A Question of Community

There’s a continuum (and a conundrum) between the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic and the vitality of our communities. Ancient Athens and a Nazi concentration camp remind us how much we need each other.

Surrounded by my four walls, I’ve been thinking about ancient Athens, which for a single generation, from 454 to 430 B.C., erupted in pure genius. In a perfect storm of creative class-like action, its citizens founded the Western world. Our systems of government, science, philosophy, law, the arts and education are outgrowths of those 24 years.

Athenians valued civic life above all else. Rich and poor lived in similar kinds of housing and ate the same plain fare. People congregated: the rich mixed with the poor, foreigners were welcomed, eccentrics praised, and differences tolerated. The author Eric Weiner writes the condemned Socrates chose death over exile from his beloved Athens.

In time, what Weiner describes as a “creeping vanity” set in. The global city grew insular. The rich built big, showy houses. The streets became wider, the differences between the haves and the have nots, more glaring. Foreigners were shunned. Political divisions erupted. Athens went to war with Sparta. Farmland was destroyed. Tolerance dwindled.

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Ancient Athens was a place of genius where life was lived in the public eye. Photo/Wharton School of Business / The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

In 430 B.C., a plague killed nearly two-thirds of this dense city’s population. One of its victims was the great Pericles, who had been censured in the city’s political upheaval. A series of despots and tyrants rose to power. After a brief period of peace, war resumed, and Athens was absorbed into Sparta. Some historians have postulated the plague was caused by the Ebola virus, a coronavirus.

The density conundrum

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Plague in Ancient City by Michael Sweerts. Photo / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Years ago I visited the concentration camp Terezin outside of Prague. More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp; some 17,000 survived. I remember a guide commenting that the very act of crowding the Jews together so densely gave them the power of community. Artists, philosophers, musicians and scientists suffered alongside their fellows. There were no differences among them.

In 1944, the composer and conductor Rafael Schächter conducted a chorus of 150 prisoners singing Verdi’s massive “Requiem.” The performance was part of a Nazi propaganda initiative for a Red Cross inspection, and as chilling as the story is, I can’t help but wonder how much strength that beautiful project gave Schächter, his singers and their imprisoned audience.

The Czech composer Rafael Schächter conducting a chorus of Jewish prisoners at Terezin in their performance of Verdi’s “Requim.” Schächter was sent to the gas chambers soon afterwards.

The other thing I remember about visiting Terezin was a compulsion to leave as quickly as possible and never return, so vivid is the stamp imprinted by the place.

The need for foundations centered around people

We are not victims. We’ve ignored the Cassandras and their warning signals. We’ve pushed the natural world to a state of dry tinder and its inhabitants to homelessness, starvation and flea markets. There is a natural cycle to things, a cause and effect.

Will technology to save us? It will certainly help those who have the time and tools to use it, hopefully including both children and adults in need of a good education. It will continue to enrich those who create and dominate it. But, without guard rails, it will also drive us down the same path we’ve been on.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former surgeon general of the United States, has championed the role of happiness in health, including maintaining a vital social safety net. Quoted in a recent column on social distancing, he says:

“If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, author and former surgeon general of the United States

If we learn anything from history, it’s that nothing lasts forever, and everything has its price. Oh, and leadership matters.

Meetings Aren’t Getting You Where You Want to Go? Try Something New

Are you getting the most out of the time you’re spending in meetings? Try Liberating Structures, a set of tools that cultivates a focused purpose and broad participation.

I thrive on early mornings but shun early-morning meetings. For me, morning is thinking time. Even summoning the power of speech before 9 am takes an effort. Nevertheless on Valentine’s Day, I led a group from the Women Communicators of Austin in dismantling their usual way of doing things to try a different approach.

Juggling bowls of oatmeal and cinnamon rolls, we took the bull by the horns and experimented with Liberating Structures, a set of collaborative tools that focuses shared participation on an articulated purpose. In this experiment, the purpose of the meeting was the answer to a question: “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?”

Never start a meeting without a clear purpose. Here, Monique Correon, WCA Careers Over Coffee coordinator, focus on how we can get the results we want.

Harnessing the collective problem solver

Most people approach meetings the way they do weddings and funerals: This is how we do it, making the results predictable. According to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of the people at your last meeting are daydreaming. Seventy-three percent are doing other work. If you care about your time and productivity, it’s a problem.

But we are social creatures; shared ideas and approaches are our secret sauce, the can of spinach Popeye pops open to defeat his arch-nemesis, Brutus. When we harness the meeting format, those shared ideas are transformed into what the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described as “gatherings” where:

“…traits (like): open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.”

Too blue sky?  Maybe not.

Too much control or too little structure?

The answer to the meeting conundrum lies somewhere between fluidity and control, neither so tightly orchestrated the meeting’s structure sucks the spontaneity out of the discussion, nor so loose it degenerates into interminable chaos. Liberating Structures uses simple exercises based on 10 basic principles:

  • Never start without a clear purpose
  • Practice deep respect for people and local solutions
  • Include and unleash everyone (each person is given equal time)
  • Build trust as you go
  • Learn by failing forward
  • Practice self-discovery within a group
  • Amplify freedom and responsibility
  • Emphasize possibilities:  believe before you see
  • Invite creative destruction to make space for innovation
  • Engage in seriously playful curiosity

What we did: an early-morning example, with oatmeal:

The session began by establishing its purpose, why each of use was there. Because we were a diverse group with different roles and backgrounds, I made it a personal challenge, the answer to my question, “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?

What followed was a series of linked exercises, each prompted by a question related to their challenge. Participants moved randomly around the room, sharing their challenge with others, deepening their understanding of its nature and sharing commonalities.

To rediscover forgotten resources and insights, each person worked alone, then sequentially with one and then three others, to share a personal success. Finally, we explored, individually and in small groups, what actions can be now to address the challenge. To respect everyone’s time, each exercise was timed.  

Liberating Structures builds trust and engagement by starting with small interactions and building to larger ones. Here, WCA President Jenny Magic (right) talks with Laura, a new member and new Austinite.

Failing forward

Monique Carreon, the meeting coordinator, a marketing manager at EOS, a tech startup that uses Agile methodology. Agile is terrific for software development, but it doesn’t solve the problem is giving each participant the opportunity to engage. Monique was completely engaged from our first conversation. We debriefed afterwards here’s what we’ll do differently next time:

  • Arrange the space for movement and flexibility:  This was my biggest oversight. Open space encourages engagement. Finding the room already set up with a single long table, I opted against dismantling it. More space would have made it easier to reconfigure the groups and maximize networking.  As a result, although the small groups were active, there was minimal overall group contribution.
  • Engage everyone equally:  I timed the small groups, but I did not time individual contributions. Had I done so, it would have equalized each person’s talk time and more fully encouraged listeners to talk.
  • Clarify and reinforce the meeting’s purpose: To be valuable, the discussion must tie back to the reason for the meeting. I didn’t brief latecomers and as a result, they were unable to participate fully.  

Nothing Ventured …

As WCA member, mentor and attention management expert Maura Nevel Thomas advises, “If you’re a leader, I encourage you to collaborate with other managers to take a fresh look at how you handle meetings.”

Liberating Structures is a living online collaborative. Over 30 structures are posted on the website, ready for application. If you have a virtual team, try using it with Zoom! for team meetings. Questions? There is a dedicated Slack channel. LS is used by the Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the U.S. Army, IBM, many nonprofits, and just maybe — you. Meetups and collaboratives are alive worldwide, so check it out:

Meetups in Austin, Texas; check for one in your area:

Room set up makes a big difference. Our interactions would have been more broadly distributed if the long table had been dismantled into smaller groupings. Even so, our approach got people thinking and talking about how to have better meetings.

The First Americans’ “Send Them Back,” Retold

“Send them back” is an echo from the first Americans, the Native Americans , whose Ghost Dances were the inspiration for Jeffrey Gibson’s stunning “This Is the Day” exhibit which challenges us to rethink our culture and traditions for a new time.

Walking through Jeffrey Gibson’s extraordinary installation, “This Is the Day,” you hear an echo: “Send them Back.”

Gibson, a gay Native American artist, draws inspiration from the Ghost Dance Movement of the 1890’s, a religious movement that united the Plains Indians in the hope their rituals would banish the white settlers and the U.S. government from their lands.

In one of America’s blackest moments, the tribes’ community terrified the U.S. Army. Fear trumped any better angels, and we are left with the massacre at Wounded Knee.

But this is not the story Gibson tells. He invites everyone to the party, mixing old trading post blankets with Biblical verses and lines from pop tunes. He moves us forward.

“Somehow the past has to situate itself within the present.”

Jeffrey Gibson

“This Is the Day” asks us to come up with a better ending to a story riddled with fear and racism.

A screenshot from Gibson’s video “I Was Here,” which follows Marcy, a trans Native American woman living on a reservation in Mississippi. Gibson follows her as she gets ready to go to work as a waitress in a casino. This still is a ties together a story of courage in the face of racism and prejudice.

Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.

Ben Okri

This Is the Day” is at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas through September, courtesy of Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art. All the photographs are courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson and the Wellin Museum.

Business and Culture: Transatlantic Business Leaders Offer Advice, Wearing High Heels

Five business leaders walked onto the stage of the Texas-EU Summit to talk about managing transatlantic businesses. Two run European units based in the United States; two developed European units of U.S. practices; and one has done it all. Four wore stilettos.They didn’t have much time, and they had something to say. Not one wanted to be called out for her gender, and not one considered that remarkable.

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(L to R) Ana-Barbara Llorente, partner, Pendas International, moderator; Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US; Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO; Sharon Schweitzer, founder and principal, Access to Culture; and Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC and honorary consul of France

The hardest thing: Finding and keeping talent

Without question, the biggest challenge confronting a European company in the United States is finding and retaining talent. “Americans’ resumes look great, but you have to train them,” said Belen Marcos, president of Cintra US, one of the world’s largest private developers of infrastructure. Marcos, an engineer by training, noted that in Europe educational credentials are paramount. Americans job-hop more than European hires. They tend to specialize and resist working in areas outside their specialty.

“Europeans are generalists. They expect to do many different jobs.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Navigating European statutory regulations

Disruptive business models challenge both business and cultural norms. Consider the vacation rentals that have turned many traditional neighborhoods into latchkey hotels. Cristina Silingardi, a Brazilian with deep finance experience, helped Austin-based HomeAway successfully navigate the sticky process of integrating acquisitions in both Spain and Brazil.

“Understand the statutory regulations before you do business … It went off without a hitch.”

Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO

“Contracts are part of the law in Europe,” said Liz Wiley, an attorney and partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC. who specializes in intellectual property.

“Very little if anything can be negotiated (in Europe). Expect negotiations to take much longer.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Marcos knows a thing or two about the subject. Her company Cintra is part of the Spanish infrastructure provider Ferrovial. She and her team negotiate the construction and long-term management of roads, airports and concessions, many of which are public-private partnerships.

Belen Marcos (holding microphone), president of Cintra US, negotiates infrastructure contracts in Europe and the U.S.: “It takes longer in Europe because of statutory regulations.”

Codes vs. negotiation. Consider privacy.

Europe is not a monolith. Both EU and country-specific regulations come into play when determining who owns what. For example, “the EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but France has its own data protection authority, the CNIL, which handles GDPR complains and defends the French position with GDPR-related issues,” said Wiley

“The United States is not a code country,” commented Wiley, “We make our own deals.”

Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC

Wiley, whose practice includes both French and American startups, recommends first filing for U.S. patent protection, then filing in other countries to ward off infringements.

Soft skills matter

“When in doubt, err on the side of formality,” advises Wiley. And in the hurley-burley world of entrepreneurs, she recommends oral presentation training for cautious French startups that compete in the winner-take-all American pitch culture.

Sharon Schweitzer, principal, Access to Culture

Sharon Schweitzer’s company, Access to Culture, cross trains business people to be effective in other cultures. Recounting an incident where two older Czechs silenced their giggling younger colleagues with a steely glare, Schweitzer said the significance of a seemingly minor incident caught her by surprise.

But do high heels also matter?

The specter of political change is everywhere. Here too, dress is brand. This year’s Yellow Vest protests revealed the deep divide between France’s privileged class and rest of their country. As I’m writing this, on the other side of the world, young people in Hong Kong wear black and mourn a man in a yellow raincoat.

Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s testifying before Congress, stripped of his signature t-shirt and uncomfortable in a blue suit? Melania Trump in a white pussy-bow blouse and sky-high heels? Dress is political, and high heels stand unrivaled as a symbol of gender and power. Flip flops may reign in U.S. youth and tech enclaves, but search “business women” and you’ll find women in power in wearing heels — because they choose to.

In another culture where talent and a diverse work force weigh heavily on its future competitiveness, Japanese women unsuccessfully petitioned their government to ban gender-based dress codes (#KuToo), and specifically high heels. My guess is there’s another shoe to drop there.

In 1869, men in the Wyoming Territory needed wives. Politicians in Washington needed more voters in the Western territories. So Wyoming gave women the vote. John Morris wrote to a national magazine promoting women’s suffrage:

It is a fact that all great reforms take place, not where they are most needed, but in places where opposition is weakest; and then they spread.

John Morris, following the Wyoming Territory’s decision to give women the vote

“To be sustainable, change takes time,” Wiley noted. Would this panel have happened 30 years ago? 20? Maybe.

With that thought, I’m pulling out my high heels to wear sometime soon.

Hats off to Ana-Barbara Llorente and Pendas International, for sponsoring the panel, and the World Affairs Council of Austin for hosting.

Blockchain’s Promise: Trust

Pete Harris stopped by a session of the World Spins to share his take on blockchain, the software technology generally overshadowed by its trendier spawn, bitcoin and the Bitcoin network. Harris, who bears a striking resemblance to Bilbo Baggins, has a relationship to hype similar to mine with spreadsheets. That is, he is clear and takes  sticks to the facts as he sees them. Even so, it doesn’t take long to recognize blockchain’s promise. If it’s possible to transact business based on a series of permanent (i.e. they can’t be changed), transparent interactions, then our trust-starved world may have a chance of recovering its footing.

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The blockchain network: can it build trust?  Photo courtesy by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, courtesy of Forbes

 

“We’ll have to wait and see” 

Harris’ blockchain CV dates from his Wall Street consulting days over a decade ago. These days, having sworn off airplanes, he spends much of his time with the Austin startup community where over 70 young cryptocompanies are  tackling data integrity issues where they find them — finance, healthcare, contracts.

I watched a handful present at Harris’ Monday night meetup. They ranged from Po.et, copyright/intellectual property protection, to GovernanceChain, an accounting network and CityShare, a digital shopping/hospitality network for member cities. Among the more visible is Wanchain, a Chinese nonprofit that’s figuring out to securely connect separate smart contracts, each with its own blockchain, a pivotal step in supporting a currency-agnostic global financial network. Interestingly, Wanchain’s technology is developed in China; the company’s U.S. headquarters is in Austin.

One of the best parts of these presentations is listening to company execs say, “I don’t know,” and “We’ll have to wait and see” — something I hear very often.  But I suppose that’s the beauty of a working with a nascent technology.

Privacy is implicit in the design

Speaking of wait-and-see, someone asked about blockchain’s impact on GDPR, the  European Union’s toughened privacy requirements known as the General Data Protection Rules. With the compliance deadline looming next month, that too is a wait-and-see. But since transactions are permanent, transparent and traceable, the blockchain ledger eliminates the need for centralized control. The integrity of the information is inherent in the software design.

A peek at a mobile citizenry in a digital world 

Today, 10% of the world’s GDP is in block chain. But it’s not all business. In the public sector, tiny Estonia has fashioned itself what the New Yorker magazine labelled a digital republic. Its citizens are free to live and work wherever they please while continuing to  vote, maintain their health, pay taxes using digital IDs.

Curious? Here in Austin, check out the:

World Spins Series Spotlights Thought Leaders on the Cusp of Disruption

I wanted to let you know about a project I’m working on with the World Affairs Council.  Its best described as a salon series showcasing some of the forces re-shaping the world we think we know — climate change, blockchain technology, the shift of global power from military to technological supremacy.  Our new series “The World Spins,”  will bring  people at the forefront of issues that are re-shaping the world we live in:  climate change, national security, blockchain technology, China and innovation. I’m thrilled to have these brilliant people — thought leaders, participants – not observers — share their time with us.  If you’re in Austin, please join us!

NATIONAL SECURITY & CLIMATE CHANGE, Dr. Joshua Busby, an associate professor,

Dr. Joshua Busby, associate professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin
Military leaders accept climate change as a major risk to our national security. Do we have a policy? Internationally recognized expert Dr. Josh Busby dives into a thorny issue.

the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, has been deeply involved in climate change policy since 2008. He participated in the discussions around Paris Accord, as well as their follow-on sessions, the next scheduled to take place in Poland later this year, as well as managing multi-million dollar grants for the Dept. of Defense. Quick update:  President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw last December.  Former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster recognized the relationship between the weather and security. He’s out, and former ambassador and Fox News analyst John Bolton is in.  What’s next?   April 12 at 6:30

 

BLOCKCHAIN, Pete Harris, founder of Lighthouse Partners, works with companies who are integrating blockchain technology into their business strategy. Talk about disruption, blockchain promises to dramatically reshape our financial, supply chain and trade relationships.  Think Walmart tracking the safety of sliced papaya from Central America to a store in Iowa. Pete, who consults internationally, is part of the axis of the blockchain

Pete Harris, Lighthouse Partners
Pete Harris, founder and president of Lighthouse Partner, has been talking blockchain and innovation since it was piloted on Wall Street.

community in Austin, Texas, where there are over 70 start ups involved in commercializing this nascent technology into our financial, health care, food safety and transportation ecosystems. A nascent technology, the growing use of blockchain is overshadowed by its trendy subset, bitcoin.  But companies like IBM and Oracle are integrating it into the way their customers do business. Pete founded the hub of Austin’s blockchain innovation, the  Austin Blockchain Collective and chairs a monthly Blockchain for Business Meetup at the Capitol Factory which is free and open to all.   March 29 at 6:30

 

CHINA AND INNOVATION, David Firestein, is the founding director of the new China

David Firestein, Founding Executive Director, China Public Policy Center; Clinical Professor of Public Affairs
David Firestein is shaping how a world-class university uses the resources and relationships of the (other) major world power.

Public Policy Center at the LBJ School.  From his bio: Throughout his career, Firestein has played an active role advancing U.S.-China and U.S.-Asia trade. He has also produced path-breaking thought leadership, scholarship and Capitol Hill testimony on a range of topics, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S.-China infrastructure investment cooperation, and the role of national exceptionalism as a driver of major international conflict today. Firestein is native Austinite who speaks Mandarin at near-native level (hard to imagine in a Texan) and has published a book on what else – country music and diplomacy. May 22 at 6:30

 

 

 

If you’re in town, please join us!  All sessions are held at the historic Neill-Cochran House  where you can park right behind the building for free — speaking of a changing world.

Can Tech Companies Protect Privacy — and Still Make Money?

In the early days of the dot-com bubble, I learned that first and foremost, technology companies must deliver value to customers. It’s best to do the right thing by customers in terms of privacy, but profit comes first. Given this, the FTC and Congress need to do more to protect consumers’ personal infomation.

If you Google the phrase “My friend is addicted to _______,” you do not get “opiod” (which is good). You get “phone.”

There is no constitutional right to privacy.  In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively. Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we’ve maintained a hands-off approach — so far.

Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their opt-in personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online  loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire online now haunt us for days.

We took a white-hat approach, jumping into the thick of it. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives,  influencers and media. We joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security.  When I saw our CEO recently, he reminded me, “We were so far ahead of our time.”

But if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.

Postscript:  The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data,  to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.