Tuesday, February 26, 2013

COACHING | A Business in the National Interest

I just finished reading "New Coach" by Lis Paice, at http://amzn.to/V7AnNn on Amazon. It gets 7,000 hits on Google, so the publisher, the Open University in the UK, is doing a good job of promoting it there. 

But so far not apparently in the USA. I just wrote the first review on the U.S. Amazon site. 

Yet I would argue that the book is needed much more on this side of the Atlantic than it is in the UK. 

Medical care costs are eating the USA alive – it is the most worrisome part of the Federal Budget. Medical cost increases  are ultimately the only convincing target of the mindless "sequester" by House Republicans. We have some time to deal with rising medical care costs, and the ruat caelum approach of fiscal ideologues is flirting with destroying America's recovery, in which the rest of the world has a big stake.  

The book is written by the former Dean of Postgraduate Medical Education for London, Dr. Elisabeth Paice, OBE ("Lis Paice" is her coaching name). After 16 years in her job overseeing the clinical training in the London hospitals of British medical schools, she retired to become a personal coach.

This book is a record of her early years as a coach trainee inside the National Health Service – what she learned about herself, about her anonymous clients and people in general. The book has broader significance than the author claims. The United States has a medical care system that functions well for the 1 percent, and attracts wealthy people from overseas to get high-quality high-cost care, but does not work so well for the 99 percent. The United States ranks at the top (#2 after East Timor) in how much the public spends on health care (18.2% of GDP, vs. more like 10% in most OECD countries), but ranks 37th among U.N. members in overall measures of health outcomes. The UK ranks at the top, with the Netherlands and Australia, on outcomes. The difference is not just the single-payer approach of the NHS, since a country like France does almost as well while relying on private businesses for health care delivery. 

The key to running a medical care service with full coverage at half the cost of the the United States, with better outcomes, seems to be the NHS reliance on teams instead of super-doctors. Building teams that function efficiently and effectively on behalf of the patients is a major challenge of the National Health Service, to the point that mentoring is a key NHS program. Dr. Paice was named the NHS "Mentor of the Year" in 2010, so her peers think she is pretty good at this team-building exercise. 

A coach is a kind of mentor, but as the author of "New Coach" makes clear, a key difference is that a coach is an equal, whereas a mentor is a parental figure. It was important for the King's coach in "The King's Speech" to call the king "Bertie" - thereby establishing a relationship or equality. 

A coach and her client may share the same encounter, but they do not share the same experience. The experience for clients should be one of talking about their past, present and future. The role of the coach is to ask questions, to summarize what the client says periodically, and to provide facts when useful. The coach may also provide some sympathetic or congratulatory comments, but in a non-directing way. What the coach must not do is talk about herself, or try to "rescue" clients by intervening on their behalf.

One of the book's most instructive stories - and, indeed, this is as much a book of morality tales as any collection of Hans Christian Andersen,the Brothers Grimm or Jean de LaFontaine - is about a failed coaching experience. The client was having a problem at work and Dr. Paice solved it with a couple of phone calls in the presence of her client. The client was grateful but never came back. Takeaway: The coach's job is not to solve problems; it is to inspire clients to solve their own problems.

The book has some delightful humor. For example:
I have heard people say that pessimists are happier than optimists - because things usually turn out better than they had expected - but it has not been my experience. Eeyore was not a happy donkey.
At another point, Dr. Paice tells the story of an early session with the leader of the NHS coaching course. Each of the trainees was to listen to the problems of the other and offer advice. Each of the eight people in the course said they thought they had given very good advice but unfortunately they didn't get good advice. In other words, people like giving advice and they hate getting it. This is another reason why coaches are proscribed from offering advice.

This book is especially value for three groups of people, those who:
- Are thinking of becoming coaches.
- Are thinking they might make good use of a coach.
- Are sure they have no need of a coach.

When Obamacare gets to the point where the medical establishment realizes that it needs to move from the Famous Doctor concept to a team approach, it will surely catch up to the NHS in discovering the importance of teams. When that happens, sooner the better, Lis Paice's book could be one of the Gospels for a new approach to medical care.

Friday, February 15, 2013

NY LAW SCHOOL | Quinn Is a Pro

Speaker Christine Quinn at NY Law School,
Friday, Feb. 15.
A recent NY1-Marist poll shows New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn as the three-to-one favorite to be the next mayor of New York City. Her speech this morning at the New York Law School Forum (see photo above) was consistent with the polling.

Being a front-runner is a hazardous position, and Speaker Quinn's job today was to hold her place. She did that.

She was elected to the City Council in 1999 from my neighborhood, Chelsea, so she has a favorite-daughter position around here. She has been Speaker since 2006. She is ahead, by a convincing 37% to 13%, over former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson, whose base has been Brooklyn but now lives in Manhattan. Some of my good friends are backing Mr. Thompson and are counting on a runoff between him and Quinn that he might win. Thompson did surprisingly well in the last election against Mayor Bloomberg, but analysts interpret this as more of a vote against a third term for the Mayor than as deep support for Mr. Thompson. Also, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is only one percentage point (12%) behind Thompson in the poll and de Blasio has the advantage of incumbency.

On the Republican side, Joe Lhota, who worked for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and has more recently been running the MTA, is the favorite. In a lopsidedly Democratic city, it's a long shot for him - the poll shows him losing to Quinn 64% to 18%. More worrisome for him is that only 20% of respondents supported him - most respondents didn't know enough about the GOP candidates to make any choice at all. He can count on getting enough campaign finance support to run a significant challenge. But money is not usually enough to win in New York City as many wealthy also-rans will testify. Mayor Bloomberg got his foot in the door because of 9/11, after which people were properly concerned about the future of New York City as a business engine, and Bloomberg's business acumen was a convincing asset.

There is still talk of other people entering the race this year, but it's nearly March and doors are closing. So those who are concerned about LAM - Life After Mike - assembled at the breakfast forum to build up their dossiers on Ms. Quinn, who would be the first female mayor of New York City and the first openly gay mayor. The event attracted more than 250 people by my count. A streaming-video recording of the event is here.

Ross Sandler, NY Law School host.
Ross Sandler is the host (see photo at left). His breakfast event is the closest thing to a successor to the City Club of New York, which played a significant role in the City of New York for more than 100 years, including in the fiscal crisis and then the mayoralty of the late Ed Koch. A moment of respectful silence for the loss of a great Mayor... and another moment for the demise of the City Club.

The New York Law School's location near the NYC courts makes it convenient for students who may want to get a law degree at night. Its location make is easy to find faculty to teach part-time. My connection with the NY Law School is that my great-aunt Inez Milholland's brother got his law degree after a career as a Harvard football kicker (he was class of 1912), which in those days got the columns of newspaper ink now lavished on the pro teams. Inez Milholland, by the way, was the woman who led on her horse the march down Pennsylvania Avenue on the eve of President Wilson's inauguration - a march that set the stage for passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. (The NY Times on March 4 led off with paragraphs about Miss Milholland.) The 100th anniversary of this march is in two weeks.

Questioners in two lines.
Revered City Club tradition (sniff).
Chris Quinn was a pro, took questions with a combination of respect and firmness, and lightening up the atmosphere with believable stories about her Irish grandfather and her mother's fear of a hex:
If you take down the Christmas tree before Three Kings Day, it will be a curse on you for the rest of the year. 
She listened to tough questions from Charlie Komanoff, Roger Herz and Azi Paybarah about congestion pricing and Commissioner Kelly (whom she would like to stay on) and stop-and-frisk laws. She expresses sympathy with a problem like sound cannons and either gives an "I will look into it" or (in the case of congestion pricing) a "no chance that will  happen soon" answer. She supported the mayor in his bid for congestion pricing, but makes clear that the outer-borough opposition is  strong and this plan is on ice in 2013. In a political environment where a candidate walks a narrow path between cannons to the left and cavalry to the right, with minefields in the middle, she got to the other side with a sure step and no mishap. She did mention Verizon as failing to keep all its mobile phone subscribers in communication during Hurricane Sandy and then Prof. Sandler sheepishly noted that Verizon was a co-sponsor of the breakfast; when informed of this she sort of said she was sorry and breezed on.

To my mind, the test of the day was whether we would have a Marco Rubio water-bottle problem. No way.   She is on top of her game.

It's still "early times" for the 2013 Democratic Primary on September 10. Good politicians focus earnestly on the next election, not so much the one(s) that may occur soon after - because, as the late Howard Samuels once discovered, there is no point in worrying about the later election if you lose the earlier one. Based on her performance today, I would say that Speaker Quinn will continue to lead the pack come September 10.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Using Salt to Melt Snow on Roads

I read in the run up to the Big Blizzard that Mayor Bloomberg has 250,000 tons of salt ready to spread on the streets of New York. The blizzard is happening on a late Friday-early Saturday morning, so the impact on the New York City economy is not as significant as it would be if the blizzard were occurring on a Monday morning, thereby disrupting office workers' commute.

From the work I did at the NYC Comptroller's Office in 1992-2006, when I served as chief economist, I know that the crucial variables in a snowstorm for determining economic impact are the timing, the precipitation and the temperature (TPT). The impact is reduced if the snow is on a weekend, if the precipitation is low (two inches is where trouble can start) and if the temperature is above 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Putting down salt allows the City of New York to reduce the impact of freezing temperature on the ability of commuters to get to work, or shoppers to get to stores. One of the worst scenarios is a slushy snowfall and then a deep freeze, causing icy roads.

In the laboratory, adding salt (sodium chloride) to water can bring down the freezing point from 32 degrees Fahrenheit to several degrees lower. It is hard to define this lower number because it depends on how much salt one puts down on the roads (the more salt that is added, the higher the salinity percentage and the lower the freezing point of the water). In a lab, the freezing point can be brought down lower than in storm conditions.

So salt is only useful to add when the temperature is below the freezing point for salty water - otherwise the salt water will simply run off into the ground or into sewers. By the time temperatures drop, if they do, the salt water is gone.

Similarly, below some temperature, adding salt is a waste because it is below the freezing point of water, unless temperatures are expected to rise above freezing, in which case the salt will speed up melting.

Finally, many people with ecological concerns argue against using any salt at all. Salt is corrosive of vehicles and the roads themselves. The runoff is terrible for plants and marine life. Pets that play outside get the salt on their paws and suffer from the abrasion. Read about this in "Why You Shouldn't Use Salt to Melt Ice."

Thursday, February 7, 2013

IBO | Uses PUMS Data to Clarify NYC Job Trends

This is a good news story for people who care about trends in jobs and unemployment in the nation, state, and city.

The Independent Budget Office has used the American Community Survey to create a new household employment and unemployment series. The ACS is a new (since 2005) data collection program of the Census Bureau that uses a sample of 250,000 U.S. households to generate more frequent data on demographic and other trends between decennial Censuses. The IBO unveiled the new series in its February 2013 Fiscal Brief (http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/febacsemployment2013.pdf).

This development is welcome because for decades the household employment numbers (based on a monthly sample of 70,000+ households nationwide) have been less consistent than the payroll jobs numbers, which are based on a much broader base of unemployment insurance filings monitored by the labor departments of every state and collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The divergence between the two numbers sets up a controversy as to which number to believe. On Long Island last year, an unsuccessful challenger to Rep. Tim Bishop (NY-1) sent out expensive mailings misusing the household survey to argue that if 100,000 more people were unemployed, it meant there were 100,000 fewer jobs. In fact, payrolls were rising during the period. The increase in unemployment meant that a handful of people were reporting that they had decided to look for work, and their response was inappropriately extrapolated and mis-characterized.

Two points to bear in mind, to avoid misusing the unemployment numbers, are: (1) They are based on a tiny sample when used for regional analysis as small as a Congressional District, and (2) They represent a sub-sample of people who are self-declared as looking for work.

In New York City, for example, if the sample of households is 1,500 and we are measuring the number of unemployed, and there are two people per household, an unemployment rate of 9 percent means that the 1,500 telephone respondents are reporting to the Census Bureau (acting for the BLS) that 270 people out of 3,000 have recently been looking for work. That's a tiny number of people on which to base a widely watched number. The unemployment rate can jump around as people in the responding households stop looking one month and start looking again the next month.

The fluctuations could feed on themselves, as a small change in the rate is reflected in headlines of New York City newspapers (or, on Long Island, Newsday) and create a false sense that the job market is getting better or worse. The fluctuations in an area could simply reflect changes in the weather. The BLS has tried to adjust the numbers to reduce the volatility, but that create a whole new set of problems, as real turning points are assumed to be noise.

So it's a real help that the IBO has identified another source of information as a benchmark for checking on the household survey, the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) of 250,000 households that is used for the American Community Survey. This sample is rich in demographic data and being larger is more reliable, especially for use at the local level.  The data go down to the PUMA,  a local geographic area, which in New York City are the 50+ Community Districts overseen by Community Boards in each borough and are roughly equivalent in size to a Council Member district, although the political districts are not coterminous with electoral districts.

The IBO has already used the PUMS data to analyze traffic congestion, finding that 1.9 million people commute into the New York City congestion zone to work and of the commuters by car, more than one-fourth are from New Jersey and nearly 10 percent are from Bergen County alone (see http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/newsfax/insidethebudget154.pdf).

The bottom line of the new ACS-based series is that the recent extrapolated changes in employment runs between the payroll numbers and the household numbers. This suggests that the high BLS numbers for unemployed New Yorkers, despite strong growth in payrolls, are measuring something real. Several theories about what has been happening that have been widely promulgated - such as an increase in commuters - are shot down by the Microdata numbers. The persistently high unemployment rate in New York City is confirmed as real, and the IBO explanation is simply that as the economy is growing, more people look for work, thereby growing the labor force available for hire. Nothing new about that.

What is new is that we have another movie camera with which to follow these trends. Thank you, IBO.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

JOBS | Mock Interviews Educate Both Ways

Last week I spent four hours engaged in "mock interviews". They were very instructive for me and I think also for the interviewees.

As part of a training program for hazardous-worker certification provided by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in Newark, the trainees are given some instruction in preparing their resumes and conducting themselves in a job interview. The program is geared to placing trainees in specific jobs, and the instructors tackle every aspect of the path from training to employment.

My task was to serve as an interviewer. The company I represented is a (real) California-based company that had obtained contracts to engage in superfund remediation in New Jersey, and was hiring staff. Two panels of three interviewers were allowed about 20 minutes to listen to each interviewee, and then evaluated them on their knowledge of the subject matter, communication skills, and likely suitability for the job they were seeking. After it was all over, the interviewers gave some advice to each candidate.

One question that I asked produced some interesting answers: "What were your favorite and least-favorite jobs?"

One interviewee gave as both his favorite and least favorite jobs three posts that were not on his resume! He didn't think they were significant enough to list. I suggested the favorite jobs should definitely be on the resume for two reasons:

  • The most-favorite jobs are helpful to the interviewer in establishing where the job applicant might best fit, and
  • Getting a question about one's most favorite job is a great opportunity to show a "sparkle in your eyes" about a job.
Another interviewee said that all of his jobs were equally important. He had no favorites. My reaction was that this is unnatural. Among children or students or employees, one tries not to show one's favoritism. But surely everyone feels more warmly toward some work experiences than others. Given the opportunity to show the "sparkle in the eye" I urged this interviewee to try to figure out something he could be enthusiastic about.

For my part, it was a great experience seeing some of the interviewees gaining confidence during the course of the interview, and at the end of it all I could see that some of them got a lot out of the exercise. Playing the role of an interviewer as well as an interviewee should be part of the clinical program of any business school.