Leading View

It’s been so many years we might be fooled into thinking we really don’t know each other any more. If we were truly cynical we might posit we never did. But I think we still know each other intimately, at least in a few small ways. And not only that, I believe we carry each other around with us in our every-day lives, without even knowing.

That is, until an image or a sound or a smell shakes that part of us that was shaped by the other long ago. When this happens, all doubt is removed; we are allowed—maybe it’s more like we are led—to relive the moments of the event as we replay the words again and again, re-watching a clip of a black-and-white film in which a word is uttered, critical yet wholly ambiguous.

My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer last December. I was in the middle of an 18-month sabbatical so I drove to Westmount from Boston six times in the dead of winter—between late-January and mid-March. I relished the drive, and all the places it took me—through the Green Mountains, past rivers I’d fished as a boy, not far off the trail from Jay and Stowe, and along Lake Champlain—that great body of mountain water that drains north to the Richelieu, flattening out and irrigating the pastoral lowlands of the Saint Lawrence valley.

If it snowed on the way, all the better as there was a chance I might get hung-up in a small town, snowed-in for the night, and I’d have to wait it out. It didn’t happen, but it might’ve.

My mom was still living in her old house, on Saint Catherine Street at the foot of Victoria, alone as she had for decades. In her mid-70s I’d begun thinking the worst these past couple years—old woman living alone, falling down stairs, slipping on ice, being harassed by juveniles up to no good. I never thought about lung cancer (she never smoked!).

But when I got there the first week, I could see it in her eyes. The fear had taken her and wouldn’t let her go. It was worse than falling or slipping or being burgled; it was inside her, unknown, and with a terrible will of its own.

I timed my visits to coincide with her major medical events. We spent time at the Jewish General, the Montreal Neurological, and even at the Queen Elizabeth in NDG. We walked to Starbucks on Sherbrooke that morning, had a coffee before going to the appointment with her GP. “That’s where Geordie’s grandparents lived,” I said as we walked past the building facing where Murray’s and the old Bank of Montreal had been. I had no idea how I remembered that, but it came out clear as a bell.

My mom held my arm wherever we went. She’s always done that, and it always kind of bothered me and made me feel good at the same time. When I was a kid and she used to hold my arm when we walked somewhere, it made me wish my dad was around, and that she was holding his arm. It reminded me that he was missing. And as I got older, it made me wonder if I would get married and divorced some day. And when I was older still—long since married and divorced—it just felt good to have my mother holding my arm, no matter what it meant.

We waited for lung specialists, cancer specialists, surgical specialists in the unadorned communal offices of the Quebec health-care system. Receptionists in Oncology are noticeably more humane because of the—well, you know—but the system is tired and overworked, and the rooms are not clean, well-lit places.

Most of the physicians were younger than me. And they all carried Blackberries and iPhones, and they showed us MRI scans on desktop computers hooked into the System’s mainframes. The worn leather chairs offered a contemplative contrast as we sat and waited for the young Turks to arrive and tell us more about my mom’s situation.

“You see that little black spot…right there?” the 30-something doctor asked without even looking at us. “That’s nothing—we don’t know what it is.” There was a lot of uncertainty but they had decided whatever it was, they were going to take it out. “The surgeon will make the decision once he’s in; he may only take part of the lung, or he may take two lobes. It depends.”

Walking back to the car in the February wind, mom held my arm tighter than before.

The day she had surgery I got in my car and drove. I drove all over Westmount. I went to every street I knew, and all the ones I didn’t know. Turns out there weren’t many of those. It was a bright, cold, sunny day and I got out at all the places where things had happened—fights, football games, pick-up hockey matches, first kisses, break-ups, pumpkin bashing, trick-or-treating, drinking beer in parks and smoking cigarettes, biking, skateboarding, everything. It was all there.

When I stopped on Roslyn I took a picture of our old house, Six-One-Three. Then I went across the street, and as I did I froze and remembered a shaping moment. I was hanging around that entrance to the Schoolyard killing time when you came over and informed me that the earrings had been found: “My mom found them; they were in the garbage can in the guest room, next to the bed. The cleaning ladies accidentally swept them off the bedside table. I’m really sorry, John, that we thought it was you. I mean it: I should have known better.”

That was how I learned how to apologize with dignity–from you, a twelve-year-old kid, who chose to be direct, sincere, and empathetic. A lesser person would never have even mentioned the lost earrings had been found. Your apology also taught me about the fineness of your mother, and what she had given you: The way you apologized melted me, and dissolved the anger I’d felt about being accused of stealing; your voice and tone and the substance of your words helped me see past the more general anger and sadness I felt as a kid when my parents separated; your words made me feel whole and like there was an order in a world I felt was deeply flawed and unfair. Feeling good about myself and the world has helped me later in life, in tough times like the one with my mom now. I’m happy to have her holding my arm tightly, allowing some of her fear to press into me and lighten her load. That’s made all the difference.


The following is a letter I wrote to my youngest sister, Sophie. I’m proud of her, as she is about to mark the end of her two-year commitment to the Peace Corps where she has served as a community organizer in a remote high-altitude village in the mountains of Peru. She currently lives with her sponsor family in an adobe house, which is state of the art in those parts. You can read more about her incredible experience here. With permission, here is the letter.



As you wind down your Peace Corps assignment in Peru I have some more (unsolicited) thoughts for you around the future. Your future 🙂

Deep, incredible international experience is now part of who you are. I am very excited for you, because I believe that an international education will lead us—and your generation in particular—to a rich life of insights, humanity, and livelihood.

The Economist has a special report about “innovation in emerging markets” in the April 17 issue, and I want to talk with you about some of these ideas as you set the table for your future.

Innovation is a buzzword of our times, in some ways born of the current global economic crisis. In a word, from a US perspective, we are in deep doggy-doo-doo because we’ve chosen to focus on being “the number one consumer society” and on delivering services, rather than on manufacturing things here at home.

We offshore manufacturing to a large extent because there was a time when people and countries with “fewer skills” were “cheaper” to hire than the American workforce. Prior to this era, though, Americans were known around the globe as “the world’s innovators.” Technology, democracy, capitalism (and all the products and services under these mega-umbrellas) are a few of the major innovations we’ve developed or refined.

The approach we took over the past 50-60 years worked for decades, but then problems began to emerge: These pesky things called the Third World and the Second World (that’s what we called them until the late-80s) started to change—and many of them evolved, sometimes (due to their sheer numbers) rather quickly. And they aspired to higher global status—as people, communities, nations, and regions.

And as the years went by, they changed more and we changed less, to the point when astounding events occurred in the global social and economic marketplaces, which caught us off guard.

One problem with the US approach was exactly around this notion of “innovation:” Often times, innovation occurs at the manufacturing stage, or level of an economy. When you outsource that capability, you give away a potential competitive advantage.

Think of how Japan (Toyota) passed the US (the Big 4) in automobile quality, performance, and cost in the 1980s. The Japanese innovated on their assembly lines by applying the ancient principles of kaizen (around “making change for the better”) to car manufacturing.

These innovations in business processes became known as ”Lean Manufacturing,” which in turn spawned another innovation called “Just In Time” business practices, whereby a company only manufactures/inventories products when customers order them, rather than producing millions of units and storing them (which costs money and erodes profits) while marketing them to customers (which costs money and erodes profits).

So finally American firms (like everyone else in the world) adopted Lean Manufacturing and JIT business practices/processes where/when it made sense in order to remain at competitive parity with the rest of the competitive world.

Another problem with the US approach was that it did not account for the rise of emerging economies, which possess the potential to grow vast middle classes (ones that dwarf the US market by factors of 10 and more!) very rapidly.

These so-called “emerging markets” have finally “emerged.” I remember when we stopped calling them the Second and Third World and started calling them “emerging,” to signify their non-static, yet still inferior (relative and subjective) economic qualities and status.

“Emerged nations” (let’s coin the term!) aspire to what they believe is their destiny, just like Americans did in their time of modern emergence.

Emerged nations are not as “cheap” as they used to be, and when they produce goods for the US today, those goods aren’t so cheap for Americans to buy anymore.

This trend toward “economic parity” will continue to drive forward until it costs the same (or more) to produce something abroad, at which point the incentive for the US to outsource the manufacturing functions will disappear.

So let’s keep track: First we lost a competitive edge to innovate by off-shoring critical manufacturing industries and functions; next we lost the benefits that the off-shoring originally held for us; and finally, we might have lost the fire-in-the-belly to “make things” and the business capabilities necessary to do so.

An example of this trend, which hits quite close to home, comes from Canada:

There was a long period of time when the US had twenty-five cents (or more) on the Loon. It was precisely under those economic conditions in 2003 when eBay—searching for an in-expensive English-speaking nation in which to set up a Call Center to serve its growing English-speaking user base (think Canada, US, UK, and Australia)—went to Vancouver (Burnaby, specifically) and opened the eBay Customer Service Center.

The Center bulged to 600+ employees over a two-year period. It was a boon for the B.C. economy, and it looked like a great play for eBay’s bottom line.

Until the globalization tsunami hit Western Canada’s shores:

On July 1 (Canada Day, ironically), 1997 the Brits had handed Hong Kong back to PRC, and many, many HK residents (Chinese nationals, not expats), removed their money from HK and went looking for a safe place (preferably English-speaking, which they’d grown up with in HK), and with better air quality, to invest it.

And they found Canada. Vancouver, specifically, located on the opposite shores of their beloved homeland. Pristine, ready, willing, and waiting.

Over the next decade real estate prices in Vancouver (and Burnaby) went through the roof, and then through the stratosphere, and they’ve been going up ever since.

This global economic shift (from East to West) combined with the softening of the USD (think 2001 dot-com bubble-burst, think 9/11 economic crisis; and then credit defaults, mortgages, and financial scandals since then), caused a “very perceptible” re-balancing of economic power in the North American region.

It was so “perceptible” that eBay Inc. shuttered the Burnaby Center last year because it was simply more expensive to operate in Canada than it was to operate back in the US and offshore, in India (for now, anyway).

I wonder if anyone on the eBay Facilities Search Committee back in 2002 was aware of the impending economic impact of 1997 on Vancouver. If they had been aware, I wonder if they’d have chosen Burnaby in the first place (it’s very, very expensive to ramp up, train, open, operate, and then wind down and shutter a 600+-person operation in a 6-year period).

But in contemporary implementations of corporations in America, we often find textbook cases just like this, where a strategy is formulated, ratified by the BoD, and implemented around the short-short-term (i.e. the Wall Street Quarter) despite knowledge (or at least well-informed strategic insights) that might inform a different course if the Long-Term had been the point of reference.

I wonder if we’ll ever know.

But back to the main point: Not only that, but the larger issue is that those “emerged economies” will begin to focus their attention on their own, truly vast markets of consumers (whom we have almost wholly ignored, btw) instead of “existing to serve the US markets.”

Here are some of the main issues that will confront companies that attempt to market to those “emerged markets” (per the Economist’s special report article called, “Easier said than done”):

“As companies work their way down the income pyramid, the problems proliferate. Distribution is tricky: modern retail chains account for only a third of consumer goods sold in China and a fifth in India. Branding can have pitfalls: the locals may be suspicious of foreign products. Companies may find themselves up against feisty rivals that they have never heard of, not to mention unscrupulous pirates. And China’s rural areas account for 54% of its population but produce a much lower share of its GDP.”

It goes on:

“Companies in search of the much-vaunted fortune at the bottom of the pyramid have to start not with consumers but with non-consumers. They need to get inside poor people’s heads to develop new markets, shaping people’s tastes and establishing habits.”

This plain talk sounds crude and opportunistic at first blush; however, the context of the point about “non-consumers” and “shaping people’s tastes” is we must attempt to objectively define the challenge of marketing to an “emerged market” whose people really don’t know how to be consumers yet, despite their desire to move from ag-based economies toward a more free market-styled one, and that we (in the US and elsewhere) don’t know how to market to “emerged markets.”

The challenge we all face is how to approach this dynamic with a balanced view of capitalism, humanitarianism, and with a view to preserving cultures and values. (An excellent book that delves deep into these issues is “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics,” by Professor Yasheng Huang of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.)

Opportunity knocks—It beckons you, little sister, to have a look deep into the future. Your future:

By any standard, you have a world-class college education. Not only that, you’ve studied broadly rather than narrowly by learning about social sciences, literature, and political science. I remember reading one of your early college papers (I was on a flight to the Burnaby Center, I believe, when I read it) about understanding radical Muslim behavior.

It was a well-researched and passionately written paper, which left me inspired and wanting to learn more (though it could have come off as trite and plain in less capable hands).

As a young person, you were ahead of the Awareness, Passion, and Sensitivity curves.

And now, as the country and other limbs of the economic globe have stumbled and fallen into recession, you chose to employ yourself as a volunteer in Peru, which “is considered an Emerging Market according to the MSCI.”

You were pulled to Peru, as I understand it, for humanitarian reasons, which is the best news because that’s given you even more platform from which to listen and learn, and to help as possible.

Your choice was not (again, as I understand it) motivated exclusively or even partially by capitalism, per se.

Back to the Economist article for a second:

“Some companies even employ corporate anthropologists…Heavy investment in education is also essential. Unilever has teamed up with various NGOs to teach people about the importance of washing their hands and other aspects of personal hygiene. So far more than 130 million people have undergone such instruction, which makes it perhaps the biggest educational exercise in human history. This has helped not only to create a market for the company’s soaps and detergents but also to forge a bond of trust with potential consumers.”

When I learned about Unilever’s initiatives, I naturally thought of your own “Healthy School” initiative in Peru, which the Peruvian Ministry of Health acknowledged by awarding your school and work with national accreditation. My eyes widened as I thought of the possibilities.

Above I emphasized that capitalistic notions did not motivate you and I think you know I applaud that. My reasoning is simple, and twofold:

First, it’s critical for young people to learn how to give when they are young and open to ideas. Volunteering is all about giving. And while parts of capitalism are sort’a-kinda about giving, it really isn’t about that.

Second, going abroad provides you with a critical (and differentiated) point of view about what capitalism could be about. Is our 20th century US implementation of it (along with the legal and social frameworks, our taxation frameworks, and our sense of “community” and social welfare, etc.) really the right one for today and the future? What does the rest of the world–especially “emerged nations”–have to say?

Can we imagine an implementation that is appropriate? One that will serve a broader notion of the terms “worker” and “owner”?

I think so. But I think others in the world will be framing it this time. With contributions from the West, no doubt.

So where will you fit into this? Where do you want to fit into this future that is happening right now?

Is it important to you to “contribute” to the shaping of the future? I think for most people this thought is too abstract to act upon, and too daunting.

For others, though, the notion is only abstract to the extent we are unwilling to grapple with it, to formulate it. For these folks, it is an opportunity not an obstacle.

One answer might be to live and work in the US, either “letting it happen” (passive implementation) or trying to influence as best as you can from within “corporate America” (slightly less passive to slightly proactive implementation).

Another answer might be to live and work abroad, either with a multinational (from anywhere, not necessarily the US), or for a “local” firm. Not sure either of these would be more proactive by definition.

Unilever (an Anglo-Dutch multinational) and P&G (a US MN) both take a longer view than most:

“The techniques they use include “embedding” employees with local families in order to study their day-to-day behavior. P&G sends young marketing people to live with Chinese peasants for months on end.”

Or you can take your own long view, one in which you do not think in short-terms nor do you think about personal gains. Instead, you think about big economic trends. You think of the gaps, and economic dis-parity. You let your mind go to those places for inspiration and information about where things are headed. And, if you’re inclined, you pick one or more of those, and influence in every way you can, by all available means at your disposal.

In short, you continue—as you began in Peru—to develop deep relationships one day at a time, and for the long view, regardless of where you are or with whom or for whom you work.

If you do these things, you will find fulfillment and you will have a tremendous impact. All the rest (passion, love, sustenance will follow naturally).

Here ends the unsolicited thoughts for your consideration.



© 2009 John Dila

We’re eating lunch—me, Finn, and Trish. Finn’s got a bowl of mac’n’cheese. Trish is eating a meatloaf sandwich. I made a turkey wrap, and I was using a salad fork to poke and eat Kalamata olives off my plate. Finn’s been holding his bowl up to his face and trying to lick out the last dozen pieces of tubular macaroni. He’s got “cheese” all over his face.

A fork.

“Not like that, Finn,” says his mother. “Eat like your father.”

“With my fork? Eat with my fork?”

“Yes, with your fork. Don’t lick your bowl; use your fork or spoon please,” his mother said.

“Do you like your sandwich, dad?”

“Yes, I do, Finn; it’s very tasty!”

Turkey wrap with California veggies.

“But whyyy?” he asked, trailing off the y.

“Because it’s got turkey in it, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“And it has delicious vegetables in it, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because they’re from California, that’s why.”

San Joaquin Valley crops.

“But whyyy?”

“Because California gets a lot of sun, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because it’s on the west coast, and the jet stream blows the clouds past California so it’s always sunny, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

A view of the Earth from 36,000 nautical miles away...the San Joaquin Valley can be easily identified.

“Because the world spins on its own axis in the opposite direction and its movement creates the jet stream, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because the earth is revolving around the sun and is being pulled toward the sun by gravity, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because of the Big Bang, that’s why.

“So you like that sandwich, dad?”

Big Bang schematic.

“Yes, Finn, I like it.”

PS: Click the homepage link to subscribe to The Dila View.

© 2009 John Dila

Why do we do things the way we do—health care, mortgages, credit/debt, US Senate rules, voting rules, foreign policy, and so on?

“Because that’s the way we’ve always done them,” comes the response, couched in educated certitude and embroidered into the fabric of the flag.

It’s why we require 60 votes to block a filibuster—that’s not a law, it’s just the way we’ve always done it. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in the 1890s) that changes to Senate rules could be achieved by a simple majority: “The constitution empowers each house to determine its rules of proceedings,” so we could change this old rule any time. We just have to decide to do it.

To question these things—for some—is sacrilege. Or worse. For others, to question the system seems daunting, complex, unpatriotic even. For yet others, questioning the status quo poses a serious threat to those who reap benefits from the way things are currently done.

But at a time when so many of our systems are on the brink of breaking, are breaking, and are already broken, some step-changes—not incremental ones—might offer the best solutions for our families and our nation.

I was raised in Canada and I remember when the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, led the country to break away from England in 1982. Before that, Canada was governed by a constitution that was a British law! That was a step-change.

Pierre Trudeau does a pirouette at Buckingham Palace five years before he breaks away from Britain.

There is no blanket answer that will solve all our problems. We will not unearth an economic or social panacea. Our economy is a vast system—not unlike Avatar’s bio-botanical neural network that Pandora’s Na’vi are connected to—interconnected not only from within but also to all other economies around the globe. We’re very interdependent today; we act alone at our peril.

Also, it is very possible (likely) some of our fundamental values and systems are fatally flawed (like Canada’s Constitution had become).

But short of a panacea, there is something each of us can do, which can have a large impact, and give us more understanding of the issues, and provide better control and focus to fix things for the long-term.

We can stop sniffing the horse’s ass!

Stop accepting the stock responses we give and get.


The Horse’s Ass, in fact, was a key dimension in early Western vehicle design: In Rome, when chariots were the chassis of choice and horses were the state-of-the-art power-plant that pulled them, design was all about the width of the horse’s ass.

Note: Width of chariot's axle = width of horse's ass.

The question, though, is: Why do we still design vehicles the same width (almost exactly) today as we did two-thousand-plus years ago?


You’re driving on a road today. It has ruts—made over time by the weight of trucks and cars, all of which were designed with a similar wheel-axle width.

But why that width?

Well because, of course, the roads were designed to accommodate that size, that’s why!

But why?

Well because, of course, before cars were invented those roads were carriage roads, and that’s how wide they were built, that’s why, silly!

But why?

Well because, of course, before carriages were invented for the masses the roads were used by Romans who rode in chariots, and they were that wide, that’s why, silly!

But why?

Well because, of course, Romans designed chariots to be pulled by a horse, silly, and they designed them as wide as—you guessed it—the horse’s ass, that’s why! (I’ve adapted the horse’s ass myth a little for poetic effect.)

A horse’s ass in the ointment

“Why do companies exist?” is a question we ask a lot in business school. And news reporters often ask it after a scandal breaks at a well-known firm, when evidence of “creative accounting,” or fraud, is brought to light.

In the final trimester of our 20-month EMBA—we’d built up to that lofty pinnacle by studying Organizational Behavior, Statistics, Finance, and Marketing first—our cohort studied “Strategy.”

Oooh. Ahhhhh!

Everyone in the class was excited to dig into the texts, read the cases, and discover enlightenment.

That weekend, as I finished Chapter One: Strategic Management: Creating Competitive Advantages, I found this little gem among the exercises and ethics questions at the end:

“A company focuses solely on short-term profits to provide the greatest return to the owners of the business (i.e., the shareholders in a publicly held firm). What ethical issues could this raise?”

Ah, great question, I thought. Finally we are getting to the good part.

I immediately started flipping through our strategy tome looking for the chapter that would address this question.

Baffled, I discovered the chapter did not exist.

Follow the horse’s ass

And we—collectively—beat up Corporate America for its failings, scandals, and that pesky 400-to-1 top-earner-to-bottom-earner salary ratio in many of our firms today.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some firms put caps on top earners. At Whole Foods, for example, “No one at the company can have a salary more than nineteen times what the average team member makes.”

Whatever else you might want to label Whole Food’s monetary reward practices, it is an example of the planned abandonment of the standard way of rewarding executives.

Whoa! as you would say to a horse when you want her to stop:

People who studied business texts lead our businesses today, so maybe we should draw a line from those leaders to another horse’s ass:

Maybe our business schools—our professors, committees, and chancellors—and the governments, corporations, and large publishers that subsidize them, are not ready to admit the textbooks we write and curricula we develop are too narrow (or wide) for the global road we’re on.

Why do companies exist?

A business student will always answer, “It depends.”

But if you ask your own children, or a small-business owner, or someone from a different country, the answers will have something to do with customers and their needs and wants.

So now customers are part of the value chain of the horse’s ass.

We (customers) save our hard-earned money to put little Jenny into the very best schools our money can buy. The ones—that’s right—that are teaching the wrong stuff at the wrong time to the wrong generation to solve the wrong problems.


It’s difficult to change a horse’s ass, but you may change horses if you like

Peter Drucker (1909-2005)—a writer and business management professor—developed the notion of “planned abandonment,” by observing how business and government tend to cling to “yesterday’s success” rather than seeing and accepting when something no longer works well.

Peter Drucker...planned abandonment.

Peter Drucker...planned abandonment.

It’s easy to understand why we “cling to yesterday’s success:” It takes time to build a company, a country, and an economy. It takes massive investment—of capital and human resources—and deep commitment.

When we finally build something and really get it humming along with a good revenue growth curve, or GDP, it’s hard to say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t any good any more; let’s change it!”

Yet the pace of change in the world is unprecedented today, across all dimensions: From 1986 to ’96 China had the second highest economic growth in the world (11.4%), but from 1996 to ’06 seven new countries had even higher growth than China; and there’s Moore’s law, which describes the long-term trend of how computer processing speed and memory capacity doubles every two years, driving more, newer, and faster changes in society, enabling new kinds of change, powered by social media, micro-loans, and global economies; and we are using our natural resources faster than ever as more nations emerge as buyers and sellers in the global marketplace.

Planned abandonment is about seeing, accepting, and doing something about the situation, rather than giving—and/or accepting—a Horse’s Ass answer, taking a Horse’s Ass approach, and becoming a Horse’s Ass.

When your gut tells you there’s a Horse’s Ass standing in front of you, don’t just stand there: Put on protective eyewear and call, “Horse’s Ass!”

If you don’t, you may as well be looking in a mirror.

© 2009 John Dila

We all make mistakes. Even leaders. Especially leaders. The important thing is to realize you made a mistake, and to correct it. Hearing a leader admit he’s wrong can be inspiring and freeing for someone who is following. It can establish a human connection and a sense of trust without which deeper relationships cannot develop.


The entire exchange took place in the mirror—we never looked directly at each other.

The conversation in the mirror went like this:

“Dad—can I have more toothpaste?”

“Are you going to brush your teeth with it, or just suck on it like last time?”

“Brush my teeth!”

“OK, sure. Here—hold out your toothbrush and I’ll squeeze some out for you.”

“Thanks, dad,” Finn smiled at me in the mirror, and then watched open-mouth as I squeezed a small amount of Crest’s “Original Paste” onto his small-fry bristles.

He didn’t brush, though, he sucked the paste, which made his small inexperienced mouth salivate.

“Dad?” he said, with his brush in his mouth like a doctor’s “Ah-stick.”

“Ya, Finn?”

“Can you see my epiglottis, dad?”

“No, Finn, I can’t. Remember, it’s not an epiglottis, is called a uvula, remember?” I said.

Finn is into Finding Nemo these days, and his favorite part is when Marlin and Dory are trapped inside the whale’s mouth—the whale is actually helping them find Nemo, but they don’t realize that at the time. Well, the whale opens his mouth real wide, and we can see the little teardrop-looking fleshy thing at the back of his throat. “What’s that?!” Finn exclaimed the first time we watched the movie. “Dad, what’s that in the back of the whale’s mouth?”

“That’s his epiglottis,” I said with certitude. I took, but failed, Human Anatomy at university (I was better at performing rhetorical analysis than memorizing the Latin names of body parts). And every time we watched Nemo from then on, Finn would announce the epiglottis at that point in the movie. We even looked in our own mouths one time to see our own epiglottises.

Wanting to know more about the little fleshy teardrop one evening, I Googled it. Then I Googled it again, and to my horror I realized it was not the epiglottis; it was the uvula!

‘How am I going to explain this?’ I wondered, as I poured myself a glass of Justin Merlot one evening after Finn had gone to bed. He’s learned epiglottis; he’s not going to like randomly unlearning that and relearning something else. How am I going to explain I got confused, and the epiglottis is a “is a flap of elastic cartilage tissue covered with a mucus membrane, attached to the root of the tongue,” and not the little thing he can see at the back of his throat?

Back in the bathroom brushing our teeth, I said, “I made a mistake, Finn.”

“What, dad?” he asked, looking directly at my reflection in the mirror.

“I made a mistake,” I repeated. “I thought the little thing in your throat was called an epiglottis, but I was wrong—it is actually called a uvula. Can you say it? Say: U-vue-la.”

“You-vew-la,” he said.

“Right, I made a mistake. It’s called a uvula. Sorry about that.”

“That’s OK, dad,” he said, “I made a mistake, too. It’s called You-vew-la. Sorry about that.”

And that was it–epiglottis was out, uvula was in.

© John Dila 2009


One reason I often write about China is because of the lopsided coverage and criticism Western media routinely dishes out. And despite the obvious lack of rigor and balanced reporting, our country drinks the cool-aid. It’s like we’ve forgotten one of our important early childhood lessons—there are (at least) two sides to every story.

The West seems to suspect the worst about China around everything from China’s mercantilist practices, to human rights violations, to sullying the air, to standing in the way of climate change progress, and so on. We rarely take a more collaborative, or analytical approach to understanding things from China’s perspective.

When we read Western reports about China, why do we accept the Western characterization of China as villain, and not ask intelligent questions? And why do we accept that China is solely responsible for creating big problems, and not look for ways we can solve problems together?

Even at home, we polarize our views to our detriment. The results of the recent special election in Massachusetts ends the Democrat’s filibuster-proof supermajority. Why did we try to solve something as complex as healthcare unilaterally in the first place? Going forward, it is likely that the only way we’ll achieve meaningful health reform is “in smaller waves of bipartisan effort rather than a hyper-partisan big bang.”

With technology and the Internet lowering the barriers to entry in many businesses, industries, and sectors we have to expect a large, emerging, able, willing nation like China to seek to improve living conditions at home. That’s what every nation wants, after all, and China is certainly no different in that respect.

For example, economically, China needs mining resources in order to realize its national vision of raising standards and the overall quality-of-living conditions for hundreds of millions of its citizens. Its situation is in some ways analogous to the emerging nations of the 15th and 16th centuries, whose mercantilism enabled them to gain power and economic status. And it’s much like how the U.S. has sought to control as many oil reserves as it can in support of its national vision and strategies in the 20th century.

Mercantilism was how the world did business back when Britain had the biggest navy and empire in the world. Today it’s a bad word among the literate white-collar first-world nations of the Earth.

But we should not get hung up on individual words, like mercantilism, because their meanings change, especially as disruptive innovations in technology and business alter the contexts of our economies.

21st century mercantilism, mixed with some red-blooded market economics, and stirred with some culture- and education-exchange programs might be just the thing for a world that must contend with a community and emerging economy of China’s proportions and intentions.

Mirror, mirror

But we can’t leave it there—our economies are more interconnected than ever before, and it’s not only us contending with them, it is them contending with us.

We all might do well to think of us as we, not as us and them anymore.

But the West falls sadly short on providing leadership, insights, and collaboration best practices around how to partner with China. Indeed, on issues around solving poor air quality and global warming, it’s all about the we. And we in the West tend to forget that we produced about 90% of all the carbon perhaps since the Industrial Revolution.

Worse, our brand of capitalism nearly bankrupted the United States while simultaneously fueling what some term “China’s mercantilism” (which could as easily and as accurately be viewed as American greed and desire to buy more cheap goods than we could ever use in a lifetime) and which has caused such an internal backlash as to prompt our own government to bail out (i.e. take ownership of, to some extent) our banks and some of our major industries, too (autos, for example).

Our lack of fiscal restraint has been bolstered by the lack of structure in some of our key policies, which underscores either our leaders’ lack of insight into their own actions or their complicity in driving us to our current predicament, or both.

Our embarrassing bail-outs have brought us precariously close in practice to the protectionist mercantilism we so condescendingly denounce from our oversized couches as we watch our oversized plasma televisions (made in China, of course).

Some critics go so far as to dub America’s system, structural mercantilism, which describes “the institutional and ideational structures perceived to have been built by, and in the interests of, rich countries and corporations” (Gee, T, The World System is not Neo Liberal: The Emergence of Structural Mercantilism).

More resources and more control

China needs more resources, and it wants control over those resources when and where it can have control.

That’s why China’s state-owned PetroChina purchased a 60% stake in Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands Corporation for USD$1.7B at the end of 2009.

It’s also why Chinalco (the state-owned Aluminum Corporation of China) tried to purchase a stake in Australia’s mining assets for USD$19.5B from Rio Tinto. The deal would have given Chinalco an 18.5% stake in Rio, which would “have made the Chinese government Rio’s single biggest shareholder by far and given it an advisory role in the company’s operations. Chinalco would also have gained substantial stakes in individual mines in several countries.”

After months of negotiating during the first half of 2009, the UK-Australian-owned Rio Tinto Group ultimately rejected Chinalco’s offer, citing issues of “widespread political concern over control of the country’s natural resources.”

Patrick Mulloy (a member of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission) said of PetroChina’s Athabasca acquisition, “I don’t think we have fully understood that we’re dealing with state mercantilism.” Mulloy, stressing he was not speaking on behalf of the Commission, which reports to Congress, said, “We don’t have an overall policy to deal with this new direction in foreign policy.”

And although the Chinalco-Rio deal fell through, the PetroChina-Athabasca deal’s success might point a way toward the future. Mulloy’s comment, in the context of China’s natural resources shopping spree, suggests that non-traditional partnerships, unorthodox business arrangements, and more flexible, collaborative foreign policies might be required in our generation.

Are mega-partnerships a better place?

If China succeeds in owning more mining resources, it might also, for example, want to control where and how metals like steel and aluminum are processed for use in buildings, roads, rails, and other major strategic infrastructure projects in China.

For example, the whole world knows (from the steel industry’s experience with Nucor) that mini-mills are cheaper, cleaner, and more flexible to operate than traditional steel mills. Looking to the future, China might seek partners with mini-mill technologies, skills, and experience for their on-and off-shore operations. This could present a golden opportunity for a firm that wants to break away from its competitors.

China isn’t shy to acknowledge when someone else has a better product, and they’re willing to pay for such experience and expertise. China bought the Hummer brand for precisely this reason.

If the legacy economic models enabled integrated, publically traded firms to compete in and dominate industries, why can’t today’s model center on a new brand of mega-partnership—where the partners are firms, nations, and global markets? Of course, monopoly, conflict of interest, and anti-trust issues are hurdles in either model and, as Mulloy and other economists suggest, we will need to recast some of our policies to better align with today’s realities.

Higher-order partnerships that rely on each mega-partner bringing a specialization-suite or an entire market to the game are becoming more common, even when the partners include unseemly bedfellows (by traditional standards).

An example of a mega-partnership is one that evolved between Better Place (a Silicon Valley green tech firm founded and led by SAP’s former tech guru, Shai Agassi, who is the mega-partnership’s visionary), Renault (an innovative car company), and Israel (a republic, ranked 31st in GDP):

Better Place supplies an innovative (patented) green-engine technology; Renault supplies the car manufacturing expertise, skills, supply chain, and distribution; and the Israeli government supplies an able workforce, a willing market for the environmentally-friendly cars, and economic subsidies for Israelis who want to buy them (think of the potential analogous market in China if such a mega-partnership could be struck there).

In addition, all three partners can potentially “leap frog” ahead of their respective competition by being first-movers and/or market-leaders (they also shoulder the burden of first-mover risk).

A better way forward

It’s very tough to argue that we need anything short of radical policy change to move forward in any number of key industries and sectors at home and around the globe—health-care, automotive, banking, and exchange markets, not to mention all the corollary socio-cultural aspects of the flattening world.

We don’t yet have the right thinking (and policies) in place to deal with bids like Chinalco’s—either at the government or the business level.

The day when such policies and business strategies are put into place must not be far off, though.

Leaders—and their nations and companies—who see and embrace a mega-partner vision for the future will have an easier time getting there than those who do not.

© John Dila 2009

“As a market, women represent a bigger opportunity than China and India combined,” reads a September 2009 headline from Harvard Business Review.

The article shows that women make the key spending decisions at home: When the Jones need a new car, she makes the decision to purchase a mini-van or SUV that’s good for the family, rather than the two-seater he thinks is more sexy. But “Cars are designed for speed—not utility, which is what really matters to women. No SUV is built to accommodate a mother who needs to load two small children into it.”

And a recent Economist article shows that women now make up more than 51% of the workforce in the U.S. (a trend we see globally), but that they earn (on average) only 80% of what men earn in similar jobs. And women make up only 2% of bosses in Fortune 500 firms today.

Journalists are writing more and more good articles about the so-called “female economy,” linking both sides of the supply and demand equation. I want to contribute a story to the stack of literature building up on this forward-looking topic.

A few good men

My story begins the day I left my good job as senior manager at a brand-name search technology company (not Google) in Silicon Valley. I left because my boss, in my view, was unethical and had asked me to do things I was not comfortable with.

The situation went on for months and produced so much stress for me that it had a tremendous impact on my happiness at work and at home.

Months before resigning, I informed our Human Resources department about my observations and, through the process of trying to expose and solve the problem, I realized the whole chain of command—from my boss (a VP) up to the most senior level—seemed to be part of an “old boys network” in which they were all protected.

No one handed me a play-book that spelled it out, and no one explicitly told me that’s the way it was. I intuited the reality by acting the way I felt was right, listening to the responses I received, and heeding my gut.

Through my efforts, I was able to establish that my complaints were not the first of their nature about my boss at that company. My HR rep empathized with me, but explained that my complaint would likely only make things worse for me, not my boss.

When I went up the chain myself, the information I provided was received by our president, with whom I met, with a cunning smile and his personal guarantee I must be misinformed because he had the highest regard for my boss, with whom he had worked for years and in whom he had placed his implicit trust.

In fact, as my boss and his boss learned of my concerns, it was subtly revealed to me that things would get worse for me if I didn’t fall in line and/or leave voluntarily.

So I left, feeling like I failed my team by abandoning ship, leaving them in the hands of malevolent and untrustworthy leadership. And I felt like I’d failed myself for not knowing how to better handle the situation. Better, in my view, would have been to identify the faulty leadership, thoroughly examine it, and implement an appropriate action plan to remedy the problem.

Large-scale corporate scandals were breaking news around the same time, and the activities of Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Kenneth Lay, MCIs Bernard Ebbers, and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski (all of whom were convicted and imprisoned), though shocking, gave me the inner-strength to articulate my concerns and the clarity to leave my job.

I decided to take a short sabbatical to regroup, and let the poison of the toxic environment leave my system. While on break I researched firms and their leadership, taking a close look at the corporations where scandal was identified, and quickly realized that most (if not all) the leaders involved were men.

Not only that, I also observed that of the very few women who held senior leadership roles in Fortune 500/1000s around the nation at that time (AT&T’s and HP’s Carly Fiorina, Autodesk’s Carol Bartz, and eBay’s Meg Whitman), none had been involved in a major corporate scandal.

So mid-way through my sabbatical I decided I would only apply to companies that were interesting to me (HP was out) and led by women (Autodesk and eBay were in). I knew women were fallible, like men, but I guessed that women might be less likely to succumb to greed and deception.

The headlines about corporate scandals, it turns out, were a personal tipping point in my thinking about leadership; however, I had started really paying attention to female leaders back in 1977, when I was twelve, and had traveled to the very far north of Canada to visit my uncle’s homestead for the summer.

What I observed up in “the bush” when I was twelve stayed with me and enabled me to finally listen to my gut in Silicon Valley.

The draft-dodger’s wife

My uncle, Tom, and his wife, Deborah, were Americans who dodged the draft in 1969 by crossing the border from Vermont into Quebec. They fled to Canada and, according to my uncle’s version of the events, they sought the most remote place they could find that was somewhat accessible by road.

They drove their pickup truck cross-country to British Columbia, from where they found their way to smaller and more remote towns and villages until they arrived at Telegraph Creek, which got its name from the telegraph wire run from that town to Yukon during the gold rush of the 1860s. From there they took a boat down the Stikine River, deep into the wilderness, where they squatted on Crown Land and got title to their homestead.

Telegraph Creek, 1977

I took the single-prop “mail plane” to Telegraph that summer, and found a Huckleberry Finn-scale adventure waiting for me, and the beginnings of lessons I’ve carried with me for more than thirty years.

For one thing, when you live in the wilderness each activity contributes to the family’s household economy. Thus it is quite easy to see how every thing is either an input (a raw material, like a seed or a tree, for example) or an output (a product of work, like a potato or a log cabin, for example). Likewise, in homesteading it’s easy to see that those who own the labor, land, and capital (like men and women and their belongings) also provide the factors of production (like the processes and skills used to make the goods they require to live).

The labor, land, and factors of production: my little cousins

It is also quite easy to understand the law of supply and demand in action, and to observe the components of the external environment (long winters and short summers, for example, or the available bear, fish, and moose populations, for example) and the internal environment (the number of children in a family, for example) as forces that influence priorities and decisions.

When you live in the wilderness, all activities contribute to work, requiring skill, experience, efficiency, careful planning, stamina, burst capacity, leadership, and teamwork.

Tom and Deborah built their own house. They designed and built their own river-boat. They loaded their own bullets, and hunted for their food. They tilled land, planted seeds, harvested vegetables, and canned their food for winter. They fished the river for salmon alongside Tahltan Indians, who taught them not only how to survive but to flourish by working as a community when possible.

The bush is a place where leadership is held by everyone, and where women and men contribute equally to the economy and safety of the family and its home.

75-pound twelve-year-old cleaning a 60-pound Chinook salmon.

Deborah’s contribution was as substantial as Tom’s on a physical level: She chopped wood, fished, hunted, and gardened, as well as tanned moose hides, smoked and canned fish and meat, and made and mended clothing and gear.

Deborah (left) managed production of all fish and meat. This is the "Fish House."

In some ways her role, her network, her collaborative spirit, and her insights seemed more significant than Tom’s because they extended the family’s reach through exchange with other families, whereas much of Tom’s work was solitary: going on longer hunts; maintaining large mechanical devices like the hand-crank tractor, the boat engine, the chainsaw, and boxes of tools, axes, guns, and fishnets.

Tom connected the drive belt from the gas Rototiller to the free-standing washing machine's engine and voila--a real laundromat in the middle of the bush.

Neighboring Tahltans and other homesteaders held Tom and Deborah in high regard. They were serious and accomplished beyond their thirty years, and they led their family courageously and with sensitivity. They contributed to their community without hesitation, and they had the highest respect for Nature from which they drew their living.

I can’t determine who, if either, contributed more, and that’s not the point; my point is that Deborah enabled me to see women’s contributions in a way that had not been available to me at home, in the city, where families have more than they need, and where it is neither apparent nor obvious how the work women and men perform relates to the goods they own.

A few good women

Nor is it always clear why and how leaders of firms become leaders, or how firms justify their 400:1 executive-to-worker salary ratios, let alone how some leaders manage to retain leadership roles even in the face of persistent, consistent criticism, as was the case with my boss at the search technology firm (or in the cases of Enron, MCI, and Tyco).

What is clear, however, is the growing contribution of women to the workforce—locally and globally. It’s also clear that those who see this trend and choose to understand it will be able to serve this market better and will likely be better served by it.

Here are a few stand-out thoughts around women—as contributors, as markets, and as a vibrant yet underserved part of the world economies (courtesy of The Economist):

  1. Today women make up the majority of professional workers in many countries (51% in the United States, for example).
  2. Demand has been matched by supply: women are increasingly willing and able to work outside the home. The vacuum cleaner has played its part. Improved technology reduced the amount of time needed for the traditional female work of cleaning and cooking. But the most important innovation has been the contraceptive pill. The spread of the pill has not only allowed women to get married later. It has also increased their incentives to invest time and effort in acquiring skills, particularly slow-burning skills that are hard to learn and take many years to pay off.
  3. This growing cohort of university-educated women is also educated in more marketable subjects. In 1966, 40% of American women who received a BA specialized in education in college; 2% specialized in business and management. The figures are now 12% and 50%.
  4. A recent Rockefeller Foundation/Time survey found…Nine men out of ten said they were comfortable with women earning more than them.
  5. Only 2% of the bosses of Fortune 500 companies and five of those in the FTSE 100 stockmarket index are women. Women make up less than 13% of board members in America. In America and Britain the typical full-time female worker earns only about 80% as much as the typical male.
  6. Another American study, this time of women who left work to have children, found that all but 7% of them wanted to return to work. Only 74% managed to return, and just 40% returned to full-time jobs.
  7. A survey for the Children’s Society, a British charity, found that 60% of parents agreed that “nowadays parents aren’t able to spend enough time with their children”. In a similar survey in America 74% of parents said that they did not have enough time for their children.
  8. The Scandinavian countries, particularly Iceland, have added a further wrinkle by increasing incentives for fathers to spend more time caring for their children.
  9. The world’s biggest economy has adopted an idiosyncratic approach. America provides no statutory paid leave for mothers and only 12 weeks unpaid. At least 145 countries provide paid sick leave.
  10. In the European Union women have filled 6m of the 8m new jobs created since 2000.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study cited in Harvard Business Review reveals that even though the “female economy” is roughly twice as big as the economies of China and India combined, our companies are not aware of this, and in the main they do not design, develop, and market useful products and services to women.

If you’re a woman, you know what this research is talking about.

If you’re a guy—especially if you’re in a business where you supply a product or a service—you want to have a look at the segments (aka, types of females) that make up the “female economy” and the product and service offerings women say are underserved today.

Are women better leaders than men? Are they more honest and trustworthy? It’s probably not that simple.

The “female economy” is multi-dimensional: research shows women make the buying decisions; it also shows that women are not satisfied with today’s offerings (products and services are often designed by men for an historically male market); but women now make up more than half (in the U.S.) of the workforce, although women and men are not evenly distributed throughout the corporation; as the distribution normalizes, women will play a more equal role in analyzing, designing, and supplying products and services that women demand.


For further reading, see The Female Economy, by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre.

If you’re interested in earning extra points with your spouse, daughter, aunt, or your future boss, take the same survey thousands of women took for the BCG study:


© John Dila 2009

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