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Alicia Blain

21st Century Leadership


Quote:  “You can’t lead without imagination”  ~  Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Imagination is seriously lacking in today’s corporate environment.  We are knee deep in a status quo that no longer serves us and that in many ways, makes us mediocre.  To change that, we need to spark imagination in all our employees.  But first, we must spark it in ourselves as team leaders. To create the spark you need to embrace experimentation.  I’m not talking about creating a department or a committee to look into experimentation.  I mean changing the way you lead your team so that experimentation is always encouraged and rewarded.  When an idea doesn’t work out, it isn’t perceived as failure but as a learning experience that enriches the team and the lesson learned can be utilized to fuel the next experiment.

Experimentation is the final but core concept in the C.A.R.E. System.  It is what ties it all together. In these posts, I have showcased Starbucks and its CIO to illustrate the key principles behind the C.A.R.E. System.  At the very core of Gillett’s success was his innate acceptance or need to experiment. None of the examples would have been possible if Gillett had not embraced experimentation. Let’s recap all the ways he experimented:

  • When he took on more responsibility in the face of daunting IT problems that needed resolution
  • When he went to work at a Starbucks retail store, not knowing what he’d find or how he would do,
  • When he showed the Executive team a live simulation highlighting the shortcomings of their existing POS system
  • When he proposed the new business unit called Digital Ventures,
  • When he chose an entrepreneur to run the new business unit,
  • When he made IT and Marketing equally responsible for the new business unit
  • When he asked employees for their ideas on making IT better,
  • When he let employees select their IT devices,
  • When he applied his knowledge of networks to help spark solutions in Starbuck’s retail business.

All of these examples illustrate that Gillett was open to experimentation. He may not have been comfortable with all of it but he chose not to play it safe.  At some level, he understood that taking risks was critical to Starbuck’s survival and he, as well as his CEO, faced the challenge and came out ahead.  I’m sure that there were ideas that didn’t work out.  In fact, the article highlights one. Apparently, Gillett is a big gamer or lover of video games. Actually,  he’s a guild master in the online video game called World of Warcraft.  That’s a pretty big deal in the gaming community. Instead of playing down that passion, he  set up a meeting between the executive teams of Starbucks and Blizzard, the owners of World of Warcraft so they could look into the possibility of doing business together.  After all, both companies had a huge fan base and Starbucks needed to find ways to engage customers online the way that Blizzard did. 

At the end, the experiment did not end up in a partnership.  But all was not lost.  The experiment sparked new ideas among the Starbucks executives that led to new offerings for their customers.  Embracing a spirit of experimentation almost always sparks the imagination and that leads to more possibilities for innovation.

For companies to be relevant in the future they must make experimentation a core objective for all departments.  It needs to be nurtured, rewarded and imbedded into the corporate culture.  More importantly, it is a pivotal component if we are to transform the way we lead.  Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce in less than 5 years.  As leaders preparing to pass the baton to the next generation leaders, I believe it is our obligation to embrace change and find new ways to lead.

So you may be wondering what happened to Ben and his direct reports? As I dissected the Starbucks case study, Ben was able to see real world examples of C.A.R.E. in action.  It sparked their curiosity and an eagerness to try new approaches in their organization as Gillett tried to do in his.  Ben, as CIO, made a very important decision that day.  He chose not to play it safe.  He realized the future required new ways of seeing things and new ways of leading.  The Millennials were their new audience not just as employees but as customers. He realized that if transformation was going to happen, it needed to include the Millennials in the workplace.  And he was ready.

I’ll end this series by quoting Seth Godin one last time.  In Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us, Seth writes:

“The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is.”

My questions to you are:  How safe are you playing your role as leader? What one thing can you do today to get you slightly uncomfortable? What one thing can you do to get to know a Millennial in your workplace? 

Like me, you’ll find that staying in your comfort zone as a leader is actually riskier than embracing a little discomfort to prepare for the future. Once you step out of your comfort zone and see all the possibilities that it offers, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner…

Quote: “ I don’t think we have any choice.  I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game.”   ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Connecting with our employees and customers and adapting our mindset gets us ready to play a different game.  But you also need action and to do that you have to be willing to RESHAPE your organization.  To Reshape is the third module in the C.A.R.E. System. To visualize just how you can begin to do that, let’s go to our Starbucks example.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

Here are 3 examples of actionable steps that Gillett took to reshape his IT team and their reputation.

1.     He forced collaboration between teams.  In the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership, we call this “Letting go of Silos”.  Silos are rampant across corporate America and they are innovation and motivation killers for most employees but especially Millennials.  One of the key Millennial characteristics is their collaborative spirit.  They work best in groups and the more you mix up the group the better. Imagine their surprise when they show up for work and see that business units barely interact with one another and they certainly don’t share and collaborate very much. In his pitch for a new business unit, Gillett forced the collaboration of the IT and Marketing teams.  Talk about silos that don’t normally have much in common.  The new unit was called Digital Ventures and Gillett hired an entrepreneur to run it instead of a corporate type. Now that’s playing a different game.

 2.     He let the employees choose their technology and propose new ideas. At a time when so many IT shops are still fighting the consumerization of IT here is a company that allows their employees to select from a wide assortment of technology, from Macs to PCs to smartphones to get work done. To be completely fair, the article did say that Starbucks modeled their Tech Café after the Apple Store. That brings up a good point.  We should always be scouting the market for techniques that work for others and how they can be customized for our specific organizations.  What I liked the most was that they welcomed feedback from the employees on all things concerning IT.  In the C.A.R.E. System, we call that IT Advocacy.  Millennials are the first generation of workers that actually want more technology than what currently exists in the workplace.  No matter what team they work for, they can be invaluable to an IT Dept.  But IT has to take the first step and request their help and then be open to the suggestions given. As IT Advocates, Millennials can be a wonderful test group for any new product, process, or upgrade that the IT Department is considering. If done properly, IT Advocates can be a great extension of the IT Department.  As IT partners, they also create a great fan base for IT in the company.

3.     Applying expertise from an unrelated field to solve a different problem.  Gillett had little retail experience before working at Starbucks and according to the article he had never worked on the scale of a Starbucks.  But he had worked for companies with big networks like Yahoo. Instead of disregarding that experience, he leveraged it to understand the retail giant and apply that seemingly unrelated experience at Starbucks.  Gillett is quoted in the article as saying:  “[…] big Internet, like Yahoo, had solved a lot of the technical challenges that big retail had yet to solve… If you think of all your stores like nodes on a network, and all your resisters as computers rather than cash registers, you can start to manage and deploy […] like Yahoo would a server farm […]”   Many examples exist in business of how breakthrough ideas and products are discovered when a solution that worked in a completely unrelated field is applied to solve a different problem.

 Sometimes, organizations are too narrow-minded in how they view and value experience.  Perhaps an employee in your team has expertise in solving problems in another field that can be the breakthrough idea you need to solve a problem.  You’ll never leverage that unrelated expertise if you don’t know about it or you don’t support it or you don’t find an outlet to try it out.  Experimentation is the subject of our last post in the series and a pivotal one for transformation to occur.

Quote: “What they needed was a leader to bring the organization to a new audience in a new way.”       ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us.

If you’re not quite sure why Millennials are an organization’s “new audience”, I invite you to read through some of my past blogs to get a thorough understanding of this unfamiliar group.  As leaders, we won’t be able to really reach that new audience unless we are willing to create a new way or at the very least question our existing way to see if it will work going forward.

That’s why it’s so important for us to ADAPT and find a new way so our next generation employees are engaged and productive in our teams.  ADAPT is the second module of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership and it’s an important one because it has to do with a leader’s state of mind. ADAPT is all about mindset and getting comfortable testing your boundaries.

So what specific things can we do to ADAPT our leadership style?  Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for ideas.  As the new CIO, Gillett embraced 3 things that got him out of his comfort zone and ready to ADAPT and find a new way to lead his IT team.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

1.     He was curious and courageous. The article quotes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as saying that Gillett “had an insatiable curiosity and wasn’t afraid of pursing big, bold ideas.” Curiosity and courage are key components of the C.A.R.E. System.  To change and adapt to a new way of doing things and of leading is not easy.  You are fighting yourself and those in the organization that want to keep the status quo alive.  Without being inherently curious, asking lots of “why do we do it that way” questions and being willing to fight the good fight, it is very difficult to ADAPT and give your new audience – the Millennials – a new way.

 2.    He asked for even more responsibility.  In early 2009, Gillett has been in Starbucks for just one year and realizes he inherited what can only be termed an IT nightmare. At the same time, Starbuck’s new CEO, Howard Schultz,asks the company executives to give him ideas on how to turn the company around. He urges them to think outside their corporate functions. Does Gillett ignore his boss’ request because he legitimately reasons he already has too much on his plate? No. He goes ahead and pitches an idea for Starbucks to make a venture capital investment in a new business unit designed to push the company’s mobile and online strategy.  That was a gutsy move.  Instead of sticking to what he knew and focusing on just that, Gillett saw a rare opportunity to be part of a transformation at Starbucks.  It required him to take on more than he probably could chew at that time. He got out of his comfort zone and adapted his mindset to take on a strategic challenge and he succeeded. According to the article, since creating the new venture “Starbucks has become a retail leader in mobile payments”. By stretching yourself and getting uncomfortable you push yourself to try new things.  Like a muscle, the more you use it, the more comfortable you become letting go of your status quo.

 3.   He instilled an entrepreneurial spirit into IT.  That’s very rare to see.  IT departments in most large organizations these days are all about following the rules, often playing it safe, and saying a lot of NO in the interest of “security”.  In the next post, we will see examples of what Gillett did that went against these typical IT practices.  The examples were possible because he elected to run IT not so much as a corporate business unit but rather as an entrepreneurial venture. They opened themselves up to try new things.  The focus was to address the needs of its customers – both inside and outside the corporate walls. That ultimately showcased IT as an enabler instead of  a cop.

 In today’s super competitive, global marketplace,  organizations that don’t want to fall behind need to be run by leaders that are open to adapting their frame of mind and leadership frameworks to make way for the future. They need to ADAPT and find new ways for their new audience – the Millennials.

Quote“ If you’re not  uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader”  ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Being uncomfortable is how transformation begins.  When I first started hiring Millennials, I didn’t want to change.  The more they perplexed me, the more I dug my heels in my comfort zone.  It wasn’t until I decided to understand why they perplexed me that the transformation in my leadership style took place and led to the creation of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership. That led to first seeing the potential Millennials brought to the workplace then tapping it then capitalizing on it.

The first step in doing that is to CONNECT.   Many of us who cut our management teeth in the 20th Century approach leadership like this:  I, leader, have a certain leadership style that you, employee, will need to get comfortable with.  It is not my responsibility to figure you out or adapt my style to meet your needs.  You need to conform to my style and work effectively under that style. 

Really?  Do we really want to lead that way?  Does it work for us?  If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that working for a boss that took the time to know us and spend quality time with us are the ones we liked working for and worked the hardest for.  Now more than ever, making a special connection with each of our employees is not only critical but expected.  The more removed we are from our staff, the less effective they will be and that will reflect back to us.  We also minimize our message and our vision.  We need that direct connection to our teams to spread our message and communicate our goals.

So how can you begin to CONNECT?   Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for real world examples. Here’s the link to the Information Week article. 

As the new CIO for Starbucks, one of the first things Stephen Gillett did was connect with the people in the trenches and with Starbuck’s customers.  How did he do that? He shadowed them by actually working in one of the retail stores. This is one of the key components in the C.A.R.E. System.   As a leader you need to spend time with your target audience whether it’s your employees or your customers.  It’s important for 3 reasons:

  1.  You see firsthand how employees work.  You can observe their thinking process as they complete their tasks.  How is that thought process unique and can you leverage it in other areas or functions in your team?  You also see how they do their tasks.  Are there shortcuts that they are taking and are unaware of that help speed up the work? Can those shortcuts be applied in other areas of your operation? Or perhaps they are missing important steps that require more training?  Is there duplication of work that you were not aware of?  No report or spreadsheet analysis will give you that kind of intelligence.
  2. You see if the process works or doesn’t.  In the case of Gillett, as he worked at a Starbucks store, he quickly realized that the point-of –sale (POS) system was broken.  Even though the Starbucks brass knew the limitations of the system they were more focused on growth strategies and opening stores.  They didn’t realize that the limitations of the POS were contributing to problems in opening new stores.
  3. You are able to make better and more intelligent decisions when prioritizing projects based on your firsthand experiences in the trenches.

If shadowing is effective downstream – working directly with your employees and/or customers, it is equally effective upstream – with your executive team.  After spending time shadowing downstream at a Starbucks store, Gillett decided to bring the same experience upstream, to the executive team. He created a Tech Derby which is really a live simulation of a problem showing the pain points and a proposed solution to the problem. The simulation acted as a shadowing opportunity. Through a large-screen display, the executive team, including the CEO, Howard Schultz, shadowed a barista painfully placing an order in the outdated POS system.  They got to see not just hear about how much time was wasted as the baristas had to translate orders so the POS system could capture them. Then, through a mock up of the proposed replacement system, the executive team was able to shadow the new process to see how much faster and more effective it was. 

According to the article, “When they showed both to Schultz, ‘he just turned around and said, When? And whatever you’re going to tell me, it has to be faster’”.  That’s how effective shadowing is and how powerful the concept of Connecting is to introduce change.

Imagine how connecting with your Millennials or others in your team can give you a bird’s eye view to what’s going on in the trenches.  Imagine how many things you’ll be able to discover, uncover and identify that can be game changers to your team and ultimately your organization.  The days when leaders could run teams by just interacting with their direct reports without a strong connection to their team members are disappearing quickly.  The opportunity for innovation and real transformation lie with the ideas and creativity of those closest to the problems your team faces every day.  You need to connect with them to tap and harness that creativity and find innovative solutions.

What examples do you have that illustrate how you CONNECT with your employees?

I think we do and we need to do it fast. In my last blog post I talked about how so many people have been approaching me lately about how unhappy they are in their corporate jobs.  I think the economic woes we’re facing are making people cautious about leaving a steady paycheck but at the same time, it’s highlighting just how pervasive poor leadership is within the corporate ranks.  When times were better, people had more career options and would leave a company when they got tired of its poor leadership. Today, they can’t and it’s putting a spotlight on just how de-moralizing poor leadership can be to a team.

Although leaders know they have the upper hand in this economy, they have to always remember that it won’t be like that forever. If they are lousy bosses, their employees know it and so does everyone else.

It’s not hard to re-imagine leadership so that you have happy employees. Any good leader will tell you that employees don’t want much – they want work that is fulfilling and they want to be respected and acknowledged for their contributions.  That’s it.  The problem is that many of us who have led for a number of years are sticking to some pretty outdated ways of leading that prevent our employees from getting those 2 simple things they want most.

So here are 3 things today’s hip and savvy leaders are doing to re-imagine how they lead in the 21st Century.

  1. They ask for advice.  Savvy leaders know that the days when they had all the answers are long gone.  Today, the employees in the trenches know more about what’s going on than they do.  After all, how current can you be when you’re stuck in meetings all day and most of your job requires you to ensure your team’s compliance with those countless regulations and policies required under HIPAA, SOX, MOUSE (just kidding).  Getting your team involved and listening to their ideas is instrumental for successful leaders in the future.
  2. They are willing to bend the rules. Let’s face it, the only way we are going to shed our old leadership comfort zones are to experiment with new ones. The only way to do that is if we bend the rules of how the game is played.  Now I’m certainly not advocating we go and break corporate rules and get ourselves into trouble.  I’m talking about breaking the rules we’ve used from the past to lead in the future. So for example, just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Just because our best practices don’t align with the new idea being considered doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test the “best” practice to see if                 something better should replace it.  Bend the rules and test the “what-ifs”.  Those  “what-ifs” are the secret to staying viable in the future.
  3. They learn. If you aren’t open to learning new things every day you will not make it as a leader in the 21st Century.  The pace of change is grueling and it’s constantly challenging what we know on any given day.  If you want to sit on your laurels and reap the benefits of the expertise you’ve developed in the past, you will become the poster child for poor leadership.  You need to be in constant learning mode to hold the privilege of leading a team going forward.  By your example, your team will know that they need to stay sharp and keep their skills up to date. And here’s a secret:  you know those pesky 20-somethings that drive you crazy?  They are a GREAT resource for you to keep you learning and to stay relevant with what is happening in the world today.

So how about it? Do you want to just take up space until you reach retirement or do you want to make a difference to the generations of up and coming leaders that are watching you for clues on how to be the best of the best? It’s your choice.  If we are to re-imagine what leadership is going to be in the 21st Century, it starts with us – the leaders that have the courage to be different, be bold and willing to shed the past to make room for the future.

Last week, my friend, Gina Carroll, who also happens to be an awesome editor, reminded me that I had never posted the last blog in this series.  My bad.   So here goes.

The last of the disturbing trends that I see that can keep mediocrity alive & well in Corporate America is the resistance to tap into AND harness the talent that Millennials bring to the workplace.  Millennials have been in the workplace for 10 years now and still corporate leaders are having difficulty managing them.  As I work with corporate clients, I see their continued insistence to hold on to entrenched systems that worked in the past.  Having been in their shoes, I totally understand why they want to do that.  They have worked long and hard to get processes and systems in place. There’s a lot invested in corporate SOP (Standard Operating Procedures).  The thought of having to give up the tried and true for the trial and error isn’t something many leaders are enthusiastic about doing.

The problem is that continuing to hold on to the tried and true is a prescription for being left behind.  The Millennials are the messengers of the future. By pulling them into our 20th Century leadership comfort zones all but guarantees that we will miss the boat.  Instead, we should be letting them push us into the 21st Century.  But yet leaders are hesitant to do it.  This creates a Triple Jeopardy situation in the workplace.

1.      Exodus of talent. Talented Gen Yers leave the organization.  Tired and fed up with being hand tied and unable to make a difference, the very best and brightest just opt to leave.  Where is your future leadership pipeline coming from?

2.      Cost. The organization has just wasted time, money & effort on hiring those Gen Yers that subsequently leave.  In addition, the employees that remain have to pick up the slack until another replacement is found.  This further upsets an already overworked group of people.

3.      Rinse & Repeat.  The process of hiring the replacement starts the cycle all over again.  Without a solid plan in place to engage and leverage the talents Millennials bring, there is a high likelihood that the cycle of turnover will repeat itself again.   The organization is perpetuating the problem and falling further behind the innovation curve.

But it doesn’t have to be that way if leaders would be willing to shift their thinking a bit to see 20-somethings as allies instead of aliens.  By being unwilling to let go of the status quo, companies are snubbing their nose at 3 ways Millennials can bring profits, growth and vibrancy to the organization.  Here’s how they do that.

1. By being Solutionists.  20-somethings are wired to get things done. Whether it was the many demands placed on their time as young children, or the video games they play or the need to make sense of a chaotic world, Millennials are focused on solutions and being resourceful in getting to those solutions.

2.  Embracing Real-Time Reality vs. Delayed Action.  You will rarely see a Gen Yer opt to put something on a list so they can get to it later. They tackle the problem on the spot.  They look it up and get it done.  For Boomer leaders, this is uncomfortable and unsettling to see.  We prefer delayed action – let’s put it on our “To-Do” list,  let’s research it some more, let’s meet a few more times to explore the problem, etc., etc.  Millennials are in-tune with the fact that in today’s world, you won’t get to it later.  They never knew a time when there was time to spare.   Summers off to play? Only one after school activity? No volunteering on the weekends? This is all shocking to them because from an early age, their lives were full of activities that required you to be present and engaged and responding to things in real-time.  There is no missed window of opportunity.

3.    Plugging into the Collective.  You can’t beat a 20-something in their ability to tap the collective.   They realize that 2 heads are better than one and 10 are better than 2. They instinctively know to reach out to others in getting things done because the result will be a better product or solution.  Instead of the individual being front & center, it’s the group that works the magic.  The collective is at the root of the solution and the ability to tackle problems real time instead of putting it on the list.

Millennials have the 21st Century mindset imbedded in how they think, act and work. By understanding and leveraging that mindset, leaders can infuse fresh, new ways of doing things going forward.  Millennials are the messengers of the future and it’s vital that organizations retain the best of them.  We will retain them by letting them re-train our automatic defaults.  Those tried and true instinctive reactions we have worked so hard to master will get in the way of our ability to: make decisions in real-time, to test our best practices for future viability, to infuse innovation into our SOP.

If Corporate America is going to be a meaningful player in the future, it has to look inward and let go of a lot of the trash it has built up over the years.  Like Jennifer Hudson says in the Weight Watcher’s commercial ” It’s  a new dawn,  it’s a new day, it’s a new life”  for us as corporate leaders… and yes, embracing it all will also make us  ”feel good”  IF we give ourselves permission to be bold, experiment & try new things.  The Millennials are ready to work with us to forge a new way.  Are we?

Like most Baby Boomers, I am used to getting information with enough detail and relevance that I can use it as needed. Notice I said as needed and not necessarily immediately. In other words, I like my information to be relatively meaty. One of the biggest lessons I learned in my lab when I was a corporate executive was that 20-somethings or Millennials don’t like information delivered the same way I like it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They like it bite-sized, punchy and when needed and not a minute before. Instead of a meal, they want a snack.

That changed the way I communicated with this group in my team. It was also one of the determining factors in transforming the way I led. Since I learned and honed my management techniques and style under the 20th Century model, I was committed to communicating in the same way to all my team members. After all, I didn’t want to be accused of being inconsistent or treating people differently. How many times were we told that “one size fits all” was best when it came to employees? That way there was no confusion or misunderstandings.

Well, in the 21st Century model, when it comes to our newest job entrants and customers, one size fits all simply doesn’t work & is totally ineffective. When it comes to communicating, it’s absolutely necessary to chunk down your message. It’s called “information snacking”. Love the term!

I’m including a video where Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications is talking to Erin Lieberman Moran of the Great Place To Work Institute. By the way, the Great Place to Work Institute is the company that selects the top 100 companies to work for every year and Fortune Magazine reports on the results in their magazine. According to their website, Ragan Communications is the “leading publisher of corporate communications, public relations, and leadership development newsletters”. So both Erin and Mark know a thing or two about communicating in today’s world. Check out what they have to say about information snacking.

Right below that video, I included a video I did a couple of months ago from my Gen Yer on Fire series. The goal of the series is to highlight “the other side of Gen Y.” In other words, the good side of Gen Y that many of us as leaders often overlook. The series shows how Gen Yers are opting out of corporate careers and applying their creativity and hard work in areas they are passionate about.

So here’s Erin and Mark chatting about information snacking :

Here’s my Gen Yer on Fire video with a different but similar slant on information snacking. Oh, yeah, and one more thing: I’m not an actress and you’ll clearly see I don’t play one on the video. I’m just doing what Millennials say to do: live out loud and share my message!

So what about you? What can you do today to provide your 20-somethings with an information snack rather than a meal? I know you can do it !!!

One of the things I enjoy most is highlighting stories of Gen Yers that are making an impact by doing things differently. In my January blog titled “How Gen Yers are Reinventing the Future” I was highlighting a speech given by Rachel Botsman at  TEDx Australia.  She gave a fascinating talk about collaborative consumption and you can read about it in  my January 24th blog.  A few days after I posted the blog, I received a comment from Jonah Halper letting me know about another talk from Nancy Lublin that I would probably find interesting.  As it turns out, I’m a big Nancy Lublin fan so I went to visit the site to see her talk.

When I got there I was more curious about the site itself than Nancy’s talk (it’ll be our secret..).  As it turns out the name of the site is “NextGen:Charity.com” and what a great concept they have.  The description on the site explains what they do better than I can so here is what it says, “NextGen:Charity is a conference on non-profit innovation aimed to help you run your organization more effectively and efficiently, and connect with donors and your community more powerfully”.  The Gen Y founders,  Jonah Halper (my blog commenter), a professional fund raiser and marketer and Ari Telman, an award winning comedian & founder of JCORPS, an international volunteer organization, joined forces & started NextGen:Charity.

Here’s the beauty of their idea.  They saw the power & following that the TED talks generated & wanted to bring that to the non-profit sector, which as I can attest, needs it desperately. Visit their site & see the sponsor lineup supporting them: Fast Company, AMEX, Pace University.  Not too shabby, huh?  Then there are the speakers:  Seth Godin, our friend Nancy Lublin, and many more top name experts in the non-profit world.

The NextGen:Charity conference event  takes place in NYC on November 17&18 but the founders have Meetups scheduled all across the country from now until the summer.   Cool idea and worth attending if you’re in one of the cities: DC,Boston, Miami, LA & Chicago.

For all  my non-profit friends & clients, check out the NextGen:Charity and block those dates.

NextGen:Charity is just another example of Gen Y’s creativity at work.  It also showcases their innate desire for collaboration and helping others/giving back.  So next time you think Gen Yers are lazy & unmotivated, think of Jonah & Ari & think again.

Oh and BTW, I did get to see Nancy Lublin’s video & it was very good — I knew it would be.  :-)

I always like to read about unique perspectives that people can apply to leadership in the 21st Century.  I was reading the February 4th edition of strategy+business & came across this article titled “Reaffirming Corporate Commitment“  which is a research study conducted by Hal Ersner-Hershfield (Northwestern University), Adam D. Galinsky (Northwestern University), Laura J. Kray (University of California at Berkeley), and Brayden G. King (Northwestern University). In the strategy+business excerpt of the research study, it talks about the effectiveness of conducting “what-if” scenarios of a company’s early days to boost employee morale.  They used FedEx as an example to illustrate what they meant. 

They showed how in the 1970′s, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx , literally gambled on the future of his company. Not  having enough money to pay for airline fuel, Smith flew to Vegas for a weekend, went to a blackjack table & gambled the company’s last $5,000. He was able to turn the $5,000 into $24,000 & was able to keep the company afloat.  In their research the authors correlate that gamble & conviction by the founder to keep the company afloat to the fact that  FedEx consistently ranks on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

The authors call this counterfactual thinking which looks at what might have been if past events had turned out differently for a company .  Being the movie buff that I am, I couldn’t help but correlate the concept of counterfactual thinking with that of  the great classic Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life“.  Remember the story: Jimmy Stewart was bitter & frustrated with his existing life & all the  sacrifices & challenges that life had thrust upon him. In a moment of desperation, he angrily wishes he had not been born.  The rest of the movie shows Jimmy witnessing the dire consequences of that wish &  how so many people had benefited from his being in the world .  In the end, Jimmy is ecstatic to be alive & comes to appreciate his life, warts & all. 

A powerful, uplifting story & one that makes us as viewers appreciate what we have & how we’ve touched people.  To me, counterfactual thinking can be the corporate version of  “It’s a Wonderful Life” .   What would have happened if Fred Smith had not gone to Vegas to save the company? FedEx would probably have folded & would not be on the 100 Top Best Companies to Work  list today.  That’s a powerful message to share with employees.  Do you think after listening to that near miss, the employees would appreciate working for FedEx even if it had a wart here & there?  You bet.  Just like Jimmy Stewart did.  Counterfactual thinking challenges employees to think about what would happen if their company had not been founded or had folded early on.  Very much like the reaction “It’s a Wonderful Life” gets from viewers everytime they see the movie, employees get a boost of appreciation for the company & their commitment & morale increase. 

It makes perfect sense but how many times do companies share their version of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” story with employees?  How many times is counterfactual thinking utilized by companies to increase employee morale?  According to the authors when this unique perspective is applied,  the palpable postive effect on employees is still evident two weeks later. The authors suggest that in today’s uncertain economic times, organizations can use the past to foster employee commitment to the current & future state of the company.

This made me wonder how many companies today were effective in keeping their corporate history alive?  How many of them do so consistently and as part of their corporate communication strategy? How well versed is the leadership in knowing the company’s past? Can you, as a leader,  provide your team with stories of critical turning points in your organization that changed its direction for the better?  What about a visionary leader who showed tremendous conviction despite incredible odds & saved the company from ruin & extinction?

Everyone is touched by stories & what better way to touch employees than by sharing the rich corporate history that most organizations have locked up in their extensive archives.  Get out those dusty archives & communicate key events in your organizations history that made a difference & contributed to its staying power. The authors of this research say it best when they say that “ By having employees focus on how things might have turned out differently and where they would be without their company, firm leaders can help foster a more positive view of the workplace and higher morale”.  

Employees today are desperate to hear good news & feel positive about their companies.  Maybe experimenting with a counterintuitive strategy or message can do the trick.  It certainly couldn’t hurt…

The great thing about people knowing about my interest in Gen Y is that they always send me anything they come across that relates to the generation.  A colleague of mine recently sent me this video below of a TED talk in Australia.  You all know how I love TED and TEDx and often encourage leaders to use some of the great TED footage to spark interesting conversations & ideas within their teams.

This particular TED talk is given by a Gen Yer called Rachel Botsman.  Rachel has been fascinated by the topic of collaboration which as a Gen Yer doesn’t surprise me.  But in particular, she is looking at the trends that are evolving related to collaboration and consumption which she is calling collaborative consumption.  It’s a fascinating look at some of the ways that technology is radically shaping the 21st Century in ways we can’t even fathom. 

According to Rachel, her generation is not as interested as Baby Boomers in owning “stuff”.  They are  more interested in the experience that the “stuff” provides.  She gives many examples of what she means.  Here’s a simple one:  a DVD.  In the past, people were focused on buying a DVD so they could have a copy of their favorite movie or show to watch as their convenience.  Today, young people are more interested in the experience the DVD provides them than actually owning the DVD itself.  In fact, they’d prefer not to own it at all and just have access when needed.

Watch the video & see what I mean:

To me, this is another great example of how Gen Yers are wired & how differently they see things when compared to Baby Boomers. What they value, how they think, even how they come up with ideas is totally distinctive.  I’ve seen this firsthand as I have observed Gen Yers intently over these past 8 years.  This is one of the major reasons I work with corporate leaders to get them to understand that trying to mold Gen Yers into the existing corporate structure is a big mistake.  The leaders and organizations that do that are leaving money & talent on the table.  

All the societal, technological, & global forces that came together to shape the lives of Gen Yers from a very early age manifest themselves in how differently they see the world & in how they think.  Trying to make them conform to a corporate structure that was created in a past that is very different than what we face today is a recipe for failure.  More importantly, we are not serving these next generation leaders. We are not helping to prepare them to be effective leaders in a world that resembles what they are used to much more than what we are used to as Baby Boomers.  Because we are not always comfortable in their world, we often choose to ignore it and stick to what is comfortable to us. But is that fair to Gen Y?  How do we ensure the leadership of corporations in the 21st Century is the best it can be if we don’t challenge our leadership comfort zones and pay attention to the next generation?

In addition to being our future leaders, Gen Yers will be a huge consumer force when they all reach adulthood.  We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of how their unique experiences will shape their interest in all types of products in the future – from gadgets, to clothes to cars.  The sooner we as leaders learn to appreciate their unique perspectives as employees currently working in our organizations today, the sooner we will get to understand them as consumers & be prepared to meet their needs in the future. 

So what are you doing today to leverage the unique mindset of the Millennials in your team?  What are you doing to unleash creative ideas that can lead to innovation down the line?  Remember the future will look more like the world the Millennials have grown up in than the one you are comfortable in.  It might be a good idea to start to C.A.R.E. about what that Gen Yworld looks like.

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