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Is What’s Good For Bob Pittman Good For Meg Whitman? CEO Annoucements Compared

12 Oct

CEO Announcements are frequent. But is this news is covered differently depending on whether the new CEO is male or female?

Let’s compare two recent announcements: Meg Whitman and Bob Pittman.

I want to point out that this should in no way be seen as a business analysis of any of the companies mentioned. My experience with eBay is limited to buying and selling a few things (I do have an excellent rating, which I am quite proud of). As for ClearChannel, I prefer to listen to satellite radio via SiriusXM, mostly because of Howard Stern. (OK, entirely because of Howard Stern. But the other stations are good too.)

I was struck by what I felt was a largely negative media reaction to the Whitman announcement, and the largely positive notices Pittman received. Also, although this is a blog post and not a scientific study, I will try to be somewhat fair and compare coverage from the same news outlet, The New York Times.

Right before Whitman was announced as the new head of HP, the Times ran an article that begins with the following: As speculation swirled Wednesday that Meg Whitman might be brought in to save the troubled Hewlett-Packard, the tech world rendered a verdict: You have got to be kidding.

Guess you can only go up from there, right?

For some deeper analysis, let’s look at an article published the following day. The author opens by wondering “what kind of leader [Whitman] will be.” The writer lauds her for growing eBay “from a 30-employee minnow of a company to a 15,000-employee whale with $8 billion in annual revenue.” Yeah, that sounds like she did a nice job.

It then goes on to praise Whitman for her acquisition of PayPal, and bash her for buying Skype, claiming that a subsequent sale to a private investor group has “the ignominy of what Silicon Valley denizens called one of the worst deals of all time.”

Now let’s look at this Times article about Robert Pittman being named the new CEO of ClearChannel.

Pittman has a long career in the media business, including being a major player in the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger. Here is what the Times piece says about his role in that deal: [Pittman] became the chief operating officer of the newly merged AOL Time Warner in 2001, but left the next year.

No “that deal is considered one of the biggest failures in the history of failure.” Not even “the two companies were eventually split up, putting them back where they started.”

Regardless of whether you think there is any difference between these two CEO announcements, I think it is fair to say that the AOL Time Warner merger was a far bigger disaster than eBay’s acquisition of Skype. If I were writing about Pittman, I would feel a need to mention his involvement with AOL beyond simply stating that he was the CEO…and then he wasn’t.

Again, I want to make something very clear: this is not in any way a judgment of the merits of either company or their new CEOs. But it seems to me that in this case, a female leader is being viewed through a different lens than a male one.

How to ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish:” Fixing Steve Jobs Commencement Advice

12 Oct

With just about every Apple product I’ve bought, from my first Mac—a 512, I go way back almost to the beginning—to the iPad2 I got last week, just opening the box filled me with optimism. In my hands was this great new thing that was really going to change my life; happiness, organization, efficiency, and, yes, even a little coolness were just around the corner. Sometimes, like with my iPad, even before turning it on I’d marvel at the sleek contours and fully expect that I too would soon feel myself to be a sleek hipster riding the crest of the future.

But, it was not to be. While these devices have changed how we all live in so many ways, my feelings always adapted to the new functions and experiences so that soon I pretty much felt like the same me I’d always been. Of course, there’s always some residual hope that maybe all that happiness would come with the next upgrade.

Same thing with loss. We adapt. Shock, sadness, grief all dissolve in time, like a drop of oil in soapy water. That doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t meaningful and painful, they surely are. It’s just that they won’t last. Since saddened by Steve Jobs’ tragically early death, I’ve been watching public grief and thinking about what will last, what do we get to keep after we emotionally adapt to the loss of a creative visionary, what remains after the flickering touch-screen memorial candles go out and the make-shift memorials in front of Apple Stores are cleared to make room for more commerce.

What will last is what works, and what of his works is more than just the “insanely great” things he built. He didn’t just leave stuff, he left inspiration. And of a particular kind. Steve Jobs inspired people to make things work. And in that spirit of making it work and thinking about what will last, I’m going to take his now iconic 2005 Stanford commencement address and, well, fix the psychology. I’m going to do to it what he did with so many prototypes: make it work (links to full speech at end).

He memorably closed his speech by advising graduates to follow the advice Stewart Brand offered when Brand finished the final edition of The Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Great advice. Psychologically sound, and with inter-generational poetry.

But how to do it? How to stay hungry, stay foolish? Framed by his brush with death, he advised his listeners to make the most of our time on the planet. He counseled eager graduates to look in the mirror each morning and ask themselves whether or not they were living the life they wanted:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

However moved and inspired I was—and am—by his comments, when I put on my geek hat and read this as a procedure to follow rather than just inspiration, I find that it might just not be the best way to achieve the goal. We need to fix the algorithm and really ask whether anyone would really be able to “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish” by checking in with themselves each morning during water rituals. And the answer is, probably not. In fact, he got the psychology wrong in two important ways, ways that are easy to fix and, once fixed, can help make his inspiration last beyond the immediate moments of either techno-optimism or sadness and grief.

The first problem is doing an existential audit in the morning before what is being audited actually happens. We’ve learned that people are terrible predictors of their own happiness. Trying to say in advance whether or not one would want to do what one is about to do is an activity that will inevitably yield profoundly unreliable information. It’s biased by what psychologist Daniel Gilbert has called the “impact bias,”  i.e., our human tendency to predict (imagine?) that future emotional experiences will be more intense and last longer than they really will.

What this means on the positive side of the emotional ledger is that we expect experiences—like that new iPad2 or that new job or that ice cream—will make life feel better than it really will. You may be looking forward to knocking it out of the park at an afternoon meeting, but the prediction will feel better and last longer than the actual experience.

And we do this with negative feelings as well, often to our detriment. In fact, sometimes the most satisfying, richest experiences are those that have significant “start-up costs.” Perhaps you avoid completing some mundane task because you expect doing it will feel much worse than the experience of actually doing it will prove to be. Then you get stuck in a loop of procrastination. Or, you choose not to engage with some potentially meaningful experience, preferring the quick-and-easy instead, because you predict getting started will be much more difficult than the actual experience proves itself to be.

Luckily, there’s a fix. A much better strategy for staying hungry, staying foolish would be to evaluate your day at the end, to ask Steve Jobs’ question in the past tense: “If today were the last day of my life, would I be grateful to have done what I did today?” Of course, memory is not perfect. But it is more accurate than imagination.

Second, isolated introspection is an over-valued and highly unreliable road towards self-knowledge. You really don’t want to look in the mirror as a way to conduct your existential audit. Learning how many days of not being grateful are too many is pretty much impossible when it is just you and your reflection. Psychoanalysts (Eisold) and cognitive scientists (nicely reviewed in recent books by DiSalvo andHerbert) have described how our minds use various strategies, biases, and heuristics to make our way in the world. And these processes make the mirror one of the last places where you should look for self-knowledge.

For example, we overestimate the importance and power of recent experiences. You might have had a pretty great day.  But if it ends with a frustrating, annoying experience, the recency of that experience might lead you to think the entire day was sort of a wash. Another bias is that we overestimate the value of those experiences that are most perceptually salient. We act as though the loudest is the truest. So, even if you had a pretty great day, a loud argument with a loved one might cause you to undervalue an interesting day spent in the flow of good work.

Again, there’s a fix. Don’t do it alone. Any existential audit that has a chance of being appropriately accurate needs a partner. Self-knowledge happens in dialogue, not isolated introspection. Sometimes, because of language, that other person does not need to be there in the flesh. They can even be present as the author of a book, or an imagined reader for those who like to write. Sometimes it can even be in an interior dialogue with an imagined other. But sooner or later, you’ll need intimate dialogue with an actual other person if you want to know yourself.

So, listen to Steve, he really knew what he was talking about: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Just don’t do it all alone by looking in the mirror in the morning. Instead, find and engage others about your day.  Ongoing dialogue about your sources of gratitude is where you’ll find the information you need.

————

If you haven’t seen the speech or read the transcript, you should:

The Most Overrated Jobs

12 Oct

Have you ever thought how much better your life would have been had you climbed the corporate ladder to the senior executive level, or pushed through medical school and residency to become a surgeon? You’d command respect, you’d earn a handsome salary, you’d enjoy unmatched prestige.

Not so, says a new report from CareerCast.com, a three-year-old Carlsbad, Calif. job listing website. Corporate executive and surgeon take the number one and two slots on CareerCast’s list of America’s most overrated jobs. Though corporate executive pays an average of $161,000, and surgeon, a handsome $365,000, both careers involve intense stress, higher than average physical demands, and a weak or unsteady hiring and employment outlook, according to data gathered by CareerCast.

While the public may think that corporate executives lead a cushy life with fat paychecks, says Tony Lee, CareerCast’s publisher, “they work incredibly long hours, they are responsible for all the people who work at that company, if they make a misstep, people lose jobs.” Furthermore, he says, executives are under constant scrutiny by shareholders and investors, and they must sacrifice family time and personal health, in the name of their jobs. Surgeons also rate high on CareerCast’s stress measure, which scrutinizes 11 different factors, including hours worked and being responsible for another’s life. The number three and four slots on the list are also in the medical field: physician, with an average income of $192,000 and psychiatrist at $160,000. Airline pilot ranked fifth, with an income of $106,000.

In Pictures: The Most Overrated Jobs

Each January, CareerCast releases a list of America’s ten best and ten worst jobs after evaluating 200 professions using five core criteria: pay, hiring outlook, work environment, stress and physical demands. (My colleague Jacquelyn Smith covered the best and worst lists here.) CareerCast uses data come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and an array of private compensation surveys, trade association studies and state statistics.

This year, CareerCast decided to rework the data and produce two new lists, most underrated jobs, which we covered here, and now, its first list of the most overrated jobs.

Lee has been working on the best and worst jobs lists since 1995, when he, Wisconsin publisher Les Krantz and two statistics professors from the University of Wisconsin, started putting together the report for CareerJournal.com, a now-defunct site formerly run by The Wall Street Journal. After CareerJournal shut down, Lee teamed up with CareerCast and continued the project. (A link to the top jobs methodology is here.)

To produce the underrated and overrated lists, Lee says his team first looked at compensation levels and then started factoring in, and giving extra weight to, factors they deem important, like stress, physical demands and employment outlook. Lee concedes that the measures are subjective. “We said, ‘what do we, the researchers, think the most important criteria are, to make sure this job is as good as it seems.’”

While it appears that Lee and his team make a serious effort to rate particular job categories, using extensive empirical findings over a long period of time, the overrated list is sure to evoke controversy. For one thing, presumably it’s the rare surgeon or senior executive who endures the rigors of those demanding career paths absent a sincere desire to work in those fields. So while those jobs might seem overrated once Lee factors in his weighted measures of stress and employment outlook, an individual surgeon or executive could feel deeply rewarded in his or her profession, no matter what the data say.

Also, any report of this sort looks at multiple individual jobs to come up with rough averages. When I published the most underrated jobs list, which picked paralegal as the number one job because it supposedly pays well, has low stress and a low unemployment rate, I got comments from eight current or former paralegals, most of whom insisted their jobs were plenty stressful. Several commented that the compensation figure, $47,000, was way off (some said high, some said low). I also heard from a reader who runs a continuing legal education company that trains paralegals. She described the range of salaries, the varying stress levels, and the fact that CareerCast’s numbers reflect a national average. Higher-level paralegals earn as much as $200,000, she reports. Interesting, given the sixth most overrated job on CareerCast’s list: Attorney, with an average income of $113,000.

From The Great Recession to The Great Stagnation

12 Oct

The news in the New York Times this morning that household income declined more in the two years after the recession ended than it did during the recession itself will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following economic events. Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income fell almost 7 percent, to $49,909, according to a study by Gordon W. Green Jr. and John F. Coder. During the recession — from December 2007 to June 2009 — household income fell just over 3 percent.

Ten days ago on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Glen Hutchins, Federal Reserve Board member and co-CEO of Silver Lake gave us some interesting insights as to what is going on.

Are we entering another recession?

The interviewer began by asking Hutchins whether we were facing a double dip, in other words, were we entering another recession?

Glen Hutchins: You can’t solve a problem unless you understand it. You certainly can’t make predictions about something until you understand it clearly. Most of the people who are talking about the economy plunging off a cliff are the same people who, several months back, were expecting some cyclical rebound and recovery.  Those people don’t understand the situation. We are not in a cyclical set of problems. There were some cyclical problems in what happened in 2008. They are largely behind us.

What we now have is a long-term structural problem of our economy known as a balance sheet adjustment. Other countries have experienced this. The United States during the Depression, for instance, although I am not saying this is like the Depression, but it has features that are similar. Japan over the last twenty years is another example.

The Economy: Not The Flu—Diabetes

There’s a very good book written by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart,This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton, 2011). It’s a very good guide to this economy. What it tells you is that in economies that have experienced what we have, which is the accumulation of debt over ten to thirty years, in every aspect of our society, with a massive asset boom, and an associated financial crisis, the nationalizing of private debt is the normal response to the crisis. What you then get is a decade-long period of low growth and high unemployment, punctuated by sovereign debt crises as a result of accumulating the debt that you took on during the crisis in order to smooth out the problem.

When you look at the situation now, people tend to think that we have had something like the flu: we’re going to be sick for a couple of days and we are going to be right back to where we were. This is more like having diabetes and being a hundred pounds overweight. We are going to have manage our health for a decade before we are going to be healthy again.

Interviewer: So you are saying we are going back into a recession?

GH: To ask that question is to misunderstand the problem. We might or might be going back into a recession. Asking whether we are going into a recession misunderstands the problem. We were not in a robust recovery before. Neither are we in some plunge following that. What we are in is a long period of long-term low average growth.

Interviewer: So what heals us is time?

GH:   And hard work and tough choices.

Interviewer:  So we just have to wait for time?

GH: It takes time but you don’t wait for time. You have to get to work and get it done. A couple of things that can be done and that are really important.

If you look at the public sector, the important thing that our leaders in Washington can do in terms of stimulating the economy and long-term job creation is to get their own fiscal house in order. It’s the one thing that is out there that is in their own control to do. Something along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles plan that has at least $4 trillion in debt reduction and gets the primary debt in balance and brings the overall debt down over some time period and is binding, like Ulysses in The Odyssey bound to the mast, so you know when it is going to happen. That’s a key thing.

Four structural problems

That’s because there are several structural problems that accumulated in this balance sheet recession.

  • One of them is debt in the public sector and that is the only one that is growing and that is the one that is contaminating the problem.
  • Another is debt in the household sector.
  • Another is housing.
  • And there is also very high unemployment.

Those things accumulate into considerably muted consumer spending which is 70% of our economy.

You have to go after each of those four problems. Each one of those problems has a remedy that has to be put into place. Each one takes hard work and time.

Interviewer: So you think that CEOs make decisions based on what they see in Washington DC?

GH: In part. Not entirely.

Interviewer: So what is driving their thinking in terms of not wanting to spend on new initiatives?

GH: By far the biggest problem is the lack of demand. I’m in the tech sector. We’ve got growing demand and we are investing around it. The primary problem is that other sectors of the economy were based on consumer debt and got themselves way out of whack with primary demand today. They don’t have the demand necessary to make investments. We are still way below average capacity utilization across our manufacturing sector. That is the primary issue.

There is another feature in that there was a blow to confidence all across our economy both with consumers and with board rooms. And that was a failure to get our public debt resolved this summer. Every single CEO that I talk to says that in quite vociferous terms. There was some notion that we were close to getting that problem removed and create a glide path for us to get somewhere. And now that glide path has gone. That was part of a transition in people’s thinking from, “We’re in the early days of a cyclical recovery,” to “We’ve got a long-term problem that we have to think differently about.”

The bubble economy: 1980-2008

In effect, we have been living in a bubble economy for the last couple of decades.


Now the bubbles have burst and turned into great weights on the economy:

What will it take to solve these problems?

We have to get realistic about the scale and depth of the problems. A focus on one of the problems, like reducing the deficit, will not solve the overall array of issues. In fact, focusing solely on that issue will cause the other problems to get worse.

As Hutchins points out, it will take a lot of hard thought, hard work and courage to work through this array of problems and bring the economy to anything resembling health.

It will resemble treating diabetes, not a bout of the flu, with a multi-year course of medical treatment and change of life style. Political parties will have to join together to solve problems, rather than scoring political points.

How do you make money in the Great Stagnation?

A change in life-style is also due for the private sector. Making money in this economy for the private sector, once they have cut costs to the bone, is going to be very difficult for companies practicing traditional management, suchWal-Mart-and-the-futility-of-traditional-management/” target=”_blank”>Wal-Mart [WMT], Cisco-vs-juniper-delight-or-die/” target=”_blank”>Cisco [CSCO] OR GE [GE], because there will be little demand for their products and services. A probable decade of weak demand will put a lot of traditionally managed companies out of business.

By contrast, companies practicing radical management such as Apple [AAPL],Amazon [AMZN] and Salesforce [CRM] will find little difficulty in making money because radical management creates its own demand. By delighting their customers, these companies have people lining up outside their doors to buy their products and services, even in the depths of the Great Stagnation. Why don’t more companies practice radical management? Why would anyone invest their money in companies not being managed this way?

Do College Interviews Really Count?

12 Oct

Danny Peters wore khakis, a button-down shirt, and “decent shoes, only because my father made me.”  He was going to his interview at a New England liberal arts college. “Brattleberry” College – here disguised to protect the innocent – puts great stock in the college interview.  Young Peters needed to make it count because neither his grades nor his SAT scores were anything to brag about.  In fact, both were below Brattleberry’s median scores.

But young Peters rose to the challenge: he was charming, thoughtful, and articulate.  He explained why he thought Brattleberry was a perfect fit, and what he could contribute to the campus.  By the end of the interview, the admission officer, suitably impressed (or charmed), and told Peters he would be accepted.

Such instant decisions are the exception but they do happen.  Bard College has an “Immediate Decision Plan” where the candidate participates in a seminar conducted by a Bard faculty member and then meets with an admission counselor. The admission decision is mailed the next day. Other colleges have been known to let a candidate know almost immediately when a candidate is clearly qualified and tells the college that the school is his first choice, he will attend if accepted, and doesn’t need financial aid.  (Being a “full pay” student in the current economic environment doesn’t hurt.)

What is the norm is how important the interview is for many smaller college admission decisions.  At Pomona College in California, Associate Director of Admission Malisha Richardson says that although their literature states that interviews are “highly recommended” there is an expectation that if you live in Southern California, you better get to campus —or at least show strong evidence that you tried.  Applicants from other parts of the country will be offered alumni interviews.

John Young, Admission Director at Hobart, goes one step further.  He states: “If you can’t get to us, we will get to you.  And if that doesn’t work, we’ll Skype an interview.”  Welcome to the world of technology where no student has a reason not to  interview.

Back in the “old days” – when the parents of today’s college applicants were themselves applying – interviews were required at virtually all the top colleges.  Today, interviews with admission officers at the Ivy League colleges and the larger universities are not part of the admission decision mix.   There are simply too many applicants.

All of the Ivies and other highly selective schools do, however, offer applicants the option of being interviewed by alumni interviewers in (or near) the student’s hometown.  Do these alumni interviews “count?”

John Birney, Senior Associate Director of Admission at Johns Hopkins shares: “They are one more part of the folder.  They are not a significant factor in the vast majority of cases.  But for a kid who is on the bubble, where the decision could go either way, a fantastic interview with an alumni could make the difference. “ But he also  adds, “The flip side is also true.  A kid who come across as arrogant or nasty or ill-informed about the college can trigger a negative interview report.  It is rare that it happens but it does.  And when it does, it can be what tips the scale. “

Remember, all of the top schools have far more qualified applicants than they can handle.

And if you are a  “no show” to an alumni interview — or refuse one — you can be sure that that it is passed on to the admission office.

Many smaller selective colleges – like Brattleberry – make interviews “optional.”

Are these interviews really optional?

Not if you want to get accepted.

Daryl Jones, Senior Associate Director of Admission at Gettysburg explains,   “A student who doesn’t take the time to visit the campus and schedule an interview is sending us a message that they are not very interested in us.  Strongly recommended means we expect students to interview if they are serious about Gettysburg.”

Many selective colleges keep track of every communication an applicant has with the school.  Campus visits, e-mails, overnights, classes sat in on.  They all add up to an expression of just how interested in that college the student really is.

The nature of the interview has changed as well.  In the “old days” it was not uncommon for the admission officer to pose some esoteric – make that whacko – question.   There was a senior Brown admission officer who used to terrorize high school kids with, “If you were any type of vegetable, what would it be?”  Happily, questions like that are rare.

But what kids say during the interview does count.  Admission officers want to see if a student has really thought through why they want to attend that particular college.  Whether they can distinguish between places and taken the time to do real research about various colleges and tried to discern the factors that comprise a good fit.

Young adds: “Take the time to prepare for that interview, whether it be on campus, with an alum or via Skype.  We want to know what you know about Hobart and why it would be a good fit for you.  We want to answer your questions too about study abroad, potential majors or advanced degrees., so prepare good questions in advance for your interviewer.”

Admission officers are also keenly attuned to fit.  And as they listen to a kid try to “sell himself” the AO is assessing whether that 18 year old would contribute to the vitality of the campus.  Because colleges are looking for the well-rounded class – and not the well-rounded kid – the AO is trying to determine which of several kids who have say, a journalism hook, or a dance hook, or a chemistry hook would make the best contribution to the overall class.  Is this kid a grade-grubber or a true intellect?  Is the journalist someone who will be as comfortable in a junior reporter role working her way up the ladder or only interested in the editorship?

The interview can help the AO understand the student; and it can it can make a real difference in the overall admission decision.

There are two other types of interviews worth noting.  The first is the on-campus “information interview.”   These typically take place at the start – or at the end — of a family’s visit to a campus.  They are sometimes combined with the initial orientation session that takes place in a college’s admission office.   These sessions never have any impact on the admission decision.  The purpose is to answer questions about that college.  And it is pretty pathetic to see parents – often as frequently as kids – try to “get noticed” by admission officers.

The second type of non-interview interview takes place when college admission officers visit high schools and meet with small groups of students. These on-the-road sessions are also designed to introduce college to prospective applicants and answer questions.  But they have the added advantage of providing short one-on-one nice-to-meet-you opportunities.  These aren’t true interviews, but they establish a first-impression, and more importantly, give the student the opportunity to follow-up, via e-mail or during a later on-campus interview.

Not all selective colleges agree on the importance or value of the interview.  Amherst College, one of the most prestigious and selective colleges in the country, ended interviews almost twenty years ago.  Veteran Dean of Admissions Tom Parker shares three reasons why:

”First, location.   The relative ease of getting to Amherst via I-91 meant the numbers got out of control.  Were we more remote and needed to gauge interest, it might be more important. “  (Note – Parker, who spent many years in admissions at Amherst’s chief rival – Williams College.  Williams is located on the other side of the Berkshire Mountains, is more remote and difficult to get to.  It still offers “informational” interviews.

“The second reason,” says Parker, “is impact.  We agree with a study by Warren Willingham at the College Board study that argued that interviews predicted nothing about college success.  So why do they?”

“The third reason is socio-economic bias.   Even though Amherst is easy to get to, it is still the more affluent families who can get here more easily.  Given our commitment to diversity at Amherst, putting an emphasis on interviews would go against our principles.”

Parker is widely considered to be among the most thoughtful college admission deans.  And his thinking – along with Amherst’s prestige – is likely to influence other colleges in the future.

But for now, the bottom line remains that for the vast majority of small selective colleges, interviews still count – a lot.  So the term “strongly recommended” means you better prepare for the interview,  take it seriously, and get it done.

This article was written with Mike Muska, Dean of College Relations at Poly Prep in Brooklyn, New York, and co-auhtor of Getting In!