Skeptics and Pragmatics

When in doubt about where to start on a topic, I almost always turn to the best companion a writer of any kind can have, the dictionary. Webster’s dictionary defines “skeptic” as a noun, and “a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.” There are a few other definitions, but this is the first one on the list.

The etymology of the word (to be honest when I did some of my initial research I wondered why anyone would want to know the “study of bugs” with association to “skeptics”, but it turned out that I had confused “Entomology – the study of insects” with “Etymology – the origin of words”. Silly me.) comes from the name taken by the disciples of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who lived c.360-c.270 B.C.E., and is related to skeptesthai “to reflect, look, view”. In any event, you can see where the word came from and how its meaning was formed.

So what has this to do with business, you might ask since that is what I usually write about.

It has to do with the fact that skeptics and skepticism are normally viewed in a negative light when it comes to business. Management usually wants you to fall in line behind their plans and start executing them. Skeptics are viewed as hindrances to the progress of management’s plans. The plan is done. Let’s get on with it. If we had wanted your opinion we would have asked for it.

Leaders on the other hand will usually seek out those that “reflect, look, view” and “who question the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.”

Please don’t get me wrong. There is a time and a place for skepticism and there is a time and a place for action. However it is always the time and place to ask if you are doing the right thing.

Plans must be continually questioned and revised. Processes must be continually reviewed and renewed. Just because something looked like it would work one day does not mean it will look and work the same at a later date.

The problem is that for the average manager it is easier to continue on with an existing plan, even a bad existing plan then it is to make the effort to revise the plan, or even develop a new plan and to change directions. I don’t know why this seems to be the case in business, but it has been my experience across most of my business career. It seems the risk associated with trying something different is felt to be greater than the risk of continuing to do something wrong.

This brings us to our second word for the day: pragmatics. Much like labeling someone a skeptic in business as a negative characteristic, being labeled a pragmatic seems to have taken on a similar context. It doesn’t seem that anyone has ever been told they are pragmatic enough. You only hear about people being too pragmatic as if that means that they are not capable of somehow grasping the bigger picture.

I think this is similar to the conundrum associated with “whelming”. You often hear of people being overwhelmed when they have too much to handle. You sometimes hear of them being underwhelmed when they are not impressed. You never hear of them being just plain whelmed.

Going back to Webster’s dictionary, for “pragmatic” we get an adjective this time, “of or pertaining to a practical point of view or practical considerations.” When we look at the source or study of bugs associated with this word we get from Latin pragmaticus “skilled in business or law” and from the Greek pragmatikos “fit for business, active, business-like; systematic”. There’s more, but I think you get the picture.

A pragmatic is someone who is skilled in business with a practical point of view. Now the catchphrase here is “practical”, so here we go again. Practical according to Websters another adjective: adapted or designed for actual use; useful. Now we have a pragmatic as someone who is skilled in business with a point of view that is adapted or designed for actual use.

So enough already with the word-smithing.

What all this has led up to is a couple of questions: How is it that the skeptic, the one who wants to see deeper into the topic seems to be perceived as an obstacle to progress as compared to the individual who never questions authenticity and validity? Why is it that the pragmatic, the one who wants to do things designed for actual use is seen to be perceived as not inspiring enough to lead?

Business seems to have evolved over time away from some of these basic tenets that in the past have been the basis for success. History is littered with examples of some very hard lessons that were learned, or more accurately, relearned at great expense, where the skeptic or the pragmatic were ignored, but were in the end proven correct.

I remember working for a company where all of the management and all but one of the stock analysts were convinced that the company and its stock price would only go higher. It was a market boom. Everyone needed to get on board or be left behind.

There was however one analyst who kept saying that the market was overbought and the business model did not even support the existing business and stock levels. He was a skeptic. He was ostracized and ignored.

When the market, and stock crashed and thousands lost their jobs he was proven far more accurate than anyone was even comfortable discussing. The company went from being the market leader to having gone out of business in less than ten years.

I also recall the reviews by the public and the analysts about the banks that were described (rather derisively) as “pragmatic” when they did not participate in the new burgeoning “sub-prime” mortgage market. There was great money to be made. They were going to miss out on the new found fortunes. When the market crashed, and took down most of the economy with it, it again proved that the business practice of making mortgage loans to those that had a high probability of being able to pay back the amount of the loan they received was still the best practical model. It seems that eventually sound business practice will be proven out.

Skeptics and pragmatics, of one type or another need to be sought out and encouraged. They idea of not taking things at face value and doing things that are designed and adapted for actual use should never go out of style or favor. We need to remember that just because someone is a skeptic does not mean that they are an obstruction to be overcome. Just because someone is pragmatic does not mean that they cannot be a visionary and inspirational leader.

Leaders today need to be looking for skeptics and pragmatics for their teams. After all, chances are that at least one of them will be proven to be one of the leaders for tomorrow.

Defining Success

I started this topic quite a while ago and put it away as I could not comfortably come up with a method to address the topic. I now have a daughter in college and it seems to have taken on a new life for me.

We all want to be successful and even more so want our children to be successful. I didn’t want this discussion to be purely an analysis of numbers and trends, but rather the relationship to both the opportunity and probability of “success” and more importantly the definition of success. For so long, so many of us have defined “success” as going to school, then going to college, graduating, getting a good job with a major company and going on from there.

Is that really the proper definition of success in today’s world?

We normally associate the attendance of and graduation from college as a prerequisite of success. I was reading an article about relative graduation rates for students in the US who attend college. It showed that the graduation rate could be directly correlated to the cost of the college. That means that the more expensive the college tuition (Private school vs. Public institution) the more likely it was that the student would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 4 years. I guess that means that if you want to up the odds of your kid graduating from college that you had better send them to an expensive school.

The problem is that they are now all expensive. Very expensive.

It showed that on average about two thirds of students entering a Private institution of higher learning graduate with a degree in 4 years (actual number is 64%), and that about one third of students entering a public institution of higher learning graduate with a degree in 4 years (actual number is 37%). It also shows that the gap closes significantly if graduation data is reviewed after 6 years instead of 4. Private school students hit 3 out of 4 graduating (actual number 78%) and public school students hit 2 out of 3 (actual number is 66%).

Stepping it back a little further, and out of my own curiosity, I looked up the percentage of high school students that graduate from high school and enter college. This number comes in at about 70%. It is interesting that in these difficult economic times that this number is now at its all time high (actually it was set in 2009, but 2010 was at almost the same level). Being something of a math-guy, I multiplied the two numbers together and came up with the fact that less than half the people that go to high school actually graduate high school and college (even after 6 years of college).

Okay, so what.

When is the last time you have hired, or you have heard of someone being hired into an organization without a college degree? If less than half the people entering school graduate college, chances are they won’t be hired by a corporate organization. That doesn’t mean they aren’t successful. It means they are doing something else.

This got me thinking a little bit further on the topic.

I did what most people do these days. I went out and “Googled” the percentage of college graduates that are actually hired into a position that requires a college degree. I make this distinction because some graduates will take positions that do not require a college degree to perform the work (check out the baristas at Starbucks), and others will not find work (check out the “boomerang” kids returning from college to live at home).

As we all might expect this number varies with the status of the economy. In 2006 and 2007 approximately 85-90% of college graduates found work. In 2010 this number dropped to only 56%. 22% of 2010 college graduates took jobs that did not require a college degree. In total 78% of 2010 college graduates found work, but many of them were “under employed”.
That means that of the people who start school, a little less than half actually graduate college with a degree. Of those that graduate college, a little more than half (or a quarter of the total that started) actually find a job that requires a college degree.

A little more research – again with Google’s help, revealed that of those that find work as a college graduate new hire, 46% – again almost half, will leave their jobs (either of their own volition or at the company’s direction) in the first 18 months of employment. The information I found goes further to indicate that while 46% leave, only 19% of those that stay will be successful, with successful being defined as advancing up the corporate chain with increasing responsibilities and a (hopefully) fulfilling career. To me that means that 35% (the 54% that do not fail less the 19% that are actually successful) of college graduate new hires remain employed but are again not what we might successful.

So let’s recap. If we have 100 people who start school, approximately 70 of them will graduate high school. Of those 70, approximately 50 will graduate college. Of those 50 college graduates, approximately 28 will find a job that requires a college degree in today’s economic climate. Of those 28 that have found work, approximately 13 will leave their jobs in the first 18 months of their employment. Of those 15 that remain employed, approximately 5 will be what we as business leaders might call successful.

According to our preconceived notion of success, only five percent (5%) of the people will be successful.

Now I have had to pause here for a while because there are so many different directions that I can go with this type of information and analysis. We can look at the societal or cultural reasons why almost three quarters of those people starting school won’t graduate from college and will most likely be excluded from consideration for positions in our companies. We can look at what causes almost half of those that we do hire to leave. We could also look for the presence of similar characteristics in the successful five percent and see how we might be able to teach and train people on how to utilize these success attributes.

Or we could ask if we have the right definition of success.

The comedian Craig Ferguson had what I thought was an incredibly insightful as well as very funny monologue addressing what he called the “deification of youth” where he noted amongst other things that youth also meant a lack of experience. ( And a lack of experience to me means that you don’t know what you want yet. How can people be successful, when they lack the experience to know what they want to be successful at?
When we judge success we have a tendency to judge it from our own perspective and experience (because we are not young, we have experience), and not everybody has the same perspective. As time passes and we gain more of the “experience” that Craig Ferguson mentioned our perspective also changes. Not everyone who starts school is destined to be a leader in business. Not everyone who plays golf is destined for the PGA, or now senior PGA tour.

Of the two I think it is now the golf one that bothers me most.

Many, simply by the choices that they make will opt to be something other than what “we” may currently define as successful in business. We see this in the generational definitions that are currently in vogue. Generation X, Generation Y, Baby Boomers, etc. all have their own definitions of success. We as business leaders need to understand these differences and try to adapt to them as well as try to adapt them to the goals of business. Not everybody will meet our definition of success, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be successful.

That doesn’t change the fact though, that I want my daughter to graduate from college…and get a good job.

Why Ask Why

Have you ever asked yourself why you are doing what you are doing, right now, in the office? Most of the time we spend in the office seems to be composed of a pleasingly familiar set of activities that we have been doing for quite a while. We continue to do what we have been doing usually because at one time or another it worked on a problem. We received the positive feedback we were looking for and incorporated it into our routine. Not to sound too trite but I think we can all agree that today, and looking forward, the business world does not look anything like routine.

Believe it or not I was too young to really remember the 1960’s, but I have read about them and have watched innumerable movies that were set in the period. This of course makes me an expert on the 1960’s. After all this intensive research, and all the popcorn and sodas associated with watching the research, I think you can distill down an entire decade in American history into a two word sentence:

Question everything.

The reason that I have taken this half century retrospective (gosh, is it really fifty years ago?) is that it may be time to dust off the “Oldie but Goldie” catchphrase and start ruthlessly applying it to business.

It is easy to start down a simple road in business. The problem is that almost no road remains simple, or straight. There are always twists and turns, and probably even a few loop-the-loops in every business road.

I’m sorry; I got carried away with my metaphors there. I’ll try to keep that sort of behavior to a minimum.

My point is that every business needs to continually ask itself why is it doing what it is doing. Just because it started down what it thought was the right road a while ago doesn’t mean that it is still the right road today. Again, this is pretty basic stuff, but when it all gets boiled down to the basics, business is really pretty simple.

Business is about customers.

Now despite what the courts or politicians may rule or claim, businesses are not people. I think it is much the contrary, in fact I think it is the opposite: People are business. The business can’t ask itself why it is doing what it is doing, but the people can.

This brings us back to the comfortable routine that the majority of people in business have day in and day out, going down the road that they started out on some time in the past. The easy path, the path of least resistance is to continue down the path that we are on. A plan, program or model may have been put in place and work begun. Chances are that time has passed. At the risk of propellering off into rampant triteness again, if time has passed, chances are that times have changed.

The only real constant in business is customers.

When we begin to ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing, any question we ask that does not have the word “customer” in it, and does not focus on how to bring value to the customer is probably a wrong question to ask. It will be this single minded approach to how we address changing what we do and why we do it that will enable businesses to navigate the necessary changes in directions, and different roads that must be traversed.

Small businesses are usually held up as models of outward facing, customer oriented businesses. I think this is probably correct. I also think that this is probably not due to any deliberate focus or business magic. I think the reason that small businesses focus on the customer is because they don’t have anything else to focus on. They are small businesses. By definition they do not have much in the way of internal infrastructures, or any of the other trappings of large businesses. They only have an idea or product and customers, so by default that is all they focus on.

It is usually not until a business becomes large and somewhat successful that it begins to focus on things other than customers. This is also the appropriate time to start asking the difficult questions. If you ask yourself the “why are you doing this / is it for the customers’ benefit” question, and you either can’t answer it or associate it with a customer value, then you need to start looking deeper at what you are doing.

Companies seem to begin to lose their way, and their customer focus when they start to concentrate on better ways to do things instead of doing things better. It’s a subtle but important difference. Focusing on a better way to do things means you are shifting your attention to how you are doing something. Focusing on doing things better means you are still focused on what you are doing.

In most instances (but admittedly probably not all instances) your customers will not be particularly interested in how you do something. They will definitely be interested in the result of what you have done. To put it another way, do you really care how a company builds a car? If the company uses all manual processes or a fully automated production line, does that materially affect your buying decision on the car?

Speaking only personally at this point, I don’t remember asking the car salesman those questions the last time I bought a car. I was more interested in the resulting product, its safety, reliability, efficiency, and most importantly if I thought I would look cool driving it.

This again is a good time to bring us back to asking ourselves why we are doing what we are doing. We need to always focus on and keep in mind if what we are doing is providing value to the customer, or if we are doing it for some other reason. Are we internally focused on our own systems, programs and processes and trying to hopefully provide ourselves value or are we focused on improving what we provide to the customer and providing them more value. It may sound a little strange but we need be relentless and ruthless when it comes to customer focus and what we are doing. If we don’t, when we take our eyes and minds off that customer for whatever period of time while we focus on some internal aspect of how we do things, someone else who is focusing on that customer will take that customer away.

The next time you walk into your office and begin your normal start of the day routine, you probably ought to ask yourself “why”.


I have spent most of my time writing about business and leadership and work. I going to veer off into a little bit of a different area here and write about what is supposed to be the antithesis of business and work, and that is vacations. Vacations are part of your total compensation package. Vacations are supposed to be the time that the company pays you not to work, to recharge your batteries so to speak, to get a tan. Vacations are something that we seem never to have enough available time to properly take. Vacations are an interesting concept in that they truly seem to vary in definition and application from company to company and definitely from culture to culture.

For example, I don’t think I can remember taking a vacation that lasted longer than a week. I think part of this stems from the idea that we all like to view ourselves as far too important to the ongoing operation of the business to be gone from our roles for periods of time extending beyond this. Equally I think there is a fear that if we do take a vacation that extends beyond a week, we may have it proven to each of us that we are in fact not so crucial to the efficient operation of the business and that they can get along just as well and possibly even better without us. There is also the possibility that if some people are gone from their job for more than a week that they will need to be retrained on how to do their work when they return.

The other issue associated with taking an extended (greater than a week long vacation) is the inability of the business to leave you alone for greater than a week. I have been on two-day vacations where I have gotten calls (usually more than one) from the office. It is interesting to note that these calls while on vacation have seldom originated from my team but rather invariably come from management. It seems that here management believes that if they are not on vacation, then no one should be on vacation.

The exception to this no extended vacation trend at least in the United States seems to occur toward the end of the year when many in business start reviewing how many vacation days they have, that they are going to lose if they do not start taking vacation. In the past many companies allowed their employees to carry over their unused vacation days into subsequent years if they were either unable or decided not to take all their vacation. This resulted in many people having an inordinate amount of vacation available to them, and created a significant exposure to the businesses. I think at least part of this practice came from the idea that when businesses had layoffs that they had to pay the severed employee for their unused vacation. If you had saved up a bunch of unused vacation days it was like guaranteeing yourself extra severance pay, should you need it.

Businesses countered this “banking” of vacation days by disallowing the carrying over of unused vacation days between years. The desired result was the reduction of the vacation exposure to companies and the encouragement of employees to adopt the attitude of either “use it or lose it” when it came to their vacation.

This seemed to work, but only up to a point. After so many years of not taking vacations a culture had almost grown up around the concept of not taking vacations. This approach to not taking vacations didn’t change, and in some instances and locations it still hasn’t changed. The result is that as the end of the year approaches many employees find themselves with several days of vacation that they still must take or lose.

People will not accept the loss of vacation days. This event is seen by the employees as comparable to giving the company free work days as the company no longer compensates them for, nor allows them to save the unused vacation days for future use. This invariably leads to people taking extra days of vacation around the end of the year holiday season in an effort to use up their vacation.

Fortunately most people take their business phone with them during these vacation periods just in case either their team or management need to talk with them. It seems some habits die hard.

It is hard to believe that taking a vacation has become such an effort or an afterthought when it seems to be such a prized portion of each employee’s compensation package. What was once seen as a time to relax and recharge is now yet another source of stress associated with making sure that all vacation days available are in fact taken.

This does not seem to be either the situation or such an issue in other countries and cultures around the world.

In Europe time off is not referred to as vacation. It is called holiday. A slightly different nomenclature than what we are used to in North America but still functionally useful. For those of you not familiar with this term, there is a descriptive term for European vacations that you may be a little more familiar with.

It is called “August”.

It seems that almost everyone in Europe goes on holiday (vacation) in August. It’s true. If you don’t believe me, just try and arrange a business meeting or complete a business task there during August. In Europe when they go on holiday, they are gone. And unlike here it does not seem quite as acceptable to try and contact them when they are on holiday.

This is actually not a bad idea. If everyone knows that everyone else is going to be out of the office during a specific time that becomes the ideal time for them to be out of the office as well. Since everyone is on holiday at the same time no one is left in the office to be concerned about any potential lost productivity.

There are similar types of vacation or holiday times in countries around the world. In Brazil there is Carnival, which for the longest time I thought was Portuguese for “February”. In reality it is approximately a week long holiday associated with the Easter – Lent season. However it appears that it takes approximately a week to prepare for, and if properly enjoyed, may take as much as an additional week to recover from. This period could in fact be considered a holiday.

In Asia the Chinese New Year is another extended holiday season. It is usually a multi-day celebration that begins on the first day of the month (usually February) and extends approximately 15 days to the first new moon. Again an extended holiday period that usually serves as a basis point for the taking of vacation. Have you ever tried to get much done during the Chinese New Year in Asia?

The culture seems to be changing here in that people are now encouraged to take their vacation. What it appears that we need is some sort of cultural or specific “holiday season” or event (other than the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons) to provide an impetus for people to take their vacation. And while management may have succeeded in getting people to take their vacations, management must now take the lead in demonstrating and understanding that when people are on vacation that they should not be called with issues regarding work.

Bon Voyage.