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 Quantitative Thinker or People Manager—or Both
by Lisa T. Stickney, Ph.D.

It’s one of those questions where the words themselves can prompt a lot of headscratching: “How did you, Lisa Stickney, a real ‘quant,’ end up teaching ‘squishy’ stuff like human resources and organizational behavior?”

Let me begin by saying that it’s true. I am indeed a “quant.” And yes, I am teaching classic “squishy” material. To explain: I am a person who enjoys analyzing and manipulating complex quantitative problems. I always have. Thus, I’m a quant—that’s short for “quantitative thinker.” It's just the way my brain works, what those of us in organizational behavior call an “individual difference.” For the record, I come by this honestly. Both my parents are quants, and so are my brothers, cousins and so on. I even married an engineer, a big-time quant.

So, I understand numbers and the relationships between them. But how did this quant end up in a field with so many malleable constructs? Before I answer that, you should know that “squishy” is in fact a technical term. It refers to the concepts and ideas in a field being somewhat nebulous and subject to different interpretations.

The way I see and describe the world around me, my natural tendency is to do it in numerical terms. I’m never overwhelmed by what some would experience as a “boatload” of stuff. I see two, three or four times as much as I need to solve a given problem. I remember numbers with little effort. Off the top of my head, I can recite bank accounts, credit card numbers, addresses, phone numbers—and some of them are 20 or 30 years old. I don't try to memorize them. They just stick.

But in my chosen field, I’m constantly dealing with concepts that can’t be described or dealt with numerically. Take the word “good,” as an example. What is good? Is your good the same as someone else’s good? Just how good is good anyway? Is it good enough? No? How much better than good enough does good have to be before it’s, well, good? You get the point—it’s a qualitative term. But back to the original question: How about this quant, running around in a world of good, better, best and so on?

I started my career as a computer programmer, then a systems analyst, and later as a data processing manager. This was when IT was called DP, and networked computers were cutting edge. Although I didn’t work directly with numbers (which would have made me very happy), my quant skills came into play a lot—the logic and rationale, the understanding of how the parts of a computer system fit together: all employed the type of logic that underlies the quantitative mind.

I was happy and loved what I was doing, but things began to change. When I became the DP manager, I spent less time on programming and system design, and more on administrative stuff. It wasn’t nearly as interesting to me. What I discovered was that managing the equipment was easy, and as strange as this sounds, so was getting the computer to do what I wanted it to do. No, really—it's true. The machines didn't always cooperate, but they were consistent. I understood that. Once I grasped that consistency, I could get the computer to cooperate.

What was hard, at times really hard, was managing the people who worked for me. At my company I had office coverage 24/7, with my “graveyard” crew working at three different locations. I supervised between 10 and 12 employees at a given time, and most of them got along with each other. But there were some communication and logistics problems—it’s what you might expect when people work multiple shifts in multiple locations. Personalities could get in the way, and sometimes these otherwise hard-working and talented people acted like children, fighting over inconsequential things and not sharing information. All in all it represented my biggest challenge. It was much more difficult than getting the machines to run!

What I discovered over time is that there was nothing unusual about my experience. Managers routinely report “people problems” as the toughest thing that face. But when I was in school, people skills weren’t part of the standard business curriculum. You were supposed to overcome these problems the best way you knew how.    

So what did I do? Whatever I could.  

I quickly realized that I couldn’t handle every employee in the same way. What worked for one person didn’t for another; it was a constant source of frustration for them and for me. I reached a point where I was out of ideas, but not problems. So I did what I have always done when I need to learn something—I looked for books. What I read on employee management was of some value, but I felt I was just scratching the surface. I kept reading and studying, and some of the advice and scenarios actually began to make sense.

Shortly after leaving that job, I went back to school for my masters. However, as interested as I became in managing people, the quant in me still hung on. So, I earned an M.S. in Management Science with a Finance concentration, and not an M.B.A. In the course of my studies, I was exposed to more management theory and I was hooked—more than I realized at the time. It took a few more years of studying and working before I figured out that inside my quant mind was a squishy outlook: technical skills are great and necessary, but managers still need to understand how to manage people. And that can be a real challenge.

Lisa Stickney is a member of the management faculty, where she teaches undergraduate organizational behavior and human resource management and serves as co-adviser to the Human Resource Society, a campus student group. She arrived at UB in 2008.

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