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December 2015

Shakespeare in the workplace, Part 3

(Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series about Shakespeare's plays.)

Othello and King Lear are two plays about how mistakes in judgment brings the lead character's downfall, but Othello is really brought down by Iago, who understands his blind spots, including Othello's own personal weakness, sense of outsiderness and jealousy and King Lear is brought down by his own hubris, telling his daughters he'll grant the largest share of his kingdom to the one who loves him the most (in other words, he basically begs them to tell him they adore him and flatter him as much as they can; it is hard to love that king) and then depriving his youngest daughter of her share when she refuses to do his bidding because she says words can't express her love for him.

Lear, impressed with his older daughters, decides to split his kingdom evenly between the two of them and live alternatively with both and their husbands. But the two older daughters, while talking to each other, show their declarations of love were fake. They view the King as a fool and are only interested in his wealth. The play is full of their machinations and King Lear becomes completely mad. As in Hamlet, in the end just about everyone dies too.

These plays are two examples of how envious people can worm their way close to a decision maker and set him against someone he believes in for their own personal advantage, either revenge (Iago is angry that Othello promoted Cassio over him) or greed (King Lear's older daughters want all of his kingdom). I saw Otello at the Metropolitan Opera - the opera version by Verdi, obviously not the Shakespeare play, hence the slightly different title - in a stunning production by Bartlett Sher, while the Shakespeare's Globe production of King Lear at ArtsEmerson last year was underwhelming at best.

Hence, I find myself more interested in Othello because it made more of an impression on me, but I think there is more value in studying King Lear. You can protect yourself from someone like Iago by knowing your blind spots, and understanding that people who talk to you about other close associates may not have your best interest at heart.

My opinion is that it is best when dealing with Iago types to pretend to believe them while you watch your back, so that they don't change their plot to trying to get others to destroy you, and to firmly and definitely cut the Iago-type person out of your life as soon as you can.

(Othello in particular should have known Iago would not be happy about being passed over for promotion, and lo and behold! suddenly Othello starts seeing ties between Cassio and Othello's wife. Come on, Othello, how can you fall for that? More interestingly, perhaps Iago was never a viable candidate for promotion, so that he is a legend in his own mind but a mediocre soldier on the battlefield - perhaps Othello has no clue he feels wronged because he was in fact never in the running.)

But King Lear offers valuable lessons for aging people at the top who, in their eagerness to prove to themselves they are loved, may not only end up looking like fools but also watch as what they loved is destroyed. 

First Quarter: The people side of career success for college grads

514ZCU5271L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Today's post is on one of my favorite business books, which has a terrible title and an even more terrible cover (who designed this, really?) but is packed with excellent information sure to prove highly valuable to many college grads: Secrets to winning at office politics by Marie G. McIntyre. Get your parents to offer you this for Christmas. 

The book highlights 4 political types, based on how their behavior affects their personal and business goals: (i) the Winner is someone whose behavior helps both personal and business goals, (ii) the Martyr is someone whose behavior helps business goals but hurts personal goals, (iii) the Sociopath is someone whose behavior helps personal goals but hurts business goals, and finally (iv) the Dimwit is someone whose behavior hurts both personal and business goals.

McIntyre explains how to develop political intelligence and emphasizes the importance of leverage rather than an obsession about a mythical "fairness" sure to derail your career. She writes: "Perfect fairness is both impossible and irrelevant." Instead, she argues that "leverage [not fairness] is the key to getting what you want," whether it is more money for your division's projects, increased access to top decision makers, faster advancement, or whatever metric you use to define success.

You'll have more leverage if you have results (a documented track record), specialized knowledge (that few people have), the right attitude (friendly and cooperative), empathy (genuinely trying to understand other people's problems), networks, inclusion (including others in your decisions for greater buy-in) and detachment (don't be too emotionally invested in your job).

Further, McIntyre warns against leverage miscalculations and discusses leverage shifts. Use your energy wisely: don't waste it on whining, gossiping, scheming and other low-impact, less-than-impressive behavior. "High-leverage people focus their energy on producing results and building relationships. They concentrate on positive goals and things they can control."

Elsewhere in the book, McIntyre explains how to identify allies as well as adversaries (anyone who stands between you and your goal, whom she classifies into three groups: focused, emotional or vengeful), and what to do about those. She highlights something I have found to be particularly true in my own life and that many students don't realize: "all behavior has a purpose", meaning, people do things because they get a pay-off from those things. It is too easy to say that this person is dumb because she did this or that, which makes no sense to you. But to her it made sense. And if she continues to do it, it is only because it makes a lot of sense to her. You will be at an advantage if you can figure out why. It is worth remembering, in McIntyre's words, that "The way you respond to the people you find aggravating is often a good measure of your Political Intelligence."

McIntyre goes in detail over power games ("Power Game players are either trying to acquire more leverage or flaunt the power they already have... All Power Games are designed to give the initiator some type of advantage over other people"), which are categorized into Suck-Up Games, Control Games, Shunning Games, Superiority Games, Put-Down Games, In-Group Games, Scapegoat Games, Avoidance Games. She also provides helpful hints of a toxic workplace, including "power struggles and power plays are common and ongoing", "management egos need to be stroked on a regular basis", "executives are primarily focused on increasing their power or fattening their purses."

She also warns against committing political suicide by becoming "the problem" (uncontrolled emotion, seeing yourself as the victim), and describes the warning signs of political trouble with various levels of gravity. She further makes the distinction between position power and personal power. To assess the power of one of your colleagues, she suggests questions such as "do people listen when they speak?", "what meetings does this person attend?", "with whom do they have lunch?", "could the CEO find her office without a map?" and more.

McIntyre also suggests diagnosing power relationships through a tool she calls the power grid, developed using two dimensions: level of position and degree of influence. This leads to Power Players (high position, high influence), Persuaders (low position, high influence), Empty Suits (high position, low influence) and finally Weaklings (low position, low influence).

To increase your chance of political success, McIntyre recommends analyzing your work life over the following:

  • How can you improve your leverage position? (Power assessment)
  • How can your work make the business more successful? (Performance)
  • How can you enhance your reputation, especially with those who can help you achieve your goals? (Perception)
  • How can you increase your network of allies and supporters? (Partnerships)

She discusses how to sharpen your influence skills, manage your power relationships (thinking of upward, lateral and downward influence), and develop your political game plan. The book is full of helpful tests and quizzes throughout that will help you evaluate your level of political intelligence, assess weaknesses and strengths, and develop strategies to improve. This is a must-have for anyone serious about his or her career.

Costs of Health Plans in Public Health Exchanges in PA

Last month I was talking to an employee at my eye doctor (the woman who adjusts customers' glasses) and she mentioned how worried she was by the increase in premiums and deductibles on the Pennsylvania Health Exchange, where she gets coverage and where the plan she has had for the past two years is being discontinued.

When she told me with tears in her eyes that the cheapest plan had a premium of about $300 (which she said was two or three times her current premium, if I understood her correctly) and a deductible of $6,000 I was understandably shocked. She had no idea how she would be able to afford a new plan and obviously doesn't have $6,000 lying around if she gets sick. She is also a very inspirational woman, having broken the gender barrier on her local first-responders' team several decades ago and being so committed to her community that she continues to volunteer for them in a supporting capacity, in addition to other things that make her a really amazing woman. You would think politicians from both sides of the aisle would make it affordable for people like her to purchase health insurance.

It is one thing to know at an intellectual level that the middle class is being decimated in this country but quite another to be staring at an exemplar who doesn't know how she can possibly afford the premiums for the health insurance she has to get. Further, it motivates people who struggle financially to further postpone receive expensive treatment. This cannot have a good outcome.

This got me curious to see what her options were. I went on the site, picked Pennsylvania as the state and made guesses on her age and zip code. I knew that she lives alone and has no dependent (her children are grown). I picked a salary range that wouldn't give her a tax rebate since she mentioned she made "too much money" for the rebate. And sure enough, the cheapest plan, a Bronze HMO from Keystone called "Healthy Benefits Value HMO 6300.50", has a monthly premium of $296 and a deductible of $6,300, which is very steep for the area we live in, especially for people in such a situation that they must get health insurance through the exchange. I suppose people are supposed to be able to afford that thanks to Health Savings Accounts but to many it seems that they have to pay a lot of money every month and then when they actually have health problems and have to use their insurance they still look at a hefty deductible before the insurance kicks in.

The plans on the website are ranked by increasing order of premium but this year the site also provides cost estimates for three scenarios (low, medium and high healthcare costs). 

  • Low: 4 doctor visits, 1 lab or diagnostic tests, 7 prescription drugs, $100 in other medical expenses,
  • Medium: 8 doctor visits, 3 lab or diagnostic tests, 15 prescription drugs, $400 in other medical expenses,
  • High: 20 doctor visits, 11 lab or diagnostic tests, 45 prescription drugs, 2 days in the hospital, $17,700 in other medical expenses,

What surprised me the most is that the Keystone plan with the cheapest deductible is also the best deal if you anticipate low or medium health care costs. I say it surprised me because it is a bronze-level plan and it is common wisdom that you should buy a silver-level plan instead. But if you don't anticipate high healthcare costs, maybe you should rethink. (Of course we can argue about what is a medium cost and what is a high cost, but the website lets you change the scenario definitions of each. My hunch is that high costs involve spending the night in the hospital.)

Also, the 11 plans with the cheapest premiums as well as among the cheapest costs for low, medium and high healthcare costs are all HMOs. They held their ground even for high healthcare costs, although they tended to be not as cheap for the customer as a plan selected specifically with high healthcare costs in mind. The plan that seemed to offer the best all-around value based on this admittedly cursory look was "Healthy Benefits Value HMO 3500.0", a Silver HMO plan from Keystone. This was also the "optimal" plan (cost-wise) to select if the prospective enrollee knew from the beginning that his healthcare costs next year would be high. Its premium, however, is $62 more expensive per month than the cheapest premium, representing a 21% increase, which might dissuade some.

Ultimately, the five cheapest healthcare plans for patients who know their healthcare costs would be high were all Keystone plans. This of course raises questions of what makes Keystone capable of offering so cheap rates (scale? efficiency? contracts with providers?), and when my then PhD student Tengjiao Xiao (now Senior Consultant at Ernst & Young) and myself evaluated health plan efficiency in a previous round of open enrollment, we did have to consider the fact that the cheapest plans may have been cheap to draw in enrollees, including healthy ones, rather than out of a particularly cheap estimate of treating them. Once patients were enrolled, then it has long been thought that they would stick with their health plan even if premiums increased. Yet, this applied to a different segment of the enrollee population, who receives benefits through their employers. People who find coverage through the public health exchanges seem much more willing to shop for deals, in part because many of them are in precarious financial situations. 

You can find the data in this spreadsheet I put together by keying in all the numbers from the result pages. The cells are color-coded per columns with green representing cheapest and red most expensive.

Further reading: some interesting thoughts on trends on the PA health insurance marketplace are provided here.

Shakespeare in the workplace, Part 2

(This continues my previous post on Shakespeare in the workplace.)

Julius Caesar is a play about a leader who is assassinated by conspirators who fear his growing power, after he is appointed dictator in perpetuity, although he does not appear to have misused his power yet at the time he is killed. The rationale that the murderers use is that he may let power go to his head. The central character is not Julius Caesar but Marcus Brutus, who struggles with issues of honor and patriotism before striking the last blow. The other assassins, however, seem mostly motivated by envy and ambition, in particular Cassius. Caesar's murderers are later killed when Mark Antony turns the public opinion against the assassins.

There is a very straightforward analogy between Julius Caesar boardroom coups in the workplace (although of course battles and assassinations in the Roman Empire sound more interesting than boardroom coups). I find the role of Mark Antony, later to achieve his own fame or shame in Antony and Cleopatra, particularly intriguing because he knows exactly what he is doing in delivering the funeral oration for Julius Caesar and making the crowd do exactly what he says (in a lie) he doesn't want them to do. I'm not sure if the play can serve as a cautionary tale (how can you distinguish a Brutus from a Cassius, and how can you ever be an effective leader if you assume everyone is a Cassius?) but it is worth asking oneself who has one's back, not only during the battle, but also after one falls if one falls (thankfully power struggles in the C-suite don't involve actual knives). Mark Antony had been one of Julius Caesar's generals during the war, so he felt a special loyalty to him from having seen his courage and acumen in battle. But when people at the top surround themselves with colleagues they have worked with for a long time, they can be accused of being removed and out of touch. Knowing who to trust without letting those relationships become fossilized is a difficult balance to strike. 

I think the main "weapons" against the behavior of modern-day Richard III, Brutus or Cassius are (i) knowing your weak spots (because if you have blind spots and are in a position of power to any extent, you can be sure that someone else will try to exploit those blind spots to their gain and your loss); (ii) gather your own information when people try to set you against other people, with the understanding that they may have their own agenda, even if they will always pretend they are only telling you this for your own benefit; and (iii) understanding how you are perceived, and making sure it is the way you want to be perceived too.  

Macbeth is about unbridled ambition that ends badly. Okay. The most fascinating figure in the play, I think, is that of Lady Macbeth. Most wives in Shakespeare's plays have minor roles, and Lady Macbeth is the only one who truly stands her ground - but her own ambition is worse than her husband's. Lady Macbeth today would be Frank Underwood's wife Claire in House of Cards. One of the reasons the series has met such success, I think, is that it dares step aside from the conventions of the genre where you have likable lead characters you can root for, which is all sweet and nice, but teaches you nothing about how bad people operate. Someday one of those might (figuratively) backstab you and you will turn around and stare at him in disbelief - not helpful, is it? If you want to learn how to protect yourself from bad people without having to rely on your own unfortunate experiences, you have to rely on literature and TV to help you out. Macbeth does it. House of Cards as well, to some extent. 

In real life, some politicians' wives today may be Lady Macbeths in waiting, although it seems that they are more often reduced to standing by their man while he admits to his latest affair. (There is something quite tragic at watching a woman who would have wanted to be Lady Macbeth and be her husband's brainpower [eminence grise, as we say in French] having to put up with the ignominies of philandering husbands who are not worthy of them.) Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing the king so that Macbeth will become king in his place, but is so wracked with guilt over it she becomes insane in the famous mad scene. I don't think Claire Underwood is gearing up to become insane, but at the end of Season 3 she complains to her husband, now President of the United States, that she doesn't feel as an equal in their partnership and that she is leaving him. The show's screenwriters know how to spin a good story, you have to grant them that.

Hamlet is another story for someone kills someone else to get the crown and the queen, but the play starts after this has all happened, when the deceased king's son figures things out thanks to his father's ghost. He pretends to have gone insane and lets the murderer understand he knows how his father died by presenting a play that describes his father's death exactly. I'm not sure what he hoped to achieve with that, and just about everybody dies in the end. My take-away message is that trying to make bad people know you figured out their game, without a clear plan to get them out of power when they have already built ties and alliances, makes you the lone messenger to be shot down by the bad king and his allies, even if those allies don't know what he's done. This never ends well. 

Part 3 will be on Othello and King Lear.


First Quarter: Onboarding for college grads

51NV1sxy92L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_This post of my new First Quarter series (on transitioning into the workforce for college grads) will be on the first two chapters of The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins and how I find they can be applied to entry-level hires.

I teach seniors and Master's students and when the top students fail to shine in their work after graduation, I sometimes hear the comment that superstar students don't necessarily become superstar employees because real life requires very different skills from college.

I don't like that explanation because I feel that sometimes it might be made by people who envy or resent those students who got As in college and it is just a little too convenient to ascribe the underwhelming performance of college superstars to an intrinsic inner flaw on their end. If those students were smart enough to figure out how to get As in college (by gaining good study habits etc), they should be smart enough to figure out how to succeed in the workplace. If you view their lackluster career as an onboarding process gone wrong (as I do), however, you can take important steps to remedy the situation and help them perform at their full potential in today's economy.

Top college students who fail to become top contributors in the workforce under-perform because they haven't been taught the new skills they have to gain in this new phase of their life. In that sense, they make the first mistake identified by Watkins's in his book: "sticking with what you know", i.e., assuming that "you will be successful in the new role by doing the same things you did in your previous role." 

I will have plenty of opportunities to write posts about onboarding books out there, including Watkins's, so this post isn't meant to provide a comprehensive overview of his book. I'll focus here on the introduction and the first chapter.  The introduction provides a list of key tasks for the new onboarding leader. I've put in bold those that may be most relevant relevant to the new grad.

  • Prepare yourself. Take a mental break from your previous job (time in college or in a graduate program), don't assume that what made you successful in the past will continue to.
  • Accelerate your learning. You need to understand the company's structures, systems, products, culture and more. You also need to decide what you need to learn and how and when. 
  • Match your strategy to the situation. Are you joining a start-up? a company in the middle of a turnaround?
  • Secure early wins. Build your credibility and create momentum, identify ways to create value. (This point is at the core of the capstone project for the Master's of Science in Analytical Finance at my institution, which I supervise. I have them replicate part of an existing paper to establish their credibility and then determine how they can extend that paper's results in some way to create value to their company. They find it uncomfortable at first but by the time the project ends they are usually happier about the process.)
  • Negotiate success. Figure out how to build a productive working relationship with your new boss. Discuss expectations, working style, resources and personal development. Also develop an gain consensus on your 90-day plan.
  • Achieve alignment between the organization's strategic vision and your strategic intent.
  • Build your team.
  • Create a coalition. "Your success depends on your ability to influence people outside your direct line of control."
  • Keep your balance and perspective by creating and maintaining the right advice-and-counsel network. 
  • Accelerate everyone. 

I found the transition risk assessment table p.14 (Table I-1) quite interesting because it puts into focus the major transitions a new grad faces: joining a new company, entering a new role, moving geographically (at least for most graduates of the university where I work). Some may also enter a company where major change is already going on, which adds another dimension of risk. 

In Figure I-4, Watkins also recommends establishing key transition milestones by mapping out your first 90 days. The checklist at the end of the chapter offers valuable food for thought, in particular "what are some traps you might encounter?" and "How can you create virtuous cycles and build momentum?" For a college grad, I think a trap is to be boxed into a role that vastly underuses one's abilities and training. Another trap is to want so much to demonstrate one's skills that one ends up alienating colleagues.

No one achieves transformational change on his or her own, especially not an entry-level grad. Recall the "build coalitions" above. If you feel underused, spend your time observing your colleagues, how they interact with each other, who spends his time in the office of whom, how the meetings are run. The sooner you'll figure out how the web of power runs through your department, the better off you'll be in the end. 

The first chapter, "Prepare yourself", highlights the following four components to the onboarding process, all of which are relevant to the new grad:

  1.  Business orientation (understand the business environment).
  2. Stakeholder connection (identify key stakeholders and build productive relationships)
  3. Expectations alignment
  4. Cultural adaptation, including (this is where Watkins's book gets extremely valuable in providing a structured framework to think about those issues, so you'll have to get the book to read the full details):
    • how do people get support for critical initiatives?
    • what is the purpose of meetings? (forums for dialogue and real discussion vs opportunities to ratify agreements reached in private)
    • how is conflict handled? (is there open talk about the issues?)
    • who is recognized and promoted? (individual star performers vs team players)

I also found that Watkins delivered a lot of value when he asked the reader to assess his vulnerabilities: what kind of problems do you gravitate toward, and so what are your blind spots (tasks you would rather not do but should do to be effective)? He also advocates to watch out for your strengths (think of the "hammer in search of a nail" metaphor), relearn how to learn and rework your network. Also, watch out for people who want to hold you back, which for college grads may mostly be former classmates envious that they got a better job than they did. 

New grads should take an honest look at what they think has made them successful so far in their career and reflect whether there are new skills they need to develop. Hopefully this would be explained in a meeting with their/your new boss when discussing their career path and metrics for promotion, but it is safe to say those key skills for an entry-level grad will probably include, whether the grad is told so or not:

  • conscientiousness (reliability),
  • communication skills,
  • levelheaded-ness and poise under pressure,
  • ability to follow directions,
  • sense of initiative,
  • ability to receive feedback including negative feedback (don't get defensive, don't argue, rephrase what you have just heard so that you and your interlocutor can make sure you heard the feedback correctly, agree on specific behavior changes that can easily be observed),
  • ability to get along with other teammates including difficult teammates,
  • ability to anticipate questions (thus researching their answers ahead of time),
  • ability to read a situation in a political context correctly (understanding what your boss's problem or concern is, not trying to make suggestions to solve a problem before you've understood what your boss's real problem is and how he will judge options; or understanding what truly matters for a consulting client, not trying to force cookie-cutter solutions on him),
  • thinking outside the box,
  • adding value to the team.

It is also always a plus for a new hire's career when he can read accurately people's motivations behind their attitude toward him. Look out for a post on how to succeed at office politics soon!

Shakespeare in the workplace, Part 1

This series will have three parts about Shakespeare's plays, and then the fourth and last part will be a post on "Is your work life a Shakespeare play?". Enjoy!

I love theater, and I strongly believe that the best plays can teach us something important about the world we live in. What amazes me most is that this remains true of the 400-year-old plays of William Shakespeare. Arguably, no one has ever written plays more relevant today, and in such numbers: Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, HamletHenry V, Richard III, Henri IV Parts 1 and 2, Julius Caesar and more continue to teach us more about human nature than many books published in this century or last.

Part of the reason, I think, is that today's marketplace is obsessed with feel-good stories and heroes we can root for. If the story line to sell books or movie tickets is always of a good hero facing some struggles but ultimately vanquishing the bad guy in either 256 pages or two hours top, we do deprive us from a whole range of possibilities and thus important glimpses into the less savory aspects of human nature. This is particularly true in the United States, where a whole lot of people are obsessed with making blockbuster movies or best-selling books. Yes, you don't get out of a performance of Macbeth or Othello or King Lear or Julius Caesar feeling particularly uplifted, but you do get insights into the things people do to cling to power that are rarely available in fictional form (whether books or movies or contemporary plays) today, except maybe House of Cards. And real life, although I hope for your sake that your life isn't like House of Cards

Below are a few thoughts on some of Shakespeare's plays. Obviously they don't begin to scratch the surface of what could be said on those plays, but hopefully they'll motivate you to grab a copy at your local independent bookstore.

First, the more cheerful plays. 

Henry V is a great read for college students because it tells of a young king (Henry V) who, after a dissolute youth spent partying in the taverns of Eastcheap, rises to the challenges of becoming king and leads his country to victory against France at the Battle of Agincourt. Still, you'll recognize some elements of manipulation: the clergy in the first scene of the first act is eager to start a war because it is worried about a proposal that would make them lose a lot of land. Henry V is betrayed by three of his men, although they are found out before they can murder him. He cares about what his men think of him, and even disguises himself to go and chat with soldiers. He faces struggles and hardship but valiantly leads the charge on Saint Crispin Day and then also wins the girl (Katherine of France). Still, in the last chorus you learn that he did not enjoy his wins for very long since he died on the battlefield a few years later when his son was still a baby, and the counselors surrounding Henry VI managed to lose France and "make England bleed". But if you forget that epilogue, Henry V the play has a happy ending, and Henry V the man is portrayed as a good king who, in spite of his young age, emerges as a great leader because of both his determination in war (he can be very tough or sometimes ruthless with the enemy), his integrity (an old friend from the Eastcheap days is hanged after he loots a church), his interest in his own men, and his ability in rallying his troops through his oratory. The leadership lessons there are so obvious I'm not even going to bother spelling them out.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are the set of plays immediately before Henry V. In those plays, the king is still Henry IV and his son, named Hal, enjoys the tavern life a bit too much, to his father's dismay. The king is even more appalled because his enemy has a son, Hotspur, who is as valiant and fierce in combat that Hal seems to be a big drunk spineless blob, to use a technical term. In the play, Hal really has two fathers: his real one, with whom he doesn't get along, and his chosen one, Falstaff, who is a rather bad influence on him, although it later seems that Hal intended to become a worthy king all along. He even kills Hotspur in combat. Ultimately, Hal has to let go of Falstaff (he repudiates him when he becomes king) so that he can become all he can be. But the play is named after Hal's father and not Hal himself, and I think there is something to be said for the king himself (who grabbed power by killing the previous king, an episode he feels quite conflicted about), because he lets his son be and his son grows up in the end when faced with the real-life trials of battle.  

Richard III recounts the ascent of an evil man to power, and it should not come as a surprise that Kevin Spacey played both Richard III in a recent revival and Francis Underwood in House of Cards. Richard III has men, women and even little children killed as he forges his way through to power. It is breath-taking to see the unctuous manner in which he worms his way to the throne before he has gotten rid of his enemies, manipulating people left and right, blaming others, pretending to do what is in the best interest of the throne, making false accusations.

The scary part is that you can see how such a man could achieve power today. How many workplaces have a Richard III at the head of their department, division or even entire company? Someone who has backstabbed and lied his way up behind great bedside manners and the pretense of caring for the company, and is hanging to power through intrigue, fear and absolute dictatorship. No one does misinformation like Shakespeare, and in Shakespeare's plays, Iago and Richard III fight each other to be the most manipulative man. Richard III goes through various stages before he achieves power, and if you feel you have a Richard III in your life, the proper reaction depends on the stage he's in. If it is still early in his scheming, maybe you'll get rid of him by building a coalition and exposing him. Coalition-building takes time, though, and by the time you're ready to cast light on his true nature, he might have maneuvered to force you out. A skill of Richard III's is to see people against each other. If he's at the top of his powers, but before his people are fed up, lay low and bid your time, if you can't go away. And then if it's time for battle, you can be the one that makes him fall to the ground and shout "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" Interestingly, or sadly, Richard III was capable of finding henchmen to do his bidding until he reneged on certain promises he had made. Dictators today know how to surround themselves with people who remain loyal to them because they enjoy the proximity to absolute power. This is not a pleasant situation to be in if you're not part of the happy few.

Before the First Quarter for College Grads

For today's post, let's talk about things young grads should do before they take their first job and start their first 90 days. They don't have the leverage of leaders in transition described in You're in Charge, Now What?, The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan or The First 90 Days; yet it should be obvious that the time to prepare to make a good first impression is before that first impression, and that means not only before the job started but even before they (you) have accepted the job.

I'm not talking about making a good impression at the interviews, which goes without saying (how are you going to get a job if you don't make a good impression?), but about gathering as much information as you can so that you can prepare your transition plan or quarterly plan with all the knowledge you need at your disposal. 

First, do your research online about a company that is interviewing you. You can't ask good questions - and especially good follow-up questions - if you haven't done your research. Interviewers often ask students if they (the students) have questions for them (the interviewers). It helps to have two or three questions that you ask everyone to see what their answers are and in particular if they differ. You don't want to overdo it and convey the feeling that the company has to convince you to take the job, so what I find the most useful is to make interviewers talk about their own work and their observations of the division you'd be hired for.

During the interview, you may want to ask about:

  • the challenges and opportunities your interviewer sees for the division for the two years ahead,
  • a project they've worked on over the past year,
  • what they have seen young hires (like potentially you) struggle with on their first year on the job,
  • what qualities top performers (among the young hires) had.

Then make sure to take as many notes as possible when you can because it'll soon become a blur and you don't want to forget any piece of information.

When you interview with the person who would be your direct supervisor (or later when you meet that person, if you don't interview with him), you want to pay particular attention to how they define success - which you can phrase as "what are your objectives for the department?", and you might ask how they imagine you could help them achieve that goal - and the challenges and opportunities they see ahead. 

Deciding between offers

Let's assume you have the choice between multiple offers. Of course there's no one-size-fits-all answer to which job you should choose, because people do tend to look for "stamps for approval" on someone's resume, so picking the offer from a Big Name company might work well in the long run, unless you know you wouldn't stand the corporate environment and would self-sabotage in grand style if you didn't work for, say, a start-up. 

If you have offers from companies of similar stature and reputation, I like to recommend picking the job that would allow you to be closest to the core of a company's business, if possible. Companies with clear career paths (with upward trajectories) and track records of internal promotions tend to be better choices than companies with flat structures. You should be able to get a clear answer about what you'll be judged on for promotion and when (under which time frame) you should expect that review to happen. 

You also might want to consider the risk involved in taking the position, for instance given the business outlook of that division. It is also worth knowing if your manager would be someone inexperienced in managerial roles (which you might guess by looking at that person's LinkedIn profile, although be aware that some people aren't afraid of changing their past job title to their new one when they get promoted, so it looks like they've had their new title for much longer than they really have, and may later make an innocent smile and pretend they made a mistake when they updated their profile if you comment on it). As a more experienced hire, you would be able to negotiate a better offer that would compensate for the risk you're taking. As an entry-level grad, you don't have that leverage. You either accept the risk or you don't, but it is helpful to be at least aware of the risk, so that you can take action quickly once you're in the job if it seems that the situation is not going well.

Once you have accepted an offer

The biggest mistake college grads make when they enter the workforce, I feel, is not to understand the people aspect of career success and promotion. You get promoted because someone puts your name up for promotion and fights for your case. This person is likely to be your manager. To succeed, you want to understand how this person defines success so you can align yourself with those objectives. You never want to overshadow your boss. You want to make your boss succeed so that you in turn can succeed, and how are you going to make your boss succeed if you don't even know how he defines success?

But you also want your boss to be aware of your contributions to his team's success, because you'll meet plenty of people eager to take the credit. Even nice people who view themselves as "good guys" sometimes fall prey to the temptation of inflating their contribution on a project because they gave you a word of advice once in front of the vending machine. Also do keep in mind that people change jobs and that might include your manager before he gets to promote you. So you want to have more than one potential ally at the company. 

You'll argue that this is not something to know about before you start the job, but it is critically important to keep it in mind so that you can define the image you want to project and the first impression you want to make before day one. (In the same way bullies pick targets that they think will let them get away with the bullying, people steal credit from others whom they believe won't speak up if they find out. And no, texting all your friends that your colleague is a jerk or venting on your restricted Facebook page doesn't count as speaking up. Sharing an issue with someone who can do absolutely nothing about it is not speaking up and it is not standing one's ground. It is taking the easy way out to feel better without changing anything to the situation that bothers you.) 

Similarly, you won't be able to decide who truly has the decision-making or resource-allocating power in your department before you start, but you want to come in on your first day determined to observe as much as you can so that you can learn all this for yourself. 

So before your first quarter begins in the workforce, make a list of the questions you should have gained answers to by the end of your first 90 days, and of the qualities you want others to associate with you. Later, review those lists every week - ask yourself how you plan on gaining information about those questions and embody those qualities this coming week. You should also review how you had planned your previous week and whether you did get the past information you were counting on or embodied the qualities that are important to you. That will help you identify any inconsistency and take clear action to stay on message. 

Congrats to Chris Martine, Lehigh ISE '10 '11G!

Congratulations to Chris Martine, Lehigh ISE '10 '11G who just started his own company, DrinkLynk, after 4 1/2 years as a Senior Financial Services Consultant at IBM! From his LinkedIn page: "DrinkLynk is an efficient online marketplace and app where nightlife venues bid on customers in real-time based on price, location, time, & service." I supervised Chris's independent study project on revenue management in the music industry in his last semester as an undergraduate. Back then he was already talking about launching his own startup along a similar theme, involving online apps and restaurants/bars. I am so happy to see his dream became a reality after all. 

It is easy for young graduates to get sidetracked once they enter the workforce and forget what they really love to do because they have college loans to pay back or the salary at their current job is hard to turn down or their parents don't want them to quit their secure job. In the other extreme, it is also tempting for young graduates who are not happy with their job in industry to decide to become entrepreneurs because being their own bosses sounds more appealing than dealing with superiors (leaving the problem of reaching customers for some other day, as well as issues of political intelligence and personal growth). 

Hence, I find it wonderful to see someone who had been passionate about leadership and entrepreneurship back in college not give up on his dream but also not give up his job simply to get away from something, and instead make the jump five years after graduation, after he has successfully gathered business experience through top consulting assignments and has the skills and perspective to make his startup a success. Knowing Chris, I expect great things from his startup.

Learn more on DrinkLynk's Facebook page.

Pricing of Gilead Sciences drug Sovaldi

Last week the United States Senate Committee on Finance published the results of an 18-month investigation into Gilead Sciences's Hepatitis C drug Sovaldi and its second-wave successor Harvoni. It found that "[the] pricing and marketing strategy was designed to maximize revenue with little concern for access or affordability." Sovaldi cost $84,000 for a single course of treatment and Harvoni $94,500.

This is significant because "Medicare spent more on Gilead Hepatitis C Drugs in the first half of 2015 than in all of 2014". In addition, Medicaid programs spent more than $1 billion to treat less than 2.4 percent of enrolled patients with Hepatitis C with Sovaldi (because patients first try other drugs and Sovaldi only after the other ones fail).

Highlights include:

  • "In 2014 alone, Medicare and Medicaid combined to spend more than $5 billion on Sovaldi and Harvoni before rebates. That total is projected to climb in 2015."
  • "Gilead’s recent financial statements show U.S. sales of Sovaldi and Harvoni, including through public programs and private payers, totaled $20.6 billion after rebates in the 21 months following Sovaldi’s introduction."
  • Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is quoted as saying: “Gilead pursued a calculated scheme for pricing and marketing its Hepatitis C drug based on one primary goal, maximizing revenue, regardless of the human consequences. There was no concrete evidence in emails, meeting minutes or presentations that basic financial matters such as R&D costs or the multi-billion dollar acquisition of Pharmasset, the drug’s first developer, factored into how Gilead set the price. Gilead knew these prices would put treatment out of the reach of millions and cause extraordinary problems for Medicare and Medicaid, but still the company went ahead.
  • "Gilead set a high price for Sovaldi with an eye toward ensuring a future high price for Harvoni." In addition, "by elevating the price for the new standard of care set by Sovaldi, Gilead intended to raise the price floor for all future Hepatitis C treatments, including its follow-on drugs and those of its competitors."
  • "Gilead underestimated the degree of access restrictions that it expected would result from its pricing decision."
  • While prices decreased after competitors entered the market, concerns remain. "Even as competition lowered prices for therapies, this report documents that concerns remain, particularly in the public payer community, about high costs for treating millions of people in the U.S. infected with Hepatitis C, as well as the budgetary effects of a future single source innovator that might not face competition as quickly."
  • The executive summary further mentions that: "while Sovaldi has significantly improved cure rates for the most common variety of Hepatitis C, genotype 1, for other genotypes, rates were lower and required much longer treatment, at a wholesale price as high as $168,000. Gilead did not take meaningful steps to price or discount its drugs to help those individuals." 

You can read the executive summary of the report here and the full report there.

The report also mentions that "Gilead acquired its sofosbuvir-based drugs through the multi-billion dollar acquisition of Pharmasset, Inc. in 2012, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars more completing clinical trials and FDA approvals." Specifically, it bet $11 billion in a "huge and risky bet" (Reuters). So we are also seeing a company that attempts to reward itself for the real financial risk it took back in 2011.

But the Reuters article also states: "Analysts questioned whether the deal price -- equal to more than one-third of Gilead's market value -- was too steep. A Wall Street survey... found that 82 percent thought Gilead paid too much." So perhaps the high price public payers have to pay now follows from the steep acquisition price Gilead agreed to. In fact the founder of Pharmasset stated at the time of the deal that "They could have had the company for $300 million or less in 2004." Maybe public payers shouldn't have to pay for Gilead's mistakes.

While pharmaceutical companies like to justify high drug prices as a way to recoup the R&D costs of drugs that failed and overall as the price people have to pay to maintain a healthy innovation ecosystem, it is sometimes difficult to determine where the price for innovation ends and the price for greed begins.