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.”

Book review: The Great Workplace

This review originally ran in the Aug. 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Great Workplace: How to Build it, How to Keep it and Why it Matters

By Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin

Jossey-Bass

$33.95

Maybe you’re tone deaf when it comes to singing your employees’ praises.

Maybe you believe the troops should be thanking you for their steady jobs and decent paycheques.

Or maybe you’re just too busy with meetings, reports and paperwork to give thanks for a job well done.

That’s your choice. But here’s the deal. You can invest some of your time every day saying thank you in big and small ways. Or you can waste every minute managing for compliance and dealing with the headaches and hassles of constant turnover.

A demographic shift of epic proportions is headed our way. By all accounts, there won’t be enough Gen Xers and Millennials to fill the high-skilled jobs vacated by retiring Baby Boomers.

Embedding recognition into your organizational DNA will help you weather the storm. Show the love to your best and brightest and they’ll be less likely to stray.

But if you’re unwilling or unable to formally and informally recognize your staff, you risk turning your workplace into the Land of Misfit Toys. You’ll be left with a motley crew of malcontents and nonperformers who have nowhere else to go.

Effective recognition starts at the top with strong leadership. “Where you invest your time and attention as a leader serves as a powerful model for what employees see as important and meaningful,” say authors Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin, who work with the Great Place to Work Institute. Established in 1991, the institute is a global research and consulting firm that publishes annual lists of the best places to work in 40 countries.

“When a leader focuses time and attention on their people’s successful performance behavior, employees respond with even greater energy and commitment.”

Yet based on the institute’s research and their own consulting experience, Burchell and Robin claim the majority of leaders and organizations don’t earn a passing grade on formal and informal recognition. “Most people aren’t thanked enough for their contributions, instead they are rarely praised at all for their good work and extra effort.”

Recognition demonstrates respect. And respect, together with credibility, fairness, pride and camaraderie, are the key dimensions that make up the institute’s tried, true and tested Great Places to Work Model.   

Employees at great place to work believe five things to be true. They believe in their leaders. They believe they are valued members of the organization. They believe that everyone plays by the same rules. They believe that they contribute something meaningful. And they believe the people they work with are great.

Trust underpins the Great Places to Work Model. Open and honest two-way communications is the place to start for leaders looking to build buy-in.  

“If you were to work on one single aspect of a great workplace, you’d likely make far-reaching improvements by strengthening two-way communications,” recommend Burchell and Robin. “Two-way communication is arguably the most important dimension of the Great Place to Work Model. It is foundational to employee perceptions of credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. How can you believe your leaders are competent in the first place if you have no idea what they’re up to?”

Communications is about more than setting expectations, giving employees the information they need to do their job and letting them how their performance measures up. It’s also about giving straight answers to tough questions, being accessible and approachable and actually listening to what staff have to say.

A great workplace is built by great leaders.  “In the best companies, leaders at all levels have a strong commitment to creating strong ties between the employee and the organization. Indeed, enhancing trust, pride and camaraderie in the workplace is the central task of effective leadership in today’s organization.”

Great leaders also understand the need to balance the tensions between responsibility and humility, passion and patience, relationships and results.

“As a leader, you must accept responsibility for your role in culture,” say Burchell and Robin.  “You are the chief role model and trust builder, and people look to your behavior and decisions for guidance on their own behavior and decision making. But you also need some degree of humility that allows you to reach out and enlist people. Your responsibility needs to become everyone’s responsibility if you want to create a great workplace.”

If your organization is less than great, there’s still time and hope for a turnaround. Burchell and Robin offer a proven gameplan for shoring up your employees’ relationships with you, their work and their colleagues.

And if you’re not feeling the love at work, Burchell and Robin will introduce you to employers that get it right when it comes to credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. It’s about to become a seller’s market so don’t settle for anything less than a great place to work.

Review: Being Strategic

This review first ran in the July 18 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Being Strategic: Plan for success, outthink your competitors, stay ahead of the change

By Erika Andersen

St. Martin's Griffin

$18.50

Here’s a quick and easy test to see if you’re a strategic thinker.

A new initiative is ramping up at work. You’ve been assigned to the project team.

Within the first 10 minutes of the team’s inaugural meeting, do you propose launching a newsletter, blog, Facebook group, Twitter feed and weekly podcast?

Do you pitch a contest where every employee is invited to design a logo for the project?

Do you then lay out plans to put the winning logo on a shipping container worth of coffee mugs, key chains, mouse pads, lapel pins, pens, paper weights, mantle clocks, picture frames, golf shirts, ball caps, note pads, temporary tattoos, laptop bags, Christmas tree ornaments and other giveaways for staff?

Do you walk the team through the minute by minute logistics of an all-staff pig roast barbecue in the head office parking lot featuring a marching band, clowns, balloons, dunk tank, carnival rides, circus acts, performances by the last five winners of American Idol and a flyover by the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds?

Or, instead of a laundry list of tactics where money and common sense are no obstacles, do you convince your colleagues to first define and agree on the problem that your team has been assigned to solve?

If the latter, you’re a strategic thinker and a godsend to senior management who want their people to work smarter and actually deliver stellar results on time and on budget.

All of us want to be strategic. Most of us have thought, or said aloud, in a meeting mired in the weeds that we need to be more strategic. Yet few of us can agree on what it means.

Here’s a good working definition, courtesy of author Erika Andersen, founder of an organizational development firm that helps big-name clients develop winning strategies.

Strategic thinking is about consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future.

“Being strategic involves a way of thinking and a set of skills that are applicable to almost any decision, large or small, professional or personal,” says Anderson.

You start thinking that way and building the required skill set by following a five-step process.

Start by defining the core challenge. What’s the real problem you’re trying to solve? The goal you’re trying to reach? Don’t jump to solutions until you’ve nailed the problem.

“Until you have a clear sense of the problem to be solved, it’s impossible to envision what ‘solved’ would look like — that is, the future you want to create.”

Define the challenge by answering three questions. What isn’t working? How can we …? And would this feel like success?

Next, clarify what is. Get a clear sense of where you’re starting from relative to your challenge.

“People tend to err in one of two directions,” says Andersen. “Either they look too narrowly, overfocusing on one or two aspects of the ‘what is’ or they focus too broadly, trying to look at every single aspect of their current reality.”

Look too narrowly and you won’t have all the information you need. Focus too broadly and you’ll get buried in data. And always be what Andersen calls a fair witness. Are you stating things as they really are or as you’d like them to be? Are you neglecting or ignoring uncomfortable and inconvenient facts?

Now focus on what’s the hope.

“For most people, this is the fun part of being strategic: envisioning possibilities. It’s also a key element of most successful lives. People who achieve important goals rarely do it by accident. Aim for a reasonable aspiration. Pick a time frame for success. And imagine yourself in that future.

Face what’s in the way. Take a step back. Look at where you’re starting from, where you want to go and what’s between you and the future. By knowing this, you can figure out what you need to get over, around and through.

And finally, determine the path. Set strategies first, tactics second. Strategies are the roadway. Tactics are the asphalt.

“This step of the process is central to being strategic — and is the point where many people, even if they’ve made it this far, are most likely to run off the rails and just start doing stuff.”

Clear strategies serve to filter and screen tactics. To craft winning strategies, always test for feasibility, impact and timeliness. Can you do what you’re proposing? Is this the best use of limited resources? And is this something that can, and needs to be, done now?

The temptation to jump straight to tactics and create the illusion of progress can be overwhelming. But do yourself, your team and your organization a favour.

Focus first on defining the challenge. Clarify what is. Envision what could be. Face what’s in the way. Find the right path. And banish anyone from the team who suggests a logo contest.

Book review: Science Fair Season

This review ran in the June 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. For Hamilton, one way to get kids out of poverty is to get them into the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair.

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, A Robot Named Scorch And What It Takes to Win

By Judy Dutton

Hyperion

$26.99

Somewhere in Hamilton’s Code Red neighbourhoods is the next Kayla Cornale.

Cornale invented Sounds into Syllables while she was a high school student in Burlington.  It’s a computer-based teaching system for children with autism that uses music as a bridge to learning. Cornale"s motivation for the project was personal. She was looking for a way to connect with her younger cousin who has autism.

Cornale’s project would go on to win more than 50 awards, including top honours at the regional Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2005 and 2006.  In 2007, she won a CNN Hero of the Year Award. Kayla used her science fair prize money to apply for patent and launch Sounds into Syllables in special education classes across North America.

 “The lesson I would learn from her was that the ultimate reward of doing science fairs isn’t fame or money or college scholarships,” says author Nancy Dutton about interviewing Cornale, who at the time was a sophomore at Stanford University. “It’s far simpler than that. It’s about connecting with the people you care about most.”

Cornale is one of 12 science fair competitors profiled by Dutton.  There’s a 14-year-old radioactive whiz kid who built a nuclear fusion reactor. A junkyard genius who built a solar-powered room and water heater for his family’s trailer on the Navajo Indian reservation. A 16-year girl with leprosy who set out to replace fear with facts about the disease. The science fair stars behind bars at a juvenile correctional facility. A kid who took on DuPont. And a teen actress and model who shot a documentary on honeybees and colony collapse disorder.

While every story is unique, there’s a common theme. Every young person had a parent or teacher in their corner and pulling for their success.

Dutton also covers the Superbowl of science fairs, Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The annual competition draws more than 1,500 teens from more than 50 countries. More than $4 million worth of scholarships and prizes is on the table.

“Science fairs bring back memories for just about all of us,” says Dutton. “The petri dishes. The potato clocks. The classic, crowd-pleasing baking soda volcanoes.”

Flash forward to today and the times have changed. As one of the ISEF judges tells Dutton, high schoolers are now solving problems that have puzzled scientists for years. “The level of sophistication in these projects is in many cases beyond the level of graduate school and doctoral research.”

And the value and importance of science fairs cannot be overstated, says Dutton.

“Winning changes kids. And not all of these changes can be measured in a cheque, plaque, ribbon or even whether the kids go to college. Some of the most significant changes are far more subtle. Winning opens their eyes to a world of possibilities. It nudges them to take risks. It turns on that little voice inside their heads that says you can do this, even when they swear they can’t. It gives them grit, and guts, and the knowledge that they have the smarts and heart to handle whatever life throws their way. It gives them hope that, in spite of the odds, they have what it takes to end up on top.”

What’s good for the kids is also good for our communities. We’re part of a global economy that’s driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. Encouraging kids to consider and pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a smart move if we’re serious about tackling growing labour shortages, closing a widening skills gap and addressing complex problems that have no easy solutions.

It’s also a smart move if we’re serious about making Hamilton the best place to raise a child. One way to get kids out of poverty is to get them into the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair. It’s one of Canada’s largest and longest running fairs, open to Grade 7 to 12 students from Hamilton and Halton, and entirely volunteer-run.

So here’s a project for Hamilton. What would happen if an all-star line-up of hometown engineers, researchers, technologists and technicians signed on as mentors and coaches for elementary and secondary school students in Code Red neighbourhoods? What if we gave kids an all access pass to our city’s wealth of labs and workshops, equipment and technology?  

What if local businesses, service clubs and philanthropists doubled down on scholarships and prizes and underwrote the cost of putting together projects? What if marketing, advertising and PR pros helped sell the fair and helped kids practice and perfect their pitches to judges? What if lawyers offered to help kids complete the paperwork to patent their winning ideas?

And what if our civic leaders celebrated the winners, their teachers and mentors, BASEF volunteers and sponsors with the same enthusiasm that we’ll shower on the Tiger-Cats when they win their 16th Grey Cup?

Add this book to your summer reading list. It’s an inspiring read, a reaffirmation that the kids are alright and a reminder of the difference one grown-up can make in the future of a child.

Book review: Innovative Intelligence

This review originally ran in the March 28 issue of The Hamliton Spectator.

Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation In Your Organization

By David Weiss and Claude Legrand

John Wiley & Sons

$39.95

Innovation is important to the future success of your organization. Agree or disagree.

Your organization is effective at innovation. Yes or no?

Now let’s compare your answers with senior executives at 500 large organizations who were surveyed by authors David Weiss and Claude Legrand.

While 88 per cent of leaders agree that innovation is important, only 33 per cent say their organizations are effective when it comes to innovation.

So why the gap?

“The root cause of the innovation gap is the inability to effectively manage the complexity inherent in the knowledge economy,” say Weiss and Legrand, who lead firms specializing in innovation leadership and sustainable innovation.

“Enhancing the ability to lead through complexity will dramatically contribute to closing the innovation gap,” says Weiss and Legrand

The biggest obstacle to leading through complexity is the way leaders think today.”

If you’ve been tapped for a leadership role, chances are you’re an ace trouble-shooter. You have a proven track record of simplifying and fixing problems. You’re fast on your feet. You’ve been there, solved that. You religiously read Harvard Business Review. And you have a cavalry of consultants on speed dial for industrial-size clean-ups and salvage operations.

But there’s a world of difference between complicated problems and complex issues. In today’s knowledge economy, we’re up against increasingly unpredictable and unique challenges. The old rules no longer apply.  Complex issues tend to come with underlying and unchallenged assumptions. There are more moving parts, more chefs in the kitchen and more stakeholders at the table.

More than a few leaders confuse the complicated with the complex. And that gets them, and our organizations, into a mess of trouble. “Instead of focusing on the uniqueness of the complexity, which distinguished it from previous problems, the leader assumes that the problem is not unique, that the ambiguity can be ignored, and that a quick answer that was used before will suffice.”

Good luck with that. Falling back on the tried and true in the face of complexity is a surefire way to fall behind and turn the innovation gap into a canyon.

“The most effective way to lead through complexity is to apply innovative thinking to tap into the innovative intelligence of leaders, employees and their teams.”

Weiss and Legrand define innovative thinking as the process of solving problems by discovering, combining and arranging insights, ideas and methods in new ways. “Innovations are mostly derived from linking together separate ideas in new ways to gain insights into issues and to discover new solutions to problems.”

Innovative thinking is a four step process.

Step one is what Weiss and Legrand call building the framework. It’s a critical first step and one that too many of us overlook or rush to finish. At this first step, you create a project charter that defines the complex problem to be solved and your objective. You also set clear boundaries and decide how to measure success. “A clearly defined framework greatly increases the probability of a successful outcome,” says Weiss and Legrand. “No framework or an unclear framework almost guarantees failure or sub-optimal results.”

Step two is issue redefinition. This is where you strip a problem down to its root causes, make complexity manageable and identify the real issue to resolve.  “Simple answers to the right question are always preferable to brilliant answers to the wrong question.”

Step three is idea generation. A rigorous process and structured approach to resolving complex issues is essential, according to Weiss and Legrand.

 “The proponents of unstructured creativity tell fascinating stories about how a group of random people had great fun playing music or creating art and produced an innovative business idea. What they do not talk about are the many sessions spent arguing the issue rather than resolving it or the sessions where brilliant ideas were later shot down because they did not answer the real problem.”

Step four is implementation planning where you fine-tune the best solution. You do an honest assessment of risks and weaknesses. You make your pitch for approval and ensure a successful hand-off and roll-out. “Innovation is successful only when a solution is implemented successfully, not when an idea or a solution is identified. This is the main difference between creativity and innovation.”

Along with a four-step process for innovative thinking, Weiss and Legrand explore the essential elements for fostering a culture of innovation in any organization and the key role leaders play in making it happen.

“A leader needs to excel at facilitating innovative thinking rather than being the most innovative person,” say Weiss and Legrand. “A leader’s role is to raise the overall innovative thinking capacity of employees and teams so they understand a complex issue thoroughly before even considering a resolution. Most complex problems are unique, so a leader needs to excel at asking questions to expose the underlying assumptions and uniqueness of the issue that created the complexity.”