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Archive for August, 2013

mihaly-flow-ted-previewMihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Good Business, talks about the importance of “flow” (centeredness) in an effective businessman.  He states,  “At its most fulfilling a career in business involves a series of steps in which one takes on ever greater responsibility, making it possible to experience increasing flow for many years….It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the growth of businesses is in large part the result of their leaders’ need to grow as persons.”

How does one become a business leader and especially an entrepreneurial leader?  (My short answer to this is live a life and know who you are first.)  For sure, there is not a simple answer to this, but the more complex answer is certainly not an MBA education.  That will teach you to be an excellent corporate executive, a superb reader of P&Ls, a brilliant brand strategist, a fluid numbers runner, and a solver of classical business case study conundrums.  What it does not teach is originality, creativity, passion, bone-deep ethics and meaning.  And, to my way of thinking, since these constitute the base for great entrepreneurship, the traditional business schools cannot teach entrepreneurship.

However, if they want to teach real business leadership for the entrepreneur—and business schools increasingly claim to be able to teach this—there needs to be a new starting point for business pedagogy.  In an increasingly anomic, bewilderingly fast-paced and complex business environment, that new starting point must be the meaning and ultimate reason for doing business in the first place.  Why the hell be business at all, except to accumulate money?  Or is that enough?

badaraccoI’ve recently read that Harvard Business School has been taking a stab at addressing this question through a course led by Dr. Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. that uses great works of literature instead of traditional case studies to teach business leadership.  Professor Badaracco”s course at HBS is called The Moral Leader.  It focuses on great works of literature and moral philosophy.  He uses books to explore “inescapable” elements of leadership:  character, accountability, and pragmatism.

According to a recent article from HBS, Badaracco’s course eschews easy absolute answers and explores literature full of moral ambiguity and flawed humanity.  He says,  “I remind [students] of the Old Testament view of human beings; fundamentally, permanently, almost fatally flawed, unless they”re redeemed by something outside themselves.”  (HBS, Why Leaders Need Great Books, August, 2013)  To me this sounds a lot like the twinned concepts of sin and grace in the New Testament.  So Badaracco’s base question to his students, as I understand it, is how do we create value out of the imperfect human vessels we are in a world without absolutes.  If one is to have a practical academic starting point to being a leader, that seems like a pretty good one to me.

Here’s an abbreviated list of a few of Badaracco’s recommended great books for incipient businesspersons, with his descriptions.  I’ve only read five of these myself.

  1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart—A village leader in Nigeria struggles against the arrival of the colonialists.
  2. Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin—A portrait of the life and work of the founder of a New England prep school, a story of entrepreneurship, idealism, shrewdness, and pragmatism.
  3. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons–A play about Sir Thomas More and his long battle with King Henry VIII.
  4. Robert Brawer, Fictions of Business—Essays, by a former CEO and English professor, on classic works of fiction and their implications for managers and employees of business.
  5. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep—A classic American detective story, first published in 1939, which can be read as a story about the pursuit of professional excellence and the moral dilemmas arising from dedicated service to a client.
  6. Joseph Heller, Something Happened—A black comedy about success in corporate life and a fast-track executive adept at living on the surface of things.
  7. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible—The story of the quiet and heroic leadership of a mother who takes her children to the Congo, following her missionary husband, and then leaves him and Africa and reassembles a life from the wreckage of these decisions.
  8. Arthur Miller, All My Sons–A play about a family unraveling the truth about a father’s decisions at work and their full consequences.
  9. William Shakespeare, Macbeth—A study of ambition, the murkiness of values, and the powerful seduction of short cuts to success.
  10. George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara—A witty, complex, surprising play about an arms manufacturer and his idealistic daughter.
  11. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace—One of the great books, worth reading and rereading for a multitude of reasons, among which are Tolstoy’s vivid and unforgettable portraits of men and women who change the world, on both the grand stage of life and in subtle, everyday ways.

Marcel_Proust_1900-2Professor Badaracco’s course and courses like his may offer a more apt beginning to a true graduate education in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial leadership (if such a thing can ever be had) than sophisticated instruction in how to write a business plan or when to seek venture capital.  It goes to the why of business, not the the how.

Marcel Proust, in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, says,  “Every reader finds himself.  The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would  perhaps never have seen in himself.”  Thank you, Marcel.

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Those who follow this blog regularly know my love for language and the wonder of words, as well as entrepreneurship.  This week’s blog is a translated video.  It’s a hoot, if somewhat scatological.  I hope you enjoy it.

The video comes to us courtesy of my friend Madison Laird out in Silicon Valley.  He is a visionary serial entrepreneur, presently heading up kick-ass start-up Funding Profiles in Sunnyvale, CA.  Madison was a champion college debater.

The music accompanying the video is Deuces Wild by Artie Shaw.

Enjoy the waning days of summer.

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young-disraeliBritish Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli supposedly said, “There are three kinds of lies—lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  I’m coming to believe that nothing is more of a “damn lie” than government statistics on employment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the current unemployment rate is 7.5%, but the actual unemployment rate is at least 14.3%.  The reason for the disparity? The latter figure comes from the government statistic U-6 which takes into account what it calls “marginally attached workers.”  For example, in July only 92,000 of the 266,000 jobs created, per the Labor Department’s assay of employers, were full-time.  That’s 35%.  And, for the year, the figure is even more shocking.  According to website Zero Hedge, the whole year only 222,000 full-time jobs were created out of a total of 953,000.  And that, my friends, is 23%.  Even Ireland and Italy, which are in full-blown depressions, are doing better.

There are simply fewer traditional full-time jobs.  This is a new and permanent employment dystopia—a new paradigm, a new normal.  (I remember three years ago hearing Norm Brodsky, the wildly successful NY serial investor and entrepreneur, speaking to the Inc. Business Owners Council and predicting that the multitude of highly experienced executives laid off through 2010  would never—that’s never—work in corporate America again.  He was prescient.)   Yet, as horrifying as that may be, it can be advantageous for the agile business owner.

So here are some suggestions for creating an effective virtual workforce and for taking advantage of national employment conundrums to create ROI efficacy.  They’ve worked for me for a long time.  (18 years)

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  1. Know who you are personally.  It’s your company.  It is you. You cannot compellingly communicate values as corporate culture till you are there yourself.
  2. Establish your through-branded tonality (culture) in every collateral, every letter, every business card, every website, every blog, and every tweet.  If you are “cool and cutting     edge”, every word and design should shout cool and cutting edge.  If you are an established “white shoe” industry leader”, everything should reflect that.  Service-oriented and customized?  Likewise, through-brand it.
  3. Hire people who fit that tonality.  If everyone in the company comes out of the same philosophical and ethical gene pool, you start with an unspoken common ground that doesn’t need to be trained.  It just is.  Then allow them to fulfill their jobs with their own creativity, as much as possible.  This solves half the virtual management battle, as well.
  4. Hire older employees.  Don’t be frightened off by folks with big resumes that might make them seem overqualified.  Despite appearances, they often desperately need to work, at least part-time, for emotional as well as financial reasons.
  5. Utilize employees who can happily work flex-time and part-time.  It might keep your firm out of the clutches of Obamacare, among other things.
  6. Become a lifestyle company that compensates employees for a perhaps lower wage with freedom, autonomy, and flexibility.  Many folks value this even above career advancement.
  7. Give your virtual employees meaningful work.  Ask them what they like most to work on and accommodate them where possible.
  8. Simply trust your virtual employee.  Virtual management ain’t for control freaks and micromanagers.  Virtual employees do not lend themselves to a testosterone fueled “bossism.”  Develop measurement metrics and let folks go who don’t get it done.  (As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” ) But don’t micromanage.

Jul 07, 2008 - Mountainview, California, USA - MARISSA MAYER, VP of Search and User Experiences, Google is photographed on the Google campus in Mountainview, CA on July 7, 2008. From the high-tech scene, there has risen a new crop of accomplished female CResearch response from virtual employees is overwhelmingly positive.  They generally love the lifestyle of working at home.  (Note a nice summation of this research by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in an HBR blog of July 24, 2013 titled “Working From Home:  A Work in Progress.”)  Likewise, you might want to check out The Virtual Manager by HR guru Kevin Sheridan.  It offers authoritative advice on virtual employment far beyond my intuitive, unsystematic suggestions.

This is not to say virtual employment is always the solution to employee efficiency.  Marissa Mayer of Yahoo has just ended virtual employment for her troubled firm and she may well be right.  When things are dire there is a value in change for change’s sake, if nothing else.  Drama bespeaks seriousness about change.

Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post last week, has said this about Amazon.  “We are stubborn in vision.  We are flexible in details.”  Maybe that’s the key to being a virtual employer, as much as anything else I’ve read.  Thanks, Jeff.

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Here’s a startling figure for you:  By 2015, 40% of the global workforce or 1.3 billion people will work remotely.

??????????????????With the economy and employment languishing through a sickly recovery and the frightening disincentives to business creation and growth offered by an increasingly hegemonic, sclerotic, arrogant, and unaccountable bureaucracy, it is essential that entrepreneurs get creative with new paradigms for employment that skirt such counter-efficiency processes.  Employee expense is almost always the greatest yearly outlay for most of us.  So any owner or CEO must have a gimlet eye on HR conundrums, and never more fiercely focused thereon than now.

Note the front page story in the Wall Street Journal (8/4/ 13) last weekend.  It reported a miniscule increase in jobs, except for very low wage employment.  But the most significant part of the article is its report that 6.6 million people have given up looking for work.  And herein lies the opportunity that must be embraced by all of us, particularly in service industries, but even in manufacturing.  The lean, mean entrepreneurial company must embrace the final capitulation of the Gold Watch culture and fully embrace Free Lance Nation.

I say this from the vantage of an early adapter of the virtual company model over 18 years ago.  My firm, Corporate Rain International, could utterly not exist without the plethora of cyber miracles with which the technology gods have gifted the modern workplace.  (This despite my fulgent and frequent Luddite caveats in this blog.)

My firm is an elite executive sales outsourcer.  I operate with a three and a half person back office, managing 25 employees in multiple states and an international clientele.  Though Corporate Rain is a micro-niche specialty outsourcer, it is a harbinger for an incipient new employment trope.

This is meant to be a short and simple essay, so just for today, let me state the preconditions for a salubrious, vital virtual enterprise.  Next week I’ll discuss how we make the virtual sausage.

  1. Plan to recruit the best.  Don’t assume you cannot get classy, high-level, experienced associates that are affordable and committed.  If fact, only settle for this.  I never hire a new associate who is not better than me.
  2. Know who you are.  This goes directly to the issue of corporate culture.  Define why your company exists in the world, what is it’s spiritual raison d’tre.  (Hint:  Only superficially is that reason to make your particular widget.)
  3. Harness the 6.6 million people who have given up and may never work again in their chosen field.  A lot of these folks are former execs, Ph.Ds, and bloody brilliant.  They are often currently delivering pizza.  Also, open your HR thought process to gifted, trainable persons with potential, even if they lack the current skill you seek.  (See next week’s post.)
  4. Use older employees!  There is a major subset of #3.  There is a profound unspoken ageism in the marketplace.  HR departments (and their algorithms) at corporations are stupid and old-fashioned.  Their loss.  Hire people over 50.  Mature employees are healthier than in the past.  They are more productive and have better work ethics and usable experience than millennials, gen-xers, et. al.  And they will often have to work, at least part-time, into their mid-seventies.  And they can as virtual employees.
  5. Give up top-down management.  Embrace a horizontal leadership style that is consultative and empathetic yet still inculcates accountability.  Embrace pervasive employee autonomy and creativity within the bounds of corporate ethics, tonality and administrative procedure. This will happen increasingly not just in small and medium-sized entrepreneurial companies (like mine), but in our larger brethren companies as well.  Efficiency demands it.  Note John Mackey, Jeff Bezos, Tony Hsieh, et. al.
  6. Hire part-timers and flex-timers.
  7. Hire people whose prime life focus is on meaning, not just money.

zig-ziglarTo my mind, the key advantage of the creative entrepreneur is flexibility.  Virtual teams make this possible.  Using that edge in an increasingly oligarchic, dystopic  regulatory environment is the key to future existential vitality for enterprise.

Zig Zigler said, “Be firm in principle, but flexible in method.” I certainly agree, Zig.  Thanks.

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