What matters most in your post-MBA career

Credit to ARUP/Tim Griffith

Credit to ARUP/Tim Griffith

In May, I attended the five year reunion of my MBA graduating class. If the two years we all spent on our degrees were an investment in our personal and professional potential, then five years out gives a good look at the range of outcomes. And the outcomes were unbelievably broad. There were:

  • Personal changes like relocation, buying and selling homes, dating and marriage and divorce, having a baby and having another, departures of loved ones, gains and losses in health — the list goes on
  • Professional outcomes, whether new roles and companies, starting or ending a new venture, all at various frequencies — or even no change
  • Physical changes too, with folks taking on the palpable look and feel of where they are in their personal and professional lives: more serious, less irreverent, more confident, less uncertain, what have you, and the years being kinder to some than others.

The permutations that happened over five years were simply stunning.

I was recently asked to represent my summary observations from reunion to some current second-year students who hope to look ahead a bit to their post-grad lives. I think their question deserved a better answer than the searching, wandering one I gave. So I’d like to try again. Here is what I think should “matter most” to people who are graduating from a top MBA program and considering what is next. I rarely articulate my perspectives in terms of “should,” but I feel fairly strongly about these and will do so here.

First, here are two assumptions I make:

  • You are ambitious, smart, and capable. You wouldn’t be where you are otherwise. Maybe the people around you also fit this description, and you feel comparatively less qualified. Pish posh. You deserve the distinction equally. Don’t second guess yourself.
  • You intend to unleash your ambition, smarts, and capable self upon your life and career. This is critical. You have to want it, whatever it may be. Here, I assume that you want to have a rockstar career (and life!), whatever form it takes.

Assuming these are true, here are the top two attributes you should look for in your opening act post MBA:

  1. Meaningful extensions of your core skills and experience. The MBA was classroom learning (for the most part); the post-MBA is the practicum. Case-based learning provides simulations of well-stylized business decisions that actually happened in ways that were far messier than able to be retold in a 10-page case with 5 neat exhibits. Real business stories don’t usually unfold the neat way they are narrated in cases. The judgment critical to being a good manager has to do with what kind of information should be an ‘exhibit,’ and how to get at that data so you can make some decisions around it. (“What matters most and why.”)

    You’re great at stuff already. You proved it in numerous ways to earn your spot in b-school, and your recommenders went to bat for you too. People believe in you. And now it’s time to take on some things that you haven’t exactly proven you’re great at — yet. You know best what ways you must grow in order to become like the alums or leaders you most admire and aspire toward. Those gaps are what you should endeavor to fill, and the bigger the gap, the better the opportunity to grow. If the thing you’re considering has you a little scared, that’s probably a good sign that the challenge is meaningful.

  2. Adding your talent and energy to a team that can win. Unless you have an overriding commitment to a particular industry, region, or firm, the most important filter in your decision is whether the team you’re about to join can win. I’ve heard a variant of this idea expressed before, but in a way that did not resonate: “It doesn’t matter what you do after business school; just find a company that is growing and take any job.” It does matter what you do; moreover, taking any job in any growing company sounds so devoid of passion.

    Which brings us to the maddening question of what you are passionate about. Like asking a child what s/he wants to be when s/he grows up, the notion of professional passion lays a cognitive trap. For children, the answer comes back as people they are familiar with: teacher, fireman, grocery store clerk. For MBAs, the answer comes back as industries that are lucrative, trendy, or generally known: private equity, cleantech (although last I heard it is now sustainable farming), or whatever industry we came from (for me it was restaurants). I respectfully submit that unless you already have it, passion per industry or job is a search not worth conducting.

    What I think matters most to the post-MBA experience is getting a taste for winning at the management level, regardless of industry, location, or company. Most of us who enter into elite MBA programs are generalists in the sense that we could be great at a lot of things, if only we chose to do them. So why restrict yourself along those lines? Granted it can be convenient to look for what’s next by sector or by geography, because that is how the recruiting world is organized. But in going for your MBA, you took a non-linear jump in your career; why not take a non-linear leap in your departure too? Much like a seat on a top MBA roster, a spot on a winning team is a very nice get.

    Now here’s the magical part: Winning teams tend to foster passion. A passion for success and excellence is easy to embrace; instead of looking for an industry or job to be passionate about, why not let passion suffuse the results you help create? And then take your win and go make another win? A track record of winning makes for a great career. So find some winning teams and join the one you like best. Then work your heart out to make some wins.

My conclusion across all the permutations of personal, professional, and physical lives among my classmates is thus: winning is a great look on anyone and transfers well across industries, locations, and personal choices. In your post-MBA, go get some stretch experiences and make some good wins. You’ll find your passions there.

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Consultant vs. Operator: Lessons in Impact

Project Management ImageWhen I started my MBA at Stanford in 2007, the typical career paths leading into and out of business school — consultant (or professional services), operator, and investor — seemed largely equal. A matter of taste more than anything else. Coming from a professional services role within an operating company that had public shareholders as investors, I wanted to parlay my MBA into trying my hand at being an operator or investor. More precisely, I figured I could become a successful operator, and then build toward being a successful investor.

Professional services career paths often lead into MBA programs, and I think they are great ways to transition out of college and into “business.” I can think of few more stimulating paths that pay as well, and none that provide better training on business operations and market economics. For me, the professional services path started at a top business school, where I researched cases and wrote them up for class consumption. The job led to a consulting-y role at a publicly-traded restaurant company, where I did project management and research to support the executive team. Working there made me really want to be an executive (loosely, an “operator”).

At the time, my reasoning was that the operator created value in companies in a direct manner, while what I did in support of real operators impacted business results indirectly. In retail, we say that nothing happens in the business until a cashier rings up a sale. I wanted to be on the side that figured out how to ring up more sales and better sales. As I entered business school as a student, I was determined to be one step closer to the action, rather than staying on the side of those supporting the people who took the actions.

As I look back, my preference was less in wanting to be a part of the action, and more in wanting to direct the action. In polite company, girls aren’t supposed to want to be in charge. But that desire is an important driver of horsepower in operating leadership. When things fall into a poor pattern, it is tempting and easy to capitulate or to blame circumstances (the people, the industry, the competitors, the climate, what have you). One must have a certain drive to take the responsibility for results regardless of what all is going on and lead the charge in getting teams out of ruts, so that the pattern is growth and success rather than stagnation. These ruts happen frequently in the normal cycle of businesses, so a healthy sense of take-chargeness is useful to have.

This is something I learned to appreciate only after becoming an operator — a Co-CEO to be precise. Streaks and ruts are part of my job, and what I am responsible for managing.

When I was writing business cases, I had some satisfaction in interviewing the top eight or ten executives of a company, interweaving their stories into a cogent whole, and publishing it as curriculum. Watching my work being taught was the icing on the cake, especially if the inaugural teaching went well. I drove the work product, and the feeling of winning was both palpable and clear cut. If I kept winning, I could keep the streak going.

As Co-CEO, these clear cut moments of satisfaction are rare. They happen when we report a strong month, or show growth in a key metric that the team has been working hard to improve. But I don’t personally drive this success the way I used to drive my cases. The nature of operating companies is that the work production is shared, so the wins are shared.

Shared wins feel great — they imbue a magical esprit de corps upon the whole team. They can also lack a certainty around attribution and ownership, as it is tricky to figure out who did exactly what and to what extent to drive the win. In all cases, I know it wasn’t me, so much as it was the team. As such, that feeling of personal ownership that I felt as a casewriter and even as an ‘assistant to-‘ has been replaced by a necessary trust of the team.

What I’ve learned is that winning in previous professional services roles was about my doing my work well. Winning as an executive-operator is about helping our team do its work well: defining roles, setting goals and rewards, providing coaching and feedback, celebrating successes (and mourning losses) — in a somewhat cyclical, non-linear fashion. For just as soon as we report a winning month or quarter, the next period of measurement has already begun, and it’s time to up our game.

This has been one of the most important shifts in my understanding from professional service provider to operator. My derivative sense of impact in professional services that led me to choose an operating role has, ironically, yielded to a derivative sense of effectiveness. Put another way, I still rely on others to drive the wins. The difference is that instead of doing the analysis on behalf of the executive team, I consume and employ the analysis to help my team produce strong results. The real win in being in charge is in the successful enablement of others — and that has been a powerful lesson.