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A Renaissance Year

This weekend several hundred people are gathering in Charleston, SC for “Renaissance Weekend,” an event I’ve had the privilege of attending three times. The concept is to bring together people from a variety of professional fields for several days to share their personal passions. 

Renaissance Weekend is an opportunity to span your intellectual horizons and learn just a little bit about a lot of things from some incredibly interesting people.  Throughout the four-day affair, individuals are asked to lead and participate in panel discussions of subjects ranging from the weighty to whimsical in nature.  But individuals are encouraged to talk about things other than that which has distinguished their career. 

It is this concept to which I dedicate my upcoming year.  I’m always looking for New Year’s resolution material, and I found it a December 30th New York Times article by Janet Rae-Dupree called “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike.”  The thesis is that for organizations or individuals to continue to grow and prosper, they must bring in outsiders to offer fresh thinking.  In short, look for people with renaissance thinker tendencies.

I resolve to make 2008 a Renaissance Year – a year to pursue innovation professionally and personally, and especially to invite help doing so from a wide variety of people. I know it sounds ethereal, but come back to these pages often and I promise to show it in practice.

Changed My Life

My friend Rod has a saying that he uses about just every movie he’s ever seen.  “It changed my life.”  I like to keep mental lists of “things that changed my life. “ The list includes places I’ve been, people I’ve met, experiences I’ve had…and marrying the most wonderful man I can imagine.

I also keep a mental list of life changing books I’ve read.  In that category, I’m adding “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman to the list.

The first thing I loved about this book was the accomplishment of having read all 500 plus pages, a feat these days considering I usually spend my spare time in a kayak or surfing the internet.  The second reason I loved “Flat” is that I feel it in many ways chronicles the last thirty years of my life.  I remember getting my first PC in 1988. I actually bought it through an ad in the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call. The young woman who delivered it instructed me to make the check out to “James A. Baker, III.”  How cool is that!  

I was among the first of my friends to have an email address, thanks to my then boss Al Gore, and recall vividly explaining the “www” concept to my family.  To summarize, Thomas’s historical chronicling of the digital evolution is a story I know and have lived. 

But we really impacted me about this book was the way it rekindled my enthusiasm for the global playground.  In college I traveled to numerous European countries and made friends across geographies.  My job on Capitol Hill allowed me the chance to visit China and Taiwan.  With Gore I spent five years helping build an international education program that resulted in spending my 35th birthday with friends from six countries atop Snowmass Mountain in Colorado.  (My mom was there, too!)  And one of those life changing experiences was a trip to South Africa with a group from the Washington National Cathedral.

“Flat” reminded me the while all politics may be local, the action is global.  And now I’m embarking upon a new opportunity (thankfully with my current employer!) that is once again putting me at the conference room table with colleagues from around the world.  Thanks, Mr. Friedman.  Hope to meet you on the airplane someday.

In my recent and frequent visits to the airport bookstore, I’ve been tempted to pick up the latest bestseller, “The Four Hour Work Week.” I opted to save trees and just visit author Timothy Ferris’s blog instead. Among the many topics this 21st century Renaissance man pontificates on is how to write and keep up a blog.  Tip #5:  The best posts are often right in front of you, or the ones you avoid.  With appreciation to Tim’s inspiration, I am finally going to comment on an article from the WSJ I’ve been carrying around for over six months.  

“Green Protests Derail Chinese Chemical Plan,’ reads the May 31, 2007 headline. Shai Oster reported how nearly a million online and cell phone text messages were sent expressing strong opposition to plans to build a chemical plant close to city center in Xiamen. Despite heavy pressure apparently from Beijing officials, a local mayor was quoted as saying, “the city government has listened to the opinions expressed and has decided after careful deliberation that the project must be re-evaluated.”   

Having visited China in the early ‘90s with a group of Capitol Hill staff, I was stunned by both the technological sophistication and open outrage expressed by opponents and equally shocked that the city official bucked authorities higher in the government food chain. This is simply not the China I remember seeing just 15 years ago. 

Of course, my government-sanctioned and highly-choreographed tour barely provided a peak behind the curtain of Chinese life. But my recollections do not include a strong sense of freedom of speech.  Nor do I remember hearing much about grassroots environmental concerns or seeing widespread use of modern technologies. I remember people in major metropolitan sleeping on dusty mats in front of their house to stay cool at night. What progress!     

Two colleagues just returned from Beijing, and I was sorry to hear confirmed what I’ve read.  The city is thick with pollution and bursting at the seams with commercialism.  It is a reminder that progress has a price tag. The freedom to speak also leads to the freedom to buy, which creates opportunity and challenges for sustainability of the environment and mankind.

This is part of my “review lite” series – meaning I haven’t actually read the book, just other people’s reviews!

CEO performance is determined by a number of factors, not the least of which are financial.  But YUM Brands Inc. Chairman and CEO David Novak heralds the less tangible qualities that result in high performance management in his book “The Education of an Accidental CEO.”     Bottom line advice – do whatever it takes to get people fired up.

“You can never underestimate the power of telling someone he’s doing a good job,” Novak is quoted as saying in a Wall Street Journal book review by Richard Gibson. “ The higher up the ladder you are, the more important it is to give credit rather than receive it.  Always be on the look out for reasons to celebrate the achievement of others.”

Interestingly, I’ve heard and seen exactly this mantra in action in just the last two days by two high ranking corporate officials – one inside my own company and one from a corporation we service.   In the first instance, I was struck by how often this individual praised others for “doing great” and expressed confidence on their ability to deliver.  On the client side,  a list of principles designed to guide the team’s approach to a new assignment included the directive, “give credit where credit is due.”

Call me mushy, but I like this carrot approach.  Not to say you don’t still need a stick in management. But the stick has all the power of a pile of twigs if there isn’t a bowl of carrots being dished out when the occasion calls for it.   Given that Yum Brands stock has quintupled under Novak’s leadership, I’d say he knows a thing or two about how rewarding employees leads to rewarding shareholders. 

On a work trip to Estonia in the mid 1990s, I had the memorable pleasure of visiting a rural high school.   To this day I remember the bumpy van ride from downtown Tallin, am enchanting Old World city, through a somewhat depressing landscape of bombed out and abandoned buildings along rather poorly maintained roads.  After an hour of being jostled around, our small group arrived at a rundown schoolhouse that no US parent would send their child to without serious fear for their safety.

However, when we entered the classroom, we were amazed and delighted to see students eagerly at work on brand new personal computers, manipulating complex geographical information system  (GIS) programs requiring technical and educational aptitude far beyond what I expected most kids that age to possess.  The message of our host from the federal education agency was immediately made clear –Estonia was investing in children, not buildings and roads.  The country had made a commitment to make the internet accessible to every child by the year 1998.  I have little doubt they accomplished their goal.

Nearly a decade later, it was within this memory context that I read a column in European Voiceby a member of the Estonian Parliament, Otti Lumi.  Apparently Estonia, like much of Europe, is facing a troubling decline in birth rates.  A driving trend is women delaying childrearing until later in life to pursue careers and, as a result, having less children.  The government has instituted a series of policies to encourage couples to procreate early and often.  For example, education loans are greatly decreased for students who start a family soon after graduation.    

As a public affairs practioner with a special interest in social marketing, I was particularly interested in the author’s proposal to incentivize childbirth through increased political privileges.  Simply put, Lumi asks, “What if parents had one extra vote per child.”  He notes that parents represent their children in legal terms already.  Giving children the right to vote – through their parents – would demonstrate the value the state places on its youth, the future leaders of the nation.

I’ve mulled this idea over and decided I like it, though for another objective than the author.  Too many Americans wave off their own right to vote, or do so without taking proper care in thinking through the impact of their decision. But if we had an additional vote to cast on behalf of another, particularly a child, I do believe that I – and others – might approach the act of voting with a little more gravitas!

Certainly politicians do their best to play up to adult concerns about future generations with rhetoric such as “don’t mortgage our children’s future by continuing to build an enormous federal deficit.”  But a campaign that literally gave you the right to vote on behalf of your child might get people to think and act on Election Day just a tad bit more conscientiously.  In the old-fashioned American tradition, it’s at least worth a poll to find out. 

Pro Publica

One of my professional highlights occurred before my formal career even started – as a high school newspaper reporter.  After some hard-core investigative work, my fellow “journalists” and I shined a huge spotlight on the farce that was being called school facility security.  (We finally admitted to the school principal at our 15th high school reunion that we might have stepped over the line just a bit when we broke into the school to prove just how easy it was.)

The point is, it was extremely personally rewarding to be at the center of uncovering the truth…and the result was systematic change that benefited the entire school community. 

This month, a philanthropic couple in California announced they would fund a bureau of 24 investigative journalists based in NY City.  Called appropriately “‘Pro Publica,” the staff will work under the direction of former WSJ managing editor Paul Steiger. The reporters will have license to pursue long-range stories that few news organizations have the stomach or budget to invest in. Once the stories are complete, they will be offered to existing media channels for publication.

Not surprisingly, the journalism community has greeted the announcement with mixed reaction. Will established and credible news organization actually run full length investigative pieces by a group of journalists other than their own?  What guarantees are there, if any, that the increasingly media saturated public will pay attention? Does Pro Publica risk luring much needed talent away from local media establishments to NY?  

 If local media establishments are no longer supporting this type of much-needed journalism, it seems this new approach to funding investigative reporting is a good alternative. But I hope our generous philanthropists will also find ways to support the careers of those dedicated to exposing their own local school facility security issue, be they local reporters committed to their own community or even the young high school reporter eager to compete for a Pulitzer.

My master’s degree thesis at Johns Hopkins evaluated civic journalism and its impact on actual voter participation.  (Or at least I think it did! I wrote in the mid 90s in an era before we saved everything on discs and I haven’t seen a hard copy since my last move.)  My interest in civic participation was  again sparked by an article in the October 14th edition of European Voice, a weekly magazine published in Brussels.  (To give credit where its due, the byline belongs to  Simon Taylor with the Economist. ) The story described an event in which a German insurance company and the European Commission brought together a group of 362 citizens for 2 ½  days.  The group was given a deep dive on several hot topics facing the coalition government and then given a chance to debate and vote on several hot topics. Attitudes were benchmarked before and after the workshop. (By the way, this is a great idea for a corporation wishing to increase visibility in the EU.)

In summary, significant shifts in opinion were recorded.  For example, on economic and social policy, those polled were more prepared to consider sacrifices such as raising the retirement age after participating in the event. Support for allowing additional countries to join the EU (specifically Turkey and Ukraine) fell by double digits. The sentiment seemed to be that the more players in the room, the less likely the EU could ever get consensus. 

The actual opinions don’t interest me as much as the process and the outcome.  How delightful it would be if every American were required to spend even ½ day learning about a major issue distinguishing US president candidates before the election. They could even pick the issue that mattered most to them!  One could argue that this education takes place through the campaign and resulting media coverage process. But I’d be more comfortable having a  less subjective third party lead the learning and debate exercise, such as a university.

My former boss US Senator Bob Graham has joined others in an effort to reenergize American civic life. I also follow closely the work of Public Agenda, a non-profit with a similar goal of educating and stimulating the citizenry.  To this day I can picture a picture I believe taken by Washington Post photographer Carol Guzy of South Africans who walked not miles but days to enjoy the privilege of voting after the fall of apartheid. 

I hope we Americans will honor our democratic form of government in November 2008 by taking just a moment to “get out the vote”…and do so intelligently.