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Want to succeed in business? Call mom

These days, entrepreneurial success often depends more on what our mothers taught us than on what our fathers did.

May 11, 2012|By John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio
  • Today, success in business often depends more on what our mothers traditionally taught us. In other words, male or female, many of the smartest, most creative and innovative among us are becoming more feminine.
Today, success in business often depends more on what our mothers traditionally… (Illustration by Anthony…)

In the not-so-distant past, children looked mainly to their fathers for lessons on life outside the home, on how to succeed in business, politics and social organizations. Mom occupied the center of family life and guided us in personal relationships; the values she stressed — empathy, kindness, fairness, collaboration — didn't seem to guide a dog-eat-dog world.

But times change. Today, success in business often depends more on what our mothers traditionally taught us. In other words, male or female, many of the smartest, most creative and innovative among us are becoming more feminine.

The shift can be seen, in part, in the success of large companies that devote a lot of effort to understanding their customers. Target and Ford are big examples, but it can perhaps best be seen in the success of much-smaller concerns built from the ground up on shared values with their customers.

In the last year we have traveled the world to study companies that are profiting from what we call the feminine way of doing business. In London, we met the (male) founders of Whipcar, who connect private automobile owners with people who will pay to use a vehicle for a few hours or days. Whipcar screens and insures renters, but it's a business founded largely on trust. And it's growing like gangbusters.

In Lima, Peru, we met chef Gaston Acurio, who built a restaurant empire in 12 countries by adapting his mother's recipes and training workers in his own culinary school. Acurio's fame has stimulated an Andean food fad, aiding Peruvian farmers and wholesalers.

In Tokyo we found Motherhouse, maker and retailer of high-end jute and leather handbags and perhaps the ultimate example of the feminine business model.

Motherhouse's founder, Eriko Yamaguchi, wanted to find a way to permanently improve workers' lives in one of the world's poorest nations, Bangladesh. She discovered the country's jute industry and found a factory willing to work with her to combine her designs with its workforce, retrained to produce accessories that would be at home on the Ginza in Tokyo. With six shops in Japan and plans to expand, Motherhouse provides good wages and a safe factory for the workers Yamaguchi calls her firm's "creators." And her customers pay not just to help the poor but to get a bag they really want.

Such cases of "doing well by doing good" would be merely inspiring one-off examples if the world's consumers weren't moving in the same direction. The fact is, they are. As part of our research, we conducted a survey of 40,000 people selected to represent mainstream consumers in 13 countries that represent 75% of global gross domestic product. We found that people are weary of us-versus-them leadership and hungry for a kinder, gentler marketplace.

When we asked people to list the qualities they most want in their leaders, men and women both favored traits they termed "feminine" over those they considered "masculine," by better than 2 to 1. Among the highest-ranked were "communicative, reasonable, flexible and patient," which were all strongly associated with the feminine side of human nature.

Several trends in trade and technology support the rising importance of such traits in the marketplace. Social media, for example, make it harder for companies to get away with bad behavior. We're not saying manufacturers don't make shoddy products and service providers don't abuse customers. However, consumers have a much easier time sorting those they want to do business with from those they don't. And businesses that have found a better way have a much easier time telling their stories to the world.

And it may not be surprising that traditionally feminine values have gained appreciation as men, those mostly in power, have been blamed for massive, global economic catastrophes. Seventy percent of those we surveyed said the world would be a better place if "men thought more like women."

None of this spells the end of what people consider classically male traits in business. Assertiveness, competitiveness and even aggression not only still exist but still have value; in one way or another, these traits also mark the entrepreneurs we met. But where innovation, problem-solving and creativity are the marks of a growing business, we found men and women emphasizing the kinds of relationship lessons our mothers taught us.

If on thisMother's Dayyou count yourself a success, you might want to call home and thank your mother for teaching you empathy. If you are struggling to find your way in the new economic landscape, you might want to ask her for a little advice.

John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio, authors of "Spend Shift," are working on a book about feminine business models.

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