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Are you steering or in steerage? Part 2: Author interview

Are you steering or in steerage? Part 2: Author interview

This post continues our exploration of Upgrade, both the book and the ideas behind it.  Part 2 is our recent interview between author Rana Florida and Praxis interviewers Kelly Okamura and Donald Officer.

KO/DO  What were your main reasons for writing Upgrade? Why now?

 RF I’ve interviewed an amazing cast of successful creatives for Your Start-up Lifemy business advice column at The Huffington Post. Not just CEOs, business executives, and management leaders but a rocket scientist, an all-star athlete, politicians, mayors and governors, a Grammy Award winning musician, a graffiti artist, starkitechts, fashion designers, media moguls, a tech billionaire, authors, a neurologist and so many others.  I learned a lot from them and it’s their collective insights boiled down in 7 simple principles that I found we could all use to upgrade our lives.

KO/DO  Who would you most like to read this book? Why? Who else might benefit from it? How?

 RF Business managers and entrepreneurs of course, but anyone looking to optimize their lives will benefit from it, from young people just starting out in the work world to stay at home parents looking to get back in. Successful people who want to get off the treadmill and live a better life should read it too.

KO/DO  If you were promoting Upgrade would it be as a how-to book a memoir or something else? Please elaborate on your choice.

 RF Upgrade is a business book that is chock full of advice from successful innovators, plus my own personal insights and opinions, drawn from my varied career.

I’ve worked in 1950s-style Organization Man corporations where management acts like prison wardens, monitoring your every move and counting the minutes you’ve taken for lunch. As the CEO of the Creative Class, I’m not just an insider in the brave new world of creativity, but I’ve toured countless companies as a consultant, observing their environments, workspaces, and policies, studying the ways they work and collaborate. Plus, I have had the incredible good fortune to meet a number of extraordinarily successful people who do what they love.

I was taught to go to school, get good grades to go on and get a corporate job. I landed a high level job for a Fortune 500 company just  outside Washington, DC.  But I soon realized the corporate dream was a sham.  I was stuck commuting in traffic for hours a day, I had no control of my schedule and felt like a hamster spinning in a wheel.  When I took the leap and risk to head up the Creative Class Group, I gave up the stability of a steady paycheque but regained control of my time and life. But shifting from corporate America to full on startup mode, I felt that I needed to throw out everything I learned in business school and implement the lessons I discuss in Upgrade.

KO/DO You mention that you are of Jordanian heritage. In what ways do you believe your roots have formed or currently direct your approach to your life and career?

 RF My father’s journey from a tiny village in Jordan to the US at the age of 18, with no network and little money, certainly inspired in me a willingness to take risks—and to seek out my own opportunities.

KO/DO  As CEO of the Creative Class Group, what do you most enjoy, what is most rewarding and what do you least like about the job?  Are you trying to upgrade, outsource, eliminate or bite the bullet on the unpleasant parts?

 RF Working with and meeting innovators and creative thinkers all over the world is incredibly rewarding and inspiring.

I love my job, but it does have its downsides. I’m constantly thinking about how to reduce the inefficiencies of email and the perils of information overload.  Our devices are always on, buzzing, dinging, blinking, and alerting us to new messages. The frantic drumbeat of incoming information—so much of it so pointless—has us so stressed out that we can’t even enjoy our time away from the office.

My team knows how I feel about e-mail overload. I am constantly pleading with them to “be nice to my in-box.” I even send them joking warnings when they send me too many e-mails in one day: “Cease and desist. You are an e-mail violator today!” I trust them to do their jobs; I don’t need to be cc’d on everything.

I encourage leaders to empower their teams. If they know they have the authority to make their own decisions not only won’t they be bombarding you with e-mails, they’ll work harder and make betterdecisions than they would if they were constantly checking in. When I tell my team that I don’t need to be cc’d or FYI’d, they know I really mean it. By expecting the best from them, I usually get it.

KO/DO  How would you describe your vision in life, your missions in your various roles and what would you most like to accomplish in the next ten years?

 RF  I’d love to change the mindset of leaders in the corporate world; I want to make it a rewarding experience. When I talk to so many business leaders, I am literally shocked by the old school practices they preach.  Too many of us, unfortunately, are still stuck with crackpot managers who give us no opportunities to grow or learn.  Too many people spend the majority of their time in soul-deadening jobs.  The top down approach to leadership does not work. I want to help foster a cultural and behavioural shift.

“If you have information, it is your obligation to share it with others.” I once heard this powerful statement, and it stuck with me. We are motivated to work harder when we feel valued and respected and fully-vested in our work, not when we are being treated like cogs. A leader’s job is to set a vision and goals and inspire their people to attain them. Our society, our institutions, and our businesses need to embrace this new style of leadership, as it brings the largest rewards.

KO/DO  Your husband is the renowned scholar Richard Florida, who argued in The Rise of the Creative Class that innovative thinkers frequently arise from the fringes of society. Upgrade is about playing (and winning) by mainstream rules. How a creative outsider with non-conforming ideas negotiate a game change?

 RF Upgrade is about everything BUT mainstream rules! Just a few of the nonconformist theories I suggest are:

Lead by serving – a leader’s job is to take a C player and make them an A player.

Kill the breakfast meeting (and most other meetings as well) – Most meetings are a waste of time. Scheduling back to back meetings keeps people from doing their real work.

Free the prisoners – Stop chaining people to their desks! Emphasize results rather than hours worked.

Embrace failure – Look at failure as an opportunity to grow, learn and reflect.

Take chances – Facebook’s motto is to move fast and break things, meaning it’s okay to take chances on several things at once. I concur.

Work from wherever, whenever, and however you want.

 Freedom & Flexibility for working parents – The children we raise today will be our leaders tomorrow.

These are all ideas that I heartily embrace but that are not yet accepted in conformist companies, even if they pay lip service to some of them. Here’s another one that I am extremely open to: James Vaupel of the Max Planck Research Center in Denmark believes that everybody should work shorter hours but continue to work well past the traditional age of retirement. “A 25-hour work week will allow younger people to spend more time with their children, take better care of their health (which will help raise average life expectancy), and improve their over-all quality of life,” he says, “while for the older population—many of whom have more time on their hands than they know what to do with—work can serve as both a psychological and physical outlet.”

KO/DO  We can’t all sit in first class. What would you say to those who are continuously relegated to coach through no fault of their own?

 RF  Whether we realize it or not, we all choose our own journey.  Our life is the result of several decisions we make each and every day.  Anyone can make small changes to their life to upgrade it.

KO/DO  Your book and career seem to be about how the individual can compete and stand out, but your ethical stance seems more oriented towards a community focused philosophy.  How would you reconcile this divergence?

 RF  Individuals can make choices about how to manage their lives, but our society’s practices need a total overhaul. Too often we look to the past for the right way of doing things, when it’s the future that holds the answers.

KO/DO  Throughout your book I see much evidence of the powerful tactics you used for personal reinvention to avoid becoming obsolete. Is there a strategy or principle beyond simple self-preservation behind that approach? If so, how would you describe it?

 RF  I read an interview in Fast Company with the designers Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan. Their firm’s mantra is something they found in a fortune cookie—they have it framed in their office: “If you stay the same, you’ll die.” If they hadn’t taken it already, that would be my motto.

Constant change, creativity, and innovation are the key to success. If you sit back and think you have the perfect product or service and don’t constantly upgrade, tweak, and change it, business will pass you by. In business as in life, we need to constantly upgrade ourselves—our mental awareness through discovery and learning, and our physical bodies by exercise and a healthy diet.

 KO/DO  You cite the work of  Martin Seligman, Daniel Gilbert and other practitioners or advocates of Positive Psychology.  How has their work guided you in moving towards the life you want? Which principles have been most influential?

 RF  Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness has had a huge influence on my thinking. He began to formulate it while conditioning dogs for laboratory experiments. He realized that some animals behaved as though they were helpless in certain situations to avoid an adverse circumstance even though they had the power to change it or escape. When some people feel that they have no control over their lives, they too behave in a helpless manner, which, ironically, can close the

door to opportunity and the possibility of change.

KO/DO Would you like to add to expand on or clarify your message?

RF  The majority of us don’t think enough about how we can optimize our lives. Instead of developing a real strategy based on where we want to go in life and why, we just slog through in a state of what I like to call managed dissatisfaction.

My notion of managed dissatisfaction is inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon’s classic theory of satisficing.  Simon coined the word (a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”) to describe how human beings really make decisions.  Where most economists imply that people make decisions rationally to maximize outcomes, Simon recognized that this is impossible in most circumstances. Most of our decisions, he said, are circumscribed by what he called “bounded rationality.”  We choose the first solution that works, that satisfices, sacrificing the best for what’s “good enough.”

Well, it is never too late to envision a better future—or to actively upgrade your work or life. Anyone can do it. You don’t have to be a 20-something single person with nothing to lose to start living the life you want today. The changes you make don’t have to be huge.  Simple tweaks and changes to our everyday lives can dramatically enhance it.