Review: Six ideas worth considering for your career, company and community in 2017

This review first ran in the Jan. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Here are six ideas worth considering in the new year, pulled from some my favourite business book reviews in 2016.

deep workTake an unannounced social media sabbatical.  You won’t miss much. And we really won’t miss your daily musings, deep thoughts, witty observations and running social commentary. Once free of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, you’ll suddenly have more time to focus on what’s actually important. “A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement,” says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World. “It is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.  Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. To succeed, you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.”

hug-your-hatersWhile taking a break from oversharing on social media, start paying attention to what’s being said online about your business. Customer service is now a spectator sport thanks to review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and TripAdvisor. We’re watching to see how you respond to complaints posted online. And we’re blown away when a company responds to our complaints and goes above and beyond what we expected. “In today’s world, meaningful differences between businesses are rarely rooted in price or product, but instead in customer experience,” says Jay Baer, author of Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. “Hugging your haters gives you the chance to turn lemons into lemonade, morph bad news into good and keep the customers you already have. So few companies hug their haters that those that make the commitment are almost automatically differentiated and noteworthy when compared to their competitors.”

snowblowersIf you’re in a leadership role, try talking less amongst yourselves behind closed doors and start listening more to your frontline staff. They likely know the solutions to whatever problems you’re wrestling with and other issues that aren’t even on your radar yet. They have a very clear sense of what’s working, what’s not and how things could work even better. “The answer to unleashing the power of your team – and to delighting your customers – lies outside the conference room,” says Steven Goldstein, author of Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using The Five Principles of Engagement. “It is astounding how much valuable information can be obtained by simply talking to the people who really know the everyday inner workings of the company.”

no fearStart encouraging your children to follow their passion even if it doesn’t lead into law or medicine. And never tell your kids to quit dreaming, get practical and settle for a real career that they may eventually learn to like. Even telling your kids to have a plan B in case their big dreams doen’t pan out is not helpful advice.“Since we are protective of our children, why would we send them on a blood-sucking and soul-destroying path?” asks Larry Smith, a University of Waterloo professor and author of No Fears, No Excuses.  “The grown-up world is where talent goes to die. The rules are clear: do what you are told and you get paid; work to live on the weekend and dread Monday; look forward to retirement and hope you do not end up dreading that as well; expect that pleasure or satisfaction in the work is an uncommon bonus.”

work rulesTake a good chunk of your training budget and spend it instead on recruitment. Run your own in-house search firm, give bonuses to employees who make successful referrals and pay a premium for top talent. When you hire the right people, you don’t need to invest as much in soft skill training and development. “The presence of a huge training budget is not evidence that you’re investing in your people,” says Google VP Laszlo Bock, author of Work Rules. “It’s evidence that you failed to hire the right people to begin with. Refocusing your resources on hiring better will have a higher return than almost any training program you can develop.”

human-city-1Start loving the suburbs. To sustain Hamilton’s momentum, we need densification downtown and growth on our suburban boundaries. Like every generation before them, many of the young professionals we’re courting will eventually outgrow their one-bedroom condos in the heart of the city and dream of single family homes with front porches, back decks and driveways. They’ll look elsewhere if they can’t find, or afford, a home to raise their kids in Hamilton. “In reality, for most residents of cities, life is not about engaging the urban ‘entertainment machine’ or enjoying the most spectacular views from a high-rise tower,” says Joel Kotkin, author of The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. “To them, the goal is to achieve residence in a small home in a modest neighbourhood, whether in a suburb or in the city, where children can be raised and also where, of increasing importance, seniors can grow old amid familiar places and faces. Cities with few children and families will prove fundamentally unsustainable, deprived of a base from which they can draw new workers and consumers, as well as critical sources of both parental motivation and youthful innovation.”

Jay Robb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College and has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review – Joel Kotkin’s The Human City: Urbanism For The Rest of Us

human-city-1This review first ran in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us

By Joel Kotkin

B2Books

$36.95

“Sprawl is caused by affluence and population growth, and which of these exactly, do we propose to inhibit?”

George Easterbrook, contributing editor of The Atlantic and Washington Monthly, posed the question that’s worth debating here in Hamilton.

Joel Kotkin would make the argument that we need densification downtown plus dispersion on our suburban edges if we want continued economic growth in Steeltown. He’d also tell us that reports of suburbia’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and author of The Human City.

As churches, vacant lots and parking lots get turned into condos downtown, we’re banking on high-earning and free-spending young professionals moving in. Many will eventually want to start a family. That’ll be tough to do in a one-bedroom, 800 square-foot glass box 20-storeys above James St. North.

So one of three things will happen.

Young professionals will move out of their condos and into affordable single family homes with backyards, front porches and driveways in middle-class, family-friendly and congestion-free suburban neighbourhoods.

A shortage of homes for growing families will young professionals out of Hamilton and into smaller, surrounding communities where they can buy more house for less money.

Or they’ll postpone or cancel plans to have kids because it’s unaffordable and there’s nowhere to go to raise a family.

While the second option is bad, the third choice is even worse.

“Cities with few children and families will prove fundamentally unsustainable, deprived of a base from which they can draw new workers and consumers, as well as critical sources of both parental motivation and youthful innovation,” says Kotkin.

San Francisco’s a cautionary tale. There are now 80,000 more dogs than kids and the urban core has the highest percentage of households without children of any major U.S. city.

“Successful urban areas will be those that provide not only the vibrant districts that attract the young but also those, usually less dense, places that can help preserve the family’s place.”

For many families, those less dense places will be out in the ‘burbs.

“In reality, for most residents of cities, life is not about engaging the urban ‘entertainment machine’ or enjoying the most spectacular views from a high-rise tower,” says Kotkin. “To them, the goal is to achieve residence in a small home in a modest neighbourhood, whether in a suburb or in the city, where children can be raised and also where, of increasing importance, seniors can grow old amid familiar places and faces.”

That goal gets harder to reach as restrictions get put on suburban development. Urban policy should be about choices and not government edicts, says Kotkin.  “The notion that development be ‘steered’ into ever-denser pockets violates the wishes of the vast majority. These attitudes reflect a remarkable degree of disrespect and even contempt toward the choices people make. If people move to the periphery, it is not because they are deluded or persuaded by advertising but because they perceive that is where their quality of life is higher…The attempt to reduce the space and privacy enjoyed by households is not progressive but fundamentally regressive.”

Kotkin sees cities as more than the dense and crowded places envisioned by planners, downtown developers and urbanists.

“To some advocates, these are the only places that matter because they express ‘superior’ urban virtues pertaining to environmental or cultural values. Their notion of improving cities is less about luring people there with amenities that appeal to families and more about shoving development into dense transit nodes, increasing the ‘sustainability’ and profitability of their developments…Planners, politicians and pundits often wax poetic about these massive new building projects and soaring residences made up of hundreds of tiny stacked units, but there’s just one problem with this brave new condensed world: most people, including many inner-city residents, aren’t crazy about it.’

Kotkin’s unlikely to be invited to deliver the summit keynote speech to a banquet hall full of Hamilton urbanists. Yet he makes a convincing case for why doubling down on densification while restricting dispersion in suburbia is a bad idea if we want our city to be the best place to raise a child.

“No field of study – technical or in the humanities – thrives when only one side or perspective is allowed free reign and granted a dispensation from criticism. The question of the future of cities is too important to be hemmed in by dogma and should instead invite vigorous debate and discussion.”

Jay Robb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and reviews business books for the Hamilton Spectator.