Tell Them #LilSentYou

One of my favorite alums is Lil Hobson. We have never met. Well, that’s not exactly true: I shook her hand at graduation a year ago. But in today’s world you don’t have to meet someone to know them. So let me tell you a little about her. Lil is a non-traditional student who spent most of her time at UCF on one of our regional campuses. She failed at our failure competition. In fairness she finished third out of 700 students and produced one of my favorite failure competition videos along the way. You can watch it by clicking here.

I suspect those kids in the video are Lil’s grandchildren. Lil is active on Twitter. We follow each other (Dean Paul Jarley on Twitter, Lil Hobson on Twitter). She has a great online persona and her tweets tell you a lot about her passion. She reached out to me last week with a cause that is near and dear to my heart: grandparents who end up raising their grandchildren. My grandmothers were both a big part of my early years. I spent a lot of time with each of them and got the pleasure of seeing one of them cross the stage and get her diploma late in life. Lil reminds me a little of my grandma Susie, who more than any other person instilled in me the importance of getting a great education. So, when Lil asked me to participate in the #DollarTagGame, I gladly obliged.

I have always been impressed by the generosity of our alums.  They were not born with silver spoons in their mouths.  They remember where they came from and many like Lil did not have a direct path from high school to college.  They simply found a way to get it done and raise a family along the way, sometimes including their grandkids.   So how about it #UCFBusiness nation? We got more than 50,000 alums. You got a buck for a kid who needs their grandparent? Do the math: $1×50,000=$50,000. Tell them #LilSentYou.

Father’s Day

In an effort to give Father’s Day equal time with Mother’s Day, I am posting my blog a day early.  Yes every dad knows Mother’s Day deserves its higher ranking, but I’m trying to do my small part here. 

I don’t remember where or when I read this, but an article that really stuck with me said that studies have shown that kids who spend more time with their fathers turn out to be less risk averse than kids who spend less time with them.  Maybe this stuck because when mom was away my kids and I would break some of her rules (eg., eat ice cream for breakfast, jump on the beds, or drink right from the carton) and the article was erroneously validating my bad parenting skills.  Or maybe it stuck because I think college kids are far too risk adverse and that helicopter parents are to blame.  But whatever the reason, I’m guessing that article is on to something and that we dads have an obligation to make sure our kids aren’t afraid of taking risks.

So mom, let dad and the kids color a bit outside of the lines today.   Give them permission to show a little of their adventurous nature. He will thank you for it.  So will I.

Lunch with Oscar

I’m looking forward to having lunch with Oscar Rodriguez today. I consider Oscar to be “Engineering’s Entrepreneur in Residence.” My label short-changes Oscar’s many talents and experiences, but since most of my conversations with him focus on entrepreneurship at UCF it’s how I have organized him into the mental map that is my world.

My agenda with Oscar is pretty simple: I want him to critique my perception of a problem and if he validates my view, I am going to ask his help in developing what I think is a potential solution. I have found over the years that the most difficult thing in getting better results is to understand the true nature of the problem. Generally speaking, once you’ve identified the true problem, the solution becomes pretty apparent. I have also learned over the years that the world is filled with people who are trying to attach their “solutions” to “my problems.” This is known as sales.

So, here’s the problem: Some of our most high potential student entrepreneurs have trouble staying in school. There are several reasons why this might be true: One might be that these kids just were never meant to sit in chairs, follow rules and take tests. A slight variant of this explanation is that they are more interested in starting something than going to school. A slight variant of that explanation is that school doesn’t offer these young entrepreneurs what they need to meet their definition of success. From my perspective these are all just different ways of saying that there is something wrong with these young entrepreneurs, that they are in essence, academic lost causes.

I think there is something wrong with us. Business and Engineering at UCF, like most schools, has a system that is designed to get our students nice safe $40,000 to $60,000 a year jobs in companies where someone else is writing the check. To quote many a GEICO commercial: “It’s what we do.” To accomplish this, students sign up for classes, faculty teach and certify knowledge levels achieved, and students pay bills based on credit hours that can be traced back to contact hours linked to coursework. Grades, linked to knowledge levels, go on transcripts that then lead to graduation after 120 credits are earned.

But this is not how the most promising student entrepreneurs reveal themselves to us. They do this through student competitions and co-curricular activities like the LaunchPad, Upstarts, or use of maker-spaces that do not appear on transcripts, are not courses and do not generate revenue streams for the university. We don’t charge students for the costs of these activities and students cannot graduate from UCF by doing these things because we aren’t set up to meet to track the knowledge demonstrated by these student achievements and haven’t figured out what our contribution to these student outcomes are really worth.

In short, we are dabbling in entrepreneurship, hoping that a system that was designed to produce one set of outcomes ($40-60k jobs), can produce a very different set of outcomes (student entrepreneurs) by applying a little duct tape free of charge (co-curricular activities). In my mind, this is equivalent to the famous article about “rewarding A while hoping for B.” If we want to fix the problem that our best student entrepreneurs have trouble staying in school, the solution isn’t to get different students, it’s to change school by providing a new sustainable system that consistently generates these student outcomes and allows us to pay the bills. Provost Whittaker gave me an opening at a recent meeting to explore making this happen. I’m hoping Oscar will want to join in and figure this out because engineering is a key player in us developing scalable entrepreneurship.

I have such a cool job. It’s going to be an interesting lunch.

What Will You Do?

Lonny drives new students to great frustration by demanding that they answer one simple question: “What will you do with your one precious life?” Some students are convinced they know the answer and that this is all a waste of time. Other students think Lonny is supposed to give them the answer. When pressed, a few students give vague responses like “change the world.” But most respond by telling Lonny what they want to “be” (e.g., an accountant, a finance major, a leader…). Lonny tells these students they’ve answered the wrong question. Complaints ensue: Lonny is being unreasonable.

Lonny is unreasonable by nature. Here though, he is being unreasonable by design. He presses students to find the place where their talents and interests intersect with their tastes and values to ensure that they live a life of meaning. He knows that if they don’t consciously answer this question and develop a plan to get there, that someone else will decide this for them and that rarely turns out well. You find your own meaning, people can’t give this to you. He also knows that employers don’t pay people for “what they want to be,” but rather for “what they are able to do.”

There is a big difference. What people “want to be” is a convenient label. It is how people communicate a sense of self, their boundaries, and a bundle of knowledge that is on average, associated with that label. But as an employer, I have a variety of tasks that need to be done and problems I need solved. Sometimes these tasks or problems are wrapped up in nice clean job descriptions, but most of the time, the solution requires that we all “color a bit outside of the lines.” So I want people who will work tirelessly to do what needs to be done because they believe in the transformative power of higher education and want to improve it. These people volunteer to do things outside their comfort zones because working for us gives their life meaning: it’s what gets them up in the morning and makes them smile when they go to bed at night. I have also learned that when I find these people and give them my vision of our future that they tell me what needs to be done rather than me having to tell them. Life is good. The place advances.
Conversely, I have mistakenly hired a few people who don’t believe in what we are doing, have a strict sense of their professional boundaries or only “like” doing part of their job. They frustrate me as well as their colleagues. If they don’t figure this out on their own and leave quickly, I free them from this mismatch by telling them that they need to find a different job with a different employer. They then start over, still trying to answer Lonny’s question while also trying to figure out how the family is going to eat. 
Let’s all agree that it is better that you work to answer Lonny’s question now, rather than leave it to figure out after you graduate. If you think Lonny is unreasonable, wait to you meet employers like me.

Getting You up to Speed

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a couple of guys who got off to fast starts in the college, landed great jobs before they graduated and were backpacking through Europe for a few weeks before starting their professional lives with GE Healthcare and Citibank. The blog post was entitled The Value of a Fast Start and I used their stories at Welcome to the Majors as great examples of how students could thoughtfully execute a plan to “get to the one.” I then went on to shake hands and briefly chat with about 300 of our new students about their plans for the future.

Those conversations and that blog post got me thinking about how we on-board students, especially our transfer students who made up the bulk of attendees at Welcome to the Majors this summer. On-boarding involves helping newcomers acquire the knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective members of an organization. It is designed to remove some of the frustration and anxiety around being new and get people up to speed quickly so they can become productive contributors sooner and more smoothly.

Our college orientation focuses largely on course planning and the rules of academic standing and graduation requirements. Welcome to the Majors introduces students to the culture of the college, a few key people and our student organizations. But neither of these events focuses on the transition to the College and the “street smarts” necessary to succeed with us. So, I’m taking some time this summer to think through that process and put some resources toward a better on-boarding program.

What I could use from all of you, especially those students who just joined us, are examples of the difficulties you have had in adjusting to your new college and suggestions on what we could do about it in the first few weeks you are here. Just leave your thought as comments to this post. I’m not sure we will be able to address all of them, but the process starts with me listening.