Wednesday, March 16, 2022

"No Son of Mine!....."

People think they want what's best for their kids.  Funny thing, they never ask the kids about this!

Different generations have different value systems based on the era they grew up in.  One of the mysteries of life to me is how some people are groomed to be managers and leaders, while others are groomed to be plebes.  You get an appointment to West Point and you start your military career as an officer.  You start off in boot camp, and you start your career as a Private.  Sure, some folks and "work their way up through the ranks" but you can only go so far, and the officers who went to military academies will never accept you as one of their own.

In industry a similar thing occurs.  I went to General Motors Institute, which was, in a way, like the West Point of GM.  You graduated from GMI you started your career as a salaried employee of the company.  None of this punching-the-clock union nonsense.  And as a result, we have the same dichotomy between the executives in the office and the workers on the production floor.  And pretty much all industry is like this - you have white collar and you have blue collar, and once you are in one camp, it is hard to switch to the other.  And yes, you can "work your way up" through the ranks, but again, you can only go so far, and the people in the executive dining room will really never accept you because you have dirt under your fingernails (figuratively speaking).

I guess these are good systems or otherwise we wouldn't be using them.  But it seems to me that they are rift for corruption and ineptness.  People get appointments to military academies based not only on merit, but who you know (at least in the past).  And in industry, we have a ton of know-nothings in cushy jobs who are best at doing nothing - because when they actually try to do something, they create chaos on the production floor.  As a result, American industry is top-heavy with a lot of unnecessary layers of management.

What got me thinking about this was a story my Dad told me once.  His father, a raging alcoholic, was partner, along with this brothers, in a Buick Dealership in New Jersey.  There is still a "Bell Brothers Buick" in New Jersey, but I am not sure it is any relation.   Anyway, I told my Dad that it must have been keen to have a Dad working in a car dealership.  I would be down there every day after school, learning about cars or maybe tinkering with an old jalopy after hours!  It would be so cool!

"No," my Dad replied, "My father would have none of that.   As far as he was concerned, I was cut out out for management, not working in the shop.  He wouldn't let me work on cars as he felt it was beneath me!"   And right then, I understood why my Dad was so shitty at taking care of his cars - letting them rust to death, never washing them or waxing them or even changing the oil very often!  He was a serial car abuser, in retrospect.

But that era - the depression - was a tough time.  And people back then were social climbers.  Everyone strove to be part of "polite society" and part of the upper crust - to go to dinner at "the club" and play golf and all that sort of thing.  And you couldn't do that with dirt under your fingernails.  Sad, too, because I would think that learning about cars - as a kid - would set you up for later in life, if you wanted to run a car dealership or work for a car company.

So my Dad was sent away to college to learn Engineering and from what I can gather, he wasn't too keen on it.  Thermodynamics was his downfall (and mine - but the third time I took it, I got an "A"!) so he switched to the Management school at MIT (I never gave up!).   Management school - it is like "business school" - as if you can train someone in four years to run an international conglomerate or something.  That you can start at the top and not have to pay your dues.  That somehow, "book learning" can teach you all you need to know about running a company.

And yet "consultants" do this all the time - they hire the "best and brightest" graduates and then throw them into the field.  The law isn't much different - young associates do the lion's share of the work, with the least amount of experience.  Even the Supreme Court - especially the Supreme Court - relies on "clerks" to do most of the research and heavy lifting.  Most don't stay long - they leverage their clerkship experience into a partnership with a private firm.  It is a weird system, in my mind, at least.

Of course, back in the day, this system worked pretty well.  You got shunted off onto the Officer or Executive track and you started out your career at the top - well, not at the bottom, anyway.  But today, I am not sure this is an effective model anymore.  For starters, there are only so many executive positions out there - and for damn sure, we in America have been creating executive positions right and left!   Not only that, but as the McKinsey example illustrates, only the "best and brightest" are chosen for these top positions.

And I have some small experience with this.  I was a journeyman Patent Attorney - drafting Patent Applications and Amendments.  Writing Patents and getting them allowed - that was my game.  I didn't go to a prestigious undergraduate college and have a 4.0 grade average - or do the same in law school.  A guy I worked with, who was actually smart, did.  And he drafted motions and pleadings for litigation and appeals, which was levels above where I was.  A man has got to know his limitations, as Clint Eastwood once said.   So in the law business, there is this same dichotomy between the cream of the crust, and the everyday working lawyers.

I was interviewing for a position once, and I had sent a resume and cover letter to one of those "white shoe" law firms - the Park Avenue type.  I am not sure what I was thinking at the time, but I guess I didn't realize what was going on.  I never heard back from them and they had an interview day, so I showed up and talked to the secretary of the partner doing interviews.  She ushered me in and I handed my resume and school records to the hiring Partner.  He read through it and said, "What the hell are you doing here?"

You see, those sort of firms want someone from Harvard or Yale, in the top 10% of their class, on Law Review, etc.  They weren't interested in someone like me - a former lab tech with "hands on" experience, who had actually worked at the Patent Office and spend years writing and prosecuting Patent Applications even before I graduated.  They wanted the smart kids, the brain trust, or as they called them in the Kennedy administration, "The Whiz Kids."

It is funny, too, because I worked at a very good firm (who taught me a LOT, for which I am grateful) and they hired one of these white-shoe kind of guys (more Italian loafers, actually).  He was well-groomed, slick, and checked off all the boxes - right background, right schools, good grades, and so on and so forth.  And my job was to teach him how to write Patent Applications and Amendments.   This guy had credentials up the wazoo, but had no clue about anything.  And this is not atypical in many industries - the "college boy" has to be trained by the lower-level employee, and the college boy is making twice what his trainer is.

And I suppose this is unavoidable.  If the "Whiz Kid" has any whiz, well, he'll pick it all up in no time at all.  And he'll go on to do other things, once he learns the ropes and the basics.  My Dad ran a truck clutch factory and I am sure when he went to work there, he had not the foggiest idea of how a truck clutch worked or was built.  But they didn't hire him to make clutches.

I would run into this same effect later in life, when I had my own practice. Young graduates with zero experience would contact me, asking for a job when they had not the slightest idea of how to write or prosecute a Patent.  Not only did they want me to teach them, they wanted me to pay them a salary that was more than I was making!   One even said to me, point blank, that they only intended to work for me for a year or two.  Once they had "experience" they would go to work for a better-paying firm!   Such a well-cultivated sense of entitlement.  Of course, I could not afford such nonsense, even if I had wanted to help them out.

If this sounds like I am bitter or resentful, I am not.  The folks at the "White Shoe" law firms worked hard to get where they are, and they have to keep working hard to insure that their clients pay them the exorbitant fees they charge for legal work.   I didn't start at the top of the heap, but I did pretty well by myself - particularly after I put down the bong and the beer and tried applying myself a bit.   There are plenty of people out there smarter than I am, and the ones who are successful in life are not only lucky, they apply themselves at an earlier age than I did.

Granted, there is always one turd that floats to the top of the cesspool, particularly in family-run businesses, or in colleges that accept "legacy" candidates for admission.  People who have that sense of entitlement because of what their parents or grandparents did never end up successful for very long.  I've seen it firsthand - people crash and burn when everyone figures out there is no "there" there.

So, what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Well, for starters, I think this phenomenon is still present today, and in fact, in droves.  Young people are encouraged to "go to college" even if they have no clue what that means.  They sign up for tens of thousands of dollars in loans, for a degree they are not even sure they want.  The idea - based on 1930's social values - is that a college degree of any sort, will make you part of the executive class right off the bat.  We are realizing this is no longer true.

People looked down on technical educations.  I know my own mother did, chastising me for going to a "trade school" because she wanted to impress the other Mothers on the cocktail circuit that her son or daughter was going to Harvard or Yale.  As I recall, she even made me send an application to Harvard, even though there was no way in hell I was getting in.  What a waste of time.  I wanted to tinker with cars and other machinery, but she knew best - right?

I am sure this conversation is still going on today.  Some young kid is playing with computers and their parents are saying, "That's fine and all, but you should go to college and broaden your horizons and learn!"  They want their kid to be an executive, not some lowly coder making only a hundred grand a year.  And God forbid he drop outHe might end up a loser in life!

Taking career advice from anyone over 30 is always problematic.  And I am not sure that you can jump to the head of the line by going to college.  Every civilization has its tribal shaman and leader - whose successors are their sons and daughters.   Countries had their royalty - their Lords and Ladies, their Kings, Dukes, and Earls.  And you couldn't just sign up to be one, you had to be born into it, by and large.

So maybe it is a waste of effort to try that.  You can go to Wharton Business School and if you graduate with top honors, maybe you will be hired by some big company or Wall Street firm.  Or, if your Dad is willing to bankroll you, maybe you can go into the family business as Trump did (and he made a mess of that!).  Just because you go to finishing school doesn't mean you are finished.

I dunno.  Maybe it is time we chucked this whole concept of a dual-class society.  Maybe if someone wants to become an Officer in the military, they should serve a tour of duty as a grunt before they are accepted in a Military Academy.  Maybe the manager of a factory should understand what it is they are making - and has soiled his hands on the production floor.  Maybe - maybe not.   And I guess that was one of the great things about GMI - you did spend time on the production floor getting your hands dirty and understanding the business from the ground up.  And that is one reason why I am a big fan of the co-op college experience.

Graduating into management?  It just seems, well, sort of unnatural to me!