Maybe not

Seems it was just over a year ago that I claimed to be revisiting this blog. A bit of unintentional untruth there.

Well, this time maybe is for real. I am writing for work, and I’m not looking for a job (so perhaps I’m a little less afraid of being not what you, the reader, are looking for), so if all goes to plan, I’ll cross-post some content on here.

I’m Back

After some travels in the Himalayas and writing my thesis, I have returned to my blog.  If I am diligent, I will share some of my thesis findings.  We’ll see where this fits into my life going forward.

Resume Workshop

I recently volunteered my time at a library outside Boston, to conduct a resume workshop.  As part of a week of job resource training, I sat down with people for half an hour each and dissected their resumes, sending them away with general and specific feedback.

What I expected was a day where one or two people came in to learn how to write a resume.  What I got was a line of people and a sign-up sheet on the door, taking the resumes of people I couldn’t meet with that day to provide feedback via email.  Though I got one or two folks writing their first resume, there was a wide range of fields and people at all stages of their careers.  Some had been looking for work for over a year, some were just preparing for the possibility that they could be laid off from work (after 20 years on the job in one case.)

On the practical side of resume writing, the theme of the day was, “sell yourself.”  The largest issue I spotted was the perceived role of the resume as a description of skills rather than an advertisement of accomplishments and potential.  In some cases, I think both will be important, but the rational case of why you fit a job description will not actually get you the interview, and my biggest piece of advice for people was to change how they thought about their resume.  Multi-page formats, paragraph descriptions, lofty objectives all had to go.  Clear, concise, and scanable are the only virtues that will make your message stand out.  The feedback seemed to click with participants, and thank you letters after the resource week stated a change to “selling attitude” as the biggest shift for people’s job search thinking.

On the emotional side of job searching, I found that most people just needed to talk to someone about the process.  There was a wide range of emotion in the room, including frustration, anxiety, anger, and exhaustion.  Everyone had such interesting stories about their lives, but not finding work provides a great deal of stress, and the interesting stories were sometimes hidden away for later stages of the conversation.  Some had gone to other workshops or talked to family, but others had toiled silently.  Searching for a job, especially over a long period, can be a very private process.  My second overarching piece of advice for people was to open up to friends and family about the process and include them in a feedback process.  Getting support from people in the same boat, or from people who naturally support you, can provide a great mirror to truly evaluate and better your approach to the market.  Everything about conducting a job search is communication, and you don’t need a special breed of recruiter or hiring manager to give you feedback on how you come across in a resume or cover letter, almost anyone can give you an impression of that.  I don’t think we need support groups cropping up in every town, but community leaders should consider hosting networking sessions for those out of work.  It may seem counterproductive to put people looking for work with people that can’t directly offer opportunities, but the chance to just talk about the process can restore confidence and maybe even develop the tools (like resumes) and skills (like interviewing) that will lead to success.

As an aftermath, at least one of the people who came in has written back that they got a job shortly afterwards.  One is working for a former employer on a contract basis.  One ended up not losing the current job.  All of the rest I don’t know about, but I wish them the best.  The cross section of people and skills I saw opened my eyes to how wide ranging the implications of this economic situation reach.  This is not just a problem for factory workers or investment bankers, and everyone should be concerned about it.  We may not have historically high unemployment yet, but to an individual, a higher ratio is not comforting (especially since it means greater competition on the jobs market.)

Dinner with Saatchi & Saatchi

Kevin Roberts, worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, proved an inspirational force for business at Oxford’s Saïd Business School on Monday.  Speaking to a room of business students and faculty, Roberts exposed his hope for better business and his harsh realism about the tough times ahead.

Moderated by Dean Colin Mayer from the business school, the presentation was conversational and freely tracked between sustainable business, economic crisis, professional services best practices, management, and marketing.  A recurring theme, aside from Roberts’s Lovemark concept, was the necessity for speed and flexibility in business.

The future of this economic crisis does not have historical basis from which to predict the right action, and action is the key to survival.  Roberts says that what business needs is an infusion of managers that can:

  1. Ruthlessly separate core from non-core functions, and invest in what is core and functional, redeploying efforts and capital from the inefficient and innocuous (accompanied by the assumption that sustainable business is core for all organizations that want to survive.)
  2. Provide insight and foresight instead of data and knowledge.  Gaining information is a minimum requirement to operate, but aggregating data is not an advantage, drawing insight is.  Insight into consumers would have saved Detroit industry and insight into economic and social sustainability may have precluded our financial crisis.
  3. Allow emotion to run parallel to reason.  In a classical marketing sense, rationality provides the reasons where emotion spurs action, and that observation of human behaviour should not be only applied to branding, but also to business.  “Drowning in data but starving for insight” may be a new phrasing of an old concept, but it continues to be a relevant assessment of many businesses.  Stark rationality and lack of abstract thinking allows the short-range reasoning to make something as ludicrous as flying to ask for money in private jets seem reasonable because of overly literal interpretations of reality.

Roberts continued his discussion to talk about his concept of “loyalty beyond reason,” which is a concept I was originally somewhat uncomfortable with, but he has sold me.  Saatchi & Saatchi long ago embraced the concept that consumers own brands, and if a brand promise is fulfilled, loyalty beyond reason is not brainwashing, but is an efficient development of trust.  Engagement with the market and inspiration of and by the consumer is the only way to make firms truly act as stewards of society.  An engaged customer base forms a community where the assets of a brand provide priceless value to stakeholders, and creates a far more sustainable market than price competition ever would.

Following the presentation in Oxford, the Vice Chancellor, Dr. John Hood, graciously hosted a dinner where the conversation continued.  Dr. Hood provided an excellent environment to discuss creativity and sustainability in business surrounded by his impressive modern art collection; a manifestation of commitment to individualism, creativity, and the importance of emotion.

Roberts continued to discuss the importance of sustainability as a responsibility for leaders, consumers, and organizations.  Among discussions of rugby, racing, politics, and Oxford’s branding efforts, we returned to the matrix measuring love and respect on many occasions.  As is always the case with engaging conversation, it ended with high momentum.  Dr. Hood polled the students present to provide some green MBA advice for the seasoned, global CEO, and Roberts was candid and respectful in hearing out our ideas.

I am sharing this story, because I think Roberts’s beliefs and way of thinking should be shared.  His approach to business, with a balance of responsibility and action, meets the intellectual and consequential moral rigors I have considered ultimately important in human activity.

Can Capitalism Save the World?

I went to a debate at the Oxford Union a week ago on this topic, and I just came across the notes I made.  Not having the chance to speak on the debate floor, I decided to simply publish my thoughts to the world:

The question above should not be a debate between Freedom and Communism.  Neither is communism the antithesis of capitalism, nor is capitalism the defender of freedom.  Capitalism is a mechanism for “social efficiency.”  It is not a means of wealth distribution as much as it is a way of thinking about wealth and deciding how to measure it.  Money is the part of the equation we are used to, but capitalism actually is based on the idea of value.

To that, I would say there is a challenge.  Value to consumers and suplliers in the capitalist system is not necessarily equivalent.  The fact that a consumer places a high value on an item does not necessarily mean they should, can, or do pay a lot for it.  I’m going to be a bit unfair and use the example of life-saving drugs.  This, in capitalism, would be an inelastic consumer because they are willing to pay almost anything to get it; or, the value to the consumer is very high.

The assumption that mutual self-interest is at the heart of the exchange between the sick and the pharmaceutical companies is not off base, but it does not ascribe any sense of morality.  In my next post I will discuss game theory and how supports and exposes certain economic assumptions, but this is the biggest semantic point that, I think, needs to be remembered when discussing economic models.  Socially efficient markets are not necessarily socially moral markets.  Nor does socialism provide a perfectly free or moral system, and that is not the case I am making here.  What I am advocating is a rejection of the hypothesis that capitalism alone can save the world.

Too often we see two systems as polar opposites.  Though I do tend to believe government intervention in some industries damages the sum of social value (I’m thinking of nationalized airlines as I write this) I also think much government presence is a tremendous source for good.  Governments, when active, are inherently anti-capitalistic.  Whether a government winks in the direction of a business or bails out an entire banking system, it is involved and the market is not entirely free.  We need to accept this fact and, perhaps, move to greener pastures where business and government work together rather than seek dominance.  Both are institutions with social and commercial implications and both need to recognize their presence in those spheres.

Assuming that governments by nature are socially motivated is not a stretch of the imagination.  Nor is the assumption that a firm, motivated by self-interest, is abstractly only in existence to serve some need in the market.  Governments in reality are not always motivated by social welfare, but when I am asked if capitalism can save the world, I think self-interest does not have the scope to measure the actual costs of decisions.  Sheer self-interest can create competitive environments where the big picture is not seen or there is no incentive to respect all consequences.  Markets can sustain continuous growth until every shred of rare resources are stripped from the earth, and if the firm has done all it can do because of that it can simply disappear or move on.  Societies, however, cannot disappear if the resources they rely on disappear.  Nor do they move on.  There was a time in human history when a dry river meant moving the village, but now we face a time when we are talking about global impact.  Governments and firms can fail, but society is a force of nature, and governments and firms are both manifestations of society.

Can governments with social welfare as motivation save the world?  I don’t think that is the case either.  There is an element of nature in capitalism and self-interest manifests in every system.  In a perfectly social system it takes only one self-interested party to reduce the aggregate value for all others.  That is why we see communist governments trading in capitalist markets, because capitalism represents a game where people lose value if the rules are ignored.  Capitalism was present in the most communist periods of history, though perhaps the value being traded was not overtly recognizable as dollars and pounds.

So what am I advocating?  I’m advocating pluralism.  We need firms, we need governments, and we need them to work together.  Appropriate governing keeps things in check and defends the long-term welfare of the people.  Honest firms live or die on delivering value to the end consumers.  Both can be socially beneficial, and both have different measures of success and failure.  In these days, failure is a concept that forces me to write on, perhaps a bit longer than most attention spans.

Roman builders staked their lives on quality.  Upon finishing a bridge or aqueduct, the director of the project would stand underneath the stone arch while the scaffolding was removed.  Failure has terrible consequences, and free market capitalism would allow failure and is more likely to ensure success in whatever units success is measured as.  It may seem ironic that in the current financial crisis to think of failure as a good thing, but it is a motivator and a measure of past decisions that will affect future decisions.  Some executives have been fired and some careers have been ruined, but this pales in comparison to the pain felt by so many people across the world on the backs of decisions that certainly made some people very, very rich.

Financial institutions are partly social utilities, and we all feel that now.  In that regard, though, we cannot allow such a utility to be managed with the incentive structure that capitalism demands.  Growth for self-interest proved inefficient this year as the real costs of things like sub-prime mortgage and securitized debt finally manifested.  I could say the same for the sustainability of consumption models promoted by organizations like Wal-Mart, where we will surely see international economic impact and environmental impact within the next generation or so, if not before.  These companies and practices are not evil, but they do require regulation and appropriate measurement.  Governments must look past short-termism incented by capitalist markets and seek a balance between social sustainability and social efficiency.

Capitalism in the current system, is not prepared to measure externalities of business.  Cash, an abstraction of value, is the basic assumption of trade, and even cash is abstracted further in many transactions.  As a society, we have lost touch with the concept of value, an abstract concept in itself.  Capitalism is not wrong to measure value, but our application of this basic concept is sometimes akin to Social Darwinism as an application of evolution.  Dominance of capitalism and concepts of human nature are quite beyond my scope here, but measurement is the key, and measurement is currently the realm of society.  We must demand better appreciation of cost and benefit in everything we do.  Environmental destruction is not taken into account in price or in carbon trading markets, social disruptions are merely risk valuations in futures markets, and the value of access is confused with the idea of price ceilings.  We face harder questions than the media is prepared to handle, and I wonder if society is prepared to discuss them.  Can capitalism save the world?  Not alone.

One of Thousands of Blog Posts to Congratulate Obama

I imagine there are few blogs that will miss this day.  The United States seems back on track to play nice in the world, and we have a president coming in who not only understands the economy, but will listen to advisors.  Obama has a lot of work to do, but perhaps after he repairs some of the damage from Bush’s time in office, we can start developing a viable energy strategy and a recovery of our image on the world stage.

Is MBA Culture to Blame?

Dearest Financial Times:

Though I’m sure my letter is not unique, I am writing in response to your front cover splash from October 21st regarding the question of whether MBA culture lead us to the current market crisis.  As an MBA student at Oxford, I certainly have a stake in defending the culture, but I must admit to wondering the same thing when I first became aware of the flaws in the market.  For that reason, I am not compelled to chastise your sensationalist title; a label I apply in the most relative way possible.

I think, perhaps, the question posed misrepresents “MBA culture” as the inaccessible, greed driven aristocracy that is the popular image of those leading us to the brink of financial demise.  Though I am hesitant to engage in any similar finger-pointing activities, I would certainly be willing to admit that bad business practices coupled with skewed consumer perceptions (not perceptions that came out of thin air, mind you) are distinctly responsible for bringing us to where we are.  The free market model assumes certain competencies in the parties finding social efficiency, and I am yet to be convinced that these competencies are truly engrained in modern business.  We are to assume that mutual self-interest finds social efficiency, but there is no provision for over-replication of corporate strategy that is essentially suicidal.  If the companies and leaders that allowed this to happen had the vision to know they would destroy their own market, then I am certain they would have chosen greater moderation in their business practices.  I have no idea of how to account completely for a system so far our of alignment in a world full of experts and leaders, except, perhaps, to point to the gap between the two in some cases.

I see the modern MBA as one bastion of proper thinking in this relative wilderness of self-interest.  The morals we propagate come from society, not from school.  Professors do not teach MBA candidates any code of morals as a matter of the course.  Nor is an MBA learning only new tools for business.  Our community, at Oxford especially, is not simply a homogenous gathering of corporate clones.  We are an international community with doctors, engineers, social entrepreneurs, and, yes, the more typical products of the corporate world.  The result is a rich social fabric of intellectual exchange and innovation unlike any other business related setting I have experienced.  We are taught prudence, strategy, and critical thinking.  I would happily argue that if all companies had the benefit of such a community, we would be facing a far more interesting and attractive future.

Is MBA culture at fault?  I think MBA culture is the way out.  Value intellect in business and critical thinking in management and we may just produce a more affable relationship between economy and society.

Thank you,

Benjamin