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Dan Pink: Timing really is everything

How do you make decisions? Sometimes, you might use a planned, scientific process, but you’re probably making many decisions on autopilot, by using your gut or guessing. Maybe your decision-making ability is limited because of situational constraints.

It's a lot to think about!

Unfortunately, as author Daniel Pink argues, we rarely stop to think, is this the right timing? And even if we did, how would we know what the right timing is?

The author of “Drive” and other best-sellers was a keynote speaker Sept. 23 at the 104th ICMA Annual Conference in Baltimore, Md. His most recent book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” is an exploration of all the science behind the timing of beginnings, midpoints and endings.

The book is more than a catalogue of random science, however; it is an attempt to connect research into timing from a variety of fields and discover insights that people can apply in their everyday lives.

City and county government officials, Pink said, are an ideal audience for applying the book’s lessons, because they are always asked to “do more with less” and to improve without spending more or hiring additional people. The principles of better timing, he argued, can help local governments (and businesses, and people in their personal lives) be more deliberate, strategic and successful in when and how they take action.

Pink noted the importance of big data in these discussions. The sheer amount of data being collected today – and the computing power needed to analyze it -- could never prove useful without modern technology. This is a key lesson, Pink said, for governments looking to analyze situations and make decisions.  

He compared the promise of big data to that of the microscope. Before its discovery, we had a certain view of the world. But the microscope – and big data -- revealed a world that always existed but which we couldn’t see. Those discoveries fundamentally change how and what we see – and should change how we approach decisions.

Here are a few of the key lessons he discussed:

Think about decision-making in terms of natural time units

What is the difference between natural and artificial measures of time? For instance, seconds and weeks are human inventions – we choose to define these units in this way. But a day is not, as it reflects the length of time it takes Earth to spin once around. A year is also a natural unit of time, as it recognizes the Earth’s rotation around the Sun.

Our energy and focus modulate throughout the day in general patterns that he calls "peak," "trough" and "recovery," though not all of us experience these phases at the same time of day. The patterns of the day affect our mood, performance and decision-making.

Most of us peak through the morning, have our lowest creative and cognitive points after lunch, and then enter a state of recovery in the later hours where we might be slightly less focused but well-suited for creative thinking.

(There are also night owls, who have troughs like the rest of us but flip the periods of focus and creativity.)

Pink mentioned a few studies that reveal this daily ebbing and flowing. One study examined 500 million tweets, while another looked at many thousands of public-company earnings calls. They each revealed that timing alone caused a measurable difference in the mood expressed.

Stock earnings calls held in the afternoon, led to more “negative, irritable and combative” conversations, Pink said, and temporarily hurt the stock price. This effect held even when controlled for company performance and other factors.

And while the maps of mood and energy were not identical, they both showed an early peak, a dip in the middle (the afternoon, for most people) and then a recovery period later on.

Context matters

Our cognitive abilities are not constant throughout the day, Pink argues, and the fluctuations in this ability can be significant. He did a thought exercise with the ICMA audience where he asked them a logic problem and then an “insight” problem. The former was a problem whose answer was essentially found in a mathematical equation, whereas the latter required a shift in perspective. Here’s the insight problem:

“Ernesto is a dealer in antique coins. One day someone brings him a beautiful bronze coin. The coin has an emperor’s head on one side and the date 544 BC stamped on the other. Ernesto examines the coin – but instead of buying it, he calls the police. Why?”

The answer – spoiler – is that people in 544 BC couldn't have known they were in the "before" times if, as Pink said Sunday, "C hadn't happened!"

Why mention logic and insight problems? Because timing matters here, too. Some people are better at logic problems in the morning (their likely “peak”) and better at insight problems in the afternoon (their likely “trough”), while it’s the opposite for other people.

What can we do about this?

There are several small steps people can take, Pink said, whether in government or elsewhere. One easy step is, whenever possible, to rearrange when you tackle certain types of tasks.

Your Daily When
From Pink's slides at ICMA (Photo by James daSilva)

In your peak hours, work on deep focus, analytic tasks. During the trough, stick to routine emails. And in recovery, you might want to try and tackle bigger-picture problems.

Breaks matter, especially when you truly unplug

Another common workplace habit is lionizing the overworker, Pink says, even if that perception is no longer as in vogue.

Breaks help us reset our energy and focus, as seen in an alarming study of parole hearings where judges were most likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day and after breaks, with that leniency declining as time went on.

Breaks are part of work, Pink argued. His suggestions for making the most of a break:

  • Get up from your desk. Go outside, if possible.
  • Be social. Break together.
  • Don’t do work on your break, and try not to even use your phone.
  • Schedule your breaks into your day.

And, if you work from home like Pink does, consider combining caffeine and a nap, as illustrated here.


Credit: Dan Pink


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other fields. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.

What Mr. Dunbar got wrong

It was 1977 when an 18-year-old Mike Rowe, future host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, sat down with his high-school guidance counselor, Mr. Dunbar, to discuss his future. Rowe told Dunbar that he was considering community college. Dunbar, distressed by Rowe's plans, pointed to a poster of two men that hung on the wall of his office.

One man, Rowe explained, held a diploma and was smiling while the other man held a wrench and was "looking down at the ground like he's some sort of vocational consolation prize." The words "Work smart, NOT hard" were printed on it. Dunbar asked Rowe which of the men he wanted to be.

The guidance counselor's question frustrated Rowe. He was young, had no money and no idea what he wanted to do. Community college seemed a responsible solution—an affordable, logical way to figure it out. Dunbar disagreed.

"It's beneath your potential," Dunbar said, according to Rowe.

This pretentious mindset has widened the skill gap and created unnecessary financial burdens for people, Rowe said. "What we've basically done is laid out a roadmap that says the best path for the most people is the most expensive path," he said. "We've convinced ourselves that that's the truth. And we've convinced this generation that that's the truth."

Rowe pulled no punches as he shared insights on blue-collar jobs, the myth of following passion and why we need to stop picking on millennials, during his opening keynote address at this year's HR Technology Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas.

Going Commando

Rowe opened his talk with a story about a segment he shot on a ranch in Texas that raises Brangas beef, through artificial insemination. In the segment, Rowe artificially inseminates 75 cows and collects the semen of a large Brama bull named Hunsucker Commando. "It's wildly inappropriate but it's really, really interesting," he said.

Executive producer Gina McCarthy, who was expecting a segment on artificial intelligence, was not amused. Rowe defended the content.

"Artificial insemination is a critical part of feeding our country," he explained to McCarthy. "Steve and the people who work on this farm—and countless other people—they're doing a job that's really, really important." After much discussion, McCarthy allowed the segment to air but ordered show editors to pixelate the bull's private regions.

Not long after Hunsucker Commando's debut, the US economy crashed and Rowe saw a new conversation about work begin to emerge. Daily headlines screamed about rising unemployment numbers but as Rowe filmed his show around the country, he saw a proliferation of "Help Wanted" signs.

It was 2008 and 2.3 million jobs existed that nobody wanted, Rowe explained. "It seemed to me [that] another narrative was maybe going on in the country," he said. "It seemed to me that some of these opportunities were being pixelated."

The situation prompted Rowe to launch his foundation, mikeroweWORKS. The foundation provides scholarships to people who want to get training in specific skills.

"All sorts of other opportunities have been pixelated, along with the trade schools that are out there," Rowe said. "We need to get the pixels out of the way, not so we can behold Hunsucker Commando's glory, but so we can simply see the opportunities that are right in front of us. Because there are so many and they're everywhere."

Les is more

Telling young people to follow their passion is bad advice, said Rowe. "Passion is terribly important--too important to follow," he said.

Rowe told the story of Les Swanson, a former behavioral scientist turned septic tank cleaner who lives in Wisconsin. The two spent the day in "very grimy pits of despair" and Rowe marveled at Swanson's enjoyment of the grimy work.

"The pumping station that he took me to on the side of the road was unlike anything I'd ever seen--15 feet deep, five feet deep of sewage," Rowe said. "And this guy whistles while he works! Literally, he just loves his job."

Swanson did not follow his passion into a septic tank, Rowe said. After years of working with people, Swanson decided to "hit the reset button and see where everybody was going--and then he went the other way," Rowe said. "He just took the reverse commute."

Swanson, like the other people profiled on Dirty Jobs, were passionate about their work but none of them started that way. "They didn't start by being told, 'Identify the one thing that can make you happy'," Rowe explained. Swanson got trained, purchased a truck, worked for a couple years and then "figured out a way to be really good at it—he figured out a way to love it."

"We all want to wind up engaged, doing meaningful work, passionate about what we do," Rowe said. "It's just a question of what route you want to take."

Be nice to the snowflakes

Millennials are easy targets, said Rowe, referencing common stereotypes of "snowflakes", crying closets and safe spaces.

"We shake our heads [but] we are the clouds from the snowflakes fell," he asserted.

We set millennials up for their messy situation, according to Rowe. "We did this," he said. "We told you that if you went the other way, you would be a sad sack, holding a wrench, looking at the ground and regretting your every decision. If you don't go to college, you're going to be that guy."

It's time to change that message and mentality, Rowe said. "When we start promoting one form of education at the expense of the others, then we put ourselves on a track we might as well all bend down and hold the cup while somebody else turns the nob," he said, referencing his time with Hunsucker Commando. "This is gonna get weird, man. It's gonna get really, really weird."

Kanoe Namahoe is editorial director for SmartBrief Education and Workforce.


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Seen and heard at HR Tech

HR leaders and professionals gathered last week at the 2018 HR Technology Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas to network, learn and peruse the latest developments in workforce-related technologies. SmartBrief was there taking it all in. Here is a quick roundup of what we saw.

Survival tactics

Typhoon Jebi struck western Japan September 4, slamming it with wind, rain and chaos. Reports call it the most powerful storm to hit mainland Japan in 25 years.

Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, likened the HR technology market to Typhoon Jebi, calling it a "gigantic, whirling, swirling ecosystem." Bersin presented interim findings from his 2019 HR technology report during a one-hour session on the opening day of the event. The goal of the report, according to Bersin, is to help understand the changes in the industry.

And there are many, he says. Premium pass holders can register to get a free copy of the report when it's made available later this year. In the meantime, here are highlights from the data:

  • Members of Generation Z are entering the workforce with different expectations than their millennials peers. Interestingly, they look more like traditionalists, says Bersin. They want stability—in the form of earning and job security—and a sense of rationality in their lives.
  • Baby boomers don't want to retire. The trend has many employers scratching their heads as they try to figure out the hiring model for this group.
  • Workers want more from their employers—a lot more, as it turns out. Yoga, wellness programs, free food top their list of demands. "People want employers to be like their parents," says Bersin.
  • Employees are exhausted; they can't keep up. If you're buying technology to improve productivity, you better make sure it's doing its job. If the tools you're buying aren't boosting performance, or not moving you in that direction, "you are not solving on the of the biggest problems you have," says Bersin.

HR technology buyers are increasingly baffled by the choices they see on the menu. Bersin offered these suggestions for easing the process:

  1. Consider your culture as you shop for tools.
  2. Look for vendors who cater to your market and companies your size.
  3. Take careful stock of vendor personality. Sometimes great technologies go out of business because they're from bad companies. Avoid vendors with rigid compliance cultures. Go with ones who listen to you.

Are we there yet?

With AI, that is. According to Arya by Leoforce's Sarah Beth Maronpot, the answer is yes. "Six months ago, [HR managers] had to make the case for AI," she said. "Now they're coming to us with 'We need it now.'"

Finding talent quickly was among the top issues attendees discussed with Arya team members. With unemployment at a low right, many HR managers say they are struggling to find candidates who have the right skill sets. They're looking for tools that can help fill this gap, said Maronpot. "It's about attracting applicants, making sure you are where people are looking for you—passive talent that you need to be reaching out to," she said.

So how does AI fit into this picture? According to Maronpot, AI can help bring together systems and sources in a way that lets employers better engage with talent.

"AI learns," she says. "Systems like ours learn about you from you. Real value comes from over time use."

Engaging humanoids

HR leaders are wrestling with low engagement when training employees, says Falguni Bhuta, director of marketing at Kahoot.

"People don't read stuff anymore," Bhuta says. "They want something interactive, especially millennials."

According to Bhuta, many HR managers say they are looking for ways to not just engage workers but also build a more human connection among staff. And they want to do it via mobile devices.

"Employees are always on their phones, even during training," she says. Tools like Kahoot! let employers leverage mobile devices, but in a way that builds team spirit and camaraderie. "[They] have to be looking up to see questions; only when they are answering are they looking down at the device. The platform is designed to maintain human touches."

Interactive games. Having fun. Team competitions. Is all this really necessary, just to engage employees? According to Bhuta, it is.

"Today's workforce is looking at work as not a place to clock in and clock out, but also as a place to live and build relationship," she says. "Workers are spending more time at work. [HR managers] want to make that experience more enjoyable."

All aboard!

You've applied for the job, done the interview and are now waiting for word. Finally, the phone rings. It's the HR manager calling to say you got the job. You do a happy dance and mentally plan your celebration dinner as she runs through the details of salary and benefits. You agree on a start date that is one month away. You thank her and hang up the phone.

And that's the last you hear from them until you report for your first day of work. Just crickets.

Unfortunately, this experience is not uncommon, according to Patrick Rooney, director of marketing at Click Boarding. "Companies spend some much time attracting talent but then it stops," he says. "It's the Dilbert experience."

That's where companies like Click Boarding come in. Focused on improving the onboarding experience, these companies are creating tools aimed at filling in the gap between when a worker is hired and his or her first day of work.

"It's about continuing the conversation," says Rooney. "Going back to the reason the person joined in the first place. It clicked with them—they bought into the culture or the team or the boss. How do you maintain that enthusiasm when the start date is two months off?"

Click Boarding has launched a new webinar series called "Level Up: Smart Conversations + HR Technology." The series, which debuted at HR Tech, features discussions with HR experts on various issues including talent acquisition and retention, bias and diversity and extending the employer brand, among other topics.

The webinar series aims to help change the conversation about onboarding, according to Rooney. "[It] has been about forms and compliance," he says. "We all expect more; we're savvy consumers. Our expectations about how we interact with an organization has changed. We want to reset expectations. Onboarding is the first step for the successful employee."

Kanoe Namahoe is editorial director for SmartBrief Education and Workforce.


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ACC’s Cal Dooley discusses what the chemical industry and regulators have learned from Hurricane Harvey

The American Chemistry Council and Texas Chemistry Council on March 5 gathered stakeholders across industry and government to discuss lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey and how to be prepared for the next storm. The daylong forum, at the Houston Area Safety Council headquarters in Pasadena, Texas, included member company CEOs, regulators and other key stakeholders.

SmartBrief spoke March 22 with Cal Dooley, American Chemistry Council President and CEO, about the forum, the lessons learned and how industry can continue to improve its storm preparation, collaboration with regulators and influence needed infrastructure improvements along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.


How was Hurricane Harvey different from previous storms that hit the Gulf Coast, and why was it particularly important to bring together stakeholders to discuss the storm's lessons and effects?

Cal Dooley
Dooley (American Chemistry Council)

I think what distinguished Harvey from a lot of other hurricanes in the Gulf Region and [what] the industry has experienced is that it was not a wind event. It really turned out to be a rain event, and a rain event that had a long duration. It was almost unprecedented that you had three days of rain, that resulted in over 50 inches of rain falling in the broader Harris County/Houston region.

A lot of the planning and the hardening of facilities was really focused on making sure they could handle very high hurricane-strength winds, and while there were some strong winds in this one, the facilities held up very well in that respect. But this was an unprecedented amount of rain in that it was at least a 500-year event with the amount of rain that fell. And I think that pointed out another challenge to the industry and some of the facilities. As well as, in the region, it brought to light some of the infrastructure inadequacies and needs that must be addressed to ensure that, if we have a future incident of this nature, we can mitigate any harm to the environment as well as human safety.

A major theme during the forum was the importance of supporting employees in dealing with Harvey. Which stories stood out to you as key takeaways for the industry?

We were fortunate that we had a number of our presidents and CEOs of some of the larger chemical companies in the United States and our ACC members that participated in the event. They, without exception, said that the responsibility for responding to an event of the nature of Hurricane Harvey or any natural disaster lie predominantly with the site manager and the people that are on the ground at the facilities, who really have their hands on the controls and can make the determinations in when a facility might have to be shut down, when employees have to be evacuated. ...

Also, what I think was most striking was the stories about how some of the planning revolved around how they could account for everyone of their employees in the region.

And not only the employees that might be on site, but also the employees and their homes and their communities so that they be aware of the challenges a member of their team might be facing in terms of flooding at their house or other challenges. Almost without exception, every one of the companies cited the efforts that they put in to making sure that they could track their employees and their welfare.

Another interesting story was Covestro, where they set up a drive-through supply center for their employees, where they had the tarps, they had the disinfectants, they had food supplies -- essential needs that they could distribute in a very quick order to their employees at a central site. And then you also had the stories with some of the companies such as Exxon that actually used helicopters to transport supplies into regions that were suffering from shortages of water and food.

You also had other companies that were talking about the organization of their staff into teams that went out to some of their fellow colleagues, employees’ homes that had been flooded and helped them to clean up, rip out the drywall and get them prepared for reconstruction. … Almost without exception, every company that was involved and had employees who were affected made a significant effort to either provide for mobile housing, temporary housing or rented apartments, rented hotel space to provide for their employees who were displaced in the flooding.

Another major topic of conversation throughout the forum was how companies worked with their partners in government -- what examples of this stand out to you?

What I found very encouraging is that we invited the federal agencies -- EPA, Homeland Security, FEMA -- to participate. We also had the state regulatory agencies that were engaged and also local officials that attended and participated. And our objective there was to really try to identify where there might be [opportunities] for greater collaboration or communication or focus, identification of priorities -- where we might learn how we can work even better in the future. I was really pleased that, almost without exception, every representative from the regulatory community was generally positive about the engagement that they had with industry. And I think industry’s response was also very positive about the collaboration with regulatory agencies.

I do think that there are some opportunities to improve upon some of the infrastructure needs in the region. There’s a range of projects, from the very big projects such as the coastal spine, but there’s also, I think, a need in terms of some of the management of some of the draining basins, that people realize there needs to be more work done on.

There were so many great stories, too, about how some of our companies responded to the needs of some of the local agencies and local governments. To bring in huge pumping systems to help move water, that help prevent even worse flooding in the region. ...

There was a demonstration of the commitment by industry as well as the regulatory community to really work together. Not everything worked as well as it could have, but I think it wasn’t for lack of effort. People are even now, I think, able to look forward to this next hurricane season with even stronger lines of communication and relationships that were built -- or were enhanced, I should say -- through the event that we had in Houston.

Looking ahead to this year's hurricane season, what are some of the top lessons that came out of the forum that you think companies should be considering?

One of the things that came up was that, even while companies had lots of supplies that were positioned, I think they recognized that they were working from past experiences and a traditional hurricane, which has high winds, which comes in and usually leaves within a day or so. It’s usually a day, day-and-a-half event, most often. And what they recognized with Hurricane Harvey was that was a three-day event, and then you had infrastructure [problems], flooding that even resulted in some areas being isolated for much longer than even that three-day period.

I think some of our companies realized they have to pre-position some basic supplies for a longer event than they had available in this instance in order to ensure that their staff onsite, at the facilities, are well-cared for and they have the confidence that they’re going to be well taken care of. What I think was also made clear is that an employee is not going to be able to provide his full focus to his job if he’s concerned about the health and safety of their families. And so making sure that there’s enhanced attention given to how do they ensure communications between families and the company, as well as making sure that the pre-positioning of supplies can be delivered to families facing a unique challenge from flooding or some other type of natural disaster.

The stories about our companies that provided the pumps -- and these are huge pumps that can move a lot of water -- that helped some of our local communities. But there was also talk of some of the companies that provided engineers to get some of the sanitation systems back up and running, and water systems back up and running. The contributions that we made in a couple of locations were so well-appreciated, there might even be some opportunities for us to build upon that in terms of our preparation for events in the future.

It's been a couple of weeks since the forum. What has the response been like from companies and other stakeholders?

What I’m hearing from the members of ACC is … “We gotta do more things like this,” and really be very proactive and try to create constructive forums where we bring a diverse constituency together to really talk about what the industry is committed to, learn what we could be doing better and looking for how we can even work better today. To me, that was our objective going in, and I felt pretty good about how it played out. I felt like we delivered on that.

The forum was notable for bringing together companies, regulators at all levels, and industry groups such as ACC. What do you see as the ideal role for ACC in helping the Texas Gulf Coast chemical industry be ready for future storms?

There’s a couple of roles that we can play. In the short term, our whole Responsible Care program really contributes to a culture [of safety] within our companies. … The role that we can play in helping to continue to build and cultivate very constructive relationships with the regulatory community -- both locally, regionally, state and federal -- is also very important in terms of demonstrating the commitment of the industry to being a good citizen, and a constructive partner with the regulatory agencies.

And then when we look on longer-term, that’s where our relationships with federal and state officials, which is really more focused on a lot of the infrastructure needs. We’re playing a role in trying to be a partner with the Texas Gulf Coast region and trying to build support within the administration and Congress for some infrastructure investments and the coastal spine and other projects that can enhance the ability of that region to manage the impact of natural disasters such as hurricanes.

And those are all important roles that we can play that add value to the community, and to our industry, and to the health and safety of our communities in which we operate.


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