Thursday, May 29, 2014

Does gender matter? Yes.

Thoughts – normative versus positive statements: After years of looking at existing gender roles, it was interesting to move from theorizing about the nature of gender in society, and to have a frank discussion in class about the practical nuances of gender in the work place (and to see that some people in a business class setting don’t have the PC cudgel over their heads).

However, for theorizing on a power gradient that doesn’t find me at the bottom I often feel as if those who are at society’s bottom are over-stating their case. Of course when I theorize from a position of weakness I myself feel empowered. Basically I see class and not race.  But gender does matter, in many ways.

The problem is, we can’t just solve everything by women leaning in – though I am attracted to the idea. The important thing is that in spite of years of feminism (You can date it to about 1848 in Saratoga Falls) there is still this divide. So it is not just women needing to lean in, but important for those who control the structure to stop thinking power and opportunity are a zero-sum game and that we can grow as a country better when women’s roles in both the workplace and the home are given value on par with what men see their own value. This is true for gender and sex and race.

The discouraging thing is that some recent studies have shown that even in egalitarian settings like Sweden, there is limited income mobility. Those born poor are going to stay poor, and those born rich will stay rich. We can point to several counter examples that might disprove that narrative, but the broad sweep of the numbers say that you probably won’t be the president if you were born poor or female or trans or of a darker shade of skin. 

You have to look at the history and see that there are two strands for the out group to try to gain power. There are assimilationists who try to come into the existing power structure, and there are revolutionaries of many stripes that want to overthrow the existing patriarchy / class structure / gender norms / etc. I am not one for chaos and revolution. I’d rather sit on my couch and read a book. However, the revolutionaries have long been marginalized as too extreme and the people who just want a seat at the table have been fed, but then ignored. I don’t know what the answer is but I have the feeling that outside of a revolution, the power structure will remain in place and only slowly be chipped at by minority groups of all stripes. They will continue to have to both conform to and break away from stereotypes. They will have to be twice as good for less pay. 

We still remember Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. The thing is Ginger did everything Fred did, only backwards and in heels. That sticks with me, and it remains true. I can see the inequity in the system, but I struggle because I feel weak and powerless to change such an entrenched edifice. 

Maybe I have to get off my couch.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Peirce and Newstrom's: Leaders and the Leadership Process

The thing that strikes me about the book is that a lot of the readings seem dated. For example, looking at a chapter on trait theory:

There has to have been a lot of studies furthering the standardization of trait description, maybe looking at active leadership while a participant is an fMRI machine, or something, but there is something else.  The first reading for today's classes are about the meaning (or absence of meaning) of various traits that disprove a "great man" theory of leadership. The thing is written in 1991.  That was in the middle of the first Bush recession that would lead to the Clinton / tech expansion (bubble). Here's the thing -- context matters in the proces. We've had at least two world-changing events in the almost 25 years since this was written: 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008. Traits matter, but are there traits that are more useful now than 20 years ago?  I can think that maybe consensus-building may be more important now than then. When they brought back Wall Street for a sequal, Gordon Gekko wasn't a figure to be emulated for his lone-wolf ways.  Maybe now is a time we need leadership more than ever.

Basically, my feeling is that I way over-paid for this book, and it is representative of the problems with the college text book industry as a whole.

Another case in point.  I spent the last two years clearing some classes to build a foundation for my MBA classes. In many cases, the book was almost as expensive as the tuition of the class. Granted, I was at a community college, but still. These were two or three hundred dollar books once you had the all-important access code to break down the door of the electronic problem sets and the like.  I think I want to see the MOOCs come and disrupt this paradigm, but I also like the face-to-face interaction  of a community of scholars.

Thankfully I have that in my current class, because this book doesn't feel like its adding much.

Derek Jeter and trait theory.

In our leadership class, we’re learning about the theories of leadership as it has grown as an academic discipline. It has shifted from a great man theory to looking at something more specific, identifying traits that make a great leader.  These can be better because instead of just hoping a great man stumbles along, you can search for, and then reinforce traits that are desirable in a leader.  This has issues, since trying to decide what trait is more desirable and which possible candidate has more of whatever you want may be hard to objectify.  We discussed a case study about who a manager should hire, and all three possible candidates had traits that you could argue for in saying why candidate A was better than candidate C.

Thinking about this earlier made me think of this morning, when I was tired. I like to think that my normal persona at work is charismatic and knowledgeable and honest and all those positive traits that you look for in an employee (and a leader). But being the first day back from a long weekend, I just wanted to put my head down and work through what I needed to do – and I still didn’t finish because it was a bit more complex than I thought it would be. 

Thus it lead me to a great weakness of looking solely at traits. They’re situational. Even if someone has all the traits you want, they need to display them when necessary. It made me think of this weekend. It was Jeter’s last games in Chicago, and the sports talkers were giving his career a fine tribute. He’s played for 20 years and have like five championships, and is known to be clutch in when it matters. Here’s the thing though. There is no such thing as clutch. The numbers nerds have broken down the stats, and when they look at people we call clutch what really happened is that they performed at their expected level based on their past results.  There is choking, but what we see as clutch in terms of baseball is just consistency.  I think that metaphor can easily be brought over to the study of leadership. It is not enough to just have positive traits, you have to show them at all times. Then you’ll be clutch in the office or the diamond.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

First Day of Class: MBA

My first class of my MBA program wasn’t quite what I expected. I say that, but I may be lying a bit – I didn’t have fully formed expectations.

I was in grad school before, for English at Kansas State University.  One of the first classes I had to take there was English 801, Introduction to graduate studies in English.  The point of the course, though often unspoken, was to justify the existence of graduate study in English.  The secondary point was to establish skills that may have been lacking from undergrad in terms of research and argument.  It was a good class for me, mainly because I had gotten by my undergrad on brains and charisma, and had in fact only written one serious paper over the course of four years. I actually dropped two classes in part because I didn’t want to write “for real” papers.  I should have, since they were the only philosophy and history classes I ended up attempting.  I guess business has a way of not needing justification in a way that English would die for. 

I digress though.  My first class for my MBA at Concordia University – Chicago, was nice.  It wasn’t lecture and I talked to the people in my class but I remember no names. (That right there is my biggest social weakness, or at least the biggest one I am aware of.)  The structure was more informal than I was expecting. I’m glad I didn’t wear a suit.

The class is leadership, and in it we brainstormed in our groups  about the qualities that made a bad manager; many people shared their stories inefficient, indifferent, and ineffective managers.   We eventually shared that list with the class
But here’s the thing. We then turned that around and looked at the positive qualities a good manager has, and that was harder to put into words.  I have had some good managers, people who were kind and supportive and good at their jobs and who wanted to make me better at what I did, not just for the immediate need of the company, but because they cared about me as a person.  I normally don’t like starkly demarcated gradients of power, but sometimes the people who are your superiors are in charge of you are not there just because they have been marking time longer.  I think I often confuse the person with the position, and as a subordinate I don’t like that when the person is not a fit for the position.  However, take it for granted when they are.  I need to come back to this, as it feels like an egg that is slowly cracking.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

On not Selling out: Getting my MBA

I have a confession to make.  The name of this blog is actually a misnomer. I’ll get to that. First some personal history.

I started studying economics and finance seriously after I lost my job in late 2008. I had just started a sales job in September of that year. I was in training when the magic weekend happened.  I made three sales in October. I made none in November. In early December, first thing in the morning, my manager let me go. The only thing I cared about was to make sure that they would not be challenging my unemployment.

I went to McDonalds and tried to figure out what went on. 

Up to that point, I was intellectually curious but I often ignored the goings on in the economy.  I’m thirty-two years old and up to that point for my memorable life, the economy had pretty much just worked.  The business page (of the USA Today) that my parents bought was the one I leafed through first because it was the most boring.

I had been concerned about individual worker’s rights: I was once reprimanded at my pizza place job for talking about unionization; I lost a student election of my English grad student association where I was pro-union and the competition was not as focused on GTA’s right.

But it was 2008, and being without a job or any good prospects rocked me. I had gone to school and done well, and the great American jobs machine had failed me personally. I didn’t like it and I wanted to figure out what had gone wrong. 

I then read as widely as possible, from left to right but with an emphasis on the center to far left. I thought that at that point a heterodox school was built better to explain the failings that had hit. I started writing some, reading books, and posting reviews on Amazon of those books. With no job, it is hard to stay engaged mentally. 

I was unemployed for about two years. Early during that time, I had applied for a position at the education school of the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was waitlisted and then denied.  It was probably for the best. I really liked teaching when I did it, but I had a bad experience and I think UIC’s decision helped me put that part of my life to bed. The problem is that I was still unemployed with few prospects. I kept reading and posting and started following the blogs and twitter personalities. The more I read, the more I thought I could help contribute to the conversation (why I have this here, yelling in the dark). 

So  I went back to UIC, this time I talked to the Director of Graduate Studies in the Economics department. We went over my transcripts and developed a plan of attack. I would need some undergrad classes to get to the point where I would be prepared for the classes at the graduate level. It would take a couple of years, part time because of the progression. 

Did you know that it is hard to find money to borrow for undergrad classes when you already have a BA? I have one, with honors from WVU. The problem is that it is in Creative Writing – Poetry. So basically that dream died on the vine. I kept reading and posting and pestering @noaopinion and @azizenomics and others. I eventually got placed in a city program for job retraining and I ended up working in the finance department of a nonprofit.

I like it here. I do good things for the community. The best thing is that I finally had money. Over the past two years I’ve taken those prerequisite classes. I’ve got A’s in both the intro accounting and both the basic econ classes. So you see that it is not all autodidactic. There’s my lie.  

I have different life needs now than I did when I talked to the DGS at UIC for economics. If I could do anything right now I would be going into a PhD program. If it was on me, it would be at Amherst or UMKC. That’s not going to happen. I’m married; we own a house. Instead at the point I need to be focused on doing what is best for my family, while indulging were I can. That is why I started looking at MPA programs and the like – I can serve the community and learn interesting and applicable things. I was really inspired by the opportunity I had to get a certificate in nonprofit leadership from Notre Dame.  I want more of that. I want to build a network in my community of the western suburbs of Chicago. I still want to take over the world, but I also don’t want to sell out. 

I go to orientation at Concordia University Chicago today for orientation. I’m enrolled to get my MBA with a concentration in nonprofit management. Don’t let me sell out. I’ll get that PhD eventually.  The world will be mine.