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There is an old saying that “Numbers don’t lie”. Unfortunately, the assumptions used to generate them do! In todays “data analytics” driven world, this is an important issue to keep in mind. One of the most important things I had to learn as an early career manager was the lack of value that a financial model provides when decoupled from the assumptions it is based on. Really this goes for any model (at least any model of a real world issue).  The real value of most predictive models is actually in identifying the assumptions and clarifying their effects rather than providing a specific quantitative result. Much too often I have seen business plans and pro forma presented with vague assumptions that are discussed only in the small print or not at all. The primary discussion should actually center on the assumptions used to generate the financial model and how those assumptions will be tested and clarified moving forward. Without a very clear understanding of the underlying assumptions, a financial model just gives a false sense of security. In most situations, subtle changes to some of the assumptions can provide results that change a decision from a go to a no-go.  For Master of Engineering Management (MEM) graduates with strong quantitative backgrounds, it is especially important not to rely too heavily on the numbers generated by an impressive, complex model you have developed.  Rather, as an early career employee, one of your jobs should be highlighting the assumptions for decision-makers and clarifying where the assumptions are just educated guesses and where they have a high probability of being accurate. Be sure not to hide behind the numbers generated by an impressive model.  And follow-up with a plan for how the risk of a bad assumption will be managed and minimized over time. As a manager and decision maker, a significant part of the job is how to ask the right questions to ferret out bad assumptions or areas where the assumptions were implicit but not even identified. After all, if most situations were deterministic rather than probabilistic, gathering more information would make decisions easy and judgement would not be so important, just run a model for the answer!

A Blog by Greg Satell, Digital Toronto, has an excellent and more thorough discussion of “How Numbers Lie”.  I highly recommend it (along with many posts that Greg has written):

http://www.digitaltonto.com/2015/how-numbers-lie/

There is an old saying, “For love of the game” made famous by a novel and film. For me, the phrase is an excellent summary of the struggle between motivations on opposite sides of the spectrum; for money or for love. This is highlighted in sports because the megabucks that professional athletes are paid stand in stark contrast to the ideal we hold for children regarding the passion and pure joy of playing sports “games”. But this same concept is a regular struggle for many of us in business during our career. If there is one thing I say over and over again to students and early career professionals it is (not unlike many career advisors); find something you love to do. Of course this is a common theme everywhere (“Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life” or “Find something you love to do and then figure out how to get paid for it”). A recent Blog Posting by Mitch Ditkoff (The Heart of Innovation) entitled “The Cult of Monetization“ (http://www.ideachampions.com/weblogs/archives/2015/06/the_m_word.shtml) is a wonderful perspective on this. It puts the issue in today’s business vernacular and we should all take heed.

I received an interesting question from an alumnus not too long ago that went something like this;

If you are the champion for hiring someone, how much of an obligation do you have to them once they are actually on board? What if they don’t perform as well as expected?

What an interesting and subtle question. This sort of reminds me of the old proverb that; If you save someone’s life then you are responsible for, and even indebted to, them! Seems a bit backwards for western ways of thinking but makes perfect sense if you think about the greater good or society in general. So what about the person you bring into the company? I like to go back to the fundamental question: “What would add the most value to the organization?” This is a lot harder to answer than it seems at first because long term value is hard to determine. Also, subtle things that seem to be harsh on an individual can sometimes be good for the organization but not if they cause a toxic environment for others or make it more difficult to hire the best people (thus, the value of the “Best Places to Work” list for example). But tough, fair decisions need to be made that are best for the group, not always for each individual. And organizations make the mistake in both directions – being too accommodating for the individual or being too focused on the short term benefit of the company.

So back to this situation, I would actually treat the person in a similar manner as any other employee in that position after they have been hired. That means I would mentor and coach them when I thought it would be of value (to the organization!), just like other individuals but I would not give them special treatment. I have made plenty of hiring decisions that did not work out. If it was not working out and I gave them “special” assistance to help them succeed that was not available to others (beyond what I would do to have any person succeed in the position) then there are several issues. It would not be fair to others (remember we do not want equal treatment, but we do want fair treatment) and it could be perceived by my managers as “stacking the deck” to get the outcome I wanted, protecting my own ego. This could ultimately hinder the person’s ability to perform. It would also be taking time away from the activities that the organizations needs accomplished. But if I thought the organization could gain value by me mentoring the person then I would do it (just like anyone else in that position). The “system” needs to be optimized – i.e., the entire organization. I should also make it clear to my managers that it was the same as what I would do for anyone, not just for the case where I had brought someone into the organization. It definitely takes a lot of communication and a history of trust to make all that work (I like the book “The Speed of Trust”). So the bottom line is to treat the person fairly regardless of how they got into the position and just as importantly treat the rest of the employees fairly – by not giving special help to someone just because you lobbied for them as a good hire when in fact you were wrong! And remember that fair is not equal. An employee that is performing well should be rewarded for that performance, and an employee that is underperforming should be told so (constructively), no matter how they came to the organization. We all have an obligation to try to hire the best and brightest people for our organizations. We SHOULD advocate for people we think will be a good addition. When they don’t work out, be fair to everyone in the organization and give them the coaching and mentorship that provides the most value to the organization, no more and no less.

This also reminds me of a typical mistake that many early career managers make in how they talk about positions. Quite often we have contractors or part time employees helping our organizations. This can include the numerous internships that organizations provide to our students (and for which we are very grateful!). When we want to bring those employees on full-time or change their status from a contractor to an employee, I often here inexperienced managers say they want to give the employee a permanent position. That makes an HR attorney, and thus an experienced manager, cringe! Of course, we all know that no job is permanent (OK, some get close, like tenured faculty, but that is a problem to discuss in a future post). So what we really mean is we want the person to have a “regular” position. Keep this in mind as you talk with potential employees. Don’t call it permanent because nothing is and certainly if they do not perform, to be fair, they need to be moved out of the organization. And when that needs to happen, it almost always turns out better for them in the long run. Most of us need to be valued and performing up to our potential to be happy. That is not guaranteed to happen in all positions.

In summary, treat people fairly not equally and remember that positions in your organizations are regular not permanent.

For the Jon Bon Jovi fans out there, you already know the punch line of this post because you know the song of the same name (although the best version of the song is the duet with Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland). I reflected on this over the weekend at the 50th Anniversary for the University of Virginia department where I conducted my PhD work. It has been almost 25 years and there were some people who I had not seen in that entire time. And memories being as fallible as they are, I did not remember everyone or every event that I would have hoped to. In fact, I think the intense, focused nature of the way I pursued my PhD degree reinforced the lapses in memory! Networking and team work were not in the vernacular for PhD students then; it was research, research, research. And of course there were many people whom I did not know from my time at UVa and just met at the celebration. So there were just a handful of people with whom I “reconnected” despite the fact that the activity involved well over 100 people. And yet it felt like a family reunion! Everyone I spoke with, old friend or not, was like a “reconnection” not a new acquaintance.

So I started thinking about how all this relates to engineering management and, in particular, networking. We were all coming together around an idea, not just a reunion. An idea that we should celebrate the fact that the UVa Materials Science and Engineering Department has been educating students for 50 years and we should envision the next 50! Thus, no person was a stranger in the sense that we all had a connection. This is a great learning for networking (i.e., building relationships). A very useful way to approach networking is to think about the common idea or connection you share with another individual. Even people you meet under entirely random circumstances will share something with you. You might guess at what that is or it might be obvious. At the very least, if you meet in-person you share the location, the weather, the traffic, the local news. Or if you meet at some type of event (a conference, a professional society meeting, etc.) then you share an interest in the topic or technology. This provides an easy platform for the beginning of a conversation which nucleates a relationship. Your first words in a conversation are generally aimed at building rapport and these common experiences or interests are an excellent way to do this. So the next time you find yourself in a situation where there are people you do not know, think about these commonalities and use them to strike up a conversation. (And let’s be frank, this happens all the time, from being in line at a Starbucks to the next time you board a plane).

So in summary, I was not really going “home” to UVa; my total time there was less than 5% of my time on earth to date! But it felt like going home because of a common idea that created a connection. We should all utilize these types of connections to build relationships, develop our network, add value to others and enhance our careers. It can be as deep a connection as a reunion for your school or as simple as a common interest in a particular technology or industry.

How Coachable Are You?

Growing up, I played Little League baseball and football. Picture a bunch of 10 year olds on the field trying their hardest to look like they know what they are doing without betraying the underlying confusion they often feel. My coaches were usually my friend’s parents or someone else from my neighborhood. I didn’t really think much of it at the time but I learned a few things during those days that are relevant in my business life. Remember, this is in elementary school so it is reminiscent of the New York Times Best Seller “All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten”. The particular learning I want to focus on here is the question “How coachable are you?” I distinctly remember coming back from a particularly rough Little League baseball game (rough for a 10-year-old anyway) and feeling pretty down about my performance. I played a couple of different positions but at this particular time I was a pitcher and, to put it frankly, I choked. This was a problem I often had. If I came in as a relief pitcher for someone else who was not doing so well I would do fine. On the other hand, if I started the game and it went well for a while I would often tense up and simply choke (we now understand a lot about why we choke, if you are interested see: http://gladwell.com/the-art-of-failure/). After this particular game, my coach (Mr. Wittman; my buddy Tim’s Dad) said something to my Mom about me being one of the most coachable kids he had worked with (he was usually yelling at us, deservedly so, thus this was high praise!). His coachable comment was in the context of something like “don’t worry, Jeff will get past this choking problem. He is very coachable”. So over the years my Mom, as mom’s everywhere tend to do, brings up this nice complement from my coach periodically, always making me feel good to know the I was a very coachable kid (I try not to think about the choking part!).

When I look back on this and think about how this relates to my business life, a couple of things come to mind. The first and most important is that, as a manager, one of THE MOST VALUABLE TRAITS which I look for in an employee is how coachable they are. Can they hear a suggestion or even a criticism and accept it, internalize it and use it to modify their behavior. This also implies that an employee can really listen to what a project manager needs and then deliver on it. It is being open all the time to colleagues’ opinions of how you can improve. Which brings me to the next most important relationship between your coachability and business life; how quickly you can learn. As I have written elsewhere in this blog and presented during graduation speeches, continuous learning is the hallmark of a successful career. Your formal education is just a platform and process for learning, not an end on its own. (As Newton D. Baker said, with slight paraphrasing: “The person who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.” http://izquotes.com/quote/290235). The more coachable you are, the more open you will be to learning and the more successful you will be throughout your career. You will have a focus on self-improvement and self-awareness; both important aspects of leadership. Finally, if you develop a mindset of being coachable, you will have a mindset of teamwork which, as we have heard constantly from our industrial advisors, is critical in today’s business world. The coaching ethos implies a culture of teamwork surrounding and supporting the coach-employee relationship.

In summary, be coachable. It is a skill and attitude you can develop.

Happy 2015! My New Year’s resolution is to write more posts for this Blog by trying to write some short, simple observations for our MEM community. We’ll see how that goes. Now on to my current blog; I am already having trouble with the “shorter” part…..

For those of us old enough to remember the heyday of the former AT&T Bell Laboratories research machine, we think fondly of those days when a major laboratory could pursue paradigm-shifting inventions with no real knowledge of whether they would ever be profitable endeavors. The former AT&T Bell labs can take credit for such inventions as the transistor, cell phone technology, solar cells, the laser, communications satellites, digital switching, the fax machine and the list goes on. Bell Labs is responsible for some 33,000 patents and employed 12 Nobel Laureates with 7 Nobel Prizes going to Bell Labs inventions. Yet employment is now down from 30,000 at its peak to around 1,000 – ouch! (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_36/b4145036681619.htm). Clearly AT&T Bell Labs did not benefit commercially to the same extent they were successful scientifically (http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkanellos/2012/06/27/was-bell-labs-overrated/). So a key issue with all of these great inventions was that the company didn’t make sufficient money on them. It took decades for the inventions to make money and when they did, often it was from products that were not commercialized by AT&T. Over the years Bell Labs went through many transitions from splitting to being absorbed to being downsized but the overarching theme was “do more applied work that has shorter-term and more obvious market potential.” This trend has continued with many corporate research labs following suit, even when they weren’t as blue-sky oriented as Bell Labs. The same has even happened to university research although not to the extent that it has for industry. And I would argue that this has been beneficial for universities – they have also become more applied to fill the gap left by this industry transition but are now the primary long term research outlet. They have been able to work more closely with industry over the years and to be utilized as a key long term research arm for many companies and for government agencies (the “6.1” money).

So how does this relate to Google X? As I was driving along today on the highway watching a car in front of me drifting from side to side, not able to stay within the white lines (a texting driver perhaps?), I thought about the Google X driverless car (after backing far away from the drifting car!). It seems that this is another blue sky project decades away from any commercial value. Is it an old Bell Labs-like project? I went on to Google’s web site and found several more of these (space elevators, teleportation, hover boards and even a mosquito zapping laser to fight malaria! See: http://www.fastcompany.com/3028156/united-states-of-innovation/the-google-x-factor). Thus, is Google X the next Bell Labs and is that a good thing? Are they making up for the lack of blue sky research that went away when places like Bell Labs changed their culture? And perhaps more importantly, have they been able to do this without being part of a government lab or a regulated industry, like the old AT&T Bell Labs? I think the resounding answer to all these questions is YES!

So the point of all this is that we seem to have moved into an era of blue sky research that is built on the financial success of technology innovations and the associated billionaires (think Gates, Schmidt, Ellison, Bezos, Page, Dell). The billionaires of the world and their successful ventures are now putting money back into all kinds of crazy (in a good way) projects and basic research because they can! They have the financial strength. The ideas are born out of a deep knowledge of commercial success coupled with a passion for science and technology. These blue sky projects might be different than the old Bell Labs type and perhaps that means we need university science more than ever to build a pipeline of new research, but in any case, they are incredibly interesting and should excite any geek! What geek would not want to use lasers to zap a disease carrying insect? And for the basic science, these billionaires are teaming up with the universities (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/science/billionaires-with-big-ideas-are-privatizing-american-science.html?_r=0). It is a new, exciting era. Invention and the ensuing innovation pipeline are alive and well.

Footnote: I began to wonder if this AT&T Bell Labs-Google X comparison had already been written about and sure enough, see: http://www.wnyc.org/story/inside-google-x-bell-labs-today/!

What is the most important activity for an early career professional? Probably exceeding expectations in the quality and quantity of your work product and making your boss look good. OK, the second most important activity? Building relationships and “networking”. I don’t need to repeat why this is critical for your career but in brief, you generally don’t get ahead without it. Meeting the right people and finding the opportunities before they are fully formed is the best way to help your career advancement and cultivating relationships is the best way to do that. There are lots of ways to do this and you should use many of them, finding the methods that suit you the best.

In this post I want to focus on one type of method; attending tradeshows, conferences and professional society meetings. These can be industry focused, market focused or technology focused. They can be small or massive. They usually include product announcements for companies. Sometimes they include job posting activities and interviews and sometimes they don’t. But by their fundamental definition, they always include networking. I can hear some of you thinking: “Conferences are for people who want to go into a technical field.” Not true. It took me less than 5 minutes to come up with these conferences for consultants: (i)http://www.imcusa.org/?IMC_Conference, (ii)http://www.nacva.com/conference.asp. And I am sure there are many more! I only use that example because it was the area I was most skeptical about having a relevant conference. After all, consultants work in all different industries and yet, there are conferences that bring them all together to learn best practices from each other – and to network.

Many of you have probably heard of the big consumer electronics or computer trade shows and conferences, often held in Las Vegas, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. For your own interest, do a few Google searches with your industry or functional area of interest coupled with conference, tradeshow, or professional society keywords and see what you come up with. I am certain there will be more than you will have time to study.

So what do you do at these conferences and trade shows? The key point is that in the space of a couple of days, you can get more informational interviews, new contacts and basic learning than in weeks of your daily routine. There are typically two basic formal activities – presentations in various sessions and trade booths showing off new products and services. Of course, there are also many social functions. All of these give the perfect opportunity to meet new people, learn about organizations and generally strengthen your professional network.

Going to talks helps you meet people. It is relatively easy to go up to a speaker after a talk and compliment them on the talk and ask a question that starts a dialogue. Remember that networking is about building relationships. You need to cultivate the relationships so it is not just about meeting as many new people as you can. Try to have lunch or dinner with someone new each day. Be sure to get their contact information. Walking the line between being proactive and being too pushy is important but most of us need to be more proactive.

At most conferences, the activities that are going on outside the talks and trade show are extensive and you should take advantage of them. From receptions to poster sessions to social activities to conference administration; all of them afford the opportunity to get to know the field and people in the field. Note that going to conferences is easier if you prepare and it gets easier with experience. Even going to the conference of a new society or topic can be challenging the first time because they all have their own way of doing things. By reading as much as possible about the venue and the activities before hand, it can really ease the burden while you are there. Look for talks and posters that fit your research and mark them. Most conferences have online apps to make this easier.

A corollary to all this discussion of conferences and tradeshows is the role of professional societies. Many times they will manage these events but beyond that they are themselves a great forum for networking. Smaller local events, online forums, social gatherings, etc. are all part of processional society activities. So be sure to join a couple of key professional societies as part of your networking activity.