Ben Bernake

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in mid-September officially declared that the worst recession since the 1930s was “very likely over.”

But public opinion didn’t side with the Fed chief, according to one CNN poll, and some economists warned of a “double-dip” recession.

Good news sometimes is hard to hear.

Earlier this year, during the darkest days of the recession, we yearned for some hope, some reaffirmation in our belief in compassionate capitalism. So we set about talking to some leading entrepreneurs and academics about the economy.

Mind you, at the time foreclosures, unemployment, factory orders, consumer confidence, you name it, by almost any metric the economy looked and felt bleak. Unemployment, in fact, topped 10 percent since this article appeared in our November 2009 issue.

One respondent to our national query, William McGinnis at litigation support services firm W. McGinnis Advisors, was fairly incredulous with our premise.

“Are you going to include a supply of what you’re smoking for each of your readers?” he wrote.

(For the record, we did not part with anything.)

Yet behind doom-and-gloom headlines and dismal data points ran an undercurrent of optimism from most of those we contacted. These folks weren’t willing to participate in the recession.

We decided to dig up and dust off our file, the one that contained all these uplifting comments from businesspeople and thought leaders. While we’re aware of economic realities and acknowledge that full recovery is a ways away, much of our collective economic pain stems from perspective and state of mind. To that end, we’re believers in the healing powers of positive thought.

So, with apologies to John Lennon, recession is over if we want it.

Here’s what others have to say:

AmilyaAmilya Antonetti, CEO of AMA Productions, founder of Soapworks and, author of Why David Hated Tuesdays

The current economic conditions we’re living in have people frightened. News of foreclosures, layoffs and bank failures pushed people into an ever-fearful state and have many stuck in a “do nothing” position hoping they can wait it out until someone “fixes it.”

I am not wired to hold tight or hand over my destiny waiting in hope someone else gets it right.

Entrepreneurs see the world differently. Throughout history, difficult economic times such as these have been the eras in which visionary business leaders saw opportunity instead of failure and made huge differences in the world with their ideas.

Economic conditions similar to these are when Hewlett Packard and Microsoft launched their brands. Need I say more? For me, any situation can be seen as half full or half empty. You know, a typical consumer might look at the foreclosed house across the street and see doom and gloom. The entrepreneur sees the opportunity to buy an asset at a reduced price to potentially rebuild a community.

l_schlesinger1Len Schlesinger, president of Babson College

The late Peter Drucker, one of the most influential thought leaders on management, observed that “every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise.”

We accept Peter Drucker’s notion. I run a small college. We’re tuition-dependent. The down economy obviously is not our friend. But we’ve been an enemy of the richer universities.

We could sit around budget-cutting, or we could say, ‘Wow, this is another opportunity for us. Let’s fundamentally reframe this and shift the focus from costs to revenue.’

This really is an issue of a mindset and what you use as the basic language of what a problem is. Is it something to be solved, or is it something negative out there? When framed as an opportunity, there’s something inherently optimistic about that. We’ve always talked about our institution as being opportunity obsessed.

I get accused of being Pollyannaish. I realize joblessness is a big issue. But imagine how much better off people would be if they were trained in entrepreneurship. When you’re in your 50s and the traditional labor market has abandoned you, I believe we’re much better off equipping you with skills so you can make opportunities on your own. Hiring someone to dress up your resume isn’t likely to lead to improved self-esteem or success.

Matthew_Kingdon_300Matt Kingdon, Chairman of ?What If! The Innovation Company

Recession winners tough it out, they make tough calls. But there’s no secret formula for courage – or is there?

The origin of the word courage is “to speak your mind with all your heart” and courage is the concept that underpins innovation.  Our experience is that organizations with a sense of purpose have great courage. They know what the “right” thing to do is so they make decisions quickly.

Companies with a north star also innovate faster, they are less attached to the world as it is and more motivated by the world as it could be. IKEA’s purpose is to “create a better everyday life for the many people.” Their purpose doesn’t tie them to furniture, it also is extremely motivating to colleagues – they will really sweat to deliver on that mission. Now IKEA is making houses. That’s courageous innovation!

Courage also comes from getting out of the office and immersing yourself in the world of your consumers. I took a CEO of a top 50 company to “hang out” with a group of specially selected angry customers. The event was riveting – a no-holds barred exchange of views where my clients’ eyes were opened to how he could help people. The next day he made some bold moves – I say bold because courage is always the label of the onlooker, to the bold one it’s just speaking and acting with all your heart.

peter GPeter Gudmundsson, founder and CEO of The Priceless Legacy Co.

I love your phrase “compassionate capitalism.”

I started a business in Q4 2008 that helps older people preserve their life stories in print and electronic forms. I am hiring a direct sales and service force around the country of part-time Legacy Consultants who sell, interview, photo organize and manage drafts for clients and subjects.

If an adult child or family wants to honor and celebrate the life of a senior loved one, they are not going to just wait for a rosier economy. Fiftieth anniversaries, eightieth birthdays and terminal illnesses cannot just be deferred into the future.

I only raised about 65 percent of the $2 million I had circled because of the market crashes, but I am off to a great start with 36 Legacy Consultants in nine states.

Good ideas well executed are recession proof.
fmdalton_smallFrancie Dalton, founder of business consultancy Dalton Alliances, author of Versatility: How to Optimize Interactions When 7 Workplace Behaviors Are at Their Worst

I don’t deny that the economy sucks right now. I’m not trying to say delude yourself. But you and your thoughts can control what becomes your reality. If your readers don’t believe that, they’re not going to fare as well.

Our positive thoughts have more power over us than most are willing to admit. This is not delusion. A solution-oriented thought process finds ways to innovate. Here are some ways to succeed:

This is going to sound simple, but it’s not – a plan with purpose. If you want a particular client, job, relationship, anything, you have to be aware you want something, be clear about it and have a plan. You have to have a  kick-butt plan to go out and get it. Plans are the bridge between dreams and reality. People say there’s nothing I can do to get that job, well if you think that, you’re right. Want to meet the CEO of a company you want to do business with? Find out where the CEO speaks and go and meet him. Network, find attendee lists. Find a way to meet people. This is planning as opposed to being passive. Plan for securing the result you want.

The Smartest thing I ever did was create a board of advisors. They’re not paid. But once a quarter I have them critique the hell out of me. You should invite people who don’t like you very much, who think you’re stupid, who are arrogant. Try to get as much juice in that room as you can. We are rugged individualists. If you surround yourself with challenging advisors, you can be open to what you’re blinded to.

suzanneSuzanne Bates, president and CEO of executive coaching firm Bates Communications and author of Speak Like a CEO, Secrets to Commanding Attention and Getting Results and Motivate like a CEO, Communicate Your Strategic Vision and Inspire People to ACT!

I’m a CEO and a former television news reporter. So, I’ve walked a mile in both types of shoes, and while I am wildly optimistic about the future of business, I am appalled at how the media is diggin’ the hole deeper right now. Time to change the narrative!

Here are a few examples that explain why I’m optimistic:

Many small businesses are booming. And has been noted, they are the engine that drives our economy.  For example, I belong to the Women Presidents Organization, which supports businesses $100 million and less, most primarily in the $1-10 million range. Many women-owned companies in my group are going gangbusters. They are not gazing at their navels. They have always been doers and risk takers and they haven’t stopped. They’re acquiring new accounts, they’re hiring.  Naturally, their stories aren’t on the front page of the business section.

Cash reserves exist. Many, many companies have money – they just aren’t spending it right now. Yes, business is off, and profits in many sectors are way down, but at some point – perhaps not too far off – they are going to realize that if they want to sell stuff, they have to buy stuff.  I hate to sound so simplistic, but that’s the formula.

Data is always historic, even though we treat it as if it were “real time.” When the bad news gets reported, we collectively have trouble remembering it happened back in the fourth quarter, or in December, or even earlier. It is not the reality of this moment. The emphasis placed on the reporting of this historic data creates a strong psychological undertow – we’re trying to swim against the current, we’re getting exhausted and we’re in danger of being emotionally swept out to sea.

DSC_3027Dr. Robert Duvall, former president and CEO of the Council for Economic Education

I think the reasons for trying to keep cautious, thoughtful optimism are three.

  1. We’re American. We’re basically, at our core, optimistic. We’re Always thinking about ways to make the future better. We have to try deliberately to hold on to that. What’s the alternative, give up?
  2. We know that problems have been solved in the past. Even if this one’s different, we know we’ve overcome problems before. Big problems. There’s no reason to think we can’t this time.
  3. We know people can make a difference. President Bush created a presidential advisory council on financial literacy. I was pleased to be appointed to that. It’s a two-year appointment. One of the reasons it gives me optimism is it’s chaired by Charles Schwab. I figure he didn’t get to be where he is by just talking. He’s a doer.