Teri Bernstein, MBA, CPA has been teaching full time in the Business Department of Santa Monica College since 1985. Prior to that, she worked in Internal Audit and Special Financial Projects for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, CBS, Inc., and Coopers & Lybrand. She attended the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
image from cartoonbank.com
Letters of recommendation are often required when one is applying for a new job or applying to a transfer or graduate school. These letters can make all the difference. However, students and people new to the workforce may not understand the business etiquette involved in asking for a letter of recommendation. Alison Doyle, a job searching expert, wrote a series of linked articles that address several aspects of this process. Her first-and-foremost piece of advice is:
"Don't ask 'Could you write a letter of reference for me?' Just about anyone can write a letter. The problem can be what they are going to write about. Rather, ask 'Do you feel you know my work well enough to write me a good recommendation letter?' or 'Do you feel you could give me a good reference?' That way, your reference writer has an easy out if they are not comfortable writing a letter and you can be assured that those who say 'yes' will be enthusiastic about your performance and will write a positive letter. Offer to provide an updated copy of your resume and information on your skills and experiences so the reference writer has current information to work with."
Also, Ms. Doyle says it it easier to ask in an email, as this gives the person you are asking the opportunity to say "no" in a diplomatic way. She also says to be sure to include the following items as attachments, or in the body of your email:
You might also consider the following:
Sources: "Requesting Letters of Recommendation," by Alison Doyle for about.com, downloaded August 29, 2014."How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation" (linked within the article above, by the same author)"How to Ask your Professor for a Letter of Recommendation" (linked within the article above, by the same author)
A survey done by MoneyRates.com has found that checking account fees in 2014 are higher than ever before. This was due to a hike in monthly maintenance fees and fees for overdraft protection. Here were some of the changes the survey found:
The good news is that internet banks were more likely to provide lower fees--58% of them offer free checking.
Source: "Checking account costs rise; only 28% are free, study finds," by E. Scott Reckard, the Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2014.
photo by David Gura for Marketplace
The other day, I wrote about the new and burgeoning business field of analyzing "big data." This analysis is being used mainly to develop targeted marketing that will increase sales per unit of effort or cost. (Otherwise known as "optimizing ad click.")
But the analysis of big data in order to change the world for the good was the focus recently of the presentations from the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Fellowship. The Fellowship was managed by Rayid Ghani, who currently teaches at the University of Chicago. Ghani spent ten years analyzing big data in the corporate world, and then worked for Obama's re-election campaign before heading to academia, where his goal is to encourage others to learn top-notch analytic skills and apply them to for "social good." Ghani gathered 48 top student analysts--the fellows--in an incubator space in Chicago for twelve weeks to use big data to try and solve problems posed by various community, governmental, and non-governmental entities.
Sources: "Beyond Ad Clicks: Using 'big data' for social good," by David Gura, Marketplace Tech, August 22, 2014. Data Science for Social Good FellowshipData For Good
College professors are the "immediate supervisors" of students in college, so students can pretty much know the kind of employees they will be by the kind of students that they are while in school. It doesn't hurt, as part of one's business education, to know what one business publication gathered about student behaviors that annoy professors. From the Business Insider, here are ten pieces of advice that identify problematic student behaviors (they are explained in detail in the article):
The most frequently mentioned item was listed as #2...but my own personal pet peeve is #6...especially by students with a 95% average.
I have one more item to add to the list--regarding requests for letters of recommendation--but that is another blog post.
Source: "10 Things Every College Professor Hates," by Lisa Wade, Sociological Images for The Business Insider, August 26, 2014.
The ENGLISH portion of the video begins at 1:05: Jaime Fitzgerald on Big Data for Social Good
Data--including "Big Data"--is useless without analysis. In the video above, Jaime Fitzgerald makes the point that there is a big gap between the potential of what data can provide, and the value of what it is being used to provide.
Because those in the non-profit sector--who are trying to do social good--are often working in areas with scarce resources, finding ways to maximize those resources (find funding) or maximize the value of the resources (create the most good) is important.
Fitzgerald presents a way to approach a fundamental big data problem: Complexity. He suggests using a model which he calls "causal clarity" to simplify the complexity. His approach entails:
This applies to the use of big data in this way:
"Begin with the end in mind:
points of opportunity (decision points)...translate to...Insights or information required...which drives...analysis methods required to produce this information...allowing definition of...required data...and selection of the right...Tools, Platforms, Technology, People and Processes."
Whether working for a non-profit or a profit-making business, the end goal must be stated in the simplest terms, and, if possible, reduced to a drawing or graphic.
Source: "Turning Big Data into Social Good" by Jaime Fitzgerald, edX published on YouTube, January 29, 2013.
PC Magazine recently published a list of iPad apps that were highly rated by their editors, and had particularly helpful uses for businesspeople. Among their 100 suggestions (which were also mentioned in the article on geeksblog.com) were the following:
Also suggested were Microsoft Office Applications, security applications (Umbrella) and even an app that would let you write with your finger (Penultimate).
If you are interested in apps that are particularly suited to business students, check out S2S Community.
Sources: "The 100 Best iPad Apps of 2014" by Jeffrey L. Wilson, PC Magazine: News, April 25, 2014."iPad in Business: Amazing iPad Apps to Manage Businesses Like A Pro," by Jigness Padhyar, geeksblog.com, August 25, 2015.
The Business Insider summarized the work of Sylvie di Giusto, founder of Executive Image Consulting, in a recent article. Her book, "The Image of Leadership," discusses five dress code levels for working professionals:
Source: "How To Dress Like A Leader In Any Work Environment," by Richard Feloni and Mike Nudelman, the Business Insider, August 5, 2014.
For Discussion: Do these levels make sense for you in your workplace? Or in what you imagine your workplace to be like in your next job? Why or why not?
photo by Reuters of Benjamin Lawsky, New York State Department of Financial Services Superintendent
Benjamin Lawsky, NY State Department of Financial Services Superintendent, was instrumental in negotiating a $25 million fine against PricewatersCoopers (PwC), one of the Big Four accounting firms. In addition, PwC is prohibited, for two years, from doing consulting work for banks regulated by New York State.
What did PwC do wrong? They were hired to help the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ to respond to a regulatory investigation regarding transactions prohibited under sanctions on dealings with Iran and other countries. In the first draft of their report, they mentioned that there were "special instructions" bank employees were to follow in order to make these transactions less detectable to auditors and regulators. Under pressure from the Bank, PwC changed their report. If the whole purpose of having PwC involved was to provide a reliable narrator for regulators as to what had occurred, that purpose was completely annihilated by PwC's final report. Thus, the fine.
Of course, PricewaterhouseCoopers has a different vision of its own place in the ethical, sustainability, and corporate governance environment:
Here is the central question: What exactly is the purpose of independent auditing firms? According to Robert Montgomery, writing in 2008 in the CPA Journal:
"Accountants and the accountancy profession exist as a means of public service; the distinction which separates a profession from a mere means of livelihood is that the profession is accountable to standards of the public interest, and beyond the compensation paid by clients."
Are public accounting firms even trying to live up to this standard for the profession?
Sources: "Altered Study Draws Fine for Giant Auditor PwC," by Ben Protess, New York Times DealB%k, August 18, 2014.
cartoon by Dave Simonds for the Economist
Silicon Valley, increasingly, is leaving investment bankers out of the mix when it comes to evaluating a company to acquire. Financial ratios and present-value analysis of guessed-at future revenues are the classic tools that bankers bring to a merger or acquisition decision. But Larry Page of Google has a different standard: the company being acquired should have a product that a person uses twice a day that adds value to their life. The Toothbrush Test.
Some recent acquisitions that have been done without the services of investment bankers include:
This kind of "out of the box" thinking--applied to the finance arena--is parallel to the product development strategies used by successful Silicon Valley companies. So the Toothbrush Test makes good sense.
Source: "In Silicon Valley, Mergers Must Meet the Toothbrush Test," by David Gelles, the New York Times DealBook, August 17, 2014.
Amazon is branching out, again...this time into the credit card processing business. Sticking to its tried-and-true sales strategy, it is undercutting its competitors and going after small-time retail outlets by offering a product millions of small businesses need and offering it at a bargain price.
The new item is called the Amazon Local Register. It costs $10, and it plugs into the iPads or other tablets that new retailers are using at their cash registers. Customer credit cards can be swiped for payment--and Amazon will not charge the same processing price for the transaction as Square or PayPal. Amazon's charge will settle at 2.5%--and it is only 1.7% through the end of 2015 during the promotional period.
Here are ways this new product works for Amazon:
Source: "Next target for Amazon is credit card readers at stores," by Mike Isaacs, the New York Times, August 13, 2014.
talk given at Google, linked below
Conversation is an important way to make yourself known in a business environment--for better or for worse. Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, recognizing that the need for skill improvement in this area is practically universal, did research and wrote a book about how to improve conversational skills. Some of their techniques include:
The advice seems to lean toward getting people out of conversational ruts by pushing individuals just slightly out of their comfort zones. The goal? Make the conversation interesting without revealing too much personal information.
Sources: "What to Talk About," by Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker--a talk at Google for employee development on July 28, 2014, based on their book, published April 15, 2014."HOW TO TURN SMALL TALK INTO SMART CONVERSATION" by Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, TED Global 2014.
John Lanchester (photo) talking about the specialized language of money--video linked at (28 min) UK Telegraph
As it turns out, most "educated" people do not know the jargon associated with finance. But few people want to admit to it. John Lanchester cops to educating himself late in the game. I will say this: I was a super-smart graduate of the University of Michigan with a major in English and teaching minors in Physical Science and Social Science when I was audited by the IRS at the ripe age of 24. I realized that I did NOT KNOW THE VOCABULARY OF BUSINESS...so I signed up to take an Accounting 1 course at Wayne State University. Wow! What an eye-opener! First, doing accounting was WAY EASIER than teaching 12 year olds how to write...and there was a phase shift in understanding that I experienced once I understood basic financial statements and basic business vocabulary.
I'm with John Lanchester: it is totally worthwhile to dive in and ask the questions you need to ask and get the information you need to know to be able to read about the HORRIBLE travesties that occur in the business, economic, and financial world of current events.
Welcome to the business literati, folks.
By the way...John Lanchester has also written a novel called Capital, which I am going to read.
Source: "Money Talks: Learning the Language of Finance, " by John Lanchester, The New Yorker: Annals of Argot, August 4, 2014.
A longer talk about Illiteracy in the language of finance: Whoops!
cartoon by Mike Luckovich for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A lot of people have bought Thomas Piketty's best seller on income inequality. But very few people have actually read it. Recognizing that people would like to know what it is the book, but few people have the patience to plow through it, Nicholas Kristof wrote a summary in a recent issue of the New York Times. According to Kristof, Piketty's book says:
Meanwhile, the myth exists that "equal opportunity" is an American thing, but now it is harder to achieve in the USA than it is in Canada or Europe. If this is a troubling or even interesting concept to you, I encourage you to read the original sources.
Source: "An Idiot's Guide to Inequality," by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, July 23, 2014.
from ConversationStarters PR in Denver
Small businesses may not have the resources for mining big data like larger corporations, but every business wants to reach their customers in the most cost-effective way possible. Sometimes small businesspeople think that social media marketing is mainly about finding ways to "game the system." Reports of robots clicking on sites to drive up statistics make the whole process seem both mysterious and unfair.
Nevertheless, Mike Hanbery of Webolutions says that the key to getting good online reviews is that you have to actually provide an extraordinary experience in the real world.
That is a pretty straightforward concept.
Source: "Social Media Marketing July 2014," by ConversationsStarters PR, via YouTube, July 31, 2014.
Do you want to make a profit AND make the world a better place? Then organize as a "B Corporation" or a very similar "benefit corporation." These are some of the companies who have opted to take this route:
Each company that has "B corporation" status has to undergo annual certification that the company has met its stated social improvement goals. These certifications are done by B Lab, a nonprofit company, and it is analagous to LEED certification for sustainable building. "Benefit corporations" make similar promises to meet social improvement goals, and delineate them in their incorporation papers.
A corporation organized as a B Corp or benefit corporation must balance the needs of different stakeholders in setting and achieving business goals. This means that the corporate managers are not beholden to the rule that "profits for the shareholders" are the highest--or only--value. Other goals--such as research and development of sustainable materials for wetsuits (Patagonia)--also have a priority. In fact, if corporations do not fulfill their promised social values obligations, they leave themselves open to shareholder lawsuits.
One company that I mistakenly thought was a "B Corp" was Ben & Jerry's. Before they were bought out by Unilever, Ben & Jerry's funneled significant profits into local communities, education and sustainable dairy projects. When they were selling their company, they felt obligated to maximize the shareholder financial benefits, rather than to sell to a company that would continue its practices at the same level (see the Milton Friedman quote below). Since they were incorporated as a regular corporation, they may have exposed the company to shareholder lawsuits had they not just sold to the highest bidder. (Unilever still maintains some sustainable initiatives as part of the Ben & Jerry's branding.)
image from slideplayer.us
Even for-profit corporations historically balanced the need for stockholder profits with other goals. Two examples cited in the article were Henry Ford's commitment to pay higher wages and produce higher-quality cars, and Johnson & Johnson's stated obligation first to "doctors, nurses, and patients."
Source: "Companies With Benefits," by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, August 4, 2014.