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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.

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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.

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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. 

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