Repost Wednesday: Don’t be Replaced by Google

This is the time of the year when professors get asked to write letters of reference for students who are 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.

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Clean the World

As I mentioned last Monday, my trip to Washington DC gave me the opportunity to meet and engage with many people from very different backgrounds.  My team included the CEO of Ron John’s, a former astronaut, and a young student from UF (who was getting way out of his comfort zone).

It is awfully hard to beat an astronaut, but probably the best story I heard came from Shawn Seipler.  Shawn is a father of four who was looking for a way out of all the travel associated with his sales and marketing job.  One day while in one of an endless stream of hotel rooms, he called down to the front desk to inquire about what happens to all of the bars of soap and shampoo in hotel rooms when the customer checks out.  The answer of course was that it is thrown away.   It was then that Shawn and his partner Paul Till, started to research the potential for recycling soap products.  Their orignial goal was to keep them out of landfills, but  while doing this research, the team discovered that two very deadly child diseases:acute respiratory illness and diarrheal disease could be significantly reduced simply by giving kids soap to wash their hands.

It was from this research that Clean the World was born.  Clean the World now employs 30 people here in Orlando and works with corporate partners to recycle soap and distribute it to impovrished people around the world. I found his story so compelling, such a great example of professional risk-taking, cross-disciplinary collaboration and data-driven decision-making that I invited him to speak at UCF.  But, I had already been beaten to the punch:  Shawn will be speaking in the student union at 4:30 on April 9th as a guest of our Center for Entrepreneurship.  If you want inspiration, come out and hear his story.

Repost Wednesday: Getting the most out of Your Advisor

This is dangerous territory for me.  My wife is an experienced advisor.  Like me, she is opinionated. If I get this wrong, Suzanne is likely to write a rebuttal and post it on this site.  I admit to more than a little fear but I first decided to cowboy-up and write on this subject because I was hiring a couple of new advisors. While interviewing the candidates I had been reflecting on the challenges and rewards of academic advising and what qualities I am looking for when hiring advisors.

Most students think of their advisor far too narrowly.  They see him or her as the person who is going to ensure that they fulfill all of their degree requirements in an efficient and timely manner so that they can graduate on time.   Those students who are a little more bold will also ask their advisor about the relative reputations of the different faculty who teach the same course they need in an effort to get the best one.

If you can’t figure out how to complete a plan of study, I question our decision to admit you into the college.  If you do need help, there are computer programs that perform progress toward degree audits. And if aIl I needed advisors to do is perform this function, I would realize that I can pay a computer program a lot less than advisors to do it.  As for advice on which professor to take, if you need help with this sort of information, befriend some fellow students.  They are much more likely to provide candid assessments of faculty teaching efficacy than advisors.  Advisors need to have good relationships with faculty to be effective.  Telling students that professor A is better than professor B is hazardous to their professional future.

Your advisor should be an expert on how you can best use the resources of the university to get the most out of your education and personal development.   This requires that an advisor know something about you: your aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses.  It also requires that the advisor be knowledgeable about the entire university and its many resources so that he or she can help you access them (e.g., tutoring, counseling, technology, libraries, career services, internships, study-abroad opportunities, community service experiences, leadership opportunities, student organizations etc. etc.).  If they know both of these things, they than can help you reach  your goals, providie you with an unbiased assessment of how well you are doing in executing your plan and provide options for mid-course corrections if necessary.

Understand that your advisor is responsible for about 1000 students each at UCF and most students want to see them at exactly the same time: registration.  So if you plan on  meeting your advisor during registration, realize that this is when you are going to get the least amount of time with them.  Also recognize that it is hard to get to know anyone in 15 minutes.  If this is the only time you can meet your advisor, be very prepared and use that time as efficiently as possible.  The better strategy is to plan to meet with your advisor a couple of times each semester, at least once or twice at times other than registration.  Get to know them and help them to get to know you so that you can create your professional development plan together and meaningfully assess your progress.

If you do this, your advisor can turn out to be one of the most important people you meet while in school.  Suzanne has former students who write to her, follow her on Facebook, and invite her to lunch years after they graduate from school.  Developing those kinds of professional relationships with students is what I want from my advisors. Computer programs don’t do this.

The Value of Getting Out of My Comfort Zone

Last week I was fortunate to accompany members of the Central Florida Partnership to our nation’s Capitol to discuss among other things the importance of university research and entrepreneurship. There were about 70 of us on a trip beautifully orchestrated by Jacob Stuart and his staff where we met with members of the Florida congressional delegation in small groups. I was assigned to Jacob’s group no doubt to ensure that an experienced hand was watching the new guy. It was not my first time interacting with legislators (I worked for the Wisconsin Legislative Council many years ago), but it was my first foray onto Capitol Hill.

When I learned of this trip, I debated going. It was two days out of my busy schedule. It had a nontrivial price tag and federal initiatives are much more important to research in science and engineering than business. Yet, Legislators often overlook the importance of business education in commercializing STEM-based research. The trip was an opportunity to educate legislators on this topic, support my STEM colleagues, champion public-private partnerships, and network with many key community leaders. When I decided to go, I thought, “either this is going to be one of the more interesting things I have done since coming to UCF or it is going to be two days of my life I’m never getting back.” Happily, it turned out to be the former rather than the latter.

The trip offered several great lessons in how to successfully step out of your comfort zone. For one, It never hurts to have an experienced guide. Jacob, who had spent years on the Hill navigated us through the protocols that come with meeting our representatives, pointing out the rituals, norms and behaviors expected of visitors to Congressional offices. He also explained the crowded calendars of our legislators, the need to be succinct and the importance of staying on message. If you didn’t know what to do, the fallback was to observe and take your queue from Jacob. He would pull you through.

Second, make sure you know what is important to your hosts. They are going to listen to you to the extent that they think you have something important to tell them….stuff they need to know to be successful–not stuff that is just important to you. For example, legislators are about bang for the buck. They have busy schedules and people have lots of issues. The more pervasive the problem you bring, the more important it is to them and the more likely solving it will get them re-elected. So don’t talk about you, talk about how the issue impacts as many people as possible….. In this case, why it is important to the county.

Third, understand how people in this new setting learn and speak in their language, not yours. I remember this well from my days in Wisconsin: Legislators learn by constituents’ story telling much more than they do through data analysis. I was trained in my world to do just the opposite- to put my faith in carefully collected and analyzed data, but I saw stories kill data in legislative settings all the time. If you wanted to win with legislators you had to bring them citizens who could effectively tell stories that were consistent with the data. The whole Central Florida Partnership trip was an exercise in this…here were a broad cross-section of regular everyday citizen’s, not paid lobbyists, visiting their representatives to tell them stories they needed to hear to ensure America’s future success. Charts, tables, regression coefficients, standard errors, and effect sizes need not apply.

These are lessons every student needs to learn to be effective in new settings, but the biggest payoff from the trip for me was the ideas, insights and new contacts I got from talking to people I don’t normally hang out with. The two-day trip generated ideas for three blog posts: Today’s post, next Monday’s post on Shawn Seipler and Clean the World, and a yet-to-be scheduled post on very successful people who think it is important to go back to school and finish their degree. I also got ideas for two new degree programs (my staff will be thrilled to read this) as well as some constructive feedback on one of our signature programs that would have been difficult to get in other settings. Finally, I met several influential people who would now take my call when I wanted to engage them in some way for the benefit of UCF. All in all, an efficient use of my time and the college’s money.

Repost Wednesday: Half a Degree

A few years ago when I was at UNLV, the faculty was debating changes to the business core curriculum. This is the set of courses all students take as part of their BSBA degree. 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 we 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 begins soon. Half the credits you earn at UCF will come from outside the COBA. 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.

Margaret Jarley: Sneaky Smart

Forgive me for being a bit of a homer, but my daughter Maggie is a walking example of the kind of student I would like us to attract, cultivate and graduate here in the college.

Maggie isn’t five feet tall. She is blonde and still watches the Disney channel. Her friends refer to her as “sneaky smart” — her appearance and demeanor belie her intellect. You never see her coming. Maggie went far away to school..all the way to the Big Apple where after searching around for a while she majored in Actuarial Science and minored in Math. Along the way she got to be in a couple of MTV music videos and was on the school’s dance team.

Maggie competes in a very male dominated profession. Her sneaky smartness and failure to get a meaningful internship experience along the way, left her struggling in a tough economy to get her first job. After months of looking, she landed at Geico in Washington DC where she used her ability to analyze data in real time to recommend policy and procedure changes to top management. She even got to meet the gecko. He is from….(sorry, it’s a trade secret).

But after about eighteen months Maggie was looking for a new challenge and found one when Netflix offered to double her salary to move to San Francisco and use her same talents to help them make go-to-market decisions on new product innovations. When she called me to discuss the cross-country move, I expressed concern given Netflix’s recent history. Maggie responded: “Well it gets me out to Silicon Valley where I’m sure I will make a lot of really good connections that will
generate opportunities. If this doesn’t work out, I’m sure I will land on my feet.” How awesome I thought, my concerns were replaced with envy.

A willingness to get out of your comfort zone and interact with people different from yourself, an ability to use real time data to drive decisions, and the courage to take risk in your professional career….hmm maybe I should add sneaky smart….

Take Professors Not Classes

Last week Greg Mathison invited me to sit in on his Change Management class in the Professional Masters in Management Program downtown at the Executive Development Center on Pine Street. They were doing a presentation on Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s book “The Innovative University.” Greg knew the topic would be of interest to me and I wanted to engage students in a dialogue about the future of higher education in the face of so many potentially disruptive forces.

At one point in the students’ presentation, they had a line on a slide that read:

Take Professors not Courses

Being skeptical of the many versions of “the sky is falling in higher education”, I thought well at least the authors got that right.

Taking courses is about filling out plans of study. That is about graduating. Taking professors is about gaining insight and perspective. That is at the core of higher education.

Every professor knows exactly what I mean. They were someone’s student and can tell you who. I am a James Stern/Paula Voos/Craig Olson student. This matters in how I view the world, seek solutions, and define success.

You want to take professors who will make you their student. Doing that will help make you unique.