Book review: Speaking as a Leader

An edited version of this review ran in the April 9 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Speaking as a Leader: How to Lead Every Time You Speak

By Judith Humphrey

John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd.

$27.95

I went to a conference in Washington last month to learn how to write better speeches.

As an added bonus, I got a two-day master class in how to give a great speech. The conference featured keynotes by three seasoned speechwriters who proved they’re as good on the podium as they are with a pen (kudos to Mark Schumann, Justina Chen and Terry Edmonds — the first African American to serve as a presidential speechwriter).

All three made an immediate and sustained connection with the audience. They were absolutely passionate about the craft of speechwriting. Their speeches were well-rehearsed conversations that didn’t feel scripted or staged. They told stories and shared lessons learned with a healthy mix of self-deprecating humour.

Just as impressive is what these speakers didn’t do.  They didn’t inflict death by PowerPoint. They didn’t bore us and bury us in a data dump. They didn’t limit themselves to telling us what they knew. They told with us what they believed.

And perhaps most important of all, they knew they were on stage as much to inspire as to inform.

In short, these keynote speakers communicated like leaders.

“The most effective leaders use every speaking opportunity to influence and inspire,” says author Judith Humphrey, who’s also the founder and president of an executive communications firm. “They make every formal speech, presentation, phone call, or elevator conversation a leadership opportunity. They realize that their power lies less in any title they hold than in their ability to move others. They realize that the true task of a leader is to create believers.”

Great leaders stick to a script, says Humphrey.  That script leads off with an introduction that includes a grabber, subject, message and structural statement. 

To grab the attention of your audience, share a story, quote or interesting fact or stat. Then state the subject. What do you want to talk about?  The message spells out where you stand on the topic in a single, simple sentence.  The introduction closes with a structural statement that previews how you’ll make your case and prove your point.

The introduction is followed by the body of your script.  Here’s where you set out your arguments. You can run through three key points. Talk about the challenge and then offer your solution. Look at the present and preview what the future could hold.

The leader’s script ends with a two-part conclusion. You restate your message and then issue a call to action. What do you want people to do next?

Humphrey says the script will help transform your audience into followers, and your speaking into an act of leadership.

Along with sticking to a script, great leaders speak with conviction. They’re passionate, authentic, courageous and honest in their communications.  They use small and simple words to sell big ideas.

Great leaders look to the positive, focusing on solutions rather than problems. “Negatives bring people down, rather than lifting them up. If you want to lead when you speak, stay on the high ground.”

Great leaders listen physically, mentally and emotionally to secure a lifeline to their audience. “You must understand precisely what concerns and motivates your listeners or they will never follow you. You must get inside the minds of your audience and shape what you say so that it reaches them.”

Great leaders don’t paste jokes onto the front end of their communications. “Great speeches, presentations and meeting comments are not dull. They are enlivened with wit, quotations and anecdotes. But they do not rely on canned humour or tired jokes.” Count on at least someone in the audience taking offense or not getting your humour. And few of us have the comedic timing to pull off a joke.

Great leaders also recognize that they’re the best visual. They want their audience to watch and listen without distraction. The danger with PowerPoint – even when it’s a handful of slick slides with killer graphics – is that you divide your audience’s attention. Minds can wander and never return.

“When speakers use visuals, they create competition for the audience’s attention. The audience must divide its focus looking at the visual and listening to you. Your visuals get star billing; what you are saying finishes a distant second in the audience’s mind.”

Humphrey’s point was underscored at the speechwriters’ conference. One of the presenters talked about the wonders of using video in speeches. But technical snafus derailed the video-heavy presentation, rattled the speaker and lost the audience. While that’s all I can remember from that session, I have no trouble recalling the big ideas, inspiring words and passion from the trio of keynote speakers who showed how it’s done.

@jayrobb works in Hamilton and dreams of living in Georgetown.

Book review: Quiet — the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

This review first ran in Feb. 28th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

By Susan Cain

Crown Publishers ($28)

Here are five things I know for certain.

I will never be the life of the party.

I will never solve the mystery that is making small talk with strangers.

I will never be accused of talking too much in a meeting.

I will never lose my intense dislike for ice breakers and team building exercises.

And I would never survive more than a week at the Harvard Business School.

Like an estimated 30 to 50 per cent of the population, I’m an introvert. Our ranks include Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg and J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. And you could make a case for including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama in the club.

While extroverts thrive on constant stimulation and crave the company of others, introverts need time alone to decompress and recharge. No one temperament is better than the other and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

But at work and school, we’ve bought into a value system that author and introvert Susan Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal. It’s an omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.  If you’re not an extrovert and want to get ahead, the message is clear. Fake it.

“The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt,” says Cain. “He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.

“We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’ Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.”

The Extrovert Ideal explains our continuing love affair with old school brainstorming, cross-functional teams and open concept offices. It’s why we believe innovation is social. Creativity is collaborative. And that none of us is as smart as all of us. Groupthink is how author and introvert Susan Cain describes this contemporary phenomenon.

Groupthink can cause your organization no end of grief. “If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day,” says Cain. “This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones are squashed.”  If you’ve found yourself trapped in a meeting with a room full of extroverts then you already know what the research shows. There is zero correlation between a gift for gab and an ability to come up with great ideas.

And if you want breakthrough innovations, assembling cross-functional dream teams and forcing extroverts and introverts  to spend every working hour together won’t go well, no matter how funky your open concept workspace.  Here’s the advice Stephen Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple, offered in his memoir. “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

So stop trying to convert your introverts. Don’t tell them to spend less time in their heads. Don’t ding them on performance reviews because they’re not as outgoing as their extroverted colleagues. Along with open spaces for collaboration, give them places where they can close the door, shut out the world and dream up the next big idea for your organization.

Cain recommends organizations should seek out “symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships”, with leadership and divide other tasks according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments. “The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures.”

If you’re blessed with proactive employees who take initiative, research shows an introverted leader will get you better results.  Management theorist Jim Collins has found that the highest performing companies have leaders who are consistently described as quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing and understated.

“Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”

Along with recapping a whole lot of research, Cain explores the Extrovert Ideal in all its unnerving glory at a Tony Robbins seminar, the 22,000 congregation strong Saddleback Church and Harvard Business School where students are told to “speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 per cent, say it as if you believe it is a 100 per cent.  Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in. If you’re preparing alone for class, then you’re doing it wrong.”

Like I said, I wouldn’t last a week.

Book review: Why People Fail – The 16 Obstacles to Success and How You Can Overcome Them

This review first ran in the Jan. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Why People Fail: The 16 Obstacles to Success and How You Can Overcome Them

By Siimon Reynolds

Jossey-Bass

$29.99

It’s been 15 years since I talked with my dad and I’d give anything for a do-over.

My dad was 50 and going through the worst and last week of his life. On a Monday morning in late October he went to the nearest emergency department. By Monday afternoon, his bloodwork came back and he was immediately admitted to hospital.  On Tuesday came the diagnosis of leukemia and pneumonia. On Wednesday, my dad signed off on the Hail Mary pass of a clinical trial offered only to patients with no shot at a full recovery. On Thursday, my dad asked to meet with each of his kids.

I sat on the edge of the hospital bed and talked about plans to spend more time together. In between rounds of chemo, we’d go to ball games, take road trips and rent summer cottages.

But my dad didn’t want to talk about the future. He wanted to say goodbye. Unlike the rest of us, he knew the game was over and the battle was lost before it had even started. In less than 48 hours, he was taken off life support in the intensive care unit.

If I could somehow get another half hour with my dad, I’d skip the plans and tell him I was proud of what he’d achieved from a lousy start in life and grateful for the sacrifices he’d made to give his family a far better life. I’d show him the photos of his grandkids and then I’d ask a question.

Suppose you were told at my age that there were only seven years left on the clock. How would you have spent your days? What would you have found the courage to say and do? What bonds would you have strengthened and which connections would you have cut? What dreams would you have chased? Would you have re-examined and re-ordered your priorities? What would have mattered most and least?

These are questions that some of us never ponder until we too are on our deathbed. And for that, we pay a very steep price. We muddle through life, float along in our careers and leave a lot of our promise and potential unfulfilled.

Not asking the right questions is one of 16 obstacles to success identified by author and coach Siimon Reynolds. “If you want a premium-quality life, you need to ingrain in your mind a series of high-quality questions that you regularly ask yourself – questions that support you in your attempt to create the very best life possible for you and the people you most care for. These habitual questions will help you stay on the right track, be more optimistic and take the best daily actions to help you reach the life of your dreams.”

Here’s one of the big questions. When you die, what kind of life would you like to have lived? “Most people hate thinking about death,” says Reynolds.  “But keeping death regularly in mind is one of the very best ways to ensure a wonderful life. The thought of death is the world’s greatest wake-up call.” Reynolds says research shows most people on their deathbeds wished they have taken more risks, had more fun, loved more and spent more time with friends.

Along with failing to ask the right questions, other common obstacles to success include having an unclear purpose, destructive thinking, low productivity, a fixed rather than a growth mindset, weak energy, poor presentation skills, poor-image, mistaking IQ for emotional intelligence, not enough thinking, no daily rituals, few relationships, lack of persistence, money obsession and not focusing on strengths.

“Look at anyone you know who is not succeeding and you will find not just one but several of these failure signs occurring in their life,” says Reynolds. These obstacles aren’t insurmountable or permanent. Reynolds says we need to identify the obstacles that apply to us. Tackle each obstacle one at a time. Design a ritual to overcome them. And do something every day, no matter how small, that gets us closer to victory.

“If someone has achieved more than you, it’s not usually because they are better than you or smarter than you. It’s because they have discovered a better strategy for success. What they have learned, you can learn. What they have succeeded with, so too can you if you learn the formulas for success. Some of these formulas are mental and others are practical and action oriented but all of them can be mastered by those dedicated to the task.”

Despite Reynolds’ enthusiasm for negative ion generators, baroque music, green vegetable powdered drinks, inspiration walls and daily self-affirmations, this is a good primer if you’re looking to make a change for the better in 2012 and make the most of whatever time you have left on the clock.

Book review: Good strategy / bad strategy

This review first ran in the Dec. 19th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters

By Richard Rumelt

Crown Business

$33

Not to put a damper on the holiday season but what’s the worst that could happen to your organization in 2012?

Maybe it’ll be the year of the exodus, with customers and clients defecting to competitors and upstarts. Maybe 2012 will be the year of disappearing margins thanks to soaring costs and sinking revenues. If you’re government funded, brace yourself for the year of fiscal restraint and budget cuts. This could also be the year that disruptive technology renders your business model obsolete. Or maybe the threat will come from within, whether it’s early onset of organizational inertia or wholesale disengagement among the rank and file.

With any luck, your strategic plan makes passing mention of the stormy weather headed your way. If you’re truly blessed, your plan marshals your organization’s greatest strengths to tackle the biggest threat you’re about to face in 2012.

But if your plan’s an unholy mess of muddled motherhood statements and an exhausting laundry list of competing projects and priorities, you’re ringing in the new year saddled with a bad strategy.

“A good strategy does more than urge us forward toward a goal or vision,” says Harvard educated author and management consultant Richard Rumelt.  “A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides an approach to overcoming them. And the greater the challenge, the more a good strategy focuses and coordinates efforts to achieve a powerful competitive punch or problem-solving effect.”

Rumelt says the problem with bad strategy is that it serves up a big-picture overall direction divorced from any specific actions. There’s no competitive punch. This creates a yawning chasm between strategy and implementation. “If you accept this chasm, most strategy work becomes wheel spinning. A strategy that fails to define a variety of plausible and feasible immediate actions is missing a critical component.”

Along with a failure to face the challenge at hand, bad strategy is stuffed with fluff or what Rumelt calls inflated and unnecessarily abstruse Sunday words. Fluff is used to create the illusion of high-level critical thinking. The obvious gets restated with a heavy dose of buzzwords.

Rumelt warns we’re susceptible to leading our organizations down three well-travelled paths to bad strategy.

The first is a failure to choose. Good strategy is as much about what your organization decides not to do as it is about what it chooses to do. Any coherent strategy invests resources toward some ends and away from others. To have a focused strategy, you need to make tough choices and hard calls. Egos will get bruised. Pet projects will get shelved. Fiefdoms will shrink. The refusal to choose is how you wind up with an unworkable laundry list of projects that scatter scarce resources to the wind.

“A long list of ‘things to do’ often mislabeled as ‘strategies’ or ‘objectives’ is not a strategy,” says Rumelt. “It is just a list of things to do. Such lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders make suggestions as to things they would like to see done. Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day’s collection in the ‘strategic plan’. Then, in recognition that it’s a dog’s dinner, the label ‘long term’ is added so that none of them need to be done today.”

Along with an inability or unwillingness to make hard choices, a second pathway to bad strategy is the siren song of strategy templates peddled by an army of consultants and authors. These templates have organizations fill in the blanks for a unique vision of the future, a high-sounding mission, non-controversial values and some aspirational goals masquerading as strategies. “This path offers a one-size-fits-all substitute for the hard work of analysis and coordinated action,” says Rumelt.  “You will find pious statements of the obvious presented as if they were decisive insights.”

And the final common pathway to bad strategy is what Rumelt calls New Thought. It’s the mistaken belief that all you need to succeed is a positive mental attitude. You know you’re a New Thought follower if you have motivational posters on your office walls reminding you to reach for the impossible or that quitters never win and winners never quit.  

New Thought followers are also big on the absolute need for everyone in an organization to fully commit to a shared vision. But Rumelt says ascribing the success of companies like Apple “to a vision shared at all levels, rather than to pockets of outstanding competence mixed with luck, is a radical distortion of history.”

A belief that you can think your way to success is a form of psychosis says Rumelt and one that he cannot recommend as a sound approach to good strategy. “The doctrine that one can impose one’s visions and desires on the world by the force of thought alone retains a powerful appeal to many people. Its acceptance displaces critical thinking and good strategy.”

This is a brilliant and challenging book and one of the best from 2011. Rumelt is wickedly smart, pulls no punches and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. His book is also a must-read if you want to rewrite your strat plan and better prepare for the risks and opportunities headed your way in 2012. Make this a last minute addition to your holiday wish list.

 

Book review: Persuasion

This review fist ran in the Dec. 5 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds

By Arlene Dickinson

Collins ($32.99)

A neighbour is up against the same challenge our family faced a few years ago. It was a challenge that put our powers of persuasion to the test.

We live in a neighbourhood where a bylaw blocks the conversion of family homes into monster houses overrun with students.

But the bylaw, with its variance application form, $1,040 fee and committee hearing, can easily unnerve, discourage and dissuade families who want to give their postwar bungalows a much needed extreme home makeover.

We loved the neighbourhood so we opted to go through the process. A neighbour on another street opposed our plans to add a second storey and got a few other folks to write letters of opposition.  

We read those letters for the first time while waiting to go into our committee hearing. Our neighbour was waiting too and brought along hired help to shoot down our plans. During our hearing, the committee asked if we’d reconsider and scale back our renovations. We were told to come back for a second meeting where a decision would be made after committee members had paid a visit to our home and talked amongst themselves.

And that’s when I decided to get persuasive.  I went door to door, getting every homeowner on our street to sign a petition supporting our proposed six figure investment in their neighbourhood. I pulled together a presentation with pictures of all the two-storey homes on surrounding streets. In my cover letter to the committee, I said our family would be on the move if the renovation wasn’t approved. We’d take up residence and pay taxes in Burlington. And I’d make a point of handing the keys over to one of the out-of-town landlords who were forever calling and writing with offers to buy our house sight unseen.

We got the green light to renovate. We spent a small fortune and put down roots. A few other neighbours with growing families have done the same.

As I discovered, there’s nothing that sharpens the power of persuasion more than a challenge to the hopes and dreams we hold for our families.

That same challenge worked wonders for author, marketing expert and Dragon’s Den co-star Arlene Dickinson.

Dickinson was 16 when she graduated from high school. She got a job instead of going on to college or university. At 19, she got married. At 27, she was raising four kids and working a string of jobs in a small town while her husband went to university. When she was 30, Dickinson had an affair that ended her marriage, got her excommunicated from the Mormon church and separated her from her children.

The family court judge told Dickinson that if she wanted full custody of her children, she’d need to get a place to live and prove she could financially support her kids.

“Shock, anguish, grief, remorse – those words don’t even begin to cover how I felt,” says Dickinson. “I remember weeping on my dad’s couch for days.”

Fortunately her father was a great persuader. “He helped me understand that this was the pivotal moment in my life, the moment that would determine what kind of future my kids had and what role I would play in it. If I gave up on myself, I was essentially giving up my kids for good.”

A stint selling ads for a Calgary TV station led to an offer to join Venture, a start-up marketing firm. Ten years after her father persuaded her to get off the couch, she became CEO. And 13 years after that, she was starring on the Dragon’s Den.

Dickinson shares her story to reinforce the importance of being authentic.  “You don’t need to tell others your life story to establish authenticity. But you do need to be honest with yourself, take responsibility for your choices and own your weaknesses as well as your strengths. When people feel they’re dealing with a real person who isn’t hiding behind excuses or a mask, who’s presenting a face to the world that’s genuine, they know they’re dealing with someone they can trust.”

And that trust is key to principled persuasion. Along with being true to yourself, you must be truthful with others. “Long term, honesty isn’t just the best policy. It’s also the most persuasive one.”

Dickinson says persuasion is a great test of character. What we’re willing to do and say and how far we’ll go to convince others speaks to our strengths and the reliability of our moral compass.

Dickinson also gets into the mechanics of effective persuasion.  Before you make your pitch for a new job, venture capital or a second storey addition for your home, you need to prepare. The will to prepare trumps the will to win when it comes to persuasion.

“At least half of what makes you persuasive occurs before you ever even open your mouth. Before you utter a word, you need to prepare, you need to rein in your ego, and you need to figure out what’s driving the other party. What’s motivating them? What do they want? How do they view the situation?”

Dickinson offers a wealth of practical advice and hard-earned wisdom on how to change minds. “Everyone has potential and is capable of realizing it. Becoming a good persuader is a great start. That’s a skill that can take you far.”

Dickinson is proof of that.

Book review: The High-Beta Rich — How the Manic Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble and Bust

This review ran in the Nov. 21 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

The High-Beta Rich: How the Manic Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble and Bust

By Robert Frank

Crown Business ($30)

Tim Blixseth grew up poor in rural Oregon with a rusty spoon in his mouth. Edra was a single mom at 17 who worked the night shift at a diner.  They met back in the 1970s at a restaurant Edra managed.

Fast forward to 2006. The former welfare kid was now one of America’s wealthiest men with a net worth estimated at $1.2 billion. The Blixseth’s had made their fortune on timber and real estate and ran an exclusive golf and ski resort in Montana for millionaires and billionaires.

The Blixseth’s owned seven homes, a private island in the Caribbean, a castle in France, two yachts, Gulfstream jets and his and her Rolls Royce Phantoms.  They employed 110 staff.

The Blixseth’s had taken up residence with other freshly minted billionaires and millionaires in a nation that author and Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank calls Richistan.

Richistan is home to the high beta rich. They’re the by-product of a financial system that rewards extreme risk-taking, borrowing, speculation and spending. The super-rich no longer make things or own businesses. They owe their fortunes to stocks, deals and financial engineering.

Frank says the fortunes of the high beta rich have become as monumental and seemingly permanent as their 30,000 square foot fortresses that they call home.

But their success and wealth is built on an illusion. The high beta rich are like human tech stocks, prone to wild swings and rapid cycles of value creation and destruction. Back in 2008, the value creation cycle kicked into a downward spiral. The residents of Richistan panicked. 

By mid-2009, America’s millionaires had lost about a third of their fortunes in the greatest one-time destruction of wealth since the 1930s. Incomes for the top one per cent of earners in the U.S. fell three times as much as they did for American earners as a whole.

By the winter of 2010, the party was over for the overextended Blixseth’s. The real estate market crashed. The Montana resort went under and was sold for less than 10 per cent of its appraised value.  They couldn’t cover a $375 million loan. Their 110 staff were let go. Even the phone service was cut off. Tim and Edna divorced and Edna filed for personal bankruptcy, going from rags to riches to rags.

While it’s hard to shed a tear for the Blixseth’s, Frank says we should all be afraid of what’s happening to the high beta rich. Very afraid.

“While these shocks may seem irrelevant and even amusing to the rest of us, they will increasingly reverberate through our financial and political life as the rich dominate more and more of the economy and funding for governments. Rather than viewing the financial crisis as a narrow escape for the rich, it may have been a warning that the worst is yet to come.”

While trickle-down economics is dismissed in most quarters, trickle down losses are proving very real. “As go the high-beta wealthy, so goes the rest of the country.”

By 2010, the top-earning five per cent of American households accounted for 37 per cent of all consumer outlays. The wealthy are the dominant spenders in the U.S. consumer economy.  So when the rich suddenly stop spending by choice or circumstance, the economy takes a massive hit and lots of us wind up out of work.

The high beta rich also backstop governments. In the U.S., the top one per cent of Americans pay more than 38 per cent of federal income taxes while the bottom 40 per cent pay little or no tax.

An increasing share of government programs will depend on the fortunes made and lost by a minority of high beta rich. “The masses at the bottom require increased funding for entitlements and social programs,” says Frank. “But those at the top, who are increasingly paying for those programs, will exert an outsize influence on politicians through their money and will lobby for lower taxes. The result is that governments will have more booms and busts and permanent deficits.”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix for high beta wealth. “To solve the problem requires solving two much bigger problems: the financialization of wealth and rising inequality,” says Frank. Governments show little interest in reigning in financial markets and economists can’t agree on a cause, much less a solution, to economic inequality.

“The issues get reduced to oversimplified debates about taxing the rich or shrinking government or punishing Goldman Sachs – all of which may be politically satisfying and maybe even helpful, but far from a solution.”

Frank does offer some survival tips for those of us not living in Richistan.

To better predict where spending, taxes and jobs are headed and avoid nasty surprises, we need to watch the stock market rather than traditional economic measures. 

Governments, companies and individuals need to take money off the table, saving more during booms so we can ride out busts.

We need to stop acting rich and being fooled by all that glitters. Wealth doesn’t solve problems; it just creates different ones and not only for the residents of Richistan.

“These tips won’t rid us of high-beta wealth or its contagion,” says Frank. “But they might allow us to build better financial and psychological levees to protect us against the coming storms and floods.”

Book review: The Coming Jobs War

This review first ran in the Nov. 7 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Coming Jobs War

By Jim Clifton

Gallup Press

$27.50

If you go by the results from the latest Forum Research poll, 65 per cent of us will be voting for a new mayor in Hamilton's 2014 municipal election.

That gives us 36 months to find ourselves a candidate.

Some of us will settle for a recycled politician or media personality who could bring some measure of name recognition to the mayoral race. 

But what if we broke with tradition and instead recruited a business leader from the private sector?

A leader who'd bring a wealth of senior executive experience, business acumen and an entrepreneurial spirit to council chambers.

A leader who’d be a champion of entrepreneurs and small business owners.

A leader who’d make our city the start-up capital of Canada, where small business was the business of Hamilton.

A leader who'd have a singular focus on creating good-paying, sustainable, knowledge economy jobs for Hamiltonians.

A leader who wouldn't spend a dime of taxpayer money on anything that didn't create jobs.

And a leader who’d rally business and civic leaders to drive down high school drop-out rates and build up a highly skilled, entrepreneurial workforce.

This is exactly the sort of leader who'd win the vote of author and Gallup chairman Jim Clifton.

“If you have a weak mayor, your city is going down,” warns Clifton. “If you have mediocre city council members, your city is going down. If you have a humble set of leaders on your school board, your city is going down.”

Sounds extreme but Clifton says the stakes are high. We’re heading into an all-out global war for good jobs. Right now, there are 1.2 billion full-time, formal jobs in the world. But there are three billion people who are working or looking for work. That leaves us 1.8 billion jobs short.

“If you were to ask me, from all the world polling Gallup has done for more than 75 years, what would fix the world – what would suddenly create worldwide peace, global wellbeing, and the next extraordinary advancements in human development, I would say the immediate appearance of 1.8 billion jobs – formal jobs. Nothing would change the current state of humankind more.”

Cities will be on the frontlines in the global war for jobs, says Clifton.  Cities are where entrepreneurs connect with innovators, commercialize ideas, launch start-ups and grow the small and medium-sized private sector companies that create the majority of new jobs.

To win the jobs war, a city needs to get its act together. All the key players  — all politicians, every business and local institution – need to be on the same page, fully engaged and aligned.

“Everybody in charge of anything needs to focus on job creation. If they divert their attention, vote them out. Be ruthless. If the bike path doesn’t have anything to do with job creation, there is no bike path. The jobs war is what should get city leaders up in the morning, what they should work on all day and what should keep them from getting to sleep at night.”

Cities that win the jobs war won’t be looking to other levels of government for handouts, says Clifton. “Free money eventually makes you more dependent. Free money, entitlements, more bureaucracy, less of your control – all these things make individual initiative, meritocracy and free enterprise weaker and less competitive. You have to jumpstart your city yourself.”

Winning cities will have mobilized what Clifton calls their local tribal leaders.  “All prosperous cities have a self-organized, unelected group of talented people influencing and guiding them. These are people who care very much about the success of their city.” Tribal leaders are loyal, highly successful, usually wealthy, respected and well-known. They have the influence, money, connections, speed and access to create jobs.

And along with waging an all-out war for jobs, winning cities will open a second front to battle high school drop-out rates. Clifton says cities should aim to cut drop-out rates in half by doubling student hope.

“Gallup has found that kids drop out of school when they lose hope to graduate. The reason they lose hope of graduating is because they don’t feel excited about what’s next in their lives. Having no vision or excitement for the future is the cause of dropping out of school.

“Parents, teachers and mentors would be wise to consider managing a student’s confidence and hope as much as or more than the mechanics of division and multiplication. And the prize for a student is not graduating but rather a job – even better, an exciting career.”

Along with building confidence and hope, cities need to foster an entrepreneurial spirit within their young people. “The scarcest, rarest, hardest energy and talent in the world to find is entrepreneurship. Innovation by itself has no value until it is chosen by talented entrepreneurs.

“If the image of free enterprise and entrepreneurship is going up among your youth, you will experience job creation. If it is trending down, may God be with you.”

The Coming Jobs War should be required reading and a call to action for Hamilton’s tribal leaders. If Clifton has it right, this is the group that will decide whether Hamilton wins or loses the global jobs war.  We’ll never be the best place to raise a child if we’re not the best place to get a job, start a business and grow a company.

For Hamilton to win the jobs war, we desperately need our tribal leaders to lead the charge in cutting high school drop out rates in half, fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in our next generation of Hamilton employees and business owners, and recruiting a 2014 mayoral candidate who will make job creation job one.  

Book review: Boomerang — Travels in the New Third World

This review first ran in The Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 24.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

By Michael Lewis

W.W. Norton and Company

$30

You walk into a room.

The room’s dark. No one else is around.

In the middle of the room is a huge pile of someone else’s money.

So what do you do?

Walk away empty handed or stuff all of your pockets with borrowed cash?

Author Michael Lewis can make an educated guess based on what he’s witnessed as a financial disaster tourist. In his latest book, the author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and Big Short recounts his visits to Iceland, Ireland, Greece and California where bankers, politicians, unions and citizens appear to have lost their minds in a mass delusion.

“The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2008 was more than a simple financial phenomenon,” says Lewis. “It was temptation, offering entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge.

“Entire countries were told the lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.”

In Iceland, they stopped fishing, became investment bankers, turned their country into a hedge fund, went on a spending spree and racked up losses of $100 billion, or $330,000 for every Icelandic man, woman and child.

In Ireland, a single bank ran up $3.4 trillion in losses. “The Irish used foreign money to conquer Ireland,” says Lewis. “Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was buy Ireland. From each other.”

When the real estate bubble burst, the country’s entire banking system collapsed and the government stuck Ireland’s citizens with the bill in what Lewis calls a suicidal decision.

The Greeks turned their country into a piñata stuffed with cash and invited as many of their 11 million citizens as possible to take a whack. The average government worker earns three times more than the average worker in the private sector. Along with $400 billion of outstanding government debt, there’s another $800 billion owing for pensions. Against $1.2 trillion in debts, a $145 billion bailout is more of a gesture than a solution, says Lewis.

But it’s not just countries that are sliding into default. Municipalities are in a heap of trouble.

Lewis paid a visit to San Jose, which has the highest per capital income of any city in the United States after New York. It’s one of the few cities in the U.S. with a triple-A rating from Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s.

And it’s close to going bankrupt.

Lewis spent time with the city’s mayor Chuck Reed. “He’s got a problem so big that it overwhelms ordinary politics: the city owes so much more money than it can afford to pay its employees that it could cut its debts in half and still wind up broke.”

San Jose’s budget turns on the pay of its public safety workers. Police and firefighters account for 75 per cent of the city’s discretionary spending.

“Over the past decade, the city had repeatedly caved to the demands of its public safety unions,” says Lewis. “What politician wants to spat publicly with police officers and fire fighters?”

The mayor told Lewis that when the police or fire department of any neighbouring city struck a better deal for itself, it became a fresh argument for improving the pay of San Jose police and fire and the starting point for the next round of negotiations.

But it’s not just pay hikes that are crippling San Jose. Pension costs for retired city workers are soaring. In 2002, pension costs were projected to run $73 million a year. Those costs are now pegged at $245 million. Pension and health costs of retired workers account for more than half the city’s budget.

The city is legally obligated to cover those costs so deep cuts are happening across the board. The workforce is down from 7,450  to 5,400 city staffers and everyone’s taken a 10 per cent pay cut. Libraries are closed three days a week. The police union recently suggested to the mayor that he close the libraries for the other four days.

By 2014, the mayor has calculated that the 10th largest city in the U.S. will be served by 1,600 public workers. He says the future is not far off when the city will have a single employee, presumably with a focus on paying pensions.

“The problem with police officers and firefighters isn’t a public-sector problem,” says Lewis, reflecting on all that he’s witnessed as a financial disaster tourist. “It isn’t a problem with government; it’s a problem with the entire society. It’s a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences.

“It’s not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans. Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They’d been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences.”

Three things will happen after you read Lewis’ road trip through the financial ruins of the new third world. You’ll want to send a thank you card to Jim Flaherty and ask if he’ll agree to a lifetime term as Canada’s Minister of Finance. You’ll start paying attention to the salaries, pay hikes, pension costs and liabilities for City of Hamilton workers and retirees. And you’ll be tempted to start burying gold bars in your backyard because the financial world appears to have a serious lack of parental supervision.

Book review: Triumph of the City

This review first ran in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier

By Edward Glaeser

Penguin Press

$37.50

As a Hamilton taxpayer, I’m less than thrilled that we’re picking up the $100,000 tab for the fiasco that was lingerie football at Copps Coliseum back in July.

And I’m not completely convinced that Festival of Friends needs a $100,000 handout from local taxpayers.

But I’d have no problem if $200,000 from the public purse paid for special events put on by Hamilton Hive.

The Hive brings together Hamilton’s new blood and young guns. It’s in the business of building networks among our city’s next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, small business owners, corporate leaders and civic boosters.

And it’s through these Hive-brokered conversations, connections and collaborations that we could finally fix Hamilton’s image problem and our never ending search for an identity. The Hive could prove to be a catalyst in building Hamilton’s reputation as the start-up capital of Canada. The best place and first choice for young, smart and savvy professionals looking to set up shop, launch a business, grow a company, raise a family and make their mark. 

Hamilton Hive is contributing to a key requirement for all successful cities, says author and Harvard University professor Edward Glaeser who believes the world isn’t so much flat as it is paved and urban. “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens.”

So what’s it take to attract smart people and small firms? Glaeser says there are two competing visions. There’s the Richard Florida vision of chasing after the creative class by embracing the arts, celebrating alternative lifestyles and investing in a fun, happening downtown.  With a fondness for coffeehouses and public sculpture, Glaeser says it’s a vision that seems aimed at a 28-year-old wearing a black turtleneck and reading Proust.

The second vision of city building is boring by comparison, with a focus on doing a better job of being brilliant at the basics and delivering core public services like safe streets, fast commutes and good schools. It’s a vision built around meeting the needs of a 42-year-old biotech researcher concerned about whether her family will be as comfortable and their quality of life will be as good in Hamilton as they’d be in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.

With scarce resources, cities can’t afford to be everything for everyone. So which vision is best? Where should a city invest limited revenues and the energy of its leaders? While Glaeser supports subscribing to a bit of both visions, sticking to the basics is the best option for most cities on the rebound.

“There are roughly three times as many people in their thirties, forties and fifties as there are in their twenties, so it would be a mistake for cities to think that they can survive solely as magnets for the young and hip,” says Glaeser. “As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics. A sexier place won’t bring many jobs if it isn’t safe. All the cafes in Paris won’t entice parents to put their kids in a bad public school system.”

Struggling cities confuse aesthetic interventions with urban basics and accelerate their decline. “Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project – a new stadium or light rail system, a convention centre, or a housing project,” says Glaeser, who calls this the edifice complex.

It’s a blind belief that struggling cities can build themselves out of decline and that abundant new building leads to urban success even if the existing stock of housing and office space outstrips demand. “Successful cities typically do build, because economic vitality makes people willing to pay for space and builders are happy to accommodate. But building is the result, not the cause, of success. Overbuilding a declining city that already has more structures than it needs is nothing but folly.”

Glaeser says city planners and civic leaders need to be realistic and expect moderate successes rather than blockbusters. “Realism pushes toward small, sensible projects, not betting a city’s future on a vast, expensive roll of the dice. The real payoff of these investments in amenities lies in attracting the skilled residents who can really make a city rebound, especially if those residents can connect with the world economy. We must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

Glaeser says municipal leaders have one overriding priority. “Ultimately, the job of urban government isn’t to fund buildings or rail lines that can’t possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city’s citizens. A mayor who can better educate a city’s children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.”

What cities must build first and foremost is their workforce. “There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital,” says Glaeser. Building that capital starts with kids and teens staying in school, getting a good education and going on to postsecondary. A highly educated, highly skilled workforce serves as the magnet that attracts employers with high skilled, high paying jobs. And those employers in turn attract even more highly skilled newcomers.

“The path back for declining industrial towns is long and hard,” warns Glaeser, who says Rust Belt cities built their economies around major employers that required low skilled labour. “Over decades, they must undo the cursed legacy of big factories and heavy industry. They must return to their roots as places of small-scale entrepreneurship and commerce. Apart from investing in education and maintaining core public services with moderate taxes and regulations, governments can do little to speed this process. Not every city will come back, but human creativity is strong, especially when reinforced by urban density.”

Glaeser’s case studies and histories of thriving and dying cities from around the world should be required reading for all Hamiltonians. His book also begs a question. We had no trouble taking $45 million out of the Hamilton Future Fund to rebuild a football stadium. What if we took another $45 million and covered the full costs of apprenticeship training, college diplomas and university degrees for every child in our Code Red neighbourhoods?  As Glaeser makes clear, educating our kids is a surefire way to fund a city’s future.

Book review: Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.

Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures And What We Can Do About It

By Don Peck

Crown Publishing ($25)

Rejection letters were my postcards from the lost summer of ’92.

I’d graduated from the Harvard of the North into the teeth of a recession. No one was hiring. Everyone was firing. Baby Boomers hunkered down in their jobs. And freshly minted grads with bachelor’s degrees in political science and master’s degrees in journalism didn’t stand much of a chance.

All through that sunless and soggy summer, I made a daily trek to a job centre and then over to the library to read the help wanted ads in newspapers from near and far. I sent out a forest worth of resumes, got a sapling worth of rejection letters in return and joined the starting lineup of Team NEET (not in education, employment or training).

After four grinding months of fruitless searches and marinating in self-pity, I lowered my sights, pulled up my big boy pants and learned to say yes. I said yes to a job at the restaurant where I’d worked during high school. Yes to a string of freelance gigs where I earned about $2.50 an hour. Yes to a part-time job working weekend nights at a daily newspaper. And, a full year after graduation, yes to a job that launched what’s been a rewarding and durable career.

It’s been 19 years but that lost summer has left both an indelible mark on my psyche and empathy for 20-somethings who’ve been battered and bruised by the Great Recession.

The Millennial generation is sinking, warns author Don Peck, an award-winning reporter and features editor with The Atlantic. “Many twentysomethings will emerge from the Great Recession with their earning power permanently reduced, their confidence dimmed and their ideals profoundly changed.”

Making a bad situation worse is an ingrained sense of entitlement and a highly structured and scheduled childhood. Peck says the checklist generation has a serious lack of independence, entrepreneurialism and sense of perseverance. “Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out — or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.”

But it’s not just 20-somethings who are struggling. The Great Recession has accelerated the sorting of winners and losers and the hollowing out of the middle class. A two-speed society is taking shape, with a highly educated professional class moving ahead and everyone else getting stuck in neutral or falling into reverse. In March of this year, the U.S. unemployment rate was 12 per cent for people with only a high school diploma, 4.5 per cent for college grads and 2 per cent for people with professional degrees.

A large, white and predominantly male underclass is forming along with a new politics of grievance. In growing numbers, women are the breadwinners in working-class and non-professional middle-class families. In the United States, men suffered roughly three-quarters of the eight million job losses in 2008 and 2009. In January of this year, 18.8 per cent of men in their prime working years didn’t have jobs. Fewer prime-age men have been employed than at any time since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. As the male-dominated manufacturing sector shrinks, the female-dominated service sector grows.

“Joblessness corrodes marriages and makes divorce much more likely down the road,” says Peck, who was told by the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia that marriage is an increasingly fragile institution among couples without college degrees.

Peck calls chronic and all-consuming unemployment a pestilence that slowly eats away at people and families and becomes society’s most noxious ill.

“One of the largest long-term risks to society is that the norms of a very large class of people, in a very large number of places, are now changing in unhealthy ways.” A broad array of measures of family dysfunction are blinking red. The lives of moderately educated families increasingly mirror those of high-school dropouts, burdened with financial stress, job loss, partner conflict, single parenting and troubled children.

These pressures can prove to be fertile ground for discontent. South of the border, public views toward society’s more marginal members have hardened since the crash. “Proliferating signs of a turning inward and a narrowing of minds should not be surprising,” says Peck. “As hard times linger, they reliably produce resentment toward outsiders, suspicion of unfair treatment and zero-sum thinking. Frustration is typically strongest not among the most marginalized groups, but among the newly marginalized, those whose status and self-image have collapsed the most abruptly or are in the greatest danger of doing so.”

Peck says the Great Recession offers a preview of where our economy is headed and what’s in store for our communities. “While this preview is troubling, it is also clarifying. Many of the deepest economic trends that the recession has highlighted and temporarily sped up will take decades to fully play out. We can adapt successfully to them, if we start now.”

According to Peck, the key to building a stronger, more resilient economy and healthier society rests on smarter, more creative and decisive government actions and a renewed private commitment to civic responsibility and community life. “This was not a vanilla recession and vanilla responses will not end it,” says Peck.

To save and strengthen the middle class, Peck recommends a continued push for better schooling, clearer paths into careers for people who don’t immediately go to college or university, better access to affluent communities and dynamic cities and stronger support for low-wage workers.

Yet Peck says we tend to underestimate the costs and consequences of a lingering recession and overestimate the risks of aggressive action to jump-start the economy. We should expect little if any action from governments that have already closed the door on stimulus funding and are focused on reducing deficits through funding cuts.

“If we remain stuck in an economic climate in which stagnation and disappointment are the norms for large numbers, the most likely risks to our politics are not rogue leaders or an insurgent populist party. They are endless vacillation, low levels of public trust, and political options that are stunted by a poisonous atmosphere and heavy discontent.”