By John Gerzema, New York Times Best-Selling Author/Social Strategist. Fellow at the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard. Advocate for Women & Girls: The U.N. Girl Up Campaign
You write about generational changes both in terms of how businesses operate and how consumers interact with these businesses. What are some of the key changes that you see in successful business leadership based on these generational traits?
We began to see the rise of mindful consumption as portrayed in our book, Spend Shift, in 2008. It came out right after the financial crisis and our data showed that people were searching for meaning out of consumerism. Yet this first wave of “conscious consumerism” was serious, preachy and about depravation. The Millennials, God bless them, came along said, “Yeah, we want a better world, but we want cool stuff too!” So today we have Tom’s, Warby, MAC, AirBnb, REI, and more — all making great products and taking on social causes. This is smart, because in our data, 72% today say they buy brands that share their values. So leadership today is really about aligning a responsible company with one that makes innovative things that people want –– not one or the other.
How have the concepts of trust and social responsibility changed the ways in which consumers view businesses?
We just finished a major research project earlier this year with Wharton and U.S. News & World Report called Best Countries that we presented at Davos. Like Best Colleges and Best Hospitals, we surveyed over 16,000 elites, business people, and citizens in more than 70 nations and 75 dimensions of what people thought made a country “The Best.” Interestingly, the emergence of “soft power” emerged as a foundation of trust and responsibility. What people saw as a “Best Country” wasn’t about “banks and tanks,” but global citizenship, quality of life, and innovation. Taken together, they explain more than 57% of future gross domestic product creation, while economic and political power accounted for only 8% of the effect on future growth. The same concept could be applied to businesses, by applying soft powers, such as improving the quality of consumers and employees and being focused on future growth and innovation.
Millennials may be the group most ready to both accept and demand change in both of these areas. Why is that and what advice do you have for members of other generations who may be hesitant to adapt to these changes?
Yes, it’s true that Millennials are now the largest cohort in the workforce and becoming the largest consumer market, but we’ve witnessed large populist movements from Bernie Sanders to LGBT rights to an age of modern feminism that men all ages can champion. So it’s really about a company or a person staying open and curious to the world around them. This is a time of defying labels, whether that’s age, color, or gender. And Millennials are also the ones stumbling over each other to play Pokemon GO, so maybe not all the change is good!
The current U.S. Presidential campaign’s two major candidates represent very different styles of leadership. Based on your research, which style do you believe reflects current best leadership practices? And are there any specifics business leaders can take away from these two styles?
Objectively as a researcher, we see the rise of feminine values in leadership. For our book, The Athena Doctrine, we interviewed 64,000 people in 13 countries and found that things they valued in modern leadership, collaboration, empathy, selflessness etc., were also things they felt were more feminine. So politics aside, a leader needs to be someone who unites, at least in the views of people around the world.
You cite the figure that 79% of people agreed that a successful career today “requires collaborating and sharing credit with others.” Do you believe that brands are ready to collaborate with competitors? How do you see Collaborata fitting in this new shift?
Collaboration is really about courage. It takes guts to align your company’s interests, resources, and marketing muscle with other like-minded companies to accomplish more than you can do on your own. There’s G.E. and Local Motors pooling resources and expertise to make appliances in ways neither could do alone. And Collaborata allows people to come together to fund projects that are meaningful to them, demonstrating the power of the collective at its peak.
What are the challenges to brands in funding informational needs in these days of zero-based budgeting?
I’m on thin ice here in terms of expertise, but I’d say ZBB is challenging in that it creates a lot of short termism that might prohibit seeing a return on the horizon for a great idea. Yet, it’s good in a sense, because you’re staying tactical and alert to changing marketplace conditions. I’d hedge my way out of this question by saying that I strongly value having creative finance people who can conceptually see what a team is trying to accomplish and be a strong active partner to make sure funding is following the best ideas.
You have written about the concept of failure and that the old adage “failure breeds success” is not true. Can you expand on this?
If you Google failure, you get something like 225 million hits. It’s a trope that’s so common in business that it’s become wallpaper. Obviously, we need permission to fail as children and adults — that’s just the journey of life. But when failure is ubiquitous, it devolves into business jargon, enabling a culture of hubris and laziness. While researching The Athena Doctrine, we met Ijad Madish, who started Researchgate.org, a collaborative platform for scientists that sprung from his frustrations of colleagues hiding in their cubicles and scorning him for asking for help in his experiments. His insight was there would be far less failing if we admitted what we don’t know in the first place.