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Virginia will be electing its next governor in a few weeks. Many observers see it as a bellwether election. I think they are correct, particularly for what the election will tell us about entrepreneurs’ attitudes towards government and elected leaders. The job creators of our society have a strong message for our elected officials: tax cuts might be nice to have, but social stability and problem-solving are more important. Let me share some of what I have heard from them. 

Michael Avon, chief executive of ICX Media, a digital video start-up, told me that he has grown tired of partisanship. The current environment makes him “fiercely independent – more so than ever before.” He’s looking for elected officials to focus on “working with others to solve problems.”  

Eric Koefoot, president and CEO of Public Relay, a PR monitoring service, raised a similar concern. He thinks that he and many entrepreneurs are “political unicorns – socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” For him, political extremes won’t get the country to where it needs to be. He fears that the parties have become too focused on running towards their perceived bases – the Republicans becoming “socially backward and fiscally reckless” while the Democrats run the risk of becoming “anti-capitalist.” 

The concern that the GOP is abandoning its conservative roots was something I heard from a number of long-term Republicans. Rob Quartel, chairman and CEO of NTELX, a technology implementation firm, is a lifelong Republican who has run for federal office three times. He is very concerned that “both parties are more factionalized, tactical, more ideological” than ever. However, he has particularly strong words for his Republican brethren, because a focus on populism has made the Republican party “all negative all the time” and unwilling to work to solve problems on issues like immigration, free speech and human rights at all levels. These are all issues on which Quartel believes “real conservatives” can engage Democrats in constructive and respectful conversations. He worries that there are few real conservatives left in his party to work across the aisle. 

Worry about stability is another theme that came up frequently. Ajay Sravanapudi, a serial entrepreneur, finds that the current climate is making him more, not less, political. Although he does not identify with a party, he finds himself “pushed to the left even more.” He added that the “tolerance of the chaos of Trump by the right drives me nuts.” 

There’s one thing that I find truly striking as we head into Virginia’s gubernatorial election: the region’s entrepreneurial community is not choosing sides as much as it is choosing to stand for constructive engagement. For the first time in its history, the Northern Virginia Technology Council did not endorse the Republican candidate for governor, instead commending both Democratic Lt. Governor Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie for their willingness to promote innovation and workforce development. 

Another group of regional CEOs, led by James Quigley, the founder of GoCanvas, a mobile technology firm, delivered to both campaigns a letter asking the candidates for focus on workforce development and support for innovation to grow the economy. Almost uniformly, my entrepreneur friends are telling me that they will support politicians and leaders that are serious about solving problems, whatever their party affiliation. They are dismayed by the messages of division that have emerged as a political strategy. 

Both of the candidates say that it is entrepreneurs who will create the jobs our people need. Statistically, that is absolutely correct. Small and rapidly growing businesses founded by entrepreneurs have long been our national and regional economic growth engine. Since the candidates believe that entrepreneurs are so valuable, then my recommendation is that they listen to what they say are saying. 

Entrepreneurs want a government that works with them and politicians who work together. The politics of distraction and division being practiced by some just won’t get it done. 

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I was fortunate to be the moderator of a discussion with Lt. Governor Northam and Vice President Biden. We talked about how important it is to invest in our people, and take positive steps to create 21st century jobs. I was proud to be with them.

Vice President Biden pointed out that the Lt. Governor is a genuine and authentic man. This is consistent with what I have seen over the last 6 years. Public service is a phrase that has come to carry negative weight from some — but when I am with people like the Lt. Governor Northam and Vice President Biden I am reminded that there are many who try to do the right thing every day. Progress doesn’t happen by accident. It happens with intentionality.

 

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Power and influence are often described as one and the same, but they are actually very different. My life in business has shown me that if you want to achieve lasting change, you must appreciate that difference.  

When people talk about power, they usually think of it as the power of coercion: the ability to make others do what you want them to do. People are “subordinates,” and they aren’t asked for their thoughts or their consent. They are just told what to do. In this paradigm, power depends on coercion and punishment to ensure that instructions are followed.  

Early in my career, looking at the people around me, I thought that leadership success was obtained through this sort of coercive power. I relied on my position in a hierarchy to get people to do what I wanted, knowing they understood that I had the power to withhold approval and to impose penalties. People followed instructions because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t.

But I saw that when the fear of coercive power lessened, so did the ability to get people to follow instructions without their voluntary cooperation. I saw projects managed through coercive power crumble and fade away as soon as that power to penalize became ineffective.

Once I realized that concrete tasks and achievements created by coercion dissolved when coercion stopped, I wondered how I could ever create lasting organizational change, cultural and otherwise. What I had thought was lasting power was in fact very ephemeral. True power was not “getting” people to do what I wanted. True power was giving them a reason to choose to follow my lead. I needed to share a vision and make it compelling enough that people would want to bring it to fruition. I learned that influence-based power is much more effective than coercive power.  

Influence-based leadership is also much subtler than leadership through coercion. When influence is most effective, people act in concert because they share a vision of an outcome and have a sense of being invested in achieving that outcome. Who had the idea or gets the credit is less important than getting buy-in from the group. 

As I looked around, I saw that the most influential leaders were often not at the head of a parade telling people what to do. Instead, they were spectators along the parade route, happily eating popcorn and enjoying the parade they helped start. They knew that power is not something asserted over others. It is something that people assert for themselves in support of a common vision. When each person is vested in an idea or a mission, each person will defend it and work to realize it, not because of fear, but because of the satisfaction that will come with achieving the goal. 

I believe that this lesson of business leadership should be applied more often to policy making and governance. By focusing on power through coercion rather than influence or consent, many of our political leaders legislate on partisan lines without the support of those holding contrary views.

Perhaps we should respect our history more. Our nation is based on the concept of consensus and getting buy-in from the governed. That is what made it different from the autocracies and monarchies our ancestors came here to escape. Our system works best when we honor its founding principles.  

Business leaders know that lasting change in business only occurs when we effect that change through consent and agreement. It’s a lesson that our current political leaders would be wise to remember as they consider the path ahead.  

Change obtained without consensus is unlikely to last.

 

 

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Our region’s economy is rapidly reaching a crossroads. Many of the problems we face cannot be addressed through blanket policy prescriptions. So how about putting aside our partisan bickering and looking at the tasks at hand?

As a business person, I’d like our politicians to acknowledge that there are no absolutes when it comes to creating conditions for successful economic growth. Every successful business person knows that growing a business is never clear cut. We must listen to new ideas and try new solutions when the old ones aren’t working. Inflexible business owners rarely succeed in the long run because they can’t respond to changing circumstances.

If a dogmatic and inflexible approach doesn’t work for business, what makes us think it will work for the economy? I’ll admit that it’s somewhat comforting to believe that a rosy economic future can be assured if we follow simple policy prescriptions. All would be well if we had a higher minimum wage. Tax cuts are what is needed to grow our small businesses. All regulations are bad. And so it goes. 

Instead of focusing on absolutes, we should acknowledge that our economy is an imperfect amalgam of businesses that historically has grown best when we rely on data to create policies and approaches that maximize economic opportunities. It’s never been effective for us to merely take a set of prescriptions on faith. When we admit that we live in that gray area where outcome matters more than ideology and when we are willing to acknowledge that well-run government coexists with well run businesses, that’s when our economy grows the fastest.

The greater Washington region faces real growth challenges. Our highways and roads are crowded and getting worse. Public transportation is failing, even as we build town centers in reliance upon it. Our local employers need tens of thousands of skilled workers for our most promising new industries but can’t find them. Housing is unaffordable, and young promising workers are moving elsewhere to seek their futures. New technologies are being created in our region and never commercialized. Export opportunities go unmet because our business people don’t know how to seize them.

These are issues that can’t be solved through an invisible hand acting on its own or through blanket tax cuts or cutting red tape. If the only rule that matters is individual profit maximization, then any problem that requires collective investment or burden sharing goes unsolved. Conversely, if the only rule is that government can do everything, then we may lose the dynamic influence of the individual profit motive in creating new solutions to these large challenges. We need a blend of the best of everything, and we need to be willing to accept that growing an economy is messy. None of us will get everything we want and no good solution will be ideologically pure.

As we look at our politicians, we should ask them to demonstrate that they are willing and able to provide specific solutions to the problems at hand. We should demand that their thinking be clear and that proposed solutions be thoughtful and reflect real-world data and facts, rather than talking points tied to ideological purity or warmed up proposals prepared by well financed political action committees.

We don’t run our businesses that way. Why should we ever tolerate such inflexibility and incuriosity in how our economy is grown?

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Curiosity matters to our society. When we look to improve our lives, curiosity compels us to overcome inertia and to seek something better. But the big question is: why are we curious at all?

Last week I spoke with Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who lives in the DC region. Recently, he immersed himself in learning about curiosity and just released a book on the topic.

Why would an astrophysicist study curiosity? Livio explained that by examining his life and interests more closely, he realized that he had come a long way from being a scientist involved in the Hubble Telescope project to being someone with an eclectic range of interests, including art and music.

As he looked at his diverse interests and the happiness he got from pursuing them, he found himself asking, “Wait a second, what do we actually know about curiosity?”

Through reading on his own and by talking with scientific experts, Livio learned that there are two main types of curiosity.

The first is perceptual curiosity. Perceptual curiosity causes a person to seek to learn something to solve an immediate problem, like finding food, combating bad breath or trying to remember the name of the wonderful actor in that otherwise awful horror movie. Perceptual curiosity is primal and exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction. Broadly speaking, the fear of a negative outcome motivates us to act. This means that the role of fear in our behavior is double edged: one level of fear motivates us to be curious, but too much fear causes us to shut down.

Perceptual curiosity is also driven by novelty. This is true regardless of our age, although the bar for finding things that are novel gets higher as we get older. 

These attributes of perceptual curiosity may explain why as people get older they tend to favor the status quo, why a boring job tends to wear people down and why we ask fewer questions when we are frightened.

The second type of curiosity is epistemic curiosity. This curiosity is much less driven by external events and emotion than is perceptual curiosity. It is based on the process of satisfying a curiosity for the pleasure that comes from mastery. Epistemic curiosity is the desire for knowledge in its own right. This is the curiosity that drives scientific discovery, philosophy and people asking big questions that shape the fabric of our society. It is a cooler, more rational curiosity, but one that is deeply rewarding and pleasurable for those who satisfy it.

Livio believes that these two types of curiosity are essential to our ability to have happy and productive lives. We need both, he adds, because “love of knowledge does create a reward for its own sake, but you want to feel results.”

His conclusion? “Curiosity is a human condition. Something that we cannot avoid.”

Implicit in all of this is an important thread: to satisfy curiosity you must have agency. Curiosity is thwarted without a way to apply it. Whether we are talking about a homeless person wondering where to find a meal, a futurist looking for a great science fiction novel in a book store, or a scientist pondering the origin of the universe, people are driven forward by the belief that their curiosity will be rewarded . Without a framework that rewords and encourages curiosity, we will lose the very trait that is essential to our future.

As I ended my conversation with Livio, I asked him if he had a final thought on the matter. He answered: “Curiosity is one of the purest forms of freedom.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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When a company’s ownership is dominated by a small number of stockholders related by blood, it is often hard to distinguish between what is good for the business and what is good for the family.

This blurring can be a positive thing. As someone who grew up in two family businesses, I saw both the positive and negative: the satisfaction my parents gained from having autonomy and getting a new order from a customer but also the long hours and unpredictability of entrepreneurship.

When dinner conversation at home is as likely to be about whether the family business will be able to make payroll as what the children did at school that day, it does leave an impression.

One of the biggest determinants of whether someone will be an entrepreneur is if they were exposed to it as a child. For those who grew up around it, starting a business is much more natural and therefore likely. For good or for ill, children surrounded by a family business know what they are getting into by choosing entrepreneurship in adulthood.

However, there is also a potential down side to a family business. To understand this better, I reached out to David Pellegrini, a psychologist who specializes in family business matters. He pointed out that unlike a “normal” company, the CEO in a family-run business is usually both the generational and professional leader. This can be challenging because, as he puts it, “being the boss of one’s own children tends to lead to an expectation of fealty, loyalty and appreciation from the children.”When this happens, the offspring who are not in charge tend to be deferential.

In my consulting business, I have often seen this pattern of behavior to be very damaging. The head of a family-owned company who does not exercise care can become convinced that there is no need for outside viewpoints, particularly if things are profitable.

Pellegrini notes that this stifles the leaders’ personal growth, because “they have less need to develop skills of persuasion, consensus-building, or true engagement.” It also puts the business at risk if unexpected challenges arise, since it will not have the benefit of a broader experience base to draw from, or lessons to be learned.

Another downside is that viewpoints of non-family members are often treated with suspicion, if not contempt. The entity becomes a self-referential echo chamber, with the business leader in the middle of a sycophantic group offering only news he or she wants to hear. This issue cannot be solved through marriage; often, those who marry into a family are still treated as second-class citizens, since they are not blood relatives.

So, what can break this toxic dynamic? In my experience, the only remedy is for the family head to consciously separate family dynamics from the business, involve professional management and entertain contrary views.

Without making these changes, a family business leader may succeed for a time, but long-term success is highly unlikely.

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A sure-fire way to commercial success is giving people something new they truly and desperately want. Innovation — the connection of something novel with a need — has become a heady concoction that a growing number of organizations pursue.

The Pentagon continues accelerating its effort to source innovation from more places — for instance, it opened its latest innovation-focused office in Austin, Tex. last week as it has done in both Silicon Valley and Boston. CEOs of large businesses and heads of not-for-profit organizations often tell me about their need for innovation.

Many ask whether large organizations can learn to pivot, and embrace innovative change the way smaller companies and individuals seem to be able to.

Let’s look at what innovation means. Some describe it as the process of combining entrepreneurship and technology to create something new, but that definition shortchanges the fresh ideas that don’t

necessarily use technology. It would also imply that large organizations probably couldn’t be innovative, since entrepreneurs generally do not like working in large organizations.

Others tie innovation to commercial outcome, but this devalues the multitude of opportunities for innovation to positively change an organization without necessarily turning a profit. Innovating for social benefit is not profitable in a monetary way.

Instead, innovation is the conversion of a creation into something that satisfies a need. This is an important nuance. Creativity on its own doesn’t need to influence or sway others; it’s a human behavior. Innovation, however, makes users respond and act in a new way, see things differently, feel differently — and, to want to feel that way again.

So innovation can be large or small, broad or narrow in focus and application. Innovation is a naturally occurring phenomenon when people are given an opportunity to be creative and then share their new ideas.

The first trick is establishing conditions for people to dream, to wonder and ponder. This “fuzzy thinking” is the process of gathering information and considering alternatives in a somewhat wandering, less directed path.

The second challenge is…

Read entire column at WashingtonPost.com.

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I am currently working with Washington Business Journal on video interviews with leading Washington executives. Along with Executive Producer Tracey Madigan, I spent the summer conducting the interviews as an offshoot of my research for The 2030 Group, the organization of local business leaders working to shore up Greater Washington’s economic future. You can catch the first Profiles in Innovation video, with Honest Tea’s Seth Goldman discussing what makes D.C. an “ideas region,” above, and watch for the next installment featuring TrackMaven CEO Allen Gannett coming next week.

Watch now: Interview with Seth Goldman of Honest Tea.

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — A recent White House memorandum to heads of federal departments and agencies outlining a policy toward “ensuring Government-wide reuse rights for custom code that is developed using Federal funds” could be problematic for vendors that customize software for individual federal agencies, says entrepreneurship lecturer Jonathan Aberman at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and founder of TandemNSI, a firm whose mission is to “connect agile innovators to government agencies.

The new Federal Source Code, also dubbed the “People’s Code,” also calls for at least 20 percent of these software projects to be accessible to the public without any additional payment to the developer through the “open sourcing” of their work. Aberman expresses caution in reviewing these changes. “Taken together, these policy steps could be a problem for software entrepreneurs,” he says. “As is often the case with announcements like these, the devil is in the details.”

A key issue is the juxtaposition of “government rights” and open sourcing of software products. “A government agency often acquires the right to use a software product specially written for it — and unless the developer specially limits this in their contract with the government, the government will have the right to share it throughout the government without further payment. That is not a new thing,” Aberman says. “You see this most often in research and development or prototyping. And, the government quite literally has rights to thousands of software projects that are completed and not used, or are only used by the agency to which they are delivered. Trying to figure out how to cause them to have more utility is a great idea for taxpayers.”

But the challenge, Aberman says, is whether the new government policy would…

Read entire post at the Robert H. Smith School of Business site.

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On May 12, 2016, the D.C.-based 2030 Group — a coalition of influential, local business leaders exploring the potential for growth in the D.C.region — released a detailed, 53-page report about how the D.C.-area can evolve into a strong economic hub for innovative businesses. While progress has been made, the report describes that there is a significant amount of work left to secure the area’s status as a top destination for business, commerce and innovation.

Headed up by Amplifier Ventures’ Jonathan Aberman, the report makes some interesting and important points about how far the D.C. tech scene has come and also what needs to be done so that it succeeds in the future. Alongside this narrative is a methodical series of recommendations poised by the group, which may be applicable to both business owners and policy makers in the region.

Watch highlights of the report’s findings here.

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