Archive for May, 2008

My two posts subsequent to the end of spring semester are still very much on my mind. One extraordinary comment added today to my post, “Spring semester is history, except for Millennials upset about their grades,” added deep insight into the discussion from a Millennial student’s perspective. I am grateful for this comment.

I can’t let it go, so I have been poking around for some other thoughts on education, student capability and motivation, grading, etc., anything that will help me help my mostly Millennial students.

Then I found an article in The Atlantic.com titled, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200806/college.

The author calls himself Professor X. The article says “the idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth.” Professor X, a self-styled “Instructor at a college of last resort,” explains why he thinks this is true. Along the way, he makes a compelling case for what constitutes achievement — or lack of it — in colleges and universities today.

Following are two illustrative excerpts. The first could just as easily be said of PR course assignments, like those in my PR Writing and Strategic Communication Planning and Management courses. While I do use multiple-choice exam instruments in these classes to assess knowledge of things like definitions, steps, characteristics, techniques, etc., of PR basics, I also assign 19 varied writing assignments in PR Writing and the writing of a strategic communication/PR plan in the  planning and management course. Much of the assessment of these assignments is highly subjective.

“The biology teacher also enjoys the psychic ease of grading multiple-choice tests. Answers are right or wrong. The grades cannot be questioned. Quantifying the value of a piece of writing, however, is intensely subjective, and English teachers are burdened with discretion. (My students seem to believe that my discretion is limitless. Some of them come to me at the conclusion of a course and matter-of-factly ask that I change a failing grade because they need to graduate this semester or because they worked really hard in the class or because they need to pass in order to receive tuition reimbursement from their employer.” http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200806/college


“We think of college professors as being profoundly indifferent to the grades they hand out. My own professors were fairly haughty and aloof, showing little concern for the petty worries, grades in particular, of their students. There was an enormous distance between students and professors. The full-time, tenured professors at the colleges where I teach may likewise feel comfortably separated from those whom they instruct. Their students, the ones who attend class during daylight hours, tend to be younger than mine. Many of them are in school on their parents’ dime. Professors can fail these young people with emotional impunity because many such failures are the students’ own fault: too much time spent texting, too little time with the textbooks. ”    (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200806/college)



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It’s that time of the year again. It’s the end of the second quarter, so it’s time to pay estimated taxes.

Being an erudite and highly paid college professor (neither of those is true really) does not exempt me from paying Uncle Sam his quarterly due.

As usual, I did not have enough cash on hand to deposit into the U. S. and state of Virginia treasuries. So, I called my financial adviser and asked him to liquidate some mutual fund shares and send me a check to cover the estimates.

“Shall I have the money transferred electronically to your checking account as last time?” he asked.

“No, just send me a check via snail mail,” I replied. “It cost far too much last time.”

“But it usually only costs about about $15 to $20 to make the wire transfer,” the planner said, puzzled. “Perhaps you were overcharged. We should look into it.”

“Thank you for your concern,” I replied, “but that was the charge.” That admission was met with a long and painful silence, doubtless brought on by my frugality.

I had to let him off the hook, so I explained: “You see, that $20 will pay for my wife and I to go to all-you-can-eat barbecue Thursday night at Shoney’s in Manassas.” 

Another long silence. If the planner ever ate barbecue, it would be at Ruth Chris Steak House or Morton’s, if such upscale places even have barbecue.

Come to think of it, there are many lessons in financial management that involve restaurants. For example, one of my greatest moments occurred when I last saw my beautiful three-year-old granddaughter. As the entire family entered a restaurant, my granddaughter said loudly, “I wanna sit next to Grandpa Lester!”

That just melted my heart. I immediately thought of those three precious, loving words that every grandfather whispers to his grandchild at such moments: “Intergenerational wealth transfer.”


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After posting the previous “Spring semester is history…”, I had a conversation with my pal, Facebook Friend, and terrific communicator Michael Gary Clendenin. Michael is with Freddie Mac, where he is transitioning from his role in Online Marketing and Communications serving public policy, public relations, Office of the Chief Economists, and other business areas to a broader, more strategic role in Customer Communications serving Freddie Mac’s Multifamily Division.

Michael has frequently blessed More With Les with his wisdom by posting insightful comments. He had much of value to say to students after the post, “Spring semester…”

“Ohhhhh, students, please do more than listen to Professor Potter. Take it to heart”, Michael says. “If you haven’t learned well before you got into college, learn it now as you head out into the real world. Life is not fair.”

“You aren’t given what you want because you’re a ‘good person’ or likable or smart or even a hard worker,” Michael says. “You’re given what is available in the budget to give a person in your job, performing your role at your level of performance at the discretion of your manager, and the managers and executives above your manager. And the internal politics of the corporation plays a role; I won’t say rightly or wrongly, it just is a fact and part of human dynamics.”

“But the key word in all that seemingly depressing language above is ‘perform,'” Michael wisely points out. “Whether you are likable or not, you stand a far better chance at advancement and compensation if you only just perform consistently. Trust that you will knock one out of the park on occasion, but don’t strive for it every time, because doing so on one project let’s other ‘lower priority’ tasks fall behind and that sterling reputation you desire suffers as a result.”

So before you despair, heed Michael’s words: “Perform and deliver consistently, reliably. Underpromise to over deliver. It isn’t cheating; it is managing expectations.”

“Never whine or complain,” Michael advises. “Don’t resent people for whom you think ‘everything falls in their lap,’ for what you don’t see is all the moving around those people did to get their laps where things were falling. And they deserve what they catch.”

Michael offers a last bit of advice for Millennials who wish for affirmative information: “I’m sure you’re all good, smart people. Now go out and be good, smart, productive people. And never stop learning!”

“You will do well,” Michael says. “And eventually, you will be dispensing this same advice to generations younger than you.”

For more of the world according to Michael Clendenin, visit his blog Just Michael.

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The last two weeks have been busy ones. I graded over 100 final exams, 25 strategic public relations plans, seven team case studies, 80 end-of-course writing assignments, nine internship portfolios, and three independent study projects.

I recorded grades and took a deep breath. Now the phone calls and emails begin to come in.

Student: “I just checked my grades, and I was shocked to see that I made a ___. I thought I had a ____ going into the final project and exam. Why did I get a ___ when I was expecting a ___? I tried so hard in this class!”

It never fails.

Professor: “You got a(n)___ because of the grades you made on the last assignments. These scores brought your grade down to the ___ you see.”

Student: “Is there anything I can do to get the grade up to the ___ I wanted, you know, like extra work, re-do some of the assignments, something like that? I tried so hard in this class!”

Professor: “No, there are no provisions for doing that.”

Student:”That is not fair!”

Professor: “Life is not fair.”

Then there are the students who, when they see their grades, finally realize that attendance really does matter. Each course syllabus clearly spells out the attendance policy, yet a number of students always fail themselves by having more than the acceptable numbers of absences.

Life lesson. Students, please listen to what I am about to say. There is a valuable life lesson here. If you wish to make a certain grade (and everyone knows you all want to make an “A” on everything), then start from the first day of class and the first assignment and do “A” quality work. If you miss on the first assignment or two, talk with the professor to see how you can improve, then do your part and improve.

Work at it. Top grades do not come easy, but nothing worthy in life comes easy. We all have to work at getting what we want. None of us is entitled to anything. We have to earn it.

And if you think this is cruel and harsh, just wait until you get into the job market. You will be joining a work force comprised of four generations – Traditionalist/Veterans, born between 1925 and 1943; Baby Boomers, born between 1944 and 1964; Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, and you, the Millennials, born after 1981.

Traditionalists/Veterans, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers are ahead of you in the corporate hierarchy. They have the top jobs. They have paid their dues in their careers to get to where they are. They will not tolerate whining and complaining about why your job performance is not up to expectations (the equivalent of why you didn’t get the grade you wanted).

In college, you get grades based on assessment. In the working world, you have performance appraisal. Some enlightened organizations go even farther with a process called 360-degree review, in which your job performance is assessed by those above and below you and those who have peer relationships with you.

Many college courses require you to work in teams. Team members often rate your contribution to the group’s work, and professors take that into consideration in assigning final grades. This is good preparation for working on cross-functional teams in organizations, a common occurance. But in college, your grade may be lowered for not being a good team player. You still might pass. However, on the job, you will gain a bad reputation for being a lousy team player, and you won’t be asked to participate in future work. That is a career-limiting move. Bosses don’t like people who do not carry their share of the load.

Students, please let the grading process be a learning experience, too. Saying that you “tried so hard” may seem meaningful now, but the work-scarred bosses you will have in the future don’t care how hard you tried when you fail. All they care about is results. So if you want an “A”, in school or on the job, earn it.

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Many of my students graduate this month and begin searching for that elusive first job. They will enter a very competitive marketplace. Every competitive advantage they have must be exploited. And any competitive disadvantages must be minimized. As we’ve said here before, it’s time to scrub Facebook and MySpace pages for anything that might be unflattering or unprofessional.

This came to mind rather strongly recently after a conversation with my student Caitlan T. Ward. Caitlan commented on one of my blog posts about legal and ethical issues in using social networking sites. She told me about a real life example of what happens when employers check social networking sites of job candidates. Her comments, and our subsequent conversation,  were so insightful that I want to share them here.

Caitlan astutely points out that as Facebook gains publicity in the media and in the world of business, it creates many concerns for college students and graduate job seekers.

“I would like to share a short story of my own personal experience of the serious impact of Facebook and MySpace,” Caitlan says. “Last summer, I was hired as a receptionist for a small title company. All the employees were laid back and friendly. My boss was especially casual and welcoming, and not to mention somewhat young for his superior position. He was 33 years old and only a few years out of law school.”

Caitlan says that the first day she met the young boss he was searching around on Myspace. She says it prompted an interesting conversation about Facebook and MySpace. Then it turned weird.

“A few weeks later he was periodically asking me to search for specific people on Facebook and MySpace, individuals who were applying for employee positions at the company,” Caitlan says. “My boss would browse the candidate’s web pages, and although he didn’t make hiring decisions solely based on information he derived from Facebook and MySpace, he did form a conscious judgment of the candidates based on what he saw from pictures, wall posts, personal blogs, online groups, and the list goes on.”

At present, there isn’t much case law regarding social media. There is little guidance since many situations simply have not been tested in court. But we do know that an employer can legally decide not to hire you based on a review of the contents your Facebook or MySpace page. That is, as long as employers do not violate federal or state discrimination laws in using social networking sites in making hiring decisions. For example, an employer cannot legally screen out applicants based on race or ethnicity.

But Caitlan’s words are chilling: “the boss didn’t make hiring decisions based solely on information from Facebook and MySpace, but he did form a conscious judgment of the candidates based on what he saw.” That’s legal and highly instructive.

It is not an invasion of privacy for an employer to gain access to your profile or photos. What is posted on the Internet has a lower “expectation of privacy” than, say, a private home telephone conversation. Once posted on Facebook or MySpace or your blog, the information is available to the public. Therefore, viewing it does not constitute an invasion of privacy.

Caitlan says others began to ask her to surf sites for them on the job. “Soon enough, I actually had several employees asking me to search for their children, ” she says. “Then I realized how much trouble that could cause, so I told everyone I deleted my Facebook and MySpace and couldn’t help them.”

“It was very discomforting to know that my similar information was available, too,” Caitlan says. “People might think businesses, schools, the media, and the police won’t be able to gain access to private Facebook or MySpace pages, but all my boss needed was a young, college student receptionist who was familiar with these sites to get to the page.”

“My experience emphasizes the significant influence the Internet has on society and the importance of limiting personal information posted on the web, especially for graduating college students entering the business world,” Caitlan adds. That is wise counsel.

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As graduation day nears, I have been thinking about this question. I am sure that many soon-to-be grads are thinking about it, too.

They had better be. School is literally out. It’s time to go to work.

Some of my most exemplary students are graduating. And weekly, I hear from graduates who are now successfully working but stay in touch. The question of what makes a practitioner successful applies to both groups.

I have earned a living in communication/PR/IMC since 1973. I have seen much and learned much. I have had the honor of working with some very accomplished people. And I have worked with some real aholes. Playing the bemused observer, I have seen some really successful practitioners in action. I have also seen some practitioners crash and burn in their careers.

So what made the difference in outcome? Many things, in my opinion. Here are my thoughts.

Phase One: College. First, you have to be prepared for a career. For most of us, this begins in college. We decide to major in communication/PR/IMC. Characteristics of students who are on their way to career success are:

  • They learn to conduct themselves as successful working professionals by showing up on time and prepared at each class. They exhibit the discipline so necessary for success.
  • They prepare their assignments and/or do their reading in advance.
  • They listen and participate, engaging the instructor in meaningful discussion.
  • They ask for advice both in and out of class.
  • They get involved in professional activities like PRSSA or IABC student chapters. Even better, they take leadership positions.
  • They get instructive, hands-on internships.
  • They participate in various campus organizations in which they can build leadership skills.
  • They work at real jobs, too, to earn money and build a work ethic that will impress potential employers later.
  • Their Facebook and MySpace pages do not have endless numbers of drunken, narcissistic, and hedonistic photos. Their pages reflect a balanced and mature college student who is engaged in career development, skills-building activities, plus some tastefully depicted fun, too.
  • They blog and read blogs. Their blogs may be required for classes or may be self-motivated, but they are active participants in the blogosphere. They read industry-related blogs and keep up with what is happening in the profession they seek to join.

Doing these things, students have much to highlight in a resume.

Phase Two: Early Career. Graduates must start somewhere in the job market, so take an entry-level job. This is a no-brainer, because that is all a new college graduate can expect to get anyway. Be humble, lose the ego, and start climbing your career ladder at the bottom rung like the rest of us did. On that entry-level job, do these things:

  • Conduct yourself as a successful working professional by showing up on time and prepared each day. Exhibit the discipline so necessary for success. Anything less will not be tolerated in today’s competitive marketplace.
  • Take on every assignment, not matter how small, with the highest of professionalism and diligence. Do each assigned task well, and more and better assignments will follow.
  • Do more than is expected. Use every assignment to deliver more than the minimum. Demonstrate initiative and resourcefulness. It will be noticed, appreciated, and ultimately rewarded. Employers want problem-solvers.
  • Do not whine or complain. Develop and keep a positive attitude.
  • Find a mentor. A mentor is a wise and trusted teacher or counselor. There will be a seasoned professional who will gladly become your mentor. Learn from him or her. A mentor can teach you much about your profession — about how to succeed and how to stay out of trouble. A mentor can open doors for you, too, that will help you advance.
  • Join IABC and/or PRSA. Get involved. Take committee assignments and seek elected leadership positions. Make this as much a part of your career as showing up at work every day.
  • Attend IABC and/or PRSA meetings and conferences, listen and learn from professional development programs, then initiate new strategies and tactics into your work.

Phase Three: Mid-Career. Continue doing what is listed above in Phase Two: Early Career. But in this phase, you should concentrate on continuing professional development. You can do this in several ways:

  • Pursue accreditation by IABC and/or PRSA. Successfully completing the accreditation process not only results in marketable career credentials, but the process is a wonderful professional development experience. Many employers advertise for jobs seeking candidates who are “IABC or PRSA accredited”.
  • Consider going back to graduate school for your Master’s degree. Many employers have tuition reimbursement programs making the financial burden less onerous. Master’s in what, you ask? See my post “Grad school decision time: Master’s degree in communication or MBA or IMC?” posted February 29, 2008.
  • If you have not already, consider changing jobs to enhance career growth. You may have done this more than once by now, either voluntarily or not, but it is important to not stagnate out of some false sense of security. Your only security is in your marketable skills.
  • In every way possible, become a life-long learner. Learn, implement, evaluate, revise or refine, and repeat the process.

By Phase Three, you should be fairly well-established in your career. But there are unanswered questions. Apart from the title on your business card, what is the profile of a successful practitioner? Here’s my view of the successful practitioner:

  • He/she has a responsible position of leadership with a reputable organization.
  • He/she is a leader in IABC and/or PRSA.
  • He/she is accredited by IABC and/or PRSA and/or may have earned a Master’s, too.
  • He/she is mentoring one or a number of promising young practitioners.
  • He/she continues to learn and grow professionally and personally.
  • He/she has fought his/her professional and personal devils and emerged victorius, scarred but stronger and wiser.
  • He/she does not get rattled by day-to-day events or crisis de jour, but is calm and capable under fire.
  • His/her counsel is sought by others both in and outside his/her organization.
  • He/she is happy, grounded, and balanced, with a joy for living.


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Natasha Nicholson says today’s graduating Millennial students will be working with four generations in the U.S. work force. Communicating with these various generations presents unique challenges for communication/PR professionals, both personally and professionally.

And that was just the beginning.

Natasha was keynote speaker at Towson’s Student PR Group’s annual Networking Fair April 30. The Fair links soon-to-be graduates with employers and undergrads with sources of internships. Participating organizations provide a wide array of useful information, services, and advice and counsel, such as cover letter and resume critiques, practice interviewing, and general job-related advice, along with real jobs and internships

But the highlight of the event was Nicholson. The students loved her, and for good reason. Natasha is an accomplished professional, but she is warm and accessible, traits lacking in so many who talk down to students. Not Natasha. She is a worthy role model.

Natasha manages IABC’s Knowledge Center as Vice President of Publishing and Research at IABC headquarters in San Francisco. She is also executive editor of IABC’s Communication World  magazine and its electronic supplement, CW Online.

Natasha’s overall message was the value that communication bring to organizations. She outlined the work place that soon-to-be May graduates will face. “Regarding communication, each generation has its preferred method, speed, and frequency,” Natasha says, “at which they want to receive messages. These range from Traditionalists who prefer face-to-face and print to Generation Yers who prefer constant online communication.”

“There is a definite technolgy gap, ” Natasha says. “Today’s graduates are quite familiar with fast-changing technology that older generations are not as comfortable with.”

Potential conflict between the generations in the workplace centers on leadership, Natasha says. “Baby Boomers hold most management and leadership positions in organizations. As this generation prepares to retire, they are followed by a much smaller Generation X. Companies are scrambling to find and retain talent to fill leadership positions.”

The implications for younger workers is to acquire and refine leadership skills needed for management positions, so when the time comes, you’ll be ready.

Natasha warned Towson Mass Comm and Comm Studies students attending the Fair to be careful of stereotypes. “Younger generations face the perception that they are less loyal to their employers than their predecessors are,” she says. “Younger workers must combat stereotypes of being the ‘entitled generation’.” Natasha advises students to pay their dues — take entry levels jobs, have a good work ethic, positive attitude, and don’t complain. Take whatever job you are assigned and do it well. Boomers did. They expect you to do the same, or prove some of the negative stereotypes about you.”

In order to become part of the new workforce, Natasha suggests that students:

  • Ask to sit in on important meetings and be copied on relevant correspondence.
  • Read through old files and the organization’s Website that don’t directly relate to your job.
  • Volunteer to help co-workers with their important projects.
  • Volunteer for an association, organization, chamber of commerce or other entity that will help you gain experience.
  • Demonstrate initiative without being a pest. Go beyond what is expected of you and provide help above and beyond when you can.
  • Ask for opportunities, actively seeking out ways to contribute.
  • Accept the entry level job as a new graduate. You will work your way up soon enough. Pay your workplace dues and do each job well, then you will get more and better assignments.
  • Have a positive, can-do attitude.
  • Don’t complain.
  • Be peaceful and calm (This last point was suggested by Natasha’s precocious 11-year-old son Andy. Point well taken, Andy).

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