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Archive for October, 2014

unnamedAs a frequent business traveler, I have noticed an unhappy change of late: I’m meeting fewer people than I used to. And I don’t like it.

It is not that I am a hopelessly garrulous yakker by nature. Quite the opposite. I’m a bit of an introvert–a lover of reading and personal cogitation. But I’m finding my recent business travel an increasingly isolating experience. Too much so.

I used to have the jolliest of chats with total strangers on planes, trains, and boats. It broadened me, it amused me, it opened me to the new. Of late, not so much. Less and less do I find these unexpected illuminating contacts with folks different from myself–whether it be a country barber, a beauty queen, or another business owner.

Why is this? I’ll tell you why. It’s bloody technology, goddammit.

I’m afraid technology is turning us into dull-eyed, unpresent I-Zombies. We are losing the gift for connection to our fellow human beings, as well as stunting our brain processes that summon nonrational revelations and “aha”s.

This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was in Dallas on business and found myself a bit lost and late to my next appointment. I was walking through the downtown arts plaza and I looked for some friendly, authoritative face to approach for aid. But as I looked around I found every person I saw shuffling along fully immersed in their personal private technology Idahos, oblivious to any person or thing around them.

I didn’t want to rudely interrupt, but I was annoyed because I needed some directions! This made me think about how much present richness and human feeling we sacrifice for an ersatz virtual reality. (I increasingly feel the same way walking down Broadway in New York when half the folks bump into you while texting, rather than taking in the infinitely unique international culture and urban magnificence constantly on display in my never-boring city.)

6a00d83451c29169e20112796ebe9f28a4Note Douglas Rushkoff‘s book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. (The title is a riff on Alvin Toffler‘s Future Shock from the ’70s.) We’re becoming addicted to what Rushkoff calls a “dopamine squirt,” the ego boost we get from Twitter, Facebook, emails, and texts. This leads to a compulsive immersion in the superficiality of keeping current and cool on social media. According to Rushkoff, this is stress-inducing and, more importantly, creativity-killing. I certainly agree that we are becoming committed to a sort of always-on, live-streamed reality show which is taking us into creatively shallow, spiritually thin cultural waters.

Or consider Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, which posits the rewiring of our brains by way of technology and social media. (Carr first became alarmed when he found himself increasingly unable to concentrate when he sat down to read a book, because of his longing for and growing addiction to the peripatetic excitement of his pinging computer.) Carr writes: “Any kind of thought process that requires focus on one thing is what is being disrupted, and, unfortunately, another thing brain science tells us is that the process of paying attention, paying deep attention, activates a lot of our deepest thought processes. Our long-term memory, the building of conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, all of those things hinge on our ability to pay attention.”

In other words, our “eureka” moments may be being sacrificed for a mess of pottage–that mess of pottage being our present experience of superficial sledding on an omnipresent sea of technological connectedness.

So I miss my now-infrequent accidental connects with my fellow man when I travel. (Not to mention the fact I’ve gotten two major pieces of business through these chance encounters over the years.)

144476685_87a0c6a898_zJaron Lanier, computer scientist and classical musician, who originally popularized the term “virtual reality,” wrote a book in 2010 called You Are Not A Gadget, in which he offered this prescient warning:

“Information is alienated experience. Stored Information might cause experience to be revealed if it is prodded in the right way. A file on a hard disk does indeed contain information of the kind that objectively exists….But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so if they are experienced. When that happens a commonality of culture is enacted between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.”

I don’t think I can sum things up much better than that. So, the next time you travel, try keeping some of your time away from the allures of your iPad and iPhone. There might be some lost soul out there looking for directions. Like me.

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kip-tindell-mainI had the good fortune to  be a guest at the coming out party for Kip Tindell’s new book Uncontainable on October 8 at the New York Stock Exchange, where he addressed the Inc. Business Owner’s Council.  Kip is the Founder and CEO of The Container Store, the largest company in the U.S. devoted to organizing customers and saving their space and time.

Kip is an enchantingly modest man imbued with a palpable missionary zeal for his company and the unique working principles on which it is based.  I have spent the weekend reading his book.

I would describe Uncontainable as one-third autobiography, one-third company love letter and one third business theology.

To put it briefly, Tindell’s book is the best book about creating corporate culture since Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table in 2006.  (In fact, Tindell is a colleague with Meyer, John Mackey, Tony Hsieh, Herb Kelleher, David Neeleman, Howard Schulz, and, as a philosophical precursor, Steve Jobs.  These and others make up the growing cadre of company leaders in the Conscious Capitalism movement.  I highly recommend  any business owner with an interest in efficacious corporate culture put Uncontainable  on her reading list.

This is meant to be a short essay so I will make no attempt to be encyclopedic in describing Tindell’s book.  But here are a few unsystematic things I found notable about the book and the man.

First and foremost, Uncontainable is a book utterly devoid of irony.  It is the rare business book that is unapologetic and forthright in its use of the language of love to describe his corporate community—his employees, his investors, his vendors, his customers, and even his private equity firm.  (Tindell calls his financial backer, Leonard Green & Partners, “the first conscious capitalist PE firm.”  He claims this is not an oxymoron, in Greens’s case, despite the rape and pillage reputation of PE firms.)  It is almost a sensual pleasure to experience the utter delight with which Tindell describes his business creation.

There is an ebullient joy and an overflowing spiritual generosity to the man.  His tall, attenuated frame virtually throbs with love and passion when he talks about his company.  He conveys a compelling and unfeigned delight that he is part of, as well as the leader of the good ship Container Store.  It is a joy to behold.  His enthusiasm is contagious.  He has an almost messianic passion for the business value of sheer  agape and goodness and service as business values for his employees and his customers.

Uncontainable_Cover_rgbFor example, Tindell couches his business philosophy about his employees as the following:  “Treating your employees with affection and respect is not only the right thing to do, it also happens to be the fastest road to success.  In fact, it’s much more successful than any other business methodology.”  (Uncontainable, Hachette Book Group, 2014, p. 5)  I couldn’t agree more.

Tindell believes in maximizing the individual creativity of everyone who touches his company.  He hires outside traditional retail talent pools.  He welcomes artists, actors, and stay at home moms.  He then claims to basically “love” these hires to success.  He tries to hire on applicant’s ability for customer care and patient avidity to genuinely serve his customer and his fellow man.  He often judges these things on how a candidate treats the waiter at lunch.

He wants his people to use their intuition, which he defines as “the sum total of one’s life experience.”  He states,  “…you don’t want to straightjacket employees with a manual about how to do their jobs.  Instead, we unshackle our employees to follow their own individual creative genius.”  His expressed management style sounds almost as though he intends to stage a play, rather than run a company.  (He even admits he loves the drama of his enterprise and its retail narrative.  The way he describes it is almost like a communal art event.)

I find it encouraging that conscious business leaders like Tindell are increasingly being sought out to share their magic elixir at even the most hide-bound business schools.

Tindell is, nonetheless, a committed capitalist.  He is not a minister or a priest or a socialist.  He just believes in leading with a servant’s heart and with the belief that genuinely caring about everyone The Container Store comes into contact with is the surest road to profitability.

In this he is very like Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group here in NYC, who I have written of often in the past.  As Danny so succinctly puts it,  “Generosity is clearly in our self-interest.”

Or as I like to put it to my executives and employees,  “Good is greed.”

I think Jim Collins sums up the argument very well in his book Built To Last.   He says,  “Core purpose is the organizations fundamental reason for being.  An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work—it taps their idealistic motivations—and gets to the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond making money.”

Amen, Brother Jim.

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EDVARD MUNCH THE SCREAMFor me, one of the joys of fatherhood is discovering the insights and simple wisdom of children’s literature.  I used to love reading to my daughter Truitte Rose when when she was young.  She had a favorite book titled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst.  (I am reminded of it this week because Steve Carell has a new movie version of it out.)  My daughter couldn’t get enough of this book which chronicles a day in the life of a boy where nothing goes right.

So, what does this have to do with entrepreneurship?  Well, I too had a very bad day recently at my own firm, Corporate Rain International.  I hit my chair and was assaulted by the following:

  1. Fighting a cold.
  2. Dealing with a client crisis.
  3. Resolving a minor credit card fraud.
  4. Losing a valued employee.
  5. My ex-wife’s complaint about a late alimony check.
  6. Having to read a dense legal contract.

On the side of my desk was a veritable Mt. Everest of unanswered sales calls.  And all this before noon.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I’ve learned that days like this can be quite dangerous—not because of the circumstantially difficult day, but because of my reaction to it.

Alexander_and_the_terrible_horrible_no_good_very_bad_day_xxlgOn such a day I feel I have to push hard to compensate—to move, move, move—to rush, rush, rush.  And when I give in to this feeling I make poor judgements.  I make mistakes.  I insult people and lose my temper.  My whole mien becomes frenetic, faked, forced, and charmless.

As an owner, it’s hard to slow down when Rome is burning all around you.  (Only you can prevent this forest fire!)  I’ve had to learn the efficacy of hitting the pause button—of not trying to be more than I am.  And, especially, I’ve had to learn not  to make crucial decisions on such days.

When I have a very bad day everything emanates from a dark, bleak, shrunken part of my soul, where i exist only as a miasma of utter insufficiency:  That place where dwells the cowed and frightened child, the cornered rat.  So my “professional” response is to assume the trappings of a sanguine, competent businessman and fumfer through.  But, in fact, the real good me is not present.  The fact is that on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day I am in reality one dark, primordial, primal scream—a lost Edvard Munch template and an enraged troll.

Over the years I’ve lost money, sales, friends, and reputation on days like this, while grinding my teeth and determinedly…getting…it…all…done.  I have frequently caused myself harm under the guise of dutifully and manfully doing my duty to capitalist enterprise.  Only slowly have I overcome such hubristic folly.

One of the best and kindest pieces of advice I ever received was from an elderly Portuguese friend named Leonardo.  (He was a fellow waiter where I was working at the time.)  After observing me in a moment of intense frustration and self-flagellation, Leonardo took me aside, sat me down, put his hands on my very tense shoulders and said simply, “You can’t push the river, Timothy.  Flow with it.”  That’s all he said.

I think it’s hard for any entrepreneur to follow that advice.  We live to push the river.  But the simple fact is we really can’t force our will on any number of things.

11168092_detSo what’s the answer to the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?  Well, I guess my answer to that conundrum is increasingly to just stop, no matter how much I have to do.  As Scarlett O’Hara says at the end of a very bad day in Gone With the Wind “Home.  I’ll go home….After all, tomorrow is another day.”

When I was in college I remember being depressed and distraught over a failed love affair.  My mother was appropriately sympathetic, of course.  That’s a mother’s job.  But then she told me,  “You know there’s little I or anyone can say that will cheer you up.  There’s only one thing I know to do on really dark days.  The only thing I know to do is spend that day just cleaning my toilets.”

Thanks, Mom

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I am firmly convinced there is an imminent demarcation point coming that presages a remarkable revolution in management thinking.  And this revolution will come faster for us, my small business brethren.

Rita_Gunther_McGrath_Author_Photo_2013Rita McGrath of Columbia Business School, a speaker at the Sixth Annual Global Drucker Forum in Vienna, offers a useful historical perspective and current analysis of management in a Harvard Business Review blog of July 30, 2014.  She opens with this statement:  “Organization as machine—this imagery from our industrial past continues to cast a long shadow over the way we think about management today.  It isn’t the only deeply-held and rarely examined notion that affects how organizations are run.  Managers still assume that stability is the normal state of affairs and change is the unusual state.”  (HBR,  “Management’s Three Eras:  A Brief History”)

Well, ’tain’t neccessarily so, as Sportin’ Life says in Porgy and Bess.

McGrath posits that there have been three thematic ages of management since the industrial revolution:  execution, expertise, and now, empathy.  She says, “If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experience.  I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.”

I think Rita McGrath is right on.  The vanguard of the new management paradigm is already very much in place among increasingly larger corporate entities under the successful stewardship of such disruptive entrepreneurs as Kip Tindell, Tony Hsieh, Danny Meyer, Jack Stack, Paul Spiegelman, and most significantly, John MacKey (and his growing Conscious Capitalism organization.)

Bob-Chapman_8x10_09-10In terms of small business, Bo Burlingham has eloquently and presciently recorded this new paradigm as far back as 2006 in his best seller, Small Giants, even more relevant now than when published.

My eye was caught by an article in May’s Inc. Magazine (p, 54) about Bob Chapman, the 68-year-old CEO of the 1.7 billion Barry-Wehmiller.  He describes his evolution to a more empathetic management style.

“I had been taught, both in school and in my first jobs in public accounting and the business world to see people not as people but as functions:  That person is a receptionist, that person is an engineer, that person is an accountant,” and so on.  I didn’t realize what an impact that has on people….That began to change in 1997, when I had an epiphany.  I was visiting a company we had just acquired, and I was hanging out in the kitchen before work started.  The team members were all talking about March Madness and how they were doing in the office pool.  They were having fun.  You could feel the energy.  But the closer we got to the start of the workday, the more the joy went out of their bodies.  I found myself asking, “Why should people have to leave work to have fun?”

Chapman feels that the basic corporate buzzwords like engagement, productivity, and performance are basically a load of shit and a cover for corporate command-and-control Darwinianism.  He advocates something called THL (“truly human leadership”) based in the belief that the goal of effective long-term management is fostering a better world.  (Chapman is obviously doing something right.  His company has averaged 15% annual growth since 1988.

I agree with Chapman.  As I like to put it:  Good Is Greed.  If you have to read one book on creating an empathetic corporate management structure, read Setting the Table by Danny Meyer.  It’s the best book on creating corporate culture I have ever come across.  (“Danny Meyer and Entrepreneurship” – February 11, 2014)  Or, on the more macro/philosophical level read John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism.

John_BunyanManagement education must change rapidly and radically to accommodate this neo-empathetic business model.  Without it business schools will increasingly become $80,000/year irrelevancies. And, as John Bunyan versifies in Pilgim’s Progress:

“A man there was, though some did count him mad
The more he cast away, the more he had.”

Again, as a committed capitalist, I repeat:  Good Is Greed.  Thank you, John Bunyan.

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