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Archive for October, 2012

There is a paradoxical  phenomenon going on in the current job market.  We have huge real unemployment and underemployment (between 14% and 18% by various estimates), yet with hundreds of of thousands of jobs going begging.  These unfilled jobs require high-levels of technical and scientific skills lacking in the current work force.  Thus, there is an almost panicked stampede by university students, facing unemployment, to put on blinders and focus strictly on jobs available in our brave new world of austerity and job paucity.  This new attitude eschews the broad learning approach to education.

There is a danger here, especially for the future of entrepreneurship.  Creative business must be a combination of learned craft and intuitive art.  I have frequently commented on the hubris of the academic business community in its assertion that entrepreneurship can be schooled from the ivory tower.  Likewise, there is a danger of all pedagogy, even at elite institutions, turning to a form of “teaching to the test”–a kind of glorified vocational instructing–teaching students  only in execution with current needed skill technologies (the “how”) and not in the legacy of centuries of human wisdom (the “why”) from whence emanates truly fresh, world-changing business creativity.

Last week Michael S. Malone, a Forbes columnist and author of new book The Guardian of  All Things:  The Epic Story of Human Memorywrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 24, 2012) titled “How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities.”  It speaks to this conundrum.

Malone recounts one of his university colleagues, who teaches English, saying,  “There are parents who tell their kids they will only pay tuition for a business, engineering or science degree.”  I can only imagine this phenomenon increasing as parents cope with their unemployed progeny moving home.  And, also, coping with a growing threat of student loan defaults, often leaving retired parents holding the bag.  (The WSJ–Kelly Greene, Oct. 25— reports many parents even losing their homes as co-signers of defaulted student loans.)

Yet there may be some very practical hope for the humanities emanating from Silicon Valley, of all places.

Malone recounts somewhat timidly asking his very successful entrepreneurial friend Santosh Jayaram if he would mind putting in a few good words for the humanities to members of his professional writing class, who were considering changing majors:

“Santosh said, ‘Are you kidding?  English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.’  He explained:  Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up and getting into full production….These days this work can be contracted out to programmers anywhere in the world, who could do it in a couple of weeks.  But to get to that point, he said, you must spend a year searching for that one undeveloped niche that you can capture.  And you must use that time [to build your company] without having an actual product….’And how do you do that?’ Santosh said. ‘You tell stories’….The battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent.”

Malone cites Steve Jobs’ statement, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough–it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yield us the result that makes our heart sing.”

But what is the practical lesson for the currently practicing entrepreneur in Malones’s article?

Well, for me the key learning from this piece is the increasing importance of storytelling–the ability to bring creativity, poetry, passion and metaphor together to recruit employees, strategic partners, investors and, of course, customers to join your company.  Maybe that is my ultimate job as a founder and CEO of my firm Corporate Rain—to be the Storyteller-In-Chief.

I frequently listen to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on the weekends.  He is eternally joking about the unemployability of English majors.  While there is no doubt that college English departments are in decline, perhaps there is still a future for the liberal arts major as a business leader who can call on the non-quantitative intuitions of history, music, art, philosophy and faith with a creative flexibility, rather than just a technical expertise.  Perhaps the new entrepreneur will be a person who can tell and retell evolving business stories and synthesize and communicate new concepts and creations, as well as being a person who can analyze the fine points of Java.

As Brene Brown, professor of social work at the University of Houston, said recently at TED, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”  Well put, Brene.

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I was quite touched by a short article that appeared in AdWeek this summer.  (Tim Nudd, August 14, 2012)  It’s very sweet and I want to share it, if you didn’t see it.

The story concerns Brandon Cook, who posted the following on his Facebook wall this summer:

“My grandmother is passing soon with cancer.  I visited her the other day and she was telling me about how she really wanted soup, but not hospital soup because she said it tasted like ‘shit.’  She went on about how she really would like some clam chowder from Panera.  Unfortunately, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday.  I called the manager Sue and told them the situation.  I wasn’t looking for anything special just a bowl of clam chowder.  Without hesitation she said absolutely she would make her some clam chowder. When I went to pick it up they wound up giving me a box of cookies as well.  It’s not that big of a deal to most, but to my grandma it meant a lot.   I really want to thank Sue and the rest of the staff from Panera just for making my grandmother happy.  Thank you so much!”

Obviously this is a simple story of a small kindness.  But what is interesting is not the story itself but the fact that this ingenuous tale of the love of Brandon Cook for his granny and the generous spirit of the Panera manager, which was reposted on Panera’s fan page, has generated over 750,000 “likes” and uncountable thousands of passionate comments since its appearance two months ago.  Mr. Nudd reports Brandon Cook being taken aback by the spontaneous viral reaction to his short post, saying, “If my grandma even knew what a Facebook page was, I’d show her…My grandma’s greatest fear is dying with no friends.  I wish I could show her how many ‘friends’ she has out there, and how many prayers people are saying for her.”  Aah.

The interesting part of this story is not it’s heart-warming essence, but rather the phenomenal response to it.  I see many marketers, digital advertisers, and public relations-types making triumphalist internet cacophonies about the efficaciousness of social media, per this story.  However, I wonder if these often smug I-told-you-so commentaries on the dawning power of social media (in this case Facebook) may be suffering from a self-congratulatory hubris that is not at all really the essence of the popular response to this story.

The multitudinous self-congratulatory comments I see from so many marketing mavens may be missing what the vociferous reaction to this story really is.  Certainly the marketing professionals chest-thumping brings out a certain Luddite disquiet in me.

There is a cynicism to the celebration of how this feel good story has boosted the Panera Bread brand.  Not because the tale isn’t true and honest and good, but because of the marketing assumption behind many comments on this story, which is that people will respond to marketing spin through our new communication mediums.  Yes, new media is good at rapidly spreading this charming and ingenuous recounting of Brandon Cook’s appreciation for a small act of commercial kindness.  But I believe what people are responding to is an ineffable realness and human care that utterly transcends and defies the manipulations of new media, even as it is spread by them.

In a time when major articles in the Wall Street Journal (Joseph Walker, 9/20/12) and the Harvard Business Review (October, 2012) extoll the engineering prowess and hegemony of Big Data and quantification analysis, I see the outpouring of response to this small human story as a rejection of the manipulations of the magical new media gospel.

There is an obvious and appropriate celebration of goodness that can and should be disseminated effectively via the internet.  But there is no true substitute for elemental goodness in business.  Simple goodness is a winning business strategy.  Ask Zappos, ask Starbucks, ask Whole Foods, et. al.  There is nothing more compelling than a company that really is what it purports to be, that walks the walk of its talk. A million small acts of service and customer care ultimately create the most efficacious brands. Good is greed, not the opposite.

The world is being stalked by a relentless coldness that is a sad bit of baggage, seemingly inevitably attached to technological advance.  Brandon Cook’s story reminds us that  many small acts of kindness may be more ultimately powerful then a trillion email blasts and phony buzz manipulations.  People ultimately know the real thing.  By your works ye shall be known.

As Albert Einstein said,  “It has become appallingly obvious our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  Amen, Albert.

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Mae West famously said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”  Charming and witty as I’ve always found Mae, she’s wrong.

Last week I found myself doing a whole day of sales calls back-to-back.  I’ve been the chief rainmaker for my firm, Corporate Rain, for the seventeen years I’ve been in business and I’m pretty sure-handed with how I choose to represent my company.  I know who I am and the business qualities I want to emphasize and convey.  I’m articulate and passionate about my product, as are most successful entrepreneurs. Yet there are times when my very strengths can undermine me and last week was one of those times.

What I found myself doing that day last week was becoming, gradually and without quite realizing it, a mechanical imitation of Tim Askew.  A sort of gobbling autonomaton.  As I tired through the day it became very easy to lean too hard on what I really do well.  This very dependence on my strength made that strength my bane.  It made into a negative that which usually would be a compelling positive.   It made me into a jerk, an asshole, a used-car salesman, gold-plated phony.

We are all, of course, an amalgam of our strengths and weaknesses.  Authenticity requires a constant need to be present with our whole self.  And authenticity is the key to good entrepreneurial salesmanship.  Authenticity simply means telling the truth with our whole being.

We can cause damage to our business by simply overvaluing and over relying on our strength.  For example, what I do well is talk bluntly about ROI and service.  But it can come off harshly and off-putting and arrogant when I  push this good quality too hard.  When we lean too hard on our most wonderful qualities the danger is becoming a presentational cardboard mock-up of perfection and can-do confidence, rather than a fully present, available human being and client servant.

I recently found a lovely statement applicable to human balance in business.  It was a reprint at the Harvard Business Review online of a piece written by media consultant Tony Schwartz, who died in 2008.  (HBR, 9/20/12, 8:00 AM)  Tony states:

“No strength is reliably a strength by itself.  Too much passion eventually becomes overberaring, but too much moderation leads to boring blandness. Too much introspection devolves into self-absorption, but too little results in superficiality.  Confidence untempered by humility turns into arrogance. Tenacity unbalanced by flexibility congeals into rigidity.  Courage without prudence becomes recklessness.  Charm ungrounded in authenticity is simply disingenuousness….Holding our  opposites is no easy task.  They frequently feel contradictory and all of us crave certainty in an increasingly complex and bewildering world.  It makes us feel safer. Settling for our strengths is the easy way out.”

So what is the entrepreneur to do who finds himself or herself scurrying too often to his or her preferred aspects?

Well, for me, I get out of my comfort zone.  I have to stop and arbitrarily change my rhythms, become whole again and realign.  I have to get out of my chair, walk around, breathe, click my heels together three times and say “there’s no place like home.”  Perhaps say a prayer for truth and wholeness.

English anthropologist Gregory Bateson put it this way.  “There is always an optimum value beyond which anything is toxic, no matter what:  oxygen, sleep, psychotherapy, philosophy.”  Thank you, Gregory.

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“O, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive!”  Sir Isaac Newton

The problem with lying is not that it is immoral so much as that it is not efficacious in business or in life.  Research increasingly shows that lying can impact your health just as surely as not eating your veggies, not exercising, eating too much butter, or smoking.

Yup.  For example, Dr. Anita Kelley of Notre Dame recently completed an interesting “science of honesty” study which she presented at the American Psychology Association.  (www.everydayhealth.com–8/4/12)  She tested 110 subjects, half of whom were told to stop telling lies for ten weeks and half of whom were given no special advisement about lying.  When those in the no-lie group told three fewer lies than in other weeks, they complained less of headaches, tension, sore throats, anxiety and other maladies than those in the control group.  The non-lying participants also reported that their close personal relationships had improved and their social interactions were more easeful.

Dr. Kelley’s study is confirmed by the work of Dr. Deirdre Fitzgerald of Eastern Connecticut State University.  (www.zoominfo.com)  Fitzgerald reports that lying is taxing for both your physical and emotional health.  Unless you are a sociopath, long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems and can decrease longevity, increase depression and anxiety, damage your relationships, and shatter your self-esteem.

So what’s the take-away here for us entrepreneurs?

Well, I guess for me telling the truth and selling the truth is the very best palliative for my stressful entrepreneurial life.  (That, with exercise and yoga, anyway.)

I recently found this quote from Ken Makovsky about lies.  Ken, who writes on communications issues in Forbes and in his own weekly blog, My Three Cents, says the following:  “I love the truth.  It can be harsh or resolute but it stands as a barricade against the goblins that dance with lies in your head.  If you tell the truth you have clarity.  You stand proud.  You are stress-free.  You never have to remember what you said because the truth is easy to recall…”  Ken notes that the greatest business value in truth for the businessman is simply that it leads to trust in an increasingly fast-paced and elusive business environment.

I’m sure you have seen that delightful commercial for GEICO which shows Abraham Lincoln being asked by his wife if her dress makes her look fat.  He squirms frantically as he tries to find something true to say that won’t damage his marriage.

I don’t think we need to be as scrupulous as “Honest Abe.”  There is always a need for kindness, tact, and illustrative metaphor and drama, which may not always be literally true. But not lying should help ease the daily stress of our crisis prone entrepreneurial vocation.

One great wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous is that you begin the recovery process by telling the truth to yourself and to others in all your affairs and interactions.  That proven way leads to health, healing, strength, and clarity.  As Jesus says in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Of course, telling the truth is often not perfectly simple.  As Benjamin Disraeli famously said, “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.”   Thank you, Benjamin.

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Alas, alack.  I am a long-term fan of the consistently lowly New York Mets.  It’s been another lackluster season for my beloved team.  Except for one thing.  That one thing is a 37-year-old failure called R.A. Dickey.

I love R.A. Dickey.  He reminds me of me-the best me-old and deeply formed by multiple failures, sadness and hard knocks.  A man who has had an unexpected and accidental life.  He is an inspiration and is a shining beacon to me for what is achievable, even out of the embers of a fallen, inadequate, and heavily scarred life experience.

R.A. has recently written a book called Wherever I Wind Up.  I think all company creators and entrepreneurs should read it.  It’s an autobiography.  It’s well-written and not at all your usual self-congratulatory jock tome. (In that, it reminds me of Andre Agassi’s compelling book Open in 2009.)

To briefly sum up Dickey’s riveting story, he describes his life as one long recovery from depression, childhood sexual abuse, brokenness and frequent thoughts of suicide.  He describes himself as a “picture of mediocrity” until he discovered the vehicle of his salvation, the knuckleball.  But even more important is his courage and humility in describing the very personal process of becoming a fully realized and whole man.

After being a high draft choice out of Tennessee, it was discovered that Dickey was missing a key elbow ligament needed to stabilize his pitching arm.   He bounced around several major and minor league teams for many years, till, out of desperation, he took up the knuckleball, a pitch that only a handful of men have ever learned to handle effectively.

In a lovely essay in the NY Times (7/13/12),  his old teammate and friend, Doug Glanville, describes the knuckleball as  “a joystick-controlled UFO” of a pitch, totally unpredictable in its trajectory to the batter, but also unpredictable to the pitcher himself.  It is a joyous goofball accident of a pitch.

“A good knuckleball has no spin, at least not the one that acts like the butterfly that just drank enough cocktails to be over  the legal drinking limit. And it’s slow enough, and frozen enough, so you can see the letters on the ball. But it’s no comfort  reading those letters, since you have absolutely no idea where they’re going, and truth be told, neither does the pitcher. He only has a general sense of the ball’s direction, and one of the only reasons success within this type of guesswork ever comes is because “general” is an adjective that also applies to the strike zone.”

So, what does Dickey have to say to the entrepreneur?

Dickey is a triumph of autodidactic bootstrapping, as well as practical humility.  Like most of us entrepreneurs, he was bad before he became good.   Jason Gay, the sports columnist of the WSJ (Friday, September, 28, p. A 27) quotes him, after winning his 20th game last week as saying, “I am by no stretch of the imagination, a self-made man.”

But that is not completely true, as endearingly unpretentious as R.A. may be.  He has made a journey into freedom, wholeness and authenticity that is also the pursuit of most of the effective entrepreneurs I know.  Entrepreneurship can be a vehicle for personal salvation, much as R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball has saved his life and career.  I personally think of the entrepreneurial company as, much like the knuckleball, an unpredictable butterfly of unexpected twists and turns-but a still infinitely rewarding vehicle of meaning and happiness for those with the courage to ride it.

I believe R.A. is a Christian, but to me he is a true Zen Buddhist master of living in the present.  He is a very specific inspiration and existential hero to me, as an entrepreneur.

So my inner entrepreneur will be holding R.A. Dickey close to my bosom when he goes for his 21st victory in Miami tonight.  It’s a game I will watch.  I hope he does well, but, no matter what, he is my favorite failure.  We should all be willing to fail so well.

Bob Dylan once said, “There’s no success like failure.”  As R.A. Dickey goes for his 21st win tonight I think he well understands Dylan’s statement. Samuel Beckett states poetically “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again. Fail again.  Fail better.”

Thanks Bob.  Thanks Samuel.    Thanks R.A. Dickey.

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