Monday, March 26, 2007

The Best Mentoring Session I Ever Had

The best mentoring session I ever had did not happen in a classroom, but in the office of my boss. While I am a big advocate of classroom education -- as demonstrated by Mak University at Makovsky, as well as teleconference participatory sessions and special university course work -- there is really nothing better than a one-on-one session with a mentor who genuinely has something to teach.

A mentor, as I see it, is a faithful counselor who has a deep interest in teaching you an important technique or strategy and in developing your skills, overall. While it is ideal if that person is the individual you report to, it can be anyone who has a sincere interest in helping you get better at what you do, and thereby furthering your career.

My "best mentoring session" involved my boss inviting me into his office for what turned out to be a two-hour discussion on how to write a corporate position paper. This happened while I was being groomed as an Account Supervisor at the firm at which I spent nearly ten years before starting Makovsky + Company. The discussion took place while in the midst of my third draft of the piece. Intended to develop coverage in the business press, the position paper attempted to tell the story of the client company through its leadership and show how the chairman built it into a Fortune 500 organization through strategic acquisitions. Both the chairman's personality and that of his top management had to come through.

I remember the session so vividly because it was not just my boss espousing a collection of principles, but illustrating each principle he espoused, through examples. We actually rewrote sections jointly, on-the-spot, flipped paragraphs from one place to another and discussed the best way to describe key developments. It was a can-do, working-together environment in which he built my confidence and skills. And he took what amounted to almost an afternoon of time to do it.

The one-on-one approach told me I was very important to that organization, and that my boss deeply cared about my development. There were many position papers after that one which produced great media results. But that one was one of my standouts in terms of client satisfaction, media results and mastery. Perhaps unwittingly, he also taught me a lesson in management and education.

Today there is an award given annually in my boss's name at the New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America: The Phil Dorf Mentoring Award.

Technorati Tags: mentoring, mentor, corporate position paper, Public Relations Society of America, prsany, Phil Dorf, public relations, communications, business

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Credentials Crisis at Wikipedia

It’s all over the blogosphere. It seems that everyone — from bloggers Nicholas Carr and Jason Scott to PC World and the Taipei Times — has written about the unmasking of Wikipedian administrator Ryan Jordan a twenty-four-year-old Kentuckian who faked an elaborate online identity as “EssJay,” a tenured professor of religion with multiple degrees, including two doctorates.

In response to the scandal, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has resurrected an idea he first proposed in 2005. Wikipedians would still be allowed to be anonymous if they wished, but those who want to be identified as having “Verified Credentials” would have to submit reasonable proof.

Something like this is already in place at Amazon, which has made it possible (but optional!) for an individual to acquire a “Real Name” badge, authenticated by the cardholder name on his or her credit card. Theoretically at least, this makes good sense. After all, we’re much more likely to trust a reviewer who’s willing to back up his words by putting his own good name on the line.

Yes, credentials can be a crucial factor in determining credibility. Would you want your open-heart surgery conducted by a “cardiologist” with no M.D.? But not all credentials are created equal. Is a teacher of creationism at Bob Jones University as credible as a professor of Invertebrate Paleontology at Harvard? It’s not just being credentialed that matters, it’s the specifics of those credentials … and I’m not sure that Wikipedia will be able to go into that level of detail.

But that may all be beside the point, because Wikipedia is designed to be written by consensus … so the imposition of a single, official, “expert” point of view would be difficult to achieve, if not doomed to failure.

As Carr writes, “Many of Wikipedia’s most eloquent advocates have argued that the encyclopedia’s practice of judging an author’s work solely on its own merits without being influenced by the author’s credentials is one of the project’s core strengths, both ideologically and practically.”

My own feeling is that so-called experts are themselves subject to bias and erroneous points of view. When I was in grade school, it was widely believed (and taught!) that dinosaurs were stupid, slow-moving creatures who died out because the much smarter mammals ate their eggs. Today, experts describe dinosaurs as clever, swift-footed animals that were wiped out by a comet.

There are plenty of examples of credentialed experts who were very, very wrong:

Thomas Alva Edison, Inventor: “Direct thought is not an attribute of femininity. In this, woman is now centuries … behind man.”

Pierre Pochet, Professor of Physiology: ‘[Louis Pasteur’s] theory of germs is a ridiculous fiction.”

Dr. W. C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute: “If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.”

Irving Fisher, Yale Professor of Economics (in 1929!!!): “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

Phil Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs: “[Night baseball is] just a fad, a passing fancy.”

Human knowledge is always changing. Many orthodox experts have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. The internet — and Wikipedia — provide equal opportunity access to “facts,” as expounded by traditional experts, and emerging hypotheses and theories.

To my mind, Wikipedia does an important and useful thing when it allows thoughtful people to challenge conventional wisdom. It may actually telescope the time it takes for breaking discoveries to supplant old, tired, soon-to-be-debunked theories.

Technorati Tags: Nicholas Carr, Jason Scott, PC World, Taipei Times, Wikipedia, Ryan Jordan, EssJay, Jimmy Wales, Amazon, Thomas Alva Edison, Pierre Pochet, Dr. W.C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute, Irving Fisher, Yale University, Phil Wrigley, Chicago Cubs

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

For The Long Term

Should guidance be eliminated? Guidance, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is the practice of publicly traded companies forecasting their earnings, typically for the next quarter and fiscal year. It has been an issue for years, because many people believe that guidance influences companies to run their businesses for the short-term rather than the long-term.

Guidance has its advocates … and its detractors.

Companies that employ guidance and meet or surpass their targets send a message to Wall Street that they truly know what makes their businesses tick. They can correctly predict their business, thereby, gaining the confidence of security analysts that follow the company and who develop their own forecasts. Guidance accuracy reflects well on the company’s management because their comments can be depended upon. Guidance is good for the stock price and the market in general, which is based on perceptions and particularly perceptions about a company’s performance in the future. Investors buy stock based on what they believe will happen. Guidance forces companies who are not going to meet target to “come out” long before the quarter numbers are in and advise investors. Overall, guidance builds stock market momentum and enables investors to fairly value a company’s shares by reducing information gaps.

On the other hand, guidance encourages companies to focus on short-term rather than long-term results. Many make an enormous effort to meet or exceed the projected target because of the stock market consequences if they don’t. Some take actions they might otherwise not take, such as delaying the purchase of new technologies or other capital expenditures when, in fact, such actions may be counterproductive in the long-term. Companies worry – and for just reason – that if they miss their targets, analysts will downgrade their stock, causing the share price to decline by reflecting to investors that the company doesn’t know it’s own business as well as it should. Many observers believe that companies that formerly provided guidance and then decided to stop are sending negative signals about future performance.

An article titled, “Reporting for Duty,” by Robert C. Pozen, (NYT 3/3/07), provides data that offers mounting evidence that suggests that giving quarterly guidance is detrimental to a company’s long-term performance. Key among the data in the story was a survey by the National Bureau of Economics Research of 401 senior firm executives that 80 percent were willing to forego spending on research and development (an expense that would diminish profits) to meet their quarterly targets, and 55 percent were willing to delay projects that promise gains in the long-term for their company. Logically, another study showed that those who use the technique are less likely to achieve long-term earnings growth anyway. And a CFA Institute study showed that 76 percent of analysts themselves supported the end of guidance. Significantly, a McKinsey Study noted that when a company abandoned the guidance practice, trading value did initially drop, but the difference disappeared within a year.

All of the above argues for a permanent end to guidance, and Pozen notes that the US Chamber of Commerce Commission on the Regulation of Capital Markets in the 21st Century, of which he is a member, will urge an end to giving quarterly guidance in favor of companies taking a long-term approach and providing more information to investors’ long-term plans.

The article says, “we must help chief executives free themselves from the tyranny of…meeting their own public predictions” even though analysts may continue to predict quarterly, causing CEOs to still feel some pressure. For that, CEOs should meet with analysts quarterly to correct any mistaken assumptions made. Nevertheless, I am certain there are companies that are “exceptions to the rule.”

All of this makes good sense to me, because it will, I hope, help companies invest dollars in valid enterprises that bring future success, rather than on potentially short-term, ineffectual — and ultimately costly — cosmetic actions.

Technorati Tags: guidance, quarterly guidance, stock market, investors, Robert C. Pozen, National Bureau of Economics Research, 2006 McKinsey Study, US Chamber of Commerce Commission on the Regulation of Capital Markets in the 21st Century, business, communications, public relations