Economic Development and Small Business & Startups

Business insights on coordinating, collaboration and capital

TEDxMuskegon offers several speakers addressing reinvention.

November 22, 2013
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If reinvention was the theme at the recent TEDxMuskegon 2013, it begs the question: What is being reinvented?

The answer for three of the event’s presenters was the business world, or at least pieces of the business world. The three Michigan professionals — Mark Peters, CEO of Butterball Farms; Todd Conrad, a teacher and football coach at Mona Shores High School;and Chris Willis, entrepreneur and CEO of Media 1 — each offered unique insights into how business leaders, owners and educators can enhance the overall business system by reinventing coordination, collaboration and capital.

Peters’ presentation, "I Want Lifetime Employment, Just Not With You!” focused on reinvention of harmony between the business community and education system.

“I believe we have almost all the elements in our community today to assure people continuous employment and continuous education,” he said. “The problem is that our systems are not very well aligned. We have employers who are not really well focused on doing talent development. And as a society, as individuals, we’re not very good at doing career development.”

He proposed creation of a coordinating organization that could bring the two sectors together, like the teeth of a zipper, to provide talent suitable for employers and lifelong employment, and education for employees.

"We need a coordination organization because mapping people’s education and their career is nobody’s core competency," Peters said.

“If we can figure out in our communities what this coordination organization looks like, and how we can plug people into it and map it so we have education and employment continuously throughout somebody’s career, I think there is a tremendous amount of economic power and opportunity for everybody to build and fund that organization.”

Conrad’s presentation, “Collaborative Competition,” focused on a competitive mindset, a common feature in business leaders. But he warned of the dangers of having too much competitiveness in a culture.

"It’s time we asked ourselves if our collective obsession with being the best — whatever that is — maybe produces larger social problems that we’re not aware of, and maybe we don’t see the connection between the two," he said.

“What it says is this: The most effective means of making the most of human potential is by putting people against each other. To me that seems counterintuitive. It seems cynical.”

A “hyper competitive state” adds a dash of dehumanization to an environment, Conrad said, because when valued achievement can only come at the expense of others losing, people begin to view others not as fellow human beings but as obstacles.

Conrad suggested social inequality is another form of competition, because it deals with “haves” and “have-nots.” He showed studies that linked extreme social inequality to high rates of schizophrenia, and offered that a major social gap is being created due to a culture of hyper-competitive people.

“The Josephson Institute of Ethics in 2009 released a study, and in that study, 51 percent of kids 17 years of age agreed with this statement, that it was morally acceptable to cheat if it’s to get you ahead in life,” he said. “Why are we surprised when this sort of thing happens when our environment is overly competitive?

“If I’ve learned anything in almost two decades of teaching and coaching, I’ve learned this: You can try to control people coercively … but if you really want to influence people in a positive way, what I have found is the only thing that can really be effective is altering that person’s environment.”

Conrad assured that he is not condemning all competitiveness, nor is he in favor of giving medals and ribbons out “just for showing up.” But he did stress that society needs to re-evaluate its extrinsic motivators, not allowing people to internalize themselves or others as successes or failures based on competitive results, but as human beings.

Not every competitive outcome affects who a person is or how valuable he or she is, he said.

“We need to learn to think of our opponent as our ally, not as our adversary,” he said. “If competition is a means for individual improvement, then I need that person over there because it’s the interaction between us that makes us both better.”

Willis spoke after Conrad, and her presentation, “I Am Human Capital,” was one of the most re-tweeted of the day, with her phrases “I am human capital” and “I am a positive deviant,” seeming to become rallying cries for a movement of workers looking to start a “human capital revolution” in Muskegon.

Willis challenged businesses to reassess the value of their human capital and to not just give lip service to the human resources departments. When faced with financial difficulties or business downturns, many CEOs have an almost knee-jerk reaction to cut employees or their benefits, she said.

“We forget that capital is the most valuable thing. It’s money. My thing is, if we treated our people with the same respect that we treated our money, wouldn't it be great?"she said.

Treating human capital as a “cog in the wheel” and as an asset that is easily disposed of is an attack on the triple bottom line, Willis said, and it comes from shareholders who want to make fast cuts by cutting people.

“The solution is to start looking at innovation and saying to shareholders, ‘Yes, we are eliminating redundancies and inefficiencies, but we are also actively investing in this group of people in this area because we know we either innovate or die,’” she said.

“We also need to invest in systems that better measure the people that we have and then, as we bring them along, invest in them, be able to deploy them in ways that make more money and know what the direct results are, so that when we make cuts, we don’t just make massive cuts across the board for short-term gain, cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

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