Saturday, July 19, 2014

Avoiding Unhappy Endings

It's always nice to get invitations, especially when someone calls and says you'd be a great addition to their team.  In my experience, pretty much no one thinks their job is perfect, even when they get good pay or enjoy a solid reputation and can boast a healthy tenure.  There's always the question about the future - Could I make more in a new job?  Where is my present job going?  Everyone says you should have options, so what are my options?

So anyway, I love my job and the people I work with.  I like the drive to work, I like the pay and benefits and the industry is growing.   But there have been changes at my company and like anyone else, I believe I have to consider options if and when they become available.  So I was happy when I received not one, but two inquiries from recruiters on companies they said would be happy to have me.   I had pleasant conversations with each of the recruiters, and phone interviews were scheduled.  I sent my most recent resume to both, and then did some homework to learn about both companies. 

You may have read articles about how businesses use social media and the Internet to learn details about the people who apply for jobs.  It happens that the same tools are available for ordinary people, to find out about the companies they are considering for application.   For example, I was interested in the growth potential at each company, both for my role and also for the company health in each case - there would be no purpose in taking a job at a company which folds or needs to lay off employees a couple years later.   Also, there are a number of web sites which offer employee reviews of their jobs at companies, covering things like salaries, job satisfaction, company officers, and are two very convenient examples.  Search engines can also provide information in changes in ownership or leadership, lawsuits, new products and other important events in the company history or plans.   

In the course of doing my homework, I learned that both of the companies were relatively new businesses; that is, they were part of larger, established companies but were starting new projects that had a certain amount of risk.  Employees from both companies expressed doubt about their employers’ business plan and leadership, and morale at both companies was low, as grievances apparently had been ignored by senior leadership, either because they were unaware of the concerns or because they do not consider employee satisfaction a high priority.  In both companies a majority of employees answering surveys said there was no sense that a career path was viable for them.  

These discoveries created problems for me.  I find it unwise to take any claim at face value, and I am aware that people are more likely to complain than to praise a large company/employer.  But when making a career decision, I realized that only two offers could be seriously considered – one with significantly better long-term career prospects, or one with considerably better immediate pay and title.  Since both of the offers were for essentially the same rank/role with only marginally better pay, and in both cases the drive to work would be much longer, with computer systems different from the SAP I know and proprietary system I work with now, the results of my personal risk/benefit analysis dictated staying at my current position.

After reviewing and checking my work and results, I contacted both companies and declined the offers.   In both cases the recruiter was very courteous and professional, which is one reason I have not identified the companies; someone else in a different place in life may find their decision different for very good reasons.  But I do believe that my decision examined and weighed valid risk factors, both in staying at my current job and in taking a role at a different company.  I wrote this article in hopes you may find it helpful in some of your own career decisions.

Good luck.   

Monday, July 14, 2014

If you are considering whether to pursue a Masters degree in Business Administration, I have bad news for you. You have a lot of choices to make. First, you need to examine your personal career path, and decide whether pursuing an MBA makes sense for you. Your education is just one set of tools you use in building your career, and an MBA is not necessarily going to be the right choice to get you where you want to be. You have to know what you want to do, and to understand how the MBA will help you accomplish that goal. Sometimes other degrees will serve better. In my case, as an example, I went back to school after years of work, because I realized that my career needed the specific credentials an MBA could offer, and I also needed to add specific courses to improve the breadth of my skill set. I obtained an MBA with a concentration in Accounting, because my work in Credit would gain from that specific degree. A colleague of mine with similar experience chose to pursue a Master's degree in Accounting, because he planned to earn a CPA License and work as an Accounting department manager. For him, the needs were different so the degree to pursue was different. The first lesson is to understand that the MBA will not change you, it can only add to your tool kit of credentials and highlight what you can do for an employer. An MBA is focused on management, and should be obtained only if your career path is in management. I should note that an MBA is not necessarily ideal for an executive; many CEOs never earn an MBA because they don't need it at the top of a company. Many department heads need degrees in their field, but not an MBA, per se. Then again, many professionals use the MBA they earn to build a broader skill set, and to maximize the development of their professional network - to build their brand, as is popular to say today. An MBA is a tool, which if used properly, can help a professional reach their full potential. The first step is deciding what tools you need, and in this case whether an MBA is worth the work and cost it takes to earn the degree.
Let's say you are sure you want to pursue an MBA. Fine, how do you choose the right program? Again, it comes back to what you need. There are literally thousands of MBA programs available right now, just in the United States. But there are certain standards you should consider, and you should also look for attributes to a program which will be of value to you. First off,I strongly advise considering only schools which are AACSB-accredited. The AACSB is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and it is the premier international organization for business schools. Every major business school is included, 711 are accredited as of this year, and they include every valid concentration for an MBA that exists. Earning an MBA will take money, time, and a lot of work, so you want to protect your investment by making sure your school meets that standard.
Next, you'll want to think about your concentration. Again, going back to my own career as an example, I spent eleven years in Operations Management, then worked as an auditor for a Healthcare company for five years, then five years in Credit management before deciding I needed to earn an advanced degree to get where I wanted in my career. I also wanted to gain better tools in Accounting, so I pursued an MBA with a concentration in Accounting. That meant I needed to find the best school that could meet that combination, and since I was still working it had to offer a flexible schedule and be close to home.
Choosing a school next depends on your ideal job. There are schools with internationally famous names, like Harvard or Wharton or Stanford. Those schools have three main disadvantages, however. First, they are extremely expensive, often costing several hundred thousands of dollars. Second, they are difficult to get into as MBA candidates. And third, most high-profile schools are reluctant to change their programs when innovation and evolution are available. They forget the ideas and environment that changed the reasons why those schools became the leaders. Smaller and newer schools are not automatically good, but if you pay close attention, you can observe the ones developing programs which are ready for the 21st Century, and which ones may offer tools unavailable from the 'premier' schools. Online classes, for example, utilize virtual team-building and multiple culture collaboration, while city-affiliated universities are bringing local business owners and leaders in to address classes, offering timely and first-hand management experience. The key is considering what you want from your MBA program, then exploring to find the right schools by location, price, concentration, and reputation in your chosen field.
You can find information on MBA programs via the web. Once you know the criteria that matters to you, simply search by that criteria and then review what you learn. Again using my own career as an example, I was returning to school after a significant time working, so rather than seeking an MBA which would get me a junior management position, where a prestigious school gives a young professional a chance at the fast track, I needed a degree which would expand my skill set a bit and underscore my experience. Since I was working full-time I needed to be able to take courses on a flexible schedule, and I did not want to incur heavy debt, I determined that the University of Houston at Victoria best served my goals. The same year I graduated, I was offered a position which represented a twenty-four percent raise, along with a more significant position than my previous role. My case is anecdotal, yet I would say that my decision was based on experience, serious cost-benefit analysis, and my results bear out the value of the process. .

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Are You The ‘Tim Howard’ of Your Company?

I watched an incredible game by USA Goalie Tim Howard in the ‘Knockout Round’ game against Belgium.  A record fifteen saves by Howard kept a lackluster US team in the game into the ‘Extra Time’, when two crucial lapses by his teammates led to Belgian scores and the end of the team’s run in the World Cup.  While Belgium was clearly superior in talent and coaching, Howard’s teammates were sloppy and lazy, causing Howard at times to call out his teammates for stupid mistakes.  Most of the first half was spent on the US side of the field, as if it was asking too much from Howard’s teammates to try to score.  Over and over again, a single Belgian attacker shot through three or four defenders, who stood by and looked around as if they expected someone else to do the hard job of defending their side of the field.  Howard played like a master; most of his team were disgraceful, including his coach.  The US played a total of four games in the World Cup.  They won once, and lost or tied the rest.  The US fell behind Ghana, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium, playing poorly early on in every game.  They came back to lead against Ghana and Portugal, but could only seal the deal in victory once.   The team failed to pass effectively, failed to exploit opportunities, failed to shoot accurately, and failed to learn.  Tim Howard deserved much, much better in effort from the team.

I’m no all-world athlete, but I have been in situations where I essentially carried my team, getting little or no help and watching everyone make excuses if things went bad.  A lot of businesses have people who are very good at covering their butts, but who couldn’t be bothered to hustle or go beyond the routine effort, even when critical results were at stake.  These businesses often have key performers who do most of the work and end up carrying everyone else, for no reward beyond a serious work ethic missing from their colleagues.  If you are one of those people, you know what I’m saying here.  If you are not one of those people, you might need to look around and see who’s doing your work for you, and give them some appreciation and respect.   

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Social Media tells us business must change, adapt, and grow, in their relations with employees just as in their business plans and goals.  Many people believe that employers have responsibilities to employees beyond simply paying them the agreed wage and benefits for doing their jobs.  I generally agree that there is a moral component to the employer-employee relationship, but not to the same degree and portion on each side.  A not-unreasonable analogy might be to a nominal family.

In the nominal family, one or both parents take pretty much all responsibility but also hold all authority, while children are allowed privileges and assigned duties according to their age and ability.  A lot of employees won't like it, but employees should not begin their careers at a company with a great deal of power or privilege; it must be earned, even when their role is significant to the company.  This does not mean that seniority makes an employee higher in authority or power, but it does mean that you have to prove yourself, before you should be trusted with power to change the company's direction and priorities.   A lot of new hires seem to believe they need to act boldly and to take charge; in many cases this is not unlike the new teen driver who imagines he will drive just as safely as his much-more-experienced father, leading in many cases to a sharp rise in accidents and traffic citations.  Business strategy should be decided by executives and owners, and employees should focus on carrying out that strategy to the best of their ability.

It's sad to see how many younger employees reject the authority of their superiors.  This only leads to confusion and disruption of the company's mission and message.  I'd suggest that it's better, for the company and for employees, for each of us to focus on our role earned and assigned by the owners and senior management.       

Friday, June 06, 2014

So Who Cleans The Sewers?

I like reading articles on LinkedIn's 'Pulse', but sometimes I wonder whether the authors have really thought through their message. For example, a lot of authors tell people some version of 'do what you love'. Cynical folks, like myself, remind them that a lot of what we like to do does not pay well, if at all. Or to paraphrase my dad's advice, 'they pay you to work because you would not do it for free'. I understand the message, of course. It's great when someone can get paid a good salary to do something they really enjoy or feel is important. But there are a lot of things that need to be done, that are never going to be on anyone's wish list. And yet, those jobs have to be done.
One summer while I was going to college, I worked at Safeway as a 'Courtesy Clerk'. These are employees who carry groceries to your car, stock shelves, clean up messes, and generally go where they are needed to keep things going. The courtesy clerks also had to clean out the dumpster and truck pit behind the store. Safeway, like other grocery store chains, gets product delivered by 18-wheelers which back up to the loading dock. There's a small gap of a few inches from the back of the truck to the back of the loading dock, and usually a ramp between the truck and dock to carry stuff into the warehouse section. Things do get dropped or spilled, however, and they fall into the pit where the inclined ramp ends at the dock. After a while, time and heat cause the stuff to rot, and someone has to go pick it up and throw it away. The smell and feel of rotting vegetables, eggs, milk, and 'no idea what it is' is something nobody wants to encounter, but it's part of the job. Put on a rubber apron and some gloves to go to work. I hated cleaning out the truck pit but never complained; it was just part of the job.
A couple summers before that, I worked in a pet store. Sounds cool, right? Well, as the new guy my job was to clean up all the puppy and kitty poop. I also had to clean the snakes, something I never even thought about when I applied for the job. Again, not the cool experience but it was part of the job.
After college, I became a manager at a cinema. There are nice things about that kind of job, but there was an obscene amount of paperwork, I worked hundred-hour weeks in the summer, and customers sometimes became violently angry over some of the strangest things (I started looking for Rod Serling when a customer threatened to go get his gun if his popcorn wasn't fresh enough the next time he came to the show). But again, all of this was part of the job, and if it wasn't as if I could just ignore the parts that weren't fun.
In my experience, most jobs are like that. They have things that make them worth doing, but there's almost always some parts that are things you just endure or get done. There are also jobs which have essentially nothing to make them enjoyable, but they still have to be done. Someone has to make sure things keep working, stay clean, are safe, and are inspected. No matter how technology advances, no matter what is exalted as Job Satisfaction, as long as there are humans there will be unpleasant tasks and jobs to do, and we owe it to the next generations to be honest that honest work includes the parts we don't do for fun or glory. Some of the most important work you will do won't ever get even a single bullet point on your CV or resume, and some of the work that makes you a person of integrity will be low-paying, difficult and unpleasant. It's also important to respect those whose titles are humble, whose work attire is purely functional, and whose successes are usually ignored by everyone else.
If no one cleaned the sewers, everything else would fail.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Moral Wage

I try to be a reasonable person.   So when I read all these articles and hear about protests demanding a 'Living Wage', I really do try to be open to their argument.  The problem, of course, is that ever argument I have seen up to now tries to argue two ridiculous contentions; that the minimum wage needs to go up to a certain amount, and two, that people should be paid according to what they want and expect to receive, rather than what their work is worth.  So when considering wages, the question is how to determine a fair value for the work done.

The first point has to be that money must be created to exist.  Work therefore has to produce value for it to be worth paying.  That's the blunder in the concept of minimum wage laws and 'living wage' or 'fair pay' arguments.  The counter to that, in my mind at least, would be that if my employer hires me to show up and do 'x', they must pay me for that work regardless of it's actual value in the market.  This brings me to the subject of contracts.

Contracts, my second point, are an agreement between two or more parties.  If you want money from someone, to get it legally and morally you have to reach an agreement with him or her.   In employment terms that means you negotiate your pay and work duties.  You do what you promised and the employer pays what they promised.   If you don't like what they offer, go find someone willing to pay what you think is reasonable.  If you can't find someone willing to pay what you think is reasonable, then you need to go back and reconsider your definition of 'reasonable'.  

I'm not being snide there.  People don't agree on all details, but there is a general sense of reasonable value.  The problem for us working folks, is that we have a much better idea of how hard we work than how much our work creates in real value. My work, for example, does not appear to create revenue, which seems to make it not very valuable.  What I do, however, prevents loss that would otherwise happen, and I can figure out how much I am saving my company by simply looking at how the previous manager did and how much the average company loses to fraud, default, bankruptcy, and general delinquency.  I also use sites like to see what the market pays people in the same or similar roles.  I will be blunt here - there are some jobs that have a lot less work than mine but pay better, but there are also jobs that have more work and pay less.  The working conditions are also important to deciding where you work, and for what pay.  All in all, I have enough information to make an informed decision on not only what I consider reasonable, but also what options I have should I wish to change my position. 

By now, it should be obvious that you have to do your homework to know what you can expect to get paid.  I have to warn you, there is no shortage of potential employers who will pay you as little as possible, so you not only have to know what you believe you should get paid for a job, you need to know what skills and experience drive a good wage.

The title of this article, though, is 'The Moral Wage', not 'How to Get a Good Wage'.  There are two reasons why I gave it that title.  First off, if you want to make good money you better be worth it, which means you have to know what is needed for your company to succeed and for you to impress in meaningful ways.  Second, you should be able to see how your boss and employer chooses to set your wage.  In matters of pay, morality and competence have more than a passing acquaintance.  So if your employer is paying you less than scale, or if you examine the market and conclude you can make significantly more than your present wage, you have a choice to make - if you stay where you are, you are accepting the wage you have as reasonable.  If you ask for a raise, you should explain to your employer what you think is reasonable, and why you should be paid the higher rate.  If that fails, you should then explore your options and opportunity.  Note, please, that the moral responsibility is yours, not the employer.  


Friday, April 25, 2014

The Wicked Witch of the Mall

I like to read articles at LinkedIn, but sometimes the message sent by the writers may not be what they, or the site, believe they are imparting to the members.  LinkedIn, as you may know, is a web site based on business networking and communication, and to that end the site has what they call ‘Influencers’ – people with one thousand or more ‘followers’ but for all practical purposes these are celebrities, senior executives, and generally people with a rather large amount of money and power and – sadly – egos to match.  I understand that the site would become unwieldy if just anyone could post articles, but the selection of ‘Influencers’ is sometimes unwise, and many of the rich and powerful display arrogance and a callous ignorance of how most regular people live and work to such a degree, that their articles betray an abominably poor ethical knowledge.  A sad example of this type would be Kat Cole, who runs the Cinnabon franchise business, and who – in my opinion – grossly over-estimates both her business acumen and her people skills.  LinkedIn has run a number of ‘Insider’ articles which depict Ms. Cole in an ideal light; one released Friday was written by Ms. Cole herself, and is essentially free advertising:

In that article, Ms. Cole describes herself as “a restaurant and franchise executive ... running Cinnabon”.  Let’s start there.  Executives are hired by a board of directors to run and grow a business.  Cinnabon’s web site notes that Ms. Cole was hired as Chief Operations Officer in 2010, following fifteen years working in the ‘Hooters’ restaurant chain, where she started as a waitress.  Ms. Cole has an MBA from Georgia State University.  She became Cinnabon’s President in 2011.

Now, I have great respect for anyone who can move up through the ranks, but Ms. Cole’s story is a bit thin.   Franchises are run primarily by the managers at each location, and the corporate office licenses the franchises and makes sure they comply with corporate policy, especially regarding branding, marketing, and using approved supplies and product. 

The President of Cinnabon, then, turns out to be just one of fifteen members of senior management at Focus Brands

It turns out that Cole’s job at Cinnabon was the same in 2011 and in 2010; she simply got a new title.   It may sound cynical, but the available information of her time at Hooters suggests that Ms. Cole rose through the ranks the same way, by having roles created for her. observes that Cole went from waitress to executive VP at Hooters by the time she was 26 years old … without a degree or any relevant management or business experience.  The site also notes that Cinnabon is owned by Focus Brands, an umbrella corporation that does most of the real operations planning and execution.

Again, nothing wrong with a success story, but we’re not talking here about someone who handled the standard tasks of management, like creating and working under a budget, or meeting performance quotas for revenue growth; we’re talking about someone who knew how to network and schmooze to get promotions.  I don’t mind that so much as I object to Ms. Cole selling herself as an expert in employee development and business management, as she did in an interview with Daniel Roth (also posted at LinkedIn):

Cole takes credit for everything she can, from Cinnabon’s location to promotional partnerships (both are essentially lies – franchises are largely dependant on the franchise buyer and the parent company drives most of the promotional tie-ins, not Cole).
Here’s how Cole describes her resume:
There's nothing about that on paper that makes me a very attractive business candidate. But I knew from my real world experience that if you gave me a team or gave me a company I am a sure bet to serve them and build a business.”
Confidence is fine.  But there’s nothing in her actual experience to back up that claim.
 Cole goes on
That background has colored how she hires and fires. Ivy Leaguers aren't chased, skills are secondary concerns. "You hire for attitude and culture fit, because you can always train skill," she says.
That bothered me.  It sounds clever, but just who decides what ‘attitude’ or ‘culture’ you use for your standard?  It’s extremely easy for that to be cover for ‘my way or the highway’, as many bosses in the past have decreed. 
I was even more concerned with Cole’s next statement:
 "High performers hate working with mediocre performers," she says. "Not just low performers. Mediocre performers. So you're devaluating your best team players by not addressing people who aren't really cutting it for the brand."
Pay very close attention to that statement, because therein lies a heart of selfish cruelty.  First she believes she speaks for all the ‘high performers’ at her company, and uses that arrogance to announce that anyone but those ‘high performers’ need ‘addressing’, and she clearly implies that firing anyone who isn’t ‘cutting it’ is the best solution.  Not a hint about confirming the cause of performance concerns.  Not a word about working with employees to improve performance, to make standards and expectations clear.  A boss whose first and only thought is to kick out employees who don’t fit her idea of ‘attitude’ or ‘culture’, is a poisonous employer, I think. 

Forgive me for not applauding Ms. Cole.