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Archive for January, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote eloquently and often about solitude.  He said,  “The only journey is the one within.”

Solitude.  It’s not the first thing I think of when I think of business.  The very word “business” incorporates the word “busy,” hardly the soul of solitude.

I wrote last week about the unique ability of the entrepreneur to create community.  That is very important to me as the founder of my firm Corporate Rain International.  And yet…my most seminal personal well of meaning, ideation, and renewal comes out of simple aloneness and quietude.

I was reminded of the importance of this in a page one article in the NY Times Sunday Review, January 15, 2012, by Susan Cain.  She writes:

“Solitude is out of fashion.  Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place.  Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all….Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem in this view.  Research strangely suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.  And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted.”

Most of my business friends and employees probably would be surprised to learn I am an introvert. I’m an entrepreneurial salesman, for God’s sake.  How is that possible?  Yet my hands sweat and shake when I have to speak publicly, though I do it fairly often.  I hate to network and I love reading, being alone, thinking and having sincere one-on-one dialogue with my peers about anything but business.

But perhaps I am not such an anomaly among entrepreneurs as I sometimes think.  Ms. Cain cites psychologist Hans Eysenck who avers that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”

Ms. Cain rails against what she calls “the collaborative tyranny of the New Groupthink.”  She notes the work of Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who recently has found that when we take an original stance or a position different from the group’s we activate something called the amygdala, which is a tiny organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.  Dr. Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”  So perhaps business creativity and original thinking also necessitates a frequent and disciplined stillness.

Indeed, Pablo Picasso said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”  Or, to quote Rilke again, “Love your solitude and bear with sweet lamentation the suffering it causes you….Rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind.” (Letters to a Young Poet”-1908)

Thank you, Pablo and Rainer Maria

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One prime reason I became an entrepreneur was simply to create a community that reflected my values and spiritual center; a place where I could live and give service with fellow-travelers in comfort and assumed commonality–my own private Idaho, if you will, where I truly belonged.

I have often talked about motivations for my being an entrepreneur and they have little to do with money.  They mostly have to do with personal meaning.  And I would submit that this is true of most entrepreneurs, even those who speak in the most venal terms of their motivation and incentive.

One of the greatest dearths I find in US culture is a lack of community reflected in an increasing national sense of balkanization and emotional isolation. (Counterintuitively, this is despite our growing capacity for instant connectivity.)  What are our common visions, our common goals? These are no longer clearly coming from a consensus of values and universal common ground.  The entrepreneur has the opportunity to create, at least in miniature, a true community that can help allay this sense of cultural anomie.  In fact, I can think of few long-term successful entrepreneurial ventures that have not created this sense of community one way or another.  Such a sense of community and shared mission is a hidden reward of entrepreneurship done well, and the list of the entrepreneurial companies that have done this are legion, from Apple and Starbucks to Zappos and Zynga.

Healthy business cultures and communities ideally create an amniotic sea of nourishment, identity, values, and peace.  In the best companies every action of each member of a corporate community becomes to some degree gravid with meaning.

I was reminded of this possibility when visiting the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massechusetts recently.  The Shakers were a wonderfully original sect of Christianity that existed from the late 1700s to the early 1900s.  They eventually died out because they didn’t believe in sex with the natural result of no children.  But what surprised me was that the Shakers were a remarkable, even genius, entrepreneurial community.

Here’s one very sweet custom practiced by the Shaker community. When one of the Shakers was ready to die he or she was assigned to an adult cradle.  In this cradle the member was rocked softly day and night by a fellow shaker till he or she peacefully passed.

Fernando Flores, President of Chile’s National Council For Competitiveness, writes on the subject of entrepreneurship and community the following:

“We live in an extraordinary time.  Our thinking styles are severing us from our families, our religions, our ideologies, and nature.  We are caught up in a pace of social and technological change that makes our work, business, and education sources of anxiety and unfulfillment. At the same time, thinking about our thinking and observing our observations can bring us a new world in which work becomes a place for innovation, and in which peace, wisdom, friendship, companionship, and community can exist.  Let us design this world together.”

Thank you, Fernando.

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At a symposium of Inc.’s Business Owners Council last year,  Deepak Chopra related an incidental conversation he had with Bill Clinton over dinner. Clinton startled Chopra with the fact that there are millions of unfilled, high-paying jobs in the U.S. Enough to put a real dent in our unemployment rolls.  However, there is simply a dearth of Americans to fill these positions. Furthermore, this paucity of skilled workers is not getting better.

We are a country and a culture that glorifies youth, but the HR assumptions about the low value of older workers is simply out of date.  The increasing utilization of an aging workforce may well become a necessity.

In a Wall Street Journal article of December 28 (Section B, page one), James R. Hagerty describes this conundrum.  “Given high unemployment, companies could hire young workers to replace older ones, but many jobs require years of on-the-job training.”  So true.  And it is not just physically skilled jobs.  Much of the value in a service industry job–from salesman to consultant to trainer–comes from the unteachable gravitas and judgement that simply can’t be taught quickly.  Additionally, as I mentioned last week, many veteran workers are highly flexible and adjustable about hours, a plus for any business.  McDonald’s has a program for recruiting seniors for just this reason.

Joseph Coughlin, the director of MITs AgeLab, feels many more employers should be preparing to use and recruit an older workforce.  He points out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 24% of the U.S. labor force (an estimated 40 million) will be 55 or older in 2018.  It’s already 18% of the workforce.  He says, “Frankly many companies don’t get it yet…They can’t imagine a time when there isn’t going to be this endless supply of young people coming through.”  Ergo, demography will necessitate workforce adjustments.

Duke Energy, Harley-Davidson, Unimin, and Vulcan Materials, among others, have instituted successful programs aimed at maximizing the life of their skilled veteran workers and hiring more when they can find them to recruit.  They are putting in place automation systems specifically created to vastly reduce physical demand on older workers.  They also incentivize their older employees to exercise and stay limber as a regular part of their workday.  Surely this increasingly healthy and long-lived generation should be a growing resource for the small businessman, as well as the large.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The years teach much which the days never know”.

Thank you, Ralph Waldo.

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Let us consider today the HR implications of the growing population of the gerontologically challenged and their opportunities and challenges for the entrepreneur.

I continue to be bemused by the insufficient attention that is being extended to an important demographic fact:  An increasing number of oldsters are working deep into their “Golden Years.” Edward Glaeser of Harvard writes about our graying workforce in a November 19, 2011 article in The New York Times.”

“Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16% …. The trend started before the current downturn:  the number of Americans over 65 in the work force increased from 10.8 % in 1985 to 15.1% in 2005 to 17.4 % in 2010.  Until 2001, most workers age 65 and older had part-time jobs:  since 2001, full-time work has been far more common.”

The number of unemployed older job seekers has doubled in the last four years and may double again in the next four.  Carl Van Horn, head of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, says,  “This is new.  It is different.  It is worse than we have experienced before and it is very widespread. It is going to [continue].”  (WSJ, Dec. 19, 2011)

The reasons for this are several.  One, people are simply healthier.  65 is the  new 50.  Two, 401-Ks have become 201-Ks and people cannot afford to retire.  And three, people no longer trust the “guaranteed” government programs will be there for them.

I’m sensitive to this phenomenon since my 17 year old executive outsourced sales firm, Corporate Rain International, has always relied on older employees.  Mine are in their 40s, 50s, and 60’s.  They desire flexibility and a freer lifestyle.  These veteran executives offer my clients useful gravitas, judgement, and personal sensitivity that can only come through the ups and downs of experience and a lived life.

I remember last year hearing the entrepreneur Norm Brodsky, speaking at an Inc. Magazine symposium in NYC, predict that most of the high-level executives laid off in 2009 will never be employed again at six figure jobs, or perhaps any job.  Never.  Yet these valuable people still want to work and, indeed, have to work.  (Edward Glaeser reports the number of unemployed elderly job seekers has more than doubled in the last four years and may double again in the next four.)

America glorifies youth.  But, like good football and baseball teams, there is corporate health in mixing seasoned players with rookies. An increasing glut of seniors seeking work can change the workplace for the better.  Again, Dr. Glaeser cites recent studies in Britain and Germany that find many positive correlations between labor-force participation among the elderly and the young.

Finally, Dr. Glaeser points out that the elderly are often the most entrepreneurial Americans.  He states, “Self-employment rises significantly with age.  West Palm Beach, a retiree haven, has the highest self-employment rate of any metropolitan area in the nation.”

So don’t automatically look askance at the graying boomers who want to, and will have to, work longer.  They are not a phalanx of drooling, curmudgeonly, useless old coots, but rather a rich new, cost-effective human resource.

As Francis Bacon said, “I will never be an old man.  To me old age is 15 years older than I am.”

Thank you Francis.

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