As we go deep into the fourth quarter of this year, I’d like to reflect upon lessons learned as well as thoughts for the new year and beyond. This morning, after Thanksgiving day, I walked through my rose garden. In some strange way, there were still roses in bloom, unlike most species whose leaves and stems were now on the compost heap. If you are like me, you’re looking back and asking, “Where did the year go” or even better, “What happened this year and why?” For me, the world came into sharper focus based upon our client work in Europe this year, requiring travelling to the UK once a month. This experience has broadened and crystalized my evolving world view and perspective

Mankind has evolved through the Stone Age, the Dark Ages, the Industrial Revolution, the Technology Revolution and now the commoditization of intellectual capital being driven by technology — once again changing the way we live, work, think and behave. People 200 years from today will look back on this era as a profound turning point in society. This period of compression and de-leveraging is unparalleled. In the five years before 2008, U.S. housing prices appreciated 100% — creating a totally unsustainable economic model and unsustainable consumer expectations. This era of transition and deleveraging will continue for at least another two to five years. People will be under intense pressure economically, socially and spiritually. To survive and prosper, each of us will have to answer the question, “Can we learn as fast as the world is changing?” – a very challenging thought with serious consequences.

In response to this question, here are a few recommendations for the new year:

1. The genius of Steve Jobs left us the legacy to continue to innovate and create. Leaders need to invest in new technology that accelerates the sharing of information and the creation of new member and employee value.

2. Recognize when people are resistant to change. Don’t sacrifice any organization to provincial thinking or behavior that encourages silos.

3. At a recent board meeting when discussing how to ensure continued growth, an employee asked what we had done at our firm to be up 51% in top line collections, down almost 30% in expenses and up almost 73% in net income. Provided below is my response:

  • At our board meetings, we asked important questions about how to identify new opportunities for growth. This changed the culture and tone of the company to focus on opportunities for innovation and to aggressively and relentlessly pursue new markets and new people to work in the firm;
  • We listened to one board member, Liz Levine, our 26 year old daughter who represents a different demographic , to change our website and our marketing approach;
  • We instituted new systems that ensured transparency and accountability in the internal operations of the company, resulting in controlling profit margins;
  • Culturally, we enforced our ethics policies which gave us the confidence to make difficult business decisions;
  • Based on these seismic changes, we began to attract more energized, high level thinking people who were being worn out with large competitive organizations consumed by bureaucratic thinking;
  • We continued to start every conversation by asking what is best for the client;
  • We invested in new initiatives that did not pay off right away, but simultaneously focused on content development, partnerships and distribution channels;
  • We traveled to over 20 cities and attended over 15 to 20 learning seminars that were formative in our strategic, leadership and governance thinking and helped us to develop an edgy point of view;

Engaging with technology has provided a greater understanding of the profound change in the world. Seeing things in a global context has created incredible learning and value for our clients. Attracting courageous people with strong character and the will to learn is invigorating. The era of entitlement is over.

“Culture” appears to be the next “buzz” word. But do people really understand what it means? Culture is one action at a time. And it’s hard. It’s hard to honest. It’s hard to challenge yourself when you are exhausted. And it’s hard to continue to grow. Some of the most successful people we know, have said that the last year has been the hardest of their entire career. They have had to re-invent their businesses and navigate extremely challenging waters. This is what it takes today. Sorry, but it’s the honest truth. Get ready to rumble in 2012.

Stuart R. Levine is Chairman and CEO of Stuart Levine & Associates LLC, a strategy, leadership and governance consulting firm.