Employee since 2007

The next time you’re in CostCo, check out the employees’ badges.  Right under the employee’s name, the badge say “Employee since _______”.  Subtle, but powerful.

From what I know about CostCo, this is the real deal – they care about employee longevity, about treating people right, and about setting themselves apart from their peers.  Barron’s called them the “anti Wal-Mart”, and with average 2007 pay of $17/hour – 42% higher than Sam’s club – there seems to be real truth to the story.

And then in the perfect twist, analysts like Emme Kozloff of Sanford Bernstein calls CostCo’s CEO Jim Senegal “too benevolent” and analysts at Deutche Bank complain that “it’s better to be an employee than a customer or a shareholder.”

(Now  I’m supposed to drop in the chart of CostCo’s 10-year stock performance and show how it’s drastically outperformed the Dow and Walmart – each of which have offered a 0% 10-year return versus 80% for CostCo.  So here’s the chart if you’re curious.  But that’s not what’s on my mind.)

Costco v. Wal-Mart v. Dow Jones Inex
Costco v. Wal-Mart v. Dow Jones Inex

What’s on my mind is that, while I recognize that Jim Senegal has to do the dance of saying he pays employees well and treats them right because it’s good for the bottom line – because employee retention is higher, “shrinkage” (aka theft) is lower, and CostCo’s more affluent customers value interacting with happy employees – at some point we have to get to the heart of the matter.

When did it become accepted that actions that are right and moral – like paying employees a decent wage – have to be explained away and justified?  When did we accept the notion that people should be moral in their lives but that the moment they show up for work their morality is subsumed by their obligation to maximize profits (whatever that means)?

All great companies exist to change their industries, to change the world, so the starting point is a sense of purpose and a willingness to play by a different set of rules.  The question is: how far are we willing to go?  Of course great companies should do great things for their shareholders and make lots of money for (all!) their employees, but the notion that it is better for management to be amoral rather than moral undercuts the foundation of our society, our values, what makes us human being.

It may sound naïve, but I find it ironic that in a country (the U.S.) where values, morality, and religiosity have such a central place in our culture, in the corporate mainstream – which is itself populated mostly by values-driven, moral, religious people – it is verboten to talk in any serious way about acting in a moral way because it is the right thing to do.  Instead there’s this Texas Two Step, nudge-nudge wink-wink from CEOs to Wall Street to say “honest, guys, I’m just doing it to make more money!”

And then all of a sudden, a company that wins the Global Renewable Energy Award and that plasters magazines and billboards and tradeshows telling the world that “BP” stands for “Beyond Petroleum” is responsible for a 60-mile oil spill that will wreak unknown and unmitigated havoc on the environment, on wetlands, on marine life, and on us.

When will we as a society get to the point where we see that this is all connected?

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Commencement job blues

Graduation is in the air, and I can’t help but think about students finishing  their degrees and marching off to their new jobs.  It’s a stressful enough time, and I suspect that even though the economy is no longer in a free fall that jobs are still hard to come by.  Which makes it all the harder for students to stick it out for the jobs they really want instead of the jobs they can get.

It’s easy to pretend that the first job you take is just that, and that it’s not a first step down a path.  The truth is, it is a move in one direction.  It’s not an irrevocable one, but this step will make it easier to continue in one direction, harder to turn to another one.

While I was at business school, I had an offer for a job that was exactly the kind of job you go to business school to get: prestigious, it would get me a set of skills I thought I wanted, it paid well, the works.

The only thing was, I didn’t want the job.  The people weren’t right, the culture wasn’t right, my motivations for considering the job weren’t right.   Just thinking about accepting the job physically made my stomach tighten up.  But I knew it would be a stepping stone to other things.  And I knew my classmates would say I was crazy (or worse) for turning it down.

A close friend gave me some advice I’ll never forget.

She said, “A few months from now, it’s just going to be you showing up at that office.  None of your classmates, none of the people who are going to tell you you’re crazy for turning it down, no one but you is going to be there.  And then what?”

It’s true.  It’s you, it’s your job, it’s your path, it’s your life.

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Which purpose?

Having started my professional life as a management consultant, I’m all too familiar with the snarky refrain of people exiting the sector, “I got tired of flying around the world to make the world safe for Fortune 500 companies.”

Clever enough.

What’s perplexing is that when you’re making a shift from something you did for some extrinsic reason (it appeared safer, more lucrative, was what everyone else was doing, was what you thought people around you wanted you to do) to an intrinsic reason, it can be hard to make out exactly what kind of “purpose” you’re looking for.

Put another way: “purpose” and “social purpose” are not the same thing.

Right now, in US at least, there is a supply/demand imbalance in the “social purpose” sector.  The number of positions in high-performing organizations in the social sector is a lot fewer than the number of people looking for those jobs.

But opening the aperture a little further to organizations with a purpose…I bet there’s a lot more out there.

Every entrepreneur worth her salt has a purpose, and most of the people who join their cause sign up for that purpose.  Every organization that sees the world one way and wants to look another way has a purpose. 

Purpose creates passion and zeal and focus and fun.  Purpose gets you out of bed in the morning.  Purpose is not apologizing for what you do when you explain it to others.  Purpose is knowing that, even if the thing you’re fighting for blows up tomorrow, you’ll walk away and say “that was worth fighting for.”

There’s a lot of purpose out there, if you look…with purpose.

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The only blogging advice I have ever taken

There’s a lot of advice out there for how to be a successful blogger, and most of it feels like it either should be ignored or needs to be taken for what it is – advice on how to game the system.

The reason I don’t take most of it seriously is because blogging to me doesn’t fall into some mysterious online category that has a slew of opaque rules only discernible by Web 2.0 (3.0? 4.0?) gurus with massive Twinfluence.

Instead, it’s just another way of delivering relevant, engaging content to readers.

Which is why I’m much more interested in turning to a writer for advice here.

This from the closing of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is worth printing out and pinning to the wall:

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal.  So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work.  Write straight into the emotional center of things.  Write toward vulnerability.  Don’t worry about appearing sentimental.  Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent.  Risk being unliked.  Tell the truth as you understand it.  If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this.  And it is a revolutionary act – truth is always subversive.

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Pitching you, without apology

Everyone knows knows that if you run a startup you need an “elevator pitch,” a description of your business that’s pithy enough to capture the attention of a potential investor in the length of an elevator ride.

You know what else needs an elevator pitch?  You.

You need to have a practiced, smooth, two- to three-sentence, “I’m so-and-so and this is who I am and what I do” at the ready.  It takes practice, so know that you’re working on this and play with it until it is right.

To be effective, your personal elevator pitch needs to be direct, simple, energetic, enthusiastic, genuine and unapologetic.  The last word – unapologetic – is the surprising one.  It’s amazing how often people belie, in what they say or how they say it, that they are not proud (or feel like they’re not supposed to be proud) of who they are and what they do.

This is a shame, because I bet what you do is worth doing, and I bet the person you’re talking to believes that as well.

So, if just for this moment, keep your inner critic hidden away and pitch yourself with pride.

*                               *                               *                               *                               *

(P.S. If you are a professional fundraiser this one takes on extra significance.  Often fundraisers either don’t like describing themselves as “fundraisers” – so they stumble over how to describe themselves – or they do say they are “fundraisers” but then make caveats or other kinds of apologies.  Since every fundraiser, as a representative of the organization, is selling themselves first, it’s doubly important to get this right.)

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A new tool

I participated an interesting conversation tonight of about 30 people all interested in the “impact investing” space which, broadly defined, is focused on taking an investment-based, market-based approach to solving major social problems.  Acumen Fund, where I work, is one of the pioneers of this space, and we’re excited to see the growth of the sector, especially in the last few years.

Tonight’s conversation started with a question – “what are the limits of philanthropy?”  And while I thought this was an interesting question to kick off discussion, I thought it was a misleading starting point for a conversation about how to use patient investment capital for social change.

It’s not about what’s wrong with philanthropy.  Rather, we opened our tool box one day a few years ago and discovered a strange new tool – using the markets and an investing mindset to make social change.  What we’re all in the process of trying to figure out is, “What’s this tool for? Where can it best be used?”  I don’t know if philanthropy is a hammer or a screwdriver or an awl, but I do know that we can waste a lot of energy trying to figure out all the things that other tool cannot do, energy that would be much better spent holding this new tool in our hands, playing with it, trying it out in different situations, and honestly looking at the fruits of our labor.

Where does this tool work?  Where does it do a fabulous job?  And where does it prove to be awkward or misshaped or just plain inappropriate?

This new tool alone isn’t going to solve all our problems just like philanthropy doesn’t and the markets don’t either (nor does microfinance; nor does infrastructure; nor do projects for women and girls).  But those who spend their time mastering this new tool, apprenticing and toiling and honestly assessing what they have worked to build – these people will show us the way forward.

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90% or 5%

I recently heard a speaker who suggested, to a roomful of hyper-productive multitaskers, a radical reorientation of how to spend time.  This speaker, a successful investor and investment adviser, doesn’t write emails, doesn’t multi-task, and doesn’t have a Pavlovian response to a Blackberry’s red blinking light.   Based on his own experience, he suggested that successful decisions come when we create space for deep contemplation and reflection – when we create the time that allows us to we walk around and look at our problems with the curiosity and reflection of a poet who studies a rock, or a beach, or the morning sky.

A lovely idea that is easy to dismiss, to be sure – and many in the audience had just that reaction.  One person went so far as to give an impassioned argument in favor of the efficiency of multi-tasking (while conceding that he agrees with Clifford Nass’ research showing that multi-tasking doesn’t work).

Why are we all so defensive?  Perhaps because we kid ourselves into think that we’re almost getting done 100% of what we need to get done.  We’re super-busy, but, we tell ourselves, we’re probably completing 90% of what we absolutely must get done, and the other 10% probably isn’t all that important anyway, right?  And if we’re getting 90% done, then cutting out half of our meetings or not responding to half our emails sounds impossible.  It feels like a move from 90% to 60%.  Imagine the impact!

But I wonder if the 90% is an illusion.  What if I’m doing 15% of what I could do, or even 5%?  What if I’m nowhere near doing everything I could do that would be productive, because “everything” has gotten so big that I’m never anywhere but the tip of the iceberg.

If I’m only doing 5% of what I “could” do, then a radical shift becomes easier.  By acknowledging that I’m the one deciding how I spend the time, and by recognizing that my criteria might be really good or really bad, I just might create the space for that radical reorientation.

Am I ready to make a big change?  Not yet.  But I do think that doing away with the notion that I’m doing “almost everything” will allow more space for doing what I really need to do.

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One good sign

In early 2008, about a year after I started at Acumen Fund, I noticed something surprising.  Even though I was busier than I had ever been, I started reading again– first fiction, but then all sorts of things including a healthy dollop of things that cut to the core of how I see and understand the world and how to be more professionally effective.

What changed?  I’d have thought that going from a not-so busy routine to one where I have to savagely guard every minute of the day would give me less space to think and reflect and grow.

It’s because in my previous job, I was dying on the vine.

That meant that I spent all my mental energy all day long trying to convince myself to hang on, that I was making it work, that all of the cognitive dissonance – the cacophony, really – between what I hoped the job would be and what it turned out to be was manageable.  So by the end of the day, when I had some time to myself, the idea of reconnecting to the professional, productive part of who I am ran the risk of reminding me of my terrible, energy-sapping job, and I wanted no part of it.

What I wish someone had told me then – which is what I wanted to share now – is that you (if you find yourself in a similar situation) are not the job.  You are a wonderful, intelligent, highly capable person who will take huge strides forward as you continue to invest in yourself – through what you read and the relationships you build and the connections you make and the doors you open for others.

And if you find yourself stretched and thinking and growing every day, take that as a sign that something’s very right, because in yourself is just about the best use of time around.

Abundance breeds abundance, not the other way around.

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Work like a freelancer

Twice in the last 24 hours I’ve come across two glimpses into the life of the freelancer / writer that struck a chord.  Chris Guillebeau, who is the author of an inspiring and useful manifesto called 279 Days to Overnight Success also sends out a weekly newsletter called “The Art of Nonconformity [AONC].”  From his last newsletter, about the life of a freelancer:

It’s always fun to go on vacation as a self-employed person because a) you still have to work, and b) no one thinks you do any work to begin with.  So then when you go on vacation they say, oh, must be nice that you don’t have a job and can do that.  Meanwhile on vacation I work six hours a day instead of ten.

And then I came across this passage in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life”:

Every morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning.  Many years passed before I realized that he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill.  I wanted him to have a regular job where he put on a necktie and went off somewhere with the other fathers and sat in a little office and smoked.  But the idea of spending entire days doing someone else’s work did not suit my father’s soul.  I think it would have killed him.  He did end up dying rather early, in his mid-fifties, but at least he had lived on his own terms.

And my reflection is this: life, especially professional life, is becoming much more like freelancing.  The most important decisions we make every day – even if we have “regular jobs” – are how to spend our time, defining what success looks like for ourselves and for our customers, and figuring out who our customers are and how best to serve them.  This is where we all have the most leverage, and it’s a shift that’s happened in this last decade as markets have fragmented, costs of production have plummeted, and networks have become ubiquitous.  And it means that we all are, to a greater or lesser extent, a lot more like freelancers than ever before – and if we’re not acting and thinking like freelancers we’re missing an opportunity.

It’s easy to romanticize the life of a writer or a freelancer – in reality, as Chris reminds us, it’s hard and uncertain because you have to have the discipline to decide how to spend your time and to create the structure you need to produce your work (your art).

But what’s deceptive about “regular jobs” is that it’s incredibly easy to fool yourself into thinking that these aren’t your choices to make – because you have a full inbox and lots of meetings to go to and a boss telling you what you have to get done and when.

The moment you start looking at the 24 hours in your day and how you’re going to spend them, the moment you open the door to the possibility that you could wake up at 5:30am to do what you do best – whether blogging or writing or learning a new craft (or programming language or computer software or foreign language), or just going above and beyond for the job that you already do and love – is the moment you open the door to real possibility.

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Yesterday’s salad

Traveling on Monday morning, and hoping to avoid on-board food, I picked up a $9 Caesar salad at the Balducci’s in the Delta terminal at JFK. A few hours later, my laptop dead, I popped open the plastic box to dig in.

The salad looked beautiful, but it was very sad indeed.  The first clue was a squishy crouton. The second crouton also didn’t crunch. Then I picked up a piece romaine, and it had turned a little red from spoilage. So had nearly all the lettuce in the salad. Red, wilted lettuce and soggy croutons for lunch? No way.

It turns out that I had paid, at 9 in the morning, $9 for a day-old salad at one of the upperiest of the upscale food chains in New York.

It’s so easy to convince yourself to sell the day-old salad, to give your customer something other than your best because it is cheaper or easier or because you’re just plain lazy. Plus, you convince yourself, they won’t notice.

The thing is, they will notice and so will you.  The only question is which will happen faster: you losing them as a customer, or you quietly begrudging yourself and your organization for delivering such a shoddy experience?

There’s old salad somewhere in your organization – old reports or analysis or ways you treat people that might have been good enough when they were fresh, but they’ve passed their expiration date.

Throw out the old salad. Today is a new day.

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