THE BLOG

Business with Both Hands: Redefining Success in America

07/31/2013 01:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013

One of my yearly goals was to learn to play the guitar. I found a decent Yamaha, hooked up a tuner and enlisted in a start-up package of lessons from a local legend. Freshly embarked on my musical roadtrip, I assumed the biggest near-term challenges to be reading music, memorizing chords and playing a starter kit of basic songs. I was wrong.

Before my rockstar flight could approach liftoff, I made a startling realization. My left hand was weak. More specifically, the muscles in my fingers were by no means up to guitar jamming par.

I tried to ignore this fact, thinking that if I strummed louder with my right hand, the "twang" of a soft, left finger on a tight string would be magically drowned out. I was reminded however, that it is the left hand that controls the notes, and the notes that control the song. No matter how competent my right hand, success would never be achieved without cooperation from the other side.

Startled by this discovery, I questioned why my left hand was so inferior. Well its never been vital to running a meeting, securing a deal or delivering a presentation. It didn't determine my success in college, and never landed me a job. Pointing, shaking hands and driving home an idea are all done with my right hand. The bottom line is that I never knew I needed my left hand. Until now.

Come to find out, the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain, or its left hemisphere, and the left hand by the right. What's even more interesting is that it is the right side of the brain that is responsible for the "softer skills" -- qualities such as creativity, intuition and communication. The left side of the brain, in turn, controls analytical thinking -- numerical reasoning, quantitative analysis and financial intellect. Given that according to the New York Times, 90 percent of the population is right-handed, we can see which skills may be more commonly used, and therefore viewed as valuable.

A successful career in today's business world is defined by right-handed numerical achievements, tangible metrics, such as a promotion, higher salary, sizable bonus, board seat or allocation of equity. The harder you strum these, the more success you will achieve.

But where has that landed corporate America? According to Manpower, 84 percent of employees planned on searching for a new job in 2012. That compares to 60 percent just two years prior. Corporate corruption also continues to become more prevalent. According to Gallup, only one in five Americans has trust in our banks, just half the level in 2007. We've grown accustomed to bankers such as ex-Goldman director Rajat Gupta, serving time for insider trading, and managers such as Bernie Madoff destroying the independent financial futures of trusting clients. These incidents affect our overall view of the very value of the system, and thus produce less confidence that it will be made better.

Right-handed leadership also affects the bottom lines of our businesses. According to Kaiser, health expenditures in the United States neared $2.6 trillion in 2010, over ten times the $256 billion spent in 1980. This can be attributed in part to a rise in ailments such as heart disease, stress and anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) antidepressant use has risen nearly 400 percent since 1988. In fact, more than one in 10 Americans over age 12 now takes an antidepressant. In addition, according to Gallup, an estimated 30.4 percent of Americans in their mid-40s are obese, a notable 2.5 percent increase from 2008.

Diversity is also still lacking at the top, resulting in millions of dollars worth of lost intellectual capital. For example, in 2007, 74 of the nation's top 500 companies (10 more than in 2006) had no female corporate officers. According to the Wall Street Journal, "diversity is good for the bottom line because it enables them to recruit the best talent, enlist broad thinking and reach diverse customers worldwide".

Natural resources are being depleted at a beyond-alarming rate, increasing the cost of durable goods, and decreasing the availability of these goods to the world's growing population. Not to mention the financial impact of increasingly severe weather, famine and global disease. Jonathan Baillie, conservation program director for ZSL, reports that "biodiversity has declined by up to 30 percent since 1970, and if we continue to consume the planet's resources at the same global rate, by 2030 we will need two planets to support the world's population".

How do we fix this? The answer is top down. Companies and their boards need to start setting their own left-handed standards, prioritizing health, well-being, diversity, philanthropy and the global community. Just as with sales goals, margin targets and operating efficiencies, these policies must be mandated, not simply encouraged. We need to re-prioritize and conduct business with both hands.

More specifically, we must:

  1. Set forth a diversity quota at the C-Level. This includes both personal makeup (gender, educational background, ethnicity) and skill set (design, environment, wellness).
  2. Contribute a required percentage of profits back to reducing our environmental footprint. Issues such as sourcing sustainable materials, decreasing packaging waste and reducing the carbon footprint should be addressed.
  3. Develop corporate wellness programs and incentivize employees to adhere to them. This includes mandatory vacations, preventative mental and physical fitness resources and increases in pay for healthy habits (eliminating smoking, maintaining a healthy weight standard).
  4. Dedicate a required percentage of the workweek to social and creative development. Topics include design, environment, innovation and societal contribution.

The key to incorporating these priorities is to hire top down, those who understand how left handed thinking benefits the employee, the corporation and the world at large. We must wipe the success slate clean and start using our left hands to define what it means to live a productive life in business today. Our realities are different than they were even a decade ago. Now is the time to become ambidextrous.