Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Mediation Skill Set

There are five concentrations at Graziadio for full-time students: Marketing, Finance (probably the two “big” ones), Entrepreneurship, Leadership & Organizational Change, and Dispute Resolution. Due to the fact that Dispute Resolution courses are managed through the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine Law School, very little is really discussed about this concentration. Not only is this a concentration, but students have the opportunity to pursue a certificate as well.

Throughout the Fall semester, I struggled with what concentration(s) to pick. Obviously, I don’t need to make that choice until Fall of my second year, but I wanted to make sure my coursework in general was on the right path. I looked into both entrepreneurship, leadership & organizational change and dispute resolution. I have decided to pursue a double concentration (yes, it can be done) of Leadership & Organizational Change and Dispute Resolution. Why, why would this crazy girl want to do that??

From my research, it is clear that if I want to pursue consulting, which is my end goal, then I need a tool belt that has a variety of applications. In consulting, there is no predestined industry, just to promise of knowledge to help that company with their problem. I interviewed Nancy Caplan, a divorce mediator and attorney, for her view point on how mediation skill sets could be applied to business. In addition, she runs her mediation practice, so her entrepreneurial skill set is equally as important.

In what ways do you feel mediation could be useful in business?

In every way by an exchange and debate of ideas to reach compromises, people learn from each other, gain an understanding of each other, they find out how their interests are joined in many situations. In mediation, the ultimate goal is to figure out how their goals are similar so that they can reach that point.

In the Graziadio program, there is sometimes a differentiation between the “hard skills” and the “soft skills.” If one were to learn a “hard skill” and dispute resolution, how naturally would these fit together?

Mediation is about subtle persuasion. It’s really about communication and being forced to listen to the other person and also about learning to express yourself, since both parties have to express themselves and listen. These are skills that cross all professional boundaries, every profession and in general people who need to communicate with others would benefit from mediation training. Anyone from a stay at home mom to the top of any corporate ladder would benefit from being able to keep an open mind to think about compromises to reach solutions in disputes. Whether you are dealing with children or with friends or business partners.

In business, leadership means understanding the perspective of people throughout your organization and resolving conflicts everyday. For those seeking management positions, what skill set can they expect to utilize on a regular basis?

It gives your back some control, having a background in mediation. You get to make choices, don't let life happen to you. Mediation is all about controlling your own choices and self-determination and learning to figure out how to settle your own problems. This can be very empowering to an executive, especially someone who owns their own business or works closely with unions.

Dispute resolution also has the added value of affecting the type of person you are, especially at Graziadio where values-centered leadership is highly prized, and in a world where corporate social responsibility is one of the top buzz words. How has being a mediator affected your personal life and relationships?

Being mediator means you are always looking at both sides of a conflict and being able to always see both sides let's me have better understanding of how you could have a different perspective of the same situation and that both sides have validity. This makes me less judgmental of other people's perspectives.

From Nancy Caplan, I learned that this subtle skill set, even when not paired with a legal background, can help to emphasize negotiations, listening skills, management-level conflict resolution, and just enhance the way you look at the world. It is often very difficult to get people to tell you the truth, trust in the fact that you will make a weighted decision or explain things in a way that makes sense. This can be extremely frustrating to a manager and often has the impact of shutting down completely and turning off to your employees. With a skill set based in dispute resolution, whether you do the concentration or not, having some of these skills in your tool box may give you the personal edge and confidence to tackle any problem.

Some of the courses available in the Dispute Resolution concentration, that based on conversations with Mike Beaudoin, a 2nd-year student pursuing this concentration, and talks with Sarah Gonzales, a program counselor at Straus, are some of the most applicable to any business student:

Cross-Cultural Negotiation- very applicable to those interested in international business
Environmental Dispute Resolution- interested in sustainability audits? Pursuing a SEER certificate? This might be good for you.
Communication & Conflict- a basic skill set for anyone interested in developing a problem-solving vocabulary
International Investment Disputes- great for a finance concentration student

And many more, too many to name. Contact Sarah Gonzales for more information about how to sign up at: sarah.gonzales@pepperdine.edu.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

First Semester Blues

Grades make no sense. The GPA points system is extremely unclear. At Graziadio, an A gets 4 pts/unit, an A- get 3.7 pts/unit, B+ gets 3.3 pts/unit, B gets 3.0 pts/unit, etc. There is nothing in between. If you got a 90% or 94%, you still get 3.7. Also, in some classes, I've noticed that teachers grade down. If you got an "A-" on a presentation, they put it in the gradebook as a 90. If you got an "A", it's a 94. With this scale, you will always average out to the lower grade, even if your actual performance was closer to a high A- or an average A- (94, and 92 respectively).

There are certain classes I've worked very hard in and felt that no one got an A, including those who probably put forth A level work. In some classes where the grading it more quantitatively explained, I am okay just being shy of an A, for example, in a class where I was 9 pts off from an A (out of 950, marginal by percentage). This is not just the difference between an A- or an A but anyone who feels like they should be getting a B+ instead of a B, etc. With the GPA points system so definitely defined in these wide margins, someone with a B- ends up in the 2.something category.

They say this is "B-school" and B's are expected graduate level work, but in a field like consulting, my grades were required just to apply for an internship. To differentiate ourselves from the competition, especially when our competition are name schools like UCLA Anderson and USC Marshall, clarifying the grade point system is extremely important, as is coming to a unified understanding of an "A" versus "A-" versus "B+" etc. It is every professor's discretion to grade and curve or not curve as they see fit and I am not trying to debate that, but I am also trying to understand how the "best" a person can get in a class is a 94%? Doesn't that mean we enter the course only going down from there? This issue should be addressed with faculty going forward to ensure that there are at least some As in the class, without being perfect. Exceptional effort and learning can be demonstrated without perfection and it's important that those students be acknowledged and their GPAs are not dramatically penalized.

Car Buying isn't easy

In early November, I crashed my car and totaled it. I received a settlement from my insurance, and combined with some personal money, was able to pay cash for a new car. I knew exactly how much money I had to spend, knew exactly what car I wanted (a Nissan Versa) and knew that it had to be a certified pre-owned. After a few test drives at a few Nissan dealerships, I realized finding the right deal was going to be difficult thanks to Los Angeles County’s ridiculously high sales tax. The Certified Pre-owned Kelley Blue Book value on a 2008-2009 Nissan Versa automatic hatchback is about $11500. I had that much to spend INCLUDING taxes. So I knew I might have to sacrifice higher mileage and probably go for a 2008 instead of the 2009, but I was okay with that.

On a whim coming home from school one day, I pulled into Woodland Hills Nissan. The salesperson who greeted me was Frankie Mercado, probably the nicest, low pressure salesperson I’d met thus far. I test drove a 2007, 50k mile Nissan Versa that just wasn’t my style and wasn’t worth the money. It was boring silver and had a worn in steering wheel, which frankly weirded me out. When he reported my feelings to his boss, Ali, it was just my luck that this afternoon, a woman had traded in her 2008 Midnight Blue Nissan Versa hatchback with 41k miles. It was exactly what I wanted and they made a deal with me at $11,500. The car had not been certified, inspected or detailed yet, but they promised me it would be done.

Unknowingly, when signing all my contracts, because the car was not a certified pre-owned yet, my contract was inadvertently written up as a used car (which has a shorter warranty and a lot less benefits in the long run). This is where I screwed up. I knew I wanted a certified pre-owned but I hadn’t done my research as to what that meant. Also, I shouldn’t have signed the contract until the car was cleaned up, inspected and I saw it in daylight.

When I came to pick up my sparkly clean Mindy (that’s what I named her), I realized there was a deep crease as if a shopping cart had hit the side door. In addition, the bumper was a little loose, the hood had a golf ball size ding, and worst of all, the car had an issue turning over when we started it. It started the second time after Frankie repositioned the battery, so we thought it was a glitch.

With verbal promises to fix the cosmetic issues, I left with my new car. Eight visits later, I left with a new car that was fixed.

Over the course of trying to get the cosmetic issues fixed, there turned out to be a light bulb issue and leaking in my back blinker, and the starter issue did not go away. It just got worse. Of course, every time I brought it in, the problem would not re-create and the service manager and I began our unfortunate stand off.

The sales team was always on my side, and I will credit them for trying to make it right. They gave me free rental cars, sincere apologies and never blamed me or harassed me for this issue. In fact, when I realized the car had NOT been a certified pre-owned, they promptly re-did the warranty contracts and certified the vehicle, all of this at cost to them. Obviously, had they not been in a rush to turnover the car in the first place, some of these issues could have been avoided, but I was equally in a rush to get this new car. I would BUY a car from Frankie and Ali again, just taking careful steps to make sure I knew what I was getting. I think this can be said of anyone buying a car. Inspect and be clear every step of the way. Document the process in writing and make sure you understand what you want from it.

Regarding the service team though, I have some complaints. As a consumer, when you are in the right, keep coming back. They have to fix the problem eventually. It’s exhausting, frustrating and sometimes you think, “the car is driveable…forget it.” But don’t give up. So their first attempt to fix the starter issue, they “recharged the battery” which is frankly, a lie. One of those fake mechanic fixes meaning they tightened a few things and checked the connections. Secondly, they replaced the battery, again never having re-created the problem and making assumptions. Next, they “reprogrammed the keys” which have a chip inside, something that should be unrelated to the issue I was having. I am convinced that they never did their due diligence in trying to recreate the issue and were hoping it would stop eventually. Finally, I told them to let it sit a few hours and then try starting it. That was the only way they would recreate it. Also, I recorded the sound on my phone at home when I started the car, giving me evidence to say I’m not crazy, something is actually wrong. They finally found the problem and replaced the fuel pressure regulator. This took exactly 30 days since purchasing the car.

What I have learned from this experience is both a study of how to run a business and how NOT to run a business. Their siloed disconnection from each department, sales and service, created a customer runaround that was frustrating and led to many miscommunications. In addition, their goals were different. Sales saw this as helping a potential future customer and someone, who threw word of mouth, could improve their business. Service saw all these “free fixes” as a bleeding budget for a girl who wouldn’t go away and a problem they weren’t patient enough to fix. Their goals were not in alignment, and it affected the service I received.

In addition, as mentioned before, I was not fully armed and that affected how I acted, not protecting myself as thoroughly. Without knowing what certified pre-owned meant, I did not immediately recognize the discrepancies in what I was signing. In addition, I should never have signed a contract on a car that had not been inspected and detailed. My urgency and frustration after my car accident definitely impacted my emotional response to buying this car. I am hoping that over time, I will learn to love Mindy despite this tumultuous first month and that we are both better for the experience.