But, how could you let this happen?

“But, how could you let this happen?” is a phrase often uttered after an event has made the headlines. People are incredulous and leaders, in response, will look at others to blame for the recent turn of events. Yet, oftentimes, the leaders omit their role in the event which occurred by their failure to act. Or, the event was going to happen, and no proactive action was taken to lessen the impact.

I have written before about how social workers are sometimes thrown under the bus for a family treating a child poorly or rampant substance abuse exposing children to things they should not see at their ages. Invariably, the social worker is handling far too many clients due to budget cuts over the years, so that families do not get the attention needed. Depending on travel, capabilities, types of family challenges, and numbers of family members, a social worker should ideally have less than twenty clients. The ratio of 16 to 1 is often mentioned as ideal. Yet, when something goes wrong, we often see social workers with 150 or 200 clients, which means no family gets the attention they need. I have the greatest admiration for social workers, but even Mother Teresa would have a problem with the caseload.

However, this line of questioning is much broader than making sure we staff sufficient numbers of social workers to meet a community’s needs. It gets into most areas of politics and governance. Last week, I was watching a leader of the US border guards on the news describing the problems with the influx of child refugees. He defined and demonstrated how difficult the job is and noted we are already understaffed due to the sequestration budget from last fall. So, to state the obvious, we have people in Congress who, in addition to not passing an Immigration Bill, have not funded the open positions in the border patrol making it harder for them to secure the border. Please reread that last statement, as we have some Congressmen and women who are insisting we secure the border, yet they won’t fund staff to secure the border, in general. This is before the latest request for funds to handle the refugees.

Yesterday, I was encouraged that a bi-partisan bill was agreed upon between the House and Senate committees on handling veterans’ affairs. Senator Bernie Sanders (I) and Representative Jeff Miller (R) are the key proponents (kudos to both). Yet, when the VA Hospital problems hit the fan earlier this year on wait times and veterans not getting served, the echo from Congress was loud, “how could you let this happen?” A veteran leader noted this is the same Congress who would not sign off on Senator Sanders bill earlier this year to address known concerns saying it was too much money, but offered no compromise solution. Yet, they did not do a mea culpa and say we screwed up earlier. Our leaders talk a big game about taking care of veterans,  but we are much more prone to fund tanks and planes we don’t need, than take care of wounded soldiers. Soldiers who have fought much longer and, since fighting among civilians, have been exposed to more PTSD need our help and not just our “atta-boys and girls.” Words are cheap, very cheap. Thank you Senator Sanders and Representative Miller for your actions to support our troops.

Finally, I will drift back to another favorite topic of some and that is Benghazi. “How could you let Americans get killed?” is asked. This issue has been put to bed for eighteen months in a non-partisan review led by Admiral Mullens and Ambassador Pickering, neither of whom were asked before Congressional Committees to speak on their report from December, 2012 until the committees were apprised of this oversight. The report went through all of the areas where we could have done better, but one area was interesting. Security of all embassies had been shortchanged by budget cuts in funding from Congress. So, we cared less about securing our embassies and then cried foul when something happened. And,this is not the first time our embassies and foreign service personnel have been attacked. “How could you let this happen?” the same folks asked.

The two common themes from the above are budget cuts impact service and it is hypocritical to totally blame someone else for something you, as a group, had a hand in causing. As a business person and volunteer board member of non-profit groups, I recognize fully that budgets are not infinite and require trade-offs. I do think we need serious discussions about where we spend our money. Yet, I am also mindful there are some that want to axe everything without noting what services are being performed. And, I also am aware there are those who say cut this or cut that, but when reminded that people back home or funders’ businesses are impacted, change their mind. There are so many military weapons that are not needed and are stockpiling, yet because of funders and lobbyist efforts, we cannot stop making them, e.g.

We have a deficit and debt problem in this country. The answer that the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission came to in December, 2010 is both spending cuts and revenue increases are needed. Before we have other “what-ifs” happen, we need to take a look at that report as a plan to start from.

 

 

 

They’re all my chairs, but you can sit in that one

My grandmother, who we called Big Mama, lived life large. She was quite the character and was unlike the acquiescent namesake in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” She would tell you what she thought and was usually pretty funny in so doing. The title of this post is one of her familiar sayings. When she would get up from her chair to go in the nearby kitchen to begin cooking, we would ask if we could sit in her chair. To which she would respond, “They’re all my chairs, but you can sit in that one.”

Big Mama would have been 103 on her birthday next week, so she is in my thoughts. Although, she died fifteen years ago, her memories and funny stories echo and certain events will bring them to the forefront of my mind. In addition to being a character, she was a person of character. My grandmother had a tough time the last ten years of her life, as she worked on her feet most of her life as a clothing sales person. With osteoporosis, her body would begin falling apart and she would often fall breaking things. In fact, one doctor said he believed her hip just broke, then she fell.

She ran the Boys and Men’s Clothing sections of the stores where she worked in a large, small town. Her clients were lifelong, as men would get out of college and go see her to be fitted with a business wardrobe. My favorite story about Big Mama was when she teased her cheap boss in front of the President of the company who had come to visit. After lending the President her pen to write something down, he put it in his pocket. She said, “Sir, that is my pen. My boss is too cheap to buy us pens, so I brought that one from home.”  That got a chuckle, albeit a nervous one from her boss. She made the company so much money, she would not get chastised for telling the painful truth.

Yet, when I think about Big Mama, I think of Thanksgiving. Our ritual was to pack up our family and go to her house for the holiday. The family of one of my mother’s sisters would attend as would several of Big Mama’s close by siblings and their spouses, whose kids lived far away. Even after she could not walk much, my wife and I would go and she would direct us on how to make the various dishes. With her fingers ravaged by arthritis, I would tell her as she would micromanage too much, “Big Mama, don’t point that crooked finger at me,” to which she would laugh. To do this day, I make Big Mama’s cornbread dressing, which is the name it is given. To me, it is my way of paying it forward, as our house has become the go-to house for Thanksgiving.

Big Mama was the next youngest of a family of twelve. The rhythm method was not very effective as a birth control means. She got her large personality from her mother, whom everyone in the community called Mama, even my mother and her sisters. Mama was also the local medicine woman, as the hospital was so far away. Big Mama told us the story of her younger brother who knocked his front teeth out as he attempted being a gymnast unsuccessfully. Mama sat him down and boiled some water, while she rinsed his teeth off. She placed a towel in the hot water and gave it a quick rinse and told her youngest son to shove the towel into his gums. The gums swelled up and she jammed his teeth back in and they held. Big Mama learned from the best.

I have written before about my quiet grandfather. He and Big Mama were a perfect match, a yin and yang. My grandfather that I knew was my step grandfather, as Big Mama’s first husband did not stay home very much. She divorced him at a time when few people did, so it shows that she was not going to live with her mistake any longer. Being a small community, everyone understood. But, her greatest heartbreak was when she had to bury her youngest child, my favorite aunt. No mother or father should have to bury a child. I cannot imagine a greater heartbreak. While hard, we are heartbroken, but less surprised when we have to bury a spouse as we know that is part of the pact. Yet, a child should outlive his or her parents. Even when the child is in her fifties, it is still hard, especially after the child had health issues all her life.

She mourned my aunt’s passing until she died. Like any mother and daughter, they butted heads, but loved each other greatly. We all did. Big Mama, you are the best. You are one of the biggest characters I have known. You also were a person of character. We are better for having known you and you are still missed. Happy Birthday.

 

 

My mother the teacher

When one of the boys I was coaching in baseball found out my mother had been his teacher, he said immediately about the sweetest woman I know, “Your mother is mean.” I asked him why he would say that and he said my mother put his desk up front by her desk. Now, if you remember anything about teachers, you know when a teacher does this she is beyond her last straw. I also knew the boy was more animated than others in practice and would not listen very well. When I mentioned this later to my mother, she said, “He was a real pill.”

Teaching is a hard job. It can be very rewarding, but it also can be very thankless. My mother has always been a teacher, whether as a second grade teacher, as a substitute or as a bible study teacher. She would spend (and still does at age 83) hours preparing her lessons and, in the case of elementary school, grading papers. In her paying job, she probably worked ten to twelve hours days. Some might say, teachers get summer off, but they work a week after school is out and a few weeks before every one comes back. But, when you add up the hours, they can rival most year-round employment jobs.

However, because they are relatively low paid, especially in my state of North Carolina where we are 46th in teacher pay, many work summer jobs as well. Our state is trying to remedy the problem it created with frozen budgets and cutbacks on additional pay for masters degrees. Teachers have been voting with their feet leaving the state and the Moral Monday protests added a large voice to that of teachers to shame the legislators into doing something. They are still arguing over this as of this writing.

Yet, through this process, teachers have not been shown the respect they have earned. Of course, there are some poor teachers. But for the large part, my experience has been with very dedicated professionals. And, they also take the blame for things outside of their control. My mother would tell you that it does take a village to raise and educate a child. A good teacher cannot do the parent’s job. It needs to be a team effort between the teacher, parents, counselors and teacher assistants. Also, volunteers help, in a large way, especially if there is not enough teacher assistants to cover the classes.

But, you may have noticed I used the plural of parents. The dilemma these days is if you looked at the demographics of classrooms, the number of kids with divorced parents would not be insignificant. Further, the number of those kids with only one parent in their relationship would not be inconsequential, especially in high poverty schools. In the volunteer work I do for homeless families, there is a significant percentage of single parent families. Divorced or single parent families make it tougher on the kids.

A couple of years ago, I tutored two fifth graders in math. They were interesting and attentive little girls who asked for help in writing. This blew me away. Yet, one had ten people and three generations in her house and the other had seven people. Each had a heavy list of chores beyond the normal 5th grader, so school work was difficult to fit in. The nice part is a school counselor was working with the teachers and parents to help these girls keep up. Since English was their second language, word math problems gave them trouble, as did geometry, but that can give anyone nightmares. We worked through their issues and they passed.

Seeing my mother with my kids and my nieces and nephews, she has the patience of Job. She embodies what teachers are all about. They want to help people and take great pride when the children learn and can apply their learnings to something else. In Finland, teaching is one of their most honored professions. Their brightest aspire to these roles and are given the freedom to teach. They are paid well and Finland routinely ranks high in education achievement.

We should value people like my mother. They make such a huge difference in our kids’ lives. They did in my life, as well. So, big shout outs to Mr. Batten, Ms. Bowden, Ms. Regan, Ms. Shrout, Mr. Brickell and countless others. Thanks for teaching me. And, the biggest thanks go to Mom. You are my first and best teacher. I love you, Mom.

Only fools rush in – why do the pawns get punished over fights to derail Obamacare?

Elvis used to sing “wise men say, only fools rush in…” Unfortunately, we have too few Elvis fans or, maybe, they were watching more than listening to the words. There have been some foolish behaviors that will come back to haunt the ones who are executing the behaviors. If they don’t, others will pay the price for their foolish acts.

The Cato Institute is funding the legal teams that are fighting court battles against the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, if they were provided through the federal exchange. There is one place in the law that can be taken out of context with the rest of the document, with its intent and with the practicality that some states could not or did not want to run the exchanges. One ruling said that only the state exchanges could offer the subsidy per this interpretation, while other court decisions looked at the broader picture and said the federal exchange subsidy is OK. Fortunately, the one case should be overturned in appeal, but there are other ones as well in the works.

From where I sit, what do you gain by winning your narrow-minded argument? You will screw over 5 million people which will likely grow to more, if these cases go to the Supreme Court in a year or two. I often say that it is the pawns who get screwed in these political zero-sum games. To me, it is prima facie evidence that there are some who only want to win an argument without caring about who is impacted. In this case, people of all political stripes and races will be impacted.

The irony here is the Affordable Care Act is largely a Republican idea, borrowing from Romneycare which was supported by Tea Party leadership until Romney ran for President. The reason there is no countervailing GOP idea is Obamacare is largely it. People think I make this up, but I encourage them to Google “Jim DeMint and Romneycare” and read the many articles. And, the larger truth is Obamacare is showing many signs of success, especially with lowering the rate of uninsureds.

Here is where I remind people that I am Independent voter who has over 33 years of experience in benefits consulting and benefits management before retiring. I am also a former actuary by trade. I have long grown weary of the many attacks on this imperfect and complex law. I have been saying for two years, make the law better, as we will be better for it with more people insured. We have to get people to the doctor before the inevitable train wrecks happen. We also need the remaining states to expand Medicaid. Those states are in the bottom half of the country on healthcare quality and child poverty. This will gain even more coverage for people in need of all political stripes and races. This would include Republicans and Libertarians.

As a volunteer who helps people in need, the absence of healthcare insurance creates poverty. It can create homelessness. We need for people to be covered and when politicians or pundits tell people not to consider coverage because they do not like the President, his party or the law, they are doing that person a disservice. The subsidies go up to a family of four making $94,000 in income. For larger families, it is even more. So, my question for that so-called advisor is, should the person go into the hospital following your advice, will you pay that person’s $50,000 expense? This may sound trivial to some, but a friend of our family was told this very thing and she is in poor health. I encouraged her to speak with a navigator and she now has coverage. One month later, she entered the hospital. She would have had to declare bankruptcy otherwise. By the way, most people who declare bankruptcy cite the lack of healthcare insurance (or poor insurance) as the key reason.

My strong suggestion is for the Cato Institute to drop their cases. The one case where their contention was upheld, will likely be overturned, but if it goes to all the way to our highest court, with this Supreme Court, who knows what will happen? And, if it gets that far and it is not overturned, then what? You will be happy you won. And, at least 5 million Americans will be screwed. They should know now, that this Independent voter says they should ask their politicians to drop this Obamacare witchhunt and help make the law better. In the long run, we will be better for it. They should also know whom to blame now when they vote in the fall. If a candidate continues to harp on Obamacare, vote for someone else. I am tired of these machinations and most Americans have said they are, as well. Unfortunately, the Cato’s foolish behavior could cause us to be the fools. And, that would be a shame. My belief is it will fall back on them, but stranger things have happened.

Invisibles: People who don’t pat themselves on the back

On CBS Good Morning last week, David Zweig was interviewed about his recent book called “Invisibles – The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age if Relentless Self-promotion.” The book sounds like a fascinating read which explores the success of those who show up to work each day, do their job well and collaborate with others toward common goals. These folks do not seek the limelight and are definitely not about merchandising themselves. And, each has a very rewarding career doing a job well and sharing the success with others.

In my over thirty-three years of working as a consultant, teammate, employee and, at times, manager of people, one observation seems to ring true – “work will find good people.” These are the folks who don’t talk about getting it done, they work with others to get it done. In any business, we find people who are over-committing and routinely missing deadlines or producing less than quality deliverables. We will also find people who talk about good ideas, but fewer people who get up out of their chair and go do something.

The invisible people need not be the “stars” of the team. Sometimes their strength is project or process management competence. They are the machine that gets work product done. In other words, they do the basic blocking and tackling that does not make the headlines. A successful football team is more due to those guards and tackles who make way for the stars. A business is no different. And, many do not do their job exceedingly well, but do it well-enough, and show up each day to do it again. These are those solid C+ and B- performers that every organization needs to be successful. They have an intrinsic knowledge of how to do things within that organization. If leaders do not heed their value and input, they will not be as successful or may fail.

I had an old management professor who advised his son on how to be successful, advice which I share with others. If you do these three simple things, you will have some success. “Show up, show up on time and show up dressed to play.”  It matters not the underlying business or work group. If you are not there, others have to pick up the slack. If you are constantly late, others have to pick up the slack. If you are not there wearing clothes to present yourself as expected to your colleagues and clients or dressed with the right attitude, others will have to pick up the slack. Then, an invisible person becomes visible and management will realize they can do their job without you.

The lesson of the book is a good one. You do not have to merchandise yourself to be successful. Competence is a terrific aphrodisiac to an employer. I often help people network as it is my way of paying it forward. I was helping someone I know well get a job and she is all about competence, efficiency, teaming and effectiveness. She is not as good at merchandising and your first impression would be not to hire her. I used to tell prospective employers, she may not be the one you propose to, but she is the one you want to be married to. She understands strategy, tactics and execution and that is a powerful combination.

Let me close with some observations on what to avoid. If you hear someone say he/ she is a “big picture” person, don’t hire them. If you hear someone use far too many “I’s and me’s” and not many “we’s and us’s” don’t hire them. If someone “throws people under the bus” more than accepting responsibility, don’t hire them. I recognize fully the need to have people who can sell services and merchandise themselves. But, the merchandisers I would prefer to work with know that it is a team of others who back up their commitments. Many of them are in this group called “invisibles.”

 

 

 

Canned letter responses from congressional leaders

It may not surprise some readers that I often share my concerns over legislation I find lacking or the failure to enact anything at all. We have many concerns in our country and around the globe where thoughtful, collaborative action is needed to pass laws that will benefit those in need or the targeted problem. Yet, if you write leaders as well, you likely have the same experience I have when you receive a canned letter from the politician. Actually, the politician did not write the letter, it was handled by one of the staffers. On occasion, I will get a call from a staffer, which is much preferred, but for the most part I receive a canned response based on the subject box I checked online.

Earlier this week, I received a letter from my congressman over my concerns regarding the failure to act on immigration reform. This issue has been heightened by the refugee children on the border. These frightened kids are being treated as pawns in a game and some extreme folks are showing their hind end to intimidate them and others trying to do their jobs. The letter I received was prima facie evidence of what is wrong in Washington. It went out of its way to blame the other party for failures to act and did not speak to the issue, but more on what was wrong with someone else.

I sent another email to my congressman chastising him for this response. I said I did not need to see campaign rhetoric, preferring to see more stewardship over the problem at hand.  I noted we have a bi-partisan bill passed by the US Senate, so it would behoove the House to pass a bill and reconcile, per normal process, any differences with the Senate bill. I had noted before that a group of clergy and the US Chamber of Commerce are seeking better immigration laws. And, recently, an op-ed piece was written by a bi-partisan group of business leaders, Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates over their concerns and frustration with congressional gridlock, in general, and specifically over immigration.

The reason I have been so active writing emails to state and national legislators, is their failure to look at the issues in the proper light. Almost every issue is a political chess game that needs to be played. The thought process behind the scenes goes something like this, “Is this a wedge issue that we can make the other side look bad?” rather than “What is the problem and what is the best solution long term?”  When you focus on the former, good decisions are rarely made and hypocrisies abound. As an example, Common Core was a bi-partisan law to help kids better compete in a global world. It was passed and is being implemented, but now it is wedge issue as certain leaders want to make it a state issue. While not perfect, teachers and administrators are largely in favor of keeping Common Core and improving it.

Please keep after your legislators. Keep them on their toes. And, if their answers are not satisfactory, do not let them off the hook. If we don’t keep them honest, they will only listen to their funders and the squeaky wheel extremists who represent a very narrow, myopic point of view. They need to hear from the countless reasonable citizens.

 

What if an event in history did not happen?

If I were a history teacher, I think I would gauge how students think by asking them to respond to a simple question – what would have transpired if an event in history did not happen?  This would show the importance of that event on world affairs, as well as revealing the influence certain events have on decisions to act or not act on subsequent issues. For example, the US delayed getting into WWII as a result of being involved in WWI, which was used as an argument by isolationists not to participate.

Here are few examples to think about. Pick one or two and tell me what you think may have transpired.

  • What if Japan never bombed Pearl Harbor?
  • What if President George W. Bush and team did not fabricate the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) story as a reason to invade Iraq?
  • What if Robert F. Kennedy was not assassinated?
  • What if the Robber Baron period in the US continued without check?
  • What if the verdict in Brown v Board of Education said separate but equal schools were constitutional?
  • What if President Teddy Roosevelt did not sanction the building of the Panama Canal?
  • What if the South prevailed enough in the Civil War to remain separate?
  • What if President Ronald Reagan had not made his famous speech in Berlin and ad-libbed, “tear down this wall?”
  • What if Senator Joseph McCarthy was stood up to earlier by other leaders?
  • What if Great Britain prevailed in the War of 1812?

Although, there are some global questions, most of these questions are US centric, so please forgive. If the reaction is good to this, I may follow-up with less US centric questions.  I would love to hear your thoughts. Keep them reasonably brief, so others can enjoy and react to them.