or fit it in as best I could. I was determined to conquer the beast.

And I did. I completed the assignment on time, and everyone liked it.

A few weeks ago, I saw a copy of the finished work for the first time. It was one of those moments when you say, “How in the world did I do that?”

Now in my third year as an independent practitioner, I’m beginning to see how. I like the word practitioner because it has two meanings: a person who is actively engaged in a profession and one who is practiced; together, they neatly describe the mindset required to make it as an indie or solo-preneur.

To practice is to have discipline. To practice is to learn. To practice is to grow.

As a practitioner, I face each day with a resolve and determination that seemed missing before. I’m very intentional now about many things. I exercise every day (including weekends), and I’ve become very particular about what I eat. I do have my little junk food attacks from time to time, but nothing like before. I’ve lost almost 10 pounds since those dark days in the cocoon room, where I kept myself going with pretzels and cookies.

I keep distractions to a minimum. I don’t turn on the TV. I try to get to bed at a decent hour. I’ve even been setting my alarm clock for 5:30. Now that’s crazy, given that I’ve never been a morning person!

What does it all mean?

It means I have goals that I want to reach. I have milestones for my business, and I want to get to them. There’s a purpose to what I’m doing that focuses and drives me.

No, I don’t think I’ll ever tie myself to a chair, and McPhee only did that a few times anyway. But McPhee’s work habits are prodigious. He is known for extensively interviewing and meticulously researching and organizing his notes before he begins writing. Read his New Yorker piece or the introduction to The John McPhee Reader by William L. Howarth. You’ll be amazed.

That’s being a practitioner, and that’s where I want to be.

All of us have our own version of writer’s block. What’s keeping you from achieving your goals? Take the steps to overcome the obstacles in your life. You don’t have to sit in a room naked or smell rotten apples, but you do have to make the effort. You’ll be glad you did.

Posted in Goal setting, Purpose, Staying motivated | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground

Meadow with flowers

Are you a dreamer or a doer? Hopefully you are a little of both.

Years ago, when I was working at a DC trade association, the CEO stopped by my office one night before heading out the door.

“Why do businesses fail?” he asked me.

I could think of many reasons, but I knew there must be one in particular that was on his mind.

“Because they can’t execute.”

Earlier in the day, we had been brainstorming a new project that would take a lot of staff time and resources, so I knew where he was headed. The upshot was that he was killing the project before we even had a chance to get it off the whiteboard.

As I drove home that night, I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed that we weren’t doing the project, but I was also relieved because I wasn’t sure we could actually pull it off.

When I was a kid, my parents used to say that my eyes were bigger than my stomach when I put more on my plate than I could eat.

There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve bitten off more than I could chew. Haven’t we all faced situations where we feel we can’t possibly get everything done that we’ve volunteered or been asked to do? Especially nowadays when everyone is working harder yet still expected to meet those elusive stretch goals.

I have a lot of admiration for visionary thinkers, but I have even more admiration for thinkers who can deliver on their promises. Few people are good at both dreaming and doing.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.”

That’s good advice. Along those same lines, Mike Robbins wrote a good blog post a few years ago about keeping your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground.

It starts with recognizing where you are in the cloud vs. ground spectrum. It’s tough balancing the practical with the visionary. My days are often filled with the humdrum stuff that goes into running a solo practice. Not to mention meeting client deadlines.

The big picture gets left in the weeds. How to expand the business, get new clients, maybe develop a new specialty area—it always seems to fall off my to-do list as I get busy.

Robbins says that we should allow ourselves to focus on our dreams. “Having our ‘head in the clouds’ is about giving ourselves permission to dream and dream big,” he says.

But we also have to take intentional and effective action. “One of the biggest challenges we encounter in our journey towards our dreams is either not taking effective action (because we don’t know what to do or we’re too scared to do it) or taking too much ineffective action (because we’re running around crazy or acting in an unconscious way),” he says.

According to Robbins, “When we allow ourselves to dream big (with our ‘head in the clouds’), how we keep our ‘feet on the ground’ is by coming up with intentional and appropriate actions to move forward with our goals, even if we’re scared and not sure how things will turn out.”

It’s also important to get support and feedback. As Robbins puts it, “[A]ll of us need people who can cheer for us, hold us accountable, and support us on our journey in an authentic and meaningful way. We can’t do it alone—well, at least not nearly as easily or effectively.”

Finally, he suggests not getting too stressed or uptight about meeting goals. “Having fun along the way ensures we keep things in perspective and enjoy the ride, regardless of the outcome.” When we’re able to both dream and execute with passion, intention and focus, “we create a sense of balance and peace that can allow us to have what we truly want in life.”

How about you? How are you balancing the “vision thing” with getting things done?

Posted in Goal setting, Happiness, Management | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The seven habits of highly effective enterprises

McKinsey & Company published a short article a couple of weeks ago that is long on leadership and organizational insight. “The seven habits of highly effective digital enterprises” by ’Tunde Olanrewaju, Kate Smaje and Paul Willmott is worth a read, with observations and examples about how companies are successfully transforming themselves in the digital age. What struck me is that nearly every one of the seven habits applies to all aspects of business, whether you’re digitally engaged or not.

In fact, I think if you just delete the word “digital” from the title, you’d have a good template for organizational success. So here are the seven habits. See how many of these you are doing.

  1. Be unreasonably aspirational. “Being ‘unreasonable’ is a way to jar an organization into seeing digital as a business that creates value, not as a channel that drives activities,” say the authors. Bean Samples The Ocean of StormsAs I considered the examples given—Burberry and Netflix—I couldn’t help but think of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. The companies that are able to envision a future are the ones that succeed. They aspire to become or create something that may not even exist or be achievable—at least not by current thinking. As the article notes, Netflix was a successful renter of DVDs, but it aspired to become a leader in a technology that was only in its infancy—streaming video. At the end of last year, NetFlix had 40 million streaming subscribers. Not bad for a bunch of dreamers.
  2. Acquire new capabilities. Here the authors deviate a bit from everything you always heard about hiring for attitude, not skills. But if you want digital transformation, you need people who have proven digital skills. This is the “acqui-hire” approach that you’ve seen tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook adopt in recent years when they acquire small start-ups to fill in the gaps they have in their own talent pool. Of course, not everyone can go out there and buy a whole company just to get a few talented people. But I think McKinsey is right in saying that talent can be mighty important, especially in the early stages of transformation.
  3. “Ring fence” and cultivate talent. McKinsey found that the most successful digital transformations occur when companies fence off their digital groups from the rest of the organization, protecting them from “business as usual” and giving them free rein to innovate. fence“Digital talent must be nurtured differently, with its own working patterns, sandbox and tools,” McKinsey says. The question is, how long do you let the digital team operate as its own skunkworks? “To deliver in an omnichannel world, where customers expect seamless integration of digital and analog channels, seamless internal integration should be the end goal,” the authors suggest. In other words, in the beginning it makes sense to build a separate digital team and give them what they need, but eventually they need to be integrated into the organization. That’s not just a model for digital. Any new, important project can benefit from the same approach.
  4. Challenge everything. “Look at how everything is done,” says McKinsey, “including the products and services you offer and the market segments you address, and ask ‘Why?’ Assume there is an unknown start-up asking the exact same question as it plots to disrupt your business.” Apple is often cited as a transformational model, moving from computer maker to one of the largest distributors of music, not to mention reinventing the cell phone and the way we use mobile devices. After all, it was Steve Jobs who said that leaders are always deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, restless for change and impatient for progress. “Digital leaders examine all aspects of their business—both customer-facing and back-office systems and processes, up and down the supply chain—for digitally driven innovation,” McKinsey says.
  5. Be quick and data driven. “Rapid decision-making is critical in a dynamic digital environment,” the authors write. “Organizations need to move to a cycle of continuous delivery and improvement, School testadopting methods such as agile development and ‘live beta,’ supported by big data analytics, to increase the pace of innovation. Continuous improvement requires continuous experimentation, along with a process for quickly responding to bits of information.” Examples include companies like U.S. Express that collects data in real time from tens of thousands of sources and then uses business-intelligence tools to extract insights about its fleet operations. P&G is another example. It provides up-to-date sales data across brands, products and regions to more than 50,000 employees globally.
  6. Follow the money. “A digital transformation is more than just finding new revenue streams,” says McKinsey. “[I]t’s also about creating value by reducing the costs of doing business.” The authors say that while testing and experimentation is critical, “teams must quickly zero in on the digital investments that create the most value—and then double down.” Often, the authors report, great value is found in optimizing back-office functions. They give the example of Starbucks, where only a third of its active IT projects were focused on customers in 2013. One-third of its projects were devoted to improving efficiency and productivity, and another third focused on improving resilience and security.
  7. Be obsessed by the customer. No surprises here, but it certainly bears repeating: “A healthy obsession with improving the customer experience is the foundation of any digital transformation.” I would say that goes for any business transformation. Customer Service OperatorAs the authors note, “Rising customer expectations continue to push businesses to improve the customer experience across all channels. Excellence in one channel is no longer sufficient; customers expect the same frictionless experience in a retail store as they do when shopping online, and vice versa.” What’s key is the ability to learn from every customer interaction. Successful companies are obsessed with getting the experience right and using digital to fine-tune interactions. As the authors state, “This mind-set is what enables companies to go beyond what’s normal and into the extraordinary. If online retailer Zappos is out of stock on a product, it will help you find the item from a competitor. Little wonder that 75 percent of its orders come from repeat customers.”
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Is business dynamism on a permanent decline?

Last year I wrote a post (“Is America the best place on Earth for entrepreneurs?”) that looked at some worrisome trends suggesting a decline in U.S. entrepreneurship. This was based on data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) that ranks countries on startup rates and innovation.

Business dynamism - Brookings Institution

Graph showing decline in business dynamism from Brookings Institution.

Now comes a troublesome new study from the Brookings Institution by economists Ian Hathaway and Robert Litan that says more businesses are dying than being created in the U.S.

Hathaway and Litan analyzed business dynamism over a 33-year period (1978-2011) and concluded that dynamism is slowing down in all 50 states and nearly every metropolitan area, to the point where firm exits exceed firm entries.

As the two explained in their paper:

Business dynamism is the process by which firms continually are born, fail, expand, and contract, as some jobs are created, others are destroyed, and others still are turned over. Research has firmly established that this dynamic process is vital to productivity and sustained economic growth. Entrepreneurs play a critical role in this process, and in net job creation.

But recent research shows that dynamism is slowing down. Business churning and new firm formations have been on a persistent decline during the last few decades, and the pace of net job creation has been subdued. This decline has been documented across a broad range of sectors in the U.S. economy, even in high-tech.

While the reasons explaining this decline are still unknown, if it persists, it implies a continuation of slow growth for the indefinite future, unless for equally unknown reasons or by virtue of entrepreneurship enhancing policies (such as liberalized entry of high-skilled immigrants), these trends are reversed.

Many commentators were quick to insert their own explanations for the decline, such as increased government regulation, or complain about “Obamanomics.” But in an interesting follow-up to their study, Hathaway and Litan noted that the decline has been steady, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations, and that there really is no clear explanation—yet—for what is happening.

Being self-employed, I take a greater interest in these things than I once did, and I have to wonder if sole proprietors are counted as firms in the research. That may have some bearing, especially in light of several other employment trends that are beginning to have an impact on our economy:

  • Last year, I also wrote about the rise of the freelance nation. According to Ford Motor Company’s “13 Trends for 2013,” there are now 42 million freelancers in the U.S. As Ford noted, “Today’s contract workers are lawyers, journalists, daycare workers, graphic artists, accountants, videographers…” Ford calls this trend “The Micro Skills DIY” and says, “Versatility, nimbleness and agility are necessities in today’s shifting economic climate, where staid manufacturing jobs have been replaced by fast-moving technological ones.”
  • I recently was doing research for a client white paper and was fascinated by another employment trend known as encore or second-act careers. Baby Boomers, in particular, are eschewing the normal retirement path and deciding to continue working, only they want to do something more meaningful the second time around. The MetLife Foundation says as many as 31 million people between the ages of 44 and 70 are looking for encore employment that combines meaningful work with social impact and continued income. Many of these encore careers involve starting a business or nonprofit.

It would seem to me that these two trends might counterbalance the slump in business dynamism that the Brookings study describes. However, it may be that something more structural is going on. Let’s hope dynamism is simply in a state of flux, in which case, we might see some improvement in the coming years.

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