Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Scenes From the Culture Clash - Danielle Sacks

In a very timely article in the Jan/Feb issue of FastCompany Magazine, Danielle Sacks brings us stories from the frontlines about our newest generation of employees. It makes me glad I left the field of Human Resources in 1994. The very fact that Human Resources is now asked to deal not only with employees and their issues, but also with their parents, is not something I could have conceived of a decade ago.

This article supports what Eric Chester articulated in his book Getting Them to Give a Damn. It's a brave new world and adapting is essential to companies surviving this influx of young people. Sacks tells us there are 76 million children of baby boomers born between 1978 and 2000, and they are flooding into our workplaces where three other generations are already trying to productively coexist: the traditionalists (born before 1945), boomers (born 1946-1964) and generation X (born 1965-1977).

Their expectations are simply different and centered much more around the idea of a work/life balance, with the "life" factor featured most prominently. They don't live to work, they work to live, and they fully expect companies to understand and accommodate that worldview. And companies are doing just that - including bastions of tradition such as law firms and consulting firms. In order to attract the best and the brightest, they are learning to adapt age old systems to new age demands. There's a great deal to be gleaned from some of the companies who are taking these bold new steps to meet this generation of workers head on. In the real estate world, it's not just employees who are looking for these accommodations, but future real estate agents as well. How they choose to structure their life as an independent contractor will likely change how some firms decide to recruit, train and support this new cadre of professionals. The millennials are a force to be reckoned with, and companies of every size in every industry would be wise to reckon with them now.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Getting Them to Give a Damn - Eric Chester

Subtitled "How to Get Your Font Line to Care About Your Bottom Line." The book deals with managing and motivating the newest generation of employees known as Generation Y (or Generation Why, the Millennials, NetGen or Echo Boomers.) These are the youngest of employees from ages 16 to 24 that the author has dubbed "kidployees." They are essential to the workforce because increasingly there are more jobs than kidployees to fill them, and at a number around 75 million, they will be with us for the next 50 years. Even though I don't manage employees this age at the moment, I am a parent to someone else's employees and I've seen how their experience in the workplace is shaped by the environment they are placed in.

Chester points out early on in the book that we baby boomers have always believed the old axiom "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten." He challenges that notion with a reality for the 21st century: "If you do what you've always done, you are out of business." The book rings true from start to finish. He points out that most of us in management are the equivalent of analog thinkers, whereas this generation is digital. How they are wired for making choices is very different from our own experience, so we predict behavior based on an erroneous set of assumptions from the start. One interesting point he makes is that they can't stand to be bored. "In fact, when surveyed, many young people respond that their fear of boredom in a job is greater than their fear of physical injury." We can keep applying the same thinking, policies, rules and procedures that we have for the last 20 years, but the results will not be the same.

The book has great suggestions for how to deal with the new generation of kidployees that transcends the notion of age. What he suggests will motivate these employees will in fact have a very positive affect on employees of every age. This age group might need a little more attention, but a company's entire employee population can in fact benefit from some updated thinking. He outlines some of the successful initiatives undertaken by Eddie Bauer, Cold Stone Creamery, the Ritz Carlton and even the US Army. He reprints the employment information found in the online job application for the restaurant chain Chipotle (at chipotle.com) as an example of how to communicate so they will be engaged from the beginning.

One of his more interesting concepts is the "Give A Damn" continuum (which he shortens to the GAD continuum throughout the book.) On one end is zero and is labeled "Sabotage" and on the other is a 10 labeled "Total Buy In." He then lays out the various types of kidployees within that scale including the Disenfranchised, Bread-and-Butter, Solid Subordinates, and Gems. (Sounds like it could apply to any employee population.) He does talk a great deal about kidployees who are Opies (after the Opie in the old Andy Griffith Show.) And it's Opies that you want to cultivate and keep in your employ. But Opies are not just a matter of what kind of kidployee you have on staff, it's the environment they are placed in. Chester rightly points out that it's not inherent personality traits themselves that give you Gems and Opies, it's putting these kidployees in a job that's a good fit for them, managing the work environment, and motivating them to grow.

It's all very sound thinking with plenty of research to back it up. Chester makes an excellent case for why we need to care about this as management. Companies will continue to have their ranks filled with employees of this age group and we need to be prepared for that challenge.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Seoul of Design - Bill Breen

This article in the December '05 issue of FastCompany Magazine captures a concept that I have tried to explain numerous times to people about our own company: the concept of yin-yang. In this instance, the concept has become the touchstone for the transformation of Korea's Samsung into the world's most profitable tech company. The yin-yang symbol which is found on the Korean flag, "represents the simultaneous unity and duality of all things." From this, Samsung developed its high concept of "Balance of Reason and Feeling" that it applies to all its technology design and development.

Chairman Kun-Hee Lee, son of the founder, completely transformed this company into a global technology leader from it's humble beginnings in 1938 as an exporter of rice, sugar and fish. The book he wrote that outlines his philosophy, Change Begins With Me, I could could not find on Amazon. But I was struck immediately by the title, which echoes the main theme of the Arbinger Institute's Leadership and Self-Deception. It seems to me that it's the rare leader who understand where large scale change must begin.

This article, among other things, is an ode to design as the fundamental driver in becoming a technology leader in the crowded field that exists today. Samsung created it's own design school, borrowing elements of Western thought and totally transforming and adapting them to work in this culture. The dollars, the time and the resources that have been invested by Samsung in educating it's designers to be world class is impressive. But if the proof is in the pudding, then there is ample evidence here in the value of emphasizing design as a differentiating factor in the products they produce.

The scale they have developed as part of their yin-yang concept has reason on one end and feeling on the other, and incorporates the values of "simplicity" and "complexity" as well. In measuring their competitors on this scale, they found "In one recent analysis, Apple occupied the 'simplicity/feeling' zone, with Sony in the 'complexity/reason' field. Samsung seeks out areas where there are no competitors - that's where opportunity lies." And therein lies the entire thesis of Blue Ocean Strategy - creating a space where there are no competitors. The more I read, the more these same themes seem to emerge in different places, each validating the premise of the other. This is a great success story and a wonderful example of how one leader's vision transformed a 67 year old export company into a world leader in technology product design.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Big Moo - Seth Godin, Editor

Subtitled "Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable" the book is set up as short vignettes written by 33 well known writers, leaders and all around gurus. Folks like Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Peters, Daniel H. Pink, Mark Cuban, Alan Webber and Tom Kelly - The Group of 33.

Several remarkable things about this book: all the contributors gave their work free of charge; 100% of author proceeds go directly to three listed charities; and Mr. Godin invites those of us who purchased the book to photocopy as much as we want and send it to as many people as we would like.

If you are familiar with any of Seth Godin's works, such as Permission Marketing or Purple Cow, such outside-the-box thinking will not be a surprise. There is probably no one more qualified to speak to this subject of being remarkable than this man. He is an original and this book is the product of original thinking. In order to make the book flow, the decision was made not to put each author's name on the contribution he or she made. That actually adds a great deal to the experience of reading these reflections since we aren't distracted by trying to place these thoughts in the context of what we already know about the author. Another excellent choice that affirms that this book is what it tells us we should all strive to be - remarkable.

The Big Moo is in the category of what I would call an easy read: it's structured as easily digestible bits of insight. The kind that you want to quote, underline, write down or email to people you work with. There is something that will speak to everyone, no matter what you do or what company you work for. It's the kind of book that sits on your desk so you can pick it up and find that great story or quote that great example in trying to make your own point. It's a handbook of affirmation.

I like to read in the early morning and it's become a regular routine because of my son's schedule in getting ready for school. I read just over half the book this morning. Then I attended a two hour department heads meeting from 10 to noon where I kept listening to what was said in the context of what I had just read. Real life does not mesh with the ideal too often.

Of the many things that I read in the book this evening, this one leaped out at me from "Defying Gravity": "Numbers-based innovations are easy to sell . . . They rarely cause people to look back in awe at the amazing thing they've done. It's the emotional stuff - the stuff that some smart people don't think will work - that you need to be a part of." This was followed in the next vignette with an equally interesting observation: "In a metric-minded organization, it's very tempting to focus on things that are easy to measure instead of those things that are important to measure." This is the stuff that meetings are made of.

This is a must-read in my opinion. It was recommended by Val August, and I am very grateful to have so many reading friends who keep pointing me in the right direction. Everything about this book is interesting and engaging, including the short profiles of the contributors at the end. If you want to buy a book that will help you while helping several good causes, this would be the one.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dreams from My Father - Barack Obama

This is not really what I would put in the category of Business literature, but I have recommended it to so many people lately, I decided to talk about it here anyway. Barack Obama wrote this book shortly after leaving Harvard Law School. His thoughts on the genesis of the book in the Preface and Introduction of the 2004 edition add a great deal to the experience of reading it, as does the entire text of his keynote address delivered at the Democratic National in July of 2004, which appears at the end.

The book itself is first and foremost one man's personal journey. It's not a glossed over press piece written to impress a constituency and potential voters, nor is it a warmly remembered personal history written at the end of a successful and noteworthy life. Barack Obama wrote this well before he could have imagined the life in which he finds himself as a US Senator from Illinois. It's deeply personal, very genuine and evokes such a sense of struggle. It's not just a coming of age story, it's an attempt to shine a light on race issues in this country that many of us could not otherwise imagine. But those issues are cast in terms of this man's life.

His birth was the result of a brief union between a white mother from Kansas and an educated black Kenyan father who met while attending the University of Hawaii. His father was absent for the majority of his life and he was raised principally by his mother and grandparents. Like any good story, it's engaging in the details. The book tends to bog down a bit in the middle when he describes his years as a community organizer in Chicago. He really details the entire experience - the people he was trying to help, those he worked with to try and orchestrate meaningful change, the key players that shaped the efforts to bring decent housing, education and employment to the poorest of African-American communities. It's definitely an inside view of something most of us will never see or experience. I thought about that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and suddenly a natural disaster became embroiled in issues of race and poverty. Barack Obama does an excellent job in painting a portrait of the daily lives and despair of these people. The challenges of poor African-Americans in New Orleans are probably not vastly different from what he saw in Chicago. These people and their problems are invisible to the vast majority of Americans who don't want to see or know these problems exist.

The latter part of the book is about connecting with his half-sisters and brothers in Africa and visiting them in Kenya. He has a gift for evoking a sense of time and place that is very vivid and real, but always in the context of a deeply personal journey. He is meeting these family members for the first time, and through them, discovering a father he never really knew. There is something unique about this man, and his story is worth knowing.

Business books are not all that I read. It seemed like there was more value in narrowing the scope of books to be reviewed and discussed in this blog. But there is much to be discovered in all kinds of books, and this is one of those exceptional ones.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The MySpace Generation - BusinessWeek

The Dec. 12th issue of BusinessWeek has a really interesting cover story on the MySpace Generation. MySpace.com is a networking site geared toward young people aged 12 to 24. It's an absolute phenomenon. It's ironic that I was having a conversation with a co-worker last week at our monthly Happy Hour about MySpace, which is a site he had never heard of despite having kids in this age range. Most parents I've spoken to have never heard of the site, but the number of users registered at MySpace has quadrupled from January to October and is now at 40 million members. Keep in mind this has spread entirely by word of mouth from one teenager to another. According to this article, "Youngsters log on so obsessively that MySpace is ranked No. 15 on the entire U.S. Internet in terms of page hits in October . . ." Here are some other interesting numbers from this article: The estimated teen consumer spending market - $175 billion; estimated college student consumer spending market - $200 billion; the percentage of high school seniors with a credit card - 33%.

My own teenagers introduced me to MySpace earlier this year when they all created profiles on the site and wanted to show me the pages for some of their friends. A footnote here: my kids actually share a lot of things with me in an effort to keep me clued in. I'm not sure why, but I'm greatly flattered that they think I am so teachable. I listen intently to music they play for me (some of which I can't understand at all), I watch movie trailers and downloads they are excited about, visit websites they think are cool and generally listen to them explain life as they experience it.

So when I saw an article in July about Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. purchasing Intermix Media, the parent of MySpace, for $580 million, I had an idea that this demographic and this particular medium to reach them was significant from a business perspective. The article really delves in to the psyche, lifestyles and communities these young people inhabit. It also explores how companies like Coca-Cola and Apple have found effective ways of tapping into these complex networks. How this age group communicates greatly affects the flow of information, the speed at which it travels, and the influence of "group think" on how and what is being purchased.

If you visit the MySpace website (I encourage you to do so) and type in the real name of your own kids, nieces or nephews, or neighbors kids, you will see profiles come up which have only a first name or a "display name." My own kids all have fictitious "display names" but a search of their real names pulls up their profile. I have searched out their cousins all over the country and have easily found some of them. Even though there might be 3 pages of "Beths" I can tell which one is the cousin by the fact they identify the city and states where they all live and their age. Almost all these profiles also contain photos, many of which are not in very good taste, but this is the nitty gritty reality of the world they inhabit. Intimate information they would never tell their parents (do you smoke, drink, use pot, lost your virginity?) they post in cyberspace! Their friends post messages for them that are in the public domain. Some of these friends are offline friends as well, but others are people they meet online but have never met in person.

How this age group processes information greatly affects what influences their purchasing decisions. Companies need to understand how to reach them at this age if we want to be positioned as the go-to source for purchases of cars, homes, insurance, furniture, electronics, entertainment, clothing and cosmetics. While new technologies and the fickle whims of the 12 to 24 year old age group will change rapidly, it's a demographic worth keeping up with if you want to tap this multi-billion dollar market. Rupert Murdoch decided it was worth $580 million dollars to his enterprises and it's probably a worthwhile investment.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Word About Silence

In the December issue of FastCompany Magazine there is an interesting article about the artists retreat in New Hampshire, McDowell Colony. It's been there for nearly a century and it still attracts many contemporary writers, composers, and artists of all varieties. In this day and age, it's interesting to read that creative people still find the experience of being in a secluded and quiet environment essential to their creative process. They also find their interactions with other artists from different disciplines at breakfast and dinner to be stimulating and inspirational to their own art.

It's interesting that artists can recognize that these things are integral to what they do, but others getting along in the work-a-day world don't see these things as essential: quiet and contact with people outside our own immediate sphere. I had a conversation recently with the CEO of one of the companies I work with. He was talking about his pastor giving sermon on Sunday about noise. Part of the sermon included a long period of silence, designed to make people aware of how uncomfortable we are with silence. In fact, life's noise has become more than just the constant drone of TVs, radios, iPods, and streaming video, it's the vibrating Blackberry, the endless email, the ringing cell phone, the back-to-back meetings, the weekends crammed with one activity after another. We are always "on," always accessible, always in the middle of ceaseless noise of one variety or another. So when does anyone have time to think, create or innovate?

Carl was saying he always gets his best ideas in the shower. I used to as well before getting in the habit of long evening walks with my dog through a dark and quiet suburban neighborhood. Maybe that's because it's the one time and place where no one can really interrupt you. And it's quiet. And your brain has time to bubble up all the things that have been sitting there getting worked out, but whose thoughts can't cut through the noise of the every day. How much time do we spending "doing" and how much time to we spend thinking about what we are doing?

I recently heard a very well known real estate speaker at one of our company events talk about what it takes to be successful in this business. He was talking to a group of rookie real estate agents and his presentation was full of very practical ideas for what they needed to do on a daily basis to truly succeed. One of his suggestions was to spend 45 uninterrupted minutes a day planning their business. That seems like such a no-brainer. But most of us spend so much of our day doing what needs to be done, we don't spend time thinking about what we are doing. How can we create and innovate in an environment like this? Why have we filled up our lives with so much noise?

Well I have no answers for these questions, but they are worth pondering. I'll go take a shower now and think about it some more.