Archive | March 2013

Is Honesty Necessary For Business Success?

Simple question, but not the answer.

What’s business success?  Loads of short-term profit?  Long-term survival?  Stability?  Innovation?  Constant growth?

In addition, the answer to the above question depends on the type of industry, the size of the organization, and the nature of the business operation.  Logically and naturally, we prefer dealing with honest people in business transactions.  Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, corporations aren’t people.  Otherwise, they couldn’t have continued to lie, cheat, and steal…whenever they can, and get away with it most of the time.

What prompted the above question came from some innocuous email exchanges between a B&B (bed and breakfast) host and me.  The incident provided yet another good illustration of how a true free market works best in a closed community.  In one of my previous posts, I used the example of a diamond market in Brooklyn.  This is a fairly closed system where buyers and wholesalers, often making millions in transactions, are all acquainted and connected.  Anyone harboring malfeasance would not last long in the business; warnings would spread like wildfires.  That’s as close to “perfect” information as one can get, a crucial condition for a free market to work efficiently.

In my own personal experience, this B&B host informed me that the road is closed from their property to the Grand Canyon North Rim.  Since there are not that many roads in that part of the country, one would have to drive north into Utah, head west and wind down south to the North Rim.  A little detour isn’t always going to deter us, but given the typical working American’s limited vacation time, we decided to devote a bloc of vacation to explore the North Rim at another time.

The B&B host wrote that she had to be honest even though it’s not their policy to turn customers away.  I asked, for future reference, how long the closure was likely to last, and she gave me a detailed description.  I concluded that because of her honesty, she’s “won” a traveler’s determination to use her place in the near future.  This, to me, is a win-win strategy, not for short-term but for longer-term.

Speaking of honesty and trust...would you trust this gang?!

Speaking of honesty and trust…would you trust this gang?!

She related a story about a fellow B&B owner’s “greedy” strategy.  Around 9/11/01, this particular B&B owner X, in her area, refused to give deposits back to travelers who couldn’t fly out to this destination, and convinced lodgers already at his place to stay on since they were kind of stuck.  So, the owner X raked in a nice profit on the back on 9/11 tragedy.  The surrounding B&B owners tried to persuade owner X to ease up on the scheme, to no avail.  The owner X closed down his operation within a year.

A simple story, but illuminating.  In a relatively closed community, not just the B&B owners in one area but also the very limited clientele favoring this particular setting, reputation is the biggest asset.  Easy internet access has elevated the importance of reputation for a business’ position, both for owners and customers.  In reading some of the 2013 guide books, domestic as well as foreign travel, many include and highlight TripAdvisor’s comments.  Not all comments are equal, though.  A general rule of thumb is that a 5* based on only two reviewers isn’t as convincing as a 4.7* based on 389 reviewers.  I am struck by the new terrain many businesses have to learn to negotiate these days.  In such cases, competition definitely favors the consumers, and helps overall business quality.

Do you have similar stories to share?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

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There Was (and hopefully is) Intelligence Out There In Management Land

After that bit of “rant” on “double bagging” last week, I really want to offer you a “good” story.  I am sure there are quite a few out there, but since I haven’t heard from anyone, I dug up an old story to share in this space.

The story is short and succinct.  Way back in the late 40s, a manager employed “emotional intelligence” principle and helped launch a group of brilliant scientists that invented the transistor at what was then Bell Labs.  (Of course, mine is 20/20 hindsight based on legend, and Bell Labs is itself now a sad shadow of its former glory [*], which does open this entire posting to cynicism, but bear with me.)  The manager involved in organizing the team at Bell Labs really just might have possessed some intelligence in reading people especially in the context of the post-war environment.  This manager understood the personalities of the three key scientists, William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain.  He knew Shockley’s prickly and egotistic personality, and appreciated the complementary nature of Bardeen’s and Brattain’s styles despite their wide age difference.  The solution seemed obvious:  The manager made sure that Shockley’s office was well removed from Bardeen and Brattain’s shared office.

These three scientists eventually won a shared Nobel Prize (and Bardeen went on to win a second Nobel for his work in superconductivity).  Their work on semiconductors has put Silicon Valley on the business map, in addition to the invention of the all-important transistor technology.

A stylized replica of the first transistor inv...

A stylized replica of the first transistor invented at Bell Labs on December 23, 1947. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, that isn’t much of a story because the whole narrative about the invention of transistor is much more complicated (reference “Crystal Fire”).  What I want to highlight here is just that simple point of entry (to a success):  Knowing how to read people, and acting upon that knowledge, can go a long way.  Further, knowing and trusting how to put people into a complementary working relationship is a rare art.  Can it be learned?  I have to believe “yes,” and I know for certain it’s not a 12-step program.

But this leads me to ponder about the environment of today’s organization.  While managers still have some discretionary authority to put people in teams, or pair them, today’s managers are hampered by the following:

  • It is next to impossible to fire people.  In fact, even moving someone out of a team – not firing – can be a headache lasting for months.
  • Unless the organization is flourishing and raking in profit, hiring isn’t straightforward (so much for the myth of “job creators”).  As for non-profit organizations?  Getting approval for hiring would involve several levels of signatures and concomitant micro-managing.  Here is an interesting conundrum:  Shouldn’t the non-profit, constrained by resources, cut the layers of bureaucratic insulation to be more cost-effective?
  • Speaking of hiring, when organizations are in the position to hire, their first hires are generally at the levels that would help boost the production.  The pace of growth for R&D is typically much slower.
  • I am not aware of too many organizations that can adjust office and workspace assignments to allow for managers to move people.

Perhaps these are but the few not-easily quantifiable factors that have contributed to the modern day stress level for managers.  In turn, managers’ stress impacts on the direct reports whose stress may make their family lives harder to manage.  Then, the family’s collective stress gets spilled over into work…

Stop to smell a rose.

Stop to smell a rose.

Right, I am supposed to focus on the good part of the story.  Let me get back to emotional intelligence.  Given modern day management stress, the managers who have a good grasp of those “soft aspects” of human behavior and emotions are the real leaders, or effective managers.  Be wary of those who are only known to be “decisive”  (“Neutron Jack” didn’t build Nobel-caliber technologies at GE).  There are all sorts of decision tools: models, statistics, formulae, charts, computer programs, etc.  However fancy tools there maybe, there will never be perfect or complete information and information sources.  So, ultimately, managers have to make decisions based on their inner ability (intuition, vision, gestalt, whatever you want to call) of reading people, situations, and environment…the “soft sides.”

[*] The legend goes, In the 1970’s scientists who were interviewed for Bell Labs positions were taken to newly-refurbished laboratory rooms and asked, “If this room were filled floor-to-ceiling with $100 bills, what would you accomplish?”   By today we’ve forgotten how to even dream of such an institution.

May the week bring you some “soft” satisfaction.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Smaller Bag Is Smaller Than Bigger Bag

Allow me to have some fun with the following announcement…otherwise, I’d have to cry.

“Date Published: February 22, 2013

Publisher: URS CH2M Oak Ridge

When double bagging radioactive and/or asbestos wastes, consider using a smaller bag as the inner container and larger bag as the outer container to make an easy fit for the double bagging operations while minimizing the risk of contamination spreading.”

Seriously?!

Can you put them back in the right order without instructions?

Can you put them back in the right order without instructions?

Of course, my first reaction was the usual, “No shit, Sherlock!”  I realize that handling radioactive materials requires the utmost care and diligence – but to put the smaller bag into the larger bag requires a memo?!  Should a worker who needs such hand-holding be in charge of handling radioactive material?  Should people in authority feel a profound need to generate this memo – or should they concentrate on making sure right-sized bags are available when needed?

So, being a concerned taxpayer, here are a few images this announcement conjured up in my mind:

  • For every operation of transferring the radioactive materials, there are at least three operators, one to hold the “small” bag, one to transfer, and one to catch potential spills or leaks.  In addition, there would be two additional operators to measure the bags, and at least two supervisors, just in case.
  • Continuing DOE obsession with telling everyone what to do – and choking off all creativity and responsibility — why not issue tape measures for workers.  What’s one more gadget to wear on the neck or put in the pocket?
  • If, by eyeballing, a technician were to decide that the material would fill only ½ of the bigger bag, by all means, he should use the bigger bag.  Just remember to fold it before putting it into the small bag.  Needless to say, this would call for another memo.
  • The imagination runs riot with where and how this “decision” might have been discussed and concluded.  There were probably five or six middle-aged adults (loosely speaking) sitting around a conference table and talking about this “issue.”  The conversation might have lasted about 20 minutes, minimum, so as to ensure the seriousness of the topic.  They finally came to the conclusion to inform others of their wisdom.  The chief said to one of them, “Why don’t you take a stab at drafting a memo.  I’ll take a look and finalize the version before sending to DOE.”

    funny people

    Packed up nice and tidy!

This is the quintessential compartmentalization of our working world.  We focus only on that which we are assigned, and that bit of territory becomes our sacrosanct domain of “expertise.”  To demonstrate that we take our “responsibilities and knowledge” seriously, we keep digging for ever more minute details…and we came up with such a memo.  We are tunneling down into oblivion; we have followed the logic “divide and conquer” and we are conquered.  Time to cry now.

Do you have some positive stories on intelligent management to share?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Stress Is Subjective AND Objective

Here is a simple analogy about stress I read in http://www.facebook.com/ScienceIsMadness:

“A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”

Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.

She replied, ‘The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.’ She continued, ‘The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.’”

A wonderful experiment.  An insightful analogy with which we can resonate.

But inevitably something gets lost in the translation, as in “translating into reality.”  A fundamental question is:  How do we recognize that which has weighed on our minds as stress?  So many of us wear stress like a security blanket that we sincerely do not see it as stress.  We are a lot more comfortable with the familiar than the uncertainty brought about by change, even if we recognize the good in a change.  In addition, many cultures teach people to be resilient, if not downright stoic.  In such an environment, when people talk about their stress, often and repeatedly (surely a sign of stress?), they maybe regarded as “whiners.”  At most workplaces, to admit that we are under stress may signal to colleagues, and more importantly, our bosses, that we are not competent to handle our jobs.

It’s a cliché that half of the battle of counseling is the first step of seeking counseling.  In fact, recognizing the need is about ¼ of the work; another ¼ of the work is acknowledging the negativity that external sources throw at the person.  The process of counseling sessions takes time but is relatively less onerous than these initial internal and external barriers.

"Our lives are never stressful, are they?"

“Our lives are never stressful, are they?”

It seems like the majority of organizational stress (and perhaps personal stress too) is the knowing-doing gap we have to cross.  We know we need to reduce our stress, but how?  Everyone’s stress point is different from others.  We tend to think, “My stress is unique.”  This is just another way of not really addressing stress.  Basically, is it really that simple to “put the glass down?”  In dealing with stress at work, I think it is far more effective and reassuring if a manager can demonstrate her willingness to discuss work-related stress and offer outlets for her people.  Equally important, a manager should take some such outlets himself as well.

A classic snippet of advice offered to a new manager: “Take up a hobby where you can hit something.”  Do you have examples of dealing with stress effectively, at work or otherwise?

I wish you success in dealing with your stress.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Are Female CEOs The Only/Best Role Model For Women?

Recent news brought to us stories of two prominent female executives of internet companies, whose decisions and publicity have stirred up some debate and reflection on women’s lives within and outside organizations.  Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” a semi-autobiography cum new feminism manifesto, offers women advice on how to advance in the corporate world by mostly evoking those dormant internal strengths.  Sandberg is the current chief operating officer for Facebook.  Marissa Mayer, the (fairly) newly appointed CEO of Yahoo and a mother of a still infant son, took the telecommuting option off the table and required all “Yahoos” (how cute!) to be physically present at offices.  Mayer’s decision wasn’t targeting women, but inevitably shifted the spotlight to many female Yahoos.

First, Mayer is the CEO with the authority to make decisions as she sees fit.  Since any changes are ultimately personal, some employees would always be unhappy.  I do question the draconian nature of this sweeping change, but it is Mayer’s call.  Most Yahoos will adjust eventually and maybe a small number will leave.  Second, and more importantly, is the purpose of this change.  Mayer claims that face-to-face interactions are more conducive to spawning creativity and more effective communications.  Is this still true in the internet age, especially in companies that were founded on internet language?  So, I wonder if the decision was based on facts and evidence.  Or, was it to demonstrate that she is tough?  Like a man!

Sandberg asserts that the next phase for the feminism movement should focus on women’s own internal motivations and strengths, rather than on external factors such as government policies and corporate practices.  She would have little quarrel with Mayer’s decision, for sure.  Currently, the buzz is less about the content of the book than Sandberg’s design for propelling her message forward.  She’ll receive MSM’s red carpet treatment for the publication of her book when it’s rolled out in mid-March, and she wants to generate many “Lean In Circles,” study groups for professional women across the country.  She sees herself as someone running a social movement.  Not surprisingly, Sandberg has been receiving both enthusiastic support and criticism.  I say “not surprisingly,” for two reasons:  1.  Women don’t think as one group!  (What identity group does?!)  This was true during the 1960’s feminism movement.  Why should it be different now?  2.  There are never clear-cut, either-or, perspectives in understanding the human psyche.  Placing emphasis on only one dimension, internal strength in this case, automatically invites controversy.

There are many discussion points on both of these two women’s latest developments, but I am sure most of you have gone through most of the pros and cons.  What has intrigued me is the point of singling out these two women as role models.

Is CEO with multimillions in personal assets the only definition of “success?”

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop...

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop…

Ms. Sandberg has a cadre of staff to help take care of her enormous house and two children.  In showing her understanding of what ordinary parents have to deal with, she related the story of finding lice on her daughter on one of her business trips.  The discovery was made on the corporate jet.  Horror!  Ms. Mayer took only 2 weeks maternity leave before heading back for work.  But she had a nursery built right next to her office, out of her own pocket.

In what ways are these outliers our role models?  In what ways can these superstars find resonance with a single mom raising two children on a medium income, without much assistance for childcare?  However much strength this single mom can muster to push for her own career and educate her children, she surely would welcome some relief from external policies.  Even mothers with true equal partners who share all chores would cherish any external assistance they can get.  In fact, both parents would appreciate assistance from outside the family.  Any relief from the daily stress (see my previous post) isn’t just for the person under stress; it’s a blessing for all whose lives are touched.

While Ms. Mayer is talented and decisive, she is not all that different from the traditional male CEOs.  That in itself is not a point of contention; but then, why should she be particularly inspiring to other women?  Does Ms. Sandberg not see the irony of her advocacy for women to rely only on their internal resolve? when the MSM’s lovefest with her has given her attention and the royal treatment for her book and her design of the “social movement?”  Who amongst us ordinary women, even with a mountain of internal strength, could have commanded such spotlight?

There has been too much emphasis on celebrity and moneyed culture in our society these days.  Want inspiring female role models?  Look at that single mom who had to work two jobs to feed her family, but eventually sent all her children to college and got herself promoted to be a supervisor (and finally shed the other job).  How about a woman, growing up on a farm, who was the first in the family to get a college education and eventually became the “teacher of the year?”  Yet another woman, raised by a truck-driving mom, got an MBA while married with a child, worked as a science writer; she had a wicked sense of humor and a heart of gold.  How about any of the female astronauts? Or female Nobel Laureates? And then, there was a woman who was abused and later abandoned by her husband.  She had only a high school education, but managed to raise four daughters on her own, sent them all to college and two got Ph.Ds, and eventually left a small legacy to her children.  The list has no end of such unsung heroines.

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting...but beautiful still?!

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting…but beautiful still?!

Folks, discrimination crumbles in the presence of ego and self-aggrandizement.  Pretty women are just as unattractive wearing ego and/or self-aggrandizement as men.  Meaningful feminism is about being free/freer, rather than being bounded by convention and defined by wealth.

Emulating the superficial aspects is simultaneously easy, uninspiring and crippling.  Dig deeper and soak up the complexity; a little luck from external assistance may go quite a way.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com