A Contrarian’s Guide to Business Survival

By November 12, 2015 August 7th, 2018 No Comments

Unless you’ve been asleep at your desk for the last few decades, you have either been a champion or an opponent of organizational flexibility and progressive adaptation. If you’re the leadership version of Rip Van Winkle*, when you wake up, you’ll find an office teeming with Millennials and letters of the alphabet ranging from X to Y with “Z” most likely on the horizon.

Labels, those limiting, safe vacuums of understanding, are the method and means to keep us safe from people we can’t or don’t understand. The need to control others or our environment is a vestige of our past conditions on the Savanna. The Savanna is where our ancestors sought security in numbers and survival was depended upon control of the group.

We label a generation, a group or a person based on the invisible hand of society that demands the code, the secret or the solution. In business, we often try a one-size-fits-all approach to a generation we understand only through typecast, assumption and letter of the alphabet. The Baby Boomers, the 401k and the Gold Watch meet the “I Want It All Now” age of entitlement. I am invoking a higher power with my hands in the air, lamenting the plight of leadership today. “Do we even have a chance?! How shall we survive?!”

We have more than a chance – we have an opportunity. My nature compels me to the edge of contrarianism. As such, I embrace the different iterations of “me” (from teenage to present) that just so happen to be working with me today. Even if it is not in your nature, you can attempt to contain some of the negative parts of control by understanding what it is and what it does.

When we don’t understand or accept, we express a diluted form of fear that manifests itself as frustration. This is as needless and useless in a company as pencil-sharpeners. (I think there is a keepsake sharpener collecting dust somewhere in these offices, but that’s just a rumor I have not yet confirmed with my eyes.)

I have lived and led X, Y and now M. I embrace the challenge of leading Gen Z into what I call “The Next Great Divide”. The Next Great Divide is the chasm between obsolescence and perpetuation. Those who survive will be those who can adapt, adopt and take the quantum leap forward in the structure, approach and style of business. So, back to my tongue-in-cheek, helpless cry of surrender. Here’s my 10 cents on one way to adopt the mindset that will move your proposition and company forward, “Always Forward”:

    • Lose the “cookie-cutter” – the collective culture (group) is subject to the nuances of the individual. Maintain your expectations of performance. Make integrity a non-negotiable but have the flexibility of understanding to realize that people aren’t pour and form batter mix. I’m thinking gingerbread men here – we are encroaching upon the holiday season.
    • Endeavor to know. Be careful not to assign the characteristics of one to all. Doing so will limit your understanding of both the person and the group. When you make universal assumptions based on an individual or perhaps the few, it will impair your connection to the many. Fear makes assumptions, fear assigns labels, fear limits and destroys. We can cloak ourselves in position or title, and use fear as our message of choice, but to do so will close minds as surely as we lose hearts. Fear contributes to a company’s decline – growth is impaired and obsolescence is approaching on the horizon. Leadership’s enlightened engagement and management’s courage to cede earned autonomy to the individual is a requisite for a company’s perpetuation.
    • Flip the switch! Catch yourself making assumptions. Take the time to ask questions, and don’t form the answer in your mind before the other person stops talking. Know that most of what we think is a product of what we think we know. What we learn from our parents, peers and books can be a provincial impediment or a baseline of experience that encourages further thought exploration. Challenge assumptions. Ask questions of yourself, and don’t be concerned if some inquiry doesn’t result in a concrete answer.
    • Light on, light off – you choose. Open yourself up to possibilities, encourage freedom of expression (within the corporate mandates of integrity, ethics and professionalism) and become and enlightened leader. An enlightened leader understands the limits of her thinking, is open to change and embraces the individuality that extends beyond X, Y or M.
    • Live that Golden Rule. Treat people with respect and dignity; avoid thinking or dealing with people as concepts. It’s not a faceless crowd unless you choose to make it one. Rip Van Winkle slept for a long time. You have the light – choose to shine it and chase the corners of fear from the shadows. Start first from within.
    • Your most formidable opponent is the one in the mirror. We like people who are like us. Instinct is “fight, flight or fear.” In that nanosecond of association, our subconscious sends the signal – friend or foe. Often what a person says resonates with us if it’s consistent with what we believe. We can mentally reject and fight those who have opinions contrary to ours. You can overcome this tendency if a) you’re aware that it exists and b) if you have the mental strength to accept and work through it, and c) perhaps most important, if you want to.


* In Washington Irving’s story, Rip van Winkle fell asleep and woke up twenty years later, having missed the American Revolution, the death of his wife, the marriage of his daughter and the birth of his grandson.


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