Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Buy this book - right now!

Drop everything and read this book: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw/103-2688644-5444609?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=entrepreneurial+genius&x=16&y=15

(If you're at all interested in business, that is).

I highly enjoyed the first two books of Gene Landrum's that I read. Entrepreneurial Genius, though, is absolutely brilliant!

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Odd Thing

This seemed strange to me until I finally figured it out, so it's sure to sound odd to you as well.

Of all of my professional endeavors - Coine Language School, invention of the Coine Method, Coine Training, our two books, my speaking fee and the audience reactions I draw - Naples Social Action is what I'm proudest of.

An online calendar and e-newsletter! Go figure.

Well, I finally figured it out. NSA isn't for me - not at all. It doesn't pay my bills, it isn't helping me build a career... it's really just a hobby effected by gamma rays and grown way bigger than I ever dreamed (and it's only started!).

The descendant of Puritans, guilt is just a fact of my life. I feel I have to make a positive contribution to society, just because.

And you know what? If I am run over by a bus later today as I cross the street, I will know that I've worked hard and well to create something that can change our community - and other communities nationwide - for years after I'm gone. No matter what else happens in my life, I started www.NaplesSocialAction.org, and in so doing I made a difference for the better.

That's why it makes me proud. Now I get it.

What to do?

(I've got to be vague so as not to tip my hat as to the subject of this rant - for which I apologize.)

There's an organization in town, a nonprofit, whose mission is one of the most vital to our entire community. The only problem is, its executive director seems to be a well-meaning flake who is impeding its success, and its board.... Oh, boy.

I witnessed a recent interview with the current president of the board: he quite literally has no idea about some of the most important accomplishments and upcoming campaigns of his organization. I'm not exaggerating; he couldn't name them or give any specifics. I was embarrassed for him, but it didn't seem he knew enough to be embarrassed himself.

Then I broke bread with the incoming president and another board member - two very nice junior executives with no real business acumen and no vision for the organization. I know this may sound odd coming from a guy who's only 40 - they may very well be my age, and they're certainly close to it in any event - but they were like two kids playing at businessman (and -woman).

Basically, this organization is not doing much toward realizing its mission because of incompetent leadership, and that does not look to change in the near future.

What it seems will happen is that this nonprofit will continue to fail to serve the community very effectively - and that's a big problem, because the work that it could do under different leaders could transform our county and beyond.

(I hope I didn't give anything away.)

Dear readers, the leadership of your organization is by far the most important aspect of its success. The leaders name the direction, set the pace, instill the culture.... They are only the beginning, but they are the necessary beginning.

The board of directors is your organization's most important body. In a nonprofit, they are the executive director's boss; in a business, they are the CEO's boss.

Then comes that leader, the titular head of the endeavor. With the wrong person at the helm, all is lost - or, almost as bad, little is gained.

I understand that Naples is small and the pickings are therefore slim when it comes to nonprofit directors. but please, do yourself a favor - whether you are local (to Naples) or anywhere on earth - choose only the highest-caliber people you can to run your board. Better to have a board of three superstars than of twelve dodos.

Then - and this is your sacred charge - rid yourself of your CEO, president, exec., or whoever your leader is if that person is not top-notch. You have to. Do it!

If they're nice, or well-connected, or talk a good game? Tough for you. Do it!

Finally, in order to find the right replacement, pay at least a slight bit above the going rate. Contrary to popular belief, we humans do not work for money; but pay is a sign of respect from the organization to the individual. And, when it comes to low-paying fields such as most of the nonprofit realm, pay does matter, because your people cannot concentrate on their work if they are distracted by their bills.

Yes, even if you're a nonprofit, pay well.

Do it. Your organization's success depends on it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

About Homer

My sister teaches Chaucer to her remedial-level high school students. She was teacher of the year in North Carolina, and was nominated for a Golden apple here in Naples, but declined because she feels that kind of thing is a distraction from her work - the process of being a candidate is arduous, something the Education Foundation and the media don't bother to highlight.

Yes, I'm proud of my sister.

But Golden Apples aren't my point. Chaucer is. There are two ways to look at this. One, a common response, is "Chaucer! That intellectual stuff is a luxury these potential drop-outs can't afford! They need basic skills, not Classics."

That's a bit knee-jerk to me. Here's the less common (in the derogatory sense of that word), more informed view: She does teach basic skills. Her students study Chaucer, and they learn to write papers, just like every other high school kid. They improve their reading, just like every other high school kid. Most importantly by far, they learn to think "critically," which means "for themselves."

I read a comment by an Oxford professor which you'll either love or hate: "The only thing an Oxford student can expect to take away from his four years with us is, when someone is selling him a line of bull, he'll be able to tell." (It's been a while since I read that. I hope I remembered the quote accurately; fortunately, I know I mastered the sentiment because, well, I too attained a liberal arts education).

Our mission in education is to teach our students to think for themselves. Problem-solving is something that they can use throughout their lives, no matter what situation they find themselves in. Whether it's Chaucer or Dick and Jane, if it helps them toward the goal of free thinking (because you are not free if you cannot think for yourself) then it is beneficial.

So why Chaucer? Call me an intellectual snob - it's been done - but I think it's of value for our culture to share common touchstones such as the Classics. When I read the writings of John Adams and he refers to Greek Myth or quotes Shakespeare, it helps me to catch the reference.

Mastering tough material is also something students can be proud of. I got an A in Ms Symington's history class in 10th grade. I'm really proud of that, because she made me sweat blood out of my eyes in order to achieve that grade. We want our students to feel proud of themselves? Let's challenge them. When a ghetto kid grows up in a house that literally has no reading material, not even magazines, and he aces his term paper on Milton, or Chaucer, or Plato... that can change a life.

Who says that kid isn't up to the same challenges as the kids in the AP class? My sister helps her students prove that they are, and she's been doing it for about fifteen years now - that's thousands of "dead-enders." After a few victories with this one special teacher, suddenly life isn't such a dead end.

FCAT me? No! FCAT you!

I'm not a big fan of standardized testing in general, or of tests like the MCAS and FCAT in particular (for those out of state, these are tests that all students in Massachusetts and Florida, respectively, must take in order to graduate from high school.)

One reason I oppose these tests is that I have never met a teacher who thinks they are beneficial. I know hundreds and hundreds of teachers.

Whether you're with me or not, you should enjoy today's story in the Naples Daily News about a cheeky little middle-schooler who turned the tables on school administrators: http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2007/nov/13/elementary_school_girl_turns_testing_tables_adults/

The spirit behind the FCAT and its ilk is laudable: we as a nation are failing way too many of our students, and we have to raise the standard of education across the board in some way that is actually measurable. There are too many kids graduating from high school still illiterate, both in the narrow sense of the word - they can't read or write - and in the broader sense of knowing very little that we would expect a citizen to know. "Japan? Isn't that in Boston?" is the title of one of my favorite Russell Baker essays. It speaks for much that is wrong with American education. (Actually, Japan is in the Porter Square neighborhood of Cambridge).

Alright, so eliminating the FCAT will leave us where we were before, unable to measure our students, and by inference our teachers and our schools.

...If only it were that simple-minded. I mean simple.

How do we accredit colleges and universities? How do we rank them? Because ours are the best in the world - at least, that's what students, parents, and employers world-wide believe. So if our colleges are so good... can't we measure our k-12's by a similar yardstick?

Rather than distract teachers and students with lessons that teach how to take the FCAT, how about if our society gets back to educational basics: all kids will learn at least basic math, science, the classics (Homer, Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, Hemingway...), history, and geography. Have you taken classes in the above? Have you passed? Then you're on your way to the next grade.

How well are our schools doing? Let's see... what kind of colleges are the kids getting into? How many are opting out of college? How many are dropping out before they even graduate? There. That's your test for schools - and by inference, of educators.

Life isn't as complicated as we make it. One way we can simplify things is with smaller classes, smaller schools, and smaller school systems. When our school system has 35,000 kids (Collier County) or 80,000 (Lee County), then a 5%, 10%, 40% dropout rate becomes just that - a percentage, a "rate." I have an alternative yardstick for you: If one kids drops out of school before graduation, or fails to go on to college, that is one life forever limited.

Imagine, my upper-middle-class or affluent readers, if one of your - what, 2.1? - children dropped out of school at 16. Wouldn't you drop everything to turn her life around? But when 900 sophomores don't make it to their junior year, that's just a number to us. Statistics put the numb in numbers. These are children. These are people. Citizens. Workers. Voters. Can we afford even one failure?

I've been called an idealist. Thank you.

I've heard, even from friends with the best of intentions, that we will never end poverty, never educate everyone on the scale I suggest.

You know what? That's none of my business. If you think it can't be done, tell someone who cares.

Let's do it. That's my answer. We'll let possibility worry about itself. All sorts of things are impossible until you try.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fixing Our Schools

Although I'm writing on the quality of schools in Collier County, Florida, I think every school system across the country would be wise to follow this advice. Right now, only a few school systems and a few states even bother to strive to be among the best. Nothing would make me happier than for every district and every state to compete for number one. Only then will American education achieve the level that every child deserves.

Without further ado, here is where I'm coming from regarding public school education:

1. The #1 factor that effects home value is the quality of the area's public schools. Also, employers who provide high-wage jobs prefer excellent schools, because that is what high-quality employees demand. So if we are ever to strengthen our local economy, we have to make substantial changes in our schools.

2. As a county (and a state) we need to change our goals and focus so that we can make Collier County one of the top 10 school systems in the nation. Florida as a state is currently ranked 35 out of 50, I believe. So if the state says we should zig, my vote will be for us to zag.

3. Northern Virginia has the top public schools in the country. We should find out what they are doing and emulate them.

4. Small classes promote learning, and large classes hinder it. We should aim for 12 students in a class, or perhaps 16 maximum. My sister is a local teacher, and one of her class has 30 students. That's simply unacceptable.

This isn't just an idea I came up with off the top of my head, by the way. It is how we have made Coine Language School (www.coinelanguage.com) #1 in quality and results in its field. We strongly encourage our clients to have classes of 8 students, and we guarantee our results if they comply.

5. As a nation, we pay our teachers much too little; even more so as a state. We have to radically improve teacher pay, and also expect our teachers to be of the highest caliber - the sharpest minds in our society. Another radical idea, but right now we are living with the alternative.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Options for the Poor

I believe in giving people opportunity. If they want to remain what we consider poor, who are we to say they can't? There are nomads today who know they can move to cities if they want, Indians who can move off of their reservations, etc. Indeed, while people have been moving from the farm to the city en masse since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, obviously there are those who have chosen all along to stay behind - and more power to them.

But I want to make sure those who choose "progress" and those who choose to live as they always have both have the opportunity to earn a fair wage, wherever they work. That they are free from coercive sex in order to keep their jobs. That they have access to credit (more in one moment). That they are educated in quality schools, so that they can make these decisions in an informed manner - we have folks here in the US who don't have that luxury right now. I want to make sure that, no matter what their choices, parents do not have to watch their children die of starvation; that adults do not have to die of old age at 50, exhausted from a life of toil with no alternative available.

I've taught English to so many people here from other countries (78 to date), from all walks of life. Some of them are short because they did not have proper nutrition as children. Some of them are illiterate because they were pulled from school to work the farm when they were 8. Some of them were raped by Coyotes along their journey here, often within ear-shot or even sight of their family (usually it is our female teachers, and not I, who learn of that). I taught a great group of Vietnamese who were so desperate to escape Vietnam in 1980 that they fled by sea, over 400 of them, and were stranded on an island with no food or fresh water. Before the UN, led by an American, showed up to rescue them, half of their shipmates had died. Half.

I want to help make sure that kind of option is not attractive to anyone.

As for micro credit, Muhammad Yunnis's book, "Banker to the Poor," has probably impacted me more than any book I've ever read. He showed me that one person who simply will not be patient or understanding, who acts as quickly as he thinks, can fundamentally change the world. While most of us are talking - what is micro credit? Does it work? Is it even desirable? - he and legions of disciples are making our questions moot. We don't have to believe; we can just sit back and see for ourselves, or do nothing: we can choose to get out of the way in my father's favorite adage, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."

I want to lead, because I think there are aspects of education that we can spread as Dr. Yunnis has spread micro credit. I feel beyond fortunate for the talented others, like you, who also want to lead in that regard.

Gap: Above & Beyond; fixing an error

Here is my take on the following child-labor story: (1) The Gap dropped the ball in allowing this situation to happen in the first place, after touting its moral standards as it has. There's egg on their face.

(2) The Gap is now doing the right thing. Redemption is possible in business.

(3) Over-all, The Gap is to be highly commended for setting a higher standard than required by law, or even by the dictates of the market. Who would you rather buy from, Gap with child-free labor, or another retailer whose clothing is in question? Who would you rather work for?

(4) A new standard has been set. Other retailers who don't follow Gap's example now will look morally suspect.

Doing the right thing pays. There's no getting around that.

The following is from our friends at the Institute for Global Ethics (www.globalethics.org)

The Gap Retail Chain Launches Movement to Combat Child Labor

Action follows series of reports claiming the giant clothing retailer, which has positioned itself as one of the most ethical U.S. companies, subcontracted to a New Delhi sweatshop that employed workers as young as 10

SAN FRANCISCO Clothing retailer Gap, Inc., is drawing up a pledge to label its products "sweatshop free," a move that is believed to be one of the largest commitments by a major retailer to end child labor, reports the U.K. Guardian.

The initiative follows newspaper reports claiming that one of the firm's largest Indian suppliers subcontracted to employers using children as young as 10 to make garments.

According to the Guardian, Gap's plan includes labeling its garments so that consumers can directly track online where the clothing was made.

Gap has recalled clothing traced back to a supplier whose subcontractor allegedly employed children in an embroidery unit in New Delhi, according to a report from the Times of India.
The San Francisco-based retailer says it will meet with 200 suppliers in India to reinforce a zero-tolerance policy on child labor, reports San Francisco television station KPIX.

According to an analysis from the Economist, since the beginning of the decade Gap has positioned itself as one of the world's most ethical retailers, enforcing strict codes on working conditions and severing ties with factories that do not meet its standards.

The Economist piece notes that "policing contractors and subcontractors in faraway places is not easy. A big proportion of the company's clothes are made in India, which has become the world's capital of child labor. Of the estimated 218 million laborers worldwide who are younger than 14, some 40-50 million are in India, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, and they account for around 20 percent of the country's GDP. Gap says it employs 90 people across the globe to supervise compliance with its rules."

Governments often are reluctant to draw attention to the problem, adds the Economist. India's commerce minister last week suggested that stories about child labor were being used to justify protectionism.

Still, critics interviewed for the analysis maintain that if firms are able to effectively monitor the quality of their products, they should be able to police their production.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


You know, I spend so much of my time surrounded by positive, constructive, kind-hearted people that I easily forget that there remains true evil in the world - and some of it runs agribusiness right here in Southwest Florida.

I think the only thing unAmerican is the fact that Reggie Brown is not in jail. ...But I'll let you decide for yourself. Please read this article from the Naples Daily News on resistance to paying workers an extra one cent per pound for tomatoes picked. (Please keep in mind as you read that the purchasers have agreed to pay that increase; all growers will be doing is passing the penny through from the customer to the laborer.)


Herb Kelleher, Approachable Leader

How approachable are you as a leader? Here is a quote about Herb Kelleher, the iconic force behind Southwest Airlines - the only airline profitable every year after its first, 36 years ago.

A pilot reports, "I can call Herb today. You don't just call and say there's a problem. He'll say, "Think about it and tell me the solution that you think will work." He has an open door policy. I can call him almost 24 hours a day. If it's an emergency, he will call back in 15 minutes. He is one of the inspirations for this company. He's the guiding light. He listens to everybody. He's unbelievable when it comes to personal etiquette. If you've got a problem, he cares."

Herb Kelleher is a phenomenal leader, and his company is incredibly successful. Coincidence? Or imperative?

I highly recommend the book where I found this quote, The Southwest Airlines Way by Jodi Gittell, head of Brandies University's MBA program. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b/002-2106831-1004812?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=the+southwest+airlines+way&x=16&y=15.

(Interesting note: Did you notice how Kelleher forces his people to develop their problem-solving skills by asking them their advice? A leader who is accessible and comes up with the solutions is not going to have much time for more than putting out fires, and his company will not grow all that far. In this example we see that yes, he is thoroughly accessible and he cares, but as you'll read, he does not dole out solutions. His people think for themselves, and that means they don't have to call him all that often to bail them out.

When you shop Amazon through http://www.naplessocialaction.com/, including through the link above, Amazon will donate up to 8% to NSA. Thank you for your support!

Leadership and Character

"Leadership means setting an example. When you find yourself in a position of leadership, people follow your every move." - Lee Iaccoca

When it comes to judging our leaders, we people aren't nearly as stupid as we look. (Well, let's keep politics out of this discussion for now).

We look at our leader's actions. If they do not match his words, then we lose respect and trust. Without those, a leader can only lead by coercion (with threat of unemployment if we do not obey, for example). Many leaders continue at their posts for many years without trust or respect, ruling instead by coercion - but when you lose the hearts of your followers, you will not get their best efforts; instead, they'll do only what is required to keep getting that paycheck. Your leadership effectiveness suffers drastically.

I know a CEO whose organization looks to be going union. I'll write more about that in the future. For now, let me say that I also know quite a number of his employees, from top to bottom in his company.

Why are they choosing to unionize? One piece of the puzzle is this: he reduced employee pay dramatically and laid off a large number of his workers, claiming that the business was in dire financial straits. His remaining staff is now suffering because they are under-staffed, forcing them to serve frustrated customers with below-par resources.

This CEO successfully turned his organization around - so successfully that his board awarded him and his top leaders generous bonuses... which they accepted.

On the one hand, one can argue that if your board offers you a bonus, you should take it! Why would someone turn down money?

On the other hand, I'd argue that if pleading poor and slashing employee payroll gets you that bonus, then you have no business taking it.

If your coffers are empty, they're empty, and concessions are reasonable to demand. But if those coffers subsequently fill up enough for your bonus, then they should be full enough to pay your remaining staff on par with their previous level, too. Isn't that reasonable? Is that too idealistic?

Leaders deserve a bonus for performance, and integral to that performance is making sure that the employees are taken care of first. Morale, though harder to measure than net operating income, is no less important a yardstick of successful leadership.

Let's compare this to Lee Iaccoca at the helm of Chrysler in its direst days. He went hat-in-hand to ask Congress for a bail-out, to prevent his company from going out of business. To prove his commitment and contrition, he accepted only $1 as salary until the company was able to repay its debts.

His board would surely have paid him handsomely, as the leader and eventual savior of their company. But he wouldn't have it - once Chrysler was financially healthy, Iaccoca was paid quite well for his work. But not until it was fixed.

Lee Iaccoca didn't ask anyone what he should do about his pay; he knew what the right thing was, and he did it.

Let me restate my conviction: leadership is character. A true leader, a person of character, is rare indeed - and worth paying a fortune. This CEO is not.