McNair Hall’s Shell Auditorium was filled to the last row Feb. 9 for the launch of “Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined,” a new book by the Jones Graduate School of Business’s Scott Sonenshein. The school assembled a panel of business and thought leaders, moderated by Sonenshein, for a discussion of how “stretching” improves organizations, careers and lives.
The book, which hit bookstores just two days earlier, provides a groundbreaking approach to succeeding in business and life using the science of resourcefulness.
“I wanted to write a book because I feel like this message is important for people no matter what they do — whether they’re executives or whether they’re just starting their careers or even if they don’t even work,” Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management, said in a video that was shown at the beginning of the event. “Are there ways we can build more prosperous organizations, find more worthy careers and lead more meaningful lives with what’s already at hand? This book is about how we think about resources.”
The concept of “stretching” is about learning to work with the resources one already has — including time, money, connections, knowledge and tangible objects — to achieve a business or personal goal. “Chasing,” the opposite of stretching, is about constantly comparing one’s organization or oneself with others, and believing that you need the same resources they have to be successful and happy.
In his research, Sonenshein found that chasing actually makes people less satisfied and stretching leads to more fulfillment. The book also found that businesses are less stable when they throw money around to grow instead of drawing creatively on the assets and resources they already have, including people. This was a phenomenon Sonenshein himself witnessed at a dot-com in 2000, early in his career, when he was recruited for a Silicon Valley job. The startup company was growing fast and spending lots of money on parties and workplace perks. That lasted just a few months, when, as he writes in his book’s introduction, “the money train screeched to a halt, venture capital dried up and we desperately but unsuccessfully tried to adapt to no longer having a blank check.”
Sonenshein, a social scientist who drew on years of personal and academic research from a range of disciplines to make his book’s case, was lauded by Jones School Dean Peter Rodriguez as a prolific and innovative scholar. “It’s not just that he’s created this great opportunity to learn about stretching, improving your life … but he serves as this great emblem for what the research is about and what it’s for, and for that we’re extraordinarily proud of this event as well as for Scott,” Rodriguez told the audience. “I’ve noticed that Scott really chooses great things to research, like taco trucks, independent filmmakers and breweries. This is really creative and innovative.”
‘Chasing is a symptom of fear’
For panelist Brené Brown, the University of Houston researcher, writer and entrepreneur who has become famous for her studies on shame and vulnerability, chasing is a familiar concept. “When we are in fear, and whether it’s fear of not being smart enough, not promoted enough, not recognized enough, or when we’re in fear about resources or change, chasing resources is much easier and requires far less courage than personal change,” she said. “The acquisition of resources is a much easier way to deal with feelings of scarcity versus examining what is the fear that’s really happening here in this organization, in me, in my leaders, in our students. That’s a call for courage that very few leaders can look straight on and address.” She said chasing is often a symptom of fear.
Another panelist, Rice alumnus Brock Wagner ’87, the founder of Saint Arnold Brewing Co., gave up a career in an industry known for chasing and relied on stretching when he left his job as an investment banker to become a craft brewer, a skill he had learned as a homebrewer in college. “After six and a half years of investment banking, I discovered actually the work was really interesting,” Wagner said. “The other investment bankers were the problem. I realized that money was not my motivator. My grandfather had recently passed away and I thought about something that he had said, which was that he considered himself a very fortunate man because he had what he loved his entire life. He had a nursery business, and then his idea of retirement was buying a bunch of land in northern California and starting the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. And I started thinking, what do I love? I love beer, brewing, talking about it and, yes, drinking it.”
Rice alumna and former trustee Lynn Laverty Elsenhans ‘78, former chairman and CEO of Sunoco, said that stretching helps to adapt to changing times. “The most important thing for a leader is to be a good role model,” Elsenhans said. “If you’re asking your employees to sacrifice … it can’t be just cutting costs for people down in the organization; it’s got to be cutting pay, cost, things at the top of the organization, where it has more impact, actually. One of the things that I try to do in a down time is be almost counterintuitive and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to reduce costs and we probably are going to reduce people, but the people that we have, we’re going to use the down time to investment in them. And we’re going to use the down time to do more leadership development, employee development and things of that nature.’” Elsenhans said people tend to deal with the situation better “if you’re, one, transparent with them and honest about why you have to cut these costs … and, two, that you are investing in them so if they are one of the ones to go, they at least are better prepared in their skill set to go somewhere else.”
Other panelists were Mosheh Oinounou, executive producer of CBSN, the first 24/7 anchored digital streaming news network, and Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP charter schools. To view a video of the panel discussion, go to the Jones School’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/BusinessRice/videos/10158305723465473.