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will be publishing all blog posts, as well as client testimonials, news and whitepapers.
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In the 1937 comic farce, “Topper,” a young Cary Grant portrays George Kerby, a playboy attending the board meeting of his family’s bank:
Bank Chairman (reading in a droning tone of voice): “Bullion abroad and in transit, thirteen million, two hundred and two thousand, eight hundred and fifty-four dollars and no cents.”
George Kerby, (reclining, not really listening): “No sense!”
Bank Chairman: “I just said that, Mr. Kerby.”
George Kerby: “So did I!”
This is how most of us view the family’s board: a group that makes no sense.
In fact, many of my entrepreneur clients do not have a board of advisors. And that’s a shame, because a properly-functioning board is a great way to keep growing, keep focused and keep out of trouble.
As a matter, I’ll go father and say creating an advisory board is one of the most important steps a middle market CEO can take. Perhaps it is the greatest secret to long-term prosperity!
The overall reason is that the Board’s job to make the CEO, and the company, a success. Beyond that, there are a lot of specific reasons.
The first reason is accountability. CEO’s need to keep their staff on task. But who keeps the CEO on task? Unless you have someone of skill, character and focus on your side, chances are that you can let important opportunities or threats catch up to you. Many of us have initiatives—a sales campaign in a new market, or a merger integration. How are those initiatives, which by their nature are just slightly outside the day to day, getting done?
Often, they are launched with a great deal of energy invested on kickoff—and then as the CEO’s attention is diffused over time, so does the energy of the initiative.
But if you consider a company initiative nothing more than a promise to oneself to achieve an outcome, why not use the board to help you keep things on track?
A second, related, reason is vigilance. If you are attuned to the day to day and fast moving issues, get help with equally important but hard to measure areas like acquisition strategy, technology or competition. A quarterly meeting is just about the appropriate time period to check your traps on the big game. Especially if your board members are experts in important aspects of the business that are too expensive to maintain day to day.
Third, use the value of formality. You may prefer to meet your friends at the coffee shop with your overalls half down, but a board is not Monday morning football. You’ll want an agenda, records of the prior discussions, and a review of the next steps noted and what actions have occurred over time. These elements signal to all concerned that the matter of supporting a CEO and her company is important work requiring focus.
Lastly, let’s talk expertise.
As I always say, problems are easier when you’ve seen them before. Find recognized experts in areas where you are likely to encounter less-frequent problems that have outsize impact. This can be in patents, mergers, regulation say. Not that the board replaces the cost or detailed expertise of your hired professionals—but it will make sure you are in contact with suitable professionals at the right time.
How do you start a board? Let’s see. List the expertise you might need. Then ask your acquaintances for names that might fill the bill. Ask your lawyer or accountant to interview them with you. Then choose five, based on expertise, specific experience and perceived chemistry.
Note I did not suggest we choose our friends, and I strongly suggest that current professionals are not eligible. This is about expanding your advisors, not providing a new forum to the existing ones.
And customers should never be invited to see the inner workings. It is, literally, none of their business.
With the right advisors, agenda and follow up, the board will provide the thoughtful CEO with a powerful and enduring means of ensuring prosperity, as well as one other thing that is important in business: meaningful relationships.
In the aftermath of the 2008 Lehman collapse, most banks froze lending and in fact requested their money back. At one point 74.5% of the banks said they were tightening their lending standards. This caused a full-blown banking crisis, in which money was leaving the economy at an alarming rate. In human terms, there was a lot of distress—after all, every dollar going to repay the bank’s call notice is a dollar that doesn’t go into the purchase of goods and services.
In response to the 2008 crisis, the government entered into an emergency spending program. This was much derided in some partisan circles, but my thinking was that we needed stimulus to avoid an economic collapse.
That being said, the stimulus program had a slapdash feel to it, with all the talk of shovel-ready. Shovels? The people who needed economic help were mortgage brokers, printers, restauranteurs, construction companies and the like. The “shovel” designation might have helped the construction guys in the short term, but somehow the economic stimulus package seemed to miss the point that the larger economy—all the rest of us—needed stimulus and confidence. Except for a tax rate cut (which I miss dearly, now that it has expired) there was not a lot of stimulus for the majority of Americans.
But five years later, I’d like to make the case for another stimulus package. Not because the economy is in the tank, but because it will be if we don’t get our act together. Yes, I am talking infrastructure.
-Roads. I have had two night-time flat tires in the past year due to potholes. In one case, I was en route to a Midget hockey tournament, and my passenger was not appreciative of the delay, to say the least. Then I needed to pay for a tow, a new run-flat and a rim. The new joke in some quarters is that only the drunks drive straight. Drivers who pay attention to the road are weaving.
-Bridges. Are we waiting for another Minneapolis-style bridge collapse? The streaks of rust, crumbling cement and peeking curls of rebar tell us that bridges that need help can be found every few miles, and in every American city. I once mused out loud that our bridges are worse than Brazil’s, and a man next to me corrected this. “Brazil’s bridges and roads are beautiful,” he said. So at least we have something to aspire to. Brazil.
-Air travel. Communications, radar, gates and weather systems are overloaded. Time waits for no man, unless the man is changing planes in Chicago, where a key domestic route, for example, averages 71% on time and 8% cancelled flights. And that’s considered good! The Chairman of United never would have passed Miss Howe’s 4th grade class, where timeliness was prized, but I guess he understands the term “butts in seats.” He just adds the words: “and waiting…”
-Cyber security. By all accounts, attacks on the private sector are costing $100 billion per year, including losses by theft of intellectual property. But experts say that the real risk is in cyber attacks is in the area of electricity generation, water distribution, petroleum refining and air traffic control. If these areas are not protected, experts say that a determined enemy—the known ones are Russia and China—can actually interfere with key economic drivers. I would add a joke here—but the prospect of life without running water is too frightening to jest about.
Before we debate the costs of the materials and labor, let’s agree that the cost of US government borrowing is at all time lows. At this writing it is about 3% for a 30 year loan. A businessperson would see the opportunities in the growth of the economy, and the dangers that lie in not investing in the basics, and would go for it. The timing for favorable financing is compelling.
That’s what I am advocating. Let’s borrow at 3% and invest in 30-year assets.
The business case is found in reduced cost of transport—all those flat tires and lost time waiting for tows. And the cost of diverted traffic over bridges and the saving of lives that would be lost to traffic accidents and lost bridges. The recovered time otherwise lost to delayed flights, cancelled flights and missed air connections. And perhaps most importantly, assuring against catastrophic loss of electricity, water and other key services.
Are these benefits greater than the 3 percent cost? Almost certainly. So why don’t we do it? I think the answer lies in a misunderstood accounting measurement system.
The deficit. But we just agreed (well, I just agreed) that economic benefits would cover the investment (and please note that I am not counting the economic stimulus of the projects themselves). Aside from that, let’s stipulate that the way we account for the deficit is as a statement of funds flows. What comes in, what goes out. By that measure, many Americans’ long term deficit is, say, 25% of income, simply because they bought a house using credit. But buying a house as an investment makes sense if the investment is a tangible asset, which the deficit doesn’t measure.
So let’s get on with this infrastructure investment. We’re ready for shovels.
When you set yourself up in the holy orders of advice-giving in business, there are usually three types of engagements:
-Client says they have a problem. Can you help analyze the complexities, then present a conclusion that is suitably backed up with data?
-Client says they have analyzed the problem. They now wonder– could you be available to help implement the solution?
-The executive who was to lead the implementation has quit! Can you be available as an interim executive?
Traditionally, these engagements would come in a sort of progression. After all, no one would ask you to solve a problem that hadn’t been analyzed yet. So the logic pretty much flowed from analysis, to helping out, to an occasional stint in executive ranks.
But no longer. Now middle market companies are going directly to the interim solution when there is a gap in their executive ranks. My recent experience:
-A private equity firm hires an interim CFO for an industrial manufacturer. The company desperately needs a budget, a new banking relationship is being negotiated, and a big four audit is due in April. The headhunters are looking for the perfect fit–but the PE firm does not have time for that. Solution? An interim.
-An Inc. 500 company’s growth has outstripped its financial resources. Again, a budget is obviously required. At the same time, hard choices would be needed in capital allocation and in financing. The company has a competent controller. Could an interim CFO get them through the crisis period and then leave them better off than before?
-A late stage startup has caught the interest of a venture investor. Can the books and records be set up, and at the same time, a business plan be published, in record time while the other executives work on product launch? Hire a professional temp.
So this has been a welcome addition to my professional toolkit–especially since prior experience as CFO would otherwise have gone relatively unused. I haven;t been marketing as an interim, but the demand has been coming my way. As far as I can tell, that demand seems to be enabled by technology, where companies are using LinkedIn or other tools to find specialized experts.
It seem that, for CFO’s anyway, there is a stratification process going on here. Need merger integration and controls expertise? There’s a guy for that. Pre IPO financial expertise? Here’s a gal for you. Turnaround, cash management, international, you name it: there’s a demand for narrow skill sets.
But what motivates the professionals, some of whom are not steeped in the allure of consulting, to give up full time jobs in order to join the ranks of professional service providers?
Anecdotal evidence, from CFO’s anyway, says that full time jobs are no longer so full time. One interim CFO, who has immaculate qualifications, told me that he had lost three full time jobs after an average of 2 years on the job each. Why? Did he do a bad job?
The answer is more prosaic in this hyper-competitive middle market:
Company sold, company sold, company sold.
He then spent an average of a year each after losing the jobs to find another one.
So the math for a so-called full-time CFO is difficult: Work for six years to feed a family for nine years. Suddenly the prospect of making oneself available for up to a year or so at a time is attractive if it makes it easier to stay employed over the long haul.
Interims are so in, a new ecosystem is developing in the care of feeding of the interim manager, and not just for CFO’s . For example, a new association is dedicated to these professionals: The Association of Interim Executives. Its CEO, Bob Jordan says:
“There are many companies that are facing challenges or struggling to capture opportunities, because they don’t have the right people on board. We formed the Association of Interim Executives to give companies access to veteran executive talent who can instantly be infused into situations and be held accountable for results.”
In addition, more staffing agencies are dedicated to not only part time accountants but full time professionals This had been the norm for programmers, copywriters and project managers. But now, C-suite executives are also finding that taking short term hops can lead to long term career growth.
On Wisconsin Education
Wisconsin has always seemed to have influence larger than its 5.7 million population would suggest in this big wide world. Part of that influence arises from the audacious mission of the University of Wisconsin, which includes the directive “to serve and stimulate society.” It was under this banner, unfurled in 1904, that Harry Steenbock discovered and patented synthetic Vitamin D, and that housed 17 winners of Nobel prizes in physics, medicine, chemistry and economics. The subjects of the winners’ research has touched us all: cancer research, transistor effects, bacteria, cell function. The audacity of the research could only have taken place in a university that had encouraged a larger mission in society.
The university also has a unique structure, as it fostered a sister institution, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which invests the proceeds of Dr. Steenbock’s and other researchers’ subsequent inventions to promote university life. WARF has not only funded countless life-promoting inventions and technologies, its establishment helped make the intellectual property license a part of both university and venture capital economies. We wouldn’t have the cell phone, Google, Warfarin or safer radiation therapy without it.
The university itself is a sprawling thing, with 13 four year campuses and a 2014/5 biannual budget of $2.5 billion. In the current budget, the state’s provision was $1.2 billion, or 46%, which increased by $26.8, or 2.3% over the prior budget submission. Tution and fees, the other budget component, also increased by 2.3% in 14/15.
Now Governor Walker is proposing a $300 million cut to the state’s provision and couching this in the language of a much needed restructuring. The budget proposal will provide the university system with needed focus and a new, transformative flexibility, he argues.
Let’s examine this from a restructuring perspective.
Restructuring is hard but essentially rational work that usually occurs when a change in the external environment forces re-examination of priorities. In my world, if a client were faced with a 13 percent reduction in the funding from its key constituent—the external change– I would help re-craft the institution’s strategy to live in the new, lower-budget world. Note I said strategy, not cost cutting. So it is likely that some current program, department or facility would be let go as the forced change in priorities is realized. The essential missions would be maintained, and the company or institution would emerge with its essence not only preserved, but clarified. Given the University’s historic role and mission it would be natural to entrust the current trustees and managers of the system to come up with the new strategy.
There’s the rub, because the Governor is not only trying to dictate the budget, but the strategy. He has written a new mission statement for the university system to eliminate the aspirational language of the last 110 years, and replaced it with a bland workforce development goal. This rewrite was later called a drafting error by the Governor’s staff, but it remains a topic of heated discussion.
How does a trustee who has overseen a Steenbock, DeLuca, Carbone and Mackie deal with both a budget cut and a new mission statement? The answer is, they don’t, because they are dealing with an essentially political document. Does anyone else think it strange that the budget document was the mechanism used to publicize the new proposed mission statement? Hmm. I have a prejudice as a restructuring expert, and it is that politics and restructuring make bad bedfellows. Restructuring is rational. Politics is not.
I suspect that the university will negotiate a new, less dramatic budget and will live on with its historic mission intact. I also suspect that the budget document was not meant to impress the Governor Walker’s Wisconsin population of 5.7 million, but presidential candidate Walker’s Iowa population, which is 3 million.
Reality TV and business doesn’t seem to be a good fit. The staged nature of the interactions—I am thinking of CNBC’s The Profit—are no more likeable than when non-business contestants are naked and on a beach.
There are exceptions. A great show that touches on business is Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, which is now shown in syndication. Drain an alligator pond? Clean out a sewer? Chip out a stopped up cement mixer? Mike shows both how it’s done and how hard—and ultimately, how skilled–the work really is. And the fascination with these unseen worlds is lightened by Mike’s comedic gifts while at the same time honoring the workers who do society’s worst work. (And Mike, I’m pretty sure, is no low-class guy—the show once showed him break into a brief, baritone operatic aria while stuck in a smelly but acoustically interesting oil tank.)
But in the annals of reality TV series, few have been as wrong-headed as CBS’s Undercover Boss. In it, a company CEO puts on theatrical makeup and, posing as a new employee, joins front line troops accompanied by a camera crew. After five-plus seasons, one suspects that everyone knows that the goofball in the bad hippie haircut is really the boss, but they have reasons to keep with the charade, as we will see.
So the new employee has to learn the skills regular workers. But rather than showing how difficult the work is, the way Mike Rowe does, they demean the work by making the boss into a spectacular screw-up. He can’t flip a pizza, or key a cash register, or answer inquiries by retail customers. Sometimes it appears he doesn’t even try.
A recent show had a boss as an untrained warehouse worker getting on a forklift and operating it in an unsafe manner—going so far as to crash it into warehouse racking. The camera catches the three-storey high racks wavering ominously above the workers. This takes the CEO silliness to a new low—acting as if any responsible company would let an untrained worker put his or others’ life and limb at risk.
When the undercover boss is not screwing up, he is idly gossiping, hearing about low company morale and the difficult lives of his minimum wage co-workers. They, meanwhile, make sure the new guy knows that they themselves perform acts of heroism on behalf of the corporation.
Meanwhile, the so-called joke of the show is hearing the probably-complicit co-workers whispering at how incompetent–wink, wink–the new guy is.
The comes the reveal. The screw-up guy is really your boss! And he has been so touched by the dedication and personal travails of his camera-ready-and-wired-for-sound co-workers that he is going to give them lots of money to end their sorrows.
Thirty thousand to pay off college loans! Ten thousand for a wheelchair ramp for Grandma! Forty thousand for a down payment on a new house!
Then tears, hugs and the co-workers declaiming their absolute surprise at their good fortune (more winks) and the goodness of the undercover boss.
Here is where the thoughtful watcher would wonder, “what about the low wage worker next to these fortunate few?” The show not only lamely makes light of their work, it rewards a fortunate few while ignoring the school loans, car troubles and grandmas of everyone else. Logically it doesn’t work.
At a time when both political parties are expressing concern about income inequality, this show celebrates it in a particularly unseemly way. Get to know the CEO and you will be generously compensated. But toil in obscurity, and you are out of luck.
What steams me most about Undercover Boss is that the company is used as a site to emphasize the wealth, power and prestige of management. While wealth and power are logical consequences of career success, this show makes it seem that they are the only consequence. So the practical problems the workers bring up are never addressed. The boss rewards favored persons, but never addresses the underlying business issues so fleetingly referred to in the course of the show. The company is just a backdrop for fake generosity, not a serious place where real work gets done.
I guess the reason this all bothers me so much is that I find that good managers don’t resort to selective and unseemly toadying. Good managers favor good business processes that work for all, and don’t just look out for the welfare of preferred employees.
Some managers go so far as to make the jobs, and the lives, of employees easier. The CEO serves the company, not, as so woefully portrayed on TV, the other way around. This is a powerful philosophy called servant leadership, which I’ll talk more about in the next post.
A few years ago I received a call from a television producer who wanted to verify that I was, indeed, a well-known turnaround consultant. This took me back because “well-known” was not necessarily in my marketing vocabulary. But I figured if someone from TV wanted to talk to me, I could at least become “less-obscure.”
We arranged for a conference call with a number of executives to discuss a possible role on a new reality show.
This would be a life-changing experience, I was sure.
At the appointed hour, one of the executives asked me to demonstrate how I yelled at my clients over their past mistakes.
“I don’t do that,” I said. “People facing financial distress need a plan for the future, not to waste time ruminating over the past.”
Another voice came on. “Tell us how you scream at the clients, telling them that they’re doing everything wrong and you are right.”
“I don’t do that,” I said. “These people are sleepless and anxious. They are looking for a way forward, not drama from me.”
At this point I heard a loud click. And I never heard back from TV land again.
Of course, I realized only later that the product of any television show is conflict and drama, two elements that I find are always destructive to a turnaround in the real world.
A short time later, CNBC produced a new reality show, “The Profit,” starring Marcus Lemonis, the CEO of Camping World.
Let’s say it’s clear that Lemonis passed his first interview with the producers, because he is an in-your-face reality TV participant from the get-go.
Not that Lemonis is a bad business guy. Many of his messages are right on.
For example, he often diagnoses leadership problems right away.
The boss who doesn’t show up. The manager who refuses to adhere to a set job description. The owners too busy fighting to face practical problems. These are real issues that many troubled businesses face.
Understanding leadership needs strikes me as exactly the right approach. After all, when lack of revenue growth and profitability problems are the symptoms, it is often leadership and organization that is the root cause. I would say that approximately 99% of my clients have leadership issues, which, compounded over years and years, leads to business distress.
Lemonis also is quick to demand business clarity. He asks, “What business are you in?” when he encounters with owners reaching for profits by ill-conceived diversification. Again, the right instinct. I myself have a model that diagnoses “core products/core customers.” Why? Because there is no way that a company can survive without a focus on its core business. Again, props to Lemonis for a correct instinct.
So that’s two areas in which we appear to agree.
The problem I have with his approach is that he makes himself a central actor in the play. A classic line he uses a lot: “My money, my rules.” This doesn’t work. What if someone comes along with more money? Are their rules going to lead the company to profitability because the price is higher? Of course not.
And when he both blames the participants for their past mistakes and then tells them that is why he is right in his approach, he is making a double mistake. Remember, first, no ruminating over the past. Second, no drama from the guy who is supposed to be there to help.
Perhaps this is rational in a model where he is investing in the failing businesses. The conflict and drama elements not only help TV ratings, they set the former owners back. Robs them of confidence so the new owner can do what he wants. Maybe even fatigues them so they leave the business in the new guy’s hands, allowing him to do what he wants and staff with low-cost personnel.
I get that. Because my model is to help companies get back on their feet without causing additional emotional distress, I have a different style. For example, it is often better to ask “we” questions. Like, what if we promoted profitable product A, rather than fancy but not-so-profitable product B?
What if we need more sales strength in one area of the country rather than another?
What if we buy components on the outside instead of making them inside?
By asking questions, you bring out the expertise of the participants. It becomes a matter of taking their specialized knowledge and leveraging it against the braoder problems that need focus.
Using the word “we” reinforces that it is a team effort, between the company and their outside consultant. And within the company, between the various factions that have been fighting over the dying carcass.
The word “I” reinforces the factionalism—“I’m right and you’re wrong”—of the past. Believe me, too much of that and the company goes nowhere.
So “I” works from a reality TV perspective. Lots of conflict and drama. But in the real world, I would take The Profit to the “I” doctor.
If you own or run a company, you probably have been tempted by the siren song of nepotism. Nepotism refers to the high art and common practice of hiring your relatives.
Interestingly, if you search for the terms “nepotism” and “rules” you are likely to get a number of documents that purport to limit the practice or eliminate it entirely. This is not going to work. Nepotism, like hanky-panky and skipping your morning exercise routine, is here to stay.
I propose that we not follow the fruitless path of discouraging it. Rather, let’s make a list of rules to encourage its proper practice. Here goes. But first, some vocab. In nepotism, the person obtaining the employment is the nepotisee. The person offering the employment is the nepotiser. And the person with the power—usually the employer’s spouse or rich uncle—is the freakin’ hammer.
1. Motivation. Your erstwhile new employee should not ask you for a job. It is so much better that your great-aunt Tilly be fed up with their sloth and decide for them that they will work for you. That way the nepotisee can obtain a suitable wage without ever having to expend energy other than perhaps finding a quiet place to sit. So please let Tilly do the negotiating on their behalf.
2. Job experience. The nepotisee will not need any experience other than the week and a half they spent cowering in the back of Macdonald’s before getting canned while in high school. Let us also specify that the month of kitchen duty the young person experienced while enjoying the benefits of juvenile detention be forgotten. After all, the cops expunged it from the record, right? Why shouldn’t we?
3. Wages. Pay the beneficiary—excuse me, the nepotisee—wages higher than other persons in the department. This will cause resentment in others, but that is the cost–that those others must pay–of working in a company owned by the royal family of the janitorial supply industry, or whatever your company’s field. They should just get over it.
4. Job title. Your nepotisee should be titled Managing Director. This is a British-ism formerly meaning “head of the company” but now meaning “without specific duties and overpaid.” There should otherwise be no job description.
5. Hours. It is a common misconception that nepotisers don’t care about the hours put in by the nepotisee. This is not true. Company management cares deeply that everyone be at their desk slaving away in plain sight of others. That is why it is always a surprise to find that the nepotisee goes for a long coffee break twice a day. Upon return from lounging on the couch of the Magic Bean, the nepotisee should never offer any coffee to their colleagues. It would be disruptive. Nepotisees are also permitted to work from home on Mondays and Fridays and to coach T-ball Wednesdays at two.
6. Vacation. The nepotisee should be subject to the same vacation policies as anyone else. That way the nepotiser can show surprise when the head of HR shows you the Facebook pictures of the nepotisee carousing on the on Lake of the Ozarks when it was widely assumed that he was spending five days setting up a booth at McCormick Place. Upon discovery, say nothing to the nepotisee. Why upset the apple cart?
7. Company car. The nepotisee is likely to request, via the aforementioned Great Aunt Tilly, that he be afforded a company automobile. Tiny underpowered cars are usually provided only to salespeople who must obey strict accounting rules for expendiutres on gas and oil. That is why the young person in your employee will require a top of the line BMW. Do not be surprised that in addition to oil and gas, the nepotisee provides bills for speeding tickets, parking problems, towing and body shop. Pay them without comment or complaint!
8. Credit card. They gotta have ‘em. Salary goes only so far in supporting the lifestyle, right?
9. Other benefits. Country club, dry cleaning, tennis lessons and purchases of home furnishings are assumed to be legitimate business expenses in the eyes of the IRS, so long as no one tells the IRS that that these are company practices.
10. Family gatherings. Do not participate in family gatherings. No birthday parties, weddings, sweet-sixteens or religious holiday parties. This is the most important of all the rules. Why? Because if you have followed the first nine of these rules, you have also experienced crowds of employees bearing pitchforks by way of expressing their opinions about the nepotisee. In addition, your accountants will have expressed grave concerns about the rise in expense, and the newspapers will have noted that police cruisers have made more than occasional stops at the front entrance. You will have informed the freakin’ hammer that she is a meddling old battle ax with no conception of what it is like to run a company and that the nepotisee has been invited to return to his former habit of sleeping on the beach but no longer with the benefit of a company-paid car service to remand the nepotisee’s sandy body to the showers. This will earn you the disapproval of the family so that all prior invitations to family events will have been rescinded.
Rule number ten says, in effect, that if membership in the family is the price to be paid for perpetually employing underserving members of the family, you should always be prepared to unwind both sides of the transaction. Upon reflection you will find that the exchange—lack of family privilege for the relief of not having the nepotisee darken your door ever again–is a fair one. You will embrace your exile, and you will wonder what enormous financial and psychological pain you would have avoided if you had only acted to rid yourself of the pestilence sooner.
When I was young I got a summer job at a French country restaurant in New England. The idea was to live at the restaurant in an effort to both make big bucks and sharpen my French.
The days were incredibly long. Breakfast at 7, serve coffee and pastry to the owner and the chef for their working meeting at 8, vacuum the dining room at 9, fold napkins and polish silver at 10. Lunch service from 11 30 to 3. Our dinner of leftovers at 4 30, followed by more folding, polishing and vacuuming. Dinner service from 5 to 11 or 12. Snacks and a beer at the bar until about 1. This was the schedule 6 days a week for 11 months. The staff went home to their families in August.
At the restaurant, the French stood at the top, followed by a Spaniard or two, some slavs and guatemalans. I was the only American. And in that crew, I was definitely low man.
The food was fantastic, the personalities outsized, the yelling and screaming deafening.
And the work was the hardest I have ever done, bar none. I was a sub waiter. I was 19 years old and I could barely move my legs in the morning.
I didn’t last a week.
So with only that tiny view into the culinary world, I am somewhat mystified at the rise in our culture of the celebrity chef. The life is so hard and, in its long hours, so UN-celebrated and lonely. How did this strange, hidden world get translated into books, movies and reality TV series?
I’m sure it has something to do with the growing wealth of the country—at least at the top. Wealthy people can afford expensive, novel foods and experiences. And the media needs new fodder for gossip and celebration.
And now, we have troops of young people who want to go to culinary school in the hope that by experiencing its rigors and unlocking a number of technical secrets, they will control their own destiny.
Many want to be celebrity chefs. Others seek that moment of pride when they place their creation on the plate, making it as appetizing as possible, and wait for an nod of appreciation from the customer.
So I have a question: what would it take to give other areas of endeavor— I am thinking of the so-called trades, such as mechanic, machinist or carpenter—the same opportunities to attract young people who want to express their talents?
I think the answer has two sides: first, we need the demand for the product. It may be that the hollowing out of American manufacturing that occurred in the 90’s will be partly, and slowly, reversed. This is because China’s poor infrastructure, rising wage costs and difficulties in logistics are making setting up shop in the US more attractive. I have received a number of calls from manufacturers asking me for the names of logistics experts who can help set up new factories. Maybe this is a harbinger of a trend.
The second is education. We need program that will tell a bright kid who that it is OK to go into the trades. They need to see the utility of the program, the value of the work and the possibilities for the future.
We need educational institutions to provide the initiatives. Classes, outreach, placement. Perhaps create an internship system, such as the one that has thrived in Germany, helping to make it an engineering and manufacturing leader, even with some of the highest costs worldwide. In Germany, every tradesman in training is required to enter at least two internships of 6 to 13 week duration, and their internship performance is graded jut as classes would be.
It may be that in the fullness of time, a successful American tradesperson will reach a certain career pinnacle. They’ll have a successful company, perhaps write a book, get well known.
Then they could do what Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, did for engineering. Remember, he had been alarmed that young people simply did not know what engineers did for a living. So he set up a number of engineering light-hearted competitions. For example, one challenge was to make a machine that would climb a small hill constructed in a gymnasium, and be able to fight off all the other competitors. Others would fling ping pong balls at targets. Along the way, the students would see the value of teamwork and, not incidentally, connect with figures in education and industry. It may even be that the reality food TV shows, such as Top Chef or Chopped, were inspired by the engineering competition model
I don’t want to romanticize the trades any more than I would romanticize high cuisine. There’s hard work and many thankless tasks ahead. But, just as the Germans have found for manufacturing and we Americans have found for the culinary arts, the possibilities for wealth, satisfaction and—who knows?–reality TV fame await.
Next time I meet an educator or legislator, I am going to promote the vision: Top Mech.
The unemployment statistics are daunting: for those with high school degrees, it is 7.5%. For those with college, it is 3.8%. Except for graduates with BA degrees in the Humanities. For them, there is basically no hope.
At least, that is what the newspapers would have you believe. Articles abound on the sorry parents who are paying over-inflated tuitions on the expectation that the young progeny will attend eight lecture courses a year. The articles always seem to include a quote from some sad sack who says, essentially, “my kid is studying Humanities and will be sleeping on my couch for the rest of her life.”
Parents and economic writers appear to be having some sway in the matter. The study of humanities generally has dropped to about 7% of degrees today, as opposed to 14% for men a generation ago. (Women’s share of the humanities has dropped even further.)
I am here, folks, to argue for a degree in the humanities for life success and satisfaction, including dollars in the pocket.
First of all, at 7% humanities graduate rate, you have relative shortage on your side. Consider art history: If you are determined to be an expert on Vermeer, you can enter the field happy in the knowledge that most civilians think Vermeer is a kind of wood flooring. As the legions of present-day Vermeer experts die off, you can rest assured that someone, someday will tap you on the shoulder and say, “if you know brushstrokes, you are my man!” In the meantime, the history channel is number one among young men in many time slots, and whether the men know it or not, art is creeping onto the screen. (Yep—I am talking Pawn Stars!)
And Hollywood may well call. A college contemporary of mine got screen credit on a Scorsese picture because he was a degreed expert in bars and brothels.
Second of all, you have beauty and the mind on your side. Curating a work of art is a privilege, and so is thinking great thoughts. You might actually add to the sum of human knowledge, which not every idiot is cut out for. Take that mantle and wear it proudly.
And, even if your human-knowledge-adding is on the low-ish side, you might consider that in the eighteen years it takes to raise a child, should you choose to do so, the time to think even mediocre thoughts will be snapped away from you like a wet towel. So take the time when you can. And by the way, the 18-year statistic, which I just made up, is per child. More children, more towel snaps.
When you are a bit older, you will have a bedside table, and on that table you might want to place the book you most liked in college. Mine is The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. That might not be to your particular taste, but I will guarantee you that, years from now, the bedside spot will be mournfully empty if your favorite today is “Principles of Corporate Finance II.”
I am not necessarily arguing for a degree in English, or for a career in writing. It is true that, as the economy shows periodic shortages of various commodities, from electricity to McRib sandwiches, one weed that has proliferated nicely is the writer. Supply and demand being what they are, a writer is worth approximately one one-hundredth of a bricklayer, and when the writer finishes his work he seldom hears what the bricklayer hears, which is that a potted palm will go nicely atop that job well done.
One area I will argue for is language study. We Americans are famous for our arrogance about the universality of spoken English in the world, which accompanies our willful stupidity in the area of foreign language study. But we are not the only ones to have had this attitude about our language. History shows that the speakers of Greek, Persian, Mayan, Arabic and French have all been completely confident that their empire’s power assured the primacy of their speech. (I just compared America to the French. I apologize in advance.)
While the American empire may last another few semesters, consider that an American–in any field—who speaks a foreign language will put one on the short list in terms of marketability. A lot of things can be faked in this world, but a foreign language interview is not one of them.
Whether you go into a business career in sales, finance or engineering, the hiring managers will be confident that they can show you the required organizational ropes, but that you will bring your own language skills to the office. Those are things that they cannot teach well in a business environment.
So scarcity should bring monetary profit.
There is also a different form of benefit: the joy of speaking and understanding people in another culture. I would compare it to the pleasure derived from fine food: indescribable and, once enjoyed, an absolute necessity of a life well lived.