The MBA Patch

When I originally applied for admission to MBA programs at UBC and SFU last year, I had to produce a number of essays in response to the universities’ “interview” questions. Looking back on my answers to questions, I can’t believe how naive I was about the MBA program. Consider my essay answer to this question: “Discuss your career plans and how the UBC MBA will contribute to your achievement of these plans”.

My career goal is to start a successful venture that addresses a current social need using technology, thereby combining my passion for improving our world with my expertise in high-tech. I believe that we, as a society, could be doing a better job of leveraging our technological expertise to reduce our society’s impact on the environment, and improve the lives of people outside of the First World. Instead of wasting our intellectual capital on inventing the next high-tech gadget to temporarily occupy our attention, we could be addressing the real problems our shortsighted society has created.

I’ve always admired the pioneers of new technology with the capability to change the way we live. These people aren’t empire builders, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but are true visionaries, like Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy. These are people that have an idea, build a team to grow the idea into a business, execute the idea successfully, and then move onto their next big idea. These are people that get things done, fast and effectively. But the ability of these leaders to make a difference requires not only technological savvy, but business expertise as well.

A successful business can’t be built on technology alone, something I know from the three start-ups I’ve been a part of during my short professional career. Though an innovative technology may be enough to start a business, by itself it’s not enough to sustain a business to profitability. Many of the problems I observed within each start-up were due to inadequate business experience on the part of the management team. Founders and executives focused on the “gee-whiz” factor of the technology, the thrill of being “in business”, or on petty ego-based battles for control, instead of addressing the more important issues of cash-flow management, competitive analysis, market penetration, or sales strategy. In the heady “dot-com” days, the business plans for these companies were nothing more than promises of “if you build it, and they will come”, something that anyone with an MBA would have recognized as foolish (though perhaps many MBAs recognized this foolishness, and chose to cash in on the dot-com frenzy anyway).

I believe what I need at this point in my career now is an MBA program that will allow me to examine the experience I’ve already gained, thereby gleaning further insight into how to build my own profitable venture. Though there’s no substitute for real-world “battle” experience, I’ve learned more in three years with start-ups than I would have at a traditional, well-established company. But this experience has been expensive, costing the most precious resource of all: time. I believe the UBC MBA program will accelerate my progress towards my goal by providing me with the formal framework to analyze my existing experience and the tools to tackle the challenges ahead.

Wow. Painfully bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimism, eh? You can almost see the sun rising in East, gleaming off my eyes as I stare to the West to a brighter future in the MBA program. Sucker.

The truth of the matter is the MBA is a rubber stamp degree. It’s like those patches in Boy Scouts which, oddly enough, you can buy on the Internet: Foul Weather Camping! Outdoor Cook! Patch Forgery!

The MBA isn’t a guarantee of anything, except possibly that you possess the ability to be punctual and remain conscious for an extended period of time. And even those guarantees are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Was I wrong to expect some quantifiable, identifiable results from the program, or was I just expecting too much? I’ve always suffered from high (some would say unrealistic) expectations. If there’s one thing the MBA has taught me: caveat emptor.

The Cradle of Civilization

Iraq was once the seat of the Babylonian Empire, and is largely accepted as the cradle of modern civilization, the garden of life nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. I got a great piece of trivia the other day, made especially appropriate by the recent action in Iraq.

Babylonian Empire, 539 BC

The piece of interesting trivia related to a marriage tradition accepted by the Babylonians:

“It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride’s father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the honey month we know today as the honeymoon.”

Think about that: this term survived 4,000 years of history in a country subjected to countless invading hordes with different languages, cultures and religions. And yet it still survived.

Meanwhile, the physical artifacts of the same period are not faring so well, as the rash of looting in Baghdad last week extended to Iraq’s national museum. Though it is understandable that a people with so little would move to try to capture something for themselves in the vacuum created by the exit of the regime, it’s sad to think that they might be selling off a greater tie to their past and possibly their future, than money can provide.

I’m A Pop Sensation!

It was a busy night in Vancouver last night, with both pop sensation hopefuls camping out in from of the Vancouver Library in preparation for the Canadian Idol auditions tomorrow, as well as the shooting for the Scooby-Doo sequel taking place at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Meanwhile, at the 'museum'...Yes – that Scooby-Doo, or at least his digital doppleganger, was in town last night, deceptively disguising our fair city as middle America, as usual. The illustrious VAG had been transformed into the “Coolsonian Criminology Museum”, and the banner featuring the work of EJ Hughes were replaced by banners featuring “The Work of Mystery Inc.”

I only got a quick glimpse of the cast from afar, but more importantly, I got a look at the Mystery Machine (see the larger version of the photo). Hmm, I don’t recall the Mystery Machine being a stretch SUV/limosine. Then again, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the cartoon, so who knows what’s changed?

The line for auditions at The CentreMeanwhile, out at the Vancouver Public, star-eyed singer/songwriter wannabes were lining up since noon yesterday for the privilege of having their dreams dashed in front of a national audience. Crazy. They had tents, tarps, the infamous camping chair, and, oh yes, spunk, which they displayed at the top of their lungs while singing “Lean on Me” repeatedly. It’s looked like the beginning of a long night – but not for me. I went home and slept. Yah, sleep! That’s where I’m a viking – not a pop sensation!

Internship Secured

It was a busy week, but I managed to secure myself a pretty sweet internship with the Premier’s Technology Council. The PTC is responsible for providing “advice to the Premier on all technology-related issues facing British Columbia and its citizens”. I’ll be working with the Emerging Technology Work Group, headed by William Koty, which is responsible for researching emerging technologies, analyzing how these technologies will impact BC, and making recommendations on how the BC government can stimulate economic development in those areas within BC’s technology industries.

The interview for the internship was probably one of the more enjoyable interviews I’d ever had. William Koty, along with Michael Desandoli, a consultant volunteer with the PTC, had a relaxed interviewing style that felt more like a conversation than an interview. That said, it appears that they were still working off a set script for the interview, judging from the similarity I gathered between my interview and that of the other interviewees. There were the usual “why do you want to work with us” type questions, and a few “what is X technology” questions, but nothing unusual.

The part that was unusual was one of Mike’s questions: “So, how are your listening skills?”.

I couldn’t finesse that question, so I opted for honesty: “To be honest my listening skills need work.” Honesty seemed to satisfy them, which was good.

The call-back interview with William had a similar tone and, again, some difficult moments of honesty. William was concerned that I might be too opinionated – fair enough, I said, something to work on. Being aware of my shortcomings seemed to be more important to William than being “perfect”. All in all, I felt like I got more useful insight in two interviews than in most of my MBA.

The biggest problem I have is when people aren’t willing to provide feedback on interpersonal skills. If there’s something I’m doing wrong, the only way to help me develop is to tell me. I’ve spent the last ten years working with extremely smart engineers – smart people that see things in black and white. Either you’ve got the right answer or you don’t. Period. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. The transition to dealing with non-technical people is probably the most difficult obstacle I’ll have to overcome in my business career.

But as long as people tell me what I’m doing wrong, or how they feel about how I interact with them, I’m sure I’ll be able to overcome these obstacles. So bring on the feedback!

Spin! Spin! SPIN!

We had an interesting session today with Paul Patterson from UBC Public Affairs today to teach us how to control the media. That’s right: in the MBA we learn how to be spin doctors! Not only was Paul Patterson an interesting and engaging speaker, he also provided a lot of useful information on how the media distorts news stories, much to the shock and horror of my classmates. I mean, they knew this stuff happened, but I don’t think they realized just how frequently and methodically the media manipulates our perception of reality.

Paul took us step-by-step through a story he did for the CBC, many years ago, on the dumping of medical waste in a local dump in Nova Scotia. At each point, he showed us how he had manipulated the message through not only visual and auditory cues, but also through how he interviewed people and edited those interviews together. In the end, he revealed that what had actually taken place was quite removed from what was portrayed in his story.

Though the story had focused on a man who “had been accused” of dumping waste, only to be contracted by the government to perform the same task again, the truth was that the man had actually called Paul to report the dumping in the first place! In fact, he had been contracted by the government the first time, but the government had hung him out to dry when what he was doing for them was uncovered. When they contacted him the second time, he called Paul in to blow the whistle. Sneaky or what?

The point of the whole lecture was to demonstrate the techniques used by reporters to ambush interviewees. Reporters’ underlying motivation is conflict. Paul demonstrated that not only should you, as a business person under attack, attempt to diffuse the conflict, but also capitalize on the opportunity to promote your key messages to the public. Sneaky? Yes. Smart use of an opportunity? Yes.

Though I may not find the topic of manipulating the public through the media palatable, Paul’s presentation did provoke a lot though on the topic within the class. His insight into the use of media should only serve to remind us of something we probably think we already know, especially in the current climate of “embedded” reporting in the war against Iraq: you can’t trust the media. Especially when you’re a business and the media knocks on your door.

Now With 20% More!

The latest news from the front: not only did the University of British Columbia increase the tuition for the MBA Program a whopping 321% (from $7,000 to $28,000), they overcharged students in the process. It turns out that 20% of the increase was set aside for bursaries for students in the MBA program, with bursaries only recently being awarded to students with “financial need” – seven months into the program. In a class of 87 students, 44 students received an average bursary of approximately $6,580.

That means that $4200 of my tuition increase is going to pay for the tuition of someone else in the program.

The purpose of this bursary program, presumably, is to provide a transfer of money to address an area of social inequity: some people can’t afford the program. Assuming that is correct, when would be the most logical time to award the bursary? Would it be in the middle of the program, when attendees have already addressed the issue of financing their degree? Or would it be at the beginning of the program? Of course, awarding bursaries at the beginning would make the most sense. Anyone with genuine, unresolved “financial need” probably never made it to the first class in September, never mind lasted seven months.

Given that the reason that the tuition was raised to $28,000 because the MBA Program was moving to a “cost recovery” model, how did the university consider it defensible to artificially inflate the tuition by 20% that would neither address an actual cost nor provide a discernible benefit to students?

Those of us in the class have often heard that this year’s tuition increase will probably not benefit our MBA class – I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. There are valid reasons for raising extra funds from students to transfer to other students. Universities need to raise some of its scholarship and grant money from somewhere other than rich benefactors, endowment trusts, or the government. And, to be certain, this does impart indirect benefits on our class, such as when the university is able to enhance its reputation by using scholarship money to attract superior students who go on to great success. However, from what I can see, there was no such intent in this case – this was just a transfer from some students to others for reasons that aren’t entirely clear in either our minds or, apparently, that of the MBA Program Office.

Unluckiest of all: the international students. While their tuition increase was “only” $8,000, 20% of their tuition increase was also allocated to this bursary fund. The only problem is that none of the international students are eligible to apply for the bursary. After struggling with the issue of cultural diversity and successfully bridging this divide, the MBA Program Office has lobbed in this grenade, just to to keep things interesting.

What shocks me most about all of this is that a university faculty that claims to be teaching the essentials of business, including critical thinking, financial planning, and organizational behaviour, was unable to foresee these concerns or plan appropriately. Seems like a very bad case of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Reflections on Leadership

At the end of every year, I write myself a letter recounting the year’s events. Some people may believe that writing to oneself in the third person is an early symptom of a latent split-personality disorder, but for me the activity reflects my belief that the “present Brendon” is a different person than the “past Brendon” or the “future Brendon”. The nature of these letters to date has been a passive examination of how things happened in the past, instead of a plan for what actions should be taken in the future. For this paper, submitted for one of my MBA organizational behaviour courses, I chose to use the “letter from/to myself” style to reflect on the elements of leadership that I need to incorporate into my life to enable future success:

Dear Brendon:

The next few years will be critical in determining whether you will evolve into a mature leader, confident in your abilities yet flexible in your interactions with others, or into an arrogant bastard, unable to reach your true potential. It’s not going to be an easy process to endure. It will test your sense of self-worth. It will require you to commit to continuously considering those around you. It will require you to put the needs of others ahead of your own needs. It will challenge you to think beyond the technical and quantitative world, to step outside of your “comfort zone”. It will require you to think strongly about what really matters in your life. In short: this is gonna hurt, but I’m only doing it because I care about you and your future success.

Think about some of the people you’ve looked up to as leaders in your short career: A and B. What were the qualities that made you respect them as leaders? A always made himself available, did more listening than talking, and was willing to trust the information provided by someone as junior as yourself during your time at IBM. B had similar characteristics – he was always able to see all sides of an issue, to focus on the positive and discount the negative, to discount his own knowledge of an issue to incorporate input from someone else, and to transcend personal conflicts in a discussion to focus everyone on moving things forward.

Working with A and B was enjoyable, primarily because you felt that your opinion on a subject was valuable to them. For work assignments, they told you what was going on, what they needed, and then they got out of your way. And when it came to talking about problems within the company, they never avoided the topic, always gave you the straight story and conveyed a vision of how things could be turned around. This behavior translated into the desire to meet or exceed their expectations – you felt connected to them and the goals they defined. This connection translated into greater motivation, and the desire to “stretch” your capabilities and grow in the manner required to meet their lofty goals.

A lot of A and B’s power came not from their position in the company, but from their ability to involve people in what they wanted to achieve. They were persuasive enough that they could have convinced you to donate your socks to them. And then get you to purchase the socks back from them.

That’s not too say that A and B were ideal – no one’s ideal. In some cases, they could be too conciliatory, too willing to listen endlessly, to not make a decision. If there was one thing that they could have done better, it would have been to take a little more aggressive stance with respect to making decisions. That aside, their positive points far outweighed their negative points – they always seemed open to changing themselves as required to address any personal shortcomings.

Now, contrast the styles of A and B with those of C and D, possibly the worst managers/best non-leaders you’ve ever experienced. C was the “invisible manager”, never available to answer questions or provide feedback, always expecting you to perform tasks without ever describing a specific project. D, on the other hand, was a micromanager who didn’t accept the opinions of his team, including those eminently more qualified than him, and derided other members of the team in private conversation.

Remember how de-motivating it was to work under those guys? You didn’t know what you were supposed to be working on half the time because they didn’t tell you, or didn’t really seem to know themselves what you were supposed to be working on. If you did something the way you thought was correct, you only ended up having to re-do it when C finally got around to telling you want he actually wanted, or when D dropped by to give you a “step by step” method for solving the problem “as he saw it”. You had little opportunity to make a contribution to the company that you viewed as meaningful.

In many cases, there was simply no consistent, cohesive communication of project goals and direction by either C or D. This management style translated into frustration, self doubt, tension, and infighting within the development team. All of these characteristics resulted in glacially slow project progress, which further fed the frustration, self doubt, tension and infighting in a vicious cycle. Deadlines came and went without much progress. Even confronting the leadership issue did little, as both C and D were blind to the effect their actions and words had on members of the team or the team morale.

No wonder you left both of those jobs!

C and D differed from A and B in one very specific fashion: they were always prepared to make a decision. In fact, they probably only talked to you to inform you of the decision they had already made without your input. This style made for faster decision turnaround in the short term, but ironically led to protracted emotional debate within the team on the proclaimed decision that took longer than it would have taken to make a decision in concert with the team. Quick decision making is a good trait, but unfortunately C and D practiced quick decision making in isolation, neutralizing the benefit of this trait.

So, which kind of manager do you want to be: an “A and B”, or a “C and D”? As you’ve already seen in the companies you’ve been a part of, the success of a technology company has little to do with technology. In any company, success is the result of your ability to lead, to manage human resources – the creation of a new technology or product just happens to be the saleable end result, a side-effect, if you will. And if you want to run a successful startup, you’re going to have to master the ability to harness and enrich the capabilities of your team.

Perhaps that what scares you most: the fact that you can see elements of C and D in your own personality, and you’re not sure you’ll be able to “drop the tools” you’ve used to date when you need to find another way of getting things done. You’re scared you’re going to turn in the “asshole boss” and not even know it until it’s too late. Then again, the fact that you’re even concerned about these issues is a good sign that you will be able to avoid that fate- you’d be far worse off if you weren’t even considering these aspects of personal development. The key will be to identify what aspects require improvement, or are essential to becoming a leader like A or B.

To become an A or a B, your will have to overcome your greatest shortcoming: your inability to listen openly to those around you. Though you always have something to say on any given topic, your tendency to provide any and all information at your disposal usually precludes others around you from volunteering any information: “Brendon already knows the answer or soon will, so why bother speaking up?”

In a leadership position it will no longer necessarily be your job to come up with solutions. That’s not to say your job won’t require you to provide direction, a vision, to guide the team. However, how you communicate this information will be just as, if not more, important than the information itself. It will be your responsibility to harness the expertise of your team and guide them to come up with solutions. To do this, you will need to act more like a receiver and less like a transmitter of information to provide those around you with the opportunity to prove themselves, to communicate their viewpoint, to “stretch” their abilities, and feel that they’re making a valuable contribution to the team. After all, if you already know all the answers, why do you need a team in the first place?

A source of potential “C and D”-ness will be your current belief that when you have the ‘authority’ to take charge, you’ll be able to force teams to work. Remember: C and D had the authority, but they still couldn’t force things to work. Though authority bestowed by your position as a manager may be useful as a last resort when all else has failed, it won’t help you the majority of the time. Instead, you’ll need to change your attitude, adopt new tools to use when interacting with people that will serve you better than your position within the corporate hierarchy.

Part of this change will require you to put aside your engineering training, specifically the engineering focus on definable, quantitative solutions. In engineering, there is always a right answer and a wrong answer – and it’s your job as an engineer to discover the correct answer. But leading people will require you to be less “hands-on”; though you may be able to get certain tasks done faster or “better” than your subordinates, you will need to resist the urge to take on these tasks. Only by allowing your team to do their job will they have the confidence and motivation to succeed at some point in the future when their ability to perform really matters. You will also need to accept the fact that the answers or solutions required build a team will not be as black-and-white as the solutions to engineering problems.

Your adherence to the engineering requirement for “perfect” solutions will also need to be toned down. In the “shades of grey” world of interpersonal relationship and team leading, there are no perfect answers. You will need to be satisfied with the output that gets the job done, and shift your efforts to enabling people to achieve steady, perpetual improvement.

A final aspect of your engineering training you will need to tone down is your critical nature. The engineering discipline requires its disciples to dedicate themselves to finding problems where none appear to exist to a layman’s eyes. Though an admirable quality when a technical oversight can cost lives, this skill tends to focus on the negative (“what isn’t working?”) as opposed to the positive (“what can we do to make it work better?”). Your job as a leader will be not to dwell on the past failures, but focus on the possibilities of future success. Saying it can’t be done will only convince your team members that it can’t be done, so why try? In the words of your mother: “accentuate the positive!”

On that note, let’s stop considering your leadership shortcomings and focus on the positive! Let’s consider your current leadership strengths.

There, done. That was easy, wasn’t it?

Just kidding. See? Self-deprecating humor, that’s a leadership strength you possess. It will serve you well when a tense situation between team members, or a team member and yourself needs to be diffused without either party losing face. Though humor can provide the momentary tension relief, you will need to choose the appropriate time to use this technique – choosing the wrong moment or misjudging how humor might be received by other parties could be disastrous. Not only could it be unwelcome to the situation, but it also could be considered derogatory or disrespectful. Use this power for good, not evil.

Your ability to come to a decision quickly will be another skill that will help you lead. One quagmire you’ve seen in your experience has been the lack of a “decision to make a decision” – usually due to a manager that either doesn’t want to take responsibility for charting a course for the team or that is afraid of wounding the pride of any member of a team who has expressed an opposing view on the correct course of action. Again, you will need to choose the appropriate time to come to a decision – too soon could squelch valuable discussion or ideas. Too late could equally have negative ramifications due to the delay to adopt a course of action. The challenge will be to strike a balance between the two, or choose the right time to pre-empt discussion when time is of the essence.

A final skill that will enable you to lead will be your tendency to “think big” and rally against accepted norms. All of your heroes thought big – and it’s only through dreaming of “what could be” and effectively communicating that dream to others that you will be able to achieve similar outcomes. People need to believe in something, and your passion and imagination will inspire people to do more than they or others think possible. In the end, “thinking big” and being unafraid to take a chance by thinking outside the box will make the difference between a dream and reality. In the end, using this skill with good intentions and accepting the risk that comes with its use will be the essential skill to becoming a leader. After all, as Peter says, “if it’s not risky, it’s not leadership!”

The final message I would leave you with to guide your future personal development as a leader: be prepared to grow and change. Though you’ve got an early start on a number of critical leadership skills, you will always need to learn more and adapt to different situations. Different people will require different approaches and have different personal preferences as to how they interact with others. To truly be a leader, you will need to overcome you sensitivity to criticism of your capabilities and accept the feedback on your leadership without becoming defensive. If you can achieve that, the rest will be easy.

So, until we see each other again: go out and become a leader. Good luck!

Your former self,

Brendon J. Wilson

Missing the Point

I was walking through the excellent ASI Exchange event the other week and came upon a booth from Industry Canada. They were preaching the benefits of business eco-efficiency and their new web site for guiding businesses in this endeavour. I, being the eco-convert I am, was eager to see what Industry Canada had to say. And then I came face-to-face with the Government of Canada’s bureaucratic brand of doublethink.

The brochure was titled “Eco-efficiency: Good Business Sense”, and it got off to a great start:

“Eco-efficiency is increasingly becoming a key requirement for success in business. It’s the art of doing more with less, of minimizing costs and maximizing value. Eco-efficiency promotes the creation of goods and services while optimizing resource use, and reducing wastes and pollution.”

Sounds great, sign me up! The brochure outlines a simple three step program for starting to incorporate eco-efficiency into your business:

  1. Assess yourself
  2. Create a plan
  3. Perform a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed plan.

Again, all good. I was pretty impressed until something odd happened. About halfway through the brochure, the brochure was entirely upside down – some thoughtless printer had messed up this flawless document! What a shame, to have this work ruined by having a production mishap insert the pages upside down. And, not only that, when I righted the brochure, I realized the mishap had managed to garble the text so severely that it almost looked like another language. The text now looked almost French. In fact, it looked exactly like French.

Hmm. Waitaminute.

Yes, you’ve got it: Industry Canada had printed a combined English-French version of the brochure – duplicating the entire content in a language that, despite being an official language, is not the mother tongue of the majority of British Columbians. And wasted a lot of paper, ink, and energy, not to mention money, in the process. Can you say “do as I say, not as I do”?

To be fair, the government is required to print all documents in both English and French. Fine, no problem there. But wouldn’t it make more sense, ecologically speaking, to print the French version separately? How can government expect business to get this new eco-religion, when the government itself hasn’t been baptized?

Come on guys, get your act together.

Where Are The Gun Nuts?

There are two rules to remember when talking to Texans: don’t mention Custer, and don’t question the right to bear arms. I learned these rules the hard way while working with a bunch of Texans at Hush, when I raised the innocent question: “So, why exactly, do you need guns?”

Big mistake.

When I regained consciousness, I learned that the Texans consider guns an essential part of being a citizen. Only by possessing a gun could a citizen adequately equip himself to repel an invasive or repressive entity. Given America’s history of repelling outside forces, including its own colonial government, this seemed like a well-considered line of reasoning for keeping a gun. Then again, it’s important to recognize that this well-considered line of reasoning was well-considered and reasoned in the late 18th century, an age before you could buy semi-automatic weaponry at the local Wal-Mart.

Fast forward to present day.

In his recent book, Michael Moore wrote a satirical letter to the UN claiming the rightful US government had been overthrown by a junta led by George W. Bush in a mock appeal for immediate intervention by the United Nations. In seriousness, his claim is not without merit. However, if we are to take Moore’s claim seriously for a moment, we have to ask ourselves an important question: where are the gun nuts?

Sorry. Of course, I meant to say “gun enthusiasts”. “Patriots”. “Freedom Fighters”. “‘Soldier of Fortune’ subscribers”. Whatever. You know who I’m talking about. Or rather, who I’m talking to.

That’s right, I’m talking to you, Mr. “loaded-gun-under-the-pillow”. The day is at hand that you’ve feared all along! The US is in the grips of corporate raiders, bent on exploiting Lady Liberty for their own gain. Your own government is a tool of oppression, and now is the time to rise up and overthrow your government!

Oh wait, that’s right. You’ve only got an assortment of small arms, whereas your government has access to nifty gadgets like multi-billion dollar, state-of-the-art fighter planes equipped with air-to-ground missiles. Oh well, no one said the fight would be easy. Good luck! This web page will self destruct in five seconds!

Best Self Assessment

For one of my MBA courses (an organizational behaviour course on leadership) students were required to create a “best self” assessment based on input gathered from family, friends, and co-workers. The following is the best self assessment I submitted:

The description of positive traits provided by my friends, family, and former co-workers (see the summary in the Appendix) was not especially surprising. I have a pretty developed sense of my strengths and the “best self” portrait they described was well aligned with my own self-image. That isn’t to say that the descriptions didn’t reveal something unexpected. In particular, I found it interesting to see how much people noticed about me and remembered about my past projects. I personally don’t see much of interest in what I do – I just do it. It comes naturally. It seems like the right thing to do. I assume that I’m pretty much the same as everyone around me. However, the remarks offered suggest that people don’t see me as equivalent to everyone else; it’s something that I have encountered in the past, and it still shocks me.

There was one particular description that I did find quite unanticipated, namely that I display a non-judgmental nature. The respondent indicated that I don’t judge people on the basis of sex, colour, or race. While I agree that I don’t judge people on the basis of these characteristics, I don’t believe this is enough to indicate a non-judgmental nature. I feel that I can be quite critical of people’s abilities and output: I expect people to be able to perform at my level, and can be harsh when people fail to meet those expectations. I suppose this trait is an extension of my belief that I’m pretty much the same as everyone else. If I can do it, why can’t they?

The most useful part of this analysis was getting confirmation of what I consider to be my positive strengths. It’s one thing to think I possess a strength, but I always worry I could be deluding myself. If nothing more, this “best portrait” exercise allowed me to understand which areas I don’t need to focus on.

To guide my development for the future, I have set the following three goals on the basis of this “best portrait”:

  • Evolution not revolution: In the MBA program, I have often felt that my “shit-disturber” attitude was a liability – I’ve felt like a bit of an outsider with the other students because I don’t fall into line and accept things the way they are. Though I do believe I need to change this attitude, the “best self” portrait has highlighted that this quality is more of an asset than a liability, when used appropriately. But instead of completely changing myself, as I felt I might have to in order to succeed (both in the program, as well as in the business world), I should focus on how to incorporate this character trait in a more positive fashion. Less like Marlon Brando, more like “The Fonz”.
  • Recognize my own value: I’ve got a pretty big ego, but underneath it I don’t believe that I necessarily do anything that anyone else couldn’t do. I need to stop and look at the amount and type of work I do, compare my level of performance to those around me, and recognize the unique and valuable contribution that I do make to my groups and the class. Of course, it has to be done in moderation – last thing I need is to flip-flop and become a total egomaniac! I also need to understand that it’s not realistic to expect everyone to operate at the same level, and recognize people for the unique and valuable contribution they make, even if it’s not the contribution I would make.
  • Lighten up: Though my sense of humour was highlighted by respondents as an asset, responses indicated another set of common trait: overly serious. All of the comments talked about how I got things done, or got other people to get things done. Not a lot of fun there. Though it’s important to be productive, to do things right, to go out and get things done, I need to relax a little and not take things so seriously. No one lies on their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time at the office. This is my life, and it’s ending one second at a time – so, seriously, I need to go have some fun and let it slide when things aren’t exactly up to my standards.

In the future, I’d be quite interested in conducting a similar survey with the aim to create a “worst portrait” that would allow me to understand the areas on which I need to focus improvement. While it’s useful to have your best traits verified, I think being told about those aspects that aren’t necessarily positive would be useful to eliminate my “blind spots”. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken!

Appendix

Work Ethic

Responses included specific references to my work ethic, in particular my ability to focus on a project and carry it through to completion with speed and attention to detail. Respondents indicated that I am strongly self-motivated and work best when given a project with few operational parameters, thus allowing me to develop my own agenda and approach to solving the given problem.

Interpersonal Skills

Comments from respondents highlighted my willingness to share information with others, explain things in detail when required, and not withhold information to promote a sense of power. Respondents also indicated that this enthusiasm extended to “schmoozing”, and using information to persuade, enthuse, and motivate others around me. Finally, respondents noted my desire to interact with people in a devil’s advocate role to “get to the root of the matter”.

Personal Characteristics

Responses indicated my irreverence for authority and ability to “rock the boat” in a good-humoured fashion enables me to think outside the box and pursue unconventional ideas relentlessly. “Big picture” thinking and strong problem solving skills were also specified as a strength that allows me to find new solutions to problems and handle unexpected circumstances without difficulty. A heightened sense of justice and a non-judgmental nature were also indicated as strong personal characteristics.

Common Examples Cited

Respondents cited a number of common examples to support their description of my best characteristics. Common examples cited include:

  • Suing the UBC MBA Program: In response to the levying of tuition fees by the university after my acceptance, I joined a group of students to sue for breach of contract. This example was used to illustrate my “rock the boat” nature, persuasive abilities, and sense of justice.
  • Writing a Book: I managed to convince New Riders to let me write my first book, “JXTA”, over five months of evenings and weekends while still working full-time. This example was used to illustrate my “get things done” attitude.
  • Taking on Sony: My wife’s Sony laptop broke and I discovered it was not only a common problem, but also that the company had known for a long time. I doggedly pursued the company for nine months, gathered a coalition of people with the same problem, and finally got the problem fixed for all us for free. This example was used to illustrate my irreverence for authority and sense of justice.
  • The MP Experiment: When I was unable to contact my MP via email, I conducted an experiment designed to determine the Internet-savvy of Members of Parliament by emailing every MP and posing as a constituent. Though the experiment earned me a visit from the National Security branch of the RCMP, it also brought the issue a fair amount of attention from the media, including Wired News, among others. This example was used to illustrate my irreverence for authority and strong self-motivation.