Are Americans Happy?

Uber drivers can surprise you. They can shake up your thinking. They can get you to pause and reflect differently on the day.

A recent early-morning haul with an Uber driver to what I knew would be a long and unpleasant meeting did just that for me. The driver was an Ethiopian immigrant who had been in the United States for about a decade. He and his wife had come here for a better life. His two children were born here.

At first he was quiet, presuming I didn’t want any conversation at this hour. When the freeway traffic slowed our progress, I started to draw him out a bit. I was glad I did.

His basic sense was that America was filled with unlimited opportunities for anyone who wanted to work hard and apply themselves. The ability to make money here—legally and with relatively few logistical obstacles—was virtually unlimited. He actually loved being an Uber driver the past five years. He had control over his time, could spend time with his family, and while the income he earned was modest by American standards, he felt good about the quality of life it allowed him compared with his earlier years in Ethiopia, where money and opportunity were scarce.

What he didn’t understand was why so few Americans he met were happy.

To the contrary, he found most of the Americans he encountered unhappy. The people who rode in his car, no matter how well dressed or where they were going, largely seemed unhappy. The people he saw shopping in WalMart, with all the abundant product offerings on the shelf at such low prices, seemed mostly unhappy. When he took his children to school, which was free, most of the children and parents he encountered seemed unhappy.

He wondered why.

While he wouldn’t trade his life in America for any chance at a permanent return to Ethiopia, he shared that in his younger years, whenever he walked down the road, he would smile broadly and wave hello to everyone he passed, known to him or not. He said he tried that when he initially came to this country, but people looked at him like he was mentally unbalanced, so he stopped.

He told me in his village if someone didn’t come out of their home for a few days, it was normal to knock on the door and see if that person was okay. If they were sick, it was normal to ask if they needed anything from the market and to get it for them without asking in advance for payment. He said to do that here might land him in jail.

He told me when anyone in the village had any good fortune, the entire village would celebrate, and the person who enjoyed the good fortune would be predisposed to share it in small ways without anyone asking. He said when he moved into his current neighborhood, the advice he received from previous immigrants was to keep to himself, let neighbors be strangers, and not to expect to give or get much of anything from strangers.

His conclusion after a decade in the United States was that it was indeed a rich nation of financial opportunity, but with financial success of any level, happiness was not part of the deal. His promise to himself was to put happiness first, and anytime financial gain would compromise it, to put the need for joy above the need for more income.

It was a curious but not unfamiliar conversation that served as an ironic preamble to my next eight hours in a conference room with extremely large numbers being floated around various outcomes to a dispute, and not a single person smiling for the entire day.

I don’t actually think about this a lot, because I haven’t been taught to think about it a lot. I have been taught to work hard, to compete, to give my all at all times, to be respectful of the law, but to be wary of all opponents who might unfavorably tilt the apparent zero-sum game of financial haggling.

I do agree there is something very American about this. We were a country of underdogs that became a nation of global leadership. There is a Puritan work ethic we instinctively embrace that dates back to the first freezing winters of our original colonies. Sacrifice for the future is a mostly shared American value, and our popular literature seldom misses a beat in reminding us that winning is everything.

For many Americans, winning is who and what we are, what we aspire to be, and its cost is a necessary evil, a byproduct of the commitment it takes to be the very best at whatever we set out to do.

Are we happy? I am sure many of us are, and my driver from Ethiopia just hasn’t had the chance to meet you if you are.

It may be worth considering some mounting evidence to the contrary.

We are approximately 5% of the global population.

We generate more than 20% of the world’s total income.

We consume upwards of a quarter of the world’s natural resources.

That is a disproportionate share of global wealth that should be making a lot of people happy.

Our citizens own 40% of the world’s guns.

We consume 80% of the world’s opioids.

We incarcerate 25% of the world’s total prison population.

We have over 1000 active hate groups whose only point of validation is to buy into the lie of their ordained genetic superiority.

Does that sound happy?

No matter what we have, we seem to want more. We are a consumer society. Marketers like me helped make us that way. The problem with consumerism is that it has no logical end. If you have an antiquated iPhone 8, you are meant to want a reconceived iPhone 11. You’ll stare at it just as much, but it will have all the new features you think will make you happier. The stress created by having to pay for it is simply a factor of the replacement value.

Although we have all that wealth collectively, we embody income inequality almost as a leaderboard to remind us of the winners of the zero-sum game. We invented the 1%. Instead of trying to work it toward 10%, we are working toward 0.1%.

Too often I think we forget that we weren’t always this prosperous. Prior to the 20th century, we were a nation that barely survived its own Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history. We managed to prevail from two subsequent world wars in part because our continental homeland was not invaded.

We emerged after the Second World War as an industrial power with disproportionate military might and a shared conviction to democratize individual earning power. We enjoyed enormous quality living benefits in this brief window that globalization is now spreading more evenly around the planet.

Any notion of this as entitlement is ill placed. We were clever, innovative, opportunistic, and hard-working. The stars lined up behind us. The turnaround in our fortune was epic. I wonder what we really learned from that unparalleled shift in fate. Humility doesn’t seem to make the report card.

We discovered and celebrated optimism as core to our shared values, but did we protect the essence of its desired outcome—the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t see people in public places smile a lot, or visit the neighbors they don’t know, or wave joyfully to strangers on the street. I could be a little isolated, and I am sure there are many of you reading this who will disagree. If you are surrounded by happy Americans, do you think you are the norm or exception?

Maybe the notion of being happy is the problem itself. Perhaps it is antithetical to our nation’s DNA. If we presume that’s the case, and most of us aren’t going to be truly happy in America no matter what we achieve, perhaps there is another aspiration we can embrace.

Instead of trying to be happy, which is a long way to reach from our present core, maybe we can just be more appreciative of the opportunities around us.

I’m not suggesting a Pollyanna happy dance, given the vast discrepancies in our economic and social culture. I’m wondering if it is possible that, like the Ethiopian immigrant I met, we can identify a perspective around an appreciation for whatever benefits might be coming our way.

It could be as simple as relying on the descriptor “more”that we can be ever so slightly more appreciative of what we have and still keep grinding away at the hardships of our reality. The ramifications around empathy, privilege, and life satisfaction would seem unlimited. We might even begin to understand the inescapable realities of globalization.

Is it possible that Americans can be more appreciative?

I really don’t know. I think I’ll ask my next Uber driver.

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Photo: Pexels

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Paul

I keep thinking I’m going to run out of things to write about The Beatles. I keep proving that notion wrong, at least to myself.

I recently enjoyed the final night of Paul McCartney’s Freshen Up Tour. He played to about 50,000 fans at a sold-out Dodger Stadium, where I last saw him five years ago. In fact, I included the setlist of that previous concert in the appendix of my second book, Endless Encores.

My key observation then was that Paul was as committed to his new music as he was to his historic catalog. That is what has allowed him not only to stay in the game for six decades, but to remain at the top of his own game—that constant hunger for reinvention. That is what has made him not just an artist, but a legend.

I had a new observation this time, partly about us, and partly about much more than us.

We are aging through time. These songs are becoming a constant.

Our memories are a snapshot in time. These songs bridge those snapshots.

We are temporal, driving the arcs of our lives. These songs are a continuum.

We will not be here forever. These songs could be.

These songs are ours to enjoy, but they don’t belong to us. They don’t even belong to Paul or The Beatles. They belong to the world.

These songs are universal. They bring us together. They make us happy. They make us remember.

We connect the dots of our life’s timelines from song to song, and in the moment of a single song played back at various points throughout those long and winding roads.

I remember first listening to “Sgt. Pepper” as a child and it takes me back to the record store where I bought the album. I remember first listening to “Band on the Run” as an adolescent and I am back in the hallways of school. I remember first listening to “Here Today” and I am transported to that sad December day when I was in college and John was murdered.

Each song fixes a moment in time that is never erased. Sometimes these moments get back-burnered for a while, but then the associated song reignites our memory. It’s a visceral reaction. It cannot be preempted.

Then there are the songs that pop up all through our lives. I remember “Blackbird” when I initially tried and failed to play it on my first guitar, scratching up my copy of The White Album with each needle reset. I remember hearing it at a New England rally protesting the war in El Salvador. I remember hearing at it the memorial service for a dear friend who loved The Beatles and left this world much too early in his own life. Whenever I think of the ceaseless work we still have to do in civil rights, I hear the lyrics in my mind: “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

A single song can traverse the entirety of our lives, inspiring one emotional reaction in our youth, an entirely different response in adulthood, and something even more profound as we continue to age. That’s an awful lot of punch for three minutes of commercial composition. Call it the miracle of creativity. Maybe we’re just very lucky to be in this audience.

Is this somehow unique to Paul, or even to The Beatles? Of course not. We all have our own take on the soundtrack of our lives. Yet sitting there in Dodger Stadium far from the stage but genuinely close to the music, my mind wandered from here to there and back again.

This night’s setlist spanned the entirety of an impossible 60something year career. All those perfect songs held me in the moment and connected the dots of my own journey. The songwriter’s inspirations became my timeline and all of our shared history.

In a single performance, all these songs come together in a temporal theme. We connect the dots of our lives in the collision of moments forced into relevancy. Sadness, joy, loss, love, babies born, children grown, the progression of our careers, the paths of our relationships, generations of sharing—it’s all there in the continuum.

For the performer on the grand stage, it’s his life’s work in stunning summary. For those beyond the proscenium, it’s pure accessibility, sheer singalong joy, and dancehall madness.

At the end of the show, Paul thanks us because we are one with his brilliant talent. We are part of it, and now we pass along the music to others who will not know The Beatles as more than a story. They will not see Paul play live. They will only know it is real because of the continuum. Their memories will replace ours. That is the continuum. It is why art is more permanent than we can ever imagine.

John Lennon is gone, but the songs remain.

George Harrison is gone,  but the songs remain.

George Martin is gone, but the songs remain.

Ringo Starr plays two songs live with his former mate, perhaps never again, and the songs remain.

Paul McCartney at age 77 puts on a three-hour rock show without a break that reminds us who we were, who we want to be, who we want to be with, and who we still can be. We connect the dots of our lives through his lyrics, rhythms, and melodies. There is something eternal about that.

Not convinced this is a form of magic that is as rare as it is tangible?

Listen again to the songs. Just listen to the songs.

This is awe.

Paul reminded us not to wait past the point of no return to say what needs to be said.

There’s one person I need to thank for bridging the continuum that is the almost six decades of my life.

His name is Paul.

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Photos: Bruce Friedricks

A Gathering of Nothingburgers


Shortly before my latest college reunion, one of my classmates wrote on our class Facebook page that she partially dreaded attending the milestone gathering out of fear it might cause her to feel she was somehow a nothingburger.

Imagine that! Anyone else feel this way? Perhaps a truer question might be: Who hasn’t compared themselves to others and come up short? The real question is why at our age would it matter at all.

Were I to enunciate the personal and career accomplishments of this particular individual, I can assure you of all the descriptors I might be able to call upon to describe her, the term nothingburger would miss the target by at least a solar orbit.

Yet that doesn’t matter. She felt it, and following her enunciation, several dozen others shared the same sentiments. When I tell you these are highly accomplished people, I am not strictly speaking to their landmark achievements. I am speaking to their voices. I am speaking to their self-reflection. I am speaking to their commitment to family, friends, and strangers. I am speaking to their character.

Someone on that Facebook thread also suggested that most of the truly important and successful people in our class don’t bother to come to our reunions. I guess that would put us into a debate of what constitutes importance and success. For me, this argument would quickly devolve into the equivalent of a left-leaning politico trying to convince a right-wing politico of their unfounded opinions, and vice versa.

I don’t want to debate the definitions of importance or success, nor do I wish to admit by virtue of traveling to see some of the most interesting people ever to grace my life that I am somehow in a lower echelon of life progress. Let’s just say I am convinced that plenty of the most important and successful people in our class attended our reunion, and the ones who couldn’t make it or missed out will have an easy opportunity to correct this choice in slightly less than five years.

So what exactly happened at this gathering of nothingburgers? There isn’t time or space in a single blog post to recap the full play-by-play of events, but let me illustrate a few items that might cause you to rethink your own attendance at a reunion the next time you are invited.

First, we remembered with great affection those who graduated with us who no longer share the planet. Somehow that In Memoriam list has a bad habit of growing every five years. Once you pass a half-century in age, the curve seems to take on nasty exponential acceleration. To celebrate the lives of those no longer with us is to restate our love and admiration of their camaraderie. We did this with healthy respect and healthier zeal.

Second, in a closed-door session, a number of individuals stood up and shared some of the debilitating curve balls that hit them in life when they least expected it. We heard authentic stories of job loss, wrenching divorce, health ailments, children suffering serious medical concerns, regretful addictions, business betrayal, conflicted patriotism, losing one’s parents, self-doubt, lost dreams, and spiritual abandonment. The people who spoke were mirrors for those who didn’t. These otherwise private themes dominated sidebar dialogue for days and continue to do so now on social media. We listened with healthy learning and healthier comfort.

Third, we ate, we danced, we sang, and we talked. We did all of those in abundance. Okay, some people even drank, can you believe it? Mostly we just shared. Remember how much real conversation meant to you in the years shortly after adolescence? Remember how much pure ideas meant before mortgages, car payments, IRAs, and tax returns (unlike an endless conversation, those obligations all have to be handled on time, you know?). We did this with healthy appetites and healthier vigor—except for the dancing, only a few of us can still pull that off fluidly, though there were no penalties for trying.

Why might the people around us feel they are nothingburgers when they are nothing of the sort? I have two possible answers to offer, one awful and one remarkable. To the awful, people often feel they are inferior when they are belittled by others, to their faces or in abysmal gossip. To bypass this ramp, be neither actor nor audience. To the remarkable, humility and insecurity are often two sides of a coin. No matter how a reflective individual might care to value his or her life summary, seldom will a summary be satisfying. To bypass this ramp, we learn to accept who we are with the simple caveat that improvement is always within our grasp.

I also heard many people talking about whether they felt at home at college, either at the age of 18 or now. My answer coincidentally is the same way I respond about feeling at home in Los Angeles: not all of it, and not all the time. I find pockets of warm association, and that is usually enough for me to accept the whole, both with my flaws and the flaws of the whole. It sort of works for college as well.

I’ve discovered again that a school reunion doesn’t have to be about nostalgia. It can be about reconnecting. Where reconnection might be in short supply, it can be about meeting someone for the first time where fate and circumstance might have precluded an introduction in any of the previous several decades. It can also be a reminder of the simple things that reinvigorate our spirits: heartfelt dialogue, hard-won empathy, and genuine encouragement that the future doesn’t have to be the past.

Sometimes I think the creation of memories is a mystical algorithm all its own. Every memory has a starting point. It can begin 35 years ago or it can begin now. Both are valid. Neither makes you a nothingburger.

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Image: Pixabay

What’s a Good Day at the Office?


She said a good day ain’t got no rain
She said a bad day’s when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been

– Paul Simon, Slip Slidin’ Away

It’s the small things at work that can change everything, even if only for a moment.

A good day is when I am surrounded by good people.

A good day is when I participate in a conversation where I learn something.

A good day is when a friend reminds me I am a friend.

A good day is when we get to promote someone.

A good day is when someone who used to work for me is promoted by someone else whom I’ve never met.

A good day is when a customer writes or calls to tell us we’ve exceeded their expectations.

A good day is when customer service completes an interaction that began with an unhappy customer with someone who will again trust our company.

A good day is when we stop paying legal fees on a settlement that never should have been a legal matter.

A good day is when a great former employee stops by just to say hi, then casually asks if we happen to have any openings that might be a good fit for a familiar someone.

A good day is when one person stops by another’s desk, thanks them sincerely for almost anything, and acknowledges them for a job well done (bonus points for heartfelt gratitude expressed by managers and executives).

A good day is when one employee apologizes to another for being rude without the prompting of Human Resources.

A good day is when no one has any reason to complain about anything to Human Resources.

A good day is when no injuries have occurred in the workplace for many, many months.

A good day is when someone tells me they accomplished something they never thought they could do.

A good day is when someone tells me a colleague helped them accomplish something they never thought they could do.

A good day is when a collective brainstorm that seemed to be going nowhere for hours (or days, or weeks) ends with a big idea embraced by consensus.

A good day is when we achieve a milestone, whether customer #100 or #100,000,000, celebrate together, and maybe add a sticker or t-shirt to our collections.

A good day is when bonuses exceed budget because employee performance exceeds budget.

A good day is when children visit the office and ask lots of innocent questions like: “Do people like coming here?”

A good day is when someone brings a dog to the office, and right when you are about to lose your cool, the pup jumps into your lap and you keep your head on straight.

A good day is when pizza is served, good or bad pizza. Or ice cream. Or both.

A good day is when I hear someone articulate clearly what they like most about their job—it’s especially good if I overhear it from afar, ensuring the reflection is purely authentic.

A good day is when I get to share stories like this.

A good day is when someone chooses to share one of their favorite stories with me.

A good day is any day I remember for years to come for any and all the reasons mentioned here.

A long time ago—toward the beginning of my career—a wise boss told me I would be surprised over time how many of the complex projects I would forget, how few of the business struggles I would remember more than vaguely, but how many of the people I worked beside I would long remember with deeply embedded impressions. I have come to realize the truth of that prediction with extraordinary predictability.

Many of us in high-pressure environments tend to have more bad days than good days, but a rough day doesn’t have to be a bad day if there is a turnaround event that reminds us why we originally choose our current job.

What about you? Think about it. What in your experience makes a good day at the office?

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Image: Pixabay

Embrace Turbulence

How many really bad things can go wrong in business in a single day? One or two? Five? Dozens? Dozens of dozens?

A key employee leaves because a spouse is offered a job a thousand miles away.

A key partner botches a supply chain handoff and your warehouse is empty ahead of an annual sale.

You discover a critical hidden formula error in one of your financial spreadsheets that even your auditors missed.

Your customer service lines light up for a problem with your competitor’s product being confused for your own.

Sound like a normal enough day?

Then why do we think of turbulence as extraordinary?

Maybe a better question is how many things can go right in a day. Sometimes if you achieve one modest success you count your blessings and call that an outstanding day! A win is the welcomed exception. Problems are the norm.

Just remember one of the key maxims in career longevity: If you’re a manager, problems are job security. If there weren’t problems in business, we wouldn’t need management. Lucky for us, huh?

I was recently talking with a colleague about his desire to offer calm to his staff after a rough few weeks. He wanted to give a talk where his message and tone signaled that the bad stuff was behind them.

I advised against it. How could he possibly know what fate might bring even later that afternoon. You never want to make a liar out of yourself with stuff you can’t control. Besides, the very notion of calm to me signals surrender.

What is the stuff you can control? Attitude, anticipation, and readiness.

It’s a question of urgency over fear. Fear in the form of debilitating anxiety may not be your friend, but urgency in the form of nimble responsiveness is always your friend. There is so little in our future that we can control, pretending it is otherwise is advancing the clock on the certainty of smack down.

Complacency lets down your guard. Predictive, proactive realism keeps you sharp at all times.

How many times have I heard hardworking but tired employees utter the phrase: “If only we can get through this [fill in the blank], we’ll be fine.”

Remember this instead: The reward for getting over a hill is the opportunity to climb another hill. There is always another this to get through. Beyond each valley is always another hill, often steeper and higher than the one behind you. That is the nature of economic cycles. That is the nature of problem-solving. Whatever you solve today may create an opportunity, but the market response to that opportunity will likely create the next problem on your plate.

It’s no different for capital and equity markets, where despite our hope for smooth sailing, volatility is the norm. That’s why for so many stock picking is a loser’s game. You’re in for all the good and bad days or you’re out.

What to do then?

Embrace turbulence before it becomes turmoil.

Make turbulence your constant companion. Celebrate small wins, but never be fooled by a quiet few hours. Once you are comfortable with the inevitability of unpredictability, your confidence level will rise. You will learn to address change because you accept the inarguable market force that change is constant.

A good sales quarter is always exciting, but as every prospectus states, past performance is no guarantee of future results. You know that like you know your boss’s ugliest shirt. Why pretend otherwise?

Did AOL fall on hard times or fail to respond to turbulence?

Did Yahoo suffer an explainable devastating blow or wander aimlessly amid turbulence?

Did Kodak get ambushed by new technology or fail to play its strongest hand in a climate of turbulence?

Each of those companies allowed turbulence to become turmoil. When turmoil escalates to the unbound, creative destruction has usually made its decision.

Think about what those implosions mean to you.

Did the last project that didn’t go your way take you down or prepare you to outperform it?

Did your last failed product launch demoralize you or teach you how to make a better product?

Are you looking for comfort in the quiet ordinary or comfort in outrageous curiosity?

Big Company Syndrome is believing your paycheck will always show up. Smart Company Syndrome is knowing you have to earn your keep every day. Doing work and adding value are not the same things.

Turbulence in business is the norm, not the exception. Companies that win do so because they surf over, around and through turbulence. They might purposefully avoid an obvious storm they can’t navigate, but they expect storms, they don’t anticipate their magical elimination.

In daily business dealings, if you know that bombs are regularly going to drop, you won’t be surprised when they do, no matter from where. If you’re a CEO or close to one, you know it’s the job of leadership to address crises, not to hope they will slink away.

Make peace with turbulence. Pace yourself for a ceaselessly bumpy endurance contest. Expect an unruly rollercoaster ride and be mildly pleased the days it doesn’t throw you from the train.

When you have one of those good days—and you will—you will appreciate it even more. Your definition of a good day may also begin to change. Mine certainly has. Stay tuned to this channel for how.

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Image: Pixabay

Staying Alive

This will be the third post in an unintended trilogy following my last two on why companies that might appear to be “built to last” may suddenly evaporate before your eyes. In response to those stories (Gone So Soon and 8 Warnings That Your Company Is Toast), I received several inquiries wondering if there were ways to spot an imminent mudslide while there’s time to escape.

Executive turnover is something to watch closely, especially the C-suite. Either too little or too much turnstile rotation can be a warning sign. With no leadership change over long periods of time, a company might become entrenched in its plodding, convinced it knows how to do things so well no seismic shift in the landscape requires reinvention of the company’s ways. When executives are repeatedly jumping ship in under a year, the lack of stability in teamwork, embrace of new ideas, or core strategy might be signaling a torpedo crater in the ship’s hull that can’t immediately be seen underwater. Certain presidential administrations come to mind.

An escalating executive dump of equity holdings will usually light up an analyst’s eyes, but what about yours? If your top management is seeking liquidity while proclaiming they are simply reducing concentration and balancing their holdings, ask yourself why now. It’s good to be loyal when there’s a reason to be loyal. Ignoring the siren to go down with the ship will never seem as noble when your colleagues have departed in first class and you are left treading ice water. Much of the dot-com bubble unraveled this way, with most of the stock prices dropping swiftly to zero.

Ever sit in a meeting, listen to a colleague or team of co-workers present an innovative, visionary solution to a core concern the company has long identified as critical to its survival, only to see the framers of the big idea summarily dismissed without adequate explanation? Sure you have, most of us have. Perhaps those framers then quit, go across town and put their concept to work for a competitor, of course without violating their nondisclosure or trade secret agreements, modifying their ideas to a variation on the theme. If you believe they are as smart as they think you are, consider following them. That’s how companies like Intel started.

Do you observe evidence that your company understands its core competency, protects it through a culture of learning, and openly admits its weaknesses as opportunities for improvement? When you go to an offsite, is the point of that retreat an honest evaluation of the company’s strengths and threats, or is the current leadership pontificating on how unlikely it is that your competitors can take your market share? Sears has been dying for decades. I wonder when in each of the past years they thought they were winning.

Are you building a project or a company? A lot of people aren’t sure. Most startups begin with a product offering, but if the company building that product defines itself too narrowly, it may soon cease to be a company when it is folded into a larger company with a lot of “synergies” found in the combination. If the word “synergies” doesn’t ring a bell for you in the world of mergers and acquisitions, it usually means overlapping functions that are removed as redundant costs, possibly you. Look at the string of product builders that companies like Microsoft and Google synergized throughout their history. How many of them can you still name?

Are analytics, diagnostic evaluation, empirical assessment, and primary research core to your company’s self-evaluation? Are key decisions made on gut instinct or debated with facts? Ask yourself if that’s what the top leaders in your company say they want to do or if it’s what they really do. That which gets measured gets done. That which gets quantified gets fixed. If you’re in the room where people are swapping stories rather than interpreting data, you’re probably better off gambling in a casino where the odds are at least known.

Another way to think about this is whether you believe top management in a company is truly focused on staying alive, and whether you can help overcome the challenges to a company you love or want to love. If the decision-makers around you are people you trust who are committed to vetting solutions, perhaps you can be as well. Too often when the axe falls, we acknowledge in hindsight what we should have applied in advance thinking. There are artifacts of knowledge all around you—both positive and negative—if you choose to pay close attention to the reality of your situation.

You can always be pleasantly surprised or devastatingly rocked by good or back luck on the job. Predicting the likelihood of an outcome is a learned task that is likely more tangible than you think.

8 Warnings That Your Company is Toast

Last month I reminded you that no big-brand company lasts forever, and few of today’s technology phenoms last long at all. One of my readers emailed to ask if I might dare to note some of the warning signs that suggest company extinction might be zeroing in on your own workplace.

Of course if I knew the full answer to that, I would spend the rest of my career shorting all those imminent losers traded in the public markets. Creative destruction is difficult to see in its earliest phases because it often begins simmering silently in the background when your company is riding a wave of enormous good fortune. Funny how that infecting vulnerability sneaks its nose under the tent precisely when a business seems to be at its healthiest peak.

While the corrosion can be deceptively invisible at first, there are usually festering symptoms we can observe, watching the makings of a crash in slow motion long before opposing forces collide. Here are eight thumbnail questions to help diagnose the severity of your company’s illness and whether it’s likely to be terminal.

What is the company’s R&D budget as a percentage of sales?

If research-and-development spending is declining as your company matures, it’s possible that company is being harvested by its owners as a cash cow. While strong cash flow is an indicator of company health, take notice of how much of your business is being driven by recent successes vs. legacy brands. If new products aren’t breaking, sniff around and see how much of that cash is being invested in next-generation ideas. If increasingly more cash is going to ownership and less to building your company’s future, you may have reason to worry.

Is your CEO surrounded by people who hold the same views of the company’s excellence?

Without gadflies who question everything, you’re likely to keep doing the same things. That could make you a cash cow, a one-hit wonder, or any number of limited-thinking results. Great senior leadership in a company encourages constructive conflict, because no single viewpoint in management can possibly see around every corner or predict a competitive threat. If lots of ideas are flowing, you have a much better chance to reinvent yourselves. Where dialogue is limited and funneling to a singular point of view, trouble is coming.

Does senior management actually use the product or service you produce?

This is the old argument for eating your own dog food. If the people who make and sell something only talk about why it’s great rather than obsess over what will make it even better, it’s likely to stay the same. If there is cynicism around your success and products become passionless widgets, customers will see that soon enough. Your customers can’t reinvent your products, just reject them. If you’re not a fan of what you’re doing, why should they be?

Does senior management regularly sample, investigate, and dissect competitive products?

If you think what you’ve got is the best and don’t even bother to see what could soon be eating your lunch, your lunch will soon be eaten. Be paranoid, be aware of everything competitive, commission and dissect research, never be comfortable that your moat is impenetrable. It’s okay not to use your competitor’s products day-to-day. It’s not okay to ignore them. If you happen to like them better than your own, wake up, the nightmare is about to become real.

In your company’s last earnings crunch, was marketing expense an early and severe casualty?

Marketing is an investment spend. If the money you are spending on marketing doesn’t add value to profitable sales, it should be cut now. If it’s driving profitable sales, it’s downright irresponsible to cut it. Marketing should be seen as a profit center, not a cost center. If there is no measurable return on your marketing spend, you’re already killing the company from within. If the return can be quantified, cutting it in bad times is senseless and irresponsible.

Is great marketing intended to help a mediocre product perform better than it deserves?

Said another way: outstanding marketing helps a bad product fail faster. If the product is garbage, all marketing can do is get it in the hands of early adopters. Once these market influencers trash the product, all is lost. If the product needs refinement before you invest to take it to market, take the extra time to get it right. If the product stinks and can’t be saved, kill it without a dollar of marketing spend.

Does your company culture resist rather than embrace change?

Also earlier this year I suggested that you keep your ears open for the phrase “But we’ve always…” whether it’s uttered in the break room or a key milestone review meeting. If your colleagues have unending excuses as to why you should stick with tried-and-true ways to fail because your company has always utilized a set of urban legends in your planning, you’re going to find it hard to carve a new path into the future. Doing what you’ve always done simply because you’ve always done it that way is a great way to succeed in any business that isn’t dynamic. Go make a list of businesses today that aren’t dynamic and tell me you should remain set in your ways.

Are you patching your platform or re-envisioning a new one?

Never confuse maintenance with progress. Think about just how fast industries are moving. I recently had the pleasure of watching the movie First Man. One of my favorites lines reminded me that it was a mere 66 years from the Wright Brothers first motorized biplane flight at Kitty Hawk (1903) to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (1969). If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of 60 years old, that doesn’t seem like much time at all. If you’re fixing your biplane while your competitor is building a Saturn V rocket, it doesn’t matter that you’ve happened upon some world-class glue. When the rocket launches, you’re toast.

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Image: Pixabay