More Soon

October 11, 2010

Dear friends:  we will be suspending work on this blog until we finish the manuscript of a book we’re writing.  Thanks for hanging in there with us.  We expect to be back in the game soon.

A Reason to Believe

May 7, 2010

In today’s column David Brooks tells a riveting story about rapid change in the culture and mindset of the U.S. Army, in response to bad news coming back from the Iraq War.  The story itself is fascinating — he chronicles the rise of the “COINdinistas,” a small group of leaders led by Gen. David Patraeus that embraced a counterinsurgency strategy — but I was also deeply moved by how a few individuals dramatically changed such a large and complex organization.  If you’re looking for evidence that it’s possible to transform your own environment, it’s worth the read.

Showdown on the Arizona Border

April 26, 2010

I agree with at least part of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s statement on Friday  — our broken immigration policy is a problem her state “did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”  Arizona could have filled that leadership vacuum with a bill that had a prayer of addressing the issue.  Instead, local policymakers drummed up cynical, punitive measures that are likely to further bankrupt the state and achieve limited upside besides a false sense of progress.

Maybe it was worth it in an election year.  Brewer may get to keep her job, but Arizona is likely to find itself in even more trouble if the bill actually succeeds in reducing the number of migrants to the state.  Immigrants played a key role in driving Arizona’s economic growth over the last decade or so, a case the American Immigration Council lays out in a recent press release.

I agree with Obama’s characterization of the bill as “irresponsible,” but policymakers who are ready to roll up their sleeves on immigration shouldn’t simply dismiss what happened on the Arizona border.  Voters made it clear that it’s the illegal part of illegal immigration that’s most troubling to people.  Most Americans don’t want to lock the doors.  Most want to be strong enough to strike an honest deal with the world’s tired and poor – and smart enough to keep our preferential access to the global talent pool.  But the failure of policymakers to design a system that works has turned this into a fight about rule of law.

If I know my people well enough, and I like to think I do on most days, we’ve got a very healthy appetite for law and order.  We see it as the backbone of our freedom, the foundation on which we build our do-it-yourself dreams.  12 million human beings with ambiguous legal status has rattled our sense of order, particularly in border states like Arizona.  This has made it difficult to have an honest conversation about the real social and economic tradeoffs of immigration.

I feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but this is one of those fights where basic truths are easily lost.  Here’s how I see it.  Rather than do the politically difficult work of creaking open the country’s front door a bit more, policymakers just shamefully left the back door unlocked.  Arizona revealed the cost of that short-term calculus.  It’s now hard to move forward on immigration policy until a sheriff rides into town.

Immigration Reform — Where Are the Business Leaders?

April 16, 2010

Solving our immigration problem feels like a classic public sector challenge – the issues at stake are things like border enforcement and protecting vulnerable populations (lower-skilled native workers, illegal migrants).  This is a job for pundits and policymakers.  Capitalists have companies to build.

It’s critical that business leaders jump into this fight.  The reform process has big implications for American competitiveness, and the public debate is filled with basic misinformation.  In many cases, the data to inform a more honest debate is locked up in the experience of companies and managers on the front lines of rebuilding our economy.

One place where we need a reality check is on the merits of expanding our guest worker programs. Our economy needs temporary workers to grow and compete, and many migrants are eager to work on temporary contracts. But both the right and the left are united against these programs, claiming that it’s impossible to control or protect the workers we let in temporarily.  My colleague and co-conspirator, Edward Schumacher-Matos, challenges these assumptions in his column on immigration for the Washington Post.

A real guest worker program is a good idea that’s been executed badly.  As Schumacher-Matos suggests, we can fix the execution problems. Designed well, these programs can strengthen our economy while helping migrants escape poverty without sacrificing their safety and dignity along the way.  All without picking a high-profile political fight over who is worthy of citizenship.

Critics claim that these programs are impossible to enforce, at least without turning into Singapore, but other liberal democracies are now experimenting with creative solutions that don’t rely on draconian enforcement measures. As Eleanor Brown, (George Washington University), has documented, Canada is quietly innovating with norms-based compliance strategies that rely on community pressure and a truly bilateral partnership with sending countries.  The results are an unambiguous improvement in compliance rates.

Scholars studying the features of good program design emphasize longer and more flexible contracts for migrants, options for re-entry that don’t create incentives to disappear, and visas that aren’t exclusively tied to one employer. Programs built on these principles can be consistent with our values as a nation.  It’s our obligation to protect anyone working within our borders from abuse, but that doesn’t have to mean unrestricted access to all the privileges of citizenship.  We have to weigh the moral tradeoff of denying guest workers some rights against giving our neighbors the only chance they may have to work for a living wage.  Poverty is its own crime against humanity.

But policymakers need political cover in order to take up this issue. Business leaders need to help them make the case to the American public for why programs like these — and immigration, in general — are good for the growth and prosperity of the country.  Bob Hildreth, a successful financial services entrepreneur and founder of the Foundation for an Open America, is one of the few private sector voices fighting for a more informed discussion about the true economics of  immigration.  He is now funding academic research at Harvard’s Center for International Development on the economic upside of immigration, and he’s working to promote these benefits himself by championing immigrant education and legal protections in the U.S.

We hope that more business builders follow Bob’s lead.

What’s a Good Business Book?

March 28, 2010

In response to our post on Youngme Moon’s Different, one of our readers asked, “what criteria do you use in determining the quality of a good business book?”  It’s a great question, and the answer is probably far more subjective than we want it to be. I’m personally looking for the mix of inspiration and instruction, solidly in that order.  I want to be challenged to be a better manager/leader/person, and then I want some directional clues as to how I might pull it off or at least what success might look like.  And I want the messy, human version of it.  I want the backstory and the stumbling, the scenes of people taking their swing and sometimes missing because that’s how my life feels to me.  Those details normalize the improvement process.

Based on that criteria, here are ten more “business” books (very broadly defined) that moved me recently, in no particular order:

  1. Absolutely American — a Rolling Stone writer spends four years following cadets at West Point as they learn how to lead, and drinks the Kool-Aid by the end.  Speaks to the power of commitment and meaning in an organization.
  2. The Essential Drucker — a ‘best of’ volume from the “man who invented management.”  There is magic on every page, sentences like, “there is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
  3. The Power of Full Engagement — lessons from training high-performance athletes on managing energy, not time.  Explores how change occurs at the personal level.  Good enough for Oprah.
  4. It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys — the title inspires me on good days, mocks me on bad ones.  The book lays out a very actionable framework for creating order out of chaos.
  5. Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most — my favorite message here is to do it, to really have those hard conversations, a useful reminder for someone like me who grew up in a WASPy, midwestern culture that’s not so sure that’s a good idea.
  6. The Prophet — quick, accessible wisdom from Kahlil Gibran, the brilliant Lebanese philosopher.  I’m reminded daily that business is actually quite personal, and the quest to be a better human being touches all aspects of life, including work.  Among the best guides I’ve found.
  7. Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln — a less-than-gentle reminder that communication is an essential leadership act. Some of the advice is silly, like put headlines on the bottom of all your slides in very large caps, but the basic message stands. You’ll be a better speaker by the end.
  8. Leadership and Self-Deception — not easy to consume, but the only book I’ve found that goes after the personal and organizational costs of lying to yourself, a very common human behavior.  The cover calls it the “word-of-mouth phenomenon that is changing lives and transforming organizations,” and I don’t think that’s an understatement.
  9. John Adams — I’m a shameless Adams fan, so take this with a grain of salt, but the story offers up an alternative portrait of effective leadership.  Adams was the anti-Washington, abrasive and emotional and aesthetically displeasing.  Hated by many of his contemporaries, Adams did as much if not more to create and sustain the unlikely American experiment.
  10. Start-Up Nation:  The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle — aside from telling the incredible story of Israeli entrepreneurship, the book reveals why culture is such a critical input into ambition and innovation.  The message is relevant for anyone who wants to learn how to grow countries, companies or leaders.

Koehn on Obama, Lincoln and Leadership

January 25, 2010

As usual, Nancy Koehn of HBS has some provocative insights into Obama’s leadership challenges, wrapped up in a rich historical package.   In a recent contribution to the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, Koehn compares Obama’s challenges to the political, military and economic disasters threatening to overwhelm Lincoln at the end of his first year in office:

…the Civil War was going badly for the Union, and his main general, George McClellan, refused to march on Confederate troops; radical elements in his own party…concluded the president was incompetent (indeed, Lincoln’s attorney general, Edward Bates, said the president “lacked will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command”); his treasury secretary had few funds to keep fighting the war, telling Lincoln he could raise no more; and most Northerners were impatient for a more vigorous prosecution of the war.  As Lincoln himself said in early January to the Quartermaster General,”The bottom is out of the tub…What shall I do?”

Koehn finds inspiration for the Obama Administration in Lincoln’s ultimate response:

What Lincoln did in the first six months of 1862–with critically important consequences for the fate of the country–was to find his own leadership backbone. In the crucible of his own failure and anxiety that winter, he found a clearer focus, a new resolve about the importance and purpose of saving the Union–a resolve that would by mid-summer result in his drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, a new well of confidence in himself and his position that would help him discern whom he could trust and who had to be fired around him, and finally, a deeper understanding of the power of the presidency and how to use that power in service to his mission.

She closes by connecting the dots.  It’s good advice for anyone looking for their leadership mojo in a context of doubt and despair:

Barack Obama’s most surprising weakness in his first year as president has been his own inability to find his leadership backbone and to draw from this core strength and animating purpose to really lead — that is, to focus on the most important problems, to articulate and then embrace the central mission of his presidency, and then to take up the reins of presidential power to advance this mission, even at the expense of challenge and hostility from other powerful players.

Leadership at Home

December 12, 2009

Elizabeth Weil – who is now working on a “memoir about marriage improvement” called No Cheating, No Dying – wrote a riveting piece for the New York Times Magazine about trying to improve her own relatively functional marriage.  The project occurred to her when she realized how little conscious effort she was putting into the relationship, in contrast to almost all other areas of her life (work, kids, redoing the bathroom).

I was particularly moved by two passages.  The first spoke to the link between private relationships and public impact:

In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.

And when the goal is leadership, “good-enough” may not be enough. One pattern we’ve observed in our own work is that people who have strong, energizing private relationships, whether with friends or family or partners, have an easier time leading in the public sphere.  They have the emotional energy to stand up and take the inevitable hits and falls.  A counter-intuitive lesson for aspiring leaders is to strengthen their connections to their favorite people, who may not have anything to do with their vision for change.

The second paragraph that got me touched on the fundamental contract between any two people, in any organization, including a family unit.  As a note of caution, I’m giving away the ending here:

Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.

The courage and patience to grow. One definition of leadership may be to pull those things out of ourselves and each other.