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Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Blog comment should make you want to say FU not Thank You

I recently found a post on Sam Huleatt's blog about how blog comments are the new black. As we know, I'm always looking for the next black and I truly love a good charcoal. Before I digress more, this linked post talks about how we have many ways to engage and connect with someone online but a comment on someone's blog is the best way to begin building a relationship. There is a community around blogs and the comments are the gateway for that community to connect with each other and build offline relationships.

Social media is all about creating dialogue and blog comments have been declared to be the most meaningful. Not all blog comments are created equal just like not all dialogue leads to meaningful relationships. Today's health care summit is a fine example of dialogue not creating any meaningful sense let alone improved relationships. A good blog comment can introduce a new idea to a post, push the author on a particular point, elaborate on an example, or demonstrate that you share a similar background or values with the author that will lead to greater connection.

There are also blog comment that do not further the conversation is the equivalent of a "Like" in Facebook. On the other spectrum, there are comments on entertainment blogs for example whose contribution to a Miley Cyrus article about her sleepovers are to ask if she is a raging lesbian slut or merely a huge lesbian slut (apologies to anyone who found this via Google while searching for Miley Cyrus lesbian slut and are now extremely disappointed).

Digressions aside, I need to offer an apology in advance to readers who previously merely commented that they liked my posts. I appreciate your comments and they made me smile. However, I would rather see a comment to a blog post that made me write a response that started with "FU" rather than "Thank you." I'd rather have my arguments pushed and challenged then just praised. I would rather have to rethink my position then bask in the glow of how right I am.

For blog comments to truly be the new black, they need to create dialogue. Conflict can build relationships because it leads to debates which leads to better understanding of each other. A rich debate with differing view points in the comments section creates a more compelling blog post. There are some blogs where I read the comment section as eagerly as the blog post.

There are also some blog posts where I skip the comment section because there's no additional value or contribution. The Brazen Careerist, a Generation Y career-focused community site and Untemplater, a work/life style blog are some of the biggest sinners. Although I shouldn't bite the website that was kind of enough to feature my posts (Brazen Careerist) or one where I have submitted a post for consideration (Untemplater), I'll keep my straight talk express going. The comments section on these website's blogs is a cascading series of "I like that post so much that I want to marry it." This Untemplator post is an example where the comments section is a huge series of high fives. There is some pushing the topic further but the affirmation after affirmation really makes it look like an echo chamber as opposed to serious dialogue. In a community, not everyone will agree with each other all the time. Neither should blog comments.

One example of a blog where the comments were almost as good as the posts is the Leveraged Sell-Out. The comments were brutal, debates raged, people get their feelings hurt, and it was the best thing on the web. Thank you's were non-existent and FU was one of the milder responses. However, I understanding the investment banking culture more than I ever wanted to because of the comments section. Another good example of a comments section that meets this new black criteria is Penelope Trunk's blog. Generally 1/3 of the comments tell Trunk that she understands their pains, fears, hopes, and dreams better than their family and she is completely right about everything, 1/3 of the comments swear this is the last time that they will ever read anything by Trunk again and that she is the dumbest person on the web, and 1/3 promote their own theories and philosophies. It's taken me a while to appreciate Trunk's blog comments and community because I used to fall pretty solidly in the middle group. Given, that I've turned Trunk's material into 3 posts of my own, I've probably moved into the last group and I have began to realize the brilliance in her marketing.

For any future comments on my blog, may I say FU, may you swear back at me, and let's break bread and have a real dialogue. If I need someone to high five me and give me a hug, I'll go find my 2 year old son rather than write a blog post.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Powerful Medicine: Cross Country Skiing in Glacier National Park

Native sacred sites are often natural scenic treasures of such beauty that they make you want to quit your job and move your family to be near to them. The power that radiates from their rushing waters, towering stark stone, or impossibly green vegetation make it obvious why native populations believed that area to be inhabited by their gods.

Machu Picchu in southern Peru and Iguazu Falls on the Paraguayan, Brazilian, Argentine border were the first natural sites where I felt the presence of a higher power. Glacier National Park in Montana created a similar feeling. Previously when I thought of Glacier National Park, I thought of the poor melting glaciers and the only reported incident of a bear actually eating and digesting a human. Now, I fully understand why the Blackfeet and Flathead tribes hung around the area.

Switching to how-I-spent-my-spring-vacation mode, we took the Empire Builder AmTrak train on a 16 hour train ride to Essex, MT.

The town of Essex pretty much consists of the Izaak Walton Inn where we stayed in a refurbished blue locomotive engine pictured to the left. While it may look rustic, the locomotive engine had two fire places and a flat screen TV and DVD player.

When we weren't playing in the locomotive's intact engine room where we could pretend to drive the train, we covered 10-12 miles per day on cross county skis

The river (McDonald Creek) and mountain combo on the left is off the Going to the Sun Road which is the Covered with the Snow road in the winter. The starting point is the immense Lake McDonald.

On the right is the road to Two Medicine on the eastern edge of the park. The enormous mountain pictured is called Rising Wolf. With the name, imposing face, and the stillness of the area, I really would not want to do anything to anger this mountain.

Some may feel that I obviously spent too much time hitting the peace pipe in college with my comments on spirituality and powerful medicine.

However, the story behind the picture on the left will make even the most hardened pragmatist believe in a higher power. Located in the Two Medicine area, it's called Running Eagle Falls and is the burial site for a great female warrior. The frozen ice in the middle of the water fall looks like a heart.

The final photo on the right is for any readers who need something more tangible or have mocked vomited for the last time because of all my spiritual references. It's a story of steel, rail, commerce, manifest destiny, and taking credit for Native American discoveries. This photo is from a trail near Marias Pass which is the lowest point in the Continental Divide. Marias Pass is the reason for the financial success of the Great Northern Railway (or success until Warren Buffet recently bought it). Since the grade was not very steep due to the lower elevation of the Pass, the railway could operate more efficiently and less expensively than competing transcontinental railways.

The success of the railway led to the the opening up or rediscovery of Glacier National Park and my spiritual journey about 120 years later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

If Networking is still the New Black, why are people still Bad at it?

There is a typical format to the job search blog post. It starts with a paradigm shifting title like, Everything that you are doing with your job search is wrong or Your resume is just uncomfortable toilet paper. The advice in the post is typically a combination of 1) Create a profile on Linked In, 2) Monitor your on-line presence by Google searching yourself and enhance it with a blog, 3) Use Twitter to meet new people and find job postings, and 4) Network, network, network since most jobs are filled before they are posted.

Hardly paradigm shifting suggestions, hardly the new black or even a shade of gray (charcoal?) Although I give credit to one job search blogger for the good idea of using Linked In to connect with people at companies where you want to work as opposed to just connecting with people you already know.

Considering the number of posts about the perils and issues of Job Boards like Monster or Career Builder, I guess that some of the advice is actually paradigm shifting for job searchers, especially those who have not had to look for a job for a while. I personally thought that most job searchers know not to really rely on job boards but maybe my MBA program taught me a lot about job searching.

Joshua Waldman knows a lot about using Linked In and there are many declared Twitter experts out there, although this is my personal favorite posts for the links. I can put my stake in the ground for #4 networking due to the following story. I spent half of a 2004 job search doing a lot of networking that culminated in a regrouping session with a partner at a public relations firm after an opportunity fell through. Six years later, I sat across the desk from the same partner to hire his firm for some work despite their price being higher than the competition. It's a beautiful karmic example of how you'll never know which struggling job searcher will hire your firm in the future. Therefore, I will not only talk to anyone about job searching but I'll be sure to follow up with them after we're done talking.

That's my claim to expertise despite the fact that I happily eat lunch alone almost every day. That's because I enjoy inhaling my food and getting mayonnaise on my beard. However, from the networking mistakes that I have seen recently, I may be in the 90th percentile despite a tendency to get condiments on my facial hair.

The Bad:
The lack of following up: I'm surprised by the number of people who email me that they would like to schedule some time to talk or have coffee and never follow-up. In some cases, I've sent 2-3 emails with my updated availability and they've never finalized a time. If they emailed once and never followed up, I understand that things change. However, multiple requests with no follow-up is just a waste of time since I'm not going to do that much for someone that unreliable at even scheduling a meeting.

Too much following up:
On the flip side, a weekly follow-up about a job application status in my department makes someone seen to desperate with too much free time. There's obviously a balance.

Give the full picture:
I had great conversations with some job searchers who were looking for positions at my organization. I saw that they would be a perfect fit in a certain department, sent their resume to the manager, and was told that they had interviewed for a job last year and been denied. All I can say to the manager at that point is, sorry for wasting your time.

If the job searcher had told me about their application history with my organization, I could have told the manager about new skills gained, reasons to give them a second chance, or at least mentioned that they shaved their beard so there wouldn't be any food on their face.

The Good: (The sun just came out so I have got something positive to say, too)
Don't just network when you need something: The toughest thing for all of us is to block out free time for reaching out to people in your network rather than do work. I'm impressed with people who take the time to remember birthdays and send greetings. It's such a great, easy personal touch but I'm too inconsistent with birthday calendars to ever pull it off. The holiday season turns me into too much of an anti-establishment curmudgeon to send non-sarcastic holiday newsletters. I am good about updating people about when I change jobs and sending articles that might interest them. My best talent is being organized enough to reach out to someone a few weeks in advance before hitting them up for a favor. I grease the wheels, but that's about it.

Close the loop at organizations: Whenever I reach out to someone at an organization or apply for a job at an organization wherever I have a contact, I make sure that my contact knows. As a result my contact is at least prepared or possibly even ready to advocate if asked about my interests or intentions. At worst, I'll avoid a "that's strange that Deadhedge contacted you. I have no clue what he's got in mind" response if my contact is asked about me.

Someone who I worked with at a previous organization did this closing the loop when he applied to a job at my current organization. I didn't think poorly of him when I worked with him but I didn't think highly of him either. He got my phone number through a mutual contact and called me. After a mundane talk, he turned me into an advocate just because he cared enough to reach out to me.

We are all pretty easily flattered so decent networking and outreach will go a long way.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Start Up the MBA Job Search Right

Two weeks ago there was a little bit of an on-line smackdown about MBA's job searching efforts in the start-up field and how they approach companies. Charlie O'Donnell wrote how he has experienced many mediocre outreaches by MBA's who are interested in working in the start-up arena and what they can do differently. An Harvard Business School student, Rafael Corrales responded with a post about the number of MBA's who are doing well in the start-up arena. I found all this on Sam Huleatt's blog where he wrote a measured response that shows a very good third way as an alternative to the arguments.

Now that we have the players assembled, here are the plot twists. O'Donnell and Corrales are really making two separate arguments and both are mostly right. MBA's are approaching O'Donnell with the pick up line equivalent of "Can I borrow a quarter so I can call my mom and tell her that I found the perfect girl?" and he offers advice on how to develop some game. Corrales talks about MBA's working in the start up arena that are probably not talking to O'Donnell.

It's similar to the Pacific Northwest argument where we complain that Californians who move to our beloved forests are resource-sucking, horn-honking jerks who drive up housing costs. However, the counter argument is that Californians who have not moved to the Pacific Northwest are sophisticated entrepreneurs who spend their time trotting the globe rather than navigating our mountain roads. Same argument but different people. It also reminds me of the old joke, "What's the difference between a b!tch and a ho? A ho does it with EVERYONE. A b!tch does it with EVERYONE but YOU." With that joke, I'm not sure who would be the b!tch and who's the ho.

My b!tch and ho joke are about my only contribution to O'Donnell's post and other MBA responses. If I were on Jeopardy and the categories were Famous Scandinavian Military Leaders, Engineering Equations that start with the letter E, 16th Century Russian Literature, and The Start-up World and MBA's, I would buy a vowel.

Since I have high expectations of my blog posts, I am certainly not going to stop with a few links, my kneejerk opinion, and a joke or two. What I do know is the MBA admissions process and MBA experience and I can provide that kind of insight from this argument. After all, MBA admissions and experience are two of my more common tags. O'Donnell's post and subsequent responses from mostly MBA's do offer a valuable lesson on how MBA's can waste a lot of time on a poorly planned job search strategy. Here's what current and aspiring MBA's can learn.

First, O'Donnell is right. MBA's like us have been following the herd to trendy industries ever since the first herd of wildebeests thundered across the hot and humid Locust Walk on Penn's campus. We take valuable time out of our career game plan to just check out the Venture Capital sector or the Start-up arena or whatever the latest hot industry is. The thought is that Hot Industry X looks like a great field so why not do a little networking and maybe we'll catch that hail merry pass and get lucky with a job offer?

That approach is similar to trying out for an NBA team because there might be a chance that our jump shot might be on fire that day. However, that time spent in that NBA try out is time that our more focused classmates are spending on finding a job in the industry where will most likely want to work. We fall behind to those classmates and risk missing opportunities that have a much more likely chance of success. The time spent trolling in hot industries hoping to snag something is wasted time.

Second, Corrales is right. There are some very smart MBA's that the herd is usually following. Being on Learning Team's or working with these really smart MBA's has helped me understand how an average NBA player feels playing with or against Kobe Bryant. That average NBA player was always the best on their team, has talent, and works hard. However, Kobe is always one step ahead. We always feel like we can hold our own on the business case team with the smart MBA but they are always a few steps ahead.

What this means for aspiring and current MBA's is that unless we the Kobe Bryants of our class, we should not waste time trying to get lucky in the hot industry of the year. Instead spend time getting a job in the industry where you really want to work and have a realistic opportunity. That is why the "What do you want to do with an MBA" essay is a really useful exercise and where I spend the most time with applicants. For example, a good portion of applicants have short-term career goals of management consulting and a long-term career goal of starting their own business. I ask the following questions:

Why not start a business now instead of going into consulting?
How will consulting help you start your business?
Why not work for a corporation?
Have you ever done anything similar to starting your own business or anything that would make you think that you would enjoy it?
What kind of business do you want to start or what's your idea?

For those candidates who stumble over those questions, I suggest that we think about what they really think more before starting the essay. That time spent thinking and writing this essay will save lots of times during an MBA program by having a focused career path.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Leaving the Evidence Behind: the Obama administration response to Anthem Blue Cross

It had been 19 days since my last post about health care. There hadn't been much material for musing or ranting since the election of Massachusetts's Scott Brown. There was so little material about health care that I was even debating a post on the commercial real state of affairs based on the obvious failure of the new complex next to my office. The creation of a new reality TV show, Obama and the Republicans talking health reform on TV, didn't trigger any new material even though those on the right would call it a spin-off of Big Brother and those on the left would compare it to Fear Factor.

However, readers are spared my analysis of commercial real estate failures based on my proposal that a 7-Eleven can't be the anchor store or yet another reality TV show suggestion. The savior is the Obama's decision to lay the smack down on Anthem Blue Cross's 39% price hike on its 800,000 Californian individual insurance members. Basically, Anthem had a very profitable year but filed this large rate increase with the state insurance division. Although, regulating Anthem's insurance filings is the responsibility of the California state insurance division, the federal government wants to be a part of the action.

What I find disturbing is that while we try to promote evidence-based practice on the provider side of the health care system, we're throwing out the evidence-based practices on the insurance side. Insurance prices are determined by actuaries and their rigorous mathematical analysis. Even after the application of all that math, actuaries sign an attestation while they solemnly swear that their numbers were objectively derived. In other words, using actuarial science to calculate the cost of insurance is evidence-based. Using political pressure to get prices that you like better is debased.

We've made progress in terms of becoming a nation of health care wonks, but I know that the phrase "actuarialy speaking" may still result in some blank looks. In the case of the Obama administration response, he's basically telling Anthem's actuaries that they suck, their mathematical models suck, and their sisters would have sucked if he had- well you get the picture.

The individual insurance market is generally a break even market for insurance carriers at best. Administrative costs are often 20% of the price compared to 5%-8% in the larger group market. It's much cheaper to enroll 1,000 people on one data file and send the bill to one employer then it is to enroll and bill 1,000 people individually. With such high administrative costs, there isn't as much room for profitability as there are for mid-sized groups or other lines of business because it's tougher to add additional margin. If the individual market is subsidized with the profits from the mid-sized group market, then that mid-sized group is paying more than it should. However, given that employer groups don't have to pay taxes on their health insurance and individuals do pay taxes, this subsidization might not be a bad idea.

If anything, Anthem's 39% price increase marks some point of the potential insurance death spiral. Health care has gotten so expensive that it's only beneficial to buy insurance for those who are going to use a lot of it. The Obama administration generally understand this principle which is why health care reform has been rightly framed as an economic issue. However, demanding to see the homework assignment that the Anthem actuaries turned in to the California insurance division is not economics but just politics. But maybe this could be turned into some kind of reality TV show with actuaries?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Being Frugal is really Personal

Since I was fairly critical of one of Penelope Trunk's blog posts about the value of college as measured by job placement, I am pleased to balance the karma scales by praising one of her recent posts. I really like Trunk's post about "Frugality as a career tool" and equally enjoyed the comments.

The post is about Trunk's approach to frugality and the connection to overspending or investing in aspects that can limit future mobility or entrepreneurship. The comments included a range of opinions on what was considered to be frugal spending and what was not. There was agreement, disagreement, other opinions, questions, and in general it was better than Cats. Generally, we all think that we're frugal and our neighbor is not.

I think that I'm frugal because I have only bought about 9 books since the Y2K implosion that never was but read hundreds. I've read more books in the book store coffee shop than I've purchased. I also think that I'm frugal since my vacations involve camping trips and I've slept in my car more time than I have slept in a hotel. Some call sleeping in your car an example of homelessness, I call that my home away from home. Finally, my furniture reminds me of my childhood since it was my parent's furniture when I was a child. My sister got the furniture that reminded me of being a teenager.

However, I buy cars that are new and own a house that currently has an unoccupied bedroom. I went to a fancy college and MBA program. Based on this, some might accuse of me of blowing money like a Jersey Shore socialite. Even this MBA, who blogged about getting foreclosed might have congratulated himself on his frugality.

Some have called this prioritization as opposed to frugality but frugality is a better word. It's not about what you're spending money on but what you're not spending money on. Ultimately, it's about not trapping yourself with your purchases. In other words, don't buy anything big 1) that you can't sell if you need to, 2) that you could pay off if you lost your job, or 3) that doesn't lock you on a career path that is difficult to leave and makes you miserable.

However, our current political parties will probably agree on something significant before there is consensus on even these 3 vague principles that I outlined. For the first, sometimes you have to sell something in a week or you just need to sell it eventually. Illiquid assets from houses to a herd of llamas to a kilo of crystal meth are dependent on their market.

For the second, the bigger question is what percent of savings should be used to pay off a debt and what are the consequences of not paying off the debt? For houses that are worth less than their remaining mortgage, banks are trying to use a moral argument to guilt people into not walking away since there isn't the economic argument. The image of banks taking a moral high ground reminds me of the George of Arrested Development's conversion to Judaism.

The third creates the biggest argument as it's another way of asking about the ROI on graduate school. I've posted links about the 20 year salary trend of MBA's by programs and the unemployment rate by professional degree in support of graduate school. Others can probably post some dismal information about the number of law school graduates who are still working in the field. I'll offer the political third way which is that graduate degrees will help move you forward if you stay within your field. That requires a fair amount of soul searching before picking a graduate program. Or do what I did and apply to a dual degree program (MBA and Masters in Social Work) so you improve your odds.

By the way, the political fourth way is to be the first to call your opponent a Nazi.

In conclusion, a post about the right kind of frugality for a career is a really good blog post because it triggers a lot of debate, anyone can participate, and there is no right answer. Like the, "Why do you want an MBA" essay question it forces people to develop a game plan and really think about their answer before responding otherwise their argument will fall flatter than the latest CEO apology.

The only really solid answer that I have come up with for not trapping yourself with your spending is to insure yourself really well and find a really good arsonist. Then you'll always to be able to walk away.
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