Friday, August 29, 2008

Back to Business School - More Summer Reading

In the beginning of the summer I spent a few days going through a classic Business School Novel... First Break All the Rules. The basic premise of the book is that the conventional management rules are incorrect and must be broken in order for a company to achieve greatness. In this book, Gallup challenges the notion that anyone can do anything if they set their mind to it, they take on the idea that employees should be "well-rounded", and they preach that the best managers play favorites.

The mantra that is repeated over and over again in this study of exceptional managers is that a manager should not worry about what is left out of an employee, but focus on developing an individuals strengths. In other words, don't ask Michael Jordan to practice his golf swing.

The book makes a great case for the idea of leveraging the strengths of individuals towards company goals. Just imagine everyone at your company doing what it is they do best for the majority of each of their days. What would that look like?

The authors spend a lot of time talking about skills and talents. They say that talents are a way we repeatedly look at or do things where as skills are specific things we learn how to do. As an example, the analytically talented person is always looking at how and why something works, mentally or physically tearing things apart and putting them back together. Someone with an achiever talent is measuring life in completing goals - they seek to complete things each and every day. Since these talents are ingrained in our method as people, rounding us out on talents we lack doesn't work. Instead, the book suggests that we should be repeatedly challenged in our areas of talent- thus rejecting the "well rounded employee" idea.

It further asserts that energy put towards developing talents will yield a much larger growth rate. Taking the MJ metaphor further, the percentage of improvement Michael received from practicing basketball from college onwards was far greater than it would have been from practicing golf. There was more bang for the buck in hoops.

As an employee, this is such a refreshing thing to hear. Imagine your boss coming to you and saying, "Let's figure out what your good at and gear most of your work around those strengths - I want to push you in these area. Then, let's find your weaknesses and improve them to a functional level, but push off most of the work that you are weak in to another team member who has a strength in that area." Now apply this across an entire organization and what happens? I'll tell you, the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.

This was definitely a book worth reading before heading into Business School and I will definitely apply the principles it presents throughout my career as a manager. It is highly recommended to any current or future manager.

Bowling, Billiards, and Movie Theaters (Business gone awry)

When I was a high-schooler in the not so distant past I lived in a small suburb of Los Angeles in Southern California. The city had about 50,000 residents and we were an hour's drive from L.A.

I remember driving with my friends to the local billiards hall and playing pool for several hours while listening to Witchy Woman and Iron Man on the jukebox. The cost was $6.00/hour for the table, so a group of four of us could get some quality time in for not a lot of cash. I also have fond memories of moonlight bowling on Saturday nights and several visits to the movie theatre through the years. But lately these staples are in danger.

During my trips home the last few years I have noticed that the movie theatres and bowling alleys are a shadow of their former glory and the billiards places have been replaced by restaurants or day care centers. At the same time a rise in upscale theatres like the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, CA, swanky pool halls like the Parlor in Bellevue, WA, and even uppity bowling alleys like Lucky Strike is hard to ignore.

So what's the deal? Are teenagers no longer customers? Is alcohol required to be a part of everything we do? Are business owners getting greedy? Is real estate too expensive to just rent pool tables and take in a few extra quarters at the jukebox?

Whatever the answer , it's a triumph for large business and a tragedy for teens. The mom and pop pool halls, bowling alleys, and movie theaters can't make enough money serving just the teens, and the 20, 30, and 40-somethings are heading to the trendier upgrades. As a result, the smaller establishments are closing down or are run down and will soon be gone completely. And, with alcohol almost always a part of the new business plans, the teens are out.

Which means that my teenage memories of pool halls, plain old movie theaters, and Saturday nights on the lanes are beginning to sound a lot like my parents' memories of the penny arcade, the five and dime, and the milk man.

Am I really getting old already...?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Beware of Mumps, Measles, and Rubella in Business School

The countdown has begun... I begin business school in less than thirty days and I am beginning to feel the pressure.

So what kinds of things have I done to prepare? Well, I have been reading business classics most of the summer (First Break All the Rules, Purple Cow, Built to Last, etc.) I have been seeking out opportunities to get involved in acquiring new business at work. I have been reading the financial news and paying closer attention to the markets. And, I have been watching the olympics like crazy (does that count?).

The one thing that I have been a bit unprepared for, though, is my immunizations. When reviewing the checklist of all of the things I needed to do before I could start school I must of overlooked it. The deadline for the MMR vaccines is in a few days and I have only had one that I can prove. Most schools require two rounds of vaccination that are at least four weeks apart.

I set out to solve this problem with the most reliable source I know. No, not google... the original google; Mom. I called her in the morning a few days ago and by that evening I had an unofficial vaccination record. It turns out I had an MMR shot way back in the early 80s - you know, before computers. Finding out I had an early shot was a positive development, but like in an episode of 24, (the Jack Bauer variety), solving one issue led to another. How do I get an official record of the vaccine from the 80s?

A call to the latest physician that I had in my hometown led to the discovery that his practice had been sold twice and eventually placed in the hands of a well-known HMO, Kaiser. I finally found the records office of Kaiser and called them. They said it would be no problem to get my records, but that I would have to fax a form and wait two weeks for them to "check the files". Were they serious? Kaiser... meet scanner. Scanner... meet Kaiser.

Since two weeks was too late I began to consult the 2nd most reliable resource at my disposal... yes, now google. Google led me to a county agency that indexes these sorts of things, but a phone call revealed that it didn't have any records before 1989- I feel old for the first time in my life.

I'm now out of ideas, so I send an e-mail to the University asking for a delayed deadline for the vaccination requirement.

I never received a response, but I decided to try my High School as a lsat effort. Turns out my High-School transcript has my immunization record on it. Presto, fax, and fax again, the University has the info and approves the documentation. That was close...

Ya' know, we read lists of what is required in order to get into business school so many times... you must do well on the GMAT, have a solid GPA, 2-3 good letters of reccomendation, a few good essays, etc. But don't forget the all important one that can actual keep you from registering at a public instituion, vaccinations. Oh yeah, and don't forget to file for the FAFSA either...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Getting Ready for Business School - Built to Last

So business school is 1 month away and I am pushing forward with more summer reading. Right now I am making my way though Built to Last - a classic (1990's) business book that discusses the results of a massive study of the world's most visionary companies and some less visionary counterparts. The author's define a visionary company in a complex number of ways. However, it is basically one that has been around for more tha fifty years through multiple generations of CEOs and that is still thriving. The basic premise of the book is to explain what went into the visionary companies to make them last. What is their secret?

I am about 50 pages in so far and despite the analytical nature of the book I am finding it to be a good read. I will do a full review of the book once I finish, but I wanted to talk about one concept that I recently read which really blew me away.

The authors notice that almost all of the visionary companies that they are studying have one common thread - they are not in it just for the money. Many of them have built into their company culture that modest profit is needed, but that the true test of the company's success is how well it innovates new technology (Sony), comes up with products that contribute to the health of patients (Johnson & Johnson), or leads aerospace development (Boeing).

A visionary CEO put it eloquently when he described profit as being akin to blood, breath, and water for a human being. Blood, breath, and water enable a person to live, but they are not the point- they enable the dreams. Profit is not the point, profit allows a company to pursue a goal.

Does the company you work for have a "why?". I began thinking about my own company, which has also been around for several decades. And while we have core values on how we are to conduct business, there really isn't anything that says why we conduct business. Transportation is definitely less cut and dry than technology, health care, or aerospace, but we could have something. A mission statement that encompasses why our company exists. "We will create innovations in global transportation that enables our customers to thrive in their core businesses", or "We will be the most productive and safest transportation company on the planet so that our employees will have sustainable employment and our shareholders a reasonable return on investment".

With some time dedicated, my company could establish a real statement that all of its employees could look to for inspiration or use to challenge Sr. management on their direction if anyone felt they were steering the organization off course. needless to say this book is quite thought provoking for me. I will be sure to write about any thing else interesting that comes up in my business school summer prep.

Until then...

NBC is Ruining the Olympics

The normal sports in the U.S. have their exciting moments, but for some reason I never really get behind a team with any sort of heart. If they stop winning, I get frustrated with them and stop watching (I tend to have high standards for people paid millions of dollars to do something well).

But once every four years I become the guy who yells at the TV set, who blames the refs for everything, and who tunes his wife out for the sake of the tube. I am an olympic sports fan. My favorite disciplines are swimming, gymnastics, and track & field, but I like just about everything besides the events involving rifles.

So this year, I was very excited to hear that NBC was planning to have a website ( dedicated to the games with live video and replays of events.

However... the whole thing has been one giant disappointment, culminating with this evening. It all began with the opening ceremony never being fully released online (and not even partially available for over 24 hours after it occurred). Next, the "live events" were not the ones I wanted to watch (i.e. the gymnastics all arounds, Michael Phelps races, etc. etc.). For those, we have to wait until NBC airs them, and on the west coast three more hours for tape delay. But the worst sin NBC has committed is detailed below...

...Imagine you ( the huge olympic gymnastics fan that you are) have been watching NBC's olympic coverage for the last 3 hours (it's 11PM) and are still waiting to see some of the women's gymnastics individual final events. Since it is beginning to get pretty late you decide to check the NBC olympics website to find out what time the event will be airing and what the medal count is like while your at it. So you get to NBC's website and the first thing you see is pictured at the top of this page. The RESULTS of the competition from yesterday that NBC decided not to show until after 11:00PM tonight. And what's worse? The caption says that the final was full of twists and that I should watch it on TV later.

Are you kidding me? The only thing I am going to do is try and find other internet coverage of the olympics so NBC's viewership is 1 less than it would have been otherwise. Hopefully you will join my revolt and we can affect some of the ad revenues.

Hey NBC, please explain the business logic of showing headliner events (Gymnastics finals, Phelps races, etc.) between 10PM and 2AM. Is that the big ad revenue generating time? Here's an idea. Show just the popular stuff on TV, but show it live and replay it later as well. And for the website... show every single event live and make the full coverage available for playback with those short internet commercials. Give it away, generate some traffic, sell tons of ads, and avoid ruining my olympics. Job done.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Getting ready for Business School - Summer Reading

During my rant about Mcdonalds' misplaced marketing dollars earlier this week I mentioned Seth Godin. He is the author of a book I read in the first part of my business school summer reading prep.

The book is called Purple Cow and it discusses how the game has changed when it comes to marketing.

Semi-Brief Synopsis

1. Seth says that the formula for success used to be to make a product and then advertise it like crazy to a broad audience on television. He highlights the fact that consumers used to trust television, hence the mantra, "I saw it on TV - it must be true".

2. Godin illustrates how the old school of marketing (the "TV Industrial Complex") has died. He discusses the rise of the trusted friend, word of mouth advertising, and viral marketing. He concludes that the way to win in today's marketplace is to make a product so "remarkable" that you catch the attention of early adopters (the trusted friend) who then "sneezes" the product to the majority.

3. He notes the natural change in the game... the product MUST be awesome. He says that it is no longer possible to market a mediocre product with massive advertising dollars and expect it to be successful. Why? Because the majority doesn't trust TV commercials any more. They check trip advisor, consumer reports, or more likely a trusted friend who is a subject matter expert. So the result, ahem... Mcdonalds, is that no one is going to believe a Chicken Burger from Mcdonalds is a healthy breakfast just becaue you say it is in an olympic ad!

End of Semi-Brief Synopsis

So what is an example of something remarkable? The ipod touch and iphone, google's search engine, the World, Purple Cow (it was initally shipped by the dozen, to encourage early buyers to share it, and came packaged in a milk carton), unlimited minutes wireless plans, Beijing's opening ceremony, University of Phoenix, Pink Berry, the "I am rich" app for the iphone, etc.

How do I know these things are remarkable? Because everyone is talking about them. I see them on, I read about them in newspapers, my geeky friends can't stop talking about them, and I am here sneezing them to you in this blog.

So congrats on being a pioneer Seth... and thanks for the book - and an extra thanks for making it short. Business schools are taking note.
In case you wondering, the name (Purple Cow) was inspired by a trip Seth took with his family to the French countryside. While touring, they marveled at the beauty of the brown cows they saw roaming in the area... at least for a while. After several hours the brown cows became ordinary. Seth said that what once caught there attention could no longer steal a glance, but if he saw a purple cow he would have definitely looked and told all of his friends about it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dear Mcdonalds, Where'd you get your Business Education?

Well, its less than two months until I start Business School and I'm really soaking up the free time in anticipation of a very busy schedule. Lately, I have been watching the Olympics, which are taking place in Beijing, on TV and online. In the midst of watching the US men's swimming team beat the pants off (.08 seconds) of the French in the 4x100 today, a Mcdonalds commercial came on.

It started out with the usual sequence of athletes doing their thing... striking a volleyball, swimming, throwing a discus, etc. The next scene is the athletes describing a home made tasting breakfast sandwich while holding (not eating) it.

Really Mcdonalds? Do you think that we believe athletes eat at your restaurant? Do you really think pairing visuals of strong athletes with your "home made tasting" breakfast sandwich will brainwash the average viewer into thinking that breakfast at Mcdonalds is healthy?

Did the Mcdonalds' marketing team receive their business education in the 1980s? Maybe.

Here's the new school of thought that Mickey D's should have considered. Blanket advertising doesn't work anymore because consumers don't trust companies, they trust the opinions of individuals they know and respect. It's called word-of-mouth advertising and they only way to get it, is to do something "remarkable", like Seth Godin remarkable. This idea of athletes eating Mcdonalds or even Wheaties is so outdated and unremarkable it will be dismissed as fast as a shoot the duck and win a free ipod banner ad - nice try Mcdonalds.

P.S. Modern business education can be pursued in person full time, part time, or even online... it's time to freshen up.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


I’m going to divert from the usual B-School discussion today and talk about something that happened to me at work this week…

The Background…

I work as part of an operations management team in a somewhat industrial facility. Although my title has the word “manager” in it, a more appropriate title would be liaison. I am essentially an intermediary between a large corporation and a local set of unions. I take the general vague will of the company and translate it into more specific work instructions for the union foremen and chiefs on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. I also have the power to direct the labor force, hire, and fire.

All of the above would lead a person to believe that my job is important and that it is a fulfilling use of my time and intellect. The truth is that the labor force that I “direct” really understands what they are doing well. So well in fact, that my main job is to make sure they don’t goof off or try to sign in for too many hours on the payroll. In other words, I’m a company rep… a warm body – a baby sitter.

The Problem...

For more dynamic individuals the idea of being a warm body is nauseating. Even more disgusting is the micromanaging some superiors engage in to make sure we make sure everything runs OK. And what if we have an idea or an improvement, for change? “Don’t mess with what is already working.”.What is the result of all of this stuff? Zero engagement. Many members of the operations management team don’t care how well the company does or even how on track the union guys stay as long as they don’t have to hear from their manager. I find that some of my colleagues do as little as they need to do in order to avoid being bothered. Less than ideal, right?

The Turning Point...

So here is an experience I had this week that may be the fix… or at least a good first step towards the fix. After expressing interest in getting more involved with the business strategy side of our operation, my boss’s boss’s boss calls me into his office and asks me to help him create a long term business strategy and then record it in an official document. He wants new ideas on how to find more customers, analysis on our infrastructure and equipment, and insight on how to engage the management team.

...Small gesture, right? All he did is respond to my request and suddenly I am alive at work again. I care again. I am doing the little things well because I am reminded in my research for this new special assignment of why we do them. I care how the company does because I have been tasked with making it better. I am engaged.

Too often Senior managers want to control an organization like a puppet master, and all that leads to is the creation of lifeless puppets underneath them – management or not. However, when an employee is responded to and asked to own a piece of the business, the result is an engaged colleague, full of life who is intellectually and emotionally invested in the success of the company.

So, what’s the take away? The take away is “remember”. For myself, and many of you, senior management is in the not too distant future. When we get there we must remember the wisdom we offer as lower management and individual contributors.

Good Night for now.