Revisiting South Africa: The window and the mirror

I just came back from 2 weeks in South Africa, exactly three years after my first visit there.  My sense of wonder is even stronger than after that first visit. This time, though, I came away with more insights into both the opportunities and challenges South Africa faces – and the ones we face here at home.  The trip was both a window into another world and a mirror that forced me to take a fresh look at my own world.

After all, a zebra may just be another species of horse. But seeing animals like zebras roaming freely makes you look at a lot of animals with a fresh eye.

The window: Incredible diversity and challenges

I dove more deeply into South Africa this trip, but my perspective is still superficial and based on impressions rather than data. I make no claim to expertise. Compared to the last visit, I did spend more time both as a tourist and talking and working with clients. I talked with a wider range of people: black, white, Indian, Afrikaans, men and women, bankers, corporate managers from chemical and insurance companies, lodge managers, artists and craftspeople, a refugee from Zimbabwe, a former political prisoner on Robben Island, professionals deeply involved in environment and sustainability and others deeply involved in Black Economic Empowerment.

The diversity of the country is fascinating and overwhelming.  There is diversity in every dimension including history, landscape, wildlife, cultures. Going from the Cape Town waterfront to Sandton’s wealth to Soweto’s streets to the mountains of northern Limpopo feels like different continents or planets, not different provinces of the same country.

Language is a great indicator of the diversity and complexity: there are 11 official languages, and while English may be the most common language for government and business, it is “only the fifth most spoken home language.” Not to mention that there are three different national capitals in three different provinces.

The mirror: The challenge of social and economic Transformation

Admittedly it was a relief to get out of the intensity of the current US political bubble, with its non-stop tweets, reporting on tweets and tweets about the reporting. The trip was a good reminder that there is life outside that bubble, and other people have their own political, social and economic challenges – and tougher ones than ours.

But South Africa also turned into a mirror for me. The country faces tremendous challenges around race and the halting, decades-long struggle for social and economic transformation. Learning more about that struggle gave me a fresh perspective about social and economic challenges in the US.

The country is still struggling to move from an economy dominated by a white minority to one which provides much greater opportunity and empowerment for the black majority.  The original policy intent 20 years ago was to accomplish this with “broad based empowerment”, without disenfranchising (and driving away) white business and investment. Some believe progress has been too slow; they focused instead on “narrow based empowerment” which emphasizes transferring ownership from whites to blacks. Some in turn believe that narrow ownership transfer enriches few and empowers fewer. And so the search continues for an effective form of more radical transformation.

To an outsider, the challenge is that genuine transformation requires both growth and redistribution, rather than trading off either one for the other. Delivering both, of course, is difficult and requires consensus, collaboration and compromise, along with a good dose of innovation – and macro-economic luck (e.g. commodity prices going the right direction).

That challenge seemingly needs to be met, though. Any alternative to the “win-win” outcome of both growth and redistribution seems risky at best:

  • Growth without redistribution means the rich get richer, creating more inequality and anger.
  • Redistribution without growth is likely to stall an economy, incurring the costs of disruption without the benefits, and driving away needed investment.
  • Having neither growth nor distribution is unacceptable, creating a downward spiral of stagnation and frustration.

Genuine transformation, combining growth and redistribution, appears difficult but necessary.

Sitting in South Africa hearing these discussions I found myself sketching the two-by-two matrix above. And as I sketched, I got confused about whether I was describing South Africa or the US. Beneath the personalities and absurdities of last year’s US political campaign, there were genuine economic and social issues. Arguably, populist elements of one party pushed for growth without redistribution, while the populist wing of the other party fought for redistribution without growth.  Somewhere in the discussion, the challenge of building coalitions for the win-win outcomes seemed to get lost.

And so I found myself looking in the mirror, with South Africa’s challenges helping me take a fresh look at the challenges back in the US. Getting out of your bubble  can do that.

[Opinions in this blog are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners, or those cited in the post. To share this blog, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to]

Winners and Losers: Globalization and Technology

The biggest divide in the US may not be along party, race or gender – big as those divides are. The biggest divide may be between winners and losers: in an economy shaped by globalization and technology (G&T), who are the winners and who are the losers?

In last year’s elections, we heard voices supporting unconventional outsider candidates in both parties. That was in part the frustrated outrage of those on the losing end of G&T.

The fallacy of the whole

Globalization and technology have benefited the world overall (lifting millions out of poverty) and even the US as a whole (including helping the slow recovery from recession). That’s the problem though: None of us personally is “the whole”. Day to day, we live our lives in our own skin, in our own jobs (or lack thereof), in our own communities.  Saying we’re better off “as a whole” is like saying that, if you have one foot in a block of ice and one foot in a raging fire, on average you’re comfortable. That may be statistically accurate, but if one of those is your foot you damn well know it’s false.

In economic terms, we can argue that the benefit/cost ratio is positive for globalization and technology. The problem is, some people have been getting most of the benefits and others have been getting most of the costs. If you work in cloud-based technology or global finance, G&T works pretty well for you. But if you work in traditional manufacturing and are hoping to keep your job and benefits and pension, or work for a local bank or a local newspaper in the Midwest, or if you carry heavy student debt and are hoping to find a good entry level job, it’s not working out so well for you. You’re not smiling and saying, “It’s okay, on average we’re all doing better.”

That on average we are better off is no comfort to those without jobs or hope. It’s personal, not statistical. As Joe Biden once said: “You know, my Grandpop Finnegan used to have an expression: he used to say, ‘Joey, the guy in Olyphant’s out of work, it’s an economic slowdown. When your brother-in-law’s out of work, it’s a recession. When you’re out of work, it’s a depression.’”

The Globalization and Technology bubble

We’re blinded to this because those of us who have benefited from G&T increasingly live inside the G&T bubble. Yes, I said “us”. I’m not pointing fingers at somebody else. I’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from G&T. I sit in my home office living and working where I want to. I spend my days on Skype or WebEx or GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts with clients and colleagues from South Africa to Italy, Boston to Austin. We work on their opportunities and challenges in China, Turkey, Mozambique, India.  Then I get on a plane and fly to work with them, as nonchalantly as a daily commute to work.

What I don’t do often is pick up a phone and call old colleagues and friends in Decatur Illinois, Altoona Pennsylvania or Akron Ohio who aren’t in that G&T world. We just don’t have as much in common, as many shared concerns or travel horror stories to compare. When you win from G&T, your clients, colleagues – and yes, ultimately your friends – tend to be others who are also on the winning side. You’re in a G&T winners’ bubble; everyone else is on the outside.

Expand the winners, don’t blame the losers

The answer isn’t to try to slow down globalization and technology. It won’t work in the long run, and it probably will lead to a genuine average where we really are all in the same boat – worse off.

But the answer isn’t to ignore (or blame) the G&T losers, either. The answer is to get outside our bubble, reconnect with the rest of the economy and the community around us. Start to think about how to help more people benefit from G&T, and not just how your people can benefit more from G&T.

Try starting personally and locally. For example, I’ve been working with some bright, hard-working people with a long-track record of respecting and helping a particular Indian tribe in the US southwest. I’m just beginning to work with them, and learning a lot. In one recent discussion of economic development and empowerment, we began to hatch great ideas that wouldn’t force the next generation to choose between economic hope and staying in their culture. Except we then realized that these ideas depended on leveraging globalization and technology – and no one at the table had any idea of bandwidth and connectivity on the Reservation. That may be where we need to start.

In the long term, the real winners will be those who recognize G&T’s uneven impacts and adapt their strategies accordingly. The losers will be those G&T beneficiaries who don’t get outside their bubble – and are shocked by a growing momentum to burst that bubble.

[Opinions in this blog are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners, or those cited in the post. To share this blog, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to]

Personal Strategies for the New Political Reality

Some of us are dismayed and even appalled by the incoming administration, its policies and its behavior. (If that doesn’t include you, feel free to read on and disagree, or to delete and move on.)

By Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThose of us who do feel that way need to review our personal strategies including how we spend our professional time, energy and credibility.  That’s hard to do. This new political reality can be overwhelming and represents so many kinds of failure – of the system, of ourselves, of my generation, of civility, of truth.

Many have focused on three broad approaches, none of them attractive: fight everything (“resistance”), try to work with the new administration (“accommodation” or maybe “collaboration”), or crawl into a hole and hold your breath for 4 or 8 years (“avoidance”). Each has its attraction, each has its flaws.

I’ve got some blunt advice which probably won’t satisfy proponents of any of those three approaches. (I’ve also written more neutral advice specifically for the workplace, posted on LinkedIn as “New Political Reality: Rules for the workplace”.)

Pick your battles

My advice: pick your battles.  Differentiate among:

  • Impact issues: The issues that have the greatest impact on us all, and where we each have a chance to have an impact. In my case, one is climate change. That doesn’t mean climate change has to be one of your impact issues. Choose your issues, dedicate yourself, focus, look at how your professional decisions impact those issues.
  • Boundary issues: The issues that simply can’t be tolerated, no matter what. These are issues of right and wrong, not right and wrong policy. Many are basic issues of human rights and civil rights. When these lines are crossed what stand will you take?  And should that stand be any different in the work place? If it’s wrong on the street why is it okay in the office?
  • Regrettable issues: The issues which we wish we could fight, but have to let go or leave to others.

You can address impact issues in two different ways. One path is trying to influence policy (e.g. reduce homelessness through changes to housing and employment policy). The other path is trying to mitigate the actual impacts of policies (e.g. feed hungry homeless people tonight). These two paths are both necessary, and are complementary rather than conflicting (though they often compete for attention, volunteers and funding).

Make your plan

Once you’ve figured out which issues are which for you, you can start to build a plan of action:

  1. Focus on impact issues. Get to work researching, writing, volunteering, negotiating, advocating.
  2. Stand up and be counted on boundary issues.
  3. Learn to breathe deeply on regrettable issues.
  4. Build coalitions. As I noted in my LinkedIn post: “Don’t apply ideological tests. People don’t have to agree with your reasons to support your proposal. In Washington that used to be called ‘reaching across the aisle.’ It works. (It even can create mutual understanding that makes real progress.) Don’t get sanctimonious about it.”
  5. Get involved locally. Get down to earth and focus on the day-to-day reality. You’ll learn a lot about the issues. More importantly, you’ll actually do something. If you feed someone, they’re fed for that day, no matter what someone tweets out of Washington.
  6. Support each other. People are going to be discouraged, including you. Many are going to feel isolated in their companies, agencies, communities and even families. Reach out. Respond to those who reach out to you. Look for new platforms that allow you to connect with others wrestling with the same challenges.


This isn’t an easy plan to follow. For many of us, there is no easy plan for the next few years. But we each have to find the right balance.  We can’t resist everything: that’s exhausting and turns important voices into a dull roar of background noise. We can’t just wait and see: there are already important decisions being made (wrongly) and lines being crossed. We can’t just sit in the Facebook echo chamber sharing SNL videos with each other.

It’s time to remember the words of someone who mastered the social media of his day without deprecating others, Mahatma Gandhi: “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

Or to put it in terms the new administration might understand: “Do the right thing even if results uncertain. If you do nothing, you can be sure no result. #Pickyourbattles.”

Dressing for the new realities

[Opinions in this blog are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners, or those cited in the post. To share this blog, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to]

The Pit and the Pendulum: EHS&S and Productivity

Some EHS and sustainability leaders feel like characters in an Edgar Allan Poe story. That’s never a good sign, especially when the story is “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Management guru Edgar Allan Poe

Management guru Edgar Allan Poe

In the story, the protagonist is stuck in a bad place. He is in a dungeon, trapped between falling into a deep, dark pit, never to be heard from again; or lying still as a sharp pendulum blade swings slowly back and forth, inexorably moving closer to cutting into him, deeper and deeper.

For EHS&S leaders, the pit is organizational oblivion, with CEOs saying “no news is good news” and hoping never to be reminded that you and your program exist. The pendulum is the oscillation of corporate strategy and organization. It swings from centralization last time to decentralization this time, and back again. Or from growth to contraction. Or from geographic to functional organization. Merging or splitting up. Back and forth, back and forth. Whichever direction it’s swinging now, you can bet it will swing back again later. And each time, the blade cuts lower.

Like Poe’s protagonist, EHS&S leaders desperately hope there’s a way out and that the story gets better. In the Poe story [spoiler alert!], the cavalry rides in to save the day, literally. In corporate reality, there is no cavalry. But there is a ladder to climb out.

The ladder shows up when you shine some light into the dungeon. When you look across multiple companies and sectors and see the same phenomenon, a few things become clearer:

  • It’s not personal. You actually have a lot of company down there. Look around. Many of your peers in other companies are in the same place. Perhaps more importantly, many of your business and functional colleagues are also down there with you.
  • It’s not random. There are real things going on in the national and global economy which are driving this situation. As I wrote in an article this week, we are in the Era of Productivity. Investor pressures to preserve earnings and deliver growth are colliding with soft markets, collapsing prices and geopolitical uncertainties. Boards and CEOs are focusing on hard-core productivity: how to squeeze more value from every resource (capital, equipment, people) – or how to reduce the resources needed to produce each unit of value.
  • It’s depressing. Almost as depressing as this blog. Especially for EHS&S veterans who finally thought they were getting real traction with sustainability, it’s wearying. The economy may be out of the recession, but the profession is still in clinical recession: not as deep or prolonged as clinical depression, but still a barrier to seeing if there are ways out.
  • There is a way out. EHS&S can become a driver of productivity, not just a victim. Many EHS processes and systems are artifacts of earlier great ideas, but have grown stale, bureaucratic and cumbersome. They may no longer be fit-for-purpose. They may be ripe for re-engineering and streamlining. And sustainability? That’s all about productivity, getting more value out of every resource (think carbon, water, circular economy) or reducing the amount of resources needed to produce value.

This Era of Productivity is the fourth wave we’ve lived through in the corporate environmental space in the US. The prior waves have receded but not vanished. Critical elements of the prior waves (regulation, accountability and sustainability) are still there, important parts of corporate programs. But the growing wave of C-suite attention is on productivity.

The_Pit_and_the_Pendulum_(1961_film)_posterClimbing the productivity ladder isn’t easy, and there isn’t any fall protection to reduce the risks. But climbing sure beats waiting for the pendulum blade.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.]


This blog is very personal. It’s about the loss of my brother. If you want to skip this and wait for my next blog about strategy or environment or sustainability, please feel free to do so. But this is something I have to do.

My oldest brother, David Nadler, died earlier this month. David and I had been distant, at best, for decades. When he received his cancer diagnosis in 2012, many things changed. One of them was our relationship.

David had dominated my youth. He set the bar. I wanted to be like him and I wanted to be accepted and validated by him. His seeming distance intimidated me, annoyed me and inspired me. Some good bit of my professional success can be traced to the burning desire to prove myself to him and to be worthy of him.

By our twenties, we had gone our separate ways – geographically, professionally and politically. We saw each other at family events and in family crises. We met infrequently as our paths crossed, at an office in New York City or a pub in London. We could work together when needed, but kept our distance. Our mother attributed this to David and me being too much alike; frankly neither of us cared enough to agree or disagree with her.

After David’s diagnosis, with David nearing 65 and me nearing 60, with our children grown (and some of them getting along with each other better than David and I did), we connected. As we joked, we didn’t reconcile; we had never “conciled” to begin with. We didn’t pretend; we openly referred to our growing relationship as one of the “silver linings” of his cancer.

DAN and SENWe spent time together with increasing frequency and ease. We found much we had in common, including music, books, movies and TV shows. Our mother was right: we were very much alike, even both guilty of “dreaming in PowerPoint”. We differed in many ways too. We cheerfully argued over our disagreements, especially in culture and politics. I castigated him for believing The Wall Street Journal; he pitied me for believing The New York Times; and we discovered we both really relied on The Economist.

For readers of this blog who are waiting for the applicable lessons, here are two:

  1. It’s never too late. While David and I had a meaningful relationship for only two short years, I will treasure that relationship and those two years for the rest of my life. As I told David, someone asked if I regretted that we hadn’t connected sooner. I could only quote the sage (Willie Nelson): “I could cry for the time I’ve wasted, but that’s a waste of time and tears.”
  2. Don’t let the differences obscure the agreements. After David’s last battle with his cancer began, we found ourselves spending New Year’s Eve together in a New York hospital. As we argued politics, we found we were about 98% in agreement on climate change, its causes, and what should be done about it. Who knew? What might we have accomplished if we had realized and acted on our areas of agreement over the years, instead of focusing on our disagreements?

But this isn’t about useful lessons. This is about my brother, whom I came to realize I loved and even liked, and who is now gone. To go on with my blog without giving him his due felt disrespectful and dishonest.

I will miss you, David. I will not forget you.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]

Brick and mortar – and marble

On a canal in Venice last month, I got to see another “public ends, private means” project that’s gone from concept to brick-and-mortar reality.  Or in this case, brick and mortar and marble reality.

The project, We Crociferi, provides high quality, low cost housing for students and other university-linked visitors in crowded Venice for 10 months each year.  Using a rehabilitated 14th century convent, We Crociferi leverages income from tourists and study-abroad groups during the peak summer months to balance the bottom line without any public operating subsidies. We Crociferi

At first, I viewed the project with delight rather than diligence. I dropped all my intellectual curiosity and just wandered around.  This was Venice, after all, and you quickly get used to the notion that all kinds of amazing things may be down the next alley, across the next bridge, behind that heavy wooden door. We Crociferi lives up to those expectations, from quiet courtyards to soaring ceilings.  Not to mention a dramatic space to be used for a revenue-producing restaurant and event space. Then the intellectual curiosity kicked in.  Four things jumped out at me:

  • This is real. I’ve heard about the project through its evolution from concept to empty hulk to launch, but it’s different when you see one of these projects alive and in person.
  • This is sustainability in practice. The parent Oltre Venture group sees social, economic and environmental needs as interrelated, not competing goals to trade off against each other.  The objectives are unmistakably social and economic.  The building itself is a marvel of adaptive reuse.
  • This is “public ends/private means” in practice. While the goals may reflect the triple bottom line, the project is run with the rigor and flexibility required to meet the real financial bottom line.  This is a professional business operation.
  • This takes a lot of clever brains, diligent hands and patient wallets. In Venice, that includes patient, responsible private capital investing on the operating side (Gastameco), in turn working hand-in-hand with public resources (Ministy of Education, Universities and Research) and other private sources (Fondazione Venezia) in the restructuring of the building itself.

Courtyard There’s also tremendous opportunity to leverage lessons across very different public-private projects. For example, this creative reuse of a convent in Venice for housing looks awfully different from the creative reuse of a food-truck commissary in Malden. But there are some interesting shared challenges such as:

  • Being different things to different people with integrity. These are complex projects that create financial sustainability through innovation and leverage. In Malden, that means simultaneously being a service provider, an economic development incubator, an employer, and an educator. In Venice, it means serving dramatically different markets during the year with very different needs, while also building out the restaurant and other opportunities.
  • Inside CrociferiFilling and managing a wide range of different, overlapping roles while running a thin organization.  In each project, there are important roles for the entrepreneur, the investor, hands-on project managers, and content experts (in hospitality, food service, etc.).
  • Being accepted by a community at the same time that you’re practicing disruptive innovation.  These projects are about change (or they’re not worth doing).  Change inevitably disrupts somebody else’s life, business, neighborhood.  Each of these projects has to pursue its disruption without being rejected by its neighbors.

I’m looking forward to visiting more public-ends/private-means projects.  I expect to learn a lot and share those learnings. But Venice is going to be hard to top.  Room with a view

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients]

Blessings of Collaboration

The candles I’d put in the Chanukah menorah fell over. The large Sikh leader – broad, tall, flowing white clothes and silver beard – and the diminutive Buddhist nun – small, dark robed, shaved head – leapt forward together to catch the candles. The Sikh and the Buddhist quickly placed the candles back in the menorah, so that the nice Jewish lady could light them. She then lit the candles and said the prayers, up at the front of the Methodist church, in front of over 300 people from at least eight different faith communities.

[Photo by Nils Peterson, used with permission of Interfaith Action of Evanston.  Full set of event photos available on Facebook.]

That’s how my holiday season began, at an interfaith service the night before Thanksgiving.  I witnessed a spontaneous act of collaboration.  Nobody told those folks to help each other.  No incentive system was in place to reward collaboration.  No calculations were involved. Just an instantaneous, instinctive act of mutual support.

That sets the bar pretty high for many of us.  Often we struggle with raising the level of collaboration in our own organizations.  There are a few obvious challenges:

  • Most of our organizations are built on competition (and with good reasons)
  • While many of our organizations talk about values, few are as rooted in their values as the communities represented that night (and fewer still have selflessness as one of their corporate core values)
  • Most of us work for a living, our living depends on how well performance and behavior match incentives, and incentives are usually tied to outcomes

Even so, there may be a useful lesson.  The kind of instinctive collaboration I saw that night is about culture and values.  The right incentives can help reinforce collaboration. The wrong ones can certainly get in the way. True collaboration, though, doesn’t come from a begrudging calculation of self-interest, or from your fears that you might fail.  It comes from your genuine hope that the other person succeeds.  You could almost call it the Golden Rule of collaboration: collaborate with others as you would have them collaborate with you. Maybe we can find ways within our organizations – and beyond – to remember that this season and into the new year.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.] 

Life cycle thoughtfulness

For years we’ve made progress in “life-cycle thinking”, increasing our understanding of the life cycles of products, services and facilities.  In the last two weeks I’ve seen some promising signs that we’re moving toward the next step, “life-cycle thoughtfulness.” By “thoughtfulness” I mean going beyond all the analysis, taking the time to think through the implications of our life cycle understanding, especially for our own responsibilities and actions.

The big challenge in moving from life-cycle thinking to life-cycle thoughtfulness is often organizational more than conceptual.  We get the life cycle idea.  But in many companies, our own processes and roles make applying this idea difficult.  For excellent reasons, many companies manage key activities through a stage-gate process. Big projects – especially big investments like opening a new facility or developing a new product, for example – move through a staged process with structured “go/no-go” decision points.  Unless a project makes it through each decision gate, it cannot move to the next stage.

In theory stage-gate is a good control system.  In practice, stage-gate can be the enemy of life-cycle thoughtfulness.  Stage-gate processes often are interpreted to mean “my job is to move the project to the next gate; what happens 5 or 10 or 20 years from now is somebody else’s job.”  Questions about the long term can be reduced to box-ticking exercises needed to get past the next gate.  This has the unintended consequence of shortening people’s attention span to the current stage rather than extending it to the full life cycle of the project.

This distinction between thinking and thoughtfulness is at the heart of sustainability.  One definition of sustainability is “extending farther in time our awareness and understanding of impacts; and bringing back into the present our responsibility for taking action to prevent or minimize those impacts.”  Life-cycle thinking gets us halfway there, by helping us anticipate and understand impacts.  But unless we’re thoughtful about those impacts, including what we can and should do now about them, not much changes.

One positive sign of life-cycle thoughtfulness came from a client in Brazil.  Two weeks ago, I joined my colleagues in Rio de Janeiro for a client seminar, a light-hearted romp through “Integrated Financial Reporting Standards.”  We knew that the discussion might quickly turn to mine closure, an issue we’ve worked on extensively, especially from the remediation perspective.  The financial reporting standards could trigger accounting for mine closure at early stages of mine development.  But would this discussion trigger life-cycle thinking (“how do we do the analysis, account for it and tick the box?”) or more challenging life-cycle thoughtfulness (“how does mine closure affect our decisions and actions when opening a mine?”)?  The answer came shortly after the seminar when I received a very thoughtful email from a client who had participated in that seminar.  Writing late one night before heading back to a mine the next morning, the client wrote: “Organizations create risks throughout their lifecycle, liability increases as growth increases … When risks are recognized then it is possible to take a proactive approach to minimize and prevent those risks — driving value to the company.”

Another positive sign came just yesterday from a client in a very different industry and location. We met with a health-care client in the US.  The client has done excellent life-cycle thinking, performing life-cycle analyses of specific products in response to customer and marketing inquiries. The client is moving from this reactive work to something more thoughtful and powerful.  The client now defines their objective going forward as not just to do better analysis, but to “profoundly influence the design process.” They have identified 12 distinct but related stages at which they can influence the design process.That’s a pretty clear example of life-cycle thoughtfulness.

I’m even seeing promising signs of life-cycle thoughtfulness closer to home.  As consultants, it’s one thing to talk about all this stuff, and another to take your own medicine.  During my trip to Brazil, my colleagues began to look at the life cycle of our own projects, from marketing to sales to delivery to the residual relationships.  Then my colleagues took a facility life cycle slide (originally drawn with my colleague Jeff Gorham 18 years ago) and applied it to our own work in ways I’d missed completely.Together, we looked at decisions we make at each stage and which of those decisions might be improved by putting them more in the context of the full project life cycle.  In other words, we thoughtfully began to overcome our own stage-gate limitations.

I was sent down to Brazil in part to teach.  As usual, I learned much more than I taught.  Obrigado.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]

Are we MOld or Gold?

Don’t read this unless you’re over 55 years old.  Or expect to be over 55 someday.  Or work for or with someone over 55.  Or know anyone over 55.

Full disclosure: I’m 58 years old. I know I’m not middle-aged any more. I mean, how many 116-year-olds work in your office? But I’m not dead yet either. Or retired. Or even near retirement. I expect to work another ten to twelve years.

That’s not unusual these days. Many of my friends and colleagues are in the 55-65 age range, some closer to 70. Many of us want to keep working. Many of us frankly think we probably have to work until around 70, given the nature of markets and investments these days.  So we’re pretty interested in the sustainability of our careers.

(There’s also an entire cottage industry of studies, articles and blogs debating whether retirement shortens or extends your life span.  I’ve listed some below in case you’re morbidly interested.)

We don’t think of ourselves as particularly old either. Obviously old is a relative term. To my children I’ve been old for years. To my undergraduate students at Northwestern, I’m positively ancient. (And I occasionally play to that, regaling them with stories of getting through college with typewriters with no delete key, phones with rotary dials, and the Vietnam-era draft.). But old as in done, over, finished, tired? No way. And on days when I need perspective I remember that my 90-year-old father is active, on email, and subscribed successfully to this blog.

So what are we? We’re in neither middle nor old age but caught in between.  So are we “M-Old”?  As in moldy, left in the fridge a little too long, a little over-ripe?

The M-Old challenge

One challenge is that we have no model or even common name for this 15-year work stretch from age 55 to 70.  It’s not “pre-retirement” – that sounds like pre-boarding at the airport, for those who need extra time to get down the jet-way. The old song may say “the human name doesn’t mean [much] to a tree” but the human name does matter to humans.  If we don’t have a name for something, it doesn’t really exist.

Our organizations present their own challenges.  They don’t know what to do with us.  They also may not know what to do without us. For example, many companies expect 30-50% of their experienced EHS professionals to retire in the next 10 years.  That creates a huge gap in knowledge and skill.  Keeping the same people in place doing the same thing will be difficult and would only postpone the problem by a few years.  But designing other roles to retain and transfer knowledge doesn’t fit most organizations’ norms.  If our organizations aren’t providing these models, are we using our experience and perspective to help create them ourselves? Or are we waiting to be forced out?

We also may be our own challenge.  We grew up in the peak period of retirement expectations.  Neither our parents nor our children grew up with an expectation of retiring at 62 and playing happily for the next 30 years.  We did.  So we put those expectations on ourselves and our peers.  We assume (or fear) this is a time of slowing down, not raising our game.  As one good friend in the same age range (and between jobs at the time) asked me last week: “Would we hire us?”

Or are we potentially gold?

For many of us, this may be the most productive period of our work life. We have tons of experience.  We have perspective: for many issues, we’ve seen it, done it, probably failed at it a few times ourselves.  We have curiosity: we’ve been around long enough to see how fast change can happen and how being mentally agile is at least as important as being prescient, and more likely too.

We have a unique opportunity.  We are likely to be liberated from hierarchical organizational ambitions (by choice or otherwise).  By this stage in many companies, you’ve either hit the top ranks – or bluntly you never will.  As I told my CEO when shifting out of top management: “I still have huge ambition.  But it’s not hierarchical.  I’ve done that. I’d be delighted to never do another budget or performance review.  I do want to be recognized and respected for what I can think and do, not for a title or the size of my staff.” That frees us up to consult, mentor and coach, without being seen as competitors or threats.

We haven’t lost much in terms of energy. Sure, many of us have difficult family challenges from aging parents, kids who came back home, and our own health at times. But is that very different from the unyielding time demands of soccer practice, being home for birthdays, and all the teen trauma that inevitably erupted at the wrong time when we were on the wrong continent?

I’ve been fortunate to have friends, mentors and neighbors who have shown me examples of creating that 55-70 stage, not waiting for it to fall in their lap.  They taught me the art of reinvention. They have moved into Board roles, teaching, mentoring.  They are experimenting with more innovative public-private approaches to the problems they’ve wrestled with for years. They are finding ways to get more satisfaction by focusing on what they can do rather than what they can be. So why isn’t this more common?

If we don’t see the opportunity, if we don’t realize we can be gold, we can’t blame others too much for assuming we’re mold.


Note: The Confusing Literature on Retirement and Mortality

Many articles cite and debate a 2005 study of thousands of Shell Oil employees.  That study actually seems to disprove a negative. It challenges assumptions that early retirement led to longer life spans; it doesn’t actually indicate that early retirement leads to shorter life spans.

A Freakonomics web post last year titled “Retirement Kills” cited a study called “Fatal attraction? Access to early retirement and mortality”. However, that study seems to reach a different conclusion than the headlines suggest:

“Our empirical results suggest that retirement following an involuntary job loss is likely to cause excess mortality among blue-collar males, while retirement after a voluntary quit does not.”

Which begs the question of just how voluntary job loss is if you feel forced out but not actually let go.

Interestingly, this debate has gone on as long as I’ve been alive – literally.  I found an article from the year of my birth on Factors in Interpreting Mortality After Retirement in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.


 [Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients – or anyone else 55-70 years old.]

Do ask, don’t tell

Two colleagues at very different stages of their careers asked me for advice recently.  Both had the same problem, though they didn’t realize it.

One manages hundreds of people.  He’s concerned because his efforts to coach people can turn into intimidation.  He tells his people what he thinks is important. They then do what they think he wants, not what they think is right.  People tell him what they think he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.

The other manages no one, but deals with senior corporate officers frequently.  His problem is that he is asked for his advice but no one seems to take it.  He tells people what he thinks, they nod, and then do something entirely different.

Both share the same problem.  They tell people what they think should happen.  Then they’re surprised that they don’t get the right outcomes. Maybe that’s the problem.  They tell.  They don’t ask.

What would happen if they asked more and told less?  It sounds so simple, but ask yourself: Which do you do more often in conversation? Do you ask or tell?

Why do the questions matter so much?

  • Logically, questions force you to think about what you’re doing, not just defend it.  A recent article described this as forcing people to “unpack” their preconceptions
  • Emotionally, questions create a very different experience for the person on the receiving end.  A good question makes you feel like you’re being challenged to think, not told what to do.  A good question makes you respond to the question; a statement makes you respond to the role and standing of the person making the statement.

I recently ran a class on sustainability for a group of mid-level consultants.  This was not a group of practitioners of practical, sustainable strategy.  These folks were very bright and well educated, but mostly in more technical areas crucial to delivering good sustainability results.  Predictably, they wanted to hear a definition of sustainability.  I wouldn’t tell them what mine was.  Telling them would only have introduced them to the world of sustainable confusion, not helped them sort it out.  Instead, I asked them to imagine they were about to meet with a very important client.  In preparation for that meeting, I asked the students to take five minutes to write out their own definitions of sustainability.  Then I had them break out and role-play the client conversations with each other.

When we reconvened, I surprised them again.  I didn’t want them to tell me what they told each other.  Instead, I asked what they had heard when they played the client role, what made sense, and what didn’t. They had no chance to salute, parrot or reject my thoughts.  They had to “unpack” their own thoughts.

Of course, “do ask, don’t tell” requires us to ask good questions and respond appropriately to the answers.  Asking good questions matters: A series of piercing, focused questions, for example, creates a great interrogation scene in some detective film noir, but a poor conversation.  As my friend and colleague Andrew Sobel notes:

Most people don’t ask enough questions, and they often ask lousy ones. For example, they use closed-ended questions to which the other person can give a yes or no answer, or a short factual reply. That’s okay up to a point, but closed-ended questions rarely make people reflect and they don’t get to the heart of the matter the way thoughtful, open-ended questions do.

Even when I start out asking the right question, I still catch myself responding in ways that tell more than ask.  Having asked a good question, did I really listen to the answer? Did I even wait for the answer before I started talking? Did I follow up with more questions?  Or did I just listen for the next cue for what I wanted to say all along?

You might want to try it yourself. Listen to your next few conversations.  Listen for your own mix of ask and tell.  Then ask yourself a question: “What did I just hear?”

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]