Sunday, November 26, 2017

Five Principles that Guide me when I work with College Students

Twenty two years ago I left a corporate career to move to academics. Through my evolution from a PhD student to a Professor, teaching has always been an important part of my job. On this weekend, when I am thankful for all the students I have worked with, I wanted to share a few principles that have guided me when I teach – I believe they have played a big role in my effectiveness as a good teacher.

Love  Teaching and Respect the Students:  Early in my career I had a class with 4 challenging students. They were disruptive and borderline insolent in their interactions. I often found myself designing class sessions to control them, and made rules increasingly tough. At the end of the semester, a few students stopped by and shared their class experience. Only then did I see my behavior as one that had punished the silent majority of good students for the transgressions of the few bad ones.
As I introspected after that semester, I realized how easy it is for young Professors to start distrusting, and even disliking students.  Tenure, promotion and salary decisions (in Business Schools at Research 1 Universities in America) are tied to a Professor’s research output. Teaching rarely factors into these decisions. In such an environment, graduate students and young professors receive advice to avoid spending too much time on teaching. Some, then come to view students and teaching as a nuisance. When a Professor goes into class believing teaching is a distraction and is suspicious of the students, it comes through to the students, who react negatively setting off a reinforcing cycle. I advocate the opposite approach. And in this context, I was profoundly influenced by a remark made by my colleague Alan Ellstrand when he received a top teaching award. He ended his speech as follows:
“Recently, my son Kevin entered the University and as a proud father I followed his efforts. Interestingly, today, when I look around at students on campus, they all look like Kevin.”
I have known dozens of teachers in my career…and if they like and respect students the way Alan does, they tend to become good teachers. And loving and respecting your students often times means accepting that in any class there will be a few students who are disruptive and making sure we don’t generalize their behaviors to the whole class.

The Teacher is the Role Model: As teachers, we often have (and ought to have) exacting standards for our students. However, when I ask a lot from my students I need to make sure that I ask the same from myself. How can I punish students for late submissions if I come to class late? How can I teach professionalism if I don’t answer their emails in a timely manner, or take forever to grade their assignments and papers? Whenever I have found myself slipping on this, I know that my class will not go well – at least by my personal standards. Students observe their professors. And they will work hard for those they see working hard for them.  Teaching complex material in a simple clear way is a skill that takes time to polish. On the other hand, taking care of the small professional aspects of running a classroom can immediately provide a huge boost to a professor’s class performance.

Know your objectives Most teachers have clearly defined objectives for their course. These are usually in terms of the content taught. However, I try to think beyond the content. Some courses focus primarily on providing information to students. Others focus on building critical thinking abilities, while some focus on training for the use of specific techniques. Knowing what your course is supposed to do is critical. I have known professors go into classes meant to build critical thinking skills and then spend the whole semester in lecture – usually a huge mismatch between the objective and the teaching technique.  
Going further, I focus on what a student needs to get out of EVERY class session.  If the sole purpose of a 75-minute class is to provide information then a lecture may be the right way to go.   So how do I get students excited about the lecture? I may begin with an example or a short video that raises issues about the topic and is gray enough for the students to have a debate. After 10 minutes of such a discussion, the students are far more likely to pay attention to a lecture. When the focus is to help students in critical thinking then I try a mix – some lecture, a short in class assignment, and sometimes a video case. I know from experience, that thinking through the objectives of each class and then planning the class to meet that objective, is something that creates variety in classes (students tell me they appreciate the variety within a given class, and the variety between different classes in a semester), and leads to better learning outcomes.

Preparation: A few weeks ago, a colleague walked into my office an hour before I was to teach and was surprised to see me talking to the powerpoints on my computer screen. I was actually rehearsing how I would introduce a new topic in class.  She was astonished. I had taught this particular class for over two decades.  The fact is that that is EXACTLY why I need to prep. The danger of complacence, using dated examples, and into mindlessly going through the motions is greatest when we have been teaching that long. For me, preparation is key. I need to prep my delivery, the examples I will use, even look over student pictures so that I remember their names. I never like to have a conversation in the hour before I teach – because as I am prepping, I feel myself getting into a zone  - I don’t want that disrupted. On the occasions that I have gone into class without prep, I know that I have not used the best examples, have made mistakes, and have had to correct myself frequently. And I have not enjoyed teaching…and when that happens it’s almost certain the students don’t enjoy it either.

Learn and Evolve:  About a decade ago, I received a series of teaching awards at my university. Yet, I noticed disturbing signals – qualitative comments in my teaching evaluations suggested that I was talking over students, that I was tardy in grading, and I particularly remember one comment that hurt a lot ‘I think he sometimes wishes he was not in the classroom.’ My evaluations were still excellent but the comments were consistent across three very different sets of students. I knew I was slipping.
When I had started out as a teacher, I was happy to read the text desperately trying to stay two weeks ahead of the students. With experience, content was less of an issue. But as I got comfortable in teaching, the need to evolve as a teacher diminished. I introspected and then instituted changes in the way I teach – including a commitment to never teaching a class in exactly the same way. It is only when I try something new, when I fear an experiment going wrong, that I avoid complacency.

I don’t believe that the principles I have listed are the only ways to succeed. And I have not always been true to them. But to all aspiring academics I will say – working with students can be one of the most rewarding jobs there is. It is challenging, some students can drive you to distraction, but if you give thought and effort to it, teaching pays back in many ways. Over the years, I used to get appreciation notes from students at the end of the semester. They meant a lot to me, but after a while I would throw them away. A few years ago I was moving offices. And as I unpacked (on a day when I had had some very hard conversations) I came across a bunch of these old notes that I hadn’t yet discarded. I remember sitting down, reading and rereading them. The bad day was no longer so bad. I never threw notes away again. Today, I have a cork-board displayed in my office and when I get a nice note, I pin it there. Some days when I am not at the top of my game, I walk over to the board and read some of the notes….and the day seems wonderful again. A big thank you to all my students down the years. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

On What we Want, What we Do, and What we Really Measure

This year I've twice visited Varanasi - an ancient city in India. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world -- it is the seat of Hinduism and the place where Buddha gave his first sermon to establish Buddhism. On both trips I had the opportunity to meet an extraordinary gentleman -- Ajeet Singh -- someone who has dedicated his life to fighting child sexual trafficking (See http://www.guriaindia.org/about-us.php ).  What he does is fascinating, noble, and humbling and you can read more about it in the link above. However, he shared a couple of thoughts that got me thinking about something that is the focus of this blog.

Ajeet Singh Talking to Students of the Walton
College of Business' India Study Abroad
Ajeet Singh and I discussed working with funding organizations. He was, quite obviously, very grateful for the support he received. However, he had an interesting challenge– Working with non-profits has increased pressure on him to professionalize and there is a need to assure funding agencies that their money was being used well. A key metric often related to whether children stayed in school for two years after they were rescued. This seemed appropriate, but as Ajeet Singh went on to explain further, the challenges with this measure started to become obvious. He described the girls he had rescued from the sex trade. How, these young girls, were fed growth hormone at the ages of 8 or 9 so that they could enter the sex trade. How they had free and easy access to alcohol and drugs. While a variety of means could be used to keep the girls in school for two years, such girls could not easily be mainstreamed into society. That he could easily maximize his score on that metric (two years in school) and that right after that, the girls would be right back in the red light area. Indeed, sometimes these children have to be taught how to laugh, how to smile, just how to be children. That both he and the funding agencies need an outcome quite different from the kids receiving two years of schooling – but that was often times what they could measure. My students and I were privileged to visit a school he runs for children of sex workers. As we saw the children engaging in uproarious laughter, or in just making noise, some of the issues he described became obvious.

What we saw while visiting Project Guriya was fascinating in itself and probably a rich subject for another post. However, the above conversation stayed in my mind. If we look
Our students working with students of sex workers in a sp-
ecial school in Varanasi, India. 
around us we will see

 that we oftentimes choose to measure our performance in a way that is convenient, but not necessarily correct. And I was reminded of a classical article I had read when I was working on my PhD. The article: “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B” is a true management classic. The author, Steve Kerr, makes the case that organizations, society and individuals often times incentivize behaviors that are not really the desired ones. For instance, in the context of societal incentives Kerr states that in a democracy, the people want candidates to provide details about their objectives – how a proposed program would work, how it would be funded, and so on. However, since these details can be criticized and picked apart, during the election, the populace actually punishes the politicians who provide this information. This leads to most officials going beyond platitudes when campaigning (e.g. healthcare for all). In the context of organizations, Kerr uses the example of universities with a teaching mission. These universities are hoping for excellence in teaching, while rewarding and promoting individuals almost primarily on their research quality and productivity.

Kerr’s article highlights another common problem that plagues organizations. Units that are supposed to implement activities, are also charged with measuring how effective those activities were. This often leads units to look for evidence that would support their actions (as opposed to a balanced approach). As Kerr states: Units and individuals who have … “convinced top management to spend money, say, on outside consultants, usually are quite animated afterwards in collecting rigorous vignettes and anecdotes about how successful the program was.” In my experience even worse, is when the means with which activities designed to meet certain objectives, become the objectives themselves. So an organizational HR unit charged with improving the quality of applicants applying for jobs may identify attending university career fairs as one of the ways through which the objective can be achieved. But I have observed units, who at the end of the year, measure their performance based on the number of career fairs attended – a much more easily measured objective.

I always tell my students that constantly evaluating your own performance with the right metrics is key to being successful. But oftentimes we fall victim to measuring the wrong thing. As a PhD student in the 90s, I knew that a key objective was producing high quality research, relatively quickly. I often found myself falling victim to measuring my performance on the basis of number of hours worked. The greater the number of hours I worked the more I thought I was doing well. And yet, at some point, a few words of advice from an experienced Professor made me pause. And remember that my objective was high quality research that had to meet the standards of top notch journals. The journal editors would not ask me the number of hours I put in. They would look at the work in terms of creativity, uniqueness and contribution. And that perhaps to achieve all of the above, I needed to focus on taking time off, and do other things that would get the creative juices flowing. It’s a lesson I try to pass off to my current students – measuring ourselves with convenient but inappropriate measures breeds complacency as we venture down a path that takes us far away from our real goals. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Characteristics of Students Most Likely to Succeed

For a variety of personal reasons I had taken a hiatus from my blog for several months. But during this period I've developed a variety of themes, talked to people and am ready to start again. But I wanted to start by reposting a version of a blog that I had posted a couple of years ago. I've made a few minor modifications but I still get thoughts about this one post so just wanted to revisit it before starting again with some of my newer posts. 

When I was the Director of MBA programs, an applicant for the Walton MBA program asked me if I could describe the characteristics of students who had been very successful after graduation. I couldn’t answer him very well. I hadn’t really thought about it that much –I had focused more on characteristics of students who succeeded during the program (including starting jobs) as opposed to success a few years out. The question was intriguing enough and because past students stay in touch with me and I have information about many of them, I went through my past class rosters and pulled out a list of about 20 students (MBAs and senior undergraduates) who have been extremely successful (I call them superstars). I then started thinking about them (and even pulled out a few of their class projects from years ago)…what were their key characteristics as students? Which of those characteristics were commonly shared by all of them? I went into this without significant preconceived notions and was surprised at how many traits were commonly shared by the superstars. So here is my personal list that I think predicts subsequent success. It’s obviously unscientific, and may include a variety of biases.
Passion on the ground: All superstars I reviewed were passionate. They were passionate about something of interest (not always business) – mergers and acquisitions, international experience, animal rights, women’s rights…a very wide range of topics. I use the term passion on the ground, because these superstars backed up their passion with demonstrated actions. They didn’t just say that they were passionate about something – in fact sometimes I discovered their passions long after I knew them well. But it was inside them and they acted on that passion. Jen, now a rising executive in a Fortune 100 company, felt strongly about women’s rights –when you spoke to her you could immediately discern the depth of her knowledge. She had clearly read about the topic, had explored its various facets, and had volunteered with nonprofits focused on women’s rights. Once you met her, you were unlikely to forget her – and if ever you needed information/some assistance with respect to women’s rights, she always came to mind. It’s not clear why this characteristic (being passionate) matters – perhaps people with passion tend to be remembered more? Perhaps they develop a certain depth that comes across during conversations? Perhaps people just respect individuals with passion. Regardless, it seems that those with passion about something in life, often showed passion at work – it was just who they were. And for whatever reason, it seemed to work wonders for them.

Positive Energy: One of the characteristics that I associated with the superstars was that of positivity. When they entered a room, you could feel an increase in the energy level of the room– their very presence increased confidence that things would get done and problems would get solved. This is a very intangible characteristic. What creates positivity in an individual? Hard for me to say…Not quitting at the first sign of a problem certainly seems to be one. Psychologists have studied a concept they call positive affectivity and hundreds of studies have looked at this attribute. Positive affectivity refers to an individual’s ability to hold positive emotions in most circumstances. When individuals look at every situation positively they are more likely to view those situations as opportunities, while others may see them as threats. And since being in a negative emotional state (anger, frustration, and sadness) is known to make us consider fewer alternatives and make poorer choices, individuals with positivity are likely to find superior solutions. When encountering a major setback, positive individuals are more likely to actively look for workarounds than to feel sorry for themselves. They exemplify the first half of Confucius’ time honored statement: He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right.

Control of their Learning: It seems to me that superstars took control and ownership over their learning during their program of study and even afterwards. These were students who were not checking boxes to get a degree. They wanted to actively use their time in college to develop themselves. They did not ask advisors what courses to take and then take an easy path. Rather, they sought suggestions from advisors, thought about their own passion and future, talked to multiple people and then chose courses and paths that worked for them. One of the superstars, let’s call her Julie, decided to learn Chinese but not through a university course which she deemed as not giving her enough depth, but as an exchange for teaching a Chinese student English…and they both diligently worked at it for two years.
When superstars encountered a bad class or professor, they found alternative ways to learn the material. Julie, the person described above, decided that she was not going to get the knowledge she desired in one of the courses she was attending. So, in the following semester, she convinced another professor to sign her and 3 other students for an independent study to cover aspects related to that material. That group of students then engaged in intense self-study, meeting with the faculty periodically, and even created a project for themselves. She is doing extraordinarily well and continues to seek opportunities to learn. Interestingly, it appears that many of the superstars continued to focus on learning after graduation – Almost all that I am in touch with, are constantly sending and seeking book recommendations – they never really stop being students. And they never let someone else disrupt their learning – be it a group member, their text book or a bad professor.
 Moving on after Adversity (aka Resilience): One thing that strikes me about superstars is their ability to handle adversity. I remember a situation where a student was working on a project with me. Due to a mix up I did not take care of some key paperwork before leaving the country on a trip. The student had every right to be mad at me – due to my negligence, he was unable to participate in some activities in the summer and also missed out on a major funding opportunity. The student would have been perfectly justified in being mad at me. Had he done so, I would not have held it against him. But instead, he was extraordinarily gracious. He wrote me a note about how he had enjoyed working with me, and he has kept in touch with me since then. He showed extraordinary class and graciousness, and without knowing it he made me feel obligated … whenever I have had to do something for him (putting in a word for a job application, writing a letter, or even forwarding a career opportunity), I have done it with utmost zealousness. And this is something that I have heard from multiple executives and faculty. When someone acts with class while dealing with adversity, people notice. And it’s not just about letting one incident drag you down for a long time or create excessive negative emotion. It involves moving on and not dwelling on the failure or adversity — many of the superstar students showed an incredible ability to bounce back from adverse situations.
Work Management: Superstars appear to have a very good sense of their work responsibilities, and this sense is matched with an equally strong work ethic. From the work ethic point of view, superstars displayed an extraordinary commitment to get the work done…no matter how many hours it took they found a way to get the job done. They hated to ask for extensions or make excuses. They balanced work and play but not on a daily basis…they would have an extraordinarily busy week and then compensate by taking a few days off (a couple of them though did have the more traditional work day). But what I especially noticed was their awareness of their work load. They were forever looking at lists and schedules (interestingly almost all of the superstars I focused on used the old fashioned paper and pen schedules but that is probably a coincidence). They were aware of the time commitments they would have to make in the next few weeks and strategized accordingly. If there was a need to compromise on the quality of one project in order to find the time to excel on two others, they made that call early. If there was a need to negotiate a deadline, they did that early too. I think this habit served them very well as they moved into their jobs. In essence they were dependable and you could count on them to deliver high quality work in a timely manner.

There were more characteristics (appreciation for others’ efforts would have been my sixth) – but I set myself a limit of no more than five so that I could focus on those that were shared by most of the superstars. And does this mean that students who don’t possess some of these characteristics cannot succeed? No, in fact I know of a couple of students without several of the above characteristics who did succeed. But if I was a recruiter and had a way of accurately assessing students on these characteristics, I’d hire the ones who met the above criteria, because they would represent individuals with a higher probability of success.

Monday, February 27, 2017

5 Leadership Lessons I Learnt from Reading Biographies

A couple of years ago I rediscovered biographies. I had always read the occasional biography but perhaps they mean more to me now that I am older. I read and re-read the biographies of Gandhi, Einstein, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin, Dick Feynman , and many more. They’ve been illuminating and enriching. And as I thought about what I learnt I was struck by some commonalities that lay across all these individuals who left a mark in the world. So I listed out the various things I learnt and came up with my top 5 that I produce below. These five do not purport to be a scientific list at all –just my personal observations of things that seemed to help all these individuals achieve great things in life.

a. Over-Arching Vision. This is perhaps the most obvious of all the commonalities. Yet it was such a strong theme that I can’t avoid listing it. The Individuals I read about all had strong visions that pushed them to strive for and excel every minute of their time. Whether Steve Job’s obsession to change the world though technology, Gandhi’s vision to free India, or Jefferson’s vision to guard the fledgling American republic against monarchial tendencies, these individuals had a vision that drove them. This vision helped them make key choices and pick the battles they wanted to fight. And interestingly most of them pursued the vision with relatively little self-interest.

b. Timing and Flexibility. While vision was important, the people I read about did not cling to it rigidly. They listened to others, knew when to retreat from a chosen path, and were willing to wait for the right time to make a push. This was an amazingly consistent theme. Some of the best examples I saw were Lincoln’s moves towards emancipation. The emancipation proclamation was written early, but on the advice of William Seward, Lincoln held back on issuing the proclamation till the Union Forces had had a clear victory over the Confederates – thus allowing the proclamation to appear as a principled objective as opposed to the desperate measure of a Union that had had a series of military reverses. And while believing in the inherent immorality of slavery Lincoln was willing to accept several compromises (including allowing for continuation of slavery in states where it already existed). These compromises allowed for incremental steps towards the common goal but ensured that there was strong support among his key supporters for this mission. Of course, this was also not always true and my favorite example is that of Dick Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Feynman was asked to give an important talk at a government agency in New York. As one who hated bureaucracy, he agreed on condition that he sign no more than 12 times on government documents or paperwork. He gave the lectures and they managed to keep him down to 12 lectures except for the check he was to receive as an honorarium. Feynman refused to accept the check as it would have meant a 13th signature and never got paid.

c. The Handling of Adversity: I was quite astonished by how much adversity was encountered and overcome by these individuals. Einstein applied for hundreds of academic jobs and received his first university job as a lecturer at the University of Bern in 1908 a full three years AFTER his miracle year (1905) when he published four revolutionary papers including the one on the photo electric effect that would go on to win the Nobel Prize. Isaacson’s biography of Einstein documents his disappointment during this period. What was common to all these individuals was that they all faced some very serious tests of adversity in their lives. But also that they faced these tests with pluck and grace, and used these times as an opportunity to do something else. While Jobs was extremely disappointed by his ouster from Apple in 1985, he used the time to found NEXT and co-establish Pixar.

d. They read a lot. And Widely. Virtually all the leaders whose biographies I read about were avid readers. And they read about subjects that one would not normally associate with them. At the time of his death, Ben Franklin’s library was said to be about 4000 books on topics that included fishing, philosophy, history, and science. Jefferson’s Library after his retirement from the Presidency of the United States in 1809 was close to 7000 books on topics as wide ranging as Geography, farming, the Greek classics, and Ancient History. Interestingly, after the British burned down the Library of Congress in the War of 1812, the Congress purchased Jefferson’s entire collection of about 6500 books to restart the new Library of Congress. Martin Luther King was inspired by Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and other books including Gandhi's biography. Gandhi himself read widely – from Aesop’s fables, to history, to treatises on Christianity, Islam and other religions. And in virtually all biographies I read, there would be descriptions of how this wide and deep reading led these leaders to generate creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems and helped them refine and develop their worldviews.

e) Relationships. In the biographies that I read, I was also struck by the fact that all the leaders had a small group of very close friends with whom they were brutally honest. Lincoln chatted with William Seward virtually every night. Thomas Jefferson confided in James Madison and Munro, and later in life became a candid and honest communicator with his arch rival John Adams. What was most interesting, however, was that these leaders also had a very large circle of friends who while not as close as the inner coterie were a fairly big part of their social evenings. And these leaders spent considerable time cultivating these large number of friends, using much of the time spent with them to discuss and debate issues of relevance. For instance, even as a young man of 21, Ben Franklin started an organization called Junto in Philadelphia whose main objective was to discuss the issues of the day (Some variants of this exist till today). Regardless, virtually all the people I read about had a combination of the very close, tight knit inner set of friends, coupled with a larger network of friends.
The biographies that I read were varied. The individuals were mostly good but they all had weaknesses. And they were all human. But across centuries, and across professions, they all had these similarities. One characteristic, common to most (but not all) was their understanding of the complexities of the world. They knew there were no perfectly right answers and this made them humble. They weighed the issues and often took decisions without dogma. I end with this excerpt from Franklin’s speech in which he urged for the ratification of the American constitution…I simply love it and it has so many lessons for today’s world:

'I confess that I do not entirely approve this constitution...but sir, I am not sure that I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration to change opinions...which I once thought were right....the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others... [The challenge is that] most men, indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that whenever others differ from them, it is so far error.