Understanding That Strange Creature You Call Professor

I once had a business school colleague who wore Birkenstock sandals with black socks and shorts everyday to class. I had another who chain smoked, rarely made eye contact, and carefully scripted his lectures because he didn’t feel completely comfortable in front of groups. Not one, but two of my former colleagues have undergone sex change operations (trust me you couldn’t make that up) and another pulled tiny black lace barbie underwear out of his pocket during a lecture– oh wait, that was me (as i hastily explained the perils of getting daughters ready for school).

If faculty seem like strange creatures, maybe it is because we have such unusual expectations of them. Here’s the deal: You have six years to prove that you have many new interesting observations backed up by data that students want to hear, editors want to publish and colleagues want to read so that they can learn from you. There are only two outcomes after six years: unemployment or promotion with a job for life. If you make the first cut, we are going to ask you to be even more interesting and secure a national reputation. If you achieve this distinction, we promote you again. If not, well we kind of consider you an under-achiever. By the way, the average project takes more than two years to complete. Eighty-five to ninety percent of papers professors submit for publication are rejected. Students expect you to be on the top of your game every class. If you need help, call. Otherwise get busy. Time is ticking.

That is your professor’s world and understanding it can help you get the most out of your time at UNLV. Faculty are professional learners. It is what motivates them and it is what they value most in others. This distinction is not meant to excuse poor classroom performance, but if you want to impress a professor demonstrate that you are eager to learn–a process where you are an active partner in discovery rather than expecting them to “teach”. It is a subtle distinction, but an important one. Faculty hate it when they believe they are “spoon-feeding” students–pouring information into passive, empty heads. Questions like ” is this going to be on the test? ” drive them insane. Ask it and they will dismiss you as a lazy student not worthy of their time.

Time is a faculty member’s most valuable asset. A professor has just six years to make a name in a world that is hard to impress. That includes the time they are in class with you. Students are a professor’s legacy. The more successful students a professor has the better their reputation. But class time is short and by necessity focuses on the things that matter most to student success. Not everything a faculty member says is golden, but the answer to the question: did I miss anything important when I skipped class–will always be yes.

So now you’re thinking maybe the best strategy is to hide in the back and try not to say the wrong thing. A popular but bad idea. You came here to learn and the best education happens in those moments you get to sit on a log with a professor and talk one-on-one. So go to office hours — especially when its not right before a test or assignment is due. Getting to know a professor is a bit like being on a blind date– prepare, ask good questions, and listen. The best professors I had gave me new perspectives that changed the way I viewed the world. They devoted their lives to the study of a subject they believed was important and wanted to share their insights with anyone who would strike up a conversation. In sharing their ideas they hoped to change the world. It should not surprise us that unique perspectives come from unique individuals. You don’t have to wear Birkenstocks, chain-smoke, or keep barbie underwear in your pocket, just engage, appreciate the insight and put it to good use.

Scott Hatteberg Pickin’ Machine

This is my time of year. I love baseball.  The attraction is strong: the tradition, the elegance of the double play, the devotion of Cub fans.   What’s not to like? The game’s character is captured in an endless series of numbers recorded for more than a century that reveal the essence of success. Small differences accumulate over time to reveal greatness: if a hitter consistently averages two hits in every ten at-bats, he is quickly out of a job. If he learns the nuances of hitting and averages just one more hit in every ten at-bats over several seasons, he is a serious candidate for the Hall of Fame.  Average four hits in ten over a career and he would be the greatest hitter ever. Baseball’s numbers also reveal a game of failure:  That potential Hall of Famer I just mentioned failed to get a hit 70% of the time.  And, its not just hitters: 25% of pitchers in the Hall of Fame led their league in losses at least once in their career: even the greatest struggle, sometimes mightily.  Success is not about avoiding failure, it is about how you respond to it.

Baseball also provides insight into the nature of business.  Here’s your problem: You are a low revenue club that has to compete for high-priced talent. Talent is everything in baseball—there is no technological advantage to be had: everyone plays with the same ball, glove and bat.  You can change the contours of your ballpark a bit to suit your team, but basically the club that identifies, develops, and retains the best talent wins.  That takes money: the New York Yankees have buckets full, you don’t.

This month, Brad Pitt stars in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. It’s the story of how theOakland A’s and Billy Beane revolutionized baseball by capitalizing on the fact that the players’ market undervalued certain aspects of talent.  While ESPN features home run hitters and power pitchers –the players who get the highest salaries– the most precious things in baseball are runs and outs.  In short, you want guys who don’t get out, who keep the inning going by getting on base any way they can.  And you want guys who get hits when others are on base and can score.  You don’t need Mark McGuire to compete. You can do it with Scott Hatteberg. Scott isn’t a big home run hitter. He just gets on base- a lot.  Scott is a good buy, and as long as you understand this and the competition doesn’t, you can compete and win.  The A’s won by being different: they recognized value others missed. They didn’t compete head to head with the New York Yankees in the player market, but they did on the field.

So, what if you’re a Scott Hatteberg, a guy with a talent most people don’t recognize or at least undervalue?  How do you ensure that you get what you deserve?  Shining a very bright light on your unique skills (or having your agent do it, if you have one) may help get you a little more, but your employer is going to have to be convinced that you contribute to the bottom line in the ways that you claim.  This means you are going to have to prove it before being rewarded. This is the classic situation for entering into a contingency contract—one that pays you more when you reach some threshold level of performance.  Your employer doesn’t think you will reach the target, but you do.  The boss won’t pay for it up front, but should consider letting you share in the wealth if you are right.   You take less now, in the belief that you will get more later; perhaps a big bonus when your team wins the World Series.

Speaking of the Series, forget the odds-makers, the Fall Classic is headed toDetroit.  Go Tigers.

Your Friends are Redundant

You have all heard the expression: “It is not just what you know, but who you know that matters.” Well, your friends don’t know much. Okay, that is a little harsh. More precisely, your friends tend to know the same things you do. From an information acquisition perspective, they are redundant.

This tends to be the natural state of affairs because most people befriend people who are just like them. This makes life comfortable, but dull. If you want to have an exciting, challenging, highly successful life, you need to get out of your comfort zone and actively search out people who are different from you. You want to meet people who can expand your knowledge base, introduce you to new experiences, and broaden your perspective. Be purposeful about this.

I have friends who study the structure of human interactions in the workplace and other settings. It is called social network analysis. They look at who knows who, who people go to when they need information or help, and how the patterns of people’s interactions differ. It turns out that people with different types of social networks perform differently at work. In other words, who you know and who and what they know really does matter.

For example, managers with more dispersed networks–people who know more people from different parts of the organization as well as many people outside the organization get promoted more quickly and earn more money than managers who tend to only associate with people in their work group. And building a broad network with many casual friends who you only interact with once in a while tends to be more valuable than focusing on building a network with more frequent interactions involving a close set of friends.

Why? Most innovation is stealing. New ideas are scarce, but many old ideas can be applied in new settings. Lots of innovation comes from taking something that was tried successfully in one setting and adapting it to another, or from combining existing things in new ways. The more people you know in different settings, the more likely you are to discover something you can apply in your work. And the broader your social network, the more people who will see your genius in action and spread the word to others that you are a rising star. The result: promotion and higher pay.

So stop hanging out just with people from your high school or people who have the same major you do, or like the same music you do, and find some people who are as different from you as possible and get to know them. I would especially recommend that you get to know some international students–they have very different experiences and perspectives, many come from emerging markets and given globalization are people you are likely to be doing business with some day. Developing those contacts now could pay off big later.

You are Cute and Cuddly

It’s true. As a student, you are cute and cuddly. Everybody wants to help a deserving student looking to make a name for him or herself in the world. Think about it: People donate money for scholarships so that worthy students can realize their dreams. They volunteer to come speak to classes as a way of “giving back” to their community. And, who doesn’t find it flattering to be asked by some humble (not pushy) youngster to give them advice on how they can grow up to be just like you someday?

You need to take advantage of your cute and cuddliness now because it will not last forever. In fact, you stop being cute and cuddly the day you graduate. On that day, you become the competition. The number of people willing to provide you with their time and insight will drop dramatically. So, now is the time to start to develop your networking skills and execute a plan to meet the kinds of people who can provide you with good advice about how to jump-start your career. The earlier you develop this plan and the earlier you begin to execute it, the bigger the gains you will realize from it.

Fortunately, the College provides you with a variety of ways to connect with experienced people who can give you advice on what it is like to work in their profession, what choices they made that helped them along the way, how they learned from their mistakes and what you need to do now to be successful later. So, in developing and implementing your plan, some things to do include:

Get to know some of your professors outside the classroom by attending office hours and asking their advice. I know they seem like strange creatures, but they are high-achievers who know a great deal about what they research. They love talking about what they do, have seen lots of students over the years and have strong opinions about what makes people successful. Many also have professional connections in the community and can help you meet people you want to meet.

Join one of the student organizations in the College. Do this as a freshman and remain active all four years. Almost every major has a student organization. These organizations tend to focus on career development and frequently have guest speakers from the community who talk about the profession and what it takes to succeed. Go to these meetings, ask the guest speaker questions, and mingle before and after the event. Leaving a good impression with a guest speaker might even bring an internship or a job.

In your junior year apply to be a part of the College’s executive mentor program. One of the great things about UNLV is that many of our alumni still live in Vegas and are eager to help you get a great start to your professional career. This is not just a matter of altruism, for your success is their success—the more successful UNLV alumni there are, the greater the value of their degree. Many alums have volunteered their time to spend a day with a student at their workplace explaining what they do and engaging students in discussions about how they can achieve their aspirations.

Finally, when doing these things, ask the people you meet to identify other people you may want to get to know to help you navigate your career. This will likely open even more doors. If this sounds like a fair bit of work, it is—but the payoff will be large. So get busy. Remember your parents want you to graduate soon, so being cute and cuddly won’t last very long.