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Archive for November, 2016

abraham_lincoln_o-55_1861-cropAbraham Lincoln once said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.”

I’ve been a member of a monthly book club for eleven years. I am one of over five million women and men that are book club members. My book club is called “Men’s Night Out.” There are about sixteen of us and the average attendance is about ten. The member who hosts the monthly meeting gets to pick the book.

My group’s membership is quite eclectic. It includes an investor banker, three shrinks, two professors, two lawyers, a doctor, a book editor, an engineer, a high school teacher, a botanical consultant, a hospital executive…well, you get the idea. I am the only entrepreneur. On the surface we don’t have a damn thing in common. Yet it is nevertheless an enriching, growth-inducing communal experience.

The books we read are all over the map–classics, best sellers, memoirs, travel books, poetry, philosophy, history, short stories, even a graphic novel. There’s no rhyme or reason to our choices. They are seldom anything I would read on my own. Some I hate, some I love. (My least favorite are depressing books about the developing world.)

As counter-intuitive as it may seem to traditional business process my general reading group has helped me enormously to refresh my enterprise thinking and openness to the new. Here are some compelling reasons that I find for my monthly reading excursion out of my knowledge base and comfort zone.

  1. For me the leading value of a reading group is not to learn particular knowledge, though I do do that. The greatest purpose of a reading group is simply to open up new channels and alternate ways of thinking. It is an enhancer of creativity and often gives me “a-has” that are applicable to my family life, my business life, and my social life. Ann Lukits from The Wall Street Journal (March 7, 2016) cites a new study published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience that finds reading fictional excerpts about different individuals and groups of people “heightened activity in a brain system known as “the default network.” Such reading actually improves social skills (social cognition) according to Ms. Lukits. 11009097_845134895527914_1767368674234442681_n-300x225“Stories containing compelling emotional, social and psychological content may trigger real neural changes in the default network.”
  2. Structured reading improves my general focus and productivity and helps me conquer my daily struggle with technology abetted ADHD. Note the sentiments of Alexandra Cavoulacos, co-founder of The Muse, who said this in last month’s Fast Company: “Reading books has definitely boosted my productivity. I’ve also found that reading is one of the rare times my mind is focused 100 percent on one thing, a hard thing to find in a world of distraction and secondary screens.” Serious reading strengthens her “focusing muscle” which, in turn, improves her leadership and creativity.
  3. A book club allays loneliness. It creates a community of seeking souls away from business. Most of us entrepreneurs find it very hard to have relaxed intimate personal communication within our firm and our business community. A serious book club is a partial palliative to that.
  4. A book club is a structured way to think new thoughts. It demands that you consider and discuss new topics, new tropes. It opens new neural pathways and breaks habitual thinking.
  5. In a business world increasingly turning away from traditional command-and-control business leadership models, book clubs offer a real tool to develop empathy leadership. They open us to looking deeply and intimately at alien and/or startling points of view beyond our current ken. When traditional company leaders ask how to learn a new way of being as a corporate mentor and cultural change agent, the book club helps loosen up our mental garden soil for new planting. Plus it just makes you a more interesting person and business colleague altogether.

4869953457_d700df7907_bBusiness owners are enormously busy people. Throughout the day we have to constantly choose which urgency to deal with first, which fire poses the greatest existential threat. In such a practical everyday reality it’s hard to even consider adding to our daily load. Yet I would argue there is a real, if non-quantifiable, ROI for the book club to the business owner. It’s a refresher and a mediator for creativity and change. It is an enricher of business, as well as human, being.

Socrates said, “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily to what others have labored hard for.”

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willie_nelson_at_farm_aid_2009_-_croppedWillie Nelson once said, “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”

I write a Thanksgiving column every year. I always look forward to it. Gratitude is my most welcomed emotion and Thanksgiving my favorite holiday. (Note my Inc. Magazine column from last year titled “Thanksgiving and the Power of Gratitude in Business.”) Yet this year I am having a hard time with it. Why is that?

Well, circumstantially I’ve had some personal disappointments with relationship, parenthood, and money. Business is unsettled. And I have a cold. But none of these things are the problem. The problem is more general and troubling. There seems to be an ambient miasma, a thick soup of sadness in the air.

Joseph Epstein, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last Friday (11/18/16), calls this feeling a societal tristesse brought on by a dispiriting and malodorous presidential election campaign. (Tristesse is a French word that means sadness.) Epstein calls our tristesse a “spiritual fatigue” which we just have to let run its course.

But business and life keep on rolling along like Ol’ Man River, never waiting to give us even a brief moment for respite or mindfulness.

There is a wonderful concept in historical Jewish thinking called tikkun olam which means “repair of the world.” I feel I could use a little tikkun olam on my inner self these days.

It is easy to fall into an addiction distraction around dramatic public events like the recent election. These events are mesmerizing and entertaining. joseph-epsteinThe excitement is compelling. But, like any addiction, such distraction can damage what is essential, grounding, and true–in our businesses and in ourselves–leaving us empty and uncentered.

But here is Thanksgiving, our national tonic of generosity and gratitude. By now it has been proven many times over that the act of expressing gratitude lifts people’s sense of well-being. It flat out decreases pain and depression and boosts happiness. Gratitude reduces our stress-producing cortisol level. The evidence is overwhelming. Expressed gratitude is ultimately a selfish gift to ourselves, even more than to other people. And Thanksgiving comes just in time to help allay my own culturally induced sadness this year.

Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an insightful article last year in The New York Times titled “Choose to be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.” He suggests that acting gratefully, regardless of your feelings, is efficacious for both your interior state, as well as your external interactions. He notes a famous 1993 experiment “where researchers asked subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbiculares occuli (which create ‘crow’s feet.) They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions.”

Brooks goes on to report, “According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral segmental area (part of our ‘reward circuitry’ that produces the sensation of pleasure).”

Brooks also shares an illustrative episode from his personal life which occurred in response to one of his recent books. Brooks recounts:

“One afternoon I received an unsolicited email. ‘Dear Professor Brooks,’ it began, ‘You are a fraud.’ That seemed pretty unpromising, but I read on anyway. My correspondent made, in brutal detail, a case against every chapter of my book. As I made my way through the long email, however, my dominant thought wasn’t resentment. It was, ‘He read my book!’ ciceroAnd so I wrote him back–rebutting a few of his points, but mostly just expressing gratitude for his time and attention. I felt good writing it, and his near immediate response came with a warm and friendly tone.”

I find very few moments when an attitude of gratitude is not richly rewarded. And we all have a ton of things to be grateful for. For me gratitude is truly a killer app for entrepreneurial felicity and personal happiness.

Cicero famously put it this way: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Thank you, Cicero.

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anger_controlls_himThe Bible’s Book of Proverbs 16:32 says this: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

I’ve been thinking again about business and anger this week. (Note my Inc. column of ApriI 25th, “Anger, Forgiveness, and Entrepreneurship.”) It has been important for me to learn to deal with anger over the years. It’s never pleasant.

I try to be aware of the challenges of usefully managing my anger. Of course, not always with success. The entrepreneur is faced with a plethora of responsibilities and pressures that can make it difficult to handle strong emotions such as anger. They may not teach this skill in business school, but it seems to me fundamental for the small businessman or woman. Useful anger is practical, creative, and centering. Unuseful anger is immolating, destructive, and overpowering. It reduces one to impotence and stuttering incoherence.

george_costanza029Let’s consider unuseful anger. Italian novelist Pietro Aretino wrote in 1537, “Angry men are blind and foolish, for reason at such a time takes flight and, in her absence, wrath plunders all the riches of the intellect, while the judgment remains the prisoner of its own pride.” Indeed.

There is an episode of “Seinfeld” titled “The Comeback” in which George Constanza finds himself at the end of a zinger by a co-worker while gobbling shrimp at a company meeting. (“Hey, George. The ocean just called….They’re running out of shrimp.”). An enraged and humiliated George obsesses about finding the proper rejoinder. Despite the protests of his friends Jerry and Elaine, he settles on this ungainly comeback to his tormentors. “The Jerk Store called….They’re running out of you.” The worst sort of anger just makes you stupid.

For sure, the business world is often a cauldron of personal animosity. Just look at Silicon Valley. The list of bilious exchanges there is legendary. I can certainly recall several stupid moments early in my business life in which unnecessarily venting my spleen cost my company, Corporate Rain International, money and business.

220px-aristotle_altemps_inv8575On the other hand, focused anger is constructive when your true intent is to clear the air and maintain an honest, appropriate relationship. When done properly, constructive confrontation assures future harmony and better performance and productivity. For me constructive confrontation works best when I can couch my ire in courtesy, expressing my feelings in a calm, reasonable, and controlled way-when I can also empathize with the object of my anger, when I can focus on the behavior and action of an asshole-I mean associate-and not on the person. A dollop of humor doesn’t hurt either. Easier said than done.

Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C., said this: “It is easy to fly into a passion–anybody can do that–but to be angry with the right person to the right extent and at the right time and with the right object and in the right way–that is not easy, and it is not everyone who can do it.” Thank you, Aristotle.

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22555208593_9d37a9abea_bMihaly 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 an authentic 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 in business at all, except to accumulate money? Or is that enough?

I’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.

professor_csikszentmihalyi_2According 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.” 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.

  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.

urlProfessor 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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Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any hows.”

jackie_responsive_1140pxThe headline of this column comes from the title of an interesting and practical new book by Jackie Dryden and Bethany Andell of Savage Brands in Houston, Texas. Dryden and Andell come out of the increasingly influential Conscious Capitalism movement based on John Mackey and Raj Sisodia’s book of the same name.

Dryden and Andell’s book actually is titled Get Your Head Out of Your Bottom Line and Build Your Brand on Purpose–their thesis being that businesses can stay ahead of the marketplace only by being clear about what they stand for, as well as what they do. She says,

“Businesses that get out in front of changes are the ones that last, and one of the best ways to do this is to be clear about the company’s purpose. Taking a proactive stance that clearly states what the company stands for attracts customers who are interested in something greater than just sales transactions. When a business communicates its true purpose beyond making a profit, it will attract and retain loyal customers who are more impervious to trends and market conditions.”

Note that this not a theoretical or philosophical book but rather an imminently practical methodology for actually inserting a brand meaning and branded Purpose into all aspects of your firm. Dryden/Andell term this a “Purpose Roadmap.” Their Purpose Roadmap puts flesh on the bones of business leadership’s moral intentionality, in the belief that through-defining your company’s Purpose (beyond filthy lucre) will improve long-term, dependable profitability. It posits that when ubiquitous Purpose is present in a company’s everyday culture, not only do “soft metrics” improve–things like employee engagement and tenure, customer satisfaction, investor loyalty–but companies also deliver stellar financial performance.

bethany2-650x489The book attempts to bridge the gap between knowing and doing. Dryden/Andell quote Rich Karlgaard of Forbes Magazine, who states: “I would argue that purpose-driven companies have a huge competitive advantage right now. Employees and customers are hungry for purpose….We want to feel that our lives have a deeper meaning that goes beyond paychecks and discount shopping.”

Dryden/Andell term their Purpose Roadmap “building your brand from inside out,” and cite a number of compelling case studies, as well as the entrepreneurial work and writings of people like John Mackey, Kip Tindell, Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher, Tony Hsieh, Walt Disney, and Jim Sinegel.

My favorite case study of Purpose Branding offered by the book is a litter campaign created by the State of Texas, which had failed repeatedly to turn around an endemic indifference to litter in the state. Texas discovered that the litter problem centered around 18-24 year old males who liked country music and drove pick-up trucks. A series of rebranding ads featured country-music and showed famous Texans picking up trash and disposing of it properly. Each spot ended with the simple line, “Don’t Mess With Texas” over a country music score. It redefined the group identity of these targeted Texans around Purpose. The number of cans on the roadside was reduced by 82%. The Purpose Branding trope actually came to symbolize the very identity of Texas itself and ended rebranding the whole state.

I could go on, but enough said. I do have a few cavils with Get Your Head Out of Your Bottom Line. It is not a poetic, particularly passionate, or philosophical book. For that you will need to go to original sources like those mentioned above. Also, the successful Purpose entrepreneurs I know, or know of, are highly individual, idiosyncratic leaders, who have both read broadly and lived lives of deep thought, study, and almost religious entrepreneurial zeal. Without such seminal leadership at the top I’m not sure a Purpose-based through brand is possible, despite the book’s compelling methodology.

leonardoThat said, Get Your Head Out of Your Bottom Line is a great practical contribution toward the new tropes of meaning and culture that are the cutting-edge of current business thinking. Dryden and Andell’s book, is indeed a “Purpose Roadmap”–a step-by-step method for actually creating and monetizing a Purpose-based culture. It is a straightforward, accessible didactic guide for transforming company culture and adding long-term profitability.

I’m sure Dryden and Andell would agree with Leonardo da Vinci who said, “Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.” Indeed.

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