With over 20 years of progressive work experience in areas ranging from digital strategy, multi-channel marketing, innovation, B2B marketing and investment banking, Eric established a proven track record of delivering tangible business results. His passion is working with cross-functional teams as a catalyst enabling these teams to achieve aspirational outcomes.
Home Roam: Roam Dunwoody
Corporate Cowboys and the Frontier of the Future
Gunpowder, papermaking, the printing press, and the compass. I may recruit you for trivia if you can guess what they have in common. These are the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China, produced hundreds of years before their European counterparts. Eric Johnson mentions the Four as one aspect of Chinese culture that fascinated him during his visits. Eric spent almost three months in China during 2012 while he was working on an engagement with InterContinental Hotels Group, and he has only good things to say about the Middle Kingdom. “You either hate it or you love it,” he says, explaining that the stark difference between Orient and Occident across all aspects of culture naturally polarizes the reactions of Western visitors. When faced with a complex, unfamiliar social etiquette, and perhaps a strange, unsettling diet, not to mention a completely incomprehensible pictographic, tonal language, an American can either adopt an overwhelmed “get me out of here!” attitude, or embrace the wonder and beauty of the Eastern way of life.
Eric clearly fell on the “embrace” side of the divide. “Maybe it’s the Texan in me, but whatever it is, I love being a pioneer.” This momentarily conjures the mental image of Eric’s big, 6’4’’ frame saddled up and galloping boldly into the wild, unchartered East with lasso swinging, ready to rope up some enriching experiences and profitable hotel sales. Shanghai was home base during his trip, but he spent some time in many of the nation’s major cities, including Beijing, Hong Kong, and several others. He was fascinated by his exposure to a rich body of history shared by more than a billion people, yet nonetheless entirely unknown to people here. Whereas the vast majority of even educated Americans have no idea about the Four Great Inventions, Eric points out that “every schoolchild in China knows that list from a young age.”
China is old. While various empires and nations and city-states were rising and falling in Europe throughout the fragmented flux of the continent’s political history, China has experienced a more or less continuous narrative since ancient times. But though their history is long, their business is in its infancy. “Contract law?” Eric chuckles, “It barely exists.” This truly is the Texan wild west of the business world, the domain of corporate cowboys. Eric recalls the informality of their practices, “We would have important corporate meetings around the dinner table while eating.” My favorite anecdote is of a Chinese hotel owner who bought a license from IHG to open a Holiday Inn Express. He built the hotel, but then much later IHG discovered that he had built a second Holiday Inn Express down the road without their knowledge, an exact duplication of the first hotel. “It would be naïve to say he definitely knew he was doing something wrong until you delve further into their social culture,” Eric advises. He goes on to sum up his opinion of the young Chinese market. “Some things that are easy to do in the States are hard to do in China, but the opposite is also true, that things that are hard here are often very easy in China.” There are pros and cons to doing business in the Wild, Wild East.
Eric left IHG to start McLauchlin Group Consulting, but his experiences in the hotel industry were essential to his consulting methodology. Eric was part of a team that dealt regularly with groups of hotel owners, and IHG’s relationship with these franchisees was complex. “You would send out an email to a hundred hotel owners saying ‘Do this on this date,’ and when the date passed you realized very few of them had taken action. In fact, maybe only 20% even opened the email.” These hotel owners were technically business partners of IHG, but Eric’s breakthrough came when he realized that they needed to be treated like customers that could buy and sell IHG each day. More than that, they needed to be treated as human beings, and perhaps as friends. Eric and his team began working harder to understand the particular concerns of each owner they dealt with, contextualizing IHG projects within the other projects on a owner’s plate so that realistic goals could be set. Hotel owners were more willing to listen and put forth effort if they felt cared for and understood. Eric was also able to create a sense of community among the hotel owners he was responsible for, causing them to invest even further in what IHG was doing, and to work well together on projects. “My team gained a reputation for getting hotels to actually do things.” Eric eventually took his insights – creating an invested community of individuals by connecting with them and connecting them with each other so that projects are completed to a greater level of excellence – to McLauchlin Group Consulting. Now he has brought his insights to Roam.
Eric was invited to join Roam’s Mastermind group, a small think tank made up of Roam members and employees dedicated to realizing Roam’s goal of “invested community.” Roam is not meant to be a coworking space where members seclude themselves in cubbies and don’t speak to each other, but rather an “innovative workplace” with a more collaborative atmosphere, and Eric is bringing his knowledge and experiences to bear as he brainstorms what that might look like. We can peek into his thought process: “Corporations have a unified vision. They have goals down on paper that everyone in the company is working toward.” A typical coworking space is the opposite: it is a group of individuals with no common purpose, all working toward their own personal goals, analogous to anarchy whereas the corporation is totalitarian. “Most corporations today generate command-and-control cultures, rather than climate control.” Roam doesn’t want anarchy or totalitarianism, but a purposeful climate of collaboration where members, though they do have their individual goals, view other members as potential teammates. Where goals align and skills are complementary, members can work together on projects of various sizes for as long or as short a time as they deem necessary. Thus a sort of diffuse organism is formed, a loose network of cells who maintain their autonomy but are nonetheless in it together, and are therefore greater than the sum of their parts.
Whether or not our future looks anything like Aldous Huxley’s dystopia, we are certainly hurtling toward a brave new world of some kind. “Soon we won’t drive our own cars,” Eric states matter-of-factly. Eric is also anticipating many changes in the workplace caused by rapid advances in technology. “The US might become a major manufacturer again,” because manufacturing will soon have little or nothing to do with human beings, and everything to do with the robotics that America is among the forerunners in developing. Many other processes will become automated as well. “A lot of people are pessimistic because technology will take away jobs. But they forget that it will also provide many new jobs.” This pessimistic skew is natural because the jobs of today are visible and tangible to us, and so it is easy to imagine the negative consequences of their disappearance, whereas the jobs of tomorrow don’t exist yet, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to know what they will be or to be excited about them while they remain nebulous. However, even if machines are efficient substitutes for our bodies, Eric has faith in the eternal value – economically and morally – of the human mind, “If there’s one thing I know about the future, it’s that we’ll still need lots of people who know how to think and are comfortable with uncertainty.”
The kinds of people who are members at Roam – entrepreneurs, small business owners, non-profit founders, consultants, artists, writers – are an independent-minded, innovative group who know how to think for themselves and take appropriate risks to move forward. As new sets of jobs continue to replace obsolete sets of jobs, probably at an increasing pace, these individuals will have the mental flexibility to solve a set of problems, and then pivot to address new ones, wielding the critical thinking, creativity and intuition necessary for success. “You should think of your career as a series of projects,” says Eric, and this makes sense, because even today we can no longer settle into a job for decades and become complacent. Eric’s vision of Roam as a project-based, collaborative gestalt of talented thinkers might just be a prophetic vision of the future American workplace.