Robert Dilenschneider is well versed in how to succeed in competitive environments. The former CEO of Hill & Knowlton, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, he has counseled many of the most powerful individuals and largest companies on maintaining their relevance in a business landscape where the sands shift with alarming regularity. Now the head of Dilenschneider Group Inc., his most recent book, Power and Influence: The Rules Have Changed (McGraw-Hill, 2007) offers a series of steps for advancing personal interests that will also help improve the performance of one’s organization. Dilenschneider spoke to strategy+business about how individuals can adapt and prosper.
S+B: You have said that these are anxious times for individuals and business leaders. Why? What’s influencing your growing sense that something worth worrying about is happening?
DILENSCHNEIDER: There are several issues at work here. Many Americans and western Europeans are somewhat terrified that Asia — principally India and China — is rising. And they are unable or unwilling to do anything about it. For example, the student in China spends 230 days a year in school, whereas the child in America is in the classroom for 129 days or so. A significant percentage of Chinese and Indians students take calculus and other advanced science and math courses. Less than 20 percent of American students do that. It is a major challenge for our next president.
The second big factor is technology. Many workers don’t understand how to control or deal with new technologies, which leads to a lot of anxiety. But the fact is that mastering the basics of technology is not hard and, once done, it opens doors and creates opportunities.
The third factor is the continuing entry of women into the global workforce. The added competition puts a lot of pressure on people currently in jobs, but this new group of people also unlocks a level of creativity that could spur society forward.
The fourth factor is the uncertain economy; many families in the U.S. need two wage earners now to make it.
The fifth factor is savings. In the U.S. people save nothing, whereas in developing countries people are saving a lot.
S+B: Why is it important to understand these trends?
DILENSCHNEIDER: It’s important so you can figure out what to do about these trends and how not to be cowed by them, and so you can learn how to embrace them to your benefit rather than run from them to your detriment. For example, older men and women in particular should feel great about the presence of new communications technologies because they have an advantage; the older generation has been schooled in the development of reasoned arguments. Very few college students today take basic courses in logic or philosophy, the way my generation did when we were in school. So older men and women can prosper in the new communications networks, because substance trumps technology.
You can put out a Weblog or post a piece on Facebook or YouTube, but if it’s boring and dull, no one gives a damn. A lot of the writing you see online has thinking that’s disjointed and unsupported. And if it’s not well reasoned, people are just going to say, “So what?” Younger men and women often don’t get that. They sometimes point to — I’ve actually seen this happen — e.e. cummings or other writers like him and say, “Well, you don’t have to be logical. There doesn’t have to be a topic sentence and examples to support your ideas.” That is perhaps true for some ideas, but, on balance, you’ve got to be able to support what you say with cogent arguments. That’s why I say, if older people who can appreciate the need for proper rhetoric would just stop fearing technology, it could rebound to their benefit.