Author Archives: Grant Tate

How to blast through reading material

What! PhD students can’t read? I was shocked to find how many of my online PhD students couldn’t deal with the reading load in my capstone course. They’d been through years of school. How did they get here?

In our information-rich world, processing print or on-screen material is essential to our productivity, success and, yes, pleasure. Developing good reading skills are essential. I’m not a reading specialist but, over the years, this six-stop procedure helped my students and works well for most people. Give it a try with material you really need to understand.

1. Scan—What is this material all about? What stands out? Is this material worth my time?

2. Read the material or listen to tapes—read for content, but push yourself to move rapidly.

3. Read again, but this time, highlight the most important points and paragraphs. Make notes in the margins.

4. Read the sections you highlighted, forming a pattern of linkages in your mind.

5. Scan again—How does it all feel? What is the essence of the material?

6. Explain the material to someone else.

We’re inundated with information every day. Developing the ability to pick, choose and process is a critical skill.

Developing a Talent Supply Chain: Construction Superintendents

Superintendents are the “master sergeants” of the construction industry, the guys or gals at the front lines leading the construction of tall buildings, roads or other projects. They manage the work crews, coordinate the work of subcontractors, keep projects on schedule and within costs and insure a safe working environment. And, like the post office, they are there, every possible day, moving projects ahead.

Construction projects have a lot of moving parts, so superintendents, like football quarterbacks, need a keen sense of pattern recognition—the ability to coordinate people, machines, environmental conditions, and diverse organizations. A good superintendent is decisive, but not impulsive, has good empathy, is results oriented, is a pragmatic problem solver, and is a strong leader. And he/she must understand how to build things, how to put tops on bottoms in the right sequence. In oth
er words, superintendents need to be strong leaders, know construction, and also be able to work well with subcontractors and owners of the buildings or roads being constructed.

Where do good superintendents come from? Although universities have developed good programs in Construction Management, many superintendents are graduates of the school of hard knocks; they have worked their way up from laborer, to foreman, to assistant superintendent to superintendent, a process that may have taken twenty years. Indeed, many construction executives think this is the only path. Construction Management university graduates may have the theory, but still lack the relevant on-the-ground experience. Is there a shortcut? Most people would say “No.”

Construction executives are now decrying t
he shortage of talent at all levels. (See Of the shortage, superintendents are among the most critical. To survive the great recession, many companies reduced staff, causing many of the laid-off workers to migrate to other career paths. Construction h
as long been a cyclical industry, but the last recession represented a particularly difficult cycle. Given this characteristic, how should construction companies think about superintendents, one of their most important skilled staff members?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Develop a long view of talent development. During growth times, develop a reserve fund to help retain critical skills during a downturn. (Oh, I know, profit margins are too thin even in good times to do this, but have you tried?)
  2. Develop a long term supply chain to build critical skills. That means working with high schools, vocational schools, community colleges and universities to encourage young people to go into construction an
    d help them build the skills and knowledge required. Develop apprenticeships, internships, scholarships, and tuition assistance programs.
  3. Outreach to schools and community organizations to extol the merits of careers in construction. Let leaders know that construction can provide good careers to those with or without a college education. High schools are measured by the percentage of their graduates who go to college, and career counselors therefore, diminish opportunities outside of the college career track. Work with them to open their eyes to new opportunities.
  4. Develop internal programs to help employees develop their skills. Many companies in cyclical industries cut training in downturns and say they’re “too busy to train” in upturns. Training should be a counter-cyclical activity. Use downturns as a training opportunity.
  5. Work with key employees to develop an individual develop program, set goals, and execute the plan.
  6. Provide timely, honest feedback to employees.
  7. Keep tabs on what employees are thinking. Use internal Net Promoter Scores to measure engagement and feedback.
  8. Top executives and line executives should develop and implement the talent development strategy. Line executives should be accountable for the results, not HR.

The construction industry provides rewarding careers where a person can literally see the results of her/his work.

Crank it Up!

What can you do if our organization is too laid back? If the people lack urgency? If you’re missing targets?

Check out Meg Whitman’s article in the Harvard Business Review ( to see how the CEO of a BIG company is facing these questions.

guy sleeping
But what can you do with your own organization that is probably a lot smaller than HP? Maybe you look at last quarter’s numbers wondering how to crank it up—increase sales, produce more, get people moving, get them to share our urgency.What should you do on Monday morning?

  1. Tell everyone why you need to crank up the pace. Do the inspirational bit, but also lay out the challenges and perhaps express your disappointment with the past results.
  2. Make sure you’ve set clear, measurable targets for the year. And—set priorities on the targets.
  3. Translate those targets into quarterly, monthly and weekly targets. Verne Harnish, in his book, “Scaling Up,” says the rhythm of your measurement system has to match the pace of the organization and its markets. If you want to grow fast, or if the market is volatile, have more frequent meetings.
  4. Make sure everyone in the organization knows the goals and priorities and that each person has three primary measurable targets for each measurement period. Remember, what gets measured, gets done.
  5. Identify obstacles early and move decisively to overcome them.
  6. Make company performance visible. Put performance graphs is places where everyone can see the organization’s progress. Hiding measurements in computers or mobile units doesn’t work.
  7. Reward good performance. Praise those with exceptional performance and use their techniques to help train and challenge others.
  8. Take quick action on slackers. Find out what is hindering their performance and provide appropriate help or training. If that doesn’t work, remove the bad performers from the team. The quickest way to increase a team’s performance is to rid the team of bad performers.

Making the Top Ten List

Note: This was an article from several years ago, but I think it’s still applicable today.

If you have money, recognition comes easy. The Sunday paper contains an ad for the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts. I don’t know Mr. Isenberg, but he sure made enough money to have an MBA school named after him. Take a look around the top business schools of the nation and you’ll find scores named after big contributors. Look deeper into universities and you’ll see the Joe Dokes Professor of Management and other such titles. It takes about a million dollars to endow a chair at a university these days, so you know that these people had lots of money. If a chair costs a million dollars, how much money does it take to have a whole school named after you? The donors hope that, two hundred years from now, people will still be talking about the great person for whom the school was named. Students who attend those schools are more likely to remember the great teachers rather than the large donors. Sure, big endowments build strong faculties, but who should get the recognition for the school’s success?

Whom are we recognizing these days? A site called “ named Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Bo Jackson Wayne Gretsky, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth and Pele. Searching further, you can find lists of the greatest artists, greatest business people, greatest musicians, greatest this and greatest that. While scanning the web and sipping my tea, I began to wonder if there is anyone who would add me to their list of top ten whatever’s. Not likely. I’m just an ordinary guy. I’ve worked in several careers, made lots of friends, worked in big corporations; but never became CEO, became rich, or wrote an enduring scientific paper—never achieved “success” as defined by the “top ten’s” of the world today.

I think about my many colleagues who, over the years, made their respective companies successful. They were people who did their job every day with dedication, competence and enthusiasm, but never made Time or Fortune. They manufactured the computers, helped the customers, taught their fellow workers, and solved the everyday problems of work. No glory, just performance.

In my early career, I was part of a manufacturing team that built IBM’s newest computers. A tough-talking, white-haired fellow named Olin Lilly was the key to our success. Ollie knew how to translate engineering drawings into manufacturing processes and set up the procedures for the rest of us to follow. He was the expert in computer manufacturing. But Ollie had no degree. Rumor had it that he was a high school dropout. Yet, none of us with our BSEE’s could have existed without him. He knew where to find the tools and supplies, he knew where to find the experts, he taught us all how to do our jobs. Sometimes our project manager would thank Ollie in a project meeting. Maybe he got bonuses at the end of the year, but if the company had paid him according to his worth, he could have retired a millionaire. I doubt if that was the case. When I left Endicott, NY to help start a new plant in Colorado, Ollie was at work on the latest new computer–doing his job without fame or fortune.

We all know Olin Lilly’s. Our companies and organizations depend upon them to be there faithfully every day getting the work done. While the CEO is out there giving speeches, raising money, restructuring the company, and smiling on the TV screen, the Ollies are doing the real work. They’re solving your computer problems over the phone, wrapping the gift that you just bought for your husband, cleaning the office while you’re sleeping, repairing the telephone system, driving the bus, designing the new medical device, doing a sonogram of your gall bladder, teaching your children, and entering your insurance policy information into the computer. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an Ollie yourself. Most of us are.

Unfortunately, public recognition flows to the top. CEO’s of big corporations are praised for their vision or their great turn-a-round program. Some get awards for their innovations or new ideas. Sometimes you hear one of them say, “I couldn’t have done it without the effort, loyalty and dedication of the hard working employees. They led the way. I’m just here to serve.” I wish that we’d hear more like that.

So, today, I hope that we all take the time out to celebrate each other’s daily work. Most of us really don’t want to be in a national magazine or on the century’s top-ten list. We just want to think that we’re doing a good job and, once in a while, have someone say, “Thanks, you really helped me.” So to all of you, I say “Thank you, I couldn’t get along without you.”

From Shop to STEM


For the first time in over six months, I dressed in a dark civilian suit with white button-down shirt and stripped blue and orange tie. This was my first workday after active duty with the US Army Signal Corps, and I was eager to get started. What kind of assignment did IBM have in store for me? Probably more computer testing, similar to my job before going to the army. It was up to Phil Evans, a manager in the personnel department, to tell me.

“Good morning, how was your army experience?” Phil said, offering his hand. He must be an administrator, I thought, judging from documents on his desk, neatly aligned in rows and columns. His appearance showed the same care, every detail from perfectly trimmed hair to crisp shirt and recently dry-cleaned suit were perfectly in place. How can this guy work this way?

“Not bad, I spent most of the time designing computer systems,” I replied, thinking that I would let him know that my military experience might be useful to IBM.

He glanced at some papers on his desk, then motioned to the guest’s chair. I could hardly wait to hear about my next job, but we traded small talk and army stories for a good 15 minutes.

Finally, Phil reached for a letter. “Have you ever taught school?”

“Yes, I was a drawing and lab instructor in college and I did some training in the army,” I replied, curiously.

“Well, Union-Endicott High School is looking for a temporary science teacher and we’ve agreed to help them out for a few weeks. Would you like to help them out?” Phil smiled.

I was stunned, never anticipating that IBM would turn me into a teacher. Science! Did I remember enough to teach high school science?

“What subjects do they want me to teach?” I asked.

“They don’t say in the letter. Why not go talk to the principal and let them explain?”

Leaving Phil’s office, it seemed that he was surprised to see me today; even though I sent him a letter two weeks before. My teaching assignment was probably a coincidence. The letter from the school district and I had arrived on the same day. Phil’s problem and its solution fell into place. Maybe IBM didn’t really know what to do with me. What does that mean, I wondered. Would they like to get rid of me? Do they care what I gained from my military experience. Maybe they just don’t give a damn.

Two weeks later I was a schoolteacher, drawing force diagrams and pictures of physics experiments on the blackboard for a group of defiant teenagers who wanted to be somewhere else, or so it seemed. Each sauntered into the classroom just under the time when they might be counted as late, and flopped into their chair like a rag doll.

What a difference from the U.S. Army where we sat rigidly upright waiting for the instructor to teach us a life protecting lesson.

Soon I realized that my position was perfect. I couldn’t be fired by the school system and my career didn’t depend upon coddling students. Having just come out of the army, I was used to discipline and to dishing it out. I wasn’t ready to put up with a bunch of unruly, sloppy students, so I decided to crack down.

One day, one kid started hectoring other students when they were answering my questions. I stopped, asking him to explain his actions.

“I don’t know why I’m in this room, anyhow. All these people are idiots,“ he said, adding some words, I’d prefer not to include in this article..

I calmly told him to leave the room, only to return when he could shape up. Surprisingly, he complied. Turning to the rest of the class, I launched into a lecture on good manners and the importance of education, using my Army experience to explain not everyone has opportunities like this class. After several days of struggle, the message began to take. The class began to ask questions and I began to put more life into my presentations. We had turned the corner and teaching became fun. By the time my three-week assignment was done, the students and I had achieved a good bond. Plus, they, and I, learned a little physics.

When I returned to IBM, they did have a place for me in the computer-testing department where I first began with the company; so, there I was, poking and probing around thousands of electron tubes and wires. After my time in the Army, working in the U.S. Signal Research and Development Lab at Ft Monmouth as part of a team designing the next generation of field-based computers, this routine testing felt pretty dull. Every day, my mind was wondering what I could do to move on from doing the same thing every day.

One day, Jerry, my manager stopped by my workplace to tell me that Clarence McNeil wanted to talk to me.

“Who’s Clarence McNeil?” I asked.

“He’s head of the training department,” Jerry answered. “He needs your help. He wants to see you in 15 minutes.”

Untucking my tie from between my third and fourth shirt button, I walked past the 100 yards of computer test stalls, down the stairs, through the machine shop and eventually to the administrative offices, eventually reaching a sign reading “Manufacturing Education.”

A woman with drawn back black hair and pointed red-framed glasses, greeted me from her desk. “Good morning, you must be Grant. Mr. McNeil is waiting for you.”

“Thanks,” I said, wondering why she used ‘Mr. McNeil’ when the company’s tradition was first names only.

When I stepped into ‘Mr. McNeil’s’ office, I understood why. This guy was dressed like a Brooks Brothers model. His blue suit with subtle black strips was tailored perfectly to fit his trim, but solid physique. His blond hair looked as if it was trimmed yesterday, every hair was in place. Each hand sported a polished gold ring and his nails were probably professionally manicured. A blue and yellow rep tie graced his wrinkle free, button down shirt. A silk handkerchief neatly tucked into the jacket’s pocket completed the picture.His office reflected his attire–neatly lined papers, an expensive desk set with a real ink pen, a few mementoes of awards were placed in strategic spots.

A feeling of complete dowdiness crept over me. I never thought of going to the locker to put on my suit jacket and my clothes must have smelled like ozone from the computer floor. My shoes were unpolished and who knows what my hair looked like. You dummy, this is an INTERVIEW! Someone should have given me a little warning, for goodness sakes. The last real interview I had was when IBM hired me, but now, I had no idea what to expect from this smooth operator.

“Have a seat, call me Mac,” Mac said.

“Thanks. I didn’t come to work this morning expecting something like this,” I fumbled.

“Well, this is a bit unusual. We have a big training job to do and we need some help. I understand that you have some teaching experience.”

Laughing, I said, “Well, if you consider the three weeks in the blackboard jungle, you’re right.”

In IBM’s typical random fashion, they probably figured out that they need to train some people, then asked themselves “Who do we have that has teaching experience?” Then someone said “What about that guy that went down to the high school?” “Sure, he’ll do.”

Mac went on. “You know that we don’t layoff people. We’re coming out with a new computer system that uses transistors and we’ll need lots of people to test the units–many more than are now on the computer floor. We need to convert our machinists and mechanical assemblers to computer test technicians.”

“That’s a big job,” I said, thinking that it was really impossible, not just difficult. I remembered how the Signal Corps had given all of its officers a six week training course in electronics and how one of my fellow officers, who had majored in liberal arts, had asked how someone like me could have spent four years studying electronics when the army could teach it in just a few weeks. “It looks pretty damned simple,” he said, having learned just the tip of the iceberg of electronics and too naive to understand he’d received just an outline.. And there I was wondering if IBM was as naive as my fellow officer.

“I’ve looked at your background, talked to your manager, and the principal at the high school and I believe you’re the best person to develop this course,” Mac said confidently.

Develop the course! That’s a lot different from teaching someone else’s lesson plans for three weeks. Besides, maybe mechanical people simply cannot become test technicians. But I was too young to know what I didn’t know. Pedagogy and instructional design were terms that had never passed my eyes.

Mac continued. “We plan to give everyone in the plant a chance to take some aptitude tests. We’ll use those scores to choose people for interviews. Then we’ll select people who have the highest chance for success. We’re looking for highly motivated people who have the ability to learn.

Incredulous, I asked, “When is this supposed to start?”

Mac went on to explain that the testing was to start in a few weeks and that the first class kicked off in three months. He anticipated that the course would be 12 weeks long, eight hours a day, followed by four weeks of intense training on the new 1401 computer. We would call the program “Computer Electronic Technician Training Program–Compelo Tech for short. In addition to me, he would hire at least one other instructor. That meant that each of us would be teaching at least four hours per day. We would give homework and tests just as in regular schools, but student evaluations would be given in individual face-to-face meetings similar to the company’s employee appraisal program. Mac explained that the employee’s jobs were to be good students while they were in the program.

In spite of my trepidation, I was intrigued with the idea. The computer-testing job was getting dull. Every day seemed like a repetition of the day before. My main entertainment was trying to find new ways to analyze the machines and find problems more quickly. Every day made me feel more like a robot.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll do my best. When do you want me to start?”

Over the next three months, my companion teacher, Ray Slater, and I laid out the curriculum, course outlines, handouts, overheads, tests, and exercises that would take the adult learners from basic electricity and algebra to solid state electronics in 12 weeks. We located other instructors to teach the 4 additional week of specific computer training, but it was up to Ray and me to have them prepared for learning the new computer. In parallel, Mac and his team tested hundreds of employees. Ray and I interviewed about 50 of the top scorers and chose 24 for the first class.

At 8:00 am on the first day of the program, Mac introduced Ray and me to the group and told them that they were in for 16 weeks of hard work. The 24 people stared back in anticipation. Most of them had not been students for 20 years and most were over twice my age. This was going to be quite different from teaching high school students. Ray and I said a few words after which Mac and I returned to our offices while Ray began the first 4 hours of class–introduction to algebra.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and settled in my chair longing for 4 or 5 hours of quiet. My class, introduction to electronics, was to start just after lunch. At 9:45, the phone rang.

“Grant, you’ve got to help me,” Ray panted. “I’m already out of material, and I don’t know what to do.”

Although Ray and I had carefully crafted lesson plans, apparently, he was out of material.

“How can that be. You’ve been practicing for days. Can you give them some in-class exercises?” I asked.

“We’ve already been through the ones that I planned. Can you come and take over? We’re on break now” His voice was shaky.

“See ya in five minutes,” I said, already picking up my materials.

I almost ran across North Street to the education building and found Ray standing outside of room 405.

“What happened?” I asked, putting my hand on his arm.

“Think I just rushed through the material too fast. Nervous, I guess.”

“It’s OK,” I said. “You go to the office to relax and I’ll see you there after class.”

Walking into the class, I was greeted by 24 grownups smiling like the Cheshire cat.

“What’s happening?” I asked, feeling strangely confident. I knew these guys because of our interviews and knew them to be fair and honest. This was a lot easier than trying to teach high schoolers who weren’t really interested.

“Looks like we scared Ray off,” Joe Swift, on the front row, answered, laughing.

“You sure did. What did you do?”

“We just sat here looking stupid while he talked,” Joe said.

“Well, folks, that’s not going to happen again,” I said. Ray’s going to be back in here tomorrow for his whole four hours and I’m going to make your afternoon miserable,” now smiling back at the group.

“We’ll start with an algebra test to see what you learned this morning.”

We had a rough start, which, in retrospect, warmed the environment for the class, Ray and me. These adult students, knowing their jobs and careers depended on their results were eager to learn, highly motivated, respectful and trustworthy.

I’ll never forget one fellow who asked for private conference with me about halfway through his twelve weeks. He explained that his 6 year old son was stricken with cancer and not expected to live very long. After a long talk about the effort required to complete the program and his need to spend time with his family, he decided to stay in the program. And I offered to help him keep up with tutoring or other support. He completed the program, became an excellent computer technician. And his son was still living when I last saw the technician a few years after the program. This fellow was but one example of the kind of learners who went through our program.

Compelo Tech eventually gave over four hundred people a chance to become computer test technicians. The quality of IBM’s early computers attested to their success and talents.

Copyright 2016 R. Grant Tate