Class of 2017: Will You Have The Audacity to Make The Future?

Graduates of the Class of 2017,

Contrary to what our loved ones may think, we’ve spent the last two years working. Maybe not work in the traditional sense, but work that I personally consider much more valuable. Work on ourselves. Because to identify the impact you want to make in this world, you must first begin to understand who you are.

Personally, the pieces to the puzzle of how I intend to make a difference in the world came together only a few months ago. It came to me during my most powerful learning experience over the last two years.  During this experience, the edges of my puzzle emerged. It occurred during the fall semester in Professor Scott Snooks Authentic Leadership Development class, better known as ALD.  The purpose of ALD is to help second-year MBA students become more effective, authentic individuals and leaders.

In our third session, in September, the level of reflection and interpersonal openness reached its zenith. That morning, Professor Snook handed everyone a small sheet of colored paper. On this sheet of paper, he instructed us to write down our greatest fear over the next five to ten years. Next, everyone passed the sheets with their answer, nothing else to the end of their row. Professor Snook then collected the responses, shuffled them up and asked each of us to randomly select one of the sheets of paper. What followed was truly an eye opening experience. The room had a stillness and a muteness about it that I will never forget. Next, the classroom of over 90 second year MBA students, read the words on the sheet of paper they had randomly selected. The fears of my classmates were stirring.

The fear of not being able to have kids.

The fear of ending up in some of our current relationships.

The fear of caring too much about money, at the expense of marriage and relationships that matter.

There was one response however, that was read over, and over again. The one fear that loomed over the heads of my classmates like a wave at its peak before it breaks, was the fear, the fear of ending up alone. By themselves. Void of the connection and relationships that are as essential to human life as air itself.

The experience brought back memories of my own. I have vivid memories of being dropped off and picked up from Cary Academy, a private middle school experience that no one else in the lower-class neighborhood I grew up in was privy to.  The car my hard working parents drove at the time was a 1985 Oldsmobile Tornado. It had a long, wide body covered with varying shades of steel and pearl gray paint. There was a comet-sized dent above the right rear wheel that caused it to make a thunderous sound. As we arrived and departed, I would sink in my seat, in an effort to remain invisible to my peers. Why? I was embarrassed. I didn’t believe I belonged. I believed that my socio-economic status and the neighborhood I lived in defined me. I felt alone as one of only three black students in the school.  Alone as the kid that didn’t have a big backyard. Alone as the kid whose parents weren’t doctors or lawyers. I felt alone – a feeling that I fear is becoming all too familiar in the 21st century.

The experience in Professors Snook’s class also brought to mind the social and political events that have roiled and ruptured individuals and relationships across our country over the last two years:

Kendra James. Sean Bell. Michael Brown. Just a few, of the many black men or women that died at the hands of the police over the last two years. “Black lives matter” – three simple words, packed with a deep yearning to belong. A yearning to feel a part of the whole. To feel connected. You see, the fear that many of us share, a fear of being alone, is a reality for a growing portion of our population.

And lastly, in the business context that we will be re-entering, is the growing alienation between corporate America and main street. Plunging trust in business, diminished confidence in the fairness of the economic system, and a loss of faith in capitalism itself pose a crippling threat to our economic future.

All of this is unsettling, as over the last few decades the narrative of prosperity has shifted, to one in which a commitment to steadily increasing openness and the destruction of boundaries was supposed to result in an economic tide that would lift all boats.

However, as many of us know deep down inside and as the stories over the last two years illustrate, the promise of a more open and connected world has fallen short of expectations in many ways. However, that’s not to say that Globalization and technology haven’t created prosperity. Because they undeniably have. The challenge is the distribution of this wealth and the impact it has had on the ties that connect the local communities of our country and the global community.

This is not, however, a condemnation of globalization itself. Or a reason to turn inward and close ourselves off from one another or the rest of our global community. The problem is, our actions as leaders and humans have lagged the open and accepting narrative of globalization.

Globalization is like a house. A house with infinite rooms to accommodate the citizens of the world. The economic engine has done a pretty decent job of allowing us to build new rooms and add new extensions to the house. The problem; however, is that those of us in the house have failed to reach out, failed to connect and failed to invite others inside.

So here we are, the class of 2017, walking into this large compound with access to resources and ideas. Each of us with some desire deep down inside to reach out and to share these ideas and utilize our resources to let others in. However, what stands in our way is fear. The little voice in our head that says it’s too soon. That we should wait to establish ourselves before we take the leap. Wait until we pay off our student loans, or make partner – then, we tell ourselves, the time will be right.

However, graduates of the class of 2017 it will always be too soon. Over 500 years ago Johannes Gutenberg launched the printing press. 96% of the population in Europe was illiterate at the time. When Karl Benz introduced the car to Germany it was against the law to drive a car. No one knew how to drive a car. And there were no roads and no gas stations.

You see, it will always be too soon.

Class of 2017, it is our task for the rest of our lives to work towards filling the house that globalization has built. However, the only way we can do that is to do something that the little voice in our head will tell us that we aren’t ready to do. Something that is too hard. Something that takes a different kind of labor – emotional labor.

Class of 2017, we must have the audacity to be Artists.

Artists have the audacity to do work that is personal.

Artists have the audacity to do work that is creative.

Artists have the audacity to work that changes the receiver.

What I am proposing is not the narrow and mainstream definition of an artist: “a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.”

Instead, that we are more generous, empathetic, gracious, and open.

That we are artist.

The writers of the declaration of independence were artists. They had the audacity to articulate a vision that would change how individuals viewed the world and their place in it.

Martin Luther King, Jr was an artist. He had the audacity to be creative and champion a movement of non-violence that was a catalyst in shaping how blacks and whites viewed one another.

Lastly, Henry Tsai, a fellow graduate of the HBS class of 2017, exemplifies the work of an artist. He had the audacity to create “Hi from the other side” (https://www.hifromtheotherside.com/)  a personal work of art that matches people who supported different candidates in the most recent election – with the aim of  not only bringing people together but, more importantly, bringing them together in a way that’s productive or civil

Class of 2017, we can do more than being bankers, consultants, startup founders, or hedge fund managers. We can restore the balance that our culture and the business community so desperately needs. The opportunity to do work that encourages people to seek to relate, to listen, to become themselves. Work that connects people so that they can experience the belongingness that over 90 second year MBA’s in Professor Snooks classroom expressed a yearning for the past September.

Our culture, and the business community, in particular, has an artist deficit. We need more people that aspire to provide products and services that are personal, creative, and passionate. Products and services that change the receiver.

We need more artists, not more managers.

In our current culture, too many leaders pretend that nobody can change anything. That we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field.

But the truth is, every day, individuals, change their world over and over. They do this because they are artists.

Artists make the future. Class of 2017 I challenge you to have the audacity to make the future by imagining that things can be different.

 

Change. It’s in Our Nature.

Change is the only constant. We can either create it or have it thrust upon us. The choice is ours.

Creating it is like the seasons. It’s an incremental process, occurring one day at a time.

There are the depths of the winter. The silence. The times when we feel alone. When we feel as if no one hears or sees our point of view. We ask ourselves what it’s all worth. Is it really worth trying to create the change we seek in the world?

There is the emergence of spring. A coming of age of sorts. Commotion in the air. Spring starts with one bird. The brave bird that strays from the flock and is the first to arrive. Our efforts to create change start similarly. They start with one person. One person that’s willing to escape the herd mentality. One person that is willing to listen. Willing to try to see the world as it could be. Willing to engage in what we are trying to create. Soon, one bird turns into two, three, five, until we have a flock.

A community has emerged.

There is the calmness of summer. Freedom. Openness. Joy. Our community grows. Generosity pervades. We collectively enjoy the fruits of our labor.

There is the tranquility of fall.  Momentum slows. Fractures emerge in our community. Parts of the whole begin to decay. Stubbornness sets in.

And the cycle repeats itself, over and over again. Yet, always different, never the same.

However, when the winter comes again we remember the spring. It gives us hope as to what could be and the strength to endure again in order to create the change we seek in the world.

In creating change, just as with the seasons, there is always something to celebrate.

The celebration of having the courage to think differently.

The celebration of building a community.

The celebration of generosity.

The celebration of decay and the chance to start anew.

The celebration of being human.

Our existence is transient, evanescent,  and inconstant.

 

 

 

Ode to Being an Artist

Our culture, and the business community, in particular, has an artist deficit. We need more artists, not more managers

I will be an artist.

Not the narrow and uninspiring mainstream definition of an artist: “a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.”

But a generous, empathetic, gracious, and open artist. An artist that does work that is meaningful. Work that is personal. Work that changes the receiver.

Over the last two years, I have been loaned two debentures.

The first debenture is time.
Time to think.
Time to read. Time to realize that life is not short, but that we make it that way.
Time to fall in love many times, always with the same person, my beautiful wife.

The second debenture is a choice.
The choice to stay at home and spend time with my beautiful bride.
The choice to build relationships with those that inspire me to be a better person and to think critically.
The choice to learn how to live, instead of how to make a living.

The choice to search for truth, instead of certainty.

However, all debts come with an obligation. An obligation that I will devote my life to repaying.

An obligation to imagine.
An obligation not to pretend that change is impossible.
An obligation to perceive of what is new and different from what is inferred from previous knowledge.
An obligation to make mistakes.
An obligation to daydream.
An obligation to describe things that do not yet exist.

An obligation to be an artist.

Our culture, and the business community, in particular, has an artist deficit. We need more people that aspire to provide products and services that are personal, creative, and passionate. Products and services that change the receiver.

We need more artists, not more managers.

In our current culture, too many leaders pretend that nobody can change anything. That we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field.

But the truth is, every day, individuals, change their world over and over. They do this because they are artists.

Artists make the future. I will make the future by imagining that things can be different.

Brand Marketing: It Was The Best of Times, it Was The Worst of Times

Our culture has a social capital deficit. Some brand marketers are taking action to change that.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

While the setting is drastically different, as when Charles Dickens penned those words he was referencing an age of radical opposites taking place across the English Channel in France and the United Kingdom, yet Dickens sentiment captures the brand marketing landscape of today.

Today’s brand marketers live in a world of chaos – big data, social media, attribution ambiguity, etc.

For some, it’s a world of despair and conflict. And others, a world of happiness and engagement.

It’s a world of extreme opposites without any in-betweens.

At no time has this been more clear than during the advertising mania of this weekend’s Superbowl, advertising largest stage.

It is the best of times.

Instead of providing respite or simply taking the easy road and providing entertainment, some brand marketers decided to have a voice. They decided to make a statement.

Airbnb and Coca-Cola on diversity.
Goggle and Expedia on acceptance and global togetherness.
Budweiser and 84 Lumber on immigration.

These brands were willing to take a stand.
To have a point of view.
To put profits on the line for something they believe in.

This is what we have accused business of being unwilling to do for so long.

However, brand marketers aren’t out of the clear.

#BoycottBudweiser and #DeleteUber are subtle reminders that there is still work to be done.

It is the worst of times.

Our culture has a social capital defict.

Powerful brand messages are met with skepticism.
Authenticity and motives are questioned.
Vulnerability is ignored instead of embraced.

Yet, the journey to authenticity and consistency starts with a small step in the right direction.

It begins with generosity.

Over the weekend a number of brands started their flywheels of generosity and I hope they continue. I hope others embrace the risk and gather the courage to have a voice as well.

Our culture needs it.

It is a time of transformation.

Dear Marketers: The World Has Changed.

For marketers and brand managers, there are fundamentally three ways to grow a business and the emergence of e-commerce is and will continue to have a significant impact on the levers brand managers and marketers can pull to grow their business in a meaningful way:

  1. Increase prices: The rise of e-commerce has created a world of abundant, free, and easily obtainable pricing and cost information for consumers. It has created a world of incredible pricing and cost transparency, arming consumers with the tools necessary to ensure that they are paying the lowest price available at all times — eroding margins and mangers abilities to increase prices.
  2. Increase Purchase Frequency: E-commerce platforms are increasingly looking to push consumers into subscribe and save models that allow consumers to order goods on a predictable basis. While this doesn’t directly prevent consumers from purchasing more of a good, at it’s core it is changing consumer consumption behavior, as consumers become “trained” and comfortable with only consuming the quantity that they have ordered over a set period of time. Thus, decreasing the need for increased consumption, making it ever more efficient.
  3. Increase Number of Purchasers: Arguably, the most challenging and costly lever that brand managers and marketers have at their disposal, yet the lever least impacted by e-commerce in a negative manner. This will be the key objective of brand mangers and marketers over the coming years, as they look to grow their business. However, it is a daunting challenge, as it has become increasingly difficult to get the attention of consumers, who are overwhelmed with options and have diminishing attention spans.

Marketers and brand mangers — if we want to grow the businesses we run, moving forward we will have to:

Create products that our consumers cannot live with out.

Products and experiences that consumers would truly miss if they were gone.

Products and experiences that make people feel more connected to the world that they live in.

Products and experiences that cultivate authentic, not transactional, relationships.

This is a tall task. The world has changed. How are you helping your business grow?