A most unlikely PhD. But it can be done.

So, why the moniker “Blue Collar Scholar”? 

My father signed his name with an “X”.

I was raised in a blue-collar family. We scraped to get by. My father worked three jobs to help us survive. He could barely write his name and often used an “X”. As the son of a factory worker I was convinced I would spend my life following my father’s footsteps.  I worked a punch press, operated a shear and was a factory grunt at age 19.  My friends had gone on to college, but there was a persistent voice reminding me that my ACT scores had been as high or higher than theirs.

[I am not criticizing blue collar work in any way. My son is a tool and die maker and I am proud of him and have high respect for what he has achieved – takes as long to get a Journeyman’s license as it does to mint a PhD! – my point is to show that the unlikely can be done.]

Because of my father’s desire to achieve and provide for a family, he showed me an incredible work ethic that simply came down to “It can be done”.   As I watched him struggle and persist, his blue-collar ethic gave me the willpower to achieve the unlikely.

Education was not highly valued in my family, and in fact, the culture of my family was wary of those with education and even intimidated by it.  Blue collar people like my father were uncomfortable in the ranks of the well educated, as many of us are when we meet people who do not intend to intimidate but do so simply because of the level of achievement they have attained.

And of course, back in those days (forty years ago) the division between white collar (office/management) and blue collar (factory floor/workers) was significantly more intense than it is today.  That ethos and power distance added to my families’ wariness of the educated. My family felt separated from a group of people who had achieved higher levels of education.

So as you can see, I was an unlikely candidate for achieving the level of doctorate.  But it can be done.

It can be done – here’s how.

Listen to the persistent internal motivation – the desire – the inspiration that continues to call out to you.

Only a powerful internal motivation will withstand the barriers, obstacles and trauma of pursuing a massive goal.

When you hear a voice inside you to take a chance and persist in something you really want to do — and it doesn’t go away — you need to attend to that voice. It cannot be the voice of another. It cannot be imposed or it will die.

I’ve known doctors who really wanted to be landscapers.  Their profession was imposed but they really didn’t like what they were doing.

Only a powerful internal motivation will withstand the barriers, obstacles and trauma of pursuing a massive goal. For me, it was simple: I knew I had to get that degree – it was a matter of personal achievement – nothing more; nothing less.   As a kid in a family without interest in education, I often saw others going on to achievements I knew I could do.  I just started a bit late.  I was about five miles behind the starting line when the gun went off. I saw friends becoming veterinarians, dentists and doctors.  I knew I had the stuff, and I determined to achieve the impossible.


I’m going to offer some reminders of things you already know.  Sometimes it’s helpful to have a refresher.  


Watch for the breakout opportunity and take it.

The day came when someone offered me a drafting apprenticeship. The pay was much lower than I was getting in the factory by a factor of 5. But the opportunity was there and I took it.  That was the breakout moment.

I started out my ‘career’ on the drafting board – an old flat piece of wood with plastic triangles and straightedges to make lines on pieces of paper.  Yet that humble start opened immense doors to other roles and further education through tuition assistance.   When you know that an opportunity is going to get you closer to your goals, take it!

Persist in the opportunity

I completed a PhD through ten years of night school while raising three kids and working on an old home and holding down a full-time job. That takes extraordinary persistence and determination to complete the goal – with no room for excuses. None.  One class, one course, one semester.

In psychology we talk about goals in two ways: Proximal and Distal.  The proximal goals are those we can see right now, but they lead to the distal goals.   Make sure your current goals are leading to something bigger.

What does it take? 

We all know that the media has given us the idea that success is easy. I think we all get the glamourous idea that great achievements just fall into the laps of people, whether they are Olympic athletes or screenwriters or musicians or executives in organizations. But the reality is radically different. People work for years — decades — to accomplish goals like the Olympics or to get published or to be an executive in an organization, or in my case, to finish a doctorate.

Here are a few tips:

Discipline and focus gets stuff done. 

Much self-discipline is unpleasant but it gets things done. Exercise is not always pleasant, nor is reading or memorization or going to night school. But it can be done.

Move quickly past the emotional let downs. 

Sometimes I would get into the parking lot at school, scraping the ice off my windshield on a -10 below zero night in January, and asking myself – “Exactly what are you doing?” but I kept on going because it can be done.  I kept the end goal in mind. One class, one course, one semester.  Bit by bit – day by day.  The emotional loss of energy will drain you.  Gotta move past it quickly. 

Adjust your schedule to make it work for everyone – not just you. 

I would study at 5AM on Saturdays to do projects and read so I wouldn’t disrupt family activities and could be supportive in raising the children.  Burdening others in pursuit of your own goals is not sustainable.  Eventually it will wear you and others down and you will not complete what you started.  The strain on relationships breaks us if we are not careful.  If there are others in our lives, we need to adjust to make room for their goals too.

Discipline your free time.

I needed to exclude useless things that diluted focus – like television and useless time wasters.   It is very easy to get caught in social media and other time wasters.  A quick bit of self-talk is all that’s needed to get back on track.

Take advantage of the time when it’s there.

When moments opened up – perhaps someone’s schedule changed or an appointment fell through – I did not hesitate to hit the books or write – even if it was for 15 minutes.  Something gained is always better than nothing!

Break down the big goals into smaller bites. 

To overcome the sense of the impossible, you need to break things down into smaller pieces.   I recall being overwhelmed at times in my job, almost to the point of paralysis. Had to splash water in my face and reboot.  Sometimes big things can be daunting, but when we break them down into small pieces, we can get them done. One night, one course, one semester, a little at a time.

I am proud of what I’ve achieved, and I would not have been pleased with myself if I had not accomplished this goal.

So what is it you truly want to do? 

It can be done.

Episode #1 – Surviving Organizational Dragons

Gain some tips for how to manage an Organizational Dragon.

Forgotten Aspects of Change Management: Missing the “Middle”

Since much organizational change takes place ‘at the front line’, we make strenuous effort to ensure the success of people who must ‘do the work’ every day.   Procedures are written, barriers are analyzed, and exceptional efforts are taken to help front-line members of the organizations manage day-to-day actions when the change has been put in place.  Unfortunately, this approach disregards a vast population of critical middle management.   We have errantly assumed that people who are at managerial levels will magically be able to manage business in the future without doing the careful thinking required to (1) understand the impact of the change, and (2) find an alternative method for managing the business.

Managers at many levels of an organization have gained ‘rules of thumb’ (heuristics is the academic term) for seeing and understanding how business works through years of trial and error and deep thought processing.   They come up with techniques for information acquisition and decision making that is nearly tacit due to their experience.   They are, however, at risk during a major change.  Here’s why.  Upper management has had months, perhaps years to think about the change.  They have struggled with it, wrestled with it, dreamed about it, and come to conclusions about what to expect from the change.   I have observed that upper management has two expectations about change: front line people will be able to do this change when it is released, and management should be smart enough to ‘figure it out’ and manage the business when the change is done.  The focus is perennially on training the front line person.

“We focused so much on having our people do this that we forgot the leaders.”  Director

Many Change Initiatives are envisioned by executive management with a focus on the end user. As Change Leaders, however, we need to carefully consider the impact to Middle Management and hear their voices. They are often in the impossible situation of supporting a change they do not fully understand, yet the success of the change will stand or fall with their leadership

Business rules are broad concepts, requiring tacit judgments and experience, and they are not developed on the fly.  They must be thought on.   Requires reflection – cannot learn in an instant and use that in a judgment process.   Anchor concepts take time to develop and establish.   A big challenge in these implementations is downloading all the thought processes from the business analysis team to those who will execute and use the change/ system.

So we spend a lot of time working on the success of the front line person, without carefully considering the mid-level managers who ultimately will be held accountable for the success of the change.  We tend to think in terms of the front-line user, but the business philosophers need to know what’s happening.

Business Philosophers  Average Employee
Strategic Thinkers


Higher Order View


Tactical Thinkers


Day-to-day view

These Philosophers (high-level analytical thinkers who live and breathe the strategic side of the business) are engineering managers, financial people, HR managers and directors in strategic roles, VPs of Operations and others who need to spend time to think through the change to make it successful.   This is a hidden aspect of change because it flies in the face of executive expectations for middle managers to get on board quickly.   Ultimately, the goal is exposing the change to the business people who see the world at different levels.  These key players have a wider philosophical look at a change – they see connectedness to the parts.   Example: Financial level people, e.g. controllers see interconnectivity of the parts that other parts of a business may not see.  Call center and operations people see the world one way, executives see it another way.  No one is wrong, but they need time to think about how to think about the business.

So consider your middle managers, your business philosophers when you conduct a change.  They are the greatest source for change success or failure.

Leaders: Have you considered getting feedback on your blind spots?

The most important thing I learned in Driver’s Education was ‘check your blind spot.’ Candidly, that bit of coaching has literally saved my life multiple times throughout the past several decades. Not checking a blind spot can mean destruction while driving a car, but I often wonder whether leaders take the time to check their blind spots. What you can’t see can hurt you and others in your team and in your organization, making you ineffective.

Here are a few blind spots I have observed in others and, in the interest of authenticity, some which others have brought to my attention over the years:

  1. “My way or the highway.” Power has a way of increasing this blind spot. Unidirectional leadership is an oxymoron. While leaders may think this approach demonstrates leadership, they may be losing the very followers they need to be successful.
  2. “I don’t need any feedback.” Those who do not want to hear about dangerous flaws that may be impeding their success are especially vulnerable to this blind spot. Think ‘ego on steroids’. As the old Proverb says: Pride comes before a fall.
  3. Feigned commitment. Leaders who nod their heads in approval during key meetings but only do so for appearances, are sending a message of disinterestedness which damages credibility.
  4. An unwillingness to get one’s hands dirty when the chips are down. Leaders who are ‘above all that‘ send a powerful message about their true concern for the challenges facing their team.
  5. Demonstrating an “Illusion of participation”. In change management and organizational development, we coach people to refrain from asking people for input unless they plan to use the input (Think employee surveys, for example). Leaders erode follower confidence in their sincerity when they act as if they’re interested in someone’s advice without including those thoughts in a solution. Loss of sincerity = loss of trust = loss of influence.
  6. Assuming others know what we know. Sometimes leaders think about a decision for days, weeks, even months … but when they decide to act, they forget that their team has not had the time to process what they’ve been thinking about, causing confusion and frustration in the ranks.

Blind spots can be remedied with candid leader openness to criticism that articulates the danger of the blind spot, the short-term impact of the blind spot, and the long-term, career damaging blind spots that can run someone off course forever. One or two trusted colleagues can provide insight to leadership blind-spots.

What are your leadership blind spots? Have you considered what they might be? Have you asked for true criticism of your style by a trusted colleague?

I welcome readers to weigh in on other blind spots they’ve observed. We can learn from the experiences of others and improve our leadership as we discover our own blind spots.


Leaders: Are you thinking about Organizational Level Engagement?

Employee engagement has been around for over 20 years.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know employee engagement is now part of the routine and does not hold the prestige and impact it once held.

So, as an executive, have you thought beyond employee engagement to organizational level engagement?

Organizational Engagement focuses on “We” not “Me”.

While acknowledging that the individual is important, organizational level engagement focuses at the organizational level.  It does not dismiss the value of the individual, but acknowledges the critical nature of organizational level performance.  It focuses on how people work together across an organization to accomplish outcomes.

As an executive, you’re likely to respond: “Well, we have our financial performance metrics to tell us how we’re doing as an organization.”  True – – – but that answer is not sufficient.  Financial metrics only tell one part of the tale.  Organization Level Engagement is about how the organization is performing from a people perspective.

For example, all organizations have ‘silos’, groups of people who do not work together.  Organizational level engagement discovers pockets of silos allowing managers and leaders to improve how groups work together, sharing data and improving decision making processes.

Do your people know the mission of your organization?  Merely repeating the mission by rote does not mean they have integrated the mission of your organization with their daily work behavior.  Do your people work together?  Do they make effective decisions by considering others who may be impacted by new strategies?  The following chart describes the differences between employee engagement and organizational level engagement.

Employee Engagement Organization Level Engagement
Focused exclusively on what employees derive from the organization Focused on what the organization derives from all employees working together
Focused on individual motivation – what’s in it for me? Focused on organizational level motivation – what’s in it for us?
Focused on ‘local’ issues such as environment, pay and benefits Focused on organizational level outputs such as customer satisfaction, data quality, and leader effectiveness across groups.
Focused on the leader the individual works with each day Focused on how all leaders work together each day and throughout the year
Focused on “Me” Focused on “We”


Evaluating organizational level engagement gives Senior Executives and Human Resource teams the data to:

  1. Find a “Weakest Link” – Analyzing the Level of Organizational Engagement at the departmental level will help you strengthen your weakest link. By doing so, you enhance the performance of the entire organization.
  2. Spend budget dollars wisely – Organizational Engagement analysis defines where to focus budget, managerial effort, and training to improve organization level performance.
  3. Plan for success – Organizational Engagement assesses how teams and organizations will manage new challenges and change. Deficits can be addressed to ensure the team has a greater likelihood of success during significant organizational change.

Executives need to step back and ask: “How well does my organization work together?  How do they truly collaborate to achieve success?  What is our culture of engagement?  Are we setting an example of decision making and cooperation at the top?

By taking this important step and investigating organizational level engagement, you will improve the effectiveness of your organization, leading to increased profitability and improved employee satisfaction.

A taxonomy of organizational distress

From multiple years of experience working with leaders across scores of organizations, I have devised this taxonomy of organizational distress.

I. O.A.D.D. – Organizational Attention Deficit Disorder

Symptoms: People have so many projects on their plate they can’t keep up. People are asked to take on more and more and more before they have finished current work. Indecision.

Causes: Ineffective strategy. Unfocused leadership. Competition between upper level leaders for turf. No ‘air traffic controller’ at the executive level assessing the amount of new programs being generated and sent to front-line managers. Overload.

Impact: People lose focus and become indecisive. Energy is diluted. Projects are done ineffectively. Cognitive overload. Burnout. Customer complaints. Profit loss.

Treatment: Leadership must refocus the organization

  1. Choose the critical few initiatives from strategy and ignoring the rest.
  2. Get rid of breathing dinosaurs (projects with no future).
  3. Be deliberate about where to focus energy.

II. Organizational Amnesia – forgetting what people have done.

Symptoms: Performance reviews do not acknowledge achievement. Selective memory loss impacts people who have achieved much but recognized for little.

Causes: Managerial jealousy of underlings who are rising stars. Busy organizations often forget simply due to the speed of the operation.

Impact: When achievements are unnoticed or unrecognized, people lose desire to achieve more. The concept is called “learned helplessness“.


Organizational and individual achievements must be heralded. Improve the quality of performance reviews. Understand that achievements are a source of efficacy – building strength for the next challenge.

III. Organizational Schizophrenia – having separate minds.

Schizophrenia comes from schizein and phren – two Greek words – meaning, literally, a split mind.

Symptoms: Organizational uncertainty, team infighting, ineffective and diluted distribution of resources.

Causes: Strategic uncertainty. Leadership ego gets in the way of a clear path. Too many cooks in the kitchen setting direction — generally an effect of a dysfunctional executive team.

Impact: Although similar to O.A.D.D., this is a more deliberate and intentional form of organizational distress, caused by leadership intentionally going in different directions due to competing goals and strategies.


Discover the disconnect. Who is uncommitted to the organizational direction? Why? If there is a high level team member who is traveling in a direction that diminishes the effectiveness of the organization – remove them.

IV. Organizational Co-Dependency

Symptoms: Consultants become a crutch.

Causes: Executive relationships from a former consulting company. Executive insecurity. Excessive reliance on outside sources of information.

Impact: Executives spend excessive amounts of money and time deferring to outside consultants, asking for advice and direction. Consultants rarely live with the results of their recommendations, btw.


Ask whether the consultant has truly helped your organization over the long haul. If not, fire the consultant.

V. Organizational Narcissism

Symptoms: Hubris. Business is losing ground but executives are so proud of their past achievements that they cannot see how fast the future is moving toward them. This is especially true of self-made entrepreneurs who have been wildly successful for decades but have lost sight of what is happening around them. They believe they can turn their business quickly as if the Exxon Valdeez could be turned like a sailboat.

Causes: Overestimation of skills; underestimation of market forces, wilful blindness to employee calls for action. Ignoring customer complaints.

Impact: Executives discover too late that they were wrong about their long-held assumptions that their business or product will endure forever. Employee turnover. Loss of business. Customer complaints.


Listen to front-line people and customers! Do some serious talent search to get some new blood on board. Hire people intentionally from the outside to bring in fresh ideas and (effectively) shake things up.

VI. Recognition Anorexia

I once spoke at a conference and asked about 100 managers why they didn’t recognize people. One guy shouted out “We don’t need to do that stuff, we pay them for what they do.” This is not an uncommon sentiment from leaders I have met in my travels.

Recognition anorexia is the purposeful or unthinking withholding restraining of legitimate recognition. Organizations talk a lot about recognition, but do very little because they’re worried “people will slow down or stop working because we gave them recognition.”

Symptoms: Managers rarely complement people for work well done. Performance reviews do not cite achievements. People feel like their work does not matter.

Causes: Inaccurate fear that recognition will lead to a slowing down of the workforce. Recognition takes effort that managers may choose to avoid. Fear that recognition will be unjust, so no one gets recognized.

Impact: The very thing people need to thrive in the workplace (validation through recognition) is being withheld from them. People spend a third of their lifetimes in the workplace, and the workplace may be the only place they get life validation. People who have worked hard will sense inequity and injustice leading to turnover or, worse, they will stay and do the minimum until they can find another job.


Find an enlightened leader who can change the culture to one of gratitude for peoples’ efforts. Ensure the recognition is earned, but if it has been, reward appropriately.

VII. Anxiety Disorder leading to Panic Attacks

Symptoms: People are unable to think clearly. They demonstrate frustration with each other and are sensitive to things that would normally not be an issue.

Causes: Excessive growth in a short period of time. Failed organizational initiatives that are burning out people with no one willing to call out the failure. Product quality.

Impact: Burnout, employee frustration, loss of quality, turnover, formation of cliques who support each other during times of stress.


Find the things that can be controlled and manage them quickly, including communication about what is being done (to reduce immediate anxiety). Hire temporary members and staff up as needed – and have managers/leaders step in to fill orders or whatever must be done to get through the crisis.

If the problem is a failed organizational initiative, stop it dead in it’s tracks. No need to persist in a failed mission.

In the case of a failed product or safety mishap, get the help of an expert PR person and follow their advice.

VIII. Organizational Depression:

Symptoms: People are listless, not generating new ideas. Social loafing.

The sources of Organizational Depression vary, but the most likely issue is one of inconsistent direction causing people to feel like their time and effort is wasted.

Causes: Depression in people is anger turned inward because of injustice or frustration with a situation. So true of organizations. When ineffective managers are in place, the organization suffers from a despair of ever getting things right.

The sources of Organizational Depression vary, but the most likely issue is one of inconsistent direction causing people to feel like their time and effort is wasted. Incompetent managers in high positions are also a common source of Organizational Depression because people cannot alleviate the chronic and constant stress of someone making bad or inconsistent decisions with no follow-through.

Impact: Loss of interest in new strategies coming down from executives, minimal effort on projects, limited personal initiative to try new things.

Treatment: Do a honest appraisal of employee engagement or other survey scores. Don’t just check the box. If there’s an ineffective manager or leader with a track record of employee complaints – get them to move on.