Read an Excerpt
50 Plus! Critical Career Decisions for the Rest of Your Life
By Robert L. Dilenschneider
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Robert L. Dilenschneider
All rights reserved.
THE NEW RULES
Like everything else, business — and I'm using that term in the widest sense — has rules. To succeed, you've got to follow those rules, and that's true whether you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a part-time instructor in a yoga studio. The confusing part is that, within my lifetime, the rules have changed.
THE OLD RULES
When I started out in the 1960s and 1970s, society was in flux but business was definitely not. It was an old boys' club with a rigid hierarchy. I can remember flying on a corporate jet from Ohio to New York when one of the fellows on the plane opened up the bar and started offering everyone drinks. The CEO, who owned the plane, didn't hesitate to put him in his place. Don't you realize, he said, that I'm the one who opens the bar? The guy promptly sat back down.
In those days, business operated under a strict set of rules and assumptions. The fact that most of them were unwritten only made them more powerful.
A POLICY OF EXCLUSION
In many ways, the business world that I found as a young man was like a country club — the kind that a lot of people can't get into. There was an unspoken rule that blacks don't apply. There was a rule that Jews don't get into commercial banks. There was a rule that women were secretaries — or they were home, where they supposedly belonged. Asians were strictly curiosities. As for Puerto Ricans, they were fictional characters out of West Side Story; in the real world of business, they didn't exist.
In short, the WASP — White Anglo-Saxon Protestant — ruled. And not just any WASP, either. You had to be male. You had to be middle class or better. And you had to attend the right schools. I know. You might not think that someone like me — a white male from a middle class background — could feel the sting of discrimination. But I remember one time in the 1960s when I attended a meeting at a Midwestern bank. At lunch, someone suggested that we go around the table and tell everyone where we had gone to school. One banker said he was from Princeton, another said Harvard, and a third had a degree from Yale. Then it was my turn. I proudly announced that I had gone to Notre Dame. I might as well have said that I graduated from Sing Sing. Instead of nodding and smiling, as they had for the other universities, the bankers in that oak-paneled dining room cleared their throats and politely looked away. Notre Dame was a respectable enough school if you were a football player — or a Catholic. Otherwise, it wasn't on the map.
Today, being a WASP is not as important as it used to be, and neither is attending an Ivy League school. True, a lot of people still believe deep in their hearts that graduates of private schools are somehow better people. But thanks to business leaders like Steve Jobs (a Reed College dropout), the rule that you have to graduate from an Ivy League school is beginning to change. So is the more disturbing rule that you have to be white, male, and heterosexual. Although the changes are slower than they ought to be, the business world is starting to look like America — which is not to imply that all barriers to success have been removed. Cliques still exist. The old boy network still exists. Racism, sexism, and religious intolerance have not disappeared and neither has ageism. But they're fading fast — not because of federal laws (although I certainly think Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights legislation was helpful), but because talented and open-minded people are demonstrating different ways of doing things.
CONFORM OR ELSE
I wonder whether anyone born after, say, 1967 can have any idea of what a stranglehold convention once had on this country. In the 1940s and 1950s, if you didn't conform, you were the odd man out — and that was not a good thing. Men wore suits and ties: That rule was so firmly entrenched that when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965, even they wore suits and ties. Women standing behind the counters at Saks literally wore white gloves. With very few exceptions, work was nine to five, at least for the middle class. Original ideas were distrusted, and so were unusual people.
John F. Kennedy was a breath of fresh air for many reasons, not the least of which was that unlike Dwight D. Eisenhower, he had a vivid personality.
But if conformity stifled creativity and individuality, it also offered something we lack today: security. If you toed the line at work, you had a job for life. The corporation would take care of you from your first paycheck to your gold watch and beyond.
Today, people want a freer life. They want to enjoy themselves more, and they don't want to feel limited or pinned down. This is true not just in the United States but all over the world. Even the Organization Man doesn't want to be an organization man anymore.
THE LOST VIRTUES
Although bigotry and conformity were commonplace when I began my business career, not every aspect of that long-ago time was negative. Back then, loyalty was assumed. It no longer is. Today people change jobs, voluntarily and otherwise, at a dizzying rate.
An edifying article in Business 2.0 described several employees who left established firms (like Hewlett-Packard) to sign on with start-ups. When the dot-com deluge struck, they ran screaming back to the mother ship. And guess what? The corporations welcomed them back.
When I started out in business, neither part of that story could have happened. Employees were not cavalier about leaving good jobs at solid companies and, if they did, corporations weren't so eager to take them back. Although this job-hopping frenzy may have peaked, no one can doubt that the rules have changed. In a sense, everyone has become a free agent. Job switching is not only not frowned upon, it's expected. So if you're a corporate manager, you can't count on your staff to stay with you. (Tip: Treating them very, very well helps.) And if you're an employer, it doesn't matter how high you are on the totem pole: Your job is vulnerable. In 2012, over a thousand CEOs resigned, retired, or otherwise left their jobs. For many, the departure was anything but voluntary, no matter how it may have looked.
Civility is another lost virtue. It used to be the rule, not the exception. Today, people say virtually anything they want to. They're insulting, rude, and vulgar, a tendency that the Internet has exacerbated. (Of course, maybe every generation, once it's no longer caught up in the rebelliousness of youth, comes to believe that things used to be more civilized. I think of "Anything Goes," Cole Porter's great song bemoaning the loss of civility. It was written in 1934.)
Nonetheless, it seems to me that today, a lack of civility taints the most ordinary encounters. When I first came to work in New York City, I used to go to a sidewalk stand in the morning to get breakfast. We would all stand in line in an orderly way, buy a bagel and coffee, and carry it upstairs to the office. Today, there are thirty people milling around at the stand, there is no line, and everybody's yelling as they push forward. Chaos has replaced civility.
Even in the rarefied world of big business, civility has taken a hit. I'm reminded of a meeting I arranged between two high-powered executives. I thought they might be able to do business together. But right before the meeting, one of the men, the CEO of a large company, confided that he intended to insult the other guy in order to get his attention.
I said, you don't have to do that. The proposition you're offering is powerful enough to carry the day on its own. You ought to do this in a low-key, understated way. Then wait for his reaction.
The CEO was adamant. He was determined to do it his way. And he did. The other guy was so offended that he literally walked out of the room. It took over two weeks — two wasted weeks — to get them back together. Personally, I favor a more civilized approach.
Finally, the atmosphere of the business world has been damaged in one other way. Thanks in part to a hyperactive plaintiff bar, it has been infected by a barrage of lawsuits on everything from age and minority discrimination to sexual harassment. Many of these suits are legitimate. But many are frivolous, caused not only by disgruntled employees but by big-mouth bosses who ought to know that sometimes it's wise to be guarded about what you say.
Pinpointing reasons why the world has changed is never easy. But I'd like to give it a whirl. I think there are three basic causes:
The changing role of government. I spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C., and I am not happy about what goes on there. It seems to me that government is failing. The economy is weak, trust has been eroded, and our basic systems are in need of repair. For instance, I don't think anybody is satisfied with our educational system in the United States. Half our kids can't read, particularly in large urban areas. The schools themselves are in disrepair. And there is a dearth of qualified teachers. Well, no wonder. There is something wrong with a system in which an NFL quarterback earns an annual salary of twenty-two million dollars while a high school teacher pulls in, on average, only fifty-eight thousand a year.
Medical care is another problem. It's too soon to tell how Obamacare will play out, but at best it is only a partial solution to problems that will worsen as the population ages.
And then there's the legal profession. There are approximately 80,000 lawyers in Washington, D.C., alone — eight times as many as in 1970. Many of them are lawmakers who are pork-barreling like mad instead of dealing with the common good. As a result, business and government, which used to be largely separate, are joined at the hip and the number of lobbyists both in Washington and in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, has increased dramatically. A lot of the companies I deal with, knowing that the ability to access government is crucial to their success, have developed carefully thought-out strategies for governmental relations. Lobbying to get laws passed is an integral part of what they do. Thirty-five years ago, that simply wasn't the case.
Greed. I don't want to sound like a preacher, but the climate has changed and I think that old-fashioned greed has a lot to do with it. It's our Sodom and Gomorrah. We have become profligate and so successful as a country that we have lost our sense of balance. People expect to achieve a level of financial independence that was once inconceivable for anyone other than royalty and robber barons. I suppose they imagine that ever-increasing wealth will lead to ever-increasing happiness. If only it could.
Technology. When I started working in the 1960s, the IBM Selectric typewriter represented a major technological advance, carbon paper was still being perfected, and the usual way to send an important message was to mail it, which took two or three days minimum. If you were corresponding with someone in another country, it could take as long as a week. If you were communicating with people in a remote location, you could never be sure if your message arrived at all. I remember having to dispatch messengers to parts of Central Asia, South America, and Africa just because we weren't sure the mail would get through. With today's technology, the concept of "remote" is becoming extinct — and you know in a heartbeat whether you got through. Just as the internal combustion engine transformed society by making it possible to travel quickly between distant spots, the computer has thoroughly altered our world. Today, all bets are off. The old assumptions are no longer valid. The rules have changed.
Doing business today is more demanding than ever, and more daunting. It requires intelligence, energy, resilience, global awareness, and old-fashioned street-smarts. Here are the rules:
A company recently asked me to promote their CEO. When I asked what distinguished him, I was told that he used to be a referee in the National Football League and had relationships with a lot of football players. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm a sports nut. Nonetheless, I wasn't impressed, because this company had absolutely nothing to do with sports. The CEO's football experience was irrelevant to the business. It did not add value.
To add value, you need to have fresh ideas, startling insights, knowledge, skill, or economic savvy. One way or another, unless you bring something substantial to the table, you may find that your seat has been taken.
In my office, the basic rule is this: If you come to the meeting, you had better have something to say — and if you don't have something to say, don't come to the meeting. This simple rule makes a huge difference.
For example, several years ago, a group of us attended an important meeting in Toronto. I reminded everyone in advance that they should be prepared to add value. The week before the meeting, each one of them went out and did research. When we came together, that additional data coalesced and raised our level of participation far beyond what it could have been. In the meeting, we offered our client new ways to think about his business, new ways to price his product, trends that were coming from competitors, and all kinds of other information. This wasn't just another routine meeting where we offered a bit of advice to a client. This was an extraordinary experience. Afterward, the client wrote me a letter and said that he'd never attended such a meeting before. It was a success because everyone in that room, working individually, had figured out a way to add value.
Adding value in this way requires an open mind and a fearless disposition. One executive I know who has those qualities in spades works for a major food company in the Midwest. When this guy is facing a difficult problem, he takes the Jack Kennedy approach. He seeks out the best and the brightest to work on it. He brings in legal minds, financial minds, public relations minds — the best in the world. The meeting is designed as a wide-ranging and open discussion with one rule: Park your ego at the door. As a result of that, I've seen him come up with one original solution after another. He's not afraid to add value.
No one is suggesting that you have to hire every Tom, Dick, and Harriet. You don't have to include people who don't measure up. But you can't exclude people in the ways that they have been excluded in the past. If you're not inclusive both in your hiring practices and in the way you conceive of your market, you're going to be counted out.
Besides that, being inclusive is good for business. Big advertisers like Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and the Ford Motor Company emphasize inclusion because they understand the importance of appealing to the Hispanic market, the African American market, and other demographics. They know if they understand those markets, they can tap into them, which will help their bottom line. Being inclusive offers a significant competitive advantage.
More important, it's the right thing to do.
Although The Dilenschneider Group, I'm glad to report, is a rainbow company, I admit that I was put to the test when I interviewed Scott Chesney. I knew that he'd been an accomplished athlete, but I didn't know that a rare medical disorder had unexpectedly confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. So when he wheeled himself into my office, I was stunned. Throughout the interview, I kept thinking, how can I employ this guy?
I decided to give it a shot. We made Chesney a researcher. He worked on the computer and was very helpful to the company. Our objective was to have him present research reports. So we brought him into meetings. We took him on trips. And he made a significant contribution.
Then one day he announced that he was going to take a round-the-world cruise and create a business. To no one's surprise, it's quite successful. Being in a wheelchair hasn't held him back.
One of the most inclusive people I know is Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the former chairman and CEO of Carlson, a hospitality and travel corporation with a footprint all over the world. It employs more than 170,000 people — and I wouldn't be surprised if Marilyn's met them all. Oftentimes when Marilyn is working on a problem, she draws a circle around it, and she always draws that circle big enough to include everybody. She will go out of her way to talk with the desk clerk. She makes a point of being inclusive — and her attitude is not faked. Does it work? It does. Marilyn's success has been extraordinary. But then I've noticed that the more successful people are, the more inclusive they tend to be.
At the same time, it's disturbing that the old shibboleths, resentments, and intolerances still exist, especially among older people.
Excerpted from 50 Plus! Critical Career Decisions for the Rest of Your Life by Robert L. Dilenschneider. Copyright © 2015 Robert L. Dilenschneider. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.