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Friday, April 29, 2011

It wasn't my fault!


A friend of mine explained to me recently about a key interview question he uses with every candidate he meets. He asks them to talk about a mistake they made at their previous company.  The purpose of the question is not to uncover those mistakes and learn how badly the candidate messed up but to see how the candidate handled the mistake in the past and more importantly, how they talk about it now.  The worst answer would be for the candidate to describe the mistake without discussing how he or she overcame the issue and then to continue talking,  explaining how it was not really their mistake at all but actually the fault of his or her boss/co-worker/spouse/dog/etc.

This interview question and ones that test the same qualities will be repeated throughout our children's lives.  When they are sitting for their umpteenth college admissions interview it may be this format: "I see that you were on the debate team in junior year but not as a senior.  Why did you stop?"  The answer we do NOT want our kid's giving is, "The teacher coaching the team changed and he was really bad at coaching so I stopped."  Which of course may be true but it was our child who actually quit, not the teacher who forced him to leave.  There is an opportunity here for our kids to show their maturity, to take responsibility for their own actions and possibly impress the admissions office at the same time.  A better answer might be, "I reacted poorly to the change in coaching staff and left the team.  It is something I regret and I have learned from that experience to deal better with change."

Again after graduation our kids will be facing their future employers across the interview table and the questions may change but the required attitude to get the job will not.  Employers want young people who will take responsibility and ownership for their work.  Accountability is not limited to taking the blame for something done wrong or credit for something done right. A sense of accountability will also drive our kids to put in that extra effort to get their work finished correctly and on time.  This attitude will boost our kids to higher achievements both in school and in the workplace.

Children need to learn this sense of accountability from us (parents).  There are two aspects of accountability: taking responsibility and taking ownership.  Taking responsibility is what happens after the work is done and taking ownership happens before it begins. Let's start with taking responsibility.  Kids are great at avoiding blame.  From the famous homework eating dog to the age old practice of laying everything on whichever younger sibling happens to be closest. Does this sound familiar?

Dad: How could you get an F on this spelling test?  There are only 10 words!
Daughter: But Daaad, you forgot to remind me to study last night.

If Mom or Dad come home from work and complain in front of the kids about how they missed out on the promotion because the boss is a jerk then the kids will emulate that approach.  Blame it on someone else.  We can all start by setting an example of accountability, at least in front of the kids.

Taking responsibility segues into taking ownership via confidence.  No child, or adult for that matter, will want to take ownership of  a project (homework assignment, mowing the lawn, babysitting) if they are not confident that they can handle it.  Furthermore, if they are self-confident, a mistake will not destroy them and it is easier to take responsibility for whatever happens.  With ownership, our sons and daughters will need to learn that they have much greater control over their lives than they may currently think.  This does not mean my 10 year old gets to stay up as late as he  wants on a Tuesday night.  It means that when there is something that needs to be done like homework or chores and an obstacle arises, all it takes is a combination of creativity and effort to get past it and succeed.  The more my son succeeds in situations like this the higher his level of confidence will rise.  As his father, I can help by encouraging him not to give up.  Helping is also OK as long as he feels that he accomplished something at the end.  It is a sign of maturity when our kids start taking responsibility for their actions.

So, the next time your daughter comes home with an F and instead of blaming you she admits to forgetting about the test and promises to do better next time, let her know you are proud of her for taking responsibility but that you also expect her to take ownership of getting a better grade next time.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Dad, Doctors and Bank Tellers make the most money, right?"

This morning while getting ready for school, my son asked me if doctors and bankers make a lot of money.  I replied that yes, that is indeed true for many doctors and bankers.  He then continued by asking, "So, it would be good to be the guy at the bank counter that gives you the money, right?"  "Ahh...  well yes." I replied,  "He is a banker too."  But with the average salary for a bank teller coming in at about $25,000 a year it would be hard to me to say that they make a lot of money.  This lead to a discussion about which types of bankers can make a lot of money (trading, sales, fund management, etc) and why.  On his last birthday, my son received some money from Grandpa and Grandma.  The money was sent directly to his Coverdell Education Savings Account at our broker and he and I spent some time looking at different investments before he chose to purchase shares of Hasbro (HAS).  So, he knew about stocks and about buying and selling them.  I was able to add to that today by explaining about commissions and how some bankers can get very large bonuses for very large deals.

If the conversation had ended there I would have felt that it was already a productive start to the day.  As discussed in the article from March 29th, Why do kids all want to be baseball players and astronauts?, it is good to expand our kid's knowledge of the job world.  The more they know about different jobs and what they entail, the more likely they are to find one they like.

But, my son was not finished. He then said to me, "I see, but you have to be chosen for that job right?"  To which I replied, "Yes and no".  Now I was really enjoying myself, it is not often I get a chance to explain the intricacies of the hiring process to my kids without their eyes glazing over and here was my son ASKING for an explanation.  I wanted to make it clear that he has a fair amount of control over where he works and what he does in the future. He does not have to rely on someone's "permission" to do what he wants to do.  My explanation went something like this:
A big bank or any company for that matter, will receive maybe 1,000 resumes from college kids who want to work for that company.  The first thing most companies will do is throw away all the resumes of kids from colleges they don't think are good enough.  Now they may have 500 resumes left.  Of those 500, they now throw away all the ones that do not have good grades (Studying is important).  We are now down to 200 resumes.  The people at the company look at things like the clubs you belonged to or which sports you played and certainly what you studied in college and from the 200 resumes they choose the ones they think are the best 50.  We are not finished yet, they need to meet with these 50 kids and ask them why they want this job.  This is the interview and it is important to show your excitement about the job and the company.  There may be several people in the company who interview those 50 kids and then they will vote on who they think is best and those 5 kids will get the job.  So, while it is true that you need to be chosen, there are many things ranging from working hard at school to extracurricular activities that can give you a better chance at being one of the 5 kids who gets the job.
Again, we could have stopped there but this then lead to a discussion on making money in general and how money making jobs are not limited to banking and medicine.  I used his example of a vending machine and asked how much he thought he could make each month from one machine.  He suggested about $50 which is a good enough number for our purposes.  I then asked him how much he would make each month with two vending machines.  He soon got the idea as we increased the number of machines.  It did not take long before he was earning $2,000,000 a month from his vending machine business (approximately 40,000 machines...).  "The point..." I explained, "...is that you can make money at almost any job. It is important to find something you like and would enjoy doing and then do it with 100% effort."  For that little bit of fatherly wisdom I received a monotone "hmm" and that was the end of the conversation.  Hopefully something stuck!

At age 10, it is more important to learn what types of jobs are out there than it is to pick just one.  The more they learn now about their options, the better choices they can make in the future.  If our sons and daughters are excited about a future job, their grades will reflect their interest.  Their passion will show in their resumes through the related activities they enthusiastically participate in and it will come out in an interview in the form of high motivation and energy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dora Dora Dora career explorer - bilingual kids

My 3 year old daughter is a Dora The Explorer fan.  I am not ashamed to say that my son also liked Dora when he was younger (although he may not appreciate that I am announcing it on the Internet now).  I can still remember my surprise when my daughter told me to open the door for her and said it in Spanish.  On Dora's show she regularly mixes English and Spanish together and toddlers seem to pick words up in both languages with equal ease.  The TV show has been dubbed into at least 18 different languages allowing Dora access to kids all over the world.  It was not until I had done some research into the career related benefits of speaking two languages that I realized while Dora did a great job of entertaining my kids, she was also helping them to prepare for their job search.  Thanks Dora!

Learning a foreign language is something that can begin at an early age and pay dividends for the rest of your child's life.  It can impact your child's career in a variety of ways. The obvious benefit is when the language is required on the job.  Just having "Spanish - Fluent" on your son's resume will allow him to apply for more jobs than otherwise.   A more indirect benefit is when the language, irrelevant to the job, happens to be spoken by the interviewer.  A candidate of mine applying for a job in Tokyo which required English and Japanese found that his interviewer was from Spain and since my candidate also spoke Spanish they ended up speaking in that language the entire interview. My candidate left a fantastic impression on the employer.

Language can also give hints about your son's personality to an employer?  Language is very closely linked with culture so employing some simple math: second language = second culture/bi-cultural = a child who is more tolerant of people who are different = better team player.  A study published in Psychological Science states that bilingual people are generally better thinkers and are better problem solvers.  Problem solving and teamwork, both very common requirements on a new grad job description.  It is also important to note that the cultural exposure and cognitive benefits of studying a second language do not necessarily require our children to become fluent in that language.

Problem solving ability is not limited to the workplace of course and a second language can be seen as positive on a college application as well.  Studies have shown that kids who speak two languages do better in school.  Again with the simple math, better grades = acceptance to better schools = passing the academic pedigree screening at more companies.

There are few potential disadvantages to learning a second language but it is worth considering them if only to dispute them.

  1. A lack of native fluency in either language.  
  2. Mixing up words or not knowing how to say something completely in one language.  It does seem that this is more pronounced in kids and that as they grow into adults, their vocabulary in both languages expands along with their understanding of when to use which language.  There is a delay which I have certainly seen in the case of my daughter and son but it disappeared around age 6 or 7 for my son and I expect it will disappear sooner for my daughter as she is much more talkative.  
  3. Lack of cultural identity.  If my son speaks English and Japanese then which culture can he call his own?  Is this confusing?  
These disadvantages are not due to learning two languages but to learning them poorly.  If we as parents cannot ensure that at least one language will be at a native fluency level, then it is not a good idea to add a second.

Now that we have decided to teach our kids a second language, choosing which one to learn is an important decision along with how to go about it.  If the parents speak different languages then it is probably best to focus on those two, whatever they may be.  The Wall Street Journal recently stated that demand for US workers who speak Chinese or Spanish will continue to grow through the next decade so if you have a choice, go with one of those for your kids.  For children who are learning something other than English as a native language it would probably make sense to focus on English as their second one.  Mandarin and Spanish are both widely spoken globally but my experience has been that when it comes to employment, English is in more demand as a second language .

For parents who speak different languages, the recommended approach is for each parent to speak their native language exclusively when talking with their kids.  I speak from experience when I tell you that this is easier said that done. My wife speaks Japanese and I speak English and the kids test and challenge us constantly.  If we give in they quickly fall back on whichever language is easier for them.  For parents who only speak one language between the two of them an outside tutor is the most effective for young children.  This could be through a school or a nanny or babysitter.  Research shows the need for children to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking time to learn to speak it fluently.  This is a big commitment for monolingual parents and it is important to understand what it will take before diving in.

While the above may sound intimidating, it is never too late to start learning a language.  Chances are your child will have some foreign language in high school and can certainly choose to take one as an elective in college.  We can encourage their study with the hopes that our kid's grasp of the language will improve.  Try scheduling the next family vacation to Mexico rather than Colorado.  Or, one or both parents could take up study of the new language along with their child.  It is never too late for us to try learning something new either.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Your child's teeth are their life!

In Japan there is a saying in show business, "Ha ga inochi"  which translates to "Teeth are life".  It means that for a celebrity, having good looking, straight, white teeth is critical to their success.  While our kids may not literally have to earn a living with their teeth in the future, there is a chance that how they look will affect their chances in life.
"I had a real hard time getting over the personal hygiene issue.  I know that teeth are not a priority, but his teeth and breath were a distraction."
The above comments came as feedback on why a candidate was declined after a job interview.  The bad breath issue is an obvious problem however combined with the teeth it killed this candidate's chances.  The teeth were a bit crooked but the employer was specifically referring to the brown stains on the front two teeth.  The interviewer just could not imagine putting this candidate in front of one of their clients.

In the above example, the candidate was in his mid 40s.  He was certainly at an age when he is responsible for his own appearance.  I can't help but think though, that his parents missed a chance to help when he was a child.

The most basic assistance we can provide early on is helping our kids to build a habit of brushing their  teeth after every meal.  Brushing helps to prevent cavities and decay (think black teeth) and also works against the bacteria that cause bad breath.  Even if it is not right after a meal, sending your son up to brush because you notice his bad breath will help him to become more aware of its affect on others and also learn that brushing is the way to fight it.  It also helps for kids to realize that brushing teeth is not something that only occurs right before bed.  There are great little flossing tools now for kids that come with Buzz Lightyear and the Disney princesses on them.  Our kids are usually happy to use them (see side bar).

My 3 year old daughter just came back from her annual checkup and my wife and I received a scolding about not brushing her teeth well enough.  She apparently has two small cavities which need attention...  We were shocked because she brushes every night.  But, as the dentist informed us, a 3 year old does not have the fine motor control to brush properly by herself and Mom or Dad needs to have a hand on the brush.

I realize that this may sound like basic parenting advice but it is important and can really make a difference for our kids.  The mouth is one of the first things people look at after the eyes when introduced.  It makes an impression when your son or daughter can flash a straight, white line of clean teeth when they smile.

Brushing, flossing and an annual trip to the dentist should be enough to help keep bad breath and decay away but then there are crooked teeth.  Braces are worth the money.  Yes I know that having crooked teeth has nothing to do with your child's ability to get the job done.  It is also not directly connected with hygiene but since we are talking about teeth it is a good time to bring this up. Employer's like straight teeth.  Some studies have indicated that up to 50% of employers would turn down a candidate for crooked teeth.  If an employer thinks our kids are attractive, they feel more comfortable asking our sons and daughters to represent the company. We cannot "teach" our kids to straighten their teeth but we do have the chance to help them now when they are under our roof.  If your child's teeth are crowded and crooked (like mine were as a kid) and you can afford it, braces are a simple way of boosting their chances in that first job interview.

So teach your kids to brush and floss everyday and remind them to smile!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Eagle Scout Badge on your son's resume

There are not many qualifications a child can earn before the age of 18 that will help them get a job.  The Eagle Scout is one of the best.  I was a scout as a kid and made it up to Life Scout (right before Eagle) and then dropped the ball when I was 17, going past the age limit before fulfilling the service project requirement. Somehow it never seemed right to put a badge on my resume indicating that I "almost" got there.

Getting that eagle scout badge makes a difference.  If you search the Internet for "Eagle scout, value, job interview", there are countless stories of people who claim that they were chosen from among several candidates for a job just because they had "Eagle Scout" on their resume.  You would also find comments from recruiters who unanimously list it as a plus.  And these are from mid-career job seekers!  If it is valuable to a recruiter/employer at age 35 then imagine how it must look when there is not much else on your son's resume at 22 just out of college.

The skills and qualities associated with the Eagle Scout play a large part in why there is such high perceived value.  It takes time, persistence, discipline, and even some physical effort to complete all the requirements. Along the way your son will be learning about community service, leadership and confidence.

To join the Boy Scouts your son needs to be at least 10 years old.  That gives him 8 years to achieve Eagle and overcome all the other distractions in those turbulent years from 10 to 18.

To reach Eagle, a boy will need to work his way up through the various ranks, Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star and then Life.  There are additional time requirements as well, at least 6 months as a life scout, 6 months as a Star scout and 4 months as First Class before moving up.  Each badge has specific requirements  that must be accomplished before achieving the rank. Once your son has the Life badge he still needs to complete the following:
  1. Be active in his troop for a period of at least 6 months after he has achieved the rank of Life Scout.
  2. Collect references for his character
  3. Earn 21 merit badges including First Aid, Citizenship, Communications, Personal Fitness, Family Life, etc.
  4. While a Life Scout, serve in a leadership position in the troop.
  5. Plan, develop and lead a service project for the benefit of his community.
  6. Take part in a Scoutmaster conference.
  7. Successfully complete an Eagle Scout board of review.
If your son is already a scout, do your best to encourage him to stay in until he gets his Eagle badge.  If he is not a scout, here are a few reasons why scouting is fun (from a 10 year old perspective).
  1. The boy scout knife
  2. Lighting fires
  3. Hanging out with friends
  4. Camping
  5. Hatchets and axes
  6. Dad will be a scout leader and go with you (might work on the 10 year old, not likely for the 15 year old though...)
Last night I asked my son whether he would like to be a boy scout or not. His immediate and determined response was a resounding "NO".  I am still working on how to convince him to give it a try, maybe the hatchet?

*Note about our daughters and the Girl Scouts.  In the Girl Scouts, there is a comparable award called the Gold Award.  To be honest, I had not heard about it until now but after doing some research it seems to have the same prestige as the Eagle Scout and requires similar levels of discipline and maturity to achieve.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Do your homework, or else!

Good grades are better than bad grades.  I hope we can all agree on that.  In both high school and college, the grades our kids receive are the easiest way to compare their abilities with other applicants.  To a hiring manager a new graduate with a 4.0 GPA indicates that he or she is disciplined, hard working, able to learn and motivated.  It may also indicate that your child is also willing to make an effort on something that may not be fun or immediately relevant to their future.  This is something that entry level employees get to do a lot!  Studies seem to indicate with a fair amount of consistency that students graduating from college with high GPAs are more likely to get a higher salary and are also more likely to get a job. 

And, kids who get their homework done seem to do better in school than kids who don't.  Homework does not stop with it's contribution to a better GPA though.  Additional skills gained from doing homework include:
  1. Mastery through repetition.  Doing math problems over and over again or writing out spelling words helps memory. 
  2. Skills not taught in school.  If the homework assignment requires research at the library or on the Internet then they learn something new. 
  3. Discipline.  Everyone needs to be able to push themselves to get through something they do not want to do.  This is discipline.  Without it, the path of least resistance will be your child's likely road in the future.
How do we as parents get this point through to our kids?  Telling them to, "Study hard and get good grades so you can get a good job." is probably not the most motivational choice of words you can use.  With any incentive system, a clear and desirable reward is always best.  As a young student, what are they most interested in?  Does your son want to drive a Ferrari?  Is your daughter enamored with the idea of working for Goldman Sachs?  Do they want to finish so they can go outside and play with their friends? Whatever it is, start with the goal and work your way backwards.  What does your son need in order to get a Ferrari?  Well, money would be nice.  How is he going to get the money to buy one?  Getting a good job that pays well.  How does he increase his chances of getting a good job that pays well?  Get good grades.  See how easy that was?  Just make sure the end result is actually something they desire.  This is it how it went in our house:

9 Year Old Son: 
Dad?
Dad: 
Yes son? 
9 Year Old Son: 
Why do I have to do my homework? 
Dad: 
Well, if you do not do your homework you will not get good grades and then you will not go to a good college and will not have a good job and will not be able to buy a nice car to impress your friends. 
9 Year Old Son: 
(long pause) Dad? 
Dad: 
Yes son? 
9 Year Old Son: 
What if I don't want to have a nice car? 
Dad: 
Just do your homework or else no TV! 

It is not easy imparting the value of study habits and grades to a 9 year old when the sun is out or his favorite TV show is just about to start.  As an adult, it is easy to connect that 4.0 GPA and the perfect SAT score to a dollar amount and the value of that dollar is so much more important when it needs to go to rent, food, clothing, tuition, etc, etc.  But for the kids, money is still abstract.  If it means not having to do homework or studying then most kids would do without the extra video games and new toys in exchange for more free time.  Here are a few ideas from the experts:
  1. Establish written expectations.  "I will do my homework as soon as I get home from school." 
  2. Reward them when they do something right and give that reward immediately. 
  3. Patience, it takes time to create a habit.  Yelling and screaming during homework time makes any kid fear that time of the day. 
  4. Try to ease away from the physical rewards and replace them with internal rewards.  Encourage your son when he finishes a hard project with how proud you are of his hard work.  Tell your daughter that she is awesome and ask her if she feels good finishing her homework ahead of schedule. 
  5. Patience.  Yes, I know I mentioned this one already but it deserves to be repeated.  Let's not give up on our kids! 
A lack of enthusiasm for schoolwork is not unusual.  However, if it gets to the point where your child is fighting you every day then perhaps it is time to ask why.  If the work is too advanced you may even need to consider letting him drop a year or change to a less challenging school.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers has some interesting thoughts on the benefits of dropping back a year. On the flip side, if she finds the work too easy then skipping a grade or a harder school may be best.  By the way, skipping or dropping grades offer a variety of other problems to consider so do your own homework about it before pushing your kids forward.