By Maryann Kerr (February 4, 2020)
There’s been a lot of talk lately at conferences, on podcasts and social media, and in business books about the impact our work life is having on our mental, physical and emotional health.
As we face issues related to retention and a significant leadership gap in the charity sector, it is a topic important to discuss. Anecdotally, I know many who have left or are considering leaving the sector because of the state of the workplace. And, as I work to build the capacity of the social profit sector through kinder, more collaborative, inclusive and ultimately productive workplaces, the issues are important to me.
So, I read.
Probably like you, there is always a pile of books beside the bed, on my desk, in the living room, dining room and den. They are everywhere except the bookshelf. Lately, several of my colleagues have written books. Frankly, feeling a little overwhelmed with the volume, I’ve taken to skimming the business books. Then I received Mike Vacanti’s Believership, The Superpower Beyond Leadership Volume 1: The Experience.
It arrived as I was trying to make a dent in Lisa Taylor and Fern Lebo’s The Talent Revolution: Longevity and the Future of Work and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling, The Inner Life of The Middle Class.
Fear of Falling, The Inner Life of The Middle Class, Barbara Ehrenreich, Twelve; Reprint edition January 7, 2020, 416 pp., $20.99
I was drawn to Ehrenreich’s work as her 1978 book For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women (with Deirdre English) was part of my education on the principles of feminism. It provided a historical and systems view of how women learned to feel shame based on our biology. Shame around menstruation, pregnancy, and a view of women as frail and prone to disease. Fear of Falling is a re-release of her 1989 work.
Taylor and Lebo’s book appealed to me as it set objectives that readers would “discover how to eliminate ageism in the workplace, optimize your workforce for maximum value, unlock untapped talent, [and] extend your brand.” I was already a fan of Taylor’s work with CERIC, a charitable organization “that advances education and research in career counselling and career development, in order to increase the economic and social well-being of Canadians.”
I found myself going back and forth between these three bedside table books—treating them as separate narratives—when it struck me, perhaps unsurprisingly, they have a unifying theme. All three focus on the world of work.
Ehrenreich provides a historical perspective of the impact of the “professional middle class.” Taylor and Lebo speak to the present day and provide tangible, practical and critically needed solutions for moving forward in the workplace. Vacanti provides an inspiring vision for the future.
Fear of Falling contains a persuasive definition of the broad term “middle class” and the impact the definition has had on the current rightist political choices of U.S. citizens. She documents how 1950s scholars theorized that the U.S. had eliminated the class system and that the country existed as a homogenized, happy, equally wealthy whole with a car in every driveway and a lack of any real problems.
Many people bought into that theory –an almost willful denial that there was any other reality than the Leave it To Beaver or later Mary Tyler Moore life existence. And if you were not exposed to the poverty that existed in your city, if you did not see children going to school hungry or were unaware of illiteracy and high school dropout rates, you could ignore this and sail through life thinking all is well for everyone because it is good for you. It was the perfect breeding ground for the protest era of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Perhaps a societal reality check?
Fear of Falling is not always an easy read. At times, I resorted to the online calculator to figure out things like a new lawyer starting salary in 1978 of $40,000 USD as equivalent in purchasing power to about $157,652 USD in 2020.
“Things simply cost more – so much more that we are frequently invited to sympathize with the middle-class breadwinner who can no longer get by on upwards of $ 100,000 a year. (That was in 1989, which is the equivalent of $394,000 in 2020 purchasing power). As one reports: My wife and I are baby-boomers in our mid -thirties. We are both professionals with master’s degrees; our combined annual income this year will be about $115,000…. By any measure of income distribution, we are way up there in the top 5 percent of American families. Something is terribly wrong.” The writer goes on to detail the current and future expenses of families like his own: monthly mortgage of $4,500, commuting and child-care costs for the two-career couple, payments to private retirement funds, plus the prospect of college costs, for the two year old, that “could exceed $100,000 annually.”
But, ultimately, Ehrenreich shows how what she called the professional middle class created barriers to entering the middle class, such as post-secondary education requirements, and then found itself unable to support these same things when their own children reached that age. “Part of the problem is “structural,” she says, “which is the economists’ way of saying that it’s no one’s fault.”
Something is wrong indeed. And an understanding of history of the middle class in the United States is an excellent back drop to a conversation on what the professional workplace looks like today.
The Talent Revolution: Longevity and the Future of Work, Lisa Taylor and Fern Lebo, Rotman-UTP Publishing April 9, 2019, 248 pp., $29.39
Taylor and Lebo’s Future of Work is not the future at all. It is our present reality, a testament to the idea that the future has arrived. The book describes Taylor’s Five Drivers as the major influences shaping today’s workforce: demographics and longevity, career ownership, the freelance economy, the platform environment and AI and robotics. A favourite moment in the book was when they lay out what employers believe:
- Older workers cost more than younger workers.
- It is smart business to set a “best before date” for working life.
- Training workers over a certain age is a waste of precious investment dollars.
- Older workers are less productive than younger workers.
- Performance issues are common to older workers and cannot be easily managed or remediated.
We have observed that these five myths are universally present to greater or lesser degrees in organizations in Canada and the United States. And yet, all five of these statements are untrue. What’s more, each one is potentially costing organizations millions. Observation proves it. Experience proves it. Research proves it. And still these myths survive.”
The book seems to suggest we look inside our organizations and find the wisdom there. The authors make a compelling case for learning to make the most of the inter-generational workforce in which we reside with financial, strategic and human arguments. It is a book that every CEO, COO and VP should read. And one I’ll refer to often. It speaks to a talent revolution.
Believership, The Superpower Beyond Leadership Volume 1: The Experience, Mike Vacanti, Dog Ear Publishing, September 10, 2019, 150 pp., $26.41
Vacanti’s Believership is a full-on leadership revolution.
I was touched by the humanity of Vacanti’s book. He is the founder of the #HumansFirst Club, “a global group of leaders, influencers and collaborators voluntarily sharing a mission to inspire positive change, fueling growth, maturity and sustainability through stories, experiences and open-dialog.”
Vacanti writes like he speaks. Which means there are constant, pressing nuggets of thought that make you pause and think. He uses metaphor as an effective tool to share complex ideas in an accessible way.
Vacanti writes the way I facilitate workshops. He is not prescriptive. His narrative asks the reader to find themselves in the story. It asks us to imagine something bigger than the leader/follower model to which we’ve grown accustomed. It asks us to be self-reflective and aware. My copy of the book has lots of coloured sticky markers, each one representing a moment when I stopped and just thought about what I read. I stopped a lot. This book is about a revolutionary shift in the way we think about, and model, leadership.
Vacanti is talking about a massive leadership transformation, and he says it won’t be possible if those in leadership and aspiring to leadership don’t recognize that what we have now is broken.
Organizations have operated by reporting up and informing down the hierarchal structure for generations. Career advancement today is directly tied to compliance and assimilation to authority. Power and control are the rewards and the tools of current leadership models. The great leaders of the future recognize the devastating failure of this predominate philosophy.
At this point, I could refer to Gallup and others for statistics on what is happening in the workplace and write about employee engagement, mental health, drug and alcohol use and a myriad of other indicators of how workplaces are impacting our attitudes and health.
Instead, let’s think about all the people we know. How many of them are happy at work? Who raves about their amazing leader and coworkers? How many, in this social profit sector of ours, tell stories of the great impact of their work? Who thinks maybe we need to re-imagine leadership?
According to Vacanti,
“People commit when they can attach to a purpose, a leader, a vision and culture they want to belong to. People belong through choice, contribution and compassion for others…. Believership is the result of empowering each unique human to embrace innovation, constant growth, empathy and learning.”
To be sure, the workplace has come a long way. My grandfather worked in a coal mine in northern England when he was 12 years old, and I’m pretty sure it was tougher than even the most toxic of workplaces many of us have encountered.
The root of Vacanti’s approach is in imagining the sense of belonging you might feel when you are able to express your full and unique humanity at work.
“It starts with examining and changing our limiting beliefs, replacing the fear-based standard with a higher consciousness and then circling back to our structures and team practices...We have to face our own judgements, cynicisms, and fears, which is not easy or fun. We put all the beliefs we have held in our lives on the table and test them to see if they are still true today.”
At the end of the day, everything comes down to how we treat one another. And, as we consider what’s important to us and how we want our workdays to progress, there is much to learn from history. There wisdom in our current organizations. And we must reimagine the future.
Maryann Kerr has served local, provincial and national organizations in executive leadership. She is currently the Chief Happiness Officer/CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group, a philanthropic firm she founded in 2006.