Monday, September 12, 2011

The Andover Experience – From Agony to “Success”

Our family moved from Puerto Rico to Saranac Lake in the New York Adirondacks in 1950 when I was 6 years old. I attended St. Bernard’s School whose principal goal was to develop good kids who did well on the New York State Regents general exams in math, English and history as well as on the Ogdenburg Diocese religion tests. I was a responsible student and had a good memory which was what was needed in order to do well in the true and false and multiple choice academic environment. In 7th grade my average was 97%.  My father, who sensed that the educational system was inadequate, had decided that I should go to a private school, and his first choice was Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, known simply as “Andover”,  where my uncles Billy and Dickie had studied, and where my granduncle, Guillermo González, was the inverviewer. I had visited Andover in the summer of 1956 and was highly impressed with the campus, especially the athletic facilities that included artificial ice and roof covered hockey rink – a rareluxury at that time.

Despite my grades, leadership roles in all the sports available in Saranac Lake (football, basketball, skiing, hockey and baseball), and family connections, I was rejected by Andover. In response to my granduncle’s request for an explanation, Robert Sides, the Dean of Admissions, explained how badly I had done on the aptitude tests and my interview at Andover about 18 months before. In addition, Andover had no experience with St. Bernard’s so that my grades and extracurricular activities could not be adequately evaluated. He suggested that I attend the Summer Session if I was “dying to come to Andover” on “a sort of long-chance basis” that I would do “ a top-flight job in every respect” that could allow Andover to “squeeze” me in September if a withdrawal took place, or help me better compete for the following year.  

I had been accepted at Cranwell, a very good Jesuit school in Lenox Massachusetts, but we (especially my father) were dying to go to Andover – the oldest and best private school in the country. My father’s response to Robert Sides’s letter to my granduncle, diplomatically expresses disappointment with Andover’s decision “as I still must insist that he is as fine a boy as you can get and at his age is fully prepared to assume any responsibility.”  My father goes on to state (so you can appreciate the pressure under which I went to the 1957 Andover Summer Session): ”On your recommendation and on my full faith in him, I (notice the “I”) have decided to apply for admission to the Andover Summer Session, so that you may know him well and that, in the event he decides to apply for admission in the fall of 1959, he may have a better chance of acceptance.”     

I was accepted to the Summer Session and off I went with more pressure than I had ever felt (and that I have ever felt thereafter). Utter agony followed. I received a zero on my first math exam. The first essay was on a painting to be chosen by each student at the Addison Art Gallery located on Andover’s beautiful campus, and we were instructed to try to not go beyond 1,500 words.  I had never visited an art gallery and much less analyzed a painting, and my very few essays at St. Bernard’s had been in the 150 word range. I put enormous effort into this essay and the grade was a 55. Thus, after about 10 days of the 7 week session, I had a 27% average. In April I had turned 14 and this was my first time away from home with no one I knew from the past to turn to. What brought the most agony was letting down those who had vouched so strongly for me. It appeared that Andover had been right! I had trouble sleeping and agonized on whether to give up, but I decided to continue fighting.

 I ended up with an average in the upper 60% range.  The report of my English teacher was mixed (”Found the subtler demands of poetry a little more than he could cope with. Does well in reasoning and memory work, but seems to lack the imaginative, or intuitive, faculty, though this may develop with practice. Faced with the difficulties suggested above, Jorge lost much of his will to strive; however, at the very end of the course, it seemed apparent that, placed in the same situation again, he would be more capable of handling it.”). The report of the housemaster was somewhat more positive, “Jorge has shown considerable improvement in his scholastic achievement in the second half of the summer session thus demonstrating that he has profited by his stay here.”

With this rather miserable scholastic performance, the request that we meet with the Admissions Officer, Joshua Miner, seemed like something I would have preferred to skip. I certainly had not done a “top flight job” and my parents and I fully expected a “told you so” farewell. Much to our surprise, Josh Miner (we became very good friends over the next few years) advised that the Admissions Office had been very well impressed with me, felt that I could do the academic work although it would take a lot of effort on my part to catch up, and that I was first on the waiting list for that September should an opening develop.

The opening came up and so I went to Andover fully aware that academically speaking I was going to have some serious challenges and fearful that my athletic skills would not be enough for what was a very competitive program with varsity schedules against top private schools and college freshman and, in ice hockey, Harvard and Boston College Junior Varsity teams. 

I did have the expected academic challenges with math and English grades in the mid 60%.   My Pemberton Cottage Housemaster’s December Report accurately reflected on how tough things were and how things were not expected to improve much: “Although he finds the work quite difficult at times, he is uniformly good-humored; and the refusal to become discouraged will be his greatest asset, for we cannot expect the work to become much easier for him. His morale will certainly be helped by the discovery that he can indeed hold his own here and even make some gains.”

My grades in math and English “improved” to 69%, and although I very slowly but surely gained some confidence, Robert Lane’s year end Report again reflected accurately what had happened and what was expected in the academic sphere: “ Jorge has maintained his position all year by the most conscientious and steady effort. We all knew that he would find many difficulties in the work at Andover, but he has met them quietly and with spirit. Although the academic record has no distinctions [what a superb understatement!], it is adequate and consistent, and better than I, for one, expected.”     

Things started clicking during my second year and by March I had three grades in the 80% range (88%, 85% and 80%) and math and English grades of 75% and 73%.  To my pleasant surprise, my God given athletic skills were Andover level so I lettered in my three sports of football, ice hockey and baseball). To my utter shock, at the end of that second year I won the Keyes Prize as the “Lower Middler [sophomore] for outstanding qualities of character, leadership, scholarship and athletic ability.”

Mr. Shertzer, my second year housemaster, summarized the year as follows: “Jorge has had an outstanding year. He was honored at prize day as the outstanding Lower, distinguishing himself in athletics, academics and citizenship.”  To this day I am still surprised by that prize since there were more outstanding classmates; modesty aside, however, I would have deserved a prize for the most persevering and/or improved student. These prizes were not available that prize day and I suspect this undeserved Keyes Prize was a way to reward me, not for the achievements, but rather for the successful effort in going from an initially rejected and dubiously accepted applicant, to a well rounded student who met the headmaster’s challenge in his welcoming letter to all students of September, 1958: “We work hard and we play hard. We try to do things better than they’ve been done before, or better than they are done elsewhere.  We have a high respect for a job well done … whether it’s an academic, athletic, dramatic, musical or artistic performance. Out concern is for quality – to produce, each of us, the best he has in him.  In this sort of striving there is bound to be a great deal of satisfaction, hence pleasure. May it be so for you.”

The Andover Headmaster, John Kemper, appeared in the Time magazine cover of October 26, 1962 a few months after we graduated.  He is quoted as recognizing that both the school and parents overemphasize the goal of a good college and job and “There’s just not enough emphasis on the old dream of simply being a good father, a good man.”   The article commences with a quote from the Andover charter that is very appropriate: “But more especially to learn them the great end and real business of living.”  Is not this tension between the day to day striving for excellence in our business/professional role versus our family/community roles the ever present challenge we all face?   

With respect to my development over two years from the athlete/marginal student to the student/athlete, the Time magazine has an interesting statement: “All this [referring to the intense Andover athletic programs in which all students had to participate] bespeaks the enduring Andover, which is run on nothing more complicated than the primitive idea of ordeal. But the ordeal is far different from the one old grads remember. Everyone still looks up to the ‘jock’ or man with a major ‘A,’ But these days the jock has to be a lot more – an actor, a proctor, a Merit scholar. The balanced hero is in. The snob is out.”

I believe it was late in the fall term that I ran into my first year Housemaster, Robert Lane, who made the expected inquiry as to what universities I was applying to. When I answered Harvard and Dartmouth, he asked where else. When I told him that I was applying to only these two schools, his look of surprise led me to suspect that in his mind I still suffered from unrealistic expectations. I told him that I had received A ratings from both which meant that I would be accepted unless I completely fell apart in what was left of my senior year. My grade average of 83% had put me into the academic level that qualified me for the top universities. These grades, and my extracurricular activities, led to the A ratings. These ratings and my admission into these two schools, at least from Andover’s perspective, constituted “success.”

At our graduation on June 8, 1962 I won the Schweppes Prize for friendliness and cooperation and others befittingly won the prizes honoring the best students and athletes thus confirming what I felt as a Lower Middler upon undeservedly winning the Keyes Prize.

The Andover experience that started with such agony and was always an “ordeal,” provided great satisfaction and pleasure as promised by John Kemper. In addition, it provided two lessons that I have been impactful in my life. The first was the realization of how utterly ineffective the objective, standardized testing education can be so that I cringe with programs like the “No child left behind.” As President of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA, I am devoting a lot of time to brining the Model UN Program to the public schools so that the students measured by true and false and multiple choice testing are exposed to a program that rewards research, analytical thinking, oratory, writing, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills.

The second was the realization that Andover prized “Type A Behavior” where one competes in all fields and rarely relaxes. It took some years to realize that I needed to relax more and be a more nurturing family man and friend. My new career as a self employed consultant in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, as well as the reduction of economic pressures after a 42 year corporate law career, should allow me to relax more and be a more nurturing human being.

In short, my definition of “success” still includes the elements Andover instilled of working and playing hard, but also other elements that Andover should have included.      

Friday, August 26, 2011

Puerto Rico Business Development – Lessons from the Basque Experience Lesson 2 – The Role of Culture and Identity in Economic Development

We just came back from France where we visited my brother Fernando at Les Tapies, a French phrase that we understand stands for “smuggled against” the mountain. This is an appropriate name for this small hamlet of six stone buildings in the middle of the mountainous Ardeche region some two hours southwest of Lyon. With great patience, perseverance and love, Fernando has over 35 years gradually purchased, rebuilt, and rustically integrated old farmhouses and barns originally belonging to three families going back to the 17th century without changing the original footprints or the architectural characteristics of the complex built from local stones. Fernando was the host for the Gonzalez Vizcarrondo traditional bi-annual outing of brothers and sisters, nephews and grandchildren, in laws and significant others (two years ago we were the host at our Vermont vacation resort). Thirty family members attended and my family made up 14 of the total. After the one week outing we scheduled another 6 days with three of our four children and 5 of our 7 grandchildren visiting two cities in this southeastern portion of France – Annecy and Lyon.

During this eleven day stay, there was a wonderful rounding out of the stonework experience. There was also the opportunity to bring to mind the role of culture and identity in economic development which was to be the topic of my second article in connection with the Basque experience. Fernando recruited my grandchildren Rafi and Ale the very next morning after our arrival and kept them engaged throughout the week constructing a wall serving as a safety railing on the new covered patio built over what had been a small storage area. Choosing each stone, chiseling some of them to the form that would fit, and mortaring the stones in place was a very slow process. At one point, a part of the wall that had just been put in place was torn down and rebuilt when my nephew Sebastian convinced his father after some thirty minutes of deliberation and measurements that a particular large stone would look much better. Fernando commented at one point that this stonework allowed him to appreciate what had been done in the past and to  feel that he was putting in place stones that would be seen by others for Lord only knows how long.

The last thing we did prior to returning home from France was to visit the Gallo Roman Theater overlooking the old parts of Lyon built in 15 B.C. The theater could seat some 12,000 persons and originally had a second story sitting area. As I looked at the huge stones in what was the street running alongside the theater, as well as the stones that made up the theater and other surrounding buildings, I could picture someone like Fernando choosing, transporting, chiseling and putting in place the stones that have lasted 2,026 years thus far!

Les Tapies, Annecy and Lyon ensure that the past is effectively preserved and appropriately exhibited.  This is not only aesthetically pleasing, but economically important, which brings us to the Basque experience as described in Eva Llorens’ June 2nd Caribbean Business article.  Former Basque Country President Juan José Ibarretxe is quoted as emphasizing the need to preserve the local identity, “…the design of public policies [for economic development] must be based on five elements. The first is an emphasis on preserving local identity….”   Quoting from the article, “While he stressed the importance of competing in the global economy, he warned about the need to protect local identity as a first step to going global.”  

My prior article on the Basque experience covering education mentions Ricardo Alegría who did so much for Puerto Rican culture.  There were many articles on him the days after his death regarding his roles in anthropology, archaeology, music, folklore, and art, but none that I found pointed out the importance of what he did as part of economic development.

Culture creates a local identity which creates self worth and hopefully unity of purpose, something that Luis Muñoz Marín and Luis Ferré were able to create that we unfortunately have lost along the way. Culture helps distinguish a society and thereby makes it unique and interesting to others. Whether the person is a tourist who visits us, a businessperson who deals with us, or a potential outside investor of capital or knowledge considering living with us, our uniqueness as a society as manifested by our common traits and the preservation and effective exhibition of the natural, historical, architectural, and artistic elements that are unique to Puerto Rico is to a great extent what makes us attractive.

When I think of stonework structures in Puerto Rico, El Morro and Juan Ponce de Leon’s Caparra home come to mind. El Morro is well persevered and a popular destination for the local population as well as vistors, but Juan Ponce de Leon’s site is visited by very few persons. I have lived in three different homes all located less than a mile from the site during more than 50 years and just visited it this week for the first time.

Caparra was the first Spanish capital in Puerto Rico (then called San Juan Bautista) constructed by Puerto Rico’s first Spanish Governor, Juan Ponce de Leon, in 1509.  Caparra was a village (Villa de Caparra) with homes, commercial buildings, church, plaza and Juan Ponce de Leon’s s home and fortress, that also served as the government and commercial center to exploit gold and agriculture. Ten years later (Juan Ponce de Leon had moved on to Florida in 1513), the capital was transferred to a more secure and less marshy area in what is now San Juan.

Interestingly, according to the brochure handed out at the museum, the name Caparra comes from the ancient roman village in Cáceres, Spain known as the Caparra Ruins. Thus, the remnants of my neighboring 16th century Caparra stone structure just visited closes full circle the previous Les Tapies and Lyon stonework experience.

One can see the footprint of the stone home relocated on a nice piece of property, and the cozy museum has the artefacts found in the archeological excavations of the Caparra village sadly buried under what is now Kennedy Avenue. There was an attempt to have the Avenue avoid these ruins which I assume was led by Ricardo Alegría, but the fight was lost. The signs are in Spanish and few people, especially tourists and students, visit the site that one can enjoy for free. It is sad to see that we are not taking advantage of so much historical, cultural and economic potential. We no longer have Ricardo Alegría and so we need to institutionalize as a top priority of our overall economic development policy the strengthening of our local identity and culture following the strong recommendations of Mr. Ibarretxe.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Puerto Rico Business Development – Lessons from the Basque Experience Lesson 1 - Education

I recently was in Arlington, Virginia attending the United Nations Association of the USA Annual Meeting as President of the Puerto Rico Chapter that was excellent and will be the subject of a future discussion. I had never spent time in Arlington and was particularly impressed with the jogging/walking/bicycling paths. There are 36 miles of off-street paths, both paved and unpaved, that connect through multiple parks and woodlands. There are also 49 miles of marked on-street bicycling paths. Finally, Arlington is part of the DC Capital Bikeshare program with some 110 sites where for $5 a day one can pick up and leave a bike. What envy for a jogger and biker!

The trail I took was three blocks from the Hilton Hotel and allowed me to jog for an hour and a half with only two street crossings, probably some 8 to 9 miles. This stressless jog allowed me to give some serious thought to an article by Eva Lloréns Vélez in the June 2nd  edition of Caribbean Business. This article covered the presentation by the former Basque Country President Juan José Ibarretxe at the Second Labor & Educational Alignment Summit organized by New Progressive Party Senator Lucy Arce.  

The article on the presentation brought to mind five of my favorite subjects that we need to address in order to resolve our economic development/business stalemate: (1) Do we have to resolve status in order to move ahead economically? (2) Why do we not all unite to make Puerto Rico a fully bilingual society? (3) Where did we go wrong in our economic development strategy? (4) What is the role of culture and identity in economic development?  (5) In order to prepare our youth well for the future job market, what should be our educational goal?

I will cover the five topics in various separate articles in inverse order commencing with our educational challenge.

Everyone agrees with the quoted statement, that “that there are no miracles; only well-informed and educated people.”  Everyone also agrees that science, engineering and mathematics are critical, and yet as the article cites Ibarretxe, “The curriculum should focus on helping students resolve problems, make decisions, communicate, work in teams and deal with technology.”  In reference to his own daughters who he says “have a level of knowledge higher than what I had at their age, but they are functionally illiterate when it comes to confronting life and communicating.”  The article ends stating, “Ibarretxe said general knowledge is better than specialized learning because the knowledge that engineers and scientists acquire today is going to be obsolete in two years.”

Unfortunately, I fear that the very strong recommendation fell on deaf ears based on the penultimate paragraph of the article: “While Ibarretxe suggested the U.S. should overhaul its educational system in favor of generalized education instead of specialized learning, Perez Riera [Puerto Rico Economic Development and Commerce Secretary] said the Puerto Rico administration prefers creating specialized schools in science and mathematics. This statement is in line with the “pause” implemented for the humanities at the UPR Rio Piedras campus and the various indications that engineering, sciences and mathematics will be emphasized.

 I remember a comment made to me many years ago by my good friend Ricardo Toro, Executive Vice President of Banco Popular. After dealing with many graduates, he had come to the conclusion that it was much preferable to hire a well rounded liberal arts graduate than a  specialized graduate in banking and finance since he could teach the corporate banking skills over time, but he could not teach the critical thinking, communication and people skills that a good liberal art education develops. Of course, the better schools can cover both specialized learning and still offer a well rounded liberal education.

An interesting article in the June 13 edition of Time magazine points out what is taken as a truism, “ the education system  fails to get kids interested in what the economy really needs: scientists and engineers” and cites Manpower Group president Jonas Prising,as saying that “a large number of college grads simply have the wrong skills. Liberal arts skills are in oversupply, and that’s an education issue.”

Ironically, the article goes on to describe how a biology major graduating from the University of Texas Geoscience School in Austin had to take a short-term internship in sales that offered stock options instead of pay. The article ends citing Prising in favor of a fix very close to Ricardo Toro’s solution reached many years ago: Employers need to be willing to hire graduates with basic skills and then train them to fit the company’s needs before putting them on the job. Prising calls such job candidates a “teachable fit”.

I submit that Puerto Rico business needs the best of both worlds - we need to emphasize science, engineering, technology and mathematics, but we can not de-emphasize the well rounded general education that Ibarretxe, Ricardo Toro and, albeit reluctantly, Jonas Prising avows. We need to educate a “teachable fit.”  More importantly, we need to educate well rounded, globally/culturally conscious, and emotionally stable individuals with communication, negotiation/conflict resolution and team/leadership skills that are essential for a civil society and a dynamic economy.

We are mourning last week’s death of Ricardo Alegría who did so much for Puerto Rican culture and promoting our self worth. His studies and expertise were in fields that some would put on “pause” and the values he stood for and the communication/negotiation skills he demonstrated in achieving his many goals are the result of a humanistic, generalized, lifelong education. We need to develop students that have technical skills and expertise in many areas rounded out with the values and the non technical skills that made Ricardo Alegría the successful leader and role model we so much appreciate and honor.

Let´s follow lesson 1 of the Basque experience in education as one of the indispensable steps towards our economic development on which all of us should be able to agree and to which all of us need to contribute in one way or another.     

Monday, July 11, 2011

Jesus the Great Persuader – Epilogue to the Effective Sermon

Given my last article on The Effective Sermon, I paid special attention to the readings and the sermons at Sunday’s mass. True to form the sermon was on the gospel. The priest went over St. Matthew’s story of Jesus preaching from a boat on the water to the masses on shore utilizing the parable of the farmer whose seeds fell on different ground with only the seeds falling on fertile ground prospering.

The disciples ask Jesus why he utilized parables. Jesus answers that he utilizes parables because those attending look without seeing and hear without listening or understanding. There seems to be two levels to this statement. The first is that the parable is the best shot at having his message stick both with the masses and the disciples. The second is that even given his best shot there will be many who will either not hear and understand, or who will hear and understand but will not persevere.

The point is that a story and a parable that brings the message to life with vivid images that are relevant to the audience is the best shot at having the message stick. Weekly sermon’s need to keep this great message by Jesus, the great persuader, always in mind.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Persuasive Sermon

My golf companion Ray mentioned last Sunday that the sermon at the early mass had been painful since not only were the 45 minutes too long but the priest had been too repetitive.  His comment brought to mind my experience in Vermont the week before. The priest writes up and reads a rather scholarly sermon behind the pulpit that is very hard to follow. On this occasion, about three quarters of the way he left the written sermon he was reading and told a very interesting story of a recent visit to a Catholic Church very near his brother’s home. His brother preferred to go to a church some 15 minutes away since he did not like the atmosphere at the nearby church. As described, the church is part of a large complex and its location upon entering the main doors is not initially identifiable. Upon entering the church, the tabernacle was hidden in a corner of the church. Finally, what most struck the priest was that there were no pews for kneeling. His brother indicated that the explanation given was that God did not need for people to kneel during the mass.

This lack of pews brought to mind my continued surprise with the beautiful Torrimar church of San Juan Evangelista that also does not have pews. To spend on marble and beautiful seats and yet not have pews has seemed to me a lack of priority.      

The Vermont priest went on to express that, although not required by God, kneeling was a sign of humility and respect. He suggested that he would have a movable pew before him so that those who wished could kneel upon receiving communion.

The story, the message, and the call to action were very effective and inspiring. Unfortunately, the sermon should have started with the story; the initial portion was on target with his principal message, but it was boringly read and too intellectual and long.   

Later that Sunday afternoon I went to mass. The priest followed his usual sermon strategy based on reviewing the various readings and commenting on them. His delivery is the opposite of the Vermont priest since he steps out in front of the pulpit and altar and does not read his sermon, so there is eye contact and rapport with the congregation since he uses everyday stories to bring home his messages. Unfortunately, the stories are buried in the sermon and the messages are often multiple and unfocused.

Obviously a good sermon is like a good speech – as Frances Rios’ new book titled The Glue Factor teaches, the goal is “to make your message stick to your audience.”  The sermon has to be addressed to what would be of interest at that particular moment to the congregation. The goal is to have one clear message conveyed in a concise and interesting way. As Frances Rios emphasizes, the speech/sermon should not be read behind the lectern/pulpit. The biggest challenge is to make the message interesting and impactful. A good story, a reference to something of general interest that is happening in the community or the world, an unexpected commencement, the use of a guest to give a change of pace are some of the ideas that have worked in good sermons I can remember.

The foregoing regarding what a good speech/sermon requires is not revolutionary, but implementation takes creativity and work. The priest’s sermon is his chance to change attitudes and lives as well as develop rapport with his congregation for one on one follow ups. This opportunity should not be wasted, especially in this day in age in which each parish has to “market” itself and “compete” with other Catholic churches, other religions, and so many other alternatives and distractions tempting his parishioners. An effective sermon not only effectively conveys religious teachings, but is one of the priest’s principal arsenal in effectively developing loyal parishioners. The Torrimar church without pews is highly successful in large part because it brings in priests from outside the parish to give the mass, and based on what I have witnessed over many years, very effective sermons.  The parish priests at San Juan Evangelista have recognized that effective sermons are a key ingredient to filling the church which is what a parish priest has to do.     

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“Nologue” – Not Bargaining with the Devil: The American Airlines Experience

We had turned in the excellent Ford Fusion rental car at National after a very stressless trip from our vacation home in Vermont and were approaching the drop off for American Airlines when my wife Pinky asked about my passport. She normally controls the passport and ticketing papers but I had left her and our dog Bailey in Vermont to take care of business in Puerto Rico and had taken the passport with me. I confidently reached in the carry on luggage pocket but it was not there; it was also not in my briefcase. I then checked for my license and it was also not in my wallet. One more check of the briefcase turned up copies of the two documents and I then remembered that I had made copies of both documents for the Water Company in order to change my billing address (typical bureaucratic requirements that make no practical sense). Obviously I had left the originals in the copy machine at our vacation home more than two hours away. Nice job, Jorge.!

The agent was not happy when we turned in our papers at the Business Class counter available to Advantage Platinum members. I suggested that if there was any doubt of passing security that we should check this out beforehand, but she did not like this idea. In Puerto Rico we have a saying for a person who looks very unfriendly and upset, “Tiene cara de agriada ” She then asked us to put Bailey on the scale and to take her out of the special luggage we have always used without problems for some 4 years. Upon seeing the dog, she coldly remarked that Bailey was too large to be carried in the cabin and had to be checked in. The position was that the dog had to be able to stand upright in the bag without having it bulge outwardly and to be able to freely turn around in the bag. We knew that Bailey was 3 or 4 pounds above the 20 pound limit, but she fits perfectly in the bag and moves around in the bag which fits under the seat in front of us as required. This new rule surprised us and my wife bargained and pleaded with her to no avail. The agent advised that she had to bring in her supervisor to make the final decision.

The supervisor arrived and as he approached us from some 15 feet away announced that the dog was too big and could not travel in the cabin with us. He supported the agent’s position respecting the stand up and move around rule. This meant that we had to purchase a new special luggage and take a flight the next day. My wife pleaded that this would kill Bailey who has never been without us, our daughter and Cristina who has done the manicuring and taken care of her when we have had to leave her in Puerto Rico. She once again argued, pleaded, cried, turned bright red, and even offered to never bring Bailey again on future flights. His inflexible position, with no indication of empathy or sympathy, was that he had to enforce the rules and the fact that others had not enforced the rules in the past had no bearing on his decision, nor would he make an exception despite the inconvenience this would mean given that this was our trip back home. 

Given that we had to transfer in Miami, the flights had to take into account the temperature there and so we were booked on a 5:30 am flight from Boston. Thus, in addition to having to buy special luggage , use taxis or re-rent a car and find a hotel that allows pets, we had to wake up at 3 am in order to make the flight. Talk about making life miserable for a customer who had logged over 2 million miles with American Airlines. As Pinky pointed out, we had chosen the longer two flight alternative with American because we had never had a problem in the past.

During all this time I said very little if anything letting Pinky make all the arguments that were rational, filled with emotion that should have evoked empathy and sympathy and at all times was respectful without ever a hint of personal attack despite the cold treatment she was receiving from the agent and the supervisor.  I later analyzed/rationalized my passive posture which was especially surprising given my new career precisely in helping others resolve conflict that I had commenced precisely 28 days before. While listening intently to see if there was anything I could or should add, I addressed in my mind the alternatives we had since it was pretty clear that we were not going to convince these two.    

I decided that our best alternative was to try the direct Jet Blue flight that left around midnight, or even the other flight that was at 8 am. The agent, who by the way was Puerto Rican, looked up the Jet Blue flights and confirmed my recollection. Even if Bailey had to go as check in baggage, the flights were direct and without the heat of Miami. We went to the Jet Blue terminal and had no problems whatsoever in booking the 11:59 pm flight with the dog in the cabin.

I called the Advantage Platinum number to cancel the next day flights and asked the agent to not charge us the $150 per ticket rebooking penalty fee which after consultation she was able to confirm . I mentioned to her that what upset and frustrated us the most was the complete lack of empathy/sympathy by the agent and her supervisor. Her apology together with the waiver of the rebooking penalty fee were somewhat redeeming steps in our relationship with American Airlines.

Why had I been so passive? First of all, I felt Pinky was doing an excellent job in negotiating, combining the rational with the emotional without losing control or being disrespectful. Secondly, at the time I could not come up with any additional argument or approach that I thought would be convincing or helpful with these two American Airline employees.  Thirdly, I was so taken aback by the negative and unsympathetic attitude of these two persons that stepping in did not seem fruitful and would just add to my frustration – better to spend my energies in looking for our Plan B.

After sleeping on this I concluded (rationalized) that what I had unconsciously decided was to not bargain with the devil – this is the title of a great book written by Robert Mnookin who chairs the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. I had recently finished the book with its theory that sometimes it is better to not negotiate.  My sense is that unconsciously my choice of the “nologue” or silence was the right choice under the circumstances.

With hindsight, what posture on my part could possibly have worked?  I would have accepted their dilemma of having to apply the dog must stand up and move around freely in the bag rule and tried to convince them that the rule is for the good of the animal. I would have reiterated Pinky’s argument that the dog fitted comfortably in the bag and she could turn around in the bag and even stand up fully albeit the bag would bulge. I would have acknowledged that we were at their mercy but suggested that they had to interpret the rule that hopefully they would agree is not black and white. American Airlines had allowed the dog in the cabin over various years, but more importantly, had allowed the dog to travel in the cabin from our home in Puerto Rico. This  put us in a very difficult position and the dog in danger with the Miami transfer after mid morning. I would then have asked them to huddle apart for a couple of minutes to see if they could interpret the rule in our favor under all the circumstances of this case.  It is impossible to understand the chemistry between these two employees, but I speculate that the agent put the supervisor on the spot with her strong position on the subject.  As time passed, I sensed that the agent did sympathize with our position and even mentioned in Spanish that she had a dog   Just maybe she would have championed our cause and in privates helped convince the supervisor.

Would all of this have worked? I doubt it very much … and probably this is why I kept my mouth shut choosing nologue with the devilish supervisor.   

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Construction Contracting in Vermont – Part 2

I am back in Vermont and had a very pleasant golf game with Jim Mills at the Woodstock Country Club Golf Course with its narrow fairways, tight greens and plenty of streams crossing fairways and protecting greens. The setting is beautiful and Sunday afternoon was sunny with temperatures in the low ‘70’s – perfect golf walking weather. I took the opportunity to discuss with Jim the unpleasant experience he had with a customer that required him to bring a lawsuit for collection of monies owed under the construction contract. Yes, as you may recall from my prior article,  Jim was my constructon contractor who had told me that he had worked all his life without contracts with his customers and felt that if he needed a contract with a particular person then it was not the kind of person he wanted to work with.   

Basically the amount owing was Jim’s profit and when he sued the customer counterclaimed. The controversy involved alleged delays that Jim argued were due to change orders.  Jim had not been able to obtain signed approvals of the change orders but proceeded to implement them in good faith.

In Vermont mediation is a mandatory process in all civil litigation cases.  Mediation does not necessarily result in an agreement since the essence of mediation is for the neutral mediator to facilitate a voluntary settlement of the controversies.  In mediation, any of the parties can at any time decide that he or she does not want to continue and terminate the process without any obligation whatsoever. The mediation normally is undertaken over a one day period and in this case, according to Jim, things were moving well after some 8 hours when the customer decided that he did not want to continue having lost faith in the mediator. Obviously, the customer felt that he would come out better in court then under the mediation as it was developing.

The matter continued to be litigated in court and after a three year process, the counterclaim was dismissed, but so was Jim’s action for damages.  Another factor that may have been crucial was that there was no arbitration clause. Arbitration is usually quicker and less expensive and permits one to have more control of who will be deciding the matter which is particularly important in cases requiring special expertise such as construction contracts.

Jim had not followed his basic principle of refusing to deal with someone requiring a written contract.  He explained that he knew the person had a reputation of being litigious, but the construction of a newly designed large home in a prestigious resort was very tempting, and he felt that his people and construction skills that had served him so well over some 35 years without a claim would also allow him to resolve any issues that would come up. Jim recognized that he compounded the problem by also proceeding with change orders without obtaining the customers signature.  If you are going to work with a written contract then one needs to be consistent in obtaining signed amendments.   It has never ceased to amaze me how very sophisticated clients with in house attorneys uniformly fail to document changes and required renewals, not to mention not enforcing the normal contractual conditions.     

I mentioned to Jim that the CEO of our family businesses, Eggie Navas, has a saying that I feel is so true, “ You can never have a bad contract with good people nor a good contract with bad people.”  In other words, no matter how well a contract is written, litigious persons will one way or another find a way to litigate something in order to improve at the end their monetary position. I am sure you can think of a person in your community who fits this picture to the tee.  On the other hand, with good people a handshake will do, and if there is a written contract (which is something I always recommend), problems will be worked out in a mutually satisfactory way without either side taking undue advantage of the other.

Contracts, and diligence in following up with their terms, help prevent conflict, but even more importantly, dealing with good people is the best way to prevent conflict and facilitate the resolution of conflict if one arises. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Construction Contracting in Vermont

Construction Contracting in Vermont

I am presently at our vacation home in Vermont and yesterday as I was finishing my three hour bike ride (how pleasant it is to have the drivers be so respectful of bikers and to have so many pave and unpaved roads to choose from) I thought of how different and special was the experience of remodeling our home in a contracting area that can be so stressful and conflictive.

Back some five years ago my wife Pinky “suggested” that we start looking to move from our Sugar Hill Condo in Vermont to a home that would accommodate our growing family of children, in-laws and grandchildren. When we visited our real estate broker Carol Dewey Davidson, she pointed us to what she described as a “very funky house with plenty of rooms and living spaces, a great location and exceptional views.” She did not have the keys but said no one was living there and we could take a peek through the windows.  Carol knows how to create curiosity – she was being absolutely candid but tweaking that candidness with colorful images that made us desire to immediately see this property.

Carol’s description was perfect. The house was ugly brown with a multi-level and long narrow porch to the right leading to a screened room with a rug that was in very bad shape.  From this screened room one entered the house. The rest of the front consisted of a mechanical room with the oil tank and water heater, the two car garage and another smaller mechanical room with the water pump and electrical/telephone equipment. One long windowless roof came down from the third floor to these three rooms. Not a pretty first impression!

Nevertheless, a peek through the windows indicated that the insides were not luxurious, but quite nice, and the views from house and the two and a half acre site was indeed spectacular – one could see the ski hill, Lake Pinneo and part of the golf courses as well as the mountains beyond. Most properties in our resort are hidden among the trees with little or no views. In addition to the great view, the property, located at the end of a short unpaved road high on one of the mountains, was very private and quite.  

Suffice it to say that after closer scrutiny we ended up buying the house for a very good price, but with knowledge that some serious remodeling would be necessary, primarily to improve the frontage and entry points to the house, as well as moving around some rooms internally so as to create a decent laundry and pantry. Carol recommended the architect, Art Garges, and contractor, Jim Mills, and the experience of construction contracting in Vermont commenced.

As a former corporate attorney of some 42 years working with contracts and convincing clients to put things in writing (I even put things in writing with my children), the first shock came with indications that these professionals gave estimates, but did not negotiate and sign contracts. Jim flat out stated that he had worked all his life without contracts with his clients and felt that if he needed a contract with a particular person then it was not the kind of person he wanted to work with.  Mind you, this remodeling job ended up costing over $250,000 and not once was there a moment of conflict with either the architect or the contractor or between the two of them.

The second surprise was that we left the keys to the house with both of them knowing that there would be multiple subcontractors over more than a year and during all this time not one item was ever taken, including food, wine, beer or liquor that were not under lock and key. It has always amazed me that over 10 years nothing has ever been taken despite the multiple persons who have access to the condo and the house for maintenance and repairs.  

The third pleasant construction contracting experience was that we became best friends with both Art and Jim. From the outset, the tone and ambience of our meetings were very professional and trusting, but just as importantly, there was a desire to develop a relationship beyond the professional-client relationship.  Our meetings to discuss the design and construction issues were almost always with both of them and in a relaxed mood around the kitchen table.

We also had a very good experience in Puerto Rico with the architect and contractor who remodeled our penthouse, but we did have contracts and the meetings/communications were more on a professional plane.

As a giver and receiver of professional advice, my take is that there needs to be respectful dialogue from beginning to end, that friendship is a real plus, that budgeting is critical and upfront discussions need to take place regarding developments that will impact the initial budget, that it helps immensely to respect and express appreciation for the professional’s advice, and finally, that it is very counterproductive to complain about the billings that fall within the budgeted parameters.  Some clients feel that these complaints will lead to lower billings in the future, but in the large scheme of things wherein a strong professional relationship is often so critical to one’s business or physical wellbeing, these complaints may well diminish the professional’s enthusiasm and thereby often end up costing the client more in the long run, including the loss of a good professional and friend.   

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New Career/Blog Announcement

On July 1st I will formally launch my new career as conflict prevention and resolution consultant. Today, in preparation for that launching date, I commence my blog – Business Resolutions.  

Let me start off by explaining how my past career as an attorney with McConnell Valdés brought me to where I am.  Future articles will explain where I am going with my new career, interspersed with articles on conflict prevention, management and prevention for business and professional persons to which my future endeavors as consultant will be devoted. 

It has been 44 years since I first joined McConnell Valdés, initially as a summer law clerk during my  years of Law School, and then as a lawyer immediately after graduating from Harvard in June of 1969.

The professional and varied experience has been truly outstanding. I started in the tax department under Bob Van Kirk and after some 18 months moved to litigation under Fernando Ruiz-Suria. In 1973 I joined the corporate department under Bob Griggs, which is where I remained until my retirement from the Firm.

I served over different periods of time on the Executive Committee, and its successor, the Policy Committee, and in this additional role helped lead and grow the Firm. I joined the Firm because it was the leader in terms of size, the quality of its clients, the calibre of the legal services, and the professionalism and high ethical standards of the lawyers and staff.  Throughout my career the Firm continued to be the leader in all these categories.   

The Firm always supported my role as a volunteer in philanthropic and professional organizations, starting with the YMCA in the early ‘70’s. My role as President and/or Board member throughout all these years provided managerial challenges and incredibly satisfying moments as I strove with other volunteers and the professional staff to help develop and meet each organization’s respective mission and strategies.  

The Firm has a mandatory retirement policy respecting one’s position as capital member, although those who wish to remain with the Firm can continue as counsel. That mandatory retirement age as capital member is the end of the fiscal year in which one turns 67, which for me was this fiscal year ending May 31st.

I had given the Firm notice a number of years ago that I wanted to start a new career as an independent consultant in the prevention and resolution of conflicts. Our Firm policy calls for the announcement of such a decision at least 2 years prior to one leaving the Firm in order to implement a two year transition, which in my case was also completed on May 31st of this year.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the Firms’s present and former clients, attorneys and staff members for their support and for helping me prepare for my second career.  God bless them all.