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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Olympic Spirit and Corporate Social Responsibility

The Olympic badminton event stirred up controversy after eight players were disqualified for throwing matches. It sparked a debate on what sportsmanship and the Olympic spirit are really about.
When I read the news, I noticed a striking analogy between the disqualification incident and corporate social responsibility. I’ll explore the issue in this article.

Disqualification of Badminton Players

To put in subpar efforts and lose a match deliberately can be interpreted as part of a strategy to win the competition. In fact, this practice isnt exclusive to badminton players.

In soccer, teams may throw the final group match in order to avoid tough opponents too early in the knockout round. Besides, teams that have already qualified for the next round often field a team of substitutes, in order to rest the best players and groom the young ones.

Though its a reasonable strategy for the badminton players, spectators were understandably upset about the low quality of the match. They booed the athletes off the court. An investigation followed, which ultimately led to the disqualification.

It’s a huge disappointment for the athletes, who spent years training to compete in the Olympics. In my view, the Organizing Committee is the real party at the fault. They shouldnt choose a competition format that gives players the incentive to lose.

Playing by the Rules

The badminton players played by the rules when they threw matches, and similarly most corporations abide by the law when they try to maximize profits. Free market enthusiasts believe that legal requirements are the only moral obligation companies have to fulfill.

Milton Friedman famously wrote that “the sole purpose of business is to increase its profits.” The idea is that corporations already help with social causes when they pay taxes, and they help the community by creating job opportunities and developing the workforce. At the same time, a firm ought to maximize profits and shareholder value in order to be responsible to its owners. Its only obligation to society is to obey the law.

Besides, any transaction that takes place must leave both the buyer and seller better off. Otherwise at least one party won’t agree to the trade. The argument goes that, unless externality exists, firms fulfill social responsibility simply by running the business, because every transaction they make increases social welfare.

Corporate Social Responsibility

However, many people seem to think that it isnt enough for multinational corporations to merely follow the regulations. Theyre often blamed for the huge profits they earn, even though profits can be thought of as a testimony to the quality products/services they offer and the positive impact theyve made. Sometimes, theyre even blamed for widening income inequality and creating different kinds of social problems.

Increasingly, our society expects businesses to act justly and fairly and help solve social problems. While we can debate all we want whether firms/athletes have the moral obligation to do more than what the laws/rules require, capitalism means they have to be responsive to what the public wants.

Income, popularity and influence all depend on public support. If the public thinks youre not doing the right thing, it can hurt you even when you can defend your actions on moral grounds. Thats why weve seen more and more firms engaging in various socially responsible activities, from energy saving and pollution reduction to volunteer work and charity donations.

Hypocrisy or What?

So, are corporations hypocritical to improve brand image by performing social deeds? Maybe, but I don’t see what is bad about it. If the public can pressure firms to strive for the greater good, that’s in everyone’s interest. What is dangerous is when the public only considers product features but doesnt care about what firms do behind the scenes.

Consumers need to understand that what they buy and where they buy from have the power to influence what firms do. If we want the private sector to contribute more to social welfare, this message of ethical consumption needs to be promoted. 

Questions: What do you think about corporate social responsibility? 
(Entry 3 of 3 in the Lessons from the 2012 Olympics series) 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Two Inspirational Olympians and How They Overcame Hardships

After a spectacular closing ceremony, the London Olympics came to an end last week. We all have different favorite memories about the Games. Here are two more athletes that have inspired me in the Games, in addition to the three I talked about last time. 
4) The Blade Runner – Oscar Pistorius
Born with congenital absence of fibula in both legs, Pistorius had his legs amputated at 11 months old. But that hasn’t stopped him from running or playing sports. In prosthetic legs, Pistorius qualified for the London Olympics and made it to the semi-finals in the 400m race.

What Pistorius has done went beyond athletics. In a way, Pistorius is an innovator. He’s redefined what is possible. Nobody ever imagined a double amputee competing with able-bodied athletes in the same race in the same Olympic stadium.

I can’t imagine what Pistorius went through to become the inspirational figure hes today. When he played sports in school as a kid, some of his classmates probably mocked him and thought of him as a weirdo. Even after he became a professional runner, most people still believed its unrealistic for him to aim to compete in the Olympics. But he made it against all odds, as we now know.

Pistorius has challenged our assumptions and made the impossible possible, showing us that we should never underestimate our abilities or willpower. Plus, he often interacts with the community to inspire and encourage different people, as shown in this photo where he ran together with a little girl.

In many ways, Pistorius reminds me of Nick Vujijic, because both of them show the world that the disabled can live a wonderful life too. Without limbs, Vujijic still has a colorful life and he’s become a motivational speaker who has inspired people around the world.

5) Chinas Track and Field Icon Liu Xiang

Liu is the first man in China to win an Olympic gold medal in a track and field event. Set to defend his title in 2008 in front of the home crowd, Liu was forced to withdraw from the competition due to a foot injury.

Determined to overcome his foot injury, Liu kept training and significantly improved his form in the past year. He won silver in the world championship in 2011, and matched the world record earlier in 2012, albeit with wind assistance.
Unfortunately, Liu injured himself again in the London Games, after failing to leap over the first hurdle cleanly in the first round. But this time he handled the disappointment much more maturely than four years ago. He kicked the wall in anguish back then, while this time he waved to the audience and sportingly greeted the other runners in the same heat. He’s grown a lot in the past four years.

The lesson is we must live with courage and determination to pursue our passion. Uncertainty is always a part of life. Even if we do our best and give our full dedication, we may not succeed in the end. But we can’t let stress and fear cripple us. What matters is we grow and learn along the way, and meet great people and have fun in the journey. Even if we cant make it in the end, we know weve given it all and we have no regrets.

Elite athletes are similar to elite businessmen, in the sense that they all work very hard and sacrifice a lot in order to reach the top of the profession. It’s not easy to be one and we can learn a great deal from both world-class athletes and Fortune 100 CEOs.
Questions: What is your favorite moment in the London Olympics?

(Entry 2 of 3 in the Lessons from the 2012 Olympics series) 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What I Have Learnt from Olympic Athletes

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the London Olympics in the past two weeks. I love the Olympics not just because the Games produce dazzling athletic performances and promote cultural interaction. Another reason is I believe sporting achievements teach us valuable lessons about life.

Olympians have sacrificed a lot to compete at the Olympic level. Then in the Olympic arena, they again have to overcome all sorts of obstacles to realize their potential. When you see them compete whether they shine or disappoint what you see is only a small part of their Olympic journey.

Indeed, there is a story behind every Olympian. Some of the stories are especially inspirational and life-affirming. Here are three athletes that have inspired me in the 2012 Olympics:
1) The King of the Pool Michael Phelps

Four years ago in Beijing, Phelps looked invincible in his historic medal haul. But the greatest swimmer of all time didn’t have a good start in this year’s Olympics.

After a fourth place finish in the 400m individual medley, Phelps suffered more disappointments in the 4x100m freestyle relay and the 200m butterfly, finishing second in both events. Sure, two silvers are quite an accomplishment for almost any other athlete, but Phelps has set such a high standard for himself with eight golds in Beijing.

The media started to question his form. But Phelps regrouped and won the next two races the 200m individual medley and the 100m butterfly becoming the first male swimmer to win the same individual event in three successive Olympics. Hes now the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals, 18 of which are golds.

What Phelps showed us is that one bad performance doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes. Nor does it mean your best is behind you. Don’t lose faith because of a bad performance. Figure out what’s wrong, improve yourself and aim to do better next time. Phelps has demonstrated this positive mindset perfectly in the London Olympics. 
2) The Judo Fighter Kayla Harrison
When shea kid, Harrison already loved judo and excelled in it. Shes set to be a top judo athlete, but for a period of her life, judo brought her a lot of painful memories.

In her teens, Harrison was sexually abused by her judo coach. She thought of quitting the sport so she could forget the trauma and start a new life. But with the support of her new coach and her family, she successfully overcame the traumatic experience and continued to pursue her passion. Shes found a way to enjoy the sport again and become the first American to win an Olympic gold in judo.

Its remarkable how Harrison has turned a tragedy into a defining moment that strengthens her character. Shes shown that humans are courageous and resilient beings with the potential to rise triumphantly even in the bleakest circumstances.
As I remember a line from the TV show House, “People don’t get what they deserve. They just get what they get.” True, the world isn’t always fair. But while you can’t control what happens to you, you can always choose how to respond to trauma and tragedies. And your response will make a world of difference.
3) Gymnastics Sweetheart Jordyn Wieber
Wieber, a member of the U.S. Gymnastics team, is the reigning world all-around champion and was one of the favorites to win gold in the Olympics. Despite placing 4th in the qualifications, she couldn’t advance to the all-around final (in which 24 athletes take part) due to the two-gymnasts-per-country rule. Bitterly disappointed, Wieber couldn’t hold back her tears.

But the 17-year-old didn’t dwell on the disappointment. She moved on and bounced back very well. Two days later, she gave a strong performance to help USA win a gold medal in the team final.

Wieber showed great mental strength and didn’t let past mistakes impede future success. It’s a reminder to all of us: We can’t change the past but the future is still in our hands, and the future is what we should focus on.

In the all-around final, Wieber again showed class though she’s unable to compete. She cheered for teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman on the stands, and sent Douglas a congratulatory tweet after she won the event. It’s a gracious act of sportsmanship to appreciate and applaud for your competitors.

Olympians show focus, dedication, and persistence. While enjoying their athletic performances, we can learn from their attitudes and become a better personI’ll cover two other inspirational Olympic athletes in the next entry. Please stay tuned!
Questions: What lessons have you learnt from the Olympics? Is there any athlete(s) that you consider to be a role model or an inspiration? 
(Entry 1 of 3 in the Lessons from the 2012 Olympics series) 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lessons from the 2012 Olympics

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the London Olympics in the past two weeks. I love the Olympics not just because the Games produce dazzling athletic performances and promote cultural interaction. Another reason is I believe sporting achievements teach us valuable lessons about life.

This series on the Olympics contain three entries:

Part 3  The Olympic Spirit and Corporate Social Responsibility
The third entry will show that sports stories offer an interesting perspective to business and society too. Sports competitions involve athletes (the producers/service providers), audience (the consumers) and the organizing body (the regulator). From the interaction between the three parties, we can observe a lot and understand what the consumers think.

I hope youve enjoyed the London Games. Moreover, I hope this series can motivate you to think more when you watch sports events. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Use of Knowledge in the Workplace

In this series so far, we’ve talked about the importance of skills and mentality. Upon reflection, I realize I haven’t given much credit to knowledge. But surely knowledge is important at work, right? 

Yes, indeed. This article will explore the use of knowledge in the workplace. Well draw two distinctions one between good grades and knowledge and another between textbook knowledge and industry knowledge. Interestingly, knowledge is useful at work in a different way from what many students think.
High Exam Scores vs. Internalized Knowledge

Though grades are meant to objectively and accurately assess a student’s ability, sometimes in reality they can’t serve that function. Good grades don’t necessarily mean a thorough understanding of the subject for two reasons.

First, the focus of some college exams (especially in Hong Kong and China) is still on memorization rather than analytical and creative thinking. Since the latter are much more important than the former in the job market, exam scores aren’t a proper measure of work ability.

Second, what students can answer correctly in exams may not be what they internalize. They may forget most of what was taught in class within weeks, or maybe even days, after the exam. In that case, even when the subjects are useful at work like statistics, finance and programming languages high grades don’t mean an excellent work performance.

Textbook Knowledge vs. Industry Knowledge

Plus, it’s not just textbook knowledge that matters. Take finance as an example. Market awareness is as important as textbook theories. Sometimes, I wonder which candidate a financial firm will pick if it’s given a choice between a 3.9 GPA student who doesn’t read financial news at all and a 3.3 GPA student who reads The Wall Street Journal two hours every day.

My guess is the company will hire the second student. It’s good to know financial theories, but that’s not enough. You need to have a deep interest in financial markets and keep up-to-date with financial news.

Similarly, if you apply for a position in a policy institute, it helps to be an expert in political theories, but you won’t be hired if you don’t understand national politics and the public sentiment. 

Not only is industry knowledge very useful, it shows your enthusiasm and passion in the field. Its hard to convince the interviewers of your enthusiasm if you dont even bother to pay attention to what is happening in the industry.

In fact, every industry has a set of knowledge that outsiders don’t know. Biochemistry majors won’t understand the process of designing a new drug unless they’ve worked in a pharmaceutical firm. Business majors won’t understand how supply chains are managed globally unless they’ve worked in an international retailer.

The Importance of Internships

This is where internships come in. Internships allow you to build industry knowledge on the job, which is a lesson that you can’t find in a university classroom.

In the past when the number of college students was limited, you might not need a good internship to set yourself apart. However, with increasing competition, and given that firms are trying to cut training costs in this economic recession, its a huge advantage to build industry knowledge and experience early on.

Plus, with an internship in the industry you’re applying to, you’ll be considered a low-risk hire. Since you have experience in the industry and are familiar with it, your decision to return to it suggests youre comfortable working in the industry. All these are reasons why a prestigious internship can greatly improve your job search prospects, not to mention the possibility of getting a return offer after the internship ends.

One Final Tip for Job Seekers 

Sadly, it seems industry knowledge isnt even what students usually perceive as knowledge. This can be a problem because students are expected to demonstrate market awareness in job interviews.

In interviews, its important to show that you have an accurate understanding of the industry. A lot of the times, recruiters are afraid that you want the job only because of some untruthful myths or stereotypes.

For example, people may want a finance, marketing or fashion design job out of the impression that they pay well and let you meet many interesting and successful people. In reality these exciting industries are very competitive. Behind all the glamor, they give huge pressure, and require long work hours and lots of hard work. Youll only get disillusioned if you dont really know what the industry is like beforehand.

To better prepare yourself, read news reports about the industry you want to apply in; go to recruitment talks and career fair and talk to the people already working in the industry; find a relevant internship to get hands-on experience. These steps will put you in a good position when you find a graduate job. 

Questions: Do you agree that college students often pay too little attention to industry knowledge? Do you believe that internships are important? Have internships helped you advance in your career?