If the U.S. Treasury had a dollar for every time “jobs” were mentioned in the November election, I’d be less worried about the deficit. Yet for all the focus on jobs, it’s remarkable how little sense it all made. It’s simple: when the economy shrinks, as it periodically does, jobs are lost. They’re the jobs employers find easiest to shed – positions marginalized by new technology, new competitors, or even new fashions. The illusion is that when the economy recovers, the jobs will come back, like obedient sheep. Well, some will; others won’t. You’ll never see newspaper “Want” ads for typists again. You may not see as many newspapers or magazines in print form either.
In the last election, we heard two schools of thought (I won’t bother to identify the parties). One side insisted that if you lower taxes for “job creators,” they will suddenly start hiring. To do what? Fill obsolete positions? Make a company noncompetitive again? Give me a break. The other side wanted to emulate the 1930’s New Deal and pump money into public works. Hire people with borrowed money to fill potholes. Great!
Jobs are created in response to innovations that open up opportunities that didn’t exist before. These breakthroughs often come from upstarts and dreamers who don’t need to be coddled or funded. Can you imagine Gates, Page, Jobs, or Bezos, or Zuckerberg waiting for taxes to drop before starting their multibillion dollar businesses? Can you picture them burning the midnight oil applying for stimulus grants? No, they’re visionaries who blasted through the status quo to create new enterprises of a kind and on levels previously unseen. And that’s where the jobs by the thousands came from. Of course, we can’t all be innovators on this scale, but we can take a clue from their vision and actions.
Have you heard this riddle? Which way does a dead fish swim? Wherever the current takes it! If your company is always reacting to events and trends and never embarking on new courses, then it’s time to think about moving your tail (fins).
In my Leadership Forum class at Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration, we have an innovation exercise in which the MBAs divide into teams and develop a full strategic plan for a new innovative product or service. After several rounds of evaluation, the most promising ideas are referred to a panel which offers advice, guidance, and perhaps even seed money. One recent proposal was for a smartphone “app” that allows drivers to locate and reserve a spot in a parking garage on the way into Manhattan close to their destination. (Just not while you’re actually driving!)
Innovation doesn’t need to be taught, but encouraged. Remaining open to new ideas is essential – especially in business. I’ll wage the now-infamous sum of $10,000 that someone within the Polaroid organization proposed expanding into digital photography, and I’ll bet another 10 grand that he or she got a pat on the head (or a kick in the butt) and was told that big thinking was a job for the C-suite elite.
I’m not saying that we all need to be innovators. Some of the most successful business leaders I know are those who have learned how to encourage ideas and nurture those with the most promise. If a dream ends up as a dud, then simply move on – without blame or finger pointing. Can you think of a new business that didn’t look like a gamble at the start?
If you hear (or worse, find yourself thinking) “we can’t do it that way…we tried it before and it didn’t work” or “let me play devil’s advocate,” think of a mackerel, belly up and headed out to sea. It’s not too late.
Turn over, head upstream, and take charge. And as you move forward, you’ll be helping create new opportunities (and jobs) for others in your wake. And that’s something awesome! (to quote my granddaughter).