|Author: Luke Johnson, Financial Times
Published: May 5, 2010
The hour is always darkest before dawn. I have a gut feeling that now might just be a great time to take the plunge. There is plenty of negative news about deficits and double-dip recession. But technology and global markets are creating real advantages for anyone tempted to give it a go. And a new concern will not be weighed down with the legacy issues like property and pension obligations that are holding back incumbent players. Among my reasons why now is the time:
* The internet has made it easier to experiment than in the past. Building an online presence costs less than it ever did. I just redesigned my website for less than £2,000 in a few weeks. With that you can reach the whole world. Yes, the web is crowded, but there are billions of consumers connected to it who might see your ads or buy your products. And if your idea fails, too bad – shut the project down and try another; it is cheaper and quicker to discover what works than at any time in history.
* The corporate life seems less appealing . Jobs for life have gone; occupational pensions have gone; and who wants to slog away in a suffocating hierarchy their whole career? The freedom and satisfaction of self-employment are hard to beat. Of course there are risks – but then you might get sacked anyway if you work for someone else. Starting a company gives you the chance to achieve independence and self-determination – and if it succeeds, you really will get the rewards of your efforts.
* The world needs entrepreneurs more than ever. New jobs and wealth creation spring principally from new companies. I predict governments will do more to encourage entrepreneurs in years to come – from lower taxes to a reduced regime of bureaucracy. Every policymaker I speak to understands that only private enterprise can tackle unemployment and generate the tax we need to deal with our problems.
* There is more advice and support than ever before. Books, online, agencies, magazines – you name it, there are hundreds of places to go to find ideas, recruit staff, secure premises, source IT, deal with legal and accounting issues and so forth. There are more clubs and networks – more ways to access funding, find partners and reach customers. There are many more role models and mentors around than when I started out in the 1980s.
* It is easier to freelance and subcontract than before. Virtual businesses are common. Almost everything can be outsourced – manufacture, R&D, fulfilment, logistics, administration, IT – you name it. And providing these services offers endless niche markets.
* There is talent galore looking to join in a new venture. Now is a wonderful time to recruit able staff. Big business and the state are shedding personnel – people will be more willing to throw in their lot with an emerging company than during the good times.
* Premises and plants are plentiful. Rents are lower, machines are in surplus – there is more choice than there has been for years in terms of premises and equipment.
* Redundancy should be a beginning, not an end. Thousands do seize the day when they lose their job – and while not all find it a pushover, for many it allows them to pursue their dream and follow their passion.
* Part-time is a way to get going. When I worked for others, I moonlighted for several years, participating in various schemes at weekends, evenings and during holidays. It gave me experience, confidence and helped generate capital – so I was better prepared when I left employment for good after a few years.
I recently became chairman of the Advisory Board of Fast Track, which ranks Britain’s fastest growing companies. There I am endlessly impressed by the vision and energy displayed by the founders of so many of the companies surveyed. They know it is worth it.
No one believes starting something from scratch is a breeze. But as Samuel Johnson said: “He that labours in any great or laudable undertaking has his fatigues first supported by hope and afterward rewarded by joy.”
Johnson, Luke. “Now is the Moment to Seize Your Opportunity.” Financial Times. N.p., 5 May 2010. Web. 5 May 2010. <www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3f720290-57dd-11df-855b-00144feab49a.html>.
Don’t believe what you read in the newspaper and see on television. People all over the world are achieving their dreams to improve their communities whether that is a school, hospital, or corporation, for profit and non-profit. It is amazing how many terrific, caring and inspirational people we meet and the stories that we hear from them. Stories of grace, of style, of engagement – awe inspiring stories. Unique stories about people and the people that they work with.
We have an amazing Expert on Call – Jeanie Cockell. Many of you may know of Jeanie as an Appreciative Inquiry Facilitator and trainer from seeing her name on our website or from stories of success written by those who have worked with Jeanie. Jeanie has that special magical personality that lights up the room and invites you in to converse and to become friends. People gravitate toward Jeanie like a hummingbird to a flower.
We are so fortunate that Jeanie is with us. A few weeks ago Jeanie was involved in a horrific automobile accident and had a punctured lung, fractured pelvis and a leg broken in several places (I am not a medical person and do not mind if anyone corrects me!) It is awesome that Jeanie had no head injuries and remains positive about her recovery and is already looking ahead to returning to the work she loves. Working with people and introducing Appreciative Inquiry whenever possible.
Jeanie has physical rehabilitation to relearn how to walk and how long that will be we are not sure of. We just thought it might be nice to start a Jeanie Cockell Living Card to express our appreciation and wishes for her return to full health.
To send Jeanie your wishes, please follow this link to Facebook (click on the discussion tab) or Linkedin – if you are not a member, you will need to join. Jeanie will be able to visit her Living Card of Appreciation when she is able and as often as she wants. You may leave messages as often as you like – check often to see what others have to say.
|Author: Wayne Turmel, bnet.comReading the rather contentious comments back and forth between two readers on a recent blog post (check out How to Write Emails That Will Get Read) got me thinking. The life of a project or line manager would be so much better if the team just got along and never argued with each other. Right? Not necessarily. Blind agreement can be almost as destructive to your team’s success as ugly friction.
There are times when you feel like a parent on a long car trip. You just want to turn around and yell, “If I have to stop this project and turn around, you’re both in big trouble!” Before you step in between team members, though, you might want to take a deep breath and see what’s really going on. Here are four traits to look for that differentiate creative tension (i.e., positive, constructive differences of opinion) from unproductive bickering (the workplace equivalent of your kids calling each other a big cootie head).
Turmel, Wayne. “How to Tell Creative Tensions From Team Bickering.” On Leadership: Management and strategy ideas from executives and thought leaders. CBS Interactive Inc., 26 Mar. 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2010. <http://blogs.bnet.com/management/?p=665&tag=nl.e713>.
Author: Steve Tobak, cnet.com
If you’re not periodically under fire by your management and peers then your career’s probably not going anywhere. It’s sort of like “no pain no gain.” If you push the envelope and take risks, then you’re going to get mercilessly grilled from time to time. That’s just the way it works. And if you seriously want to get promoted and make something of yourself, you have to learn to handle it. No, I’m not talking about growing thick skin and becoming a human punching bag. I’m talking about learning to handle getting fired upon like a true leader. Everyone will walk out of the room thinking you’re the next Lou Gerstner or Jack Welch. Okay, maybe not, but they’ll definitely think more of you and will more readily accept your ideas, proposals, and most importantly, promotions.
How’d I learn this stuff? By spending much of my career selling innovative strategies to risk averse CEOs, CFOs, and management teams. Sure, I probably came across as whiny and defensive in the early days, but in time I learned the ropes. Here they are:
How to Lead Under Fire
1. Don’t get emotionally attached to your ideas. It’s good to be passionate about your ideas, but if you’re emotionally attached to them, it’ll come through when you’re getting grilled. And managers are incredibly distrustful of ideologues trying to shove things down their throats. It’s all about positioning. In your mind, you have to be willing to walk away. That little separation will give you the appearance of perspective and poise under fire.
Tobak, Steve. “The Corner Office mobile edition.” BNET Blogs mobile edition. CBS Interactive, 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 26 Mar. 2010. .
Author: Ray Williams, Psychology Today
Coaching is the second-fastest growing profession in the world, rivaled only by information technology, as I reported in a National Post article. The profession owes its success both to the personal development movement and the huge global economic restructuring since the 1980s. Competition within and among companies, flattened management structures, shrinking talent pools and ineffective leadership have all contributed to the demand for executive coaching.
Executive coaching is an outgrowth of leadership development programs. An article in The Economist concluded executive coaching had become a significant human resource strategy. Recently, the Harvard Business Review noted executive and business coaching is worth US$1-billion a year.
Coaching pre-dates Anthony Robbins, Stephen Covey, Tom Peters and Ken Blanchard. It is rooted in a range of philosophies and practices that can be traced back to Aristotle, Buddhist thought, Gestalt theory and various management and business gurus. It reappeared in the late l950s, but did not receive much attention until the early 1990s. Although coaching gained widespread acceptance by organizations in the 1990s, it has only flourished in recent years.
When executives and professionals, with predominantly analytical training, look at coaching from an investment perspective, they often want theory-based, evidential criteria. Behavior-based coaching, as practiced and advocated by programs such as Dr. Skiffington’s 1to1 Coaching, have focused on behavior change as the basis for effective coaching.
Brain science research in the past decade has significant implications for coaching practices. David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership, and Jeffrey Schwartz, author of The Mind and the Brain, addressed the issue of brain research and coaching in an article in The Journal of Coaching in Organizations. They argue that a brain-based approach to coaching may provide more legitimacy to the coaching profession, which would require coaches to have deeper understanding of brain functions and behavior.
The focus of coaching is often individual change and transformation, including dealing with fear, motivation, successful performance, relationships and a myriad other behavioral and attitudinal issues. Brain science research in recent years has provided key findings that should inform coaches regarding the focus of coaching and their methodologies. So too, are the implications for coaches in organizations, such as executive coaches, who work with leaders.
Rock and Schwartz argue that getting people to change is important, because life–both individual and organizational life–is rapidly changing in our world. The traditional view of change management has focused on two levels. The first, at the individual level has traditional focused changing people by providing critical feedback and judgment, or through the work of professional help, on analyzing peoples’ problems. The second, at the organizational level, has focused on introducing leader-led organizational change initiatives, which assumes by their nature, are expected to create employee buy-in’ or alternatively, focuses on increasing employee motivation and productivity through the traditional “carrot-and-stick” approach, with particular emphasis on financial rewards. The evidence is clear that those approaches have failed to produce meaningful and productive changes.
Brain science research, Rock and Schwartz argue, tells us a lot about why change is difficult and what approaches can work best.
Schwartz argues that our brains are built to detect changes in our environment and are more sensitive to negative change. Any change that constitutes a threat can trigger fear causing the brain’s amygdala to stimulate a defensive emotional or impulsive response. Altering our reactions to change is very difficult for the brain, even though logically we may want to. Rock cites a study of 800 HR professionals in which 44% of them preferred to not follow new directions from the boss and 15% were actively obstructionist. The lesson for coaches and leaders here is the harder you push people to change, the harder they will push back. That’s the way our brains work.
So, how can coaching work effectively with the brain? First, brain research reveals that focusing on problems or negative behavior just reinforces those problems and behaviors. Therefore, the best coaching strategies focus on the present and future solutions. This requires the development of new neural pathways in the brain and new thinking patterns.
Schwartz has identified five main areas of brain research than can inform coaches:
Because the brain operates in a quantum environment, our perceptions and self-talk alters the connections and pathways in our brains. Whatever we focus our “attention” on changes or creates new brain connections;
The connections in our brains form mental “maps” or reality. Whatever we expect to experience, is what we actually experience.
Focusing our attention on solutions or new thinking is a better strategy than focusing on analyzing existing problems because the latter will only reinforce the problems;
If leaders want to more effective coaches themselves, they need to learn to stop giving advice to people, or if it is given, to be unattached to their ideas and present them as options to people. The implications for coaches is obvious, and most coaches are adept at having the clients take responsibility for their own journey or choices;
Coaches need to be adept at reading peoples’ body language, particularly when they have “insights” about their behavior. These insights are visually accompanied by changes in facial expressions. Schwartz has developed a four-part model of facial expressions that indicate emotional states from awareness to illumination. Leaders too need to be sensitive to facial changes as an indication of employees’ mental state.
Coaching has evolved into a much more sophisticated profession based on knowledge from any other disciplines. Now brain science research has the potential for having the greatest impact on coaching individuals and leaders in organizations.
Williams, Ray B.. “How brain science can change coaching | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2010. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201002/how-brain-science-can-change-coaching>
|Last week, an author called Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at the Royal Society of Arts, an organisation that I chair, about her latest book, Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America .
I profoundly disagree with her theory. As Michael Skapinker wrote in the FT yesterday , optimism built America, and without it the country will never recapture its glory. Aldous Huxley said about the place: “The thing that most impresses me about this country is its hopefulness.”
Yet there appears to be a disturbing and broader case of doubt in the US. In December, Time magazine carried a front cover with the headline: “The Decade From Hell”. And meanwhile, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that the past 10 years had been “The Big Zero”, because average wages, stock and houses prices in the US had stagnated.
Even the American far right has doom-mongers. I appeared on the Glenn Beck show on Fox News last year. I found it difficult to take his apocalyptic views seriously, yet he has a huge following. Everywhere it seems there is a feeling of pessimism that recalls the dark period in the 1970s following the Vietnam war.
I’m afraid the US remains mesmerized by the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, even nine years later. The recent overreaction to a bomb on an aircraft on Christmas day is proof of an inability to put such threats into perspective. The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are part of this disastrous pattern. Those ill-advised wars have fed the sense of gloom.
Meanwhile, arch-defeatists such as Al Gore have created a vast “global warming” propaganda machine to frighten us all into submission about climate and energy. And the financial crisis, with its after-effects of unemployment, bankruptcies and debt, appears to have compounded the national feeling of misery – or at least that’s how it appears to a foreigner who has always been an unremitting admirer of the US.
The west needs a confident America – indeed, capitalism demands an America that is bullish about the 21st century. More than anywhere ever, industrial inventions and technological advances originated there. The US needs to recapture its hope and vision, its enthusiasm and vigour.
It should not look to Europe for examples. The Old World has a tendency to be cynical. The loss of empires, the end of deference, the rest of the world catching up, an inevitable diminution of economic and political might – these trends have inclined too many Europeans to fear the worst and be nervous about the future. This attitude to life is not good for the soul, and it makes progress seem like a concept from the past.
Because progress is precisely what the US – and even Britain – has been making in the past 10, 20 or 50 years. Be it in health, real standards of living – you name it – in more or less every aspect of work or leisure, there has been improvement in a pretty relentless fashion, thanks to free enterprise, science and democracy.
Unfortunately, many of these advances are incremental and do not create headlines. I suspect that the media and politicians believe they get more mileage from worrying us. And plenty of left-of-centre academics and commentators prefer the spectre of decline and fall to the idea of rising prosperity. It gives them something to complain about, in their masochistic, gloating way.
So, for example, California, which has always been at the cutting edge, needs to get a grip, shrug off the blues, ignore the depressives – and help lead the recovery. Despondency cures nothing. America has space, it has ingenuity, it has freedom, it has scale. By most measures it remains the best place on earth to start a business. A spirit of adventure, of limitless possibilities, of manifest destiny, lies at the heart of the American psyche. The rise of China must not dim the American zest for growth. And in spite of Barack Obama’s “audacity of hope”, I do not believe big government is the cure.
How would intellectuals such as Ehrenreich have us behave? Life provides its share of cruel and inescapable truths, but despair or denial are surely not the answer. Give me a belief in the power of opportunity any time.
Johnson, Luke. “Why We Need an Optimistic America.” Financial Times 20 Jan. 2010, sec. Business Life: 10. Print.
|Years ago, before I had my own video cassette recorder, let alone DVD player, the Financial Times used to have a cinema in the basement. If you had a video, you would go down, hand it to a projectionist who seemed to have been there since talkies began and snuggle down to watch.
I once took down a video by the management guru Tom Peters. In the film, Mr Peters regaled his audience with tales of companies that had innovated, delighted customers and reinvented themselves. Voice rising, face glistening, he exhorted his audience to do it too, rousing them to a whooping, hands-aloft ovation.
Our projectionist extracted the video from the machine and handed it back to me. “Goes on a bit, doesn’t he?” he said. I relayed the remark to my colleagues. “Makes you proud to be British,” one said.
It is easy to laugh, but hasn’t America’s unembarrassed enthusiasm been responsible for its business dominance? Aren’t Microsoft, Apple and Google the result of people stilling all doubts to turn their ideas into world-leading companies? As Robert Reich, former US labour secretary, observed: “American optimism carries over into our economy, which is one reason why we’ve always been a nation of inventors and tinkerers, of innovators and experimenters.”
That sunniness has to be good for business, doesn’t it? No, says Barbara Ehrenreich, the US writer, in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.
Ms Ehrenreich has plenty to say about business, but what exhausted her patience with positive thinking was breast cancer. As she researched her options after her diagnosis, she was startled by how cheery everyone was. The treatment might be disfiguring and literally nauseating, but there were upsides. “In the lore of the disease – shared with me by oncology nurses as well as by survivors – chemotherapy smoothes and tightens the skin and helps you lose weight, and, when your hair comes back it will be fuller, softer.”
Besides, there were medical reasons to stay cheerful: it raised your chance of staying alive. In one study, 60 per cent of survivors attributed their recovery to a positive attitude. Ms Ehrenreich, a PhD in cell biology, evaluated this claim and found it bogus. A study which concluded that patients in support groups lived longer could not be replicated. Your attitude made no difference.
This fluent, furious section is the book’s best. Switching to the allegedly dolorous effect of positive thinking on business, Ms Ehrenreich is less convincing. She reminds us that business has not always been linked to optimism. Max Weber traced capitalism’s roots to Protestantism, which required hard work and deferred gratification.
That changed with the rise of service businesses, which demanded constant growth in customer desires and employees who could meet them. Hence the need for the ever-present smile, the positive attitude and the corporate dislike of moaning. Ms Ehrenreich recounts the rise of the motivational speaker, the team-building exercises and the dismissal of staff for showing insufficient enthusiasm.
This positive thinking contained the seeds of meltdown. The Robert Reich quote above has a second part: “Optimism also explains why we save so little and spend so much.” America’s financial wizards believed that, however much people borrowed, the market would take care of itself. “What was market fundamentalism other than runaway positive thinking?” Ms Ehrenreich asks.
Well, you can be a positive thinker without it. The recent speech by Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s chief executive, about how government money could help lead America to a clean-energy future, was a rejection of market fundamentalism, but it still contained homilies about the US being a “country where no one’s dreams are too big”.
Ms Ehrenreich advocates a “vigilant realism”, one that analyses dangers, rather than dismissing them as unimportant “compared with one’s internal state or attitude or mood”. With the US financial system and much of its car industry surviving thanks to taxpayer largesse, who can argue with that? As she says, companies could have done with “the financial officer who keeps worrying about the bank’s subprime mortgage exposure or the auto executive who questions the company’s overinvestment in SUVs and trucks”.
But who does it better? For all of China’s power, it still does not have a single world-class innovative company.
Yes, there are lessons to learn about evaluating risk. But you can be paralysed by risk too. Any innovation is a leap of faith, a belief that the risk is worth running. Americans have been good at that. I wouldn’t count them out yet, or their positive thinking.
Skapinker, Michael. “Positive Thinking is Still Key to Prosperity.” Ft.com. Financial Times, 18 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Jan. 2010. <http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d9deafc4-0461-11df-8603-00144feabdc0.html>.
|Been a loooong year,” sang John Lennon, as the music faded away on the last track of his 1975 album Rock’n’Roll. This December we know what he meant.
It has been a year of high anxiety. Good news has usually been followed by bad, making it hard (and unwise) to believe that the worst was over. For those who had never experienced it, bumping along the bottom has become a meaningful concept.
But let’s not slump into excessive end-of-year doom. Looking ahead, here are three ideas to help business leaders have a happier time in 2010.
Having realised there was a problem, Commissioner Kelly took action. Four years ago, NYPD established its Real Time Crime Center, a 24-hour, seven-day data warehouse that provides information and support to detectives who are investigating violent crime. Information is delivered to them at the crime scene. Clear-up rates and speed of operation have both improved significantly.
This is what managing with “analytics” can do for you. Successful companies – Google, Amazon, Tesco, Netflix – have got terrifically smart at extracting the right amount of relevant data from their businesses, and making it work for them: finding unexpected, unseen patterns in customer behaviour, and exploiting them.
In 2010, it will be time to get serious about managing proliferating data more intelligently. But don’t spend all your time poring over the stuff, because idea number two is going to require putting the spreadsheets down and getting out of the office …
When I asked the chief executive of the global recruitment business Manpower, Jeffrey Joerres, about his management style recently, he spoke eloquently about the need to get out of the office and meet people face to face. Being a leader involves a lot more than just sending e-mails and “gazing at charts”, he said. “We are a company of do-ers, and if you have this big chasm between executives and [staff], you have no idea what the challenges are.”
Increasingly, the gurus tell us, strategy is execution. In other words, it’s how you do things that matters.
Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, gets it. In a speech at the US military academy West Point two weeks ago, he argued forcefully that business leaders have lost their way. “We are at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership, and maybe leadership in general,” he said. “Tough- mindedness, a good trait, was replaced by meanness and greed, both terrible traits … rewards became perverted,” he added.
Large sections of Mr Immelt’s speech could have been written by Ken and Will Hopper, authors of one the most important business books of the past decade, The Puritan Gift. Indeed, in it they salute the GE boss as their kind of leader.
The Hoppers’ book emphasises “the importance of a good managerial culture in determining the nature and direction of any society”, as Will Hopper puts it. Good managers master their craft, while also possessing what Mr Immelt calls “domain knowledge” – that is, they know what they are doing in their specific discipline. If only bankers had been better at banking, how much happier we would all be.
It has been a long year. With hard work, and after drawing on these ideas, next year could be better.
Stern, Stefan. “How to Raise Your Game in 2010.” Ft.com. Financial Times, 21 Dec. 2009. Web. 2 Jan. 2010.
|The Springboard Project will recommend how to best equip the current and future U.S. workforce for success in the post-recession economy
Washington, D.C. – Today Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. corporations, announced the launch of The Springboard Project – an independent commission that will develop innovative approaches to help American workers acquire the new skills and the education needed to thrive in the 21st century’s evolving labor market. The commission, which will bring together a diverse group of education and business leaders, labor experts, union chiefs, academics, foundation heads and government representatives, is holding its first meeting today in Washington, D.C.
“Given the transformations in the current economy and the long-term impact they will have, this is the moment for business and government to join forces with labor and the online community to make sure that our workforce has the training and resources to meet the demands of an ever-changing marketplace,” said William D. Green, chairman & CEO of Accenture and chairman of The Springboard Project. “I am looking forward to working with such an esteemed and talented set of experts to tackle the unique challenges the American worker faces today and will continue to face even after the recession passes.”
Today’s meeting will officially kick off The Springboard Project’s nine-month mandate to develop innovative and feasible recommendations to the Obama administration, Congress, the private sector, labor and individuals.
“American business leaders are optimistic about the future of our economy and the long-term prospects of American workers,” said Harold McGraw III, Chairman of Business Roundtable and Chairman, President and CEO of The McGraw-Hill Companies. “America’s talented workforce and strong history of innovation have helped us overcome economic hardship before, and we have assembled some of the nation’s best minds to help identify practical and productive ways to ensure today’s workers are equipped to help us succeed again.”
The Springboard Project will:
The Springboard Project will issue its recommendations at the end of 2009.
More information about The Springboard Project can be found at www.businessroundtable.org/springboard.
Business Roundtable. Business Roundtable Launches Broad-based Commission to Address Needs of American Workers. Business Roundtable Resource Center. Kirk Monroe, 13 Mar. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2009.
Last summer I attended a talk by Michelle Rhee, the dynamic chancellor of public schools in Washington. Just before the session began, a man came up, introduced himself as Todd Martin and whispered to me that what Rhee was about to speak about — our struggling public schools — was actually a critical, but unspoken, reason for the Great Recession.
There’s something to that. While the subprime mortgage mess involved a huge ethical breakdown on Wall Street, it coincided with an education breakdown on Main Street — precisely when technology and open borders were enabling so many more people to compete with Americans for middle-class jobs.
In our subprime era, we thought we could have the American dream — a house and yard — with nothing down. This version of the American dream was delivered not by improving education, productivity and savings, but by Wall Street alchemy and borrowed money from Asia.
A year ago, it all exploded. Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.
“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor. “This loss of competitiveness has weakened the American worker’s production of wealth, precisely when technology brought global competition much closer to home. So over a decade, American workers have maintained their standard of living by borrowing and overconsuming vis-à-vis their real income. When the Great Recession wiped out all the credit and asset bubbles that made that overconsumption possible, it left too many American workers not only deeper in debt than ever, but out of a job and lacking the skills to compete globally.”
This problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.
A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.
That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today. Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.
As the Harvard University labor expert Lawrence Katz explains it: “If you think about the labor market today, the top half of the college market, those with the high-end analytical and problem-solving skills who can compete on the world market or game the financial system or deal with new government regulations, have done great. But the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They’ve been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable.”
Those at the high end of the bottom half — high school grads in construction or manufacturing — have been clobbered by global competition and immigration, added Katz. “But those who have some interpersonal skills — the salesperson who can deal with customers face to face or the home contractor who can help you redesign your kitchen without going to an architect — have done well.”
Just being an average accountant, lawyer, contractor or assembly-line worker is not the ticket it used to be. As Daniel Pink, the author of “A Whole New Mind,” puts it: In a world in which more and more average work can be done by a computer, robot or talented foreigner faster, cheaper “and just as well,” vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top. So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.
Bottom line: We’re not going back to the good old days without fixing our schools as well as our banks.
Friedman, Thomas L. “The New Untouchables.” Nytimes.com. New York Times, 20 Oct. 2009.
Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/21/opinion/21friedman.html>.