Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Need for Critical Thought




We live in an age of social media.  Literally hundreds of millions of people read and share thoughts in a myriad ocean of online communities.  To a degree, that's great; information is a resource which can be multiplied and built into greater concepts, but there is a problem - too many people take statements at face value and trust outright lies.  This dilutes the information's value and effectiveness, and can cause conversations to collapse into useless bickering.  What's missing, I submit, is the ability for readers to critically evaluate claims and statements, to remove the dross and make sure they accept only valid assertions.

Critical thinking is not simple pessimism, or a cynical attitude.  You need to be able to know that your information is reliable and trustworthy.  You need to know that your conclusions are more than assumptions which sound good to you.  After all, your own reputation wil rise or fall on the value of information you pass along as your own claims.

When you read something online, consider whether it is an assumption by the author, compare it to your own knowledge and experience, and test it with logic.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen Years Later




The dead are mourned still by many, but forgotten by many more.  We have all read or heard or seen stories this week about the 9/11 attacks, but in the context of a news story, a passing spectacle.   Some people still try to work up anger and rage for some political enemy or some cultural villain, but in the end the hardest, coldest truth is the pain and loss from that day.

There is evil in the world, and everywhere.  It attacked us before, and it will attack us again.  The survivors will mourn the dead, do what is necessary to repel the attack, they will heal and they will rebuild.

This is not a day of politics, nor to demand revenge.  This is a day where we count our loss and remember those gone from us, and we commit to love and cherish our families and communities for better and for good.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Authority


We live in a world of noise.   I don’t just mean the machinery and traffic we endure every day, but the incessant demand for our attention from pretty much everyone.  Our family needs our attention, our work demands it, advertisers try every trick to grab it, and even when we want to relax, once again from commercials to features, someone’s right there grabbing at our attention.

OK, fine.  To a degree we learn how to cope with a noisy world.  But there is also a point beyond which someone ceases to offer value, and becomes just an annoyance.   One of these is what I call the fake expert.  I like to read ‘The Pulse” on LinkedIn, and the site loads up that section with articles from what they call ‘Influencers’ - celebrities, business leaders, and some folks with no obvious reason to be highlighted. Full disclosure – I have never been invited to post as an ‘Influencer’, and my lack of political correctness means I should never expect such an honor, which may play a small part in my opinion of LI’s ‘Influencers’, but my real complaint is the trend of articles on subjects where the author can claim no expertise.    

A sad example would from Frank Wu, the Chancellor & Dean of AC Hastings College of the Law, who wrote a little ditty he called “Your Boss Is No Better Than You” 


My first problem starts with the subject. When I read the article, Mister Wu was plainly addressing the business environment, and the matter of competency among different ranks.  The problem is Mister Wu’s credentials to speak as an expert.  His profile is pure academia:  Law Clerk after college, associate of a law firm, then teaching at law school, then writing, law work, and teaching law up to today.  What’s missing?  Unless you are na├»ve enough to imagine that a law firm can reasonably be compared to a corporation, start-up, retail or other genuine business that actually sells to the public, Mister Wu has less experience in business roles than a middle school student.   I have no complaint if Mister Wu wants to discuss some case in the news, or discuss liability for a business.  Unfortunately, however, Mister Wu posted his article on his opinion of business roles and ranks, on absolutely nothing more than what he has read in magazines and online.  To make matters worse, Mister Wu never even mentions the authors or studies he found so compelling.

Why should that be rebuked?  Three reasons, I think.  First, Mister Wu’s article took the place of a different article, and if a real manager or executive or long-time employee had written their account, the article would have been far more authentic.  Second, there are so many articles cluttering the web about business that it makes no sense to post where you have no applicable knowledge.  I do not, after all, post articles in law reviews about my opinion of the latest SCOTUS ruling, so there is no reason why some law professor bored with his profession should troll into a place where his opinion has no more weight than that of his readers.  If he wants to blog it on his own blog, fine, but a business site should seek out business people, not lawyers, on the subject of work roles.

And third – time wasted on Wu’s opinion devalues the site.  I am just a little less interested in LinkedIn’s “Pulse” articles, having learned that authors may troll in print for no better purpose than the editors at LinkedIn forgot their own core competency.

There is more, of course. Some of Mister Wu’s claims are not merely not completely true, but also can be dangerously false.   For example, in his first paragraph, Mister Wu wrote the following: 
any good supervisor should realize her direct reports are by and large more capable in their jobs than she herself could be if she replaced them.

So what’s wrong with that statement?  The problem is that a supervisor exists to direct and guide his or her employees, not to do their work.  A coach of a football team is not the coach because he throws the ball better than the Quarterback or tackles better than their starting Linebacker, but because he is the best coach.   Mister Wu’s inability to understand this distinction undercuts everything he says in the article.   

A good manager has to have specific skills, and that's where Mister Wu makes his second mistake - he assumes that degrees are irrelevant, and that is usually just not true. Someone can get a degree and never learn the skills they need, sure, but that's not usually case; the majority of people who earn management degrees do so to gain depth and learn how to be effective in leading their team. Mister Wu is correct to the point that managers must respect the work of their people, but he is completely wrong to insult and disrespect the talent and experience of managers and bosses. He does not begin to understand what a good manager does, or why it matters to the team.

Mister Wu doubles down on that ignorance, saying “An executive who is in charge of a project is not necessarily capable of fulfilling the specialized responsibilities of the people whom she oversees” .   There are several reasons why this is so wrong.  First, as I noted, a manager is not made a manager to do the same work as his employees.  A manager has his job to accomplish three missions:

  • A manager is given specific projects and assignments by the executives/directors.  He is paid to make sure these assignments are completed and well done; 
  • A manager exists to protect the company’s stability, financial health and prospects for growth, and
  • A manager exists to take care of his team, to direct them, provide resources and discipline or reward according to the worth of their work.
These are all important, and to the point, very distinct from the job description for regular staff.  Never forget that managers are paid more because they are responsible for results in a way that regular employees never have to worry about. 

Mister Wu is not done insulting professionals in roles he does not understand, saying “people who are quick studies suppose that a cursory review of a subject enables them to substitute their spontaneous judgment for reasoned recommendations made by others”.   Note that Mister Wu assumes that people with advanced degrees and professional certifications only make ‘a cursory review of a subject’.  He does not stop to consider that his logic suggests his own credentials would disqualify him to teach his own classes.   After all, by his argument Mister Wu does not really know the law better than his clerks, assistants, or students – an advanced degree equals a ‘cursory review’.   Mister Wu clearly does not examine his own claims in anything like an objective manner.

Mister Wu has a law degree, and a lot of experience in academia. He does not have a single day of work in any real business enterprise.  Mister Wu has never worked retail, manufacturing, or in any environment where he can speak with experience about how corporations evaluate and promote talent.  He has never had to work with a business plan, had to evaluate a staff for bonuses and promotions, never evaluated an employee to determine if they need additional training or resources.  Mister Wu, in other words, has absolutely no credentials to speak on any business operations topic.

None.

The damage done by Mister Wu may not be apparent, but his arrogance and contempt for the value of managers and bosses undermines the effectiveness of companies and teams.  Managers can be good or bad, more the former than the latter, and assuming that because someone is the boss that they are actually less competent than their staff is both undeserved and malicious in character.

Every business that runs with a focus on customer service depends on good managers.  Every business that builds on a solid business plan depends on good managers.  Every business that plans to be around a decade from now will depend on good managers.  In my three decades as a manager, I have worked for rotten bosses and great bosses and learned from all of them.  I learned how to evaluate performance, how to determine necessary training for employees, how to choose candidates for promotion, how to protect good employees from layoffs and from being passed over for promotion, how to discipline employees and to create genuine improvement processes.  I am far from the only boss to learn all these things, but a good boss must be respected in order to be able to do his job, and that means employees cannot trash bosses with false claims and insults, just because they do not understand their boss’ duties and responsibilities.  Business structures change over time, and all kinds of ideas get tossed around to create innovation and growth.  The boss, however, is a necessary role in any business and it is vital to understand the role, not attack the boss out of ignorance. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Obstacle or Resource? Think About Your Situation



Back when I was a young man, I found myself unable to get a job.  A friend of mine was the City Manager for Plitt Theaters in Waco, so I asked him for a favor and got hired as a doorman at the cinema.  Over time, I was promoted to Assistant Manager at a 2-screen cinema, then Assistant Manager at the City office (under a new City Manager), then Manager of a 2-screen cinema, then Manager of a 6-screen cinema, then opening manager of a new flagship cinema near the Galleria in Houston.   Along the way, I learned from my superiors and colleagues, and over time I saw their fallibility as well as their skills.  When I worked in Houston, which was the Gulf Coast Regional Office for Cineplex-Odeon (which bought out Plitt Theaters in 1986), I happened to work under a particularly cruel and vicious Vice-President of Operations, a man who seemed to take great pleasure in causing stress and trouble for managers in town.  Nothing we did was ever good enough, and if we made even a minor mistake (or if one of our staff made a mistake), we were punished severely for the offense.  For example, in 1990 I won an award as the Outstanding Manager in the Gulf Coast region.  At the ceremony, this VP took me aside and bluntly told me I did not deserve the award – he simply had to give it to someone and I had “screwed up the least”.  I beat profit and attendance expectations four years straight at the Spectrum Cinema, but received no praise for it.  I trained employees well enough that the same VP who regularly yelled at me for minor and sometimes imaginary mistakes found my staff competent enough to make managers of three other theaters.  I could have topped that, except that this VP was so boorish and vile that he fired or chased off at least a dozen great managers who had worked for me – one the VP drove off because he was gay, another was bullied because she wore a pantsuit on a weekend instead of a dress, still another was told he would be fired unless he wore a silk tie with his suit.  Charming fellow, that executive.

And yet, years later in a different industry, I was able to apply lessons learned from this executive to help me in my own career.  I did not, of course, copy his behavior but looked for his opposite.  Where this executive would steal credit for work done by others, I made sure my bosses heard when one of my people had a great idea or did something great.  The funny thing is, that didn’t hurt me a bit.  Where the VP would yell and scream at managers in front of staff and customers, I made sure praise was always out in the open, while criticism – if needed – was delivered in private and always with the idea of finding solutions to problems, not attacking the person.  I worked hard to respect my colleagues and to see their point of view, and in so doing established myself as a team player and a good fit in any project.  From my return to school, where I used these skills in team-building, to working with customers and colleagues, I found constructive lessons even from painful experiences.

You never know how you may make use of something, even if it seems bad at first.  If someone drops a ton of bricks on you, maybe you can build a house.


Good luck.     

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, Glassdoor.com and Indeed.com 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.