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.