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Occupy Wall Street & Vision

Occupy Wall Street is a “leaderless” movement that has spread across America. It’s a mixed group with legitimate grievances (why so many bail outs?) and nonsensical ones (“why aren’t we protecting Gia as a metaphor?”).

Yesterday, I wandered down to Liberty Park in New York City to talk to some of the protesters and see the movement first hand.

The first thing I noticed was the smell. The sectioned off protest area ringed with barricades and cops is home to a mass of people, their sleeping gear, and a make-shift kitchen. It wasn’t the Mandarin Oriental.

Protesters who weren’t resting on their sleeping bags were proudly standing around the park with signs decrying corporate greed. They posed for cameras that belonged to journalists and interested tourists.

But some of the signs didn’t fit in with the rest. One man held up a sign that congratulated President Obama and his accomplishments.

A younger protester approached him and asked: “Why did you come here with that sign?”

They started arguing, but it was a public, political, and civil debate between two generations, two races, and two different sexes.

This was an episode I witnessed repeatedly in Liberty Square Park. Protesters were spending most of their time talking amongst themselves trying to decide what they could agree on and what made them all mad.

I listened in on a few TV interviews. Reporters were asking the protesters questions about what they were fighting for. Some of the protesters were well spoken, asked for moderate reforms, and wanted to find ways to promote dialogue.

Other protesters, when asked the same set of questions, chose to rant and arm wave. One young man asked, “Can I give a shout out to my band?”

The reporter said no.

The movement is held together by General Assemblies or, in layman’s terms, meetings. Everyday two meetings are held on the east end of the park. They are informal affairs and anyone can speak. However, the problem is amplification since the protesters aren’t allowed microphones. A speaker is forced to say a sentence and the audience has to scream it back in unison. It’s a call and response system that helps everyone in the crowd here what’s being said.

It’s sloppy, but it works.

I was there for the first meeting of the day. Different people took center stage and aired their political beliefs and everyone echoed them. It was a good way of digesting different opinions, but when someone said something that wasn’t appreciated it wasn’t echoed.

No unified message emerged from the meeting I attended. No direction was proposed. There was no real vision. Just a bunch of fragmented ideas and a lot of complaints.

Currently, Occupy Wall Street has over 500,000 online supporters. They’ve raised over 40,000 dollars and the movement has even spread across the Atlantic into Ireland.

It’s amazing that it has done so well without a consistent narrative, without a leader, and without a clear set of demands.

Movements, leaders, and companies don’t have to rely on clear visions. They don’t always need goals. They don’t even need targets. But after a while they become crucial. How can Occupy Wall Street begin to get things done when they don’t know what it is they want done?

The lack of a vision hasn’t hurt Occupy Wall Street yet, but eventually it will create problems. It’s hard to imagine the group of protesters that I saw the other day unified under one message.

Pic credit: BlaiseOne

BLG Leadership Insights Features

Local Icon, Proactive Small Business

Entrepreneurship requires a certain degree of fortitude, focus, tenacity, and risk-taking. It requires, in our terms, pragmatic and proactive leadership. It’s not restricted to the stage of multi-national corporations or the platforms of politics. More often than not it takes it truest expression in the world of small business.

In the winter of 1978 Bicycle Habitat opened for business in Manhattan’s SoHo district with less than $5,000 in merchandise. At the time, the neighborhood was rough, local residents were leaving the city, and the NYC administration didn’t like the idea of bicycles on busy roads and bridges.

To say that Charlie McCorkell took a risk with his then business partner, Hal Ruzal, is a bit of an understatement. Charlie called it a “craps shoot.” Between the two of them they shared a passion for bikes, but were lost when it came to the mechanics of running a successful small business.

They were dedicated to preserving New York’s bike culture and organizing grassroots campaigns to protect the rights of bicyclists, but when it came to the basics of business administration, Charlie and his partner had to learn through trial and error and the occasional class.

Today Charlie is the sole owner and manager of Bicycle Habitat’s expanded incarnation. I sat down with him to talk about how he has successfully managed to keep his business together for over 30 years in NYC’s roller-coaster economy.

“Success,” Charlie says, “in a small retail environment is luck meeting preparedness.”

I ask him if “preparedness” could also mean “proactive.”

He thinks so.

While Charlie argues that luck has something to do with success, I have a feeling he’s being slightly modest. Charlie may be occasionally lucky, but he clearly works hard at being prepared and keeping proactive. So how does he do it?

“I read a lot…and I talk to a lot of other dealers and pick their brains. You look for what fits and what fits with you.”

It also has a lot to do with finding opportunities where you might not expect. Like finding the bright side of the recession.

“We were behind the whole ‘spend to save’ movement. If you buy a bike you can save money on transportation and help the economy.” Initiatives such as this one helped keep Charlie and his sales afloat during the rocky part of the economic downturn.

Keeping and staying prepared is also about keying into trends and technology.

“We were one of the first bike stores in the country to computerize.” Charlie says “[I try] to get the best tools in the hands of my people so they don’t have to stand around and wait for information.” It keeps Charlie’s business lean, agile, and ahead of his competitors.

This year Charlie opened up a second storefront a few meters from his current location that sells specialty and high-end bikes. It was a big undertaking, like many of Charlie’s ideas. He tells me, “I’m blessed with the ability to have great big visions.”

The only problem is, he can’t seem to get into the details.

“I try to find and work with people who have that attention to detail that I lack. People I can communicate my vision to who can make it so.”

Charlie supplies the vision, but knows that he has to use others. “I’m not unwilling to listen to people who tell me what to do.” He says, “It’s a lot about trust.”

Charlie knows that he doesn’t have the ability to carry out the nuts-and-bolts of a plan so he defers to people he can trust and adds that he has to be “willing to admit I’ve made a mistake.”

In 1979 Charlie opened up a second bike shop in Chelsea and, as his website reports, it was “Camelot” but by 1992 Charlie had to shut it down. It was the store’s first crisis and the moment Charlie realized that he might be sinking rather than swimming.

With bankruptcy looming, Charlie knew he had to “take control of the situation.”

He started to take another look at how he controlled and communicated with his employees. He knew that he “had to talk and lead them better.”

His first change was to spend more time in middle of the store, right next to his employees. He didn’t want to miss anything and let chances to help his employees slip by. “I try not to be too overbearing,” Charlie says. “If you have good people you let them do the right thing and I encourage people to make mistakes.”

I wondered if he could explain what he means.

“I try never to say, ‘I did that 10 years ago and it didn’t work.’ People who do things and have ownership of processes tend to take care of them and tend to make them work to spite you.”

In order to strengthen his business Charlie became more directive but still allowed for an important degree of autonomy. He wanted his employees to take pride in what they did and wanted them to learn from real-world experience rather than sit-down lessons.

This ethos fits in with the stores bare-bones aesthetic where repairs are done in front of the customers. Charlie doesn’t want to build walls between his trade and the customer nor does he seem keen to build walls between his employees and himself.

It’s a system that works. It keeps employees motivated and minimizes retention woes for Charlie.

That said, Charlie admits that the biggest challenge, the store’s recurring challenge, is finding a strong model to train employees.

Charlie currently relies on a “peer-to-peer” training program for new employees. It has worked in the past, but it’s not a solid system. Charlie has a vision of creating a better training platform for new staff, but again, he’s stuck getting the micro-details lined up.

“I have to turn to someone else to help me set it up,” Charlie concedes. “Hopefully we can get it down by this winter.”

Truly, Charlie is working hard to stay prepared and remain proactive. He has identified a new challenge and a new gap in his business plan and he he is already trying to design a system to work it out.

While Charlie believes that success is part luck and part preparedness, it becomes increasingly clear that luck has less and less to do with Bicycle Habitat’s success. It has had its ups and downs, but it remains a strong local icon due to Charlie’s preparedness. Or should I say, his ability to be proactive.

Picture Credit: J Ferguson

BLG Leadership Insights

Proactive in NYC: Nostalgia for the Purple Onion and Overwhelmed by Disney

Squalor, acrid smoke, moth-bitten second-hands suits, woefully hookers, overflowing dented garbage cans and massive $100 a month lofts in Soho.

Some of these things are still with us (not the apartments) but much has been replaced with swanky W hotels, hand tailored suits, sorted and recycled garbage, tiny $2,800 a month studio apartments in the East Village, no-smoking laws, and a day that begins punctually at 7:45. The imagineers at Disney have replaced the hookers with Snow White and multi-million dollar auctions at Christy’s have replaced the street art and graffiti of Lower Manhattan. For some, it was all over when the legendary birthplace of punk, CBGBs, was turned into a high end clothing store.

The cleaning up of New York is to be celebrated, but there’s a thin line between putting a nice shinny gloss on an environment and its embourgeoisement. When Frank Sinatra sang “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”, he didn’t have in mind a well typed resume with a highly stylized cover letter.

Suddenly, New York may not be the best choice for the artistic struggler. To be a functioning artist you need the right place, the right ambiance and you need to be able to struggle while not being overwhelmed. New York’s virtue lay in the places between the Upper East Side and Battery Park. These nooks and crannies were safe havens for artists to explore. There was Alphabet City, segments of the Bowery, and even Tribeca, but now the nooks and crannies are quickly disappearing.

The growth that we’ve seen under Giuliani and Bloomberg is to be celebrated. New York City has become the most popular tourist spot in the world. It seems that even hardened New Yorkers find themselves mesmerized, like tourist,s by bright lights of Times Square.

Inevitably these veterans of Old New York start to reminisce and realize that their scrubbed down, cleaned up, physically fit city has lost its energy. A friend of mine told me the other day:

“Good lord there are almost no New Yorkers in New York anymore…they’re all from Iowa.”

Well, how can anyone make it or be creative in this pristine environment? What about the old days? We tend to glorify Dylan, Baez, Ginsberg and Rothko. We wax nostalgic about the energy of the old place. But remember, for every Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Julian Schanbel, and Grandmaster Flash there are hundreds if not thousands of equally talented souls who died sad and anonymous deaths on the not-so-glamorous streets.

Point in fact it was never easy to make it in New York. Squalor has never guaranteed success; chain smoking at the Purple Onion never guaranteed creativity and ingenuity. Tending bar at the Mudd Club never promised visibility. The truth is, New York was almost as impossible then as it is now. Then, as is the case today, you had to network, deal with the power-brokers, hold meaningless jobs and share miniscule apartments with 3 roommates.

When Sinatra claimed if “I can make it there I can make it anywhere” it wasn’t the glorification of the famed New York ambiance. It was in fact a mission statement for survival in the Big Apple: If you can be proactive in New York then you will succeed. New York is the biggest opportunity and the most horrific obstacle in your way all at the same time. It’s obviously better to show up with a few million bucks in your pocket, but it’s crucial to show up with your own proactive capacity. And that’s what New York is really about. Corporate or not, it demands that you lead and not be passive.

Picture Credit: Darwin Bell

BLG Leadership Insights

Gary Bettman and Rob Manfred Cornell Club Talk [Video]

The ILR Workplace Colloquium Series is held at The Cornell Club in New York City. Periodically we bring together practitioners, Cornell alumni, policymakers, and academics for an evening of good food, presentations, and open discussions on workplace topics.

A few months ago we had the pleasure of hosting Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner, and Rob Manfred, VP HR for MLB. They jointly discussed labor relations in sports. The talk was called, “Human Resource Practices and Industrial Relations in Professional Sports.” The discussion and the following question and answer session was fantastic. Even those who weren’t especially sports fans or knowledgeable about labor relations in sports management found the conversation entertaining and educational.

If you’re sorry that you missed it. Don’t worry. It’s on our IWS Colloquium Website for all to see. Please find it here.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Picture Credit: mhaithaca

BLG Leadership Insights

Data Delusions

We’re all over-loaded with information–even if it’s synthesized to one degree or another. The idea that analysis of data leads to optimal strategic decisions keeps the organizational appetite for new data sources strong. Managers are required to find new data, new methods of capturing it, and make decisions that are steeped in its ultimate analysis. When someone wants to challenge your position on a topic or a decision you may find them asking, “Well what does the data tell us?” It sounds rational, but is it applicable? Can we always back up organizational decisions with numbers, data, and forecasting?

If your organization is anything like mine, they will report out monthly or bi-weekly figures of some kind. New York City has the Mayor’s Management Report, which combines indicators (critical/non-critical) from every division at every City agency. I thought my agency’s section was dense, until I attempted to digest the entire City snapshot for a two-week reporting period. For a taste, visit NYCStat, the City’s portal for performance-related data.

If that perspective is too global for you, take a look at the unread magazines piling up on your windowsill or reading table, or scroll back through all of your unread (partially-read) e-mails and then rate your own data management capabilities.

My examples pale in comparison to information juggernauts like Google and Wal-Mart, but everyone is getting in the game. As the Economist reports, “Companies are collecting more data than ever before. In the past they were kept in different systems that were unable to talk to each other, such as finance, human resources or customer management. Now the systems are being linked, and companies are using data-mining techniques to get a complete picture of their operations—‘a single version of the truth’, as the industry likes to call it. That allows firms to operate more efficiently, pick out trends and improve their forecasting.”

In an Economist special report, aptly titled The Data Deluge, we learn some astounding figures, “According to one estimate, mankind created 150 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. This year, it will create 1,200 exabytes.” What this will mean for managers the Economist says, “Merely keeping up with this flood, and storing the bits that might be useful, is difficult enough. Analyzing it, to spot patterns and extract useful information, is harder still.”

It’s no surprise that the Economist and others are arguing that “business decisions will increasingly be made, or at least corroborated, on the basis of computer algorithms rather than individual hunches. This creates a need for managers who are more comfortable with data, but statistics courses in business schools are not popular.” Could this lead the way to the new scientific management, in which crunched and processed information dictates the decisions that managers make?

What effect will this have on the debates about decision-making and managers’ ability to optimize? Can more data help us move closer to optimal choices? Maybe not, but it can probably help push along convincing studies that demonstrate that fact.

Will the advantages of aggregation help us see more clearly by highlighting smaller distinctions across larger data sets or will reality elude us hidden within a forest of statistics? It has always been the case that the recognition of importance in data (i.e. information) has offered organizations the competitive advantage. The ability to turn data dumps into useful information will give businesses and individuals the competitive advantage as they seek to further their agendas. There seems to be little room left for the non-believer in the unfaultable virtues of figures.

Additionally, what effect will the new manipulations of data have on business models and business structures? Retail giants like Wal-Mart are revolutionizing their relationship with suppliers and customers. As the Economist reports, “The [data decoding] technology enabled Wal-Mart to change the business model of retailing. In some cases it leaves stock management in the hands of its suppliers and does not take ownership of the products until the moment they are sold. This allows it to shed inventory risk and reduce its costs. In essence, the shelves in its shops are a highly efficiently managed depot.”

Which industries will next utilize new technologies like cloud-computing or open-source software to change the way HR supports and interacts with other divisions? Data mining and forecasting doesn’t stop at product analysis. According to the Economist, it can go much further,“As more corporate functions, such as human resources or sales, are managed over a network, companies can see patterns across the whole of the business and share their information more easily.”

Managers will be receiving more and more information and will be asked to make strategic decisions that are demonstrably based in the analysis of the data. Organizational management theories need to help and start getting involved in bigger ways.

And yet what is still the biggest hurdle for organizations? How can we prevent the next financial crisis? How can we foil tomorrow’s terrorist plot? How can we make organizational management more lean and effective?

Better data.

Photo Credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0