Simple Economics In Action

Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau, is a tiny island in the Windward Islands of the Southern Caribbean, It's about as big as 4 or 5 football fields in either direction at best. As I write this, it is hosting a dozen sailboats with crews representing a number of different countries who are here for the night.  

The real fun is watching how a group of enterprising local competitors have organized themselves into what appears to be a successful,economic system without, I suspect, anything written down or enacted into law. The economy is broken into two main market segments 1) about a dozen Individual "boat boys" with brightly painted designs who dart about providing a variety of services to incoming and moored boats and 2) four or five on-shore "beach shacks" which offer island drinks, grilled food, and some with extras such as T-shirts, brightly colored towels, etc.

The first market interaction occurs when one of the "boat boys" spots a boat that looks like it will turn into the bay. He rushes out to greet an incoming boat. His first sale is to entice the captain to follow him to a mooring ball where assists in tying up. He gets a modest tip for the contribution. In most cases he will the proceed with the "upsell" to come to dinner at one of the beach shacks to which he is affiliated. The next boat in will be approached by someone else so it is clear that they devised a system of "ups" similar to car dealerships and real estate offices. It also appears that when such a transaction occurs the boat becomes their customer so the others lay off.

The next market interaction is usually the "boat boy" who comes by to collect the fee for using the mooring ball. Several other individuals will come by with an offering such as ice, baked goods, T-shirts, garbage collection, or fresh fish. Sometimes a small boat will come in to sell jewelry or other goodies not offered in the bay.

Beach shack "operations" require a whole team, of course. Someone goes out to check the lobster traps. Someone catches fish. Someone goes to town (or comes out) to deliver food and supplies for the evening's dinners. Presumably, these product offerings can be sold to multiple beach shacks or just gathered for their own use.While tiny in scope the beach shacks still seem to employ cooks, bartenders, waitpersons and clean-up help. Naturally any of the team can cover multiple roles even though there seem to be enough people involved to cover each job. One of the more outgoing, (perhaps one of the "boat boys" from earlier in the day), also handles helping customers each their dinghys or goes to get them from their boat, handling music, etc.

We are currently here for our third evening in the last five or six years and the joy is to see that on each visit we can see the upgrading of quality, service, and complexity of activities. The boats and motors are newer and more substantial, the onshore facilities are becoming more substantial, and the sophistication of the workings of "the marketplace" are increasing.

So what's the point?  Why a blog?

To me, this economic model clearly demonstrates how people who have opportunities can marshal their entrepreneurial instinct and drive, learn how to sell and cooperate for mutual benefit, and invest back into growing their businesses. They don't seem to need entitlements, government supervision, executive management or MBAs to make it happen. I wonder how much more of such creativity and drive can be unleashed in our business and communities if we get out of people's way and simply open the doors to opportunity?

The Organizational Cost of ‘Deferred Maintenance’

deferred maintenanceIn a recent Vistage group meeting, one of my members brought up the issue of “deferred maintenance.” His well run firm underwent very severe cutbacks during the recession and is only now beginning to experience a recovery. He was referring to physical plant equipment and also a much broader issue – the fact that there have been so many ‘deferrals’ including; training and development for employees, abandoning strategic planning, and the complete lack of hiring “fresh blood “ upon which to build the future of the firm. The more the group members reflected and shared about their own situations, the more we realized we were dealing with a nearly blanket issue. Each firm has deferred so many things that now it seems like it’s the “new normal” – except it can’t be. The universe doesn’t stand still.

The good news is that sales are growing for most of them at a rapid, if not record, clip.  Profits are up nicely. So why are so many members expressing the fear they encounter among employees and themselves? Exploration of this question revealed a deep-seated concern for being able to get the rapidly increasing workload done. The faster pace of today, increased customer service demands, and a lack of staff to do the work on a timely basis pushes the load back up to middle and senior executives.

Countering any desire to rush out and hire some good people is a deep concern for the instability of our state and national leadership, and the sustainability of the economy.  Much of the “recession induced brain damage” has not been shaken off despite essentially positive economic forecasts from here to 2019.

The antidote the members aligned on is to get busy distinguishing the attributes of a powerful, shared vision and bold goals for their companies for at least the run to 2019. If you take the same approach and if you are truly bold, you will be immediately confronted by one of more of the following thoughts:

1)  I/we don’t know how

2)  I/we are scared to death

3)  I/we are insufficient (inadequate)

4)  I/we will never get good enough, fast enough, to pull it off

At that moment you really only have two choices:

1)  Slip to the periphery and gesture

2)  Stand in the face of the challenge and surrender to rigorously and continuously asking:

  • What are the missing strategies?
  • Who are the missing team members?

Additional valuable questions include: 

1)  What will we look like when it all turns out?

2)  How did we fulfill on our intentions?

3)  What pot holes and road blocks did we encounter?

4)  Considering our vision and bold goals as fulfilled, what deferred maintenance did we immediately take on and solve?

5)  What could we keep deferring or even ignore?

It is time to switch your frame of reference, your paradigm, your context, your point of view – which ever term clicks for you – and start inventing yourself from vision or you won’t have to worry about whether you have the right people on the bus – you will have missed it!

Discover Your Own Resourcefulness

creative solution“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of an opportunity without regard to the resources currently controlled.” –Prof. Howard Stevenson, Harvard Business School, 1983

In my last post, I shared about our work with The Hunger Project Mexico leaders, especially around the opportunity in being bold and taking on big challenges.  Since that time a client offered me the above quote on entrepreneurship.

I am going to propose that Professor Stevenson’s wonderful definition be expanded to include Cultural Creatives and everyone else who considers themselves change agents or aspires to bringing forth meaningful change of any kind.

Committing to an opportunity “without regard to the resources currently controlled” requires courage. There is “good news and bad news” associated with such a bold action. The moment you commit, several discouraging thoughts, which will seem very, very real, will flash before your eyes:

1)  I don’t know how

2)  I’m scared to death

3)  I’m insufficient

4)  I’ll never be good enough fast enough to pull it off

At that moment you have two choices:

1)  Slip to the periphery and gesture

2)  Surrender to team and strategy

Behind door number one, “slip to the periphery” is “looking good,” avoiding embarrassment, finding good excuses etc., while behind door number two, “surrender to team and strategy” is the willingness to stand in the gap between the known and the unknown, continually exploring for “what’s missing, that if put in place will move us toward our goal,” and also probably more than a few sleepless nights.

So where is the good news in boldly committing you ask? It will eventually produce extraordinary results. It will provide you with great satisfaction and a much richer sense of yourself.  It lies in discovering or reconnecting to your own resourcefulness – that’s the best news of all!

An excellent example of “door number two” leadership is Bill Ayer, CEO of Alaska Airlines. During a time when all the major airlines have lost tens of billions and eventually gone bankrupt, Alaska has become a leading innovator and a profitable business whose stock price has increased 300% since 2008. As a regular passenger, I have only great reviews for every aspect of my interactions with them. (For a more complete review of Alaska’s current success click here.)

In 2003 Alaska chose “cost per available seat mile” as a key measure of its success.  Their cost at the time was 8.73 cents. They committed to 7.25 cents, which would save $ 300 MM. To quote Mr. Ayer, “That was one of those things where we didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we said to ourselves, ‘that’s what we need to do. A good company would look at that.”

Given all of the cost issues faced by the airlines, including fuel costs rising 35% last year alone, Alaska has “only” hit 7.6 cents in 2011. Meanwhile they’ve gone from being one of the worst on time airlines to the best in the country last year.

Are you ready and willing to “go for it” and to discover your own resourcefulness?  If not, what are you waiting for?

Opportunity in the Old, Dying Paradigm Called "Jobs"

goldfishWhile much attention is being paid to the current and expected rate of unemployment in our economy, another longer-term trend is hardly being noticed or measured. Over the last several decades the number of people working as freelancers, consultants, and contractors has risen to 20 - 23% of U.S. workers and is expected to continue to grow.  Fast Company magazine talked about it back in a December 1997 article as the “Free Agent Nation” and urged everyone to wake up to the new reality. For our client companies, this trend is great news as it means you can hire highly qualified talent for many of your needs on a short-term, project basis. You can have top quality talent that you can’t afford and don’t need on a regular, full-time basis as virtual members of your teams. This gives you more ability to focus on what you do best while outsourcing many important functions that are not really part of your core competence. If you do it well, you will soon discover the advantages and learn to base most, if not all, relationships around contracts for performance.

For you folks who are out in the market, it means opportunity, if you are willing to create the right attitude and practice a few key disciplines.  A Wall Street Journal article Monday, February 8, 2010, entitled How to Succeed In the Age of Going Solo, by Dr. Richard Greenwald is a useful guide.

Whether you are still employed or have recently been given your freedom, realize that your old world of stable employment with full-time jobs and defined career paths is dying. We originally addressed this isssue in our post  on May 18th, 2009 about Mike Cook’s book Thrive: Standing On Your Own Two Feet in a Borderless World, in which Mike urges you to recognize and shift your paradigm about employment from one of "entitlement" to one of "engagement."   He offers the formula: Technical Competence + Collaborative Skill + Good Reputation = Potential Performance as a guide on your new path.

Dr. Greenwald provides specific actions to take along with a valuable discussion around each one of the following key steps:

1)    Think long-term – take on your new life as you would any profession

2)    Pick the right skills and keep them fresh – keep educating yourself

3)    Join a network – from social media to shared office space, find ways to connect with others with common interests

4)    Have your own space – most need space away from the activities and seductions at home

5)    Think like an entrepreneur –set yourself up as a business with a clear vision, mission, values, business plan, marketing program, & accurate financial statements

green_arrow_imageTo the wise counsel of these two authors we add "enjoy your newfound freedom!" You have escaped and are in a new world where your creativity and passion need have no bounds. You can work to your highest value. In our firm, we challenge our associates to “be all you can be, fully self-expressed, and let the world choose how much of you it wants and the price it is willing to pay for your gifts.  You are the offering.  The world has waited for eons for your arrival, get busy.”

Lead Your Life: Escape from Cubicle Nation

Pam Slim is the author of the blog and newly published book, "Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur." The title alone is so provocative. If you have ever worked in a big corporation, either you, or co-workers you knew, probably experienced wanting to escape at some point or other.peering-above-cube In the spirit of the Lead Your Business, Lead Your Life blog we are writing about this book because it is very empowering. And it's an important read and guidebook, not just for those who dream of escaping and branching out on their own in business. It's also an important read for business owners, both new and advanced. Here's why:

If you recently started a business, or your business is in a young, growing, perhaps even awkward stage, this book has great, tactical information for you. You'll want to review it to see if there are any areas of planning you may have missed or now find you need help with. You will likely find insights.

If you own a business that has been around for awhile and you have employees you also have a culture. Even if your business is not particularly large there are definitely cultural "norms." Just the first chapter of this book is a powerful reminder about elements and dynamics that don't work in organizational cultures. This chapter features a reprint of a powerful "Open cube-guy4Letter" to corporate leaders that vents the frustration that can be felt by employees about so many facets of business life. If you read the book using the lens of insight into, and a reminder of, what it can be like to be an employee - the challenges, and the daydreams -  it could be a very valuable read. Of course, not all employees are frustrated and many are happy to be working for others. But, if you are a business owner or top executive, this book can be a powerful reminder of the challenges of working for someone else, and the fierce desire employees can have for more creativity, autonomy and input. It may spark you to side-step or prevent traps that are just waiting to make your dream business into a living Dilbert cartoon.

Curious? Download the first chapter of the book for free here, or better yet, grab a copy. Pam's writing is extremely readable and she has a lot to offer on her blog and in this book.