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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Michelle Ascher Dunn

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-04

Michelle Ascher Dunn finds the child in the CEO.

"What goes into making a business decision should be developmentally informed," she said yesterday. "If you're the CEO of a company and have anything to do with its products, you need informed guidance about key employees' developmental stages - and your own as well."

That means Ms. Ascher Dunn - founder of Developmentally Speaking, based in Manhattan - teaches companies as well as schools about milestones on the way to adulthood. She also reviews children's and other family-related products, such as books and toys, to assist parents raising children or dealing with adolescents.

"By assessing a product through the lens of 'developmental usefulness,' it's possible to promote child development in a way that's rational and also takes in account children's expected behavior as they grow up," Ms. Ascher Dunn said. "If we can educate decision makers such as CEOs and political leaders to understand that a child is not just a small adult, then they can better fine-tune their products and policies to service people."

A holder of graduate degrees in special education and social work from New York University Ms. Ascher Dunn is a trained psychoanalyst. After 25 years of lecturing and writing on infancy, latency and early childhood, she decided to expand her brief to include the business world. She appears on radio and television shows almost as frequently as in America's corporate boardrooms.
Why would CEOs want to invite her to their boardrooms?

"As the business world gets more complicated and competitive, CEOs are under greater pressure to prevent or pre-empt demoralization, disorganization or defection of their valued employees to rivals," Ms. Ascher Dunn said.

"Developmental analysis is essentially about discovering at what emotional stage an employee is at," she added. "It helps to establish a hierarchy of command. Most people like to be treated as 'alpha' - especially if that's their self perception. But what if you're a junior employee who thinks he's an alpha male and gets a salary commensurate with your low organizational position? What does that do to your self-esteem? Or to your productivity? Or to your career ambition? And does your boss recognize all this?"

Ms. Ascher Dunn cited another issue that lately seems to occur regularly as corporations tighten their belts, lay off employees, and urge older workers to take early retirement.

"The person you lay off or force to retire early may be at the top of his game," she said. "So how does a corporation deal with the humiliation that it's subjected him to? Does the boss even know at what developmental stage that employee is?"

"Just as a mother has to identify with what her child needs, a CEO needs to identify the specific emotional needs of the worker," Ms. Ascher Dunn said.
Applying developmental analysis to the consumer market also enables companies to turn out more appropriate - and therefore better selling - products, she said.

"How can products be packaged better to appeal more to a specific age group?" she said. "What about advertising?"

Her research suggests that adolescence doesn't end until a person is 25 years old.

"Adulthood truly begins in the mid-20's," Ms. Ascher Dunn said. "Many clothing manufacturers, for example, don't understand this. Adulthood begins when you get your first fulltime paying job. So would you dress differently the day after you start your new job? How do you change your sensibility overnight?"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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