A Modern Day Rip Van Winkle
The story of Irv Beiman’s 20-year hiatus from the U.S., and the eye-opening return that inspired his desire to share THE READY FOR BETTER METHOD
Entry To China
My Chinese wife took me to China to meet her parents in late May of 1989. We did a quick tour of the country before traveling to her birthplace in southern China. We were on Tiananmen Square sixteen hours before all of the violence occurred. We left China several weeks later and settled in Boston.
In February of 1992, China’s premier Deng Xiao Peng made his famous trip to the south and was quote in the newspapers as saying, “…to get rich is glorious.” This signaled to the world that China was opening up. We made four research trips and moved to Shanghai about a year later.
In the summer of 1993 people throughout the country were told where to live, where to work, where to go to school and what to study. They owned nothing more than their wok, their bicycle and the clothes on their back. The government [the state] owned everything else. Only legal companies could own cars.
Problem Solving & Process Management Creates An Opening
By 1997, just four years later, people could choose where to live, where to work, where to go to school and what to study. Over the next several years, they could obtain loans to buy their own apartment and their own car.
After meeting the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai we were sucked into a vacuum of need for US and other foreign companies who had formed joint ventures with state owned companies. We developed China’s first ever sales training, first training in interviewing skills, first videotaped training for presentation skills, first training in cross functional problem solving, process mapping and process redesign. We trained China’s first management consultants and delivered these programs to more than a hundred foreign invested joint ventures.
In the early 90’s, these basic skills were needed because only the top officials in China’s state government and the top executives in their state owned companies were the ones who actually made decisions. Everything flowed down from the top. Everyone was looking up to see which way the wind blowed, and what their boss wanted. No one showed initiative or accepted responsibility for problems that were pervasive. Every single foreign General Manager of a joint venture complained about the same problems. The business side of China was a monoculture result of an economy that had been planned from the top down since the Communists took over in 1949.
The Chinese managers and our consulting staff were intelligent, alert, well intentioned people, most of whom had kind gentle hearts. They treated foreigners well and with respect. Many of them were thirsty for learning.
Communist Party Secretaries were usually designated as Chairmen of the joint venture we worked with. Many of them took our manuals back for sharing with their colleagues in the Party. The practical focus on problem solving and managing processes for much better quality was of great interest to them.
Eventually we merged that company with a global human resources firm that wanted to focus on compensation. I had felt a sense of mission with the problem solving and process management side of our business because of the poor problem solving I had seen by the student leaders of the protest movement in 1989. I had little to no interst in compensation, so we left the company for a year off in the US.
Strategy Execution In A Toxic Environment
We returned to China in 2000 and after several missteps began to focus on a strategy execution methodology that had come out of Harvard Business School, called the Balanced Scorecard. We were the first to bring that methodology to China. Our focus this second time was on large Chinese organizations. We wrote a best selling book about strategy execution that achieved wide exposure. My Chinese wife became famous, was invited to present trainings on satellite television, and had requests from many top Chinese executives for an interview to explain how our sophisticated training could help them.
What hasn’t been described yet are the hurdles and barriers we had to overcome to survive and thrive in a very difficult and challenging business environment that was toxic for public health. We were bombarded with toxic chemicals from high sulfur burning coal power plants. Lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic chemicals spewed from the power plants into the air and fell onto the soil and water. DDT was sprayed around many foreign housing settlements to counteract the prevalent mosquitoes. Shanghai and other city governments built skyscrapers, highways and airports at an incredible speed with workers on the job all day every day 24/7. The government did not, however, do much about the toxic pollution.
Throughout this entire foreign experience I felt quite unprepared for the stressful environment and the challenge of building a service company from scratch with no outside investment. I was compelled to find new ways to use my stress management techniques to cope with the challenge.
When we were writing the training manuals in the first business in the 90’s, I often faced a blank page on our computer screen uncertain where to start and what to write. I jogged and programmed myself to create a high level general outline, and then began filling it in with content. On countless occasions I would jog around a public school track programming myself to find the next piece of business so that we could meet payroll.
Using Aerobic Reprogramming To Write A Book
In 2002 we were approached by an entrepreneurial publisher to write a book about the balanced scorecard. We decided to do it even though we only made a quarter on every one sold, because we figured it would help with our branding. I had written the bulk of the training manuals but writing a book of two hundred thousand words was another thing altogether. My wife was tasked with writing the Chinese case studies, and I was tasked with explaining the methodological aspect of the balanced scorecard.
So I continued to use what I was then calling aerobic reprogramming to focus my brain/mind on how to write a book and what to put into it. I jogged around a track and on gym equipment to get ideas about the book outline and later what content to put in the different sections. What I noticed is that after programming myself during exercise the ideas seemed to come easier and the words began to flow more freely through my fingers as I typed.
I continued to program myself on expanding the avenues for sales and marketing in our business. We began to get a series of breaks and more opportunities began to appear. I had never considered myself an entrepreneur, but I was immersed within what was becoming a very entrepreneurial culture. The aerobic reprogramming gave me clarity and focus, as well as enhanced creativity.
Gradually the need for my attention to the business decreased. In late 2006 I happened to watch a BBC special on melting permafrost in Siberia. Russian and Scandinavian scientists were walking around knee deep in muck that had been frozen ice and snow for thousands of years. They were trying to measure the carbon dioxide and methane being released.
In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] released their Fourth Assessment Report on climate change. I began studying it and discovered that methane was not in their statistical analyses. I learned that methane can be up to a hundred times as powerful as carbon dioxide for holding heat inside our atmosphere. The IPCC’s report indicated that major changes were many many years into the future, but it was something that we should be paying attention to now.
I began doing a deep dive on climate change research over the internet and eventually downloaded and reviewed more than six thousand articles about this issue. I published four articles applying strategy execution methodology to the challenges posed by climate change. I formally presented my concerns at a Shanghai conference jointly organized by the UN and the Shanghai government, but no one seemed to care that methane wasn’t in the statistical models. As a behavioral scientist trained in research and statistical methods, I was convinced that we were facing much more accelerated climate change than the public was being told.
Culture Shock: What Happened To My Country?
After spending 20 years living and working in Shanghai, China, I was surprised when people asked me if I was experiencing culture shock. I was initially unsure what they were talking about. News is strongly controlled in China, but I was able to watch CNN International and Bloomberg news on satellite TV during my last four years there. That was it, except for an occasional WSJ or NYT obtained at an international hotel.
So I was mostly insulated from what was going on in the US. Of course, I knew about 911, and later learned about the Patriot Act. I knew about the financial crisis of ’07-’08. I was deeply disturbed about Bush Cheney lying about WMD and going into Iraq. Other than those biggies, though, I thought the US would not be so different compared to what it was like when we left.
Wrong! During our first year back I got a major shock at how the medical industry had changed. It had become disturbingly less personal and supportive, and vastly more financially oriented.
I began noticing even more changes and tried to understand what had caused these major shifts. I questioned people and did internet research to begin identifying what appeared to be root causes of multiple problems:
- Big Pharma ads appeared all the time on commercial television. These ad were not even allowed when we left back in ’93. What happened, I wondered, that would allow such a change that permitted happy smiling faces when the ad was discussing side effects that could kill you.
- I was shocked to learn more about the number of oil wells in California, as well as the extreme extraction methods that could toxify underground water aquifers and increase earthquakes.
- I couldn’t understand why there was such a debate about climate change when the science about the risks for humanity seemed so clear.
- I was disturbed by the prevalence of GMO modifications and pesticide spraying of major food crops.
- Medical services seemed to have become vastly more oriented toward financial return and billing rather than customer care. There seemed to be much less information and attention devoted to primary prevention of health problems. Everything seemed oriented toward pulling more people into an expensive and punishing early diagnosis/health care/insurance/hospital system.
- The police seemed bigger, stronger and more aggressive, even militant, compared to before.
- I didn’t understand why government and political action was not addressing these public health and welfare risks, especially when the science about the need for improvement seemed pretty solid.
- Most of the movies were strongly violent and often dystopian, with the bad guys winning way more than the good guys, and offering little to no hope. Television programs were failing to provide positive role models for constructive change. Instead it was all about murders, greed and selfish action.
- I felt bombarded with commercial messages to buy and spend more.
- Indeed, this was culture shock.
I began introducing myself to people as Rip van Winkle, the guy who fell asleep under a tree for 20 years and then awoke to discover his world had changed, but my 20 years were in China. I repeatedly asked people, “What has happened to this country?” As I gathered information from multiple sources, including people from a variety of occupations, professions and levels of income, I began to form a picture of what had happened. This enabled me to develop some clarity about root causes of these problems as I connected the dots. I added what I had learned in China about how American and other international companies operate and how they compensate their executives. This prepared me for a deep dive into the current political situation.
It became clear to me that money had corrupted much of our political process. I was familiar with corruption in China, but what I learned about legalized corruption in the US was quite disturbing to me. The recently published book, Nation of Change, documents this thoroughly.
I had never for a single moment been interested in politics. I seldom voted, if only out of superstition because whoever I thought was a good candidate almost always lost. I discovered that Facebook has newsfeeds. I had joined Facebook several years ago when I became concerned about methane release accelerating the climate change process that was already underway.
In August of 2015 I discovered the only Presidential candidate who was not accepting SuperPAC money and large donor contributions. My strategic concern was that legalized corruption in politics would maintain an ongoing destructive corporate influence in legislative and executive decision making in government. Then I discovered he also thought that climate change was our greatest threat to national security. That solidified my initial support.
What can I do, I wondered. I resolved to expand my FB friends and share the method I had been using for the past thirty years to find a partner with whom I could live, laugh and love; build three successful businesses, survive a highly toxic foreign environment and heal ourselves after contracting a variety of illnesses.
As I shared my own learnings, I encountered an enormous amount of what was brand new information for me.