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November 2015

Analytics vs emotional intelligence

I wonder what my readers would say are the two main trends in the business management community today, but for me these trends are the rise of analytics (we are at Analytics 3.0 now, apparently) and the importance of emotional intelligence, pioneered by Daniel Goleman, as well as the role of grit as key to success. Goleman has written several important books on the types of skills leaders should have now to success, but this 2004 HBR article he authored gives you a preview of the four groups of EQ strengths: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

Back in 2004, Goleman wrote: "Although a certain degree of analytical and technical skill is a minimum requirement for success, studies indicate that emotional intelligence may be the key attribute that distinguishes outstanding performers from those who are merely adequate." This reminded me of what people say about tenure at a research institution: you have to be an excellent researcher but you only need to meet the minimum requirements as a teacher (be "not-terrible-enough") to succeed as a professor. It seems that what Goleman wrote in 2004 could be paraphrased as: a leader succeeds by knowing the viable minimum about the technical or analytical side of his business and excelling at emotional intelligence.

Perhaps this was understandable eleven years ago; yet I can't help but wonder if the trends of analytics and emotional intelligence will collide, or if they will merge to yield tomorrow's industry superstar, the emotionally-intelligent data scientist. Or are people who like both data and people barely more common than unicorns? (This would make them in even higher demand in the marketplace, then!) This would be a data scientist who understands himself and his motivations and also can work well with his team to achieve the desired goal of using data to help the company fulfill its mission. You will say that perhaps data scientists are not leaders, but if emotionally-intelligent data scientists are tomorrow's superstars, then they will be C-suite executives the day after tomorrow. 

Yet, implementing this vision presents a number of challenges, starting with the fact that the people teaching tomorrow's data scientists may not have high EQ. This is in part because, in some disciplines, the trend to collaborate on certain projects among colleagues rather than with one's graduate students has emerged only recently. Also, the people who teach EQ-related subjects in college may not be superstars of Daniel Goleman's caliber and may, in fact, have underwhelming credibility. Successful leaders (often leaders with high EQ) may come and give a talk at a university here and there but this does not amount to teaching students how to develop high EQ. 

Emotional intelligence is also perhaps not a skill best learned in the classroom. Perhaps it is best to let students observe peers and managers from up close once they are working and try to identify what they think they make this person successful and that less so. To learn that in college, there would need to be debriefing courses or seminars that the students take after they return from summer internships.

The best book I have found on emotional intelligence in business is the poorly-titled Primal Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence. Once you get past the bad title and the just-as-bad cover, you discover a very useful book that should be required reading of all college students, in particular all students in industrial & systems engineering or operations research programs. IE/OR students are already been taught the analytical skills in such high demand, and developing their emotional intelligence would undoubtedly position them for great success in the workforce. 


How to teach resilience

Back in September when I attended a panel discussion on Women and Leadership at the 92nd Y, Debora Spar (President of Barnard College) shared with the audience that Barnard's new Athena Center for Leadership Studies was grappling with, among other things, how to teach resilience to students who have had an "easy glide" into college (my expression, not hers).

My first reaction was that the Barnard students are better positioned to develop resilience than most because they are more likely to have professors and staff around them who actually care about the big picture of undergraduate education than if they were at big-name research universities where undergraduate advising amounts, for some, to giving students their ID number so that they can log into the computer system (and some can't be bothered to do even that, so that I get emails from my past first-year advisees so that I can retrieve their ID number when they can't get in touch with their current advisor).

Maybe I am too optimistic, but I have this vision in my head that professors at teaching colleges pick that job because they really do care about teaching students, and so it will be easier for students in those colleges to find someone to listen to them and help them make a plan to address whatever issue they have. Which is, after all, what resilience should be about.

But of course things aren't quite as simple as that. If colleges plan on teaching students resilience, it also means that students have to be willing to be taught by college professors. And while the fact that students should be willing to learn resilience sounds quite uncontroversial, the fact that college professors should be the ones teaching them is perhaps more debatable. Is the resilience that college professors can teach (how to deal with bad grades when you have always been an A+ student in high school, for instance, and more broadly the potential loss of an identity as "super-star performer" in high school, which must be replaced by something else) the sort of resilience that students need to learn to be successful in the workplace?

Learning how to deal with challenging courses when someone has "coasted" easily through high school is certainly a good thing. Yet, in the same way that people argue that grades in college don't necessarily predict success in the workplace, perhaps that sort of resilience is  "nice to have" but not an end in itself. And can college professors teach that other sort of resilience, the one that people face out of school when they don't get the job offer they were hoping for, or eight or twelve years out, when their career slowly gets derailed?

Even if you count on MBA programs or graduate education in general to teach some type of resilience (which I don't think they do at the moment), you would already be targeting an audience of people who have been successful at entering those MBA or graduate programs, and will not be inclined to feel personally concerned when faced with stories about setbacks and the need for resilience. (They may be interested, but they will be hard-pressed to feel it could apply to them in the near future since they are on a success track.) It is hard to imagine a graduate program that would market itself as the perfect match for people who feel they are failing in their career and need help negotiating their present setbacks. (The Woody Allen one-liner comes to mind, 'I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.')

But people know they need to develop resilience, and a number of authors have written quite a few books on the topic (you can find a list here). Reading a book doesn't necessarily teach resilience, though, and once in the workplace, students may have difficulty finding a mentor with whom they would develop a close enough relationship where the mentor would offer insights into resilience from his own situation. (Most people like to pretend success has come effortlessly to them, as if they were the Chosen Ones.)

This also doesn't solve the problem of teaching resilience to students who haven't been able to find a job at their education level, like the cashier at my local Giant supermarket with whom I chatted one evening recently and turned out to be a college grad with an English major from a local public Pennsylvania university, who had graduated three years earlier and was in a job that didn't even require a GED, while the positions in his major that he could find were all free internships. (I told him to find people in jobs he'd like to have and invite them for coffee for informational interviews.)

So it brings us back to the role of the professor, who may not be able to teach resilience in a context directly relevant to what students will face after graduation, but who can share his own struggles and setbacks in his career path. People love to think of resilience in sports and view the coach as the Great Wise Man who teaches his athletes resilience, which is certainly a reason why a number of companies like to hire varsity athletes, but it still leaves us with trying to help the non-athletes part of the student population - a non-negligible number.

Being an academic is a job where you actually face rejection quite a lot, from your paper getting rejected from a journal to a grant proposal being turned down, and of course also on the job market and for tenure and promotion. Those stories, I think, are important to share with students especially when they face their own setbacks, such as being turned down for an internship or a job. It is difficult to have a class on resilience because you don't want to reward students for having a setback, but if they have a setback you want to reward them for their attitude toward it.

In the end the best would be for students to develop close relationships with a few professors or internship mentors during their time in college and stay in touch often enough so that when they need an outside assessment of their professional situation, they have someone to turn to that won't be their friends or family, who may have some emotional attachment to a pre-defined outcome ("of course you're going to have this promotion in spite of those thirteen red flags you mention! you are my son!"). Not feeling all alone in front of a problem is always a good start.


Asking how to pay for college... Part 3

And here is the third and last part of my series on how asking how to pay for college is often the wrong question. This post is about the "Graduate stock" column in The Economist of August 22, 2015, subtitled "Funding students with equity rather than debt is appealing. But it is not a cure all." If you've read Part 2, you know I think we have to take a hard look at higher ed costs before looking at Band-Aids for the problem, among which offering equity counts as a gimmick in an election year where politicians want to show the electorate they care. The idea - motivated that "despite the rosy averages [of 15% ROI due to a bachelor's degree], not all graduates succeed, so borrowing to pay for college is a gamble" - is that "students could sell a percentage share of their future income to private investors and use the proceeds to fund their studies." The column's author does point out the adverse selection problem as evidenced by an experiment with equity financing at Yale in the 1970s, meaning that the students most likely to enroll in the scheme are those who plan on making the least money. 

There are of course many issues with the idea of valuing college through a ROI (Return-On-Investment) concept because of the life skills students learn when they are away from home in a supportive environment that helps them figure out how to deal with roommates or classmates, set goals, follow through, make friends, become self-starters and the much-used "learn how to think". Except "learning how to think", which may require the involvement of a more senior figure of some kind, the other skills can also be learned outside college, for instance if the young adults come from family environments where they have had to grow up quickly. As for learning how to think, maybe there are ways to achieve that through prolonged mentoring or apprenticeship that don't involve paying $200,000 for the privilege (and it is not clear how many college grads actually do know how to think when they get their degree).   

Students shouldn't have to go to college if it's not going to pay off for them, meaning that they can't pay the loans back. (Then the higher ed market would have an incentive to make college "worth it" to the segment of the population who would otherwise not enroll or drop out or postpone enrolling.) So here is my idea, and it may seem a bit radical, but other countries have a similar system, and I feel it would address a lot of the problems we see on today's campuses. 

First, students should be allowed to attend two years of a pre-selected curriculum and graduate with an Associate's Degree of some sort in any college (not just community colleges). Students would have to reapply after two years to continue in the university they entered as freshmen, or would be able to apply elsewhere. People will complain that this won't allow students to take risks, but the first two years of college are the years where you learn the basics in a required curriculum so students wouldn't have much choice in their curriculum and so no opportunity to take risks anyway, and they could take all the risks they want in the second part of their curriculum. I don't think the four-year residential college system has encouraged students to take many risks. It only encourages some students who have worked very hard under their parents' watchful eye to gain entry into the college of their choice to behave like beached whales once they have finally gained admission into college. If students know they have to re-apply in two years, maybe they will pace themselves more. Or maybe it will just postpone the moment they will behave like beached whales, which would also coincide with the moment where they turn of age regarding drinking, and a better alignment between the legal age of drinking and the beached-whale behavior may not be a bad thing for them and for society in general.


Asking how to pay for college... Part 2

Here is the second part of my series on "Asking how to pay for today's college degree is often the wrong question" (Part 1 is here). This blog post will be on an article I didn't have space to cover in my previous post: The log-on degree, from The Economist. Where to begin? This is going to be another long post.

The first comment that comes to my mind is that it is time people stopped thinking about online education as a cure for today's cost of higher ed in the US. This reminds me of the debate about healthcare costs where politicians have expanded a lot of energy advocating or opposing the health insurance mandate but efforts to mitigate the actual costs of health care have been vague at best, and not only because it's a daunting task, but also because it is to the advantage of some key stakeholders to keep costs high and have someone else (such as the payers) foot the bill, while the actual patients may grumble at the health care costs but everyone who falls ill does want to get healthy as fast as possible, and it is not when someone is ill that the person will have energy to advocate for a cost decrease. When someone is healthy, that person doesn't necessarily want to think about getting sick.

People will pay as long as they have the ability to pay because they want to get healthy (in health care) or they want their kids to have a shot at a better future (in higher ed). But if we wanted to have a serious conversation about decreasing higher ed costs, we should also debate on the trend of many US universities to fancy themselves as a research university, which professors love because being a researcher is viewed as more prestigious as being a teacher, with the corresponding reduced teaching loads for researchers and the time freed up to think about research papers, some of which contribute little to the state of knowledge. But it is more convenient to keep the costs of brick-and-mortar education where they are and distract attention of the general public by touting "digital cures".

The fact is, online courses such as MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) were never going to bring anywhere close to the educational value of real-life classroom lectures because students don't go to a lecture just to learn the material. They also come to a lecture because they want the interaction with a professor, even when they don't participate in the lectures, and because a structured environment will help them focus their attention on the material at hand for two or three lectures a week. MOOCs and MOOC platforms were pushed by professors from top schools who also have benefited from the exposure in terms of reputation and perhaps also from a financial perspective, since certain platforms are for-profit. This complements the push toward research universities, where faculty members gain recognition through their own individual accomplishments rather than the success of their students (which is a lot more difficult to ascribe to a certain professor or even to the college experience itself). So now people brandy about the term SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) as a way to address some of the deficiencies of the MOOC model, as if it was a surprise that the MOOC model didn't work. 

Don't take me wrong, I love watching MOOCs. I also love watching PBS documentaries and good old movies, and listening to audiobooks of biographies of famous US politicians and audio lectures from The Great Courses. It is perfect to keep my mind busy while I do chores or to provide some entertainment in the car on long drives. I like to learn. I love learning new things from MOOCs. As an educational tool at the college level to be aimed directly at students, however, I'm not sold on MOOCs. Their best use would be to help professors prepare their own real-life lectures, or on occasion to show a short clip to foster classroom discussions.

Although a few feel-good stories have been publicized about students in impoverished parts of the world gaining access to a better future through college scholarships thanks to a MOOC in which they had shone (MITx comes to mind), the MOOCs I have taken were predominantly used as a marketing tool for the programs that made them, for instance to motivate MOOC takers to consider an online certificate in public health (Harvard) or to help a researcher in health insurance gain data points on a research project by asking MOOC enrollees to assign weights to various features of an insurance plan (Michigan) or to publicize the very big book that the professor in charge of the MOOC has just published on precisely that topic (Harvard, Wharton). In parentheses I've put names of universities that I'm aware of because I was enrolled in those MOOCs but I suspect there are many more.

Online tools can be used to help students at large public universities keep afloat - "The logon degree" provides the example of the eAdvisor at ASU. There is no doubt that online tools can help. But that will not absolve us from a hard discussion on why the costs of brick-and-mortar higher ed have spiralled so high.

MOOCs are mostly a marketing tool for the university programs that fund them and the faculty members that lead them. Of course they only work as a marketing tool if they are well done both in form and substance, so there is some reason in those faculty members and programs being prominently featured. In addition, (paid) online education in general, known as distance education, is a revenue stream for universities rather than a way to achieve social benefits or fulfill a social mission of bringing more affordable education to the people who need it most. Online education is a distribution channel of educational content, priced accordingly by universities that want to diversify their revenue stream. It has great value in reaching students who may not be able to attend a specific university in person, but it is time we stopped propagating the idea that online education will help decrease costs. 


Google's industrial lab

107wide The Nov/Dec 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review has an interesting article on the industrial lab side of Google, which asks - using the new name of Google's parent company - What will Alphabet be when it grows up? The article's subtitle - To truly change the world, Google's new holding company will need something that has eluded many previous industrial labs: an effective commercialization strategy - gives a glimpse of the challenges ahead. It analyzes Google's reorganization in terms of "the profitable parts of the Google empire" or "core Google" and "all the parts of the vast empire of the vast empire that don't make money," including the R&D lab Google X. Yet, the article focuses on a far more interesting story that arises from the organization: will Alphabet [the new name for Google's parent company] be able to demonstrate a productive new path for industrial innovation? 

The author, Jon Gertner, reminds us of Bell Labs, which "was not only the country's most elite industrial lab; it was, for many decades, among the world's most elite institutions for research in mathematics, physics and material science." He emphasizes that "while much of Bell Labs' reputation rests upon the breakthroughs of its research department, its less glamorous but far larger development department did much of the organization's heroic work." Another difference is that, while "Bell Labs organized its R&D efforts around communications-related pursuits", "Google has consistently and intentionally funded expensive R&D work that is unrelated to its core business."

Gertner then describes how Google has been able to dodge Wall Street's pressure for short-term, risk-averse wins thanks to "the insane profitability of Google's advertising business" and "Page and Brin's extraordinary... desire to spend money on risky new ideas." (He uses the expression "Medici-like patronage".) Overall, Gertner argues toward "organizing complex, innovative efforts around particular technologies" and asks: "How do you commercialize advances unrelated to your core strengths?" 


INFORMS Undergraduate O.R. Paper Competition Results

Below are the results of the 2015 INFORMS Undergraduate O.R. Paper Competition. Winners were announced during the Awards Ceremony at the Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

We had a remarkable slate of entries this year, reflecting the strength and diversity of undergraduate O.R. projects, whether applied or theoretical, in the U.S. or abroad, and represent the very best of tomorrow's generation of operations research practitioners. All the finalists did excellent work and will undoubtedly lead with great skill and talent the next generation of operations research practitioners.

The five finalists who ended the competition with finalist spots are :

  • Beril Burcak, Osman Raug Karaaslan, Ayca Karatape, Alaz Ata Senol, Hakan Senturk and Kaan Yavuz, "Integrated optimization of aircraft utilization and on-time performance", advised by Prof Kemal Goler at Bilkent University 

BerilKaan

  • Omar El Housni, "Piecewise static policies for two-stage adjustable robust linear optimization problems under uncertainty", advised by Prof Vineet Goyal at Columbia University

Omar

  • Pengyu Qian, "A composite risk measure framework for decision making under uncertainty", advised by Prof Zizhuo Wang at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities and Prof Zaiwen Wen at Peking University.

Pengyu

  • Chao Qin, "A faster algorithm for the resource allocation problem with convex cost functions", advised by Prof Cong Shi at the University of Michigan

Chao

  • Paige von Achen, "Optimizing community healthcare coverage in remote Liberia", advised by Prof Karen Smilowitz at Northwestern University

Paige

The two honorable mentions are :

  • Andy Zheng, "Robust multi-objective clustering", advised by Prof Omid Nohadani at Northwestern University. 

Andrew

  • Cagan Urkup, Ezgi Karakas, Fehmi Mert Gurel and Kaan Telciler, "Routing optimization of a drone for agricultural inspections", advised by Prof Sibel Salman at Koc University

Kaan

The three first-place winners are :

  • Magdalena Romero, "Optimal resource allocation in breast cancer screening with different risk groups", advised by Prof Qingxia Kong at the Universidad Adolfo Ibanez in Chile who can’t be here today,

[no picture available]

  • Massey Cashore, "Multi-Step Bayesian optimization for one-dimensional feasibility determination", advised by Prof Peter Frazier at Cornell

Massey

  • Kyle Cunningham, "Alleviating competitive imbalances in NFL schedules: an integer-programming approach", advised by Prof Murat Kur at SUNY Buffalo

Kyle

Further, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my fellow committee members for their tireless efforts in evaluating and discussing the many excellent papers submitted to this year's competition: Dr. Matthew Drake, Dr. Pavithra Harsha, Dr. Nelson Uhan and Dr. Anke van Zuylen.

Dr. Harsha has kindly agreed to serve as the competition chairwoman for 2016. The deadline for submissions is expected to be July 1, 2016. Please check the INFORMS website for more details in the spring.

Finally, I'd like to thank all the students who submitted a paper to the competition and their advisors for supervising their work. It was a pleasure to read about the many innovative and useful ways today's undergraduate students apply operations research to tackle important problems. The entire 2015 committee wishes them the best in their future endeavors.


What theater can teach us about innovation, or: Seven Henry V

71FMVSPZXSL 61DO8cauF5L._SY679_ 51iHZ17DtkL._AA160_ Over the past few years I have seen seven "Henry V", which is not the same thing as watching "Henry V" seven times. Really, it is not. I am talking about the coming-of-age-as-a-leader play by William Shakespeare, which I saw in seven different forms:

  1. The 2013 production at Folger Theater in DC,
  2. The DVD of the movie adaptation by Sir Laurence Olivier, 
  3. The Amazon Instant Video of the movie with Tom Hiddleston in the title role, as part of the BBC's Hollow Crown series,
  4. The bare-bones production of the play at Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires,
  5. The DruidShakespeare production of the tetralogy as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City,
  6. The DVD of the Shakespeare's Globe production with Jamie Parker in the title role,
  7.  The 2015 production at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

Why did I do that? I went to see the Folger Theater production because of the hype surrounding the actor in the title role, and that actor came down with the flu before I saw the play, and in the performance I attended the cover read the entire text of the his role from the script hidden under his mantle after the intermission. I kid you not. We spectators spent an awfully long time staring at someone who didn't know his lines, and no one at Folger ever apologized for it. I've actually sworn never to set foot in that theater again. This was not an auspicious beginning to my fascination with "Henry V". 

This play will be familiar with leadership professors around the world because it depicts a young king thrown into the arena of power after dissolute early days and the death of his father, the previous king. As such it remains very relevant today to young students everywhere with aspirations of leadership. (Henry IV Part 1 shows the future king with his "mentor" and bad influence Falstaff, in a life dominated by parties and larcenies. In Henry IV Part 2 the newly anointed king repudiates Falstaff and breaks his heart in the process. In Henry V the young king comes into his own. The tetralogy should be studied in business schools anywhere if business schools had enough foresight to peer into the future. And for those who are reading this post with the proper amount of coffee and wonder how the three plays of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V make a tetralogy, it is because they are preceded by Richard II, where we see how the future Henry IV usurps power. He has some grounds for it, yet he still usurps it. The lack of legitimacy of his power hangs over the next plays.)

After the DC mishap I didn't see "Henry V" again until I became interested in it because of a side project, and watched "The Hollow Crown", which is a TV dramatization of the plays in the tetralogy. Tom Hiddleston is an amazing Henry V who strikes exactly the right note at every moment. Yet, the movie is not a videotaped version of the play, so it gives an excellent idea of what the play is about without giving viewers an idea of what a production of that play would be like. The same criticism could be wielded at the Laurence Olivier movie version of the play, which gives us a glimpse at the beginning of what a production of the play would have looked like during Shakespeare's times before turning into a movie with Sir Laurence Olivier sailing to France. 

The next "real" stage production of Henry V I saw after DC was in the Berkshires. A handful of actors covered all the roles in a bare-bones stage with minimal staging where a chair or an extra here and there suggested a church or an army. The seats were memorably uncomfortable, but the production was mesmerizing. This is when I began to flesh out my theory about what theater can teach us about innovation. 

Today plenty of would-be experts, from TED talks speakers to business school professors, pretend to tell us how we can become more innovative. Innovation has become a buzzword, who wouldn't want to use his own innate skills to think outside the box and help his company shine? What strikes me is that no one has attempted to draw a walkable path for people who seek to become more innovative and don't know where to start. The advice in professional development books often sounds trite and rushed, as if the authors had rushed to make their publisher's deadline that now allows them to collect non-negligible royalties from the general population's desire to bring true, original value to the workforce. But there is an obvious counterpart to business gurus' platitudes that would allow general audiences to get a glimpse of what thinking outside the box actually looks like: watching several productions of a given play. This is easier to do when you live near New York City, but you can also watch many excellent productions online (especially from London's National Theater or Shakespeare's Globe) and contrast them with local productions of landmark plays not only by William Shakespeare but also - in the US - Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill.

Theater today offers a unique opportunity to contrast the choices made by the creative staff for various productions. In these days where people vituperate online against others who don't share their opinion, theater provides a unique avenue to consider and tolerate different takes on a common object, such as a Shakespeare play. It is also much safer to express disagreements about a play by Shakespeare than about certain politicians, lest we offend those politicians' supporters. Watching different productions of the same play can thus help widen people's understanding of what is possible and what an author is trying to say. This shows outside-the-box thinking and points toward off-the-beaten-path interpretations that pack a greater punch than the productions the audience has grown used for. 

It also documents less-than-fortunate ideas that have failed to deliver on their initial punch, although they remain to the credit of the talented creative staff. For instance, I felt that the DruidShakespeare condensed tetralogy, shown in one afternoon when I saw it in New York City, failed to build connections with the audience, so that we spectators did not care much about either Henry IV or Henry V, although the gender-neutral casting (read: women were cast as both Henries) would have provided a valuable opportunity to discuss the different standards of leadership across genders today. But you must connect with your audience members before you can make them think, and I don't think the DruidShakespeare performance achieved the first goal.

The PSF production had talented actors, including Zack Robidas in the title role and his real-life wife Marnie Schulenburg as his love interest Katherine of France, but the sets looked like something put together by a (very talented) set designer struggling with (very minimal) budget. To give you a hint, the set took its inspiration from the Globe's "wooden O" in the prologue, but in contrast with the Sir Laurence Olivier DVD, which shows at its beginning what a Shakespeare production would have looked like, there was nothing to beautify the wooden set later on. It didn't even look particularly cheap, but it did end up looking cheap when it became clear that would be the only set used throughout the performance. And it didn't look like the set designer was a spendthrift, but rather struggled with very tight budget constraints. In that context, the person made heroic efforts to present a remarkable, spellbinding performance, and the production was very well directed. Yet, it won't be a production I remember long.

My favorite production ended up being that of Shakespeare's Globe with Jamie Parker in the title role, although it is very uneven - and, since I watched it on DVD, doesn't begin to tell you what it feels like to attend a performance with those actors and see them create their roles night after night. But because it highlights differences in interpretations, both from the director and from the actors, seeing multiple productions of a well-known play highlights innovation and creativity in ways that the most inspiring business book can't. In fact I believe that in order to foster innovation we should have theater festivals with one play as the theme, where different creative teams come up with different takes on the play. This would be far more conducive to innovation in the workforce than having self-styled business gurus peddle their latest writings. Owing one's creativity at work to a particularly thought-provoking take on Shakespeare - what can be better than that? 

I'll leave you with Jamie Parker giving the famous Crispin's Day speech. Enjoy!

But really if you watch only one thing, make it BBC's The Hollow Crown. Here is the trailer.


Margaret Thatcher vs Sheryl Sandberg

51LheunQ5-L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_(Photo credit: Amazon.com) I was reading the Economist review of the 2nd volume of Margaret Thatcher's biography by Charles Moore the other day (online extra here, review of volume 1 here) and couldn't help wondering about the fact that Thatcher remains a very controversial figure today, and someone like Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg who penned best-selling Lean In is widely regarded as a role model that girls should emulate. Now, Sandberg certainly is a role model, and that she took the time to write Lean In is all to her credit. Yet, the message embedded in her book's title is one of "let's dip our toe in the waters of leadership, girls, preferably with a supportive husband and hired help to make everything work out". And it is not a bad message in itself. Dipping one's toe in the waters of leadership is absolutely better, for qualified applicants, than becoming discouraged, self-selecting out and not dipping one's toe at all. But it is also an innocuous message that doesn't threaten the established order (and yes the established order is male leadership, scream if you want).

When you think about the models of female leaders girls have today, accomplished women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Aung San Suu Kyi gather the most approval. Those are women who worked from the sidelines to accomplish their goals (ER through her husband and later her columns, ASSK through her longtime detention and public clout, although she is slowly emerging from it and attempting to become a real "doer" rather than "influencer"). Women like Margaret Thatcher - or Hillary Clinton - continue to be reviled in many circles. They certainly had their share of leadership issues or policy problems. In politics you rarely find someone who implements policies universally agreed upon. They were or are far from perfect. People have widely divergent opinions about them. Male leaders aren't perfect either. But when it comes to actually leading, it strikes me that people continue to vituperate or demean someone like Thatcher. It seems to me that people are ok with Sandberg's message because they do want their daughters to succeed in life and a message like "lean in" seems innocuous enough (I don't think too many brick walls or even glass barriers have come crashing down because of people simply leaning against them). But when it comes to actually taking the reins of an organization, then that's a whole other story. 

This is not to say that Thatcher hadn't her flaws. The Economist review, for instance, makes it clear that she needlessly enjoyed demeaning people. Today we need more leaders with emotional intelligence. That might make women leaders even in more demand today. But Thatcher had one thing going for her: she didn't seem to care much about being liked. Today our whole online existence, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, revolves about being liked. But in life if you do anything worthwhile you will be disliked and envied and attacked, at least by a certain segment of the population. The idea of "leaning in" allows young women to think they can get what they want with only minimal changes that won't create tension or animosity. This is unrealistic for the most part. Which woman leader today will show that it is okay not to simply lean in but to jump in? 


Asking how to pay for today's college degree is often the wrong question

The cost of today's higher education is a thorny issue and I find a lot of what I read in the media about it wildly misguided. It will be hard to do the topic justice in a blog post, but I'll forge ahead. (Warning: this is going to be a rambling post. Also, there will be multiple posts/parts on the topic. And you won't learn why I picked this title today, because I've already hit 1,000 words in my draft below and I've got to stop somewhere.) I had filed away some time ago College Calculus: what is the real value of higher education? from The New Yorker and Graduate stock (Funding students with equity rather than debt is appealing but it is not a cure-all) from The Economist, as well as The log-on degree (College in America is ruinously expensive, some digital cures are emerging), also from The Economist.

The key idea expressed in College Calculus, although it is buried far into the article, is that the main purpose of college, as determined by economics giant Kenneth Arrow, is to serve "as, in part, a filter or screening device that sorted individuals according to their aptitudes and conveyed this information to businesses and other hiring institutions" but it "didn't necessarily imbue students with specific work skills that employers needed, or make them more productive." In other words, college serves as a screening or sorting mechanism. The author goes on discussing a study by 3 Canadian economists who have analyzed demand for highly educated workers since 2000 and job-growth in low-paying occupations. Those economics state: "High-skilled workers have moved down the occupational ladder and have begun to perform jobs traditionally performed by lower-skilled workers." The article ends with positive words for liberal-arts degrees since "there is no guarantee of a payoff from very practical, work-based degrees either [while liberal-arts degrees] will enrich your life and provide lessons that extend beyond any individual job."

My opinion on many liberal-arts courses, that I will expand upon in a forthcoming blog post, is that they often happen too early in students' lives for those students to fully benefit from them, by which I mean, it is one thing to slog through Othello or Macbeth when you are eighteen and life has so far treated you grand and quite another to read Shakespeare when you've had some disappointments and can recognize the feeling of envy or unbridled ambition in the antagonists and learn how to perhaps recognize those tendencies in others or yourself and process those feelings in, say, a more productive manner than Othello strangling his innocent wife or Macbeth having little children killed. What makes Shakespeare so captivating is that he pushes the story line to the most shocking and extreme but you can still recognize the underlying currents in some of your past or present workplaces, if you've been around the block a little and have seen enough careers go off the tracks and enough ruthless opportunists come on board with dreams of mega-stardom in their eyes. I hope few eighteen-year-olds will have experienced that, and that also means that most can't make the connection with the world they live in and can't draw any lesson on how they want to live their life. Which is, after all, the purpose of theater if it has any. And any educator who can truly share those lessons with eighteen-year-olds and make them catch glimpses of that world of envy and unbridled ambition so that they hopefully stay away from the dark side deserves a small fortune from his university. But more of that in a future post. 

The "stamp of approval" view of college is what makes it so difficult to convince parents not to send their students to college. But the Catch 22, I think, is that the students who are truly successful after college are the ones who didn't care about the stamp of approval to begin with. Who wants to hire an employee who thinks that life should unfurl the red carpet for him just because he got a degree from the Ivy League? Nowadays you can't just expect a recipe for success like a computer code "IF you graduated from College A, B or C AND (your GPA was above x.x OR you were a club officer or fraternity president) THEN you will be promoted every two years and make $yyy,yyy a year by age 35 ELSE you are condemned to a life of mediocrity, vegging out a happy hour wondering why you didn't do better, sorry! sucks to be you."

And I think part of the problem is that we all want a recipe for success so that we only have to do what the computer code (or the latest business book or success book) tells us and sit back and watch as our life unfurls exactly like the computer code said it would. We want an immunization against doubt, struggle, reefs, potholes, anything that our career could impale itself on. Parents want that for their children even more than people dream that for themselves, and if other people's children go to college then of course their own will too. It'd be great if a company could actually buck the trend and hire more young adults without a college degree, but that would shift the burden (or the joy) of teaching those young adults not only computer skills and interpersonal skills to businesses and industry workers, when colleges are presumably full of people with a teaching mindset, or require more training programs, say, through community colleges, which are already overburdened. This doesn't seem to be the best fit.

But also, I think some students judge each other and rank each other all the time, at least unconsciously. Even students at the same university can judge each other by the fraternity or sorority they are in. So even if the HR departments stopped using college as a filter, someone's coworkers may initially continue to do so, especially today when you can easily find out where a new hire graduated from by looking up a name on LinkedIn. 

Yet, grit has become a buzzword. (Check out Angela Duckworth's TED Talk on grit if you haven't seen it already.) Storytelling too, and there is no good story without obstacles to the hero. So we as a society love stamps of approval and sure-win recipes for success (unicorns too) but we also love students who can display strengths of character when things don't go their way. Frankly, I'm not sure how many HR departments give students with lower GPAs or unusual profiles a chance to demonstrate that they have grit. Maybe we should introduce "grit grades" on resumes, or "grit badges", or a "grit course", or something that would quantify that a student showed resolve and tenacity in spite of daunting odds. But then it would perhaps only add to the problem by being one more checkmark on a resume, another stamp of approval. 

More to come!