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Archive for the “Entrepreneurship” Category

Quartz, the cutting-edge NY digital news outlet, caught my eye last week (March 21, 2017) with this headline: “IBM, Remote Work Pioneer, Is Calling Thousands of Employees back to the office.”

This is a big change in direction for Big Blue. As recently as 2009, IBM had 40% of its hirelings working from home.

In fact, a number of companies have quietly begun shifting their home-based associates back to their corporate offices. This trend began to emerge publicly with Marissa Mayer’s startling decision to end Yahoo’s remote work policy back in 2013. Facebook now offers a $10,000 bonus to employees who live close to their office, and many other companies, like Best Buy and Reddit, no longer allow work from home. By September of this year IBM’s over 5,500 marketing people will have to work from physical offices in one of seven central locations: San Francisco, New York, Austin, Armonk, Boston, Atlanta, or Raleigh. Remote work will no longer be an option. (IBM already applies this policy to departments like security, procurement, most of IT, Watson, Watson Health, cloud development, and artificial intelligence.) Companies increasingly feel collaboration, creativity, and community are better fostered in a central office.

As an early successful adopter of the virtual office model with my first entrepreneurial firm, Corporate Rain, in the 1990s, I have always thought “What’s not to like?” After all, you save on office rent, office expenses, and commuting. And research indicates that remote workers are more productive and put in more hours than their office-based kindred. Also, for many people, it has been a partial solution to the work-life balance problem. According to the Gallop Poll, 25% of all American workers are presently laboring remotely.

That said, however, I am increasingly coming to a sense that for many companies, particularly large ones but also some of the small ones, there is a compelling rationale to centrally co-locate their office communities again.

For example, Best Buy reported that productivity had an average increase of 35% in departments that shifted to employees working whenever and wherever they wanted. However, there is a different set of benefits that ensue from central offices–and most of these benefits center around creativity and innovation.

Note John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University, a specialist in HR strategy–again quoting from Quartz. Sullivan says, “It turns out the value of innovation is so strong it trumps any productivity gain….[Remote work] was a great strategy for the 90s but not for 2015.”

Certainly established companies are searching for how to solve the conundrum of creativity and how to come up with the next transformational eureka out of their behemothic institutions.

They long to infuse entrepreneurial passion and disruptive imagination into their titanic old-line firms. Their hidebound strategies aren’t working, therefore renewed office centralization is increasingly favored as a tool to help create a more generative, communal, cohesive business ambience–hopefully one more like the entrepreneurial laboratory.

Jeff Smith, IBM’s CIO, advocates agile management based around “squads”. He says “…leaders have to be with the squads and the squads have to be in a location.”

There increasingly is a valuation of what many call “the watercooler effect.” (Steve Jobs certainly appreciated the value of how chance meetings and accidental conversations can lead to disruptive ideas.) Note a recent study by Kevin Rickman of George Mason University and Michael Pratt of Boston College, who found that increased offsite work can have very negative effects on the office environment. Mason and Pratt state: “If the office is going to become a collection of employees not working together, it essentially becomes no different than a coffee shop (though perhaps with better internet and worse coffee.).” That may be a bit overstated, but perhaps reflective of the most au courant new HR thinking.

When asked what percentage of Google’s workers telecommute, Patric Pichette, then CFO said, “Our answer is: As few as possible.”

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Contemporary comic book writer and graphic novelist Joshua Dysart writes: “People, we’re always reaching for these big things…you know? Big ideas…big moments…big lives. And all the while the little things we’re ignoring are undoing us.”

I was reading a Maureen Dowd op-ed a couple of years ago in the NY Times. It was enjoyably full of her scathing, caustic observations, on this occasion commenting on a recent “Get Motivated!” seminar at the Verizon Center in Washington. As usual, Dowd was funny and more than a little mean. And right on.

My general feeling about these massive feel-good inspirational gatherings is that they’re a bunch of hooey. Not wrong in their stated insights, just shallow and quite temporary in their efficacy. Kind of like a business pep rally. Certainly not my cup of tea.

However, amidst Ms. Dowd’s cynical reportage on talks by the likes of Terry Bradshaw, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Forbes, Dan Rather and Rick Belluzo, I was caught by some business advice shared by General Colin Powell. His advice? Simply to be nice and particularly to be nice to the little people like the folks who clean your office and park your car (or simply other people on your elevator who sometimes turn out to be the CEO). He also avers the value of small details. For instance, Powell reports writing thank you notes on personalized 4-by-6 inch cards. “I write with a fountain pen. Never a Sharpie. Never a ball point pen. A fountain pen.” Dowd reports.

It seems to me Colin Powell is quite on to a real truth here. It’s little things that set the tone for successful entrepreneurship–little considerations, little details. Focusing on the small decencies creates an ambiance of service and real carefulness in business dealings. It becomes reflected in the larger actions of a company.

To expand on General Powell’s concern for the small things, I always recommend that any missive or serious communication one sends out go on high-quality stationary and be sent by snail mail, ideally with a commemorative stamp. This is sometimes cause for eye-rolling impatience by some cutting-edge entrepreneurs enamored of the wonders of Tweeting, Friending, Linking-in, etc. But there is a method to my antediluvian madness. Yes, it takes extra time and money to communicate in such qualitative ways, but the very effort communicates care and valuation on a subconscious level. There is a sensual subconscious statement that is communicated by the very feel of high-quality stationary. It creates an aura of seriousness, reflecting both respect for your client and the general business process. It unspokenly says exactly the manner you would represent a client and effectively serve her.

Additionally, the very fact that the personal letter is increasingly rare gives special notice to those who use it. It is not a dinosaur inefficiency. It is a notable differentiator that, in the long-term, makes a branding statement, as well as creating a subrosa gravitas and a sense of business seriousness.

Or, as John Donne says in his poem To Sir Henry(1663) “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls.” Thank you, John Donne.

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Spanish cellist and conductor Pablo Casals once said, “To retire is to die.”

It is with discomfort and considerable squirming that I report I am no longer an active entrepreneur. I am a retired entrepreneur. In effect, I have been retired since I quietly passed on my company to my employees at the end of 2015. Yes, I still write this as the Founder of a corporation, but the truth is I am no longer an active practitioner of our noble vocation.

The transition to being a non-owner has been such a difficult and uneasy process for me. I utterly haven’t wanted to let people know I’d decided to hang up my entrepreneurial spurs. I have been unwilling and unable to publicly and proactively declare my change in life direction–or to declare I am letting go an old life. (As Neil Sedaka puts it, “Breaking up is hard to do.”) For example, when an interviewer recently introduced me as CEO of my former firm on a podcast, I simply didn’t bother to correct the impression. I was a closeted retiree. Perhaps this column is my coming out, as it were.

As I look inside myself, I find I am reluctant to give up my professional identity publicly. I haven’t redefined myself yet in terms of the next phase of my life. I sit in the limbo of a vocational vacuum. Though I have told some friends, I have an interior dread that my acquaintances and long-time small business colleagues will not longer respect me or want to know me or to read my column.

I am suffering from a soul fear. My fear is of being seen as an an irrelevancy, an entrepreneur without portfolio, of becoming a crotchety retired guy fading into a curmudgeonly irrelevance.

In fact, I am still an impassioned student and acolyte of entrepreneurship. My belief in entrepreneurship has never been so strong and certain. I have just chosen to not practice it actively any more since last year for a variety of personal and financial reasons.

While my company grew healthily for a number of years–it was part of the Inc. 5000–and enjoyed substantial respect and reputation, the daily process of the entrepreneurial slog began to feel rote. I had accomplished what I personally wanted–to create a through-branded company based in truth, discreet efficacy, service, and profitability. A company based in practical love. A company I could live in. A company that made me and the people it touched better.

However, the truth I is my business attention was waning. And this waning began to show in the bottom line. Profitability was more than lagging. I wanted to do something else, even though I did not know what it was.

So I stopped.

My old company gave me the emeritus title of Chief Culture Officer and kept my phone extension in their system till this year, but in truth I had almost no contact and no duties or power with my former company.

I think the process of withdrawing from your own company is very similar to mourning a death. Note Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief in her seminal book Death and Dying:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Additionally, there are moments when I feel an ego deflation. It’s a change to not be the big fish in my own small pond, to not be king of my own private Idaho. As Mel Brooks puts it, “It’s good to be king.”

My former company was my primary personal community and home to my spirit and lived beliefs. So for me and, I believe, most entrepreneurs, a business leave-taking is so much more than departing a job.

I think most folks believe the purpose of business is to make money, to amass wealth. But that has not been so for me. I believe and have found that business is a vehicle for meaning. Even without the financial rewards, the business journey is a reward in itself. It is a unique vehicle of calling, centering, and service, of finding integrity, freedom, personal dignity, and spiritual reality through an activity most would identify as quotidian and earthbound.

I intend to stay active in the local and national business community, still write this column, and perhaps start another venture eventually. I do want to continue to write and think about how business can be a conduit for meaning. Nevertheless, perhaps one truly needs to let go the known old to open up to the unknown new.

On his retirement from Cornell, Professor Scott Elledge said the following: “It is time I stepped aside for a less experienced, and less able man.” Thank you very much, Dr. Elledge.

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In his prophetic post World War I poem The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats writes:

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

There is a Chinese curse that goes something like, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly seem to be living in one of those times. Peggy Noonan called it “big history” in her Saturday Wall Street Journal column.

My friend Jennifer Brown, author of the recent Amazon business best-seller Inclusion, relates a conversation she overheard last week that got me thinking about the special challenges to entrepreneurial health in a time of severe societal polarization and instability.

Jennifer reports hearing a Starbucks barista sharing about how thoroughly sick she was of the incivility of current political discourse and that she had come to a conscious decision: The minute she logged onto Facebook and saw a single political post, she would immediately log off.

I know how she feels. The political trope of our time has never been so fraught nor the urge to disengage more alluring. Everything is overly charged. It seems folks are bloody exhausted, yet endlessly drawn back into the emotional vortex of the pure drama of a seeming manichaean struggle. (Manichaeism, if unknown to you, is an early Christian heresy that divided the world into absolutes–pure back and white, pure right or wrong–a dualism with little middle way.)

This dominant current meme is reinforced by a report I heard mentioned on NPR recently, which cited a poll from somewhere that over 40% of couples who supported different candidates in the US presidential election ended up breaking up over their differences. Wow! So much for the golden example of James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democratic and Republican strategists respectively, who seem to live a very happy domestic existence despite their political disparity.

There is an almost addictive quality to the dramatic distortion so apparent in our present political moment. It can be all-consuming to the detriment of the focused passion essential to entrepreneurial success. Much like any addiction, our exciting and disturbing political moment allows us to avoid and skirt the very real challenges posed by our essential businesses and personal lives. It is just so much easier to fling ourselves into the exciting societal/political drama than to face the quotidian challenges of everyday life and business. It’s like embracing an escapist sugar high.

This is not to say that political passion and idealism of any stripe are not necessary and wonderful. I respect idealism, of course. Most successful entrepreneurs are idealists. How else do they summon the indispensable courage to attempt to create something out of nothing each day? It is an act of artistic faith, as well as of personal will.

There is an intuitive wisdom in the decision of the young barista mentioned above who chooses to cut off any further political discourse rather than get caught up in ad hominem manichaean disputation. It is sometimes necessary to disengage temporarily. It may well be a healthful disengagement from present polarities to maintain a practical and mindful center. There is no shame in keeping your attention on the main business chance.

Successful entrepreneurs are nothing if not practical people. They are risk-takers but not reckless adventurers. They may live on the cutting edge, but not without shrewd calculation. To maintain that focus this may be a time for the withdrawal from the tropes of the popular meme. It may be a time of making choices as to where to place limited personal energy. Just as it is good to stay clear of individuals who are energy sucks, so is it also sometimes necessary to resist the lemming-like madness of societal drama.

Entrepreneurial practicality militates a functional utile, a nuanced understanding that truth exists in the gray non-absolutes, not in the blacks and whites of political purity. It is important to recognize a bone-deep weariness that can sap creative and functional business energy.

So, this is not a time of tolerance and the truth of “the gray.” But we do not need to surrender to distracting, uncentering angry absolutes.

As Carl Jung warns us, “We all feel the opposite of our own highest principle must be purely destructive, deadly, and evil. We refuse to endow it with any positive life force; hence we avoid and fear it.” Thanks, Carl.

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Russian playwright Mikhail Bolkakov once said “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.”

I’m a member of the International Wizard of Oz Club. (That’s only one of my eccentric personal hobbies.) I’ve been a huge fan of the Oz books since my mother read many of them to me when I was a boy. (Most people know only L. Frank Baum’s first book, “The Wizard of Oz”, but there are actually 40 marvelous, magical, beautiful books in this series.)

I love the Cowardly Lion. He reminds me so much of me. In the movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy confronts the Cowardly Lion and tells him he is nothing but a great big coward. The Lion’s reply is:

“You’re right, I am a coward! I haven’t any courage at all! I even scare myself. Look at the circles under my eyes! I haven’t slept in weeks!”
Me too. To be an effective executive for my company Corporate Rain International I have needed to slay this “fear” dragon each day for many years. One of the things I do to cope with this fear I learned many years ago from a fantastic acting teacher I had in New York named Michael Howard.

Michael Howard spoke to my acting class one day about how to begin rehearsing a new scene. What he said was to go immediately to the most risky, scary, personal place in the scene: that place that made us feel most fearful and exposed. This might be a spot that involved physical intimacy, like kissing, violence, or nudity. Or jealousy, rage, or cowardice. By facing the most dangerous part of the scene immediately, the rest of the scene became more accessible, less fraught. As Joseph Campbell puts it in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

How do I apply this lesson to entrepreneurship? By each day immediately doing that thing I most want not to do–by immediately making that call where I have the greatest fear of rejection, where my own feelings of cosmic inadequacy might be most called out and exposed–and taking this sweaty-palmed action the first thing in the day. I act as if I had courage and confidence and thereby have it in reality. I guess it’s kind of a business version of your inner mother telling you to eat your vegetables first. For me, it works to go daily and immediately toward my most fearful task.

So go to the danger first. As the Cowardly Lion so insightfully sings: “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” A sage observation indeed. As science-fiction novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Thanks Kurt.

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