A position to fit the player

There’s a fallacy that we create job descriptions to find a specific kind of person. The other night, I semi-jokingly wrote what I thought about job descriptions I’ve encountered in the past few years for social media roles on Twitter. It’s as if you can picture the people sitting around a table, trying to check boxes in an attempt to create this perfect person.

Newsflash: That person doesn’t exist and they’re not perfect.

On the flip side, people seeking roles will often believe that they’re just one job away from the perfect situation. The role that’s going to give them the autonomy, compensation and fulfillment they seek in the workplace. For most of us, this just isn’t a real thing. There are going to be days that you don’t love what you do and that’s okay. Visual artist Chris Martin had a quote I read in Believer Magazine the other day that was instructive on this point:

The point of an artist is to find out what are the flavors that I must work with. Finding one’s freedom is about surrendering to your helplessness. I’m a painter. That’s what I do. And sometimes I’m very happy about that and sometimes it’s just what I gotta deal with.
The missing link for everyone is realizing that the goal should be to assemble great teams of good people. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself. We’re often so afraid that we’ll lose people, that we hire conservatively. Or we want people who stick to the plan, because it gives us comfort knowing there’s a plan, even if it’s a bad plan. Strategy isn’t ancillary, it’s primary and the sooner you realize that you need to invest in gameplanning, the better off your organization will be.

In sports, we see this in a variety of ways. Games evolve over time into new positions that didn’t exist a generation ago. Remember playing volleyball in gym class? You could only score points on a serve, but in 1999 to make the sport more viewer friendly, they completely revamped the sport and even created an entirely new position called a libero. Basketball has five positions officially, but the way people grow and change often results in players who don’t fit their position called “Tweeners” literally people who are “between positions.” In the corporate workplace, these people would simply be without a job.

We don’t hire for value, we hire for people’s ability to adhere to the landscape that’s been laid out for them. It’s not an accident that so many bright minds are going off to form startups or opt to consult. It’s not that they eschew rules, but rather, prefer not to play by an antiquated rule set which doesn’t befit the modern world.

It behooves us as leaders to build teams that can grow with our best people. To encourage them, it can often mean preparing them for their next job. In sports, coaches will start off learning under an experienced leader before going off and doing great things elsewhere. Proud coaches will cite their “coaching tree” of the players they’ve sent off into the wild. We see this at the highest levels of the corporate world, but for middle managers and front-line staff it’s less common.

As we age, it’s harder to make big moves. Consistency, security and added responsibilities trump ambition. Our goals change, too. But it doesn’t absolve us as leaders from creating environments that embrace the skills and talents of those we’ve been entrusted to lead. Learning what makes people tick requires time and an ability to care about something other than the bottom line.

Sports has the time to care about people, but treat just as disposal once they’re no longer up to snuff. Still, we can learn a lot about managing our own teams from taking a look at the playbook of athletics.

What If Higher Ed Was Customer Centered?

If I’ve learned anything from being on the customer experience side of higher education marketing, it’s how crazy the admissions process makes parents and students. For all of the grief we give so-called helicopter parents for being overbearing, protective and unable to let their kids fly and make mistakes, I can see the look on their faces really stems from the investment they’ve put in. You spend nearly two decades grooming something to be as perfect as it can be and you’d want to make damn sure that whenever you gave them away to someone else that they’re going to put your kid in the best possible situation to better themselves.

This obviously leads to some detachment from reality. Like when a kid with a B- average hovers near the counselor at the semi-elite school he’s interested in, because he thinks that nagging someone and asking a ton of questions is going to make him more attractive. (In reality, it’s probably the parent who is doing the hovering. But I digress…) Or the people who want to major in six things, because they think the key to cracking the modern economy is not specializing but simply being good at everything. (Because it’s that easy right?)

My personal favorite is this question: What’s the best major to get a job? 

I usually bristle at this question, because I’m not exactly the guy you come to for anything other than straight talk. I’m of the opinion that if you believe in your product, you don’t to do a hard sell. You configure your entire strategy around providing an experience that gives the customer a chance to see how it’s superior to anything else they’re considering. The issue is, not all of us know who our customer is.

So going back to the whole “best major to get a job” question.

I will then laugh and say “look, no one here is going to tell you this probably. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. College isn’t about finding a job. It’s about finding yourself.” 

The fact that I took the classes I took didn’t prepare for my the job market by themselves. It’s about what you do with the skills. Obviously this applies less for some careers than others. For all of the people who show up on Day 1 — or before then — talking about being pre-med as if it’s a career path that everyone can manage, you obviously need a foundation to ensure that you’ll be more successful taking that long, arduous path towards your ultimate goal. But for the undecided liberal arts major considering four unrelated things, it’s really about pushing yourself to think critically.

It’d be easy to blame the market. We’re just giving them what they want, after all. We tailor the messaging towards the clientele. But it’s pretty clear that people don’t know what they want. Or better put, they’re low-information consumers even in the best of times. We’ve built a foundation on a rickety system that wasn’t developed organically. We change the rules all of the time. Everyone has different rules. Imagine applying to live in a new country but there are thousands of them and each has their own rules, processes and standards for admitted new citizens. Not to mention you have to pay them for the honour and after you’ve done so, if you have success they’ll be calling you soon after to ask for more money to support new citizensDoes this sound like a good deal? When it’s standing between you and success in a global economy, probably so.

Instead of simplifying the process, we just keep making it as difficult as possible. When is the messaging to be simplified and will someone have the courage to be honest in every aspect of the process, high minded ideals be damned? Or is the notion that college is about learning how to think no longer a worthy cause in itself?

Do we in marketing have a responsibility to the barrage of information at people’s disposal that’s done nothing to improve the process for customers? Or is the fact that our customers come to us, enough of a reason to keep them generally in the dark because it’s good for business?

Lots of questions with no elegant answers abound.

Note: I realize there are different kinds of college experiences, many that focus on vocational programs rather than liberal arts. But I’m intentionally choosing to focus here on the non-profit industry of academic institutions both public & private.

(Article) Where Real Kids and Real Teachers Can Only Dream of Real Education

I’ve got lots of blog posts to write, but I couldn’t avoid sharing this quote from a story you need to read:

Americans want to talk about how much our kids are failing these days. Those outside the educational system all have their fierce, personal criticisms. And on the front lines, in those faculty meetings, data sessions, and behind the closed doors of ruinous classrooms, teachers and administrators are telling the same stories.

There’s the one about the unfocused kids who need to be taught discipline and compliance so they can get a job; the one about the parents who are setting a bad example and creating a negative home environment; the one about the teachers who aren’t a good fit because they aren’t holding their students accountable for doing work that renders them comatose. We tell these stories as we busy ourselves, trying to reassemble the parts of a machine we refuse to admit is fundamentally, and fatally, flawed. Just like we are.

Meanwhile, our students are losing interest, losing hope, and vanishing from our records altogether, and for all the productive work we do, we aren’t doing much to bring them back

Why Libraries Matter

Someone left this comment on a thread over at metafilter about why libraries still matter:

If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you’re 53 years old, you’ve been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn’t finish high school, and you have a grandson who you’re now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You’re lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy’s. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn’t hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don’t have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly

When the spotlight is on, be ready to shine

If you’re not a sports fan, you might not be aware of the hottest sensation in the business right now. Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks point guard who graduated from Harvard, is Asian and was unheralded, undrafted and pretty much a cinch not to be an NBA starter is in fact, doing everything people bet against him to do.

One of the few people to identify this talent’s prospects was a FedEx guy by the name of Ed Weiland. The Wall Street Journal today featured him briefly — at work, no less — after he wrote an article in advance of the 2010 draft preview for a basketball advanced statistics site that indicated Lin might be the 2nd best prospect at his position in that draft.

“Jeremy Lin is a good enough player to start in the NBA,” Weiland wrote, “and possibly star.”

Let’s distill that a bit more. There are actual people paid who identify talent in all corners of the earth. Especially throughout the United States. Jeremy Lin received exactly 0 scholarships for college after a career where he was named Northern California player of the year and led his team to a state title. He then goes to Harvard and helps lead the team to  a share of the Ivy title in his senior year. Yet, the universal message is “we didn’t see him coming. We had no idea he was this good.”

Except a guy who is amateur stat-head writing for an obscure blog on the internet and who delivers packages. Now with the kid’s ascent, the blog post in question gets crashed and surely some NBA has to wonder how they can employ Mr. Weiland’s services for their own purposes.

But this whole feel-good story made me think about how we hire people. They write cover letters and resumes which you might read/scan or otherwise parse through some source and then you pick the best ones to interview hoping your intuition will make them the best fit. Occasionally, they get auditions through spec work or samples beforehand. Especially in the web space, this is how the game gets played.

What if the whole process was wrong? Going back to the example of Lin, he’d been cut by two other teams before landing with the Knicks in late December. If it weren’t for a spate of injuries to their roster, there’s absolutely no way he’d gotten his opportunity to play. 25-minutes against a sub-par team where his team needed a boost was ultimately the difference between being out of a job for the 3rd time in a year and where he is now. The next night, he earned his first NBA start and the rest is history.

Lin’s success is borne no doubt out of the fact that he’s playing for a coach who runs a system relying on a player with his unique attributes. Yet, these attributes were never revealed to the coach during their practices or any other scenario that would have led him to believe what we’re seeing now is possible. Perhaps it’s just a confluence of unique circumstances which have brought this to light, but the takeaways for identifying talent and for people looking for jobs seems clear in this example to me:

If you’re hiring talent, it’s easy to fill positions based on what you’ve always had rather than what you actually need. This kind of self-assessment doesn’t come easy and it’s not something lots of organizations are equipped to do. If you’re looking for a job, it’s easy to look for things like salary, benefits and other things without wondering you’ll be a good fit. Questions like:

  1. Does this role fit my strengths? Can I succeed here?
  2. How do I define success in this role? What are my long-term goals?
  3. What benchmarks can I establish beyond the ones set for me internally to measure my own success?

This might seem like a lot of headwork for a job you might just have. But I’ve seen so many scenarios where people could save themselves the trouble of being in a bad-fit environment by just being more deliberate about what they’re needing at a particular point in your career. None of this matters if you fail to get an opportunity and so, there’s a difference between being discerning and holding yourself back.

Once you get a chance to shine, you need to put your best foot forward and always be preparing for the chance for when the spotlight is on you. Those opportunities don’t always manifest themselves and so, you owe it to yourself to relish them when they do. It might not yield an arena of 20,000 screaming your name or adulation a world away, but it’s still pretty nice to know what you’re made of when you have a chance to prove it.

Resisting the urge to be average

It’s really easy when we get comfortable in our jobs to start to do the same things. That one bold thing that seemed radical when you first did it, eventually turns into routine. It makes sense. You feel the need to prove yourself when you first begin and want to endear yourself to coworkers. Many of us want to be seen as smart, knowledgeable and the folks you seek out when you want things done. At some point, this turns into the Silo King mentality. Where you are the gatekeeper of information, processes or the ways to business within the institution. While there might be a certain kind of rush associated with people saying, “Go see Mikey,” when it’s a task this doesn’t provide the mechanics for the institution to operate at its best.

My mindset is to provide people with the tools to do the best work they can. Even if it’s not something that’s in my area, if I know how to do it, I’ll do it for them if it easier and then tell them how so the next time they know. One of the things that I even myself susceptible to at times is the need to resist the urge to “know what you know.” Continuing education is easier these days, but reading books and arming yourself with knowledge doesn’t always come with the sort of benefits that you’d think. Institutions move slower than people, even though they’re comprised of people. You don’t always have the tools you need to jolt things into place and just because you feel like you’re right doesn’t mean you always are.

I think the best way to resist being average is to understand what your role is and to demonstrate it at a high level every day. Not just the camera is on and when people are watching, but when you’re alone. When you can take shortcuts and ‘no one will notice’ but you will. It’s that kind of commitment that ensures your own personal integrity, while demonstrating the values you want to promulgate; especially in a situation where you don’t feel adaption is happening. There are big picture issues that affect all of our roles and the key to staying on top of things is mastering your own domain rather than being frustrated with what we can’t change.

Even if that’s difficult sometimes.

Foreign Policy says you ought to eschew the US, send your kids overseas to college

An interesting story in Foreign Policy re: US colleges, cost and competitiveness:

Want to combine a quality education with language immersion? Peking University — No. 49 on the Times criteria, above Penn State — charges between $4,000 and $6,000 in tuition a year. For those wanting to brush up their Spanish, the Catholic University of Chile ranks considerably above Wake Forest, but the fees are 80 percent lower.

But junior won’t just learn language there. The even-better news is that many developing country universities score better on the teaching environment than they do on overall rankings. For example, the Times scores suggests that Peking University’s ranking on teaching is better than all but 15 of the 49 universities above it on the list. That may be why a growing number of foreign students are flocking to universities in middle income countries. In 2009, three developing economies — Russia, China, and South Africa — attracted nearly 250,000 overseas students between them, according to the OECD.

It’s an interesting thought and surely not for everyone. I think the big question for many would be whether or not doing so would hurt their ability to compete in the U.S. when they returned, though you’d have to think it’d say something to a potential employer that a kid had moxie enough to go to undergraduate (and beyond?) overseas. Will cost lower tuition? Will we see droves of U.S. kids going overseas to study in the future? It’d be good to see, but I doubt it on both counts.

“Those connections on your computer aren’t real…” and other falsehoods

I may or may not have heard a speaker recently cite the rampant use of digital devices by millennials. In this discussion, said speaker might have referenced Facebook and other tools by saying, “I have a hard time convincing kids that those people on those sites aren’t real. Even if they’re your friends or whoever else. Those connections aren’t real. You can’t make real connections that way.” This marred an otherwise spirited discussion (that again, may or may not have happened) that was not about social media at all.

I suppose this is a common mistake people make. It doesn’t take a Luddite to believe that social media is all about little e-people who don’t have real narratives, tell real stories and communicate real thoughts. Does it mean people don’t get confused in texts sometime? Sure. But how many times have you misunderstood something a person told you in real time? For me, that happens pretty often even if it’s someone I speak with and see very often or consider very close to me.

If you subscribe to this blog, you’re already a kind of true believer and I don’t need to convince you. I write this instead to illustrate the kind of thinking g that’s still pervasive amongst Boomers and other anecdotal culture experts who see first-hand what happens in the social media purview of their own world and want to extrapolate messages from that. Make no mistake, I recognize there are inherent problems with digital addiction and our first-world societal over-reliance on technology to do things we used to do manually.

But let’s trivialize real, meaningful connections that happen online as silly simply because we don’t understand it. And if you hear someone else being dismissive, speak up. We might know better, but I learn everyday that lots of other people are far behind the awareness of the things happening each and every day.