Category Archives: Business

Knowing Is Half The Battle

Trolling across the pages of BusinessWeek, I came across an interesting article about the surprisingly high turnover many nonprofits encounter and the “leaky bucket of volunteerism.”

“Earlier this year, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published a piece that noted how poorly most nonprofits manage their volunteers. As a result, more than a third of the 60 million-plus Americans who donate their time and talents one year don’t do so the next—not only at the organization where they’d signed up, but at any nonprofit at all. Some call this “the leaky bucket of volunteerism.”

There are a host of reasons for this pullback, according to the analysis, including nonprofits inadequately recognizing the contributions of their volunteers and a lack of training among volunteers and their managers.

But Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development at the Corporation for National and Community Service and one of the authors of the article, believes there’s a more fundamental issue to grapple with: It isn’t so much that volunteers have nightmarish experiences at nonprofits, he says; it’s that they have “bland” ones.”

This certainly sounded familiar to me and I’m sure it sounds familiar to many of those in for-profit organizations as well. Who hasn’t experienced being “inadequately recognized for their contributions” and noticed a “lack of training among workers and their managers?”

Gone are the days where most companies hired the best and brightest kids out of school and groomed them through training and mentoring for corporate positions. Gone are the days of lifetime employment. Gone are the days where organizations treated human capital as human. More often than not, modern workers are being treated as interchangeable cogs in a machine rather than creative, innovative thinkers with potential who are essential to the growth and prosperity of a business.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on how small companies are luring big-company talent neatly underscored this mindset:

“In March, Jack Rabbit Collection LLC, a three-person handbag and leather-accessories maker in Los Angeles, was able to snag a large rival’s design-development executive after that person was laid off.

Founder Mollie Culligan says the new hire, who has connections to tanneries and vendors, has helped the label reduce per-unit costs 20%.

Plus, Ms. Culligan doesn’t have to spend as much time mentoring and can instead concentrate on her design work.

“Before, I had to train people myself and really dump so much energy into inexperienced people who didn’t really add value,” she says.”

Why is training and mentoring seen as so much of a burden for employers?

I see scores of job ads searching for that elusive person with the exact, unique set of skills who can “hit the ground running” with little to no guidance. What person will honestly be able to have 100% of the skills and knowledge to function with no on-boarding whatsoever? I’ve watched first hand how management has hired talented people with a great background from outside the industry who end up floundering and eventually leaving because they simply do not understand the specific business model of this company and therefore could not be successful at their work. No one bothered to explain it to them when they started and even if the new hire was motivated enough to ask someone, chances are that person didn’t know either.

It is ridiculous for companies to invest nothing in their employees up front (in terms of knowledge and guidance, not salary and benefits) but expect a maximum return. Viewing workers as dynamic individuals with unique skills, motivators and potential rather than a vessel for tangible skills is the key to better worker engagement and sustained company growth.   

The moral of the story is this:

  • Empowering employees to make decisions and generate ideas helps the business.
  • Employees cannot formulate informed decisions or ideas without a minimum amount of knowledge about the company and its goals.
  • Determining a set level of basic knowledge and disseminating that your employees on the first day, week or month of hire will not only increase the likelihood of their job satisfaction (because they feel empowered and informed) but will improve your bottom line due to the creativity and productivity of your team.

As GI Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Wanted: Smart Students With No Experience

In light of a record number of layoffs at U.S. companies in just the past few months, you’d think that businesses who still had money to hire new recruits would be overjoyed with an abundance over-qualified, experienced candidates, desperate enough to work entry-level jobs for entry-level wages.

Not so at one popular online real-estate firm.

They’ve decided to take an alternate approach, foregoing the usual “experience=quality” theory in favor of a “quality” educational background. Here are some of their required qualifications (taken directly from their website):

Strong academic record: we are looking for people who excelled at a top-25 university.

Liberal arts degree: we want someone who not only writes clearly and precisely, but has some intellectual interests, and panache too.

Entrepreneurial energy, creativity: in your interview, we’ll ask you for three or four ideas on how our website could be better. Come prepared!”

Top-25 Student

As a graduate of a top-ranked state university (Go Huskies!), I take offense to the implication that a strong academic record can only be achieved from a so-called “top 25 university.” What exactly is a top-25 university anyway? A google search turned up nothing conclusive. Does this mean ivy-league? Does this mean US News & World Report ranked? Does this mean nationally-ranked? Regionally-ranked?

Does an ivy-league education always equate to quality academic achievement? Not in my experience. Sometimes smart people can’t afford to go to the best schools and have to (gasp!) attend a local university. But they do well in their classes, learn a lot and go on to be successful. And sometimes people go to ivy-league universities and whittle the time away drinking and majoring in a subject whose department only scheduled classes after 10am.

I suppose that academic achievement is one of the few measurements an employer can use to gauge an employee’s potential when interviewing, but in this economy, why would you take a chance on an unproven work history (note that internships are not even mentioned, just the quality of educational institution) when you have so many other experienced candidates out there?

Liberal Snobs

I’ve written before about how liberal arts degrees can be valuable in the workplace. But as a liberal arts degree holder myself, I don’t think liberal arts majors hold the monopoly on “intellectual interests.” Is this company implying that a business major is incapable of writing well and being intellectually stimulating? My boyfriend majored in business and he’s one of the most tuned-in, well-read, intellectually curious people I know.

And if liberal arts majors as a whole are more “interesting,” is there a hierarchy within academia that elevates certain subjects as more intellectual? Does the intelligence quotient go up the more obscure your area of study? Medieval history majors above political science majors above run-of-the-mill English majors?

Also, I find it funny that the job ad equates writing “clearly and precisely” with liberal arts majors. Don’t they realize that your grade on an essay is mostly based on length and depth and not necessarily on clarity or brevity?

Entrepreneurial Desk Job

What strikes me as so funny about this particular requirement is that Generation-Y is often labeled the “entrepreneur generation,” with many successful people under 25 starting their own multi-million dollar business. If I were a successful liberal arts graduate from a top-25 university and was entrepreneurially-minded, why would I come work for your company? Why wouldn’t I just start my own?

No truly intellectually-minded student would want to work in an industry that is rapidly shrinking, is suffering from negative PR because it just played a huge part in the worst economic crisis in close to a century, and for a company that just laid off 20% of its workforce.

I also find it ironic that this online real-estate company asks the candidate to come prepared with ideas on how to improve the site experience. What recent graduate just out of school has the money or wherewithal to buy real-estate? They might be able to suggest the latest and greatest social media technology. The truly tech-savvy ones might be able to give suggestions on how to improve the design for better usability. But I highly doubt that any fresh-faced 22-year old would have the occasion to use the site as a consumer, and isn’t the key to a successful service business providing the most useful service to customers?
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Does Business Have a Conscience?

Back in July, I wrote about the ongoing controversy surrounding pharmacists’ right to refuse to dispense emergency contraception, such as Plan-B, because they felt it violated their religious beliefs. As I stated then, for me

“the real heart of this issue is can an employee refuse to carry out specific aspects of their job that they do not like?…While I don’t think anyone on either side of this issue is advocating that people perform their jobs like robots with no room for compassion or common sense, we have to weigh the public responsibility of the pharmacy position (to dispense medications as requested) against individual freedom (to exercise free will).”

I feel that this is a “slippery slope” argument. Who gets to decide what is acceptable and what is not? As I explained to one commentor, who felt that my hypothetical example of a mailman refusing to deliver pornography on the grounds that s/he morally opposes it was not on par with pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions they believe will cause an abortion:

“Both situations (pharmacists refusing to dispense plan-B and postal carriers delivering magazines) involve one person (an employee) refusing to carry out a responsibility that directly impacts another person’s individual freedom over their own body (to prevent pregnancy or to masturbate).

Are you suggesting that moral objections are only legitimate in certain situations? That the rights of someone who finds pornography sinful should be less protected than someone who believes abortion is sinful? Who gets to decide what situations we can object to (the very question the WA State court is trying to decide right now)? What if the postal carrier believes viewing pornography is just as objectionable as abortion? Would that make it ok for them to not deliver pornography if that were part of their job?”

A surprising number of comments wholeheartedly felt it was acceptable to refuse the parts of their jobs that they disliked (much to my surprise). And recent developments have shown that the Bush Administration feels the same. The New York Times reports

“The Bush administration, as expected, announced new protections on Thursday for health care providers who oppose abortion and other medical procedures on religious or moral grounds.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on his department’s Web site….

The measures announced on Thursday, sometimes described collectively as the “conscience rule,” were issued just in time to take effect before the start of the new administration.”

I still need to read the rule in its entirety, but I’m disturbed by this statement in the Times piece:

“The rule prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and health care aides who refuse to take part in procedures because of their convictions, and it bars hospitals, clinics, doctors’ office and pharmacies from forcing their employees to assist in programs and activities financed by the department.”

What exactly constitutes a “forced assist?” Could I sue my employer for making me come in on a Sunday when I don’t feel like it? Where does it end?
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Get Ahead At Work: Be Selfish

As performance reviews loom on the horizon, it’s a great time for all of us to step back and ask ourselves:

How can I be a better employee?

A lot of the career advice out there will tell you how to communicate more effectively with co-workers, make your boss look good or provide unexpected value for the company. The experts tell you to focus on finding ways you can help others in order to help yourself. This will probably help you climb up the ladder a bit, gain some favor with folks at the office. Your boss will look good, your co-workers will look good and the company’s bottom line will look good. But what about you?

I suggest a more radical approach to career betterment. I propose we stop focusing so much on what we can do for others and more on what we can do for ourselves.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

Two blogs, Career Realism and The Writer’s Coin, have helped me reach this conclusion. The first post I read was from Career Realism, introducing me to the “10,000-Hour Rule.”

“Simply put, the 10,000 Hour Rule says no one gets to the top of their field unless they log at least 10,000 hours of practice. That’s right – 10,000 hours!”

Now 10,000 hours is a lot of hours to log. As one commentor on Career Realism pointed out, that’s roughly 5 to 6 years worth of work. As the blogger explains, that puts recent grads at a great disadvantage,

“One of the biggest complaints I hear from managers these days is the lack of ‘professionalism’ they see from recent college grads. The 10,000 Hour Rule explains why: most college grads today have not been required to work through high school and college in professional settings. Moreover, managers, parents, and even students themselves today are under the mistaken impression that college teaches this sort of thing. Over here at Careerealism.com we say, ‘College teaches you everything EXCEPT how to get the job.’”

Ever had a superstar co-worker who was great at their job until they were promoted? It’s a common story. A salesman may be fantastic at landing deals but completely unprepared to deal with budgets, fighting co-workers or incorrect timesheets. But what makes these workers successful at one role but not another? Experience–something that can only be acquired by doing it yourself.

But how do you gain professional skills if not on the job?

The Writer’s Coin, as the last part of a six part series on being a better worker, recommends doing something outside of work everyday. The blogger says,

“This one has less to do with work and what you do while you’re there than it does with having a nice balance in your life. In other words, it might just make you feel better when you’re at work if you’ve done something beforehand (or afterwards, if that’s your style—I just can’t get much together after work)….

The point of getting up early and doing something else is to make you feel like you’re life doesn’t just revolve around working. It also gives you time to get side projects off the ground, catch up on e-mail, read, etc….

I know, I know, getting up early is a nightmare for most people. You will get used to it. Trust me, I feel weird staying in bed past 5:30am now because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

Ultimately, having something else outside of work, whatever it may be, is likely to make you a happier person and a better employee.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

The complimentary nature of these two posts gives us a prescription to becoming a more successful employee: make effective use of your time outside of work to do things you enjoy, which will in turn help make you more effective at work.

For example, if you are trying to get promoted into a management position but have no direct supervisory experience, you could continue to do a great job in sales and hope that the higher ups are willing to reward you for that work with an untested promotion. Or you could help yourself by volunteering to manage a group of phone operators during a pledge drive for a local charity.

One of the best managers I ever worked for spent his Spring afternoons coaching a high school softball team. He was accomplished at the technical aspects of his job, but I really think his willingness and ability to mentor the younger workers on his team is what made him such a great manager. His mentoring skills were gained in large part from his experience helping young athletes perform on the field.

By focusing on developing yourself, rather than on what you can do for your co-workers/boss/bottom line, you will accelerate promotions as well as enable yourself to succeed once you get to your next professional challenge.

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Idiocracy: The Death of Intelligent Advertising

View my guest post, Idiocracy: The Death of Intelligent Advertising, over at Business Pundit. Here’s an excerpt:

Noam Chomsky, famous MIT professor, claimed during a speech in Santa Fe, New Mexico back in January 2005 that

“the main purpose of advertising is to undermine markets. If you go to graduate school and you take a course in economics, you learn that markets are systems in which informed consumers make rational choices. That’s what’s so wonderful about it.”

In a perfect world, advertising would be utilized by consumers to make intelligent, rational choices about which products to by or services to use. But in an effort to stand out from the competition, many advertisers are now turning to so-called “shockvertising” and it online companion, the “viral” video. Characterized by surreal fantasy, these ads can encompass anything from a man in a chicken suit dancing around his living room (aka Burger King’s Subservient Chicken) to the “No Stank You” public services ads warning kids about the dangers of smoking by showing them dancing on giant, smoke-stained, rotten teeth that are floating in space.

Huh? Are consumers so impressionable that they can be influenced to by a burger based on a man in a chicken suit rather than a picture of the actual burger they intend to purchase?

Whatever happened to talking about the product you are selling? When did advertisers stop trying to appeal to us on an intelligent level?

This post appeared as the last in a series. Check out the other posts in the blogathon here.
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On The Wrong Side of the Conference Table

Pessimism over OptimismIf a terrible catastrophe were ever to befall the earth, I believe that the world would be separated into two groups: the optimists, who think we will prevail in the face of adversity, and the pessimists, who start running for the hills because we are all doomed. I would fit squarely in the pessimists group with a backpack full of bottled water and running shoes on.

A Life Half Full

Negativity has always weighed predominantly on my personality, beliefs and actions (although I really prefer to see myself as a realist). I’m practical. I’m a downer. I always plan for the worst-case scenario. I carry napkins in my purse in case of spills. I keep energy bars in my glove compartment in case I get stuck in a snowstorm. I like to be prepared.

Having spent most of my life being told to look on the Brightside (I bring my sunglasses), it was no wonder that I took great offense to advice offered in a Wall Street Journal career column advising a Negative Nelly to “suck it up” and learn to play the game.

Here’s the situation:

My husband is a 41-year-old finance manager who was told by his new boss that he needed to stop making negative comments. Specifically, he was told not to say that the company has tried something but that it didn’t work before. He was told if he didn’t stop making these comments, he would be put on a performance action plan. Since then he has worked hard at being positive and was told by his boss that he was doing a good job. But recently, his boss got a call from human resources about my husband’s behavior in a meeting — he was perceived as being negative because he recommended that the group look at X before they do Y. He was told he would be fired the next time he said something inappropriate…Can he repair the situation?

Unsticking From Negativity

Having read through this a few times in an attempt to leave any “negative” bias behind me, I still fail to see how the man in question was anything other than realistic and offering meaningful advice that would probably keep the company from pursuing failed projects. However, the advice columnist saw things differently.

“If you’re used to a certain factual, structured world, and the boss is asking you to use the common cliché and think outside the box, if you don’t do it, you’re going to fail,” Dr. Tobais says. “Try to open yourself up.” But, he says, it won’t be easy. “Negativity is a thinking style we tend to get stuck in.”

In addition to meeting the boss’ expectations, not shutting yourself off from others’ bright ideas will make your co-workers more amenable to considering your suggestions. Giving them positive feedback and contributing something besides verbal roadblocks at meetings will make them return the favor and listen to you too — instead of daydreaming about what they’re going to pick up for lunch.

Negativity is “a thinking style” we get stuck in?! And blissful ignorance isn’t? I get that a lot of the tension in this situation stems from a clash in personalities and group mentality. Apparently this man’s co-workers are generally an optimistic bunch and this Eeyore isn’t meshing with their collective think. I agree that in order to help his relationships at work he may need to work on fitting in better with his team, whether that be cutting down on his “negative” comments or increasing his praise. However, I don’t understand why the realistic or “negative” folks are always ostracized.

Pessimism Can Be A Good Thing

Having worked for a boss who took on any project floated without question and encouraged me to do the same, I can attest that it is just as bad to be a negative person working in a sea full of optimists as it is for a room of optimists to have to deal with one negative person. Sometimes I feel like I am crazy because I see all of these problems that no one else seems to care about, much like the Greek myth of Cassandra who was blessed with the gift of knowing the future but cursed with the inability to be believed by others when she told them what she saw.

The subprime mortgage crisis a great model of how unencumbered opportunism can run afoul when there aren’t enough naysayers to keep everyone from going around the bend. The lending industry saw a great opportunity in financing subprime mortgages. They won, the banks won, shareholders won, homeowners won—at least for a while anyway. But what would have happened if some pessimist predicted the housing bust and stepped in to stop it? Why did no one have the courage to call the industry out? Why are we so hostile toward whistleblowers?

Shouldn’t a successful company employ a balance of creative dreamers and practical executors?

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English: The Hot New Business Degree

When I was a sophomore in college, I, like many others, went through an existential crisis about what to major in. Zoology? Sociology? Psychology? What subject could I stand to study non-stop for the next two years? How did I want to define myself and my interests for the rest of my life? After a taking a few personality tests and performing some deep soul searching, I finally settled on Comparative Literature. My decision was immediately questioned when I informed my family of my intended major.

Family: “Comparative Literature? What is that?”

Me: “It’s kind of like an English degree.”

Family: “English?! What are you going to do with an English degree? Why don’t you major in something useful like accounting or computers?”

I have always possessed a passion for reading and a talent for writing so majoring in English seemed like a natural fit. While my family was disappointed in the short run, I have proven how valuable good reading comprehension and quality writing can be in the job market. As a brand new graduate, I was able to land a full-time job as an editor for an internet company. My friends who choose the more “useful/lucrative” major of business ended up staying in school longer only to have the pleasure of paying for the privilege of a prestigious internship that consisted mostly of stuffing goodie bags for employee parties.

Can English majors be more successful than Business majors? And if so, what skills do they posses that make them more successful?

The key difference between English and professional majors (business, engineering, computer science) seems to be the quality of a graduate’s writing abilities. As reported by Financial Week:

In 2006, 81% of corporate leaders rated the writing of high school graduates as deficient and nearly 28% gave similarly low marks to four-year college graduates, according to survey data compiled by a consortium that included the Conference Board and the Society for Human Resource Management.

As writing skills slide, Americans are squandering an inherent competitive advantage, says Linda Barrington, a co-author of the 2006 report and research director at the Conference Board. “We have the asset of our language being the language of [international] business,” she says. “If we don’t write it well, we are wasting a huge asset that we have in the global economy.”

 

The bulk of my time in college was spent reading books and then writing analytical, persuasive essays about my interpretation of the material. There were no tests, no real “studying” of any kind. Many of my peers in the science disciplines often chided me for being in such an “easy” major since I wasn’t required to memorize facts, conduct lab experiments or solve complex mathematical equations (haven’t taken math since Junior year of high school and I’ve never looked back). While I can see how folks could view the English curriculum as less rigorous, frankly, it’s challenging to think critically about something you’ve read, develop an opinion about it and then fill 10+ pages with coherent thoughts about why you think what you do.

 

Being able to express ideas effectively and concisely is a prized skill in the corporate world.

 

Confusing or unclear writing can be costly in a variety of ways, say Mr. Appleman and other writing coaches. The fallout can include interpersonal misunderstandings, lost work time, jeopardized business deals—or all of the above. “Bad writing wastes time, and time is money,” Mr. Appleman says. “It hurts productivity. And I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”

 

…Sloppy or unclear writing can corrode today’s business interactions, particularly given that in-person meetings and even telephone calls are less common, says J.D. Schramm, director of the CAT (Critical Analytical Thinking) Writing Program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. “Because we are writing so much more, it becomes an extension and a representation of us.”

 

While students with professional-track degrees are always going to be sought after for their specialized knowledge that liberal arts majors just don’t have (I nearly failed Accounting 101), rounding out a professional education, be it business, computing science or engineering, with a few composition courses will make any graduate more valuable to a potential employer.

 

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