Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Sharing Three Management Lessons with a Gifted Colleague

Not long ago I received word that one my American University School of International Service’s most brilliant, multifaceted doctoral students, Prof. (Dr.) Christine Chin, had assumed one of my former responsibilities, Director of the University’s Center for Teaching Research and Learning - CTRL (formerly the Center for Teaching Excellence – CTE) . More recently I learned she had been named as the School’s interim Dean.  Happily she is slated to return to CTRL after a one-year term.
These appointments led me to reflect on and share three lessons that I drew from my own years as a manager.  While they might not be relevant all cultural contexts, they served me well..
Lesson #1. “Bad news” is the “news” a manager most needs to know and the hardest for her (or him) to get. Don’t only be open to “bad news” seek it out.  Edwin Catmull expresses the same truth differently in his marvelous book on effective management at Pixar, Creativity Inc.  “If there is more truth telling around the water-cooler than in the executive suite the organization is in trouble” He observes.
Lesson #2. If you want to have staff members be effective, find out what the like to do best and, no matter what is their “job description,” create opportunities for them to do it. Applying this principal transformed several mediocre performers into stars.
Lesson #3. Commitment to serve. I also shared a practice that contributed to the distinctiveness and reputation of CTE/CTRL University-wide.  At a point in our beginning-fall-term day-long welcome and orientation for more that 50 new and old staff members I would ask the assembled group – “if you receive a request from someone seeking information or assistance from (CTE/CTRL), whatever the request may be, what are the four words with which, if you respond, may result in summary dismissal?  The answer: 


Thursday, June 15, 2017

About Quality Relationships - The Spectacle Shop in Singapore's West Coast Plaza

 Soon after settling in Singapore, I realized that I needed my eyeglass lenses upgraded and, perhaps, new frames as well.  Singapore’s “West Coast Plaza,” a mid-sized multi-story emporium catering to local residents, was within easy walking distance.  Across the street was a market center populated by “Hawker’s Stands” (Chinese, Malay, and Indian prepared food shops) and small shops of all kinds  (Chinese medicines, furniture, hair salons – an unimaginably varied potpourri of small commercial enterprises).  It had become become my preferred destination for groceries, vitamin supplements, stationery supplies,  sundry clothing items and an occasional Hawker’s Stand or more upscale restaurant meal. This it seemed a natural choice for eyeglasses as well. 

Most Singaporeans wear eyeglasses and optometrist outlets are plentiful in both sides of the street. How to choose among them?  One Saturday morning, in Spring 2010,  I set out to have my eyes tested and, possibly, to make a purchase.  After brief unsystematic survey I chose “The Spectacle Shop,” located on the topmost floor of the Plaza. The storefront was clean, brightly lighted and decorated with posters of handsome, smiling men and women in their mid 30s enjoying their glasses. This is how I became acquainted, in the spring of 2010 with the owner, Raymond Lau and his wife (whose name I have yet to learn).  Over the six years when I have mostly lived in Singapore, I have continued to shop at the West Coast Plaza, even after my move to University Town made less convenient. From time to time, I stopped by to exchange greetings with Raymond and see how he was doing.  Lately, his business has not been so good, because of increased competition from a renovated “Clementi Mall”, which is adjacent to a Singapore Rapid Transit (MRT) station.

Not long ago, I began to realize that my vision was not what it should be and visited Raymond for a check-up. 
After some extensive testing, he advised that he would not sell me new corrective lenses without a further examination. Guided by his recommendation, I secured an appointment at the National University of Singapore, Eye clinic. After three hours of testing and consultations with three ophthalmologists, I was advised that no surgery was required, but that periodic testing at six-month intervals was advisable. I returned to The Spectacle Shop with the more nuanced prescription I been seeking. With complete confidence in Raymond’s professionalism and integrity, I ordered new frames and two sets of progressive lenses, with a special coating designed for heavy computer users (I often log 7-10 hours each day, 7 days a week.)
 The final chapter occurred on Tuesday evening, when the second set of frames with their new lenses, arrived in Raymond’s office, somewhat later than anticipated.  Because he knew I was leaving the country shortly, and my schedule was packed, he arranged to have his son drive him to my office/apartment complex so he could deliver my new glasses personally and bid me farewell. It was after 10 PM when we met. This was more than a business transaction; it was the latest chapter in a five plus year professional face-to-face friendship.

 My goal has never been “the best price.”  It as always been a mutually beneficial professional transaction grounded in mutual warmth, mutual respect and especially mutual trust.  Our relationship has been both professional and personal, supported by authentic,  congenial face-to-face communication. I believe that such quality relationships; in every facet of my life are one of the most important ingredients of a life that is worth living.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Travails of Online Banking

How often has it happened to you?  You are need information from one of your several bank accounts. The reason you have several is, perhaps, that you arranged deposit of your monthly (US) Social allotment. Since then you have moved several times so the Social Security office with responsibility has changed. 
When you attempt to log-in on line, you are informed there are new security procedures in place.  No longer is it sufficient to have a complex password with capital letters, small letters, and symbols, plus your grandmother’s middle name and the name of your first grade teacher. The additional requirement is that you will be sent a “one time pin”.  This will be sent to your mobile phone or to your email address.  Because the mobile phone service in your office is sporadic, you select the email address.  You check your email repeatedly, but no message comes.  Eventually, reach your bank’s call center in the US and, after responding to multiple “security questions,” the call-center staff member checks on your email.  It turns out that the email you regularly use has a security “firewall” that makes it inaccessible to the server used by your bank. You propose another email address (you need three different email addresses for different relationships), This works and, for the moment you have access to that account once again.  You take deep breaths, repeat the Serenity Prayer and move on to your next task.  A procedure that once took five minutes has consumed more than an hour.
            Were Franz Kafka rewriting “The Castle” he might instead choose internet banking, rather than bureaucracy,  as his subject matter.  However it is worthwhile to step back and reflect on the cause for all of this.  The cause is immorality, plan and simple. Those who “hack” for criminal purposes and those who surreptitiously invade our privacy for commercial purposes or other machinations may not be equally complicit – there are degrees of immorality but they are all complicit in degrading the quality of our human experience.   
            To paraphrase my beloved friend, the late Dana Meadows, the world be a simpler and better place if people could only be honest and care about each other.  And I wouldn’t need to keep track of so many passwords and answers to “security questions.”

Monday, July 25, 2016

Older and Long-Serving Air-Cabin Staff Need not be Sullen and Inefficient

For international travel, my first choice is Singapore Airlines.  However I often book Qatar Airlines, a close second in impeccable service, because of lower fares. (I have heard that the Emirate is subsidizing the airline to build its prestige and customer base.) Two demographics distinguish the cabin staffs of both airlines. :  they are predominantly female and within the 25 to 35 year-old age bracket.

Service on my rare journeys by American Flag carries – Delta, American and United fall well below the standard of Singapore and Qatar.  This saddens me since in the 1970s when I began an international travel regimen, Pan American and TWA, now both defunct, were the world leaders.  Not only are staff members less proactive and efficient, but also noticeably less cheerful.  Many seem only to be “putting in their time,” reluctantly fulfilling the obligations of a career they no longer find rewarding. My own impressions have been confirmed by friends and colleagues who, for various reasons must frequent  American flag carriers for international travel more regularly.

In addition to quality of service, what has also distinguished the American Flag Carrer cabin staffs has been their demographic:  many are in their 30s, 40s and, perhaps, even 50s.  This had pointed me towards two generalizations:  (1) cabin service ought to be a profession for the young; this is not a job that women and men over age 35 find rewarding.  (2)  American work-rules forbidding “age discrimination” require airline managements to keep lower-performing older staff members on the job. 

A recent trip on British Airways, from Tampa to London and London to Delft gave the lie to my generalizations.  Cabin staff members were neither young nor slim (they were predominantly, not exclusively, female). However they were not only warmly welcoming but efficient. I would gladly choose British Airways again and look forward to the journey, should the need arise.

What explains the disparity?  Clearly it is neither the age or years of service of cabin staff members.  Rather, I believe the explanation is high quality versus slovenly, and or indifferent and oppressive management on the part of those who supervise them. 

Saturday, July 09, 2016


Soon after I arrived for my first extended stay in Singapore, I was fortunate to meet with Professor Lui Pao  Chuen. “PC”, as he is called by many,  is among the wisest of the wise men who, though freed from daily responsibilities, generously share their wisdom with members of Singapore’s business, academic and public  policy communities.

After an exchange of greetings, PC got right to the point.  “What are you going to do for Singapore?,”  he asked sharply.  “It would be presumptuous for me, as a foreigner, to visit your country with plans to “do” anything specific,” was my response.  “I have come to learn about Singapore and, perhaps, when I have spent ample time observing, listening and learning, to share what I have learned with others.”

Several conference papers and publications, most notably “The Improbable Resilience of Singapore” (co authored with a Singaporean, Elizabeth Ong) are frist attempts to make what have been learning accessible and useful.  They represent just a tiny fraction of what there is to be shared.  I have decided that periodically resuming this Dormgrandpop Blog may, be another means of sharing. 

Singapore’s unique political-economic-social experiment has much to offer. What never ceases to amaze me is how few individuals whose paths cross mine either know about or care about Singapore’s political-social-economy. That “average citizens’ ” knowledge does not extend beyond “caning,” bans against chewing gum sales and vague notions of “authoritarianism” should, perhaps, not surprise me.  But to hear similar reactions from many academics and public intellectuals, who are my professional acquaintances, does.

This morning as news reports describe an America that is wracked by race-based turbulence and gun violence, I wish to mention two Singapore policies that could make a difference.   The first – rigorous proscription of firearms sales  - is one that Singapore shares with most nations of the world.  The second, proscription of enthno-religious political appeals and incitements is not. 

Before independence,  Singapore was a state within a Nation espousing a policy based on racial preference for “sons of the soil”, Malaysia.   At the time, Lee Kuan Yew observed that political/public policy statements that were the norm in Malaysia were a crime in Singapore; those that were the norm in Singapore were a crime in Malaysia.  Malaysia’s ruling party is the United National Malay Organization (UMNO).   My book, Paradise Poisoned, describes the tragedy visited on all Sri Lankans by racially preferential policies.  Like mustard gas when the wind changes, they “blow back” and poison those who use them. 

America and Singapore are societies that differ vastly.  But I have come to believe that immersing oneself in Singapore’s society does offer principles that merit consideration by America’s political leaders and those of other nations.  One, I have just described   Another provided a foundation for Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s  governance philosophy.  It graces the entrance of the School of Public Policy that bears his name and where I help students prepare of public policy service:  “IF YOU WANT TO REALIZE YOUR HOPES AND DREAMS, YOU CANNOT DO IT WITHOUT DISCIPLINE.”