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.