Thoughts from Opening Night

The inaugural Chicago Ideas Week kicked off with an incredible panel of mayors (Mayor Rahm Immanuel, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Mayor Kasim Reed) moderated by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.

While hearing the perspective of the mayors of Chicago, New York and Atlanta was extremely interesting, it was the opening remarks from Friedman that really made the evening. Before inviting the panel to the stage, he spoke for about 15 minutes on the role that our hyper connected world is playing in changing our economy and how talent is rewarded.

Tom Friedman is best known as for his books From Beirut to Jerusalem, The World Is Flat and his new book That Used To Be Us. In The World Is Flat, he describes the interconnectedness of the world economy, how technology is leveling the playing field and how the nature of competition is transforming. When the book was published in 2005, it was describing a world largely without social media as we know it today. In describing how far we’ve come from 2005, Friedman gets a kick out of describing it this way, “Twitter was a sound, “the cloud” was in the sky, 4G was a parking place, LinkedIn was a prison, applications were what you sent to college and Skype for most people was typo”. All of this social connectedness is further accelerating the transformation of our economy and the way in which we value products, services and talent.

The world is no longer just connected but hyperconnected. The same way that the boom of technology transformed the role of the blue collar economy in the late 20th century, today’s hyperconnected economy is revolutionizing the white collar economy of the 21st century.


It is no longer good enough to just do your job well or be informed; today, everyone has access to essentially the same information. The truly successful companies and individuals are being defined by their ability to innovate and re-invent their own industry or job.

He shared the story of a law firm that he had recently visited. As with many firms, they were affected by the downturn in the economy and needed to let team members go. Friedman asked senior partners what were the determining factors that helped them choose who to let go. He was somewhat surprise to find that several great employees who had won cases and done very well for the firm, were part of the group that was let go. It wasn’t just the ability to do the job that was a value to the firm, Friedman found that individuals who where able to critically question the firm’s business model, develop new revenue streams, rethink the method of developing target client or discover more efficient ways of performing were the ones that were the most valuable to the firm. The firm knew that those individuals could be relied upon to help move the firm forward, no matter the economic situation.

The speed in which our world is accelerating creates an environment where no manager can possibly oversee each employee and ensure that they are up-to-speed on the competition or changes in the marketplace. That responsibility has to lie with the employee. If employees can’t manage their own ability to innovate and reinvent, then they are more of a liability to their employer and more likely to be let go in a tight economy.

I’d make the argument that the same is true for cities and for regions. Innovative and attractive cities can no longer grow just based on the leadership of the elected. We all have to innovate and move the place we live in forward. The age of pointing the finger to others instead of ourselves for responsibility is over.

In closing, Tom Friedman laid out a challenge to the audience. In order to move ourselves and our companies forward in a way that is consistently successful, we need to act like an immigrant, think like a waitress and work like an artisan.

  • Act like an Immigrant: Nothing is owed to us
    There was once a great sense of momentum in America when immigration brought millions of driven, innovative and hard working people from all over the world. Many could not rely on a social network or the comfort of a pre-determined career path. They invented new businesses, started schools and made a living out of the sheer determination to be successful in whatever they did. Like it or not, we are all immigrants in this new global economy and we need to fight for innovation like nothing is owed to us, no matter our position. If we don’t, there are literally millions of other people and thousands of other companies who will.
  • Think like a waitress: Give Something Extra
    Friedman told the story of a Perkins’ waitress who would regularly serve him and his friend when they would get together. One morning as she was dropping of their meals, she told Tom Friedman’s friend that she had given him extra fruit with his breakfast. She knew what he liked after waiting on them several times before. She went the extra mile to give him more. That type of thoughtfulness obviously translated into an extra tip for her, but it highlighted a principle for Friedman – differentiating your work from others is all about going the extra mile and NOT just about the results you garner. The means are just as important as the end.
  • Work like an Artisan: Do your work as though you could sign your initials to it.
    In the dawn of the industrial revolution, with mass production of goods beginning to fill the economy, the work of artisans began to stand out even more. Their craft and their individual talent was poured into their products and services, so much so that they signed their initials or their names to each of their final pieces. Our work in the new economy can’t be about mass production of services if it is to have any value. We need to pour our individual effort and creativity into everything we do to truly stand above the noise.

To read more on Thomas Friedman, click here

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