The Heroes Among Us

The Heroes Among Us

Consider for a moment the people you’ve admired over the years. Maybe it’s a celebrity athlete—a consistently high-scoring member of your favorite cricket team. Maybe it’s a political leader or tech visionary. Maybe it’s someone that made an important medical discovery and then shared the fruits of that discovery with impoverished people around the world. If you have long admired these folks, what have you done to connect lately? What’s stopping you? Your heroes continue to have interesting ideas, dreams and plans. But at the most fundamental—ordinary, day-to-day, human level—we’re all alike. Due to a weird mix of circumstances, grit, financial support and perhaps luck, they became famous. But not much separates us and the stuff that makes a hero. In fact, I’ll bet that once you rub the stars out of your eyes, you’ll find a hero next door and maybe even down the hall.

To Catch a Hero

Famous and accomplished people may seem untouchable and unapproachable, but this is part of the myth we’re all responsible for fabricating. Your heroes may have something you don’t have at this specific point in time—more experience, more connections, more press—but the stuff that made them who they are is still bubbling up, poised to connect with someone who understands and is driven by the same spark.

As a college student, I idealized a certain tech guru, famous for achieving early whiz-kid fame and then moving on to starting a successful business venture. I truthfully didn’t really expect any kind of an answer when I tracked him down one day (back before such a platform as LinkedIn existed) and shared a fascinating (to me, anyway) article on a topic that I figured was right down his alley. Of course, I was surprised when I got a reply. Even stranger, we started to correspond regularly. Nothing special here—just one tech head reaching out to another, sharing stuff that would be totally boring to most people. But we connected on a fundamental level and were equals in terms of the topics that we found interesting; the fact that he was more famous than I due to the unique trajectory of his particular life was completely secondary. I learned something from him—and he learned something from me.

Biologically speaking, as humans we are genetically programmed to seek out connections. These connections enrich our lives in multiple ways. We’re all in this big, beautiful boat called “life” together. So, let’s talk.

The Heroes Down the Hall

But even though I spent a good portion of this article discussing it, this post is not just about reaching out to famous people and connecting. It’s about realizing that there’s not much that is different between someone that struck it “big” and you. Take this thought one step further and you see that the makings of modern-day heroes are just down the hall, around the corner, or in the next cube. We all have something unique to say and contribute and we all have opportunities to learn. Yes, all of us.

The owner of a small corner grocery near where I grew up always kindly gave my friends and I a free ice cream cone every Saturday afternoon. He was a generous person and progressive thinker and quickly made his mark in the local neighborhood, after which he ran for political office and made an impact on a much larger scale, improving the lives of countless people. How is he different from the famous, seemingly unapproachable figures I alluded to in the beginning of this article? In fact, he is no different at all.

Reach out to your heroes, whether they are players on an international scale or active closer to home. Connections bring about a greater sense of community and connections bring about the global sharing of ideas and initiatives, which is a good thing.

We all have something of value to share. Look around you. Who are the heroes in your office? I’ll bet there’s one down the hall.

You Weren’t Born with It: Learning to Manage Others

You Weren’t Born with It: Learning to Manage Others

Well done! You now have one of the most important jobs out there, managing a team! This is an important position in a company because good managers—or the lack thereof—can make or break a business. If you succeed in your position and your team meets goals and fulfills expectations, you’ve succeeded with arguably one of the toughest jobs out there. Not many have what it takes—the secret sauce, if you will—but there’s more to being a good manager than just talent. Contrary to what some may think, few are born with it. Time, hard work, and discipline are required to get all the elements of the job right.

Different Focus, Different Skills

A managerial role often entails a marked shift from past work life. You are no longer focused exclusively on improving your own performance. Rather, your focus shifts to helping members of your team shine at theirs. This responsibility to support and manage your team requires you to develop a new set of skills. As a manager, you will spend a lot of time communicating, meeting with company leadership, mentoring, setting goals and identifying the strengths and skills of your team members. Did we mention communication? This is a big one. Learn to do it well because a lot depends on getting it right. In general, some of the most important skills you can bring to the table come together in a managerial role.

The Well-Respected Team Lead

As a leader within the organization, you are immediately held to an unspoken standard to act in a way befitting the title. A manager needs to set an example, step up to challenging circumstances and maintain order with a clear head and steady hand. Of course, you may mess up and make the occasional mistake. Go ahead and share your professional challenges with your team now and then; a little honest humility can make you a more empathetic manager—one who is working to improve personal performance just like everyone else on the team.

Nothing Useful About Ambiguity: Be Clear About Expectations

Your team needs to understand your expectations, which is why—again—communication is key. Be specific, be exact and be crystal clear about the high-quality work you expect and when you expect it. Project outcomes or directives delivered in confusing or excessively general terms can send a project off the rails in a heartbeat.

Beware the Evil Twin: Micromanagement

Early on, spend time reviewing standard work processes and procedures with your team. Keep in mind, however, that when you articulate desired outcomes for a specific project—ideally with plenty of detail—you are not dictating how to arrive at those outcomes. For a variety of reasons, you may want to get down in the weeds and take over some of your team’s work. Don’t do it. This is a sure-fire way to becoming a micromanager. Doing the work of your team communicates a lack of trust and stirs up bad feelings. Remind yourself that members of your team have different methods of getting the work done. Step aside and let them do it.

Caveat: But don’t become so detached (for fear of micromanaging) that you lose track of your team’s progress. As a manager, you always need to know what is going on, how a project is progressing and whether you’re on course to meet project goals. Obviously if you notice a problem or recurring pattern, you need to get involved ASAP. More on this below.

Strength in Diverse Skill Sets

Good managers know that people have different skill sets and different approaches to work—and life, for that matter. As one expert suggests, manage your team as if you were playing a thoughtful game of chess. As you may know, in chess the player learns to skillfully use the characteristics and unique strengths of each piece to execute a strategy. Familiarize yourself with the skills of your individual team members in a similar manner and consider different strengths as you assign work projects. Note how team performance changes in different circumstances and adjust accordingly. Appreciating unique skill sets can lead to success on multiple levels—both for individual team members who feel valued for their talents, and for the company’s overall mission as well.

The Value of Frequent Check-ins

A manager’s most important tool is honest and direct communication. If you’ve developed a good working relationship with each team member, your team will know that even if some criticism is communicated, it’s coming from a desire to help. Frequent check-ins are useful to swiftly address a problem or check project status, but these meetings are also a chance to get to know personalities and learn something about an employee’s professional goals. Always try to help members of your team develop new capabilities and grow in ways that are personally and professionally fulfilling. Bottom line: Guide and lead your team, but also cheer them on when they’ve triumphed.

Management is one of those skills that develops over time. You’re not expected to know everything at the beginning, but the more time you spend trouble-shooting the tough bits and working thoughtfully with people, you’ll eventually come out the wiser—and the organization you work for will benefit as well.

Bring on 2024

Bring on 2024

Amidst the political turmoil, climate disasters and other world problems that loomed large in 2023, it can be difficult to find good news. But—let’s be clear—the hunt is worth it. We’re talking about stories that give us hope and confidence in the future. If medical research discovers the promise of effective therapies for individuals that have long suffered with chronic illnesses, let’s hear about it!

If organizations and experts across the world come together in a crisis to strategize, pool resources, and save human life as they did in India recently when 41 miners were pulled to safety following 17 days trapped in underground tunnels in the Himalayas, let’s share this terrific example of international cooperation!

The bottom line is that when good people combine forces with technology, research, other organizations, as well as each other—and accomplish great things—we all benefit. We gain the conviction and strength to welcome in the New Year in anticipation of further progress, collaboration, and possibility. Of the many large and small developments that made up 2023, which ones succeeded in bringing us hope?

Hope for Ecological Systems at Risk

Rapidly growing urban areas—and the needs of the people that live there—can wipe out forests and functioning ecosystems with machine-like efficiency. Vast wild spaces, many of which represent the last remaining habitat of wildlife species, are clearly under threat. But campaigns that are fighting deforestation are growing in numbers. The international organization, Canopy, for example, has worked for the last twenty years to protect the world’s forests in a particularly unique way. The organization works to provide an alternative to the world’s massive appetite for wood pulp and their work to date has already brought about a significant shift in demand in certain regions.

Restore Local is yet another influential group with ambitions to restore 100 million hectares of Africa’s most threatened ecosystems; the network of active nonprofits expands yearly to include groups at all scales of action—local, regional, and national. Consider the example of countries like Thailand whose Gross National Product is reaping significant monetary benefits from a thriving ecotourism sector. This country is setting an important example for others to follow. Each year, resourceful groups develop innovative ways to protect threatened natural systems. Stories like this prove that for every significant ecological threat out there, there’s an intensely motivated group of people working to counter it. That is good news.

Hope for Innovative Thinking and Scientific Research

Water temperatures off the coasts of Florida, Australia and Belize hit record highs during the summer of 2023, which led to negative impacts on fragile nearshore ecosystems. The world-wide decline of coral reefs is directly related to warming waters. Corals are small aquatic invertebrates with flexible tube-like bodies and tentacles that filter food from the water. The individual polyps that make up a coral reef are small, but their survival is highly dependent on a specific kind of algae that helps filter food and remove waste. If water temperatures rise to extremes, the algae begin to produce a toxin that harms its host. The coral expels the toxin-producing algae, but this leads to the coral’s decline, most evident by wide-spread bleaching.

Through the work of a high-tech lab off the Florida coast, research is underway to expose coral to a variety of stressors like high acidity and high temperature with the goal of developing a more climate-resistant breed of coral. By experimenting with “booster” shots and other techniques designed to help coral not only grow faster, but withstand a variety of conditions, scientists are trying to save an iconic nearshore species. Early research findings are promising.

Hope for Missing Children

Nothing is as important as how communities care for their most vulnerable citizens. The police force in Mumbai rescued some 5,000 minors in a short eight-month period through a mission known as Operation Muskaan. News of a missing or runaway child is always heartbreaking. However, this initiative, which has succeeded in locating more kids in less than a year than in the past five years combined, makes use of a collection of tools—from transit route footage to online databases and WhatsApp groups that post key information about the missing child, to tracking a child’s online “footprints”—and the numbers show the approach is working. Once located, the child and family are linked up with programs that help address underlying problems and fortify bonds between child and family, reducing any future risks.

Hope for Renewable Energy

Back in 2009, the International Energy Agency projected that due to the high costs of solar power, it would likely not be a viable player in the renewable energy sector. Evidence shows, however, that already in 2022, four fifths of new energy projects were solar based. Early subsidies provided necessary early funding, but then continuous advances in the technology, coupled with manufacturing on a massive scale, created even greater cost efficiencies. In fact, costs associated with solar power dropped by roughly 90% between 2009 and 2023, paving the way for even greater numbers of projects across the globe.

These stories represent just a sampling of the good news that is out there if we take the time to look for it. People have an enormous capacity to do good work and make the planet a better place—one idea, project and step at a time. What will we—and you—accomplish in 2024?

Metacognition and Managing Stress

Metacognition and Managing Stress

No matter who you are—or how “balanced and calm” you claim to be—at some level you are affected by stress. We all are. A universal human condition that shaped us through the ages, stress has served us well through time. At one time, stress triggered the energy needed to survive the dangers associated with life as nomadic hunters. Now, of course, the sources of stress are different: Today, financial and family worries, deadlines and workloads have the power to set our teeth on edge.

According to Arthur C. Brooks, faculty at Harvard Business School and Oprah Winfrey, a philanthropist and global media figure, in their book, “Build the Life You Want,” strategies to manage stress in the 21st century are more important than ever. The authors point out that it is our inability to constructively manage—with a cool, rational head—the things we cannot change that leads to depression, drug addiction, alcohol abuse and other damaging coping behaviors. They propose revisiting a concept known as “metacognition”, which translates to “thinking about thinking”. By deliberately—and in a detached fashion—analyzing your patterns of behavior, you can change your course of action accordingly.

How to React to Stress “Triggers”

The authors note that emotions are triggered by a variety of circumstances—some which we can change, and others which we cannot. For example, we can choose who our closest friends are, but we can’t do much about bad weather, climate change, the high cost of living, a chronic illness, or the behavior of people you encounter daily. Unsurprisingly, it is the circumstances that you can’t change that are the ones that typically trigger the strongest emotions.

But emotions are fundamentally just signals or knee jerk reactions to a particular situation, designed to get you to do something—anything—that may relieve your anxiety. (As suggested in the beginning of this article, in earlier times the stakes were higher. You could die if you didn’t think quickly enough to escape a predator or similar life-threatening situation.) As stressful as a situation may be, however, we can’t forget that we always have the power and choice to decide how to respond. This realization alone allows us to regain control in a stressful situation.

The authors point to a stark example to illustrate this point. The Roman philosopher from the sixth century, Boethius, wrote quite a bit about this mental source of strength and power from—ironically—inside a prison cell as he waited to be executed for allegedly conspiring against King Theodoric, the ruling authority at the time. Boethius knew he couldn’t change his physical circumstances, but he knew he could change his attitude. By changing his attitude, he reasoned, he could gain the upper hand and rise above his bleak situation. This is why he wrote from his prison cell: “So true is it that nothing is wretched but thinking makes it so.” If you think you are miserable, you will be. But if you think you have risen above your situation, then you have accomplished that as well.

Metacognition: Step by Step

A few tips to get you started…

1. Examine your situation objectively.
Metacognition tells you to look at your emotions in the third person, as if they are affecting someone else, like a character in a book. This strategy allows you to thoughtfully choose your next steps, not based on—and driven by—negative emotions but based on outcomes you want in your life. Let the emotion pass over you. Don’t internalize any negativity. Think to yourself: “I am not going to let this emotion take over who I am.” In so doing, you have regained control.

2. Write down what you are feeling and what you can do about it.
By writing down your thoughts, you are forcing yourself to think about the situation, your options, and your behavior in relation to it. This step helps you analyze and identify a rational path forward.

3. What can you learn from the stressful event or situation?
Even if your current crisis ranks as one of the all-time worst, what have you discovered? With the passage of time, you are bound to gain a healthy perspective and some wisdom as well. Once you have captured the stressful event objectively—including the emotions it triggered—leave a few lines empty for later reflection. Come back to your notes after 1 month and then again after 6 months. No doubt you will have made some important conclusions about the experience, which can help you live life a bit more calmly and process a similar situation more constructively in the future.

4. Get into the habit of thinking positively about the events in your life.
Write down positive memories, even the smallest little moment that made you smile. This step underlines the value of thinking positively. Show a bit of gratitude for life’s moments of joy—a kind word from a stranger or a small, but unexpected act of generosity from a coworker. Studies show that when you begin the day by thinking about reasons to be grateful, your mood and outlook are likely to be elevated as well.

Five Things to Know about Engineers

Five Things to Know about Engineers

The antics of executives at Facebook and Twitter get the media’s attention, but—let’s be honest—the work that they and their employees do is not really necessary to our collective well-being. We could survive well enough—and maybe even fare better—without much of the chatter that takes place on these media platforms.

But what about our physical environment? What of our drinking water systems and the highways, bridges and dams that keep us and the people we care about out of harm’s way? Which professionals do we depend on to keep these systems operational? People in a variety of fields play critical roles here, but so too do engineers.

1. Engineers work to keep us safe from speeding cars and trains, sewage and flooding waterways

A changing climate can produce extreme rainfall, drought, and heat, landslides, collapsing homes, you name it. In the face of these future unknowns, people around the world are ever more anxious to stay safe. Engineers are trained to design, build and fortify the public and private infrastructure of the future.

2. Engineers built the first cities

Where would we be without the simple lever, wheel—or pulley? Specific inventions showed up at key moments in our history, which helped us—and our growing civilizations— make strategic leaps forward. These early tools allowed us to move the rocks and other materials necessary to build our first cities. The requirements of the earliest city centers was an excellent training ground for the first architects, engineers and general contractors. These projects mandated the design and construction of important public infrastructure—roads and bridges, water supply and treatment centers—all of which makes daily life in urban centers possible.

3. A few hard-working and creative individuals made a huge difference in the quality of life for millions—and today they are famous

It’s not just professional cricket players with the enviable fan base; engineers have achieved celebrity status as well. The accomplishments of engineers like Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (MV), for example, are celebrated every year on September 15, which is known as Engineer’s Day in India, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

MV was employed by the British government as an engineer and later as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Mysore. He is recognized for his design of a “block system of irrigation”—designed to distribute the benefits of irrigation to multiple villages and strategically within villages—in 1885. He is also known for developing automatic weir floodgates in 1903 at Khadakwasla Dam near Pune, India. This was such a successful system that it was later installed at other major dams in India. One of his most celebrated accomplishments consists of a flood protection system he designed for the city of Hyderabad, which had been chronically flooded by the Musi river. MV was recognized for the significant skills he demonstrated as a creative and innovative thinker, designer of dams, and as a statesman. He truly had communities’ best interests in mind as a practicing engineer and as a Dewan, or prime minister, of Mysore. He devoted his life to improving the quality of life for millions, which is why he continues to be celebrated year after year and is viewed as one of the most influential people in India’s history.

4. Engineers solve a variety of problems—some can be tricky

Whether they are designing amusement parks or wastewater systems, engineers are problem solvers. With training in mathematics, physics and other scientific fields, engineers try to find creative solutions given the specific constraints and conditions of the problem at hand. A few principal goals are always top of mind: Which solution will yield the best result for the greatest number of interests given existing resources and environmental constraints; and how can the envisioned design be modified to deliver even more effective results?

5. Engineers need tools for the problems of tomorrow

Engineers became even more effective with the development of computer-aided design (CAD) software. These software programs made it possible to develop 3D models and 2D images of various types of designs—from water distribution systems within buildings to proposed designs for highways, storm sewers and commercial buildings. These CAD tools, when combined with computer programs that model common physical processes like river and stormwater flow, depict the problem in great detail and lead to more accurate and effective solutions. The ability to integrate huge amounts of data into the analysis, through cloud computing, gives models even more accuracy in terms of solving large, complex problems that affect megacities and other large, multifaceted regions.

The problems engineers typically handle will only increase as population growth in urban areas continues to accelerate. It should come as no surprise that by some estimates, the engineering sector is set to grow to 13.7 trillion USD by 2030. Engineering is obviously not just about the rigid application of math formulas and rules. Out of the box, flexible thinking is required. Tools, such as technically advanced software, help in the development of innovative, meaningful solutions for communities—in the spirit of the engineer MV’s far-reaching work.

The Perks of a Positive Attitude

The Perks of a Positive Attitude

Do you want to make your day a little brighter—and a little easier too? Most of us do. Then consider this:

Research shows that if we make some simple shifts in how we think about—and react to—normal day-to-day occurrences, we are likely to benefit in multiple ways. Most importantly, we are likely to vastly improve our sense of well-being and feelings of happiness.

Ready to give it a go? Great! Here are a few tips from cutting-edge “happiness” research.

When problems crop up, bring out the best version of yourself.

When I was younger, I had a teacher who managed to bring out the best in her students—even though we behaved like a bunch of rough and tough, mischievous rascals most of the time. I don’t know how she did it, but we learned the value of taking a deep breath, removing ourselves physically from the situation if necessary, and getting a grip on our impulses before talking out the problem. Try to handle the situation as professionally as possible. To this day, I try to follow this simple process and it hasn’t let me down yet.

Give people the benefit of the doubt and don’t “overthink” it.

Human beings are complex, full of interesting—and sometimes annoying—quirks. If the events of a day, or a particular individual, throw you a curve ball, take it in stride. Don’t let your mind go into overdrive—jumping to unfounded conclusions, concocting conspiracy theories, etc. This kind of thinking will quickly take you into a black hole. Instead of wasting energy building up feelings of anger and resentment, make a conscious decision to NOT go down a negative—and self-defeating—path. Instead, put a positive spin on the situation.

Take criticism in stride.

Well-meaning messengers may bungle the delivery through poor word choice or other awkward habits, but most people just want to help you get the job done—and offer support along the way. We all could use some practice both delivering and receiving advice, but here’s the bottom line. Before immediately thinking the worst, take a step back and look at the situation objectively. Nine times out of ten you are likely to learn something useful from offered advice. So, take the tip and run with it.

Reach out to people you don’t know.

A study recently found that a significant boost of happiness comes from striking up conversations with strangers or people you don’t know well. This can be someone you bump into at the local coffee shop or laundromat, or someone you meet as you wait to catch a train. It can also be someone you don’t regularly interact with at your place of work. If you start up a conversation with someone new, research says you can count on experiencing some unexpected joy. Not a bad result, right?

Think of a moment when you were on the receiving end of an act of kindness.

How did that make you feel? Now, consider a switch: You be the agent of kindness and replicate that act on someone else’s behalf.

Hang out with positive people.

It’s bound to improve your outlook. We can’t always be chipper, of course, because we’re only human. But hanging with like-minded, positive people is energizing and good for your soul. We’ve all experienced a negative personality—someone who’s outlook is “half empty” and just plain cynical—even when times are good. In most cases, you want to avoid running into that person again because, let’s face it, a bad attitude is just a drain on your energy. By hanging with positive people, the good vibes have a way of spreading. Before long, your cynical outlook will be a thing of the past.

Make gratitude a habit.

This one can be difficult to remember to do, but the benefits pay off in spades. Carve out five minutes of your day to think about something you are grateful for. It can be as simple as being thankful for the delicious piece of cake you plan to enjoy at lunch or the fortifying heart-to-heart conversation you had with a coworker recently. Wasn’t it great when your friend gave you two free tickets to a concert last week? (Anyway, you probably get the picture by now.) Even on the tougher days, it’s usually possible to find at least one thing to appreciate.

After all, isn’t it way too easy these days to think of a community or an individual somewhere in the world that has it significantly worse than you do?

Don’t complain; own up to your mistakes.

A few years ago, a U.S. political figure was mocked by many around the world for his habit of blaming others for what were essentially self-created hardships. To put it bluntly, he was a big baby—and just about everyone in the world knew it. In 2019, a massive balloon in the shape of an infant—complete with diaper and pin–of this particular politician bounced along in a variety of public spaces as part of various political demonstrations. A turbulent relationship between the world community and this international figure soon followed. Needless to say, not owning up to mistakes or refusing to accept blame will rarely get you far.

You’ve got this. Reflect on personal and professional dreams.

Here’s the underlying message to everything we’ve covered in this article: The mind is a powerful thing. By exerting a little discipline over your thoughts, you can affect your environment—and your happiness—in countless ways.

Similarly, your state of mind can help you achieve both personal and professional goals. It should come as no surprise that high achievers, from medal-earning Olympians to successful entrepreneurs, often visualize their dreams in their heads before attempting to implement them.

So, on a final note, take a moment to consider your dreams—you are worthy of them—and then chart a course to making them happen.

A Year in Review: Focus on the “Good”

A Year in Review: Focus on the “Good”

The year 2022 is gradually coming to a close. Looking back, it has never been more obvious that our world is complex, teeming with the good and the bad—and everything in between. But even in the thick of the innumerable crises and world problems that plague us, I prefer to focus on the positive by celebrating acts of heroism and worthy global effort, wherever we find it. Let’s review a few developments—minor and major in scale—from the past year that can invigorate us with optimism for the future as we move toward the New Year.

We’ve come out ahead: Some reprieve from the pandemic that rocked the world

According to at least one reputable source, Covid-19 cases are declining world-wide. A few hot spots remain, but this number is a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of cases recorded daily throughout the world during the height of the pandemic. It’s a bit of a shock to recognize just how recently the entire world was in the grips of wide-spread contagion. India was still reporting 300,000 cases per day just 10 months ago in January of 2022. Today, the 7-day average in India is 324 cases per day. Of course, the relative calm of the present moment could be short-lived, and the coming winter months could bring spikes in reported cases. Some experts predict that several factors, including a warming global climate, may unleash a higher frequency of pandemics in future years. But let’s remain hopeful. International know-how in terms of developing vaccines and managing highly transmissible diseases has been put to the test; world populations are better positioned now to fight global health threats than they were ten years ago. We won’t let down our guard, but there is reason to remain optimistic going forward.

Space exploration for one and all: Another barrier bites the dust

What is one of the most physically and mentally strenuous forms of scientific research? Some would say space exploration. Last month, the United Kingdom (UK) announced that for the first time in history, a disabled astronaut would be part of the UK space agency’s 2022 astronaut class. Dr. John McFall will take part in the “Parastronaut Feasibility Project,” which will focus on developing options for the inclusion of astronauts with physical disabilities. Initiatives like this underline the fact that although exclusionary practices still dominate in many parts of the world, there are plenty of exceptions—and this is one of them. Progress towards equal access and opportunity for all—in the many forms it may take—is moving forward, albeit in fits and starts. This example from the UK should give hope to us all. May the rest of the world follow.

Global steps forward—and back—on mitigating and paying for climate change

For the first time in history—and now “officially”—the world’s largest economies acknowledged their dominant role in creating the world’s warming climate conditions. The international conference on climate change, notably COP 27, recently came to a close in Cairo, Egypt. Several of the world’s largest G20 economies—specifically the U.S. and Germany—participated in drafting the important document (aka the “Loss and Damage Fund”) and committed to making amends to the many developing countries that are presently bearing the brunt of climate change’s most destructive effects. As with many non-binding agreements of this kind, questions remain regarding the fine print and important details. One major concern relates to the extent to which compensatory funds actually will reach the countries and populations in question. Another question: what kinds of conditions will trigger a payout—and for what amount? After all, since the global community first came together at the inaugural Paris Conference in 1987, the history of global climate negotiations is riddled with unmet commitments—from unfulfilled emissions targets, to promises to fund climate adaptation for developing countries. The intent to do good is surely there—and awareness is half the battle—but follow-through is the next milestone.

A small, but important, step forward in the fight against the extinction of species

Intimately connected to the issue of global industrialization and climate change is the reality of declining species diversity world-wide. The rate of extinction is expected to reach a grim 50% by the year 2050. But research suggests that if the will to conserve is strong enough, certain trends towards extinction may be reversed. A research project in Switzerland offers the most recent glimmer of hope. Over the course of a 20-year program, Switzerland discovered that it could reverse, or at least stabilize, the decline of certain populations of tree frogs by recreating habitat that was previously destroyed. Through the efforts of various governmental and non-profit groups, 430 small ponds were built specifically for the needs of certain species of tree frogs. At the beginning of the study period, eight species of frog were endangered. This study showed that with habitat restoration, 52% of these frogs increased their populations, while 32% were stabilized—a glimmer of hope, for sure.

Fighting for democracy when your opponent is a giant

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine back in February of 2022, most of the world believed that Ukraine would quickly collapse under a Russian offense. Few predicted the fierceness with which the Ukrainian people would take up arms to protect their country’s independence and individual freedoms. Ammunition and supplies were obviously critical to Ukrainian success, but far more important was the grit and heroism that everyone from ordinary Ukrainian citizens to trained soldiers unequivocally displayed. The example set by these heroic citizens and patriots in their fight for democracy should give hope to us all. Never underestimate the power of people committed to fighting for democratic principles!

Finding inspiration here at Highlands

The team here at Highlands is also a source of inspiration. The level of cooperation, “can-do” innovation, and spirit that sets Highlands apart from similar firms makes me appreciate the quality of our workforce more than ever. As another productive year of software development comes to a close, I look forward to tackling another set of challenges. With this particular Highlands team, I know we have the pluck and determination to meet any and all challenges. Bring them on! A very Happy New Year to all!

In the Corporation We Trust?

In the Corporation We Trust?

Let us Count the Ways….

Corporations are major players in our global culture. Year by year, they upend historic benchmarks—larger payrolls, more offices throughout the world, millions in quarterly revenue. They operate, in short, on a scale that would have been inconceivable some 20 years ago, collectively employing billions of people across the planet and, for better or worse, representing the cornerstones of our modern civilization.

But with this kind of presence and far-reaching influence comes corporate responsibility. As multi-national employers and producers of global goods and services, businesses can spearhead innovation, contribute to the community and elevate standards of living—or alternatively—exploit populations and operate unethically. When we don’t like what a company does, do we have any recourse? Actually, yes. Although these huge organizations seem impenetrable and immune to public opinion, the public nevertheless has held corporate actors accountable—time and time again.

Consumers can affect the fortunes of corporations; in fact, studies show that losing the public’s trust not only results in bad press, but significantly affects the bottom line as well. A study conducted in 2018 by the journal Economist showed that companies with recent business scandals lost 30% of their value when compared to peers in similar industries whose public image was still intact. And rebuilding trust is not easily accomplished, as big-name corporations can attest.

So, what do corporations need to do to earn trust? Let’s dive in and talk about the characteristics that matter the most.

What Do We Expect from Corporate Players?

Let’s start with an easy one. Corporations need to deliver the goods: Stakeholders want, at a minimum, solid economic value.

Consumers expect companies to demonstrate a basic level of competence and to deliver quality goods and services. The market is full of products that underwhelm for different reasons; we’ve all regretted making bad purchases. If enough buyers feel as we do about a product’s poor performance, the company quietly but surely loses revenue and disappears.

Corporations Need to Operate Fairly.

Whether we are dealing with workplace safety requirements, industry product standards, basic tax laws or just plain honest dealings, we expect companies to follow the rules and to observe the law—with respect to consumers and employees alike. When a company falls short of these minimum standards, the public backlash can be intense.

One of the biggest scandals to hit the car industry in recent years involved the car company Volkswagen Group. Federal investigators discovered that the only VW turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engine to achieve stringent emission targets was the engine tested during official trials. Volkswagen issued a public apology and admitted to the use of software specifically designed to cheat the regulatory test. Roughly 11 million cars produced between 2009 to 2015 were found to emit more than 40 times the banned diesel emissions. In reaction to a clear case of public deception, Volkswagen stock decreased by 20% the day after the public apology and decreased another 17% two days later. Billions of dollars of penalties later, the automobile maker is still working to recover the public’s trust.

Corporations Should Have No conflicts of interest.

A corporation motivated by something other than serving the customer is a sure-fire way to lose trust. Facebook faced public criticism for several reasons in recent years. Arguably, not only did Facebook betray its customer base by allowing personal data to become compromised in exchange for private corporate gain, it also failed to protect a specific user group, namely vulnerable adolescent users. Whistleblower testimony established that Facebook maximized use of computer algorithms that increased the frequency of negative messaging targeting the media platform’s youngest users. Facebook maintains a dominant presence in the social media space, but it’s worth pointing out that the company’s forays into other fields have been met with suspicion. Some would say the firm is losing ground as a result of a tarnished image.

What is the Broader Societal Impact? A Corporation Should be Aware of Risks.

An international corporation’s influence is significant, and its actions can have far-reaching implications. A responsible company needs to be aware of and protect against unintended consequences. Twitter gave us an example of proactive, responsible corporate behavior recently. The social media provider was aware of the high potential to spread misinformation relating to Covid 19 and other vaccinations. Therefore, as a preventative measure, the company flatly prohibited and continues to ban any online discussions relating to vaccinations on its platform.

Corporate Champions: The Heroes Among Us

Granted, just like individuals, there are nuances to a corporation’s image. Microsoft has had its share of anti-trust lawsuits and has been accused of monopolistic, bullying behavior towards competitors. But the corporation’s reputation for product excellence combined with the philanthropic generosity of its founder, Bill Gates, presents a unique case. Microsoft has given massively to regional schools and towards community revitalization efforts—both domestic and international. It is also undeniable that Bill Gates, through the far-reaching work of the non -profit humanitarian foundation he created with ex-wife Melinda Gates, has improved local critical infrastructure and health conditions for millions in the poorest regions of the planet. Recent efforts include the elimination of polio through focused and generously financed global outreach. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is involved in many initiatives to promote the well-being of countless disadvantaged populations. Microsoft—and the humanitarian work of the related non-profit Foundation—gives both “champion” status.

Patagonia’s retiring CEO and his family made headlines recently by giving away all personal wealth generated from their successful international outerwear company and pledging it to the cause of fighting climate change. Thousands of companies like Patagonia are fighting the battles that matter and making a difference—both on a local and global scale. We admire corporations that put customers and employees first, operate to the highest ethical standards, admit mistakes and try to make the world a better place—doing good whenever and however they can. These are the corporations we trust.

How Trust Makes the World—and Office—Go Around

How Trust Makes the World—and Office—Go Around

If you consider the most supportive relationships in your life, would you say that trust is a main component? At a fundamental emotional and developmental level, trust is key. Children blossom through infancy and adolescence if they trust their environments and caretakers. We, as adults, need relationships based in trust in order to thrive—both at home and at work. The presence of trust shapes everything. Do I trust you enough to develop a relationship, learn from you and—within a company—work for you, year after year?

The centrality of trust to relationships at home, at work between employer and employee, and in all contractual business relationships is critical enough to warrant a detailed look. Part one of this 2-part series looks at the role trust plays at work between colleagues and—most importantly—between team member and manager. Part two looks at how trust is key between customer and company. This second part explores the component parts of trust in a business setting, especially how the absence of one element of trust may undermine a customer’s faith in a product and the company as a whole. Business news is full of examples of how companies can lose trust—Uber, for example—only to spend months and even years trying to rebuild it.

Building Trust at Work

Trust at work can mean different things to different people. But when you examine what the word means at its core, it refers to a relationship between two individuals that is grounded in integrity, sincerity in words and actions, and truth. What does this look like in the corridors, conference rooms and offices of a company on a day-to-day basis? Some would say that it means you can trust management to treat you with honesty and respect. It also means that you have certain expectations—based on a past positive working relationship—about how you will be treated in the future. For trust to be present and thriving at work, consider that at a minimum the following three rules need to be observed:

  1. A respectful exchange where parties are free to speak—and listen;
  2. Empowerment of team members through education and opportunity; and
  3. A place where a culture of inclusivity and respect is fostered, and the workplace is very much like “a home away from home.”

Is it realistic to think that a company can observe these basic principles?

Dialogue—Between Employees and Employer—Underpins All

Arguably, fifty years ago a workplace that encouraged feedback from team members was rare. Most companies operated from a purely “top down” management model. While this is still a current model for running a company, it has undergone a marked shift. In the most productive companies, a consistent and regular stream of feedback and constructive commentary comes from team members who carry out the company’s mission. In other words, over the years it has become clear that the most “enlightened” companies realize that the “whole” is stronger when its respective “parts” are involved in decision making. In this respect, dialogue, rather than one-way directives, underpins a company’s processes and operations. When management encourages feedback, listens and is responsive to suggestions from its team of employees, not only does the company thrive, but trust grows between all parties—team members and management.

The Gift of Education and Growth

Consider the following scenario:

A team member shows exemplary drive and interest in making a particular company process work better. She not only does her own work to the highest standards, but helps her coworkers achieve a similar level of success. Management takes note of her leadership abilities and offers to create additional opportunities for her. Management not only helps her gain new skills through formal education and training opportunities but promotes her within the company as well.

Such a gesture of appreciation by management validates the employee, her initiative, and her hard work. It represents one of the most effective demonstrations of trust and respect between employer and employee. This is non-negotiable rule number two: Leadership should always recognize the efforts of team members and reward accordingly, either through additional opportunities for growth within the company and/or through additional formal learning opportunities. Through these gestures of respect, the company is effectively communicating a key component of trust: “We believe in you.”

The Pinnacle of Trust: Company as a Second “Home”

The notion that a company needs a tyrant at the helm to get things done is a myth. The best companies incorporate elements of “home” into the workplace. What does this mean? It means bringing an environment built on trust into the cubicles, conference rooms and break areas. It means fostering a culture of inclusion, tolerance, and open communication.

Needless to say, the workplace environment must be welcoming, receptive to employee feedback, and “safe” in all ways for employees to deliver their best work. This type of workplace environment is absolutely key in this modern age. Such a workplace builds trust, security, and a workforce that is loyal to the company for years to come. All companies should strive towards this model. The most trustworthy among them will achieve it.

The Future Amidst Change: Connected, Collaborative and Creative

The Future Amidst Change: Connected, Collaborative and Creative

The last two years have been unsettling in multiple ways and—in view of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine—more changes could be around the corner. It seems we will need to reconsider daily routines, business practices and long-term expectations on a regular basis. What the future holds is a toss-up obviously, but long-term trends are becoming apparent. Which aspects of today’s workplace are likely to stay the same—or alternatively—change in the years ahead? Which skill sets are in demand and growing? Let’s consider the possibilities…

Remote Work Comes Out of the Shadows

As millions of employees across the globe hunkered down at home to work due to stay-at-home orders, the number of online collaboration tools exploded to meet the need. The platform Zoom was downloaded 450 million times in 2020. What was surprising was that after a period of adjustment, many employers made the pleasant discovery that with adequate preparation and the right set of conditions, online meetings could ACTUALLY work. Work could get done and—to everyone’s surprise—new levels of productivity could even be achieved. Online collaborative platforms will continue to grow, offer additional services, and become more specialized as work teams continue to convene online in the months and years to come.

Whether remote work is feasible or not depends on several factors, the main criterion being the character of work responsibilities. But remote work is undoubtedly in the future mix of acceptable arrangements. More and more employers are willing to judge employees on job performance, not whether they are physically at the office.

Tech Tools Chip Away at Routine Tasks

Technology continues to grow more sophisticated and offer an ever-broadening array of tools. However, contrary to what many have feared, instead of replacing employees, technology is more likely to take over a task—routine engineering calculations, for example—rather than the higher-level, nuanced analysis often required of professionals. Much like the time-efficient services of a highly skilled personal assistant, the best use of technology complements what we do. It is quick to learn and adapt to ways that works best for us. Even with all the strides that have been made so far with AI and machine learning, robots are still far from making complex decisions. Andrew MacAfee of MIT points out that “machines are demonstrating skills that they never had before.” This is true, but machines are still far from being human. Let’s keep it that way for a while.

Collaborate, Lead and Adapt—Skills that Are More Important Than Ever

As employees move to remote workstations, the emphasis on teamwork and “people” skills accelerates. In fact, excellent communication and interpersonal skills become non-negotiables in the years ahead. Collaboration between individuals, teams and departments is how the best companies work and will continue to work in years to come. Automation and remote workstations may increase within a company, but so too does the need for invaluable “people” skills.

The pandemic managed to shock us into reevaluating our routines. Above all, the adaptive talents of our employees are more important than ever. “Upskilling” is a very real and relevant talent. If the future is anything like the recent past, circumstances can change quickly, and job positions can change with them. The best employees are the ones that are quick to adapt—and lead if necessary—in a way Mike Walsh of MIT refers to as “cognitive flexibility.” The rapidity with which global economies were affected by the pandemic meant the most valuable employees were the ones that were creative, quick to act, and quick to develop or draw on skills essential for that unique moment.

In the future we will likely move away from fixed roles and learn to develop skill sets and mind sets and to think as groups, maximizing the combined resources of a team. As important as the individual spirit is, the team rules.