Friday, April 30, 2010

Being Disruptively Good... for who?

Umair Haque had another thought-provoking post on the Harvard Business blog not too long ago. He called it The Case for Being Disruptively Good, and in it he provides his perspective on why "doing good" is in the self-interest of business--and will be increasingly so as the world becomes more and more connected.

Consider for a second, the parable of the rug merchant. He'll never see the tourist he's chasing again. He's got a local monopoly in his corner of the bazaar. His suppliers are poor, starving, and stuck in the hinterlands, cut off and isolated. The result: rugs are made in sweatshops by kids and sold at massively inflated prices. The lesson: "In a disconnected world, the costs of evil are minimal."

But in an hyperconnected world, Haque says, the costs of evil for the same rug seller explode.

If he faced repeat business tomorrow from the same customers, if his suppliers worked in the next corner of the bazaar, if his corner of the bazaar was chock full of rival rug sellers, the incentives for evil would decline, swiftly and severely replaced by incentives for good. That world is what the economics of the 21st century are, slowly but surely, approaching.

It's an interesting perspective, and well worth a read--but do you buy it? Do you agree that the world of business is going to focus more and more on "doing good" and less and less on "doing evil" as the world becomes more and more connected? Haque's argument is that with fewer and fewer "rug bazaars" for corporations to create monopolies in, success will be redefined as doing good for the community rather than just selling more product and driving up shareholder value. I think we certainly see signs of this, but it's difficult for me to know if it is just another form of niche marketing or truly the revolution Haque describes.

But here's the thing. If Haque is right, and the for-profit world is going to become an across-the-board force for social good in society, then I see tremendous risk and tremendous potential for the association community.

We run the risk of having the business sector co-opt the missions of many associations and non-profits, making us even less relevant and even less capable of affecting the change we seek. What good will associations be if the finanical and resource muscle of the for-profit sector gets solidly behind transformative social movements instead of just selling "unhealthy sugar water"? And who are the talented young people of the future going to want to work for? The ineffective association that pays 50 cents on the dollar compared to the socially conscious and highly effective corporation? How can associations win a talent war with those kind of battle lines?

Haque and I had a brief Twitter discussion about this very thing yesterday (read from the bottom up):

And there's the potential--associations partnering with "disruptively good" businesses for mutual gain. Associations and non-profits are traditionally seen as more altruistic than business, so a business seeking to "do good" could gain visibility in the community through such a partnership--and the association could leverage the resources and talents of the business for better execution of their core mission.

Is this discussion anywhere on your radar screen? What about the companies that belong to your trade association? Or the employers of the members who belong to your professional society? Are they seeking to become "disruptively good"? In doing so are they thinking about embracing or replacing you? Is there anything you can do to help nudge them in one direction instead of the other?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Unexpected Pleasures of Sector Switching

Are you guys sick of hearing me talk about Encore Careers yet? I recently tweeted an article I saw on the Harvard Business Blog--from Wayne Luke of The Bridgespan Group, singing the praising of working in the nonprofit sector.

On the tweet I called it "encore career evangelism." Luke is himself a former for-profit leader who has now transitioned to nonprofit leadership, and he wants to convince more Boomers out there to make the same switch. Bridgespan offers executive search services for other nonprofits, so his appeal strikes me a little like business development for Bridgespan, but here are the four things he describes as unexpected pleasures of sector switching.

1. Working for a nonprofit requires as much of an emotional commitment as an intellectual one.
2. Despite what you've heard, decisiveness is alive and well in the nonprofit world.
3. You can be flexible and patient.
4. Passion and purpose trump profits and procedures, every time.

I say Boomers because Luke's appeal--and the work of Bridgespan--seems almost totally focused on drawing Boomer leaders out of the for-profit community and getting them to "sector-switch" to the nonprofit world. And it seems like his appeal is hitting several obvious Boomer hot buttons--emotional commitment, decisiveness, passion and purpose.

As I've blogged before, Bridgespan isn't alone. Civic Ventures is another organization committed to the same goal.

It makes me wonder where GenX is supposed to fit in the nonprofit leadership world of tomorrow. I can understand a nonprofit's desire to benefit from the expertise of a talented for-profit executive. But if that executive is a Boomer, coming over at the end of a grueling for-profit career, should that nonprofit view that recruitment as a long-term solution to their leadership needs? Maybe if they can get another five or ten years out of a Boomer, that will buy enough time to allow Youth Venture to develop them a Millennial leader perfect for their needs? There's no one else in the marketplace they should be considering, is there?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The World Needs More Social Entrepreneurs

I found this article on Youth Venture interesting. If you're not familiar with it, Youth Venture is a program of Bill Drayton's Ashoka--an organization committed to developing more social entrepreneurs.

Ashoka defines social entrepreneurs as "individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps."

The Youth Venture program targets young people (i.e., teenagers) with drive and innovative ideas and helps them launch social entrepreneurial efforts. "Ashoka believes that youth will gain the skills and innate understanding that they can be powerful long into their adult future. Through this experience, young people will grow up practicing applied empathy, teamwork, and leadership—the underlying skills needed to make change."

It sounds great. It really does. The profiles of their "Youth Ventures"--the young people they're helping to drive social change in their communities--are inspiring. I did some hunting around on the Ashoka website because I wanted to see how new their Youth Venture program was. Ashoka itself started in 1980, but I couldn't fnd a start date for Youth Venture. It sounds like a recent addition, though, and my Gen X cynicism can't help but wonder how much of it is a reaction to the leadership void we keep hearing will be left when Boomers retire and the smaller X generation tries to step in to fill those shoes.

Picture it. From one end of the spectrum we've got Civic Ventures and organizations like them, selling the idea of Encore Careers to for-profit Boomer leaders, helping them transfer to the non-profit sector so society can continue to benefit from their wisdom and experience. And from the other end we've now got programs like Youth Venture, encourgaing and providing resources to get the youngest generation to accept leadership roles in solving today's challenges.

Sometimes it really does seem that Generation X doesn't exist. Or at least that the Boomers who run programs like Civic Ventures and Youth Venture don't believe it has the talent--or the desire? or just the sheer numbers?--to save the world.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tammy Erickson Offers Career Advice for Generation X

Last week Tammy Erickson hosted an "Ask the Expert" forum on the Harvard Business Review's Answer Exchange. The topic, as advertised in this announcement was "Career Advice for Generation X.

Well, I was out all last week on a family vacation and knew I wouldn't have easy access to the web or the ensuing online discussion, but before I left I managed to post this question in the appropriate place on the HBR site:

I've heard you speak on Generation X's leadership potential--on the skills and perspectives its members have developed through their formative years and the first part of their professional lives--and about how those talents may be what's needed to pull us through the "Fourth Turning" that generation experts like Neil Howe describe as upon us. The stereotype of Xers, however, is skeptical of their leadership potential and their willingness to engage in broader causes. Also, our society's demographics seem stacked against GenX, with the much larger Boomer generation hanging on to leadership positions and the equally large Millennial generation already knocking at the door. If you still believe that GenX has the leadership traits needed to reimagine our organizations and take them to a new prosperity--what advice would you offer to GenX leaders who seek a larger role for themselves and their generation? What strengths must they learn to better leverage? What weaknesses must they learn to overcome? I blog regularly on these issues at The Hourglass Blog and would love to share your insight with my readers.

Well, imagine my surprise when I returned today and found the following answer from Erickson in the HBR Answer Exchange:

Dear Eric,

You're right. I do feel, based on hundreds of interviews with members of Generation X, that many X'ers have skills and perspectives that are well-suited to today's leadership challenges. I've written an article that will appear in an upcoming issue of HBR summarizing the research that lead me to this conclusion.

I do recognize that it's a bit of a contrarian view--not what many Boomers believe and even, as you point out, not necessarily what all X'ers anticipate. Let me try to address the themes of your great question, one-by-one.

Are X'ers skeptical of their leadership potential? Not exactly. I would say X'ers tend to find the type of leadership that has been commonly practiced in many organizations uncomfortable. And many simply are not interested in taking on executive roles. As one X'er commented to me: "Xers will never get to leadership positions because we have no ability or desire to tell others what to do." However, I am convinced that the requirements for successful leadership are changing in ways that will align more closely with X'ers' preferences and styles.

Are the demographics stacked against X'ers, with Boomers hanging on to leadership positions? Maybe, but I doubt it. There has been a lot of discussion about Boomers working longer. However, from my research, few Boomers want to continue working as intensively as they have over the past several decades. Most are looking for ways to ease off a bit, while continuing to earn some income. And, of course, the Boomers who are holding leadership positions today are the ones who are least likely to need to continue working for economic reasons. As a result, I do think that the leadership positions will open up. Over the next five years, I expect we will see opportunities in many companies for transitions from Boomer to X'er leadership.

My bottom line advice to X'ers is to trust in themselves. Believe that the perspectives and inclinations they have are indeed the ones their organizations need--avoid feeling the need to imitate the Boomers. My goal in writing What's Next, Gen X? was to offer specific advice on making the most of your work experience and, for those who choose to take on leadership roles, to leverage X'er skills effectively--for those wanting more detail, I hope you'll find it a useful guide.



I don't know if Erickson is still monitoring the forum, but I responded with a follow-up comment regarding what I perceive as the unique challenge facing GenX leaders in the association and non-profit sector. Given all the apparent focus on helping those Boomers who want to "ease off a bit while continuing to earn some income" move from the for-profit to the non-profit sector, I wonder how helpful her advice to not try and emulate the Boomer leadership model will be for us.

She predicts that for-profit leadership positions will begin to open up for GenX over the next five years, but that sounds suspiciously like what the experts were saying five years ago. Then it was the economy and the destruction of their ill-tended nest eggs that was preventing Boomers from retiring. Now its a wave of "Encore Careers" moving for-profit Boomer leaders into non-profit leadership positions so that they can continue to self-actualize themselves and keep "making a difference." Those factors, combined with GenX's apparent aversion to traditional notions of leadership, threaten to keep GenX out of nonprofit leadership positions for much longer than Erickson may think.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Boomer's Revolt

One of the nice things about following Neil Howe's Lifecourse Blog is that he will often point you to current news stories and give you an interesting interpretation of them through the lens of his generational theory. Case in point is this post, which links to this story. The story is about an increasing trend among state politicians to denounce the authority of the Federal government, and cites several examples of state laws being enacted in order to nullify such potential Federal actions as firearms regulation and health care reform.

Howe's comment seems to imply that he thinks these are all actions of Boomers, rebelling against manifestations of what he calls the Fourth Turning--a climactic crisis in which the very fabric of our society is in danger of being torn beyond repair. In their minds, these Boomers must be using whatever tools are still at their disposal to help save our culture. Obviously, the younger generation now coming into power can't be counted on to do what's right.

I'm not sure the States' Rights movement is entirely a Boomer phenomenon, but the general idea is a curious one. Given what we've talked about regarding Boomer leaders staying in power longer than previous generations and for-profit Boomers moving into vacant leadership positions in the non-profit sector (in part because of the smaller number of qualified GenX non-profit leaders able to step up), I wonder if a similar dynamic will begin to manifest itself in our environment.

Imagine a group of GenX leaders in a particular sector, pushing for some needed reform, and their actions being "nullified" by a still connected group of Boomer leaders, pushing back more against the idea of reform than the reform itself. Or let's have this hit closer to home. Imagine this happening on your Board of Directors, just as the GenXers you've worked hard to recruit start gaining a critical mass.

If Howe's interpretation is correct, and the waning Boomer generation will view the end of their influence on society as identical to the end of society, effective governance in the 21st century is going to be a lot more complicated than anyone might have previously thought.