Monday, May 16, 2011

Death to Passive Business: Long Live the Active Mind


Of the myriad explanations why the world economy has surged while America idles, my favorite is complacence.  Countries like India and China take an active hand pioneering technology, courting new manufacturing techniques, and cultivating a diverse workforce.  Meanwhile America maintains a post-WWII mindset that, if we make more stuff and manage our numbers, everything will flourish.  The last thirty years prove that doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.

The G Point - How To Turn Your Business Into A Growth MachineBusiness innovator Jack Trytten addresses that attitude in The G Point.  While corporate CEOs generally emerge from engineering or finance, these fields no longer have an unlimited hand in business.  To sell today, you can’t just make great stuff and wait passively for people to arrive.  The difference between success and failure lies in awareness, loyalty, and trust.  That is, today’s successful businesses run on marketing.

Customers are barraged by choices, many with little distinguishing them from one another.  If producers want to sell products, they need to woo customers, build rapport, and persuade customers to trust one company over another.  Trytten promises to turn businesses into “Growth Machines” if they nurture customer relationships, work to recognize customers’ values, and embrace change as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Growth through marketing, to Trytten, may mean sales.  But it more likely means service.  Products usually matter little to customers; instead, they buy something your product offers, like ease, prestige, or value.  As producer, you must know your customers and offer what they really want.  Whether by making superior product, demonstrating excellent customer service, or remaining loyal, you must actively offer what customers want

Miles Away... Worlds ApartSo it’s not enough to simply work to get rich.  Alan Sakowitz, author of Miles Away... Worlds Apart, warns against passively chasing after wealth.  After all, Sakowitz blew the lid off Florida’s biggest fraud case, Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.  When Sakowitz realized that Rothstein’s house of cards was worth billions, he had to step in, even though Rothstein had the governor, police chief, and half of Florida deep in his pocket.

But Sakowitz doesn’t just condemn a man who promised bottomless passive wealth.  People want to get rich; that’s hardly news.  Instead, Sakowitz contrasts Rothstein’s Fort Lauderdale corruption with his close-knit Jewish community in North Miami Beach.  This culture rewards people who take an active hand, do for each other, and act responsibly.  Sakowitz derives important lessons from his community on responsible business and ethical leadership.

Rothstein offered people passive opportunities to inflate themselves and get rich on paper.  Sakowitz’s community improves the world by putting others first and following the goals G-d offers.  Maybe people think they want the reward of wealth and prestige, but Sakowitz found that promise ultimately hollow.  His community works hard and makes do, especially in a down economy, but they have something worth working for.

Jolt!: Get the Jump on a World That's Constantly ChangingPhil Cooke’s desires are less specific than Trytten or Sakowitz, but in Jolt!, he urges readers to take a similar active hand.  In a society where change has become commonplace, Cooke says you cannot stand pat.  But, like Sakowitz, he also rejects arrogance and greed.  Because of that, his standards sometimes seem contradictory: you’re responsible for your professional advancement, but you must also look out for others.  You need to follow your bottom line, but you also need to chase spiritual goals that leave a positive legacy.

But that very contradictory nature emphasizes Cooke’s point.  We can’t just accept his advice like placid puppies when life demands we take control.  Cooke says we need to think, take responsibility, and show ourselves active.  Cooke—a committed Christian, but also a self-made man and media tycoon—says we need to captain our own ships.

Importantly, Cooke doesn’t make lofty promises that effort makes us rich.  Leave that for the passive Rothsteins of the world.  Instead, Cooke says an active life gives us meaning.  I wish more executives focused on business as an active, ethical calling that offers purposeful life.  The epidemic passivity that crashed our economy three years ago hasn’t just speared our retirement funds; it’s stripped modern life of meaning.

I blame MBA programs.  I’ve written about this before, but schools reward people who memorize lists of solutions and regurgitate them for tests.  This provides solutions to problems millions of people have already faced, but renders us powerless before new and uncharted situations.  I’d like to think this isn’t deliberate, but I’ve taught too long not to see patterns.  We need to shirk this cultural passivity if we want to face the wild complexity of modern, active life.

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