My Dentist Eric

My dentist in Las Vegas was Eric Lac. Eric is a UCLA undergrad who went to Boston for his dental degree. He is an avid Bruin fan, and because I have bad teeth, we visited frequently. Most of our conversations involved football, but one day it turned to my fund-raising responsibilities as Dean.

Eric noted that he had never given money to UCLA, but that he contributed significant sums to his graduate institution. I expressed surprise. Most alum’s strongest affinity is with their undergraduate institution. Eric replied that UCLA had never even asked him for money, but that his graduate institution had gone to great lengths to build strong relationships with their alums. He said the program had always told students that they would guarantee the value of their degree after graduation and that they kept that promise. Eric had several concerns when setting up his practice in Vegas, so he called his alma mater and got his questions answered by faculty within 48 hours. He went on to comment: “That was really impressive. The school was there when I needed them and I was grateful for that.”

That conversation stuck with me. One lesson involved UCLA’s failure to contact Eric. But, it was his graduate institution’s commitment to the continuing value of Eric’s degree that got me thinking the most.

As Dean, I have seen first-hand the value of developing strong relationships with alumni. A motivated alumni base is a dean’s biggest asset. Alumni can help raise money, mentor students, educate the community about the importance of higher education and the value of their degree, as well as hire graduates. That is why I have worked closely with alumni associations and try very hard not to miss their board meetings or events.

But alumni associations are having a crisis of purpose: the struggle has been to develop a compelling value proposition that strengthens relationships and motivates participation. Most alumni associations try to leverage affinity around college athletics to build awareness, solicit memberships and encourage active participation. In short, they plan “fun” events largely around game day where alums can network with other alums. They also give you a magazine that touts the university’s accomplishments and lets you know what other alumni are doing.

But people didn’t go to college to follow sports teams. And even if they did, they can plan or attend fun events on game day without joining the alumni association. Alums also think, perhaps incorrectly, that LinkedIN is now the most effective way to network for professional gain (they are wrong, but that is a different blog post). They can also find out all they could possibility want to know about what is going on at their alma matter through a quick google search.

The point is that the alumni association offers nothing of unique value and so participation in the organization is seen as a “gift” by alumni to their alma matter. In fact, many universities have stopped charging an annual membership fee because alums confuse it with a donation …something the university would prefer to ask for separately.

But what if instead of focusing on fun and affinity, the alumni association met my dentist Eric’s need and became a vehicle for guaranteeing the continued value of a graduate’s degree? This would be a very different kind of alumni association, with a very different type of staff and set of activities. What do you think alums? Is this a better alumni association, one you see value in? What would you like to see it do? Feedback please?

We haven’t the money

We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think — Rutherford

If you are out-manned, out-financed, and unknown, copying the competition isn’t a winning strategy.  Simply put, you need to figure out how to do things differently, disrupt the marketplace and add value in ways that others ignore.  It’s time to think…

Thanks to Karl Sooder for “framing” the issue for me….

Re-Post Wednesday: Don’t Be Replaced by Google

Before you know it, you will want to ask a faculty member for a letter of reference because you are either searching for a job or applying to graduate school. I have written many such letters over the years, but really I just have two basic templates that I modify depending on the student and how well I know them.

The first letter says something like: “This student was in my class. He or she got a decent grade. This was a pretty hard class so getting a decent grade required some work as well as an ability to grasp concepts and apply them with some precision to solve business problems. I really don’t know the student very well, but he or she seems like a decent, pleasant person who showed up prepared for class and participated in discussion. I see no reason why you shouldn’t hire them or admit them into your graduate program.” I would estimate that eighty percent of the letters I write look something like this. It isn’t that I don’t want to do more to help the student out, it is that I simply don’t have more information to share with the reader that they can’t already find on the student’s resume.

The second letter says something like: “I have gotten to know this student very well over the last couple of years. He or she was in my class a couple of years ago and regularly attended my office hours. He or she got a decent grade in my class, but I was most impressed with the student’s maturity, drive and leadership potential. We have stayed in touch and I know that he or she has a strong interest in pursuing a career in a highly competitive environment. This is an engaging, high-energy person who has what it takes to perform at this level so I recommended that they consider pursuing an opportunity with your organization. This is someone who is going places and you want him or her on your team. If you want to know more about this student, give me a call.” My letter backs up my claims with specific examples of how the person demonstrated these qualities to me inside the classroom, at office hours, and through extra and co-curricular activities. The letter complements the student’s resume by bring their accomplishments to life for the reader, making the candidate claim’s much more credible and giving them greater impact.

If your best reference letter looks like the first type I write, it is of little help to you. If all of your reference letters look like this or come from a family member, the best the person reading them is going to conclude is that you are pretty ordinary. If you are seen as ordinary you are going to get an ordinary job in an ordinary company. Ordinary jobs in ordinary companies are being replaced by Google and similar computer algorithms that break these jobs down into their simple steps and process those steps  faster than you can at a fraction of the cost. Don’t Be Replaced by Google. Work now to get the reference letters you will need to standout from the crowd.

A shout out to Dr. Brad Wimmer for the “Don’t be Replaced by Google” line.

Annie and Anthony

Annie and Anthony were two of my favorite students at UNLV. They couldn’t be more different. Annie was an honor student in high school. Anthony ended up in prison. Annie has a calm, quiet demeanor. She sneaks up on you. Anthony has adrenaline-driven moxie. He walks up and hits you right in the mouth. Annie dresses to impress everyday. Anthony has tattoos over most visible parts of his body and I’m sure wears his hat backwards when out on the town. What I love most about these two is that they have taken such different paths to success and are great examples of how to use your time in college to differentiate yourself from the crowd.

Let me explain how this works. Each year the Lee Business School graduates about 650 students. Annie is a member of the Global Entrepreneurship Experience, one of only 20 UNLV students each year who are admitted into a program designed to help them start their own business upon graduation. She is also a member of the American Marketing Association team that has placed in the top three at national competitions two of the last three years. Annie is an honor student, Lee Business School Ambassador, study abroad participant and a producer of promotional videos for LBS. How many of those 650 LBS graduates this year will have this profile: GEE student, member of nationally recognized AMA team, honor student, studied in London, LBS ambassador and video producer? Answer: one.

Anthony came from the mean streets of Los Angeles. He is an extraordinary networker. Everyone knows Anthony. I have no idea about Anthony’s grade point average. I’m sure it is good, but it is not extraordinary. This is not his goal. Anthony is a man on a mission. He is bound and determined to make sure that others don’t end up like he did early in his life. His idea to create cheap ebooks to help high schoolers achieve financial and physical health, won $20,000 at the annual Governor’s Cup Business Plan competition. He also founded the nonprofit Jump for Joy Foundation that works with young kids who are at risk of developing child obesity. (Anthony by the way is skinny as a rail.) Anthony is a man who has turned his past to his advantage. How many students with his profile will graduate from LBS this year? Answer: one.

Oh, by the way, both Annie and Anthony have huge smiles on their faces whenever you see them. This is not fake: they are enjoying what the do to the point where they just can’t contain their glee. Both have earned banners with their pictures on them in the LBS courtyard. I would hire Annie and Anthony in two seconds: not for the same job mind you.

Oh, but you say: Dean Jarley, Annie and Anthony are bad examples of how students can execute a differentiation strategy while in school, they are extraordinary. Extraordinary, my point exactly.

Re-Post Wednesday: Half a Degree

Two years ago the faculty at UNLV was debating changes to the business core curriculum.  This is the set of courses all students take as part of their BSBA degree (we have a similar set at UCF).  The curriculum hadn’t been revised in years and while most people agreed the core had to be changed, there were differences of opinion among the faculty about how to move forward. One morning I was in the courtyard discussing this issue with Professor Wimmer when he said: “I tell undergraduate students that if they can do physics and write well that they will do fine.”  I share his view.

No I don’t want you to change your major.  This blog post has nothing to do with your major.  Being a good economist, Professor Wimmer was emphasizing the importance of general skills.   As our world has become more complex, these skills have become more important.  Those math geeks you mocked in high school are taking over the universe, especially Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Do you want to earn your fortune there someday? And it is inspiration creatively presented and communicated that goes viral on YouTube.  Fame rarely comes to the inarticulate.

Mastering these skills isn’t just important for those seeking fame and fortune. Employers never tell me that the only thing that stands between students and a good job is an internet gaming course or expert knowledge of the economics of sports and entertainment.  They tell me that ineffective job candidates don’t write well, can’t think on their feet, aren’t data driven decision-makers, don’t work well in teams, or present themselves poorly.  And, while it is common for students to think of themselves as “analytic” or “people-oriented,”  the skill sets associated with these descriptions aren’t substitutes for each other.  An “analytic-type” who cannot communicate their brilliant solutions is just as unemployable as a “people person” who expertly communicates half-baked ideas.  Conversely, if you can identify new opportunities, use data to creatively solve problems, work well in team settings and communicate your ideas effectively to others (preferably in multiple languages), you are golden in any profession:  $$$$$.

This is why most b-schools won’t allow you to advance into business courses without a record of success in lower division courses: If you cannot prove to us that you have the math, statistics, communication and critical thinking skills to do well in the general education curriculum, there really is no point in us trying to teach you specific business knowledge.

So why am I telling you this now?  Registration for spring semester classes will begin sooner than you think.  Half the credits you earn at UCF will come from outside the College. Work with your advisor to take serious stock of your strengths and weaknesses.  Choose general education courses that will help you improve these skills.  There is no such thing as too much math or statistics.  Embrace courses that give you the opportunity to write and present your ideas to others.  While you are at it, take some courses that are very different from your major.  Exposure to different perspectives will help you gain perspective and develop your innovative potential. If it seems like a lot of work, it is.  The best students will take up this challenge. I have written this before: Whether you like it or not, you are in a competition to realize your dreams.  Don’t enter it with only half a degree.

Where Learning Happens

I’ve had some spirited conversations with faculty in my one-on-one meetings about how we deliver our curriculum: the advantages and disadvantages of lecture capture, whether we should use more on-line formats, what we can do to engage students and so forth. I am impressed by the commitment of faculty to their teaching, have learned a lot about what we do in the classroom and my thinking on these issues continues to evolve. I’m not a Luddite, but believe our future lies in face-to-face education and blended learning formats. In a nutshell, here’s why:

On-line formats are about convenience and flexibility. The course can be consumed where the student wants at a time convenient to him or her. On-line products allow the student to “fit it into” her schedule and promise to let him learn on his own terms: to balance education with all the other things going on in a life.

In contrast, face to face education requires discipline and discomfort. This format demands students’ attention. It happens at inconvenient times. It forces students out of their comfort zones and into situations they would rather avoid. It does this in public where students are surrounded by peers.

Yet, it is in this discomfort where “ah ha” moments happen, horizons expand, perspectives change, and people transform. No meaningful learning (or change in organizations) occurs without it. Don’t confuse such learning (or fundamental change) with getting good grades or acquiring information (or writing new strategic plans), those can be generated with no discomfort at all.

It would be great if learning could be convenient: on our schedule and in the safe confines of our homes. It just doesn’t work that way. The sooner we embrace the discomfort, the better off we will be.

Nixon Went to China

We have a big image problem. I have spent a good share of my early mornings the past two weeks having coffee with alums. I’ve met over a hundred in all. Perhaps the single most consistent feedback that I have gotten while drinking all that caffeine is that alums are worried about the quality of their degree. Every alumnus wants to have graduated from an institution that would not admit them today. But most of the UCF alums I met were concerned about degree erosion, not insufficient degree enhancement. The perception is that we are admitting too many students, ignoring their communication skills, providing them with too little applied rigor and sending them out into the job market without a professional demeanor. One alumnus said: “I’m tired of hearing that I am one of thousands with just another worthless business degree.”

Perception, it is said, is reality. Our size and recent press accounts of business school being “easy” have contributed to this perception. Newsweek didn’t help either, but frankly we are hurting our own case. In the past couple of weeks, I have seen too many transfer credits from low quality sources, too many pre-requisites waived to accommodate student circumstance, too many high class g.p.a.’s and too many unprepared transfer students put on academic probation after just a semester. Opportunity cannot be synonymous with unfettered access. A student-centric approach requires standards. Everyone shouldn’t get a medal for participating. We need to redefine our culture in the College of Business Administration away from access and toward giving students an opportunity to prepare to compete. Competition is good. It makes everyone better. Students need to know that when they leave here, they are ready for the contests that await them.

If you want people to perceive you differently, sharply differently, you need to do something dramatic to deny their perceptions. This is why Nixon went to China: He changed perceptions of himself and his communist foe, redefining a relationship in the process. Or as my friend Jack Shibrowsky once said to me, “If you want to be perceived to be like a Big Time university, act like one.” Truer words were never spoken.