The Hidden Costs Behind Tornados

February 1, 2008

We all know that big corporations can be heartless, soulless, evil organizations, but this one is almost unbelievable… almost.

It seems that Time Warner Cable decided to bill a lady in Wisconsin $2000 for cable equipment (her cable box and accessories) damaged in a tornado that demolished (and I really mean demolished) her home a few weeks ago.

(full story here http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080201/ap_on_fe_st/odd_cable_bill_tornado;_ylt=AhYgbNQ56dJA56KnZvJcPF.s0NUE)

The lady called TWC to have the charge removed because a tornado leveled her home and she was informed by a manager that she would have to turn it in to her insurance company.

When asked what in the world they were thinking, TWC’s spokeswoman said it was a misunderstanding (I don’t know what you can misunderstand about “my house was leveled by a tornado”). Also, when asked whether anyone else had actually had to pay the charge, she replied that those in the area who didn’t mention the tornado were billed.

WOW. Can we say ‘unethical’?

Here is a company with a history of terrible customer service (almost legendary for their terrible customer service, actually) doing nothing to repair their image.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

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Series on Leadership Part 2 – Defining Characteristics

February 1, 2008

In Part 1, some questions were posed regarding what leadership is, what makes a good leader, and whether or not an individual can actually develop and improve their leadership skills (as opposed to a leader being ‘born’ rather than ‘made’).

In Part 2, I hope to move closer to defining leadership by taking a look at what characteristics and qualities make a good leader. Perhaps by listing and examining some of these qualities (which are often easy to observe), it will be easier to define the concept of leadership. As the Series on Leadership progresses, we will examine some of these traits in greater detail.

So what traits do excellent leaders usually possess? A fairly large amount of academic research work has been done on the subject, and most researchers agree on a few characteristics.

Daniel Goleman, author, researcher and co-chair of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligece in Organizations at Rutgers University, has identified five traits that are commonly noted in research papers on the subject of leadership. They include self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Broadly, I feel that a strong argument can be made that these traits are the basic necessities for good leaders.

This list, however, is very broad in definition and possibly lacks the clarity and detail necessary to truly define what constitutes each of these ideas. For example, what exactly constitutes empathy, and what qualities make someone who is ’empathetic’ different from someone who is not?

The list is also possibly lacking in other traits that may be crucial to the job of ‘leading’. ‘Trbpublising’ commented in yesterday’s post that critical thinking, along with the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, is an extremely important trait. I would tend to agree. Another is the ability to make quick, snap decisions – while it is important to be able to think things through in a logical, thought out sense, many front line leaders (especially in the military) would indicate that taking your time while making decisions is not always an option, so the ability to rapidly make good decisions is extremely important. The ability to motivate and inspire those around you is another trait that frequently makes the list.

It quickly becomes obvious that there is no real consensus on which traits are vital to good leadership and which are not. Now that we have a basic list of traits, over the next few weeks we will take a look at these traits in greater detail. Again, feel free to list traits, concepts, or ideas that you feel may add to our understanding of the topic.


Series on Leadership Part 1 – What is Leadership?

January 31, 2008

Over the next few months I hope to examine, and hopefully with the help of anyone reading, intend to come to a better understanding of leadership in the modern world.

Why examine leadership? Few issues permeate our daily lives to the extent of the concept of leadership. Everyone is certainly aware of the implications of the next presidential election… few would dispute that the country is in need of better leadership (including myself… I did, however, vote for Bush…twice). Leadership not only plays a part in government and politics, but also our daily lives, whether we work at a manufacturing plant, a school, a hospital, a law firm, or even McDonald’s.

We can all certainly point out bad leaders when we work under them or when we observe them from a distance… but can we use these observations to make ourselves better leaders? More importantly, can we even define what leadership is, or what characteristics make a good or effective leader? Is leading the same as managing? Does the type of leadership that is needed vary from situation to situation?

This is a place to begin to think about what leadership is, what effect it has on our lives, and what we can do to improve ourselves as leaders. Over the next few months I hope to gain a clearer understanding of the idea of ‘leadership’. As the series progresses, please feel free to post your thoughts on the subject.


The True Value of Diversity

January 28, 2008

What is diversity?

I am 25 years old, fairly young, probably still very naive, and I have lived my entire life in northern Ohio. Anyone from the area can tell you that Ohio is not exactly the capital of diversity in any sense, and if anyone tries to tell you that it is they are either very sheltered or they are fooling themselves. Having grown up in an area where everyone is essentially ‘like’ you, recognizing the value of diversity can be a very, very challenging task.

Upon starting my first ‘corporate’ job (working for a fortune 100 company) a couple of years ago, I was quickly put through a week-long ‘diversity training program’ that was supposed to be designed to help all employees recognize and appreciate the ‘value’ of a diverse workforce. After the first day of the training, I was pretty disappointed to find out that the ‘diversity training program’ was actually nothing more than a ‘try to tolerate your neighbors and don’t make fun of anyone at work’ training program.

I have to admit that prior to beginning my graduate degree last year I thought that I knew what diversity was and why it was important. While growing up, I had friends from other races and ethnic backgrounds… so I knew what diversity was, right? When I began my graduate program I saw that diversity is something entirely different…

Do we need to take another look at how we view diversity?

The standard method of teaching diversity in the U.S. has remained unchanged for quite some time, and I think that it may be time that we re-examine our methods.

In most elementary schools, children are first introduced to the concept of diversity by teaching them through various ‘holiday traditions exercises’… in other words, the first exposure to learning about the value of diversity that many American children receive is learning that diversity means ‘jewish kids celebrate Hanukkah’, or that ‘some african cultures celebrate Kwanzaa’, etc… as children continue into middle and high school, this approach changes to more of a ‘tolerance-based’ approach, essentially focusing on the idea that we all inhabit this earth together, and that we need to accept each other’s differences in order to get along… is this what diversity is? Does learning about diversity and cultural differences have no value other than tolerance? We seem to be telling our children (from a very young age) “Sure, we are all different, and it makes things tough… Get over it.”

More disturbingly, there is a strong movement in schools to eliminate these ‘holiday celebrations’ altogether. Although they are going about teaching diversity the wrong way, some mention of it is better than none. Numerous lawsuits have been brought forth in the past few years aimed at removing from classrooms any acknowledgment of the cultural differences that makes us all unique. Evidently, teaching children that their friends may celebrate other holidays because they belong to another religion is infringing upon their rights… Would they truly be better off by ignoring the fact that not everyone believes the same things they do? Evidently some socially conservative whack-jobs think so (and I must admit, I am fairly socially conservative when it comes to religion).

The Right Way to Teach Diversity

When I began my graduate studies, I was for the first time in my life surrounded by (and forced to work in close proximity with) people from numerous other cultures. In a matter of days, I went from having no concept of what diversity truly is to working face-to-face on a daily basis with people from India, Nepal, Croatia, Nigeria, Ghana, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, etc…

The experience of working with (and learning from) people from so many different cultures and backgrounds has been truly priceless. I have developed numerous technical and analytical skills and have had many experiences in my studies that will benefit me as my career progresses, but none of them compare to the insight I have gained from working and studying with the international students. It has become very apparent to me that the true value of understanding diversity is not the ability to be tolerant of those around you… the true value lies in the diversity itself and is a result of the various life experiences, outlooks, beliefs, and cultural differences that each member of society brings to the table. If we can learn to appreciate the value of each individual’s unique set of knowledge and beliefs, then tolerance will be a simple consequence of respecting and valuing the ideas and thoughts of others. Rather than teaching tolerance in our schools and workplaces, we should teach the concept that when we may not have the right answer to whatever problem we are facing, someone from a different background may have a unique and valuable perspective.


The Next Big Credit Crunch

January 25, 2008

Contrary to what the mass media would have you believe, Generation Y has more on its agenda than obsessing over Britney Spears, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, and Facebook. As a matter of fact, most members of Generation Y in the U.S. will attend college, and many will graduate. Many may even continue on to pursue degrees in medicine, law, or other advanced degrees. Along the way, they will develop their understanding of the world around them, make new friends, and possibly even have a good time while doing it. If they are like most other modern college students, they will also rack up a massive amount of debt.

The Expense

College has become somewhat of a necessity for the modern American youth. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when only the most wealthy, driven, or inquisitive people continued their education following high school, but now almost every child from the ‘middle class’ feels compelled to go to college or risk having no real chance at wealth and the ever foggier definition of ‘success’.

But what is the real value of a college education? Does it guarantee a lucrative job offer? Does it truly improve your earning potential over the duration of your career? If so, how much debt does it justify accruing?

Here are the facts:

The average bachelor’s degree recipient will graduate with between $19,000 and $40,000 in debt. The average graduate student will graduate with an additional $31,700 in debt beyond what they accrued during their undergraduate studies. Law and medical students will graduate with $91,700 in debt on average.

At a local State University, the current tuition rate for a full time undergrad student is $4200 a semester. Add to this the expense of a dorm room and meal plan, and you can add an additional $8000 per year. This totals $16400 per year over an average of 5 years for a total cost of $82000. Ouch. You better hope that the lucrative job offer comes through… but will it?

Law students are an excellent case in point. Many, if not most, will graduate with about $100,000 worth of student loans. Payed back over the course of 25 years at an interest rate of 8%, this amounts to a monthly payment of $771.82 a month… no problem for a newly minted lawyer, right?

Wrong.

The average starting salary for a first year law associate is roughly $46,000 a year. Take out taxes and a 401k contribution and a new lawyer is taking home about $2500 a month. If they plan on starting a family, this could be a real problem. For students who rack up this kind of debt and graduate with a degree in a field like education or the liberal arts, they are screwed.

The Next Credit Meltdown

This all sounds real scary, but most college students aren’t in this position, right?

Wrong again. Look at the facts.

This could be the foundation for an economic crisis larger than the housing crisis that we have been feeling the effects of lately. With so much debt, many of these students will have two options: pay off their student loans and live in an apartment until they are 50, or try to buy a house and start a family. If they go with the latter option, it seems obvious that either the house or the student loans will go into default, and you can bet that both the student loan provider and the bank who owns the mortgage will want their money. Will the government step in with another plan to help Generation Y save their homes? I imagine we will find out in another 10 to 15 years.

‘Ethics’ and ‘Student Loan Provider‘ – Two phrases that don’t belong in the same sentence.

Why hasn’t this issue already been addressed? Because both the schools and the student loan providers stand to benefit from taking advantage of the students.

In mid-2007, a huge scandal involving numerous student loan providers and school officials was exposed. The situation basically involved the student loan providers offering incentives to school financial aid officers for ‘selling’ their loans to students. JPMorgan Chase spent $74,000 wining and dining more than 200 school officials on a cruise ship. They also employed five college student loan officers at the bank while they were still employed at the university. At Columbia University in New York, the head of financial aid was suspended (yes, suspended, not fired) when it was discovered that he had earned $100,000 on stock in a loan company that he regularly recommended to students. The government took measures to ensure that this would be discouraged in the future and to prohibit student loan officers from accepting ‘gifts’ from banks for selling student loans, but the damage had already been done to the countless number of students who had already been sold into loans that they may not have understood or needed. Who are the schools really looking out for, anyway? Shouldn’t they be looking out for what is in the best interest of their students?

In any case, what is done is done. It seems that the legislation that was passed in 2007 was enough to ‘smooth things over’ and get everyone to turn their heads while the future generations of the U.S. are duped into an over-priced education by banks and corrupt university officials looking to make a quick buck. Our politicians will continue to argue about the merits of universal health care and ‘the war against terror’ while Generation Y digs itself into a hole of debt from which there is no escape. Eventually, the misfortune of America’s youth will be the misfortune of America’s economy. Our leaders had better take notice.


What will you do with your $600?

January 24, 2008

Well, the deal of the century has almost been closed. Congress has moved one step closer to giving us back $600 that we gave to them earlier this year. Of course, this is part of the well publicized ’emergency economic stimulus package’ that the geniuses in our government have devised to help fix up our failing economy.

What will you do with your $600? That almost covers a new Playstation 3 plus tax. Or, you could spend it on some new work clothes. I guess it could cover a car payment or two for those of you with an auto loan. Or maybe it would be better spent by going out and getting hammered every night next week… I think that is exactly what Congress has been up to if they think that this will bail us out of this economic disaster that they have caused.

Here is an idea… write to your congressman (or woman) and ask him what exactly he is smoking. $600? That is a smack in the face. I don’t think the economy is hurting because the government over-billed us on our taxes last year by $600.

In any case, feel free to post what you will be spending your $600 on. Heck, if we buy enough PS3’s, maybe the problems in the housing market will disappear.


Have Our Leaders Failed Us?

January 23, 2008

We have all heard the question repeated a thousand times over the past 6 months… Are we in a recession? If not, are we facing one in the near future?

If you have been following the news for the past week, the answer is apparent – not only are we in a recession, we are facing possibly the largest such event in the past 30 years. The question is no longer whether we are in a recession or not, but how we should respond moving forward.

I feel that it is important to understand the root causes that have led up to the extremely serious problems facing the U.S.’s financial markets. Sure, it is easy to blame the previously ignored, terribly underestimated problems caused by the sub-prime lending meltdown over the past five years. Anytime someone borrows more than they can pay back (whether they knew they were doing so or whether they were intentionally mis-lead), you are going to have a potentially serious problem. But we cannot blame the failure of one of the world’s largest economies on bad mortgages alone.

The real problem is 20+ years of ineffective, inefficient leadership from people more concerned with re-election than with setting effective domestic and foreign policy goals to ensure the nation’s future.

It is clear that the world’s financial markets have become extremely integrated and that the market for goods and services is now almost completely flat. To put things into perspective, close to 90% of everything you buy was produced overseas. Free trade agreements have nearly eliminated trade barriers and restrictions on foreign and multi-national corporations selling products within the U.S. At the same time, organizations such as the European Union have set up numerous barriers to restrict or prohibit U.S. companies from gaining market share in their countries in an attempt to protect manufacturers and producers within their home countries. The blame should not be placed on the European Union, however. The blame lies solely on the U.S. politicians who have allowed the EU to set up such restrictions unchecked. The fact of the matter is that our trade deficit is at an all time high (nearly $6 trillion). The value of the U.S. dollar is rapidly falling, which is may be good news for U.S. business – but it is terrible news for the U.S. consumer, who will have to pay increasingly high costs for the foreign goods that we have become increasingly dependent on.

The government has proposed an economic stimulus package to try to prevent further recession. An important question to ask yourself: How will a one time, $400 tax rebate effect you? I’m not sure if our politicians are really that out-of-touch, but this is 2008. $400 won’t change much of anything for the modern American college student, not to mention a 4 person family. As far as stimulating the economy goes, the $400 rebate may work if it is spent SOLELY on U.S. produced goods and services… but let me direct you back to the fact that 90% of everything we purchase is produced overseas. It seems obvious that $360 of the $400 rebate will be sent overseas and have no effect other than to stimulate the economy in OTHER countries.

A country that does not produce anything, be it goods or services, will have a hard time sustaining economic growth. It seems that our politicians have completely missed this fact. While Hillary and Barack are engaging in heated debates about whether or not Mr. Obama inhaled, the country that our founding fathers fought so hard for is failing. As the election nears, I have not yet heard mention of any of the real issues facing the U.S.

How will we deal with the increasing power of the European Union? How will the emergence of China and India as a global economic force effect the domestic economy as we move forward? How will we deal with real domestic issues, such as the failing social security system? Is it fair to ask the next generation of the American workforce to pay into a system that will not exist when they retire?

One fact is clear and indisputable. Our leaders have failed us. The economy is in shambles. While Bill Clinton was passing free trade agreements and receiving ‘favors’ from White House interns, leaders in other countries were calculating how they could improve the situation for their citizens. While Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama (both ACTIVE U.S. senators) are debating how to provide health care for everyone in the country and focusing on getting elected, our economy is falling apart.

It is time to hold are leaders accountable. It is time to be informed and to know what issues are actually important as we move into the new century. Hopefully our next generation of leaders will take notice.