Post-MBA, “Potential” is a 4 letter word

“In the professional world of leadership, ambition and potential are the most excessive commodities.” 
― Unknown

Post-undergrad, ‘potential’ and ‘work ethic’ took you places. Post-MBA, it’s a 4 letter word that kiiinda means you’re just not that good at any one thing – but you could be! (but you’re not yet).

Most MBAs leave school bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to face the world head on as a newly minted officially ‘prepared for business’ and ‘ready to change the game’ (in whatever form that takes for each individual) alumnus.

Doing a full time MBA is a lot like going back to college. Except, you’re older, you’re less insecure, you’ve got actual money to spend, you know how to hold your liquor (hopefully), and after the first semester or so, you’ve realized that (shhhhh) grades really don’t matter – the experience does. So when you’re done with your two years, you’ve had some sleep (clutch if you’ve been banking pre Bschool), you’ve taken a break from being an adult and you’re re-energized to go back out there and move up, move fast and use everything you learned to have that dream job/life/passionate (or big money) career you went there to cultivate.

But unless you’re very lucky, or super focused, eventually you discover that outside of school, life becomes…well, normal life again. No matter how excited you are about your new career/role/opportunity/chance to show em what you got…at some point, – no matter how great the job is, the monotony of real life work settles in and Friday afternoons become a cherished moment in time once again.

And you begin to understand that you’re not going to move a whole lot quicker up the ladder than other folks. Fast-tracked maybe, but the Zuckerberg/Jobs/(insert-nerd-to-riches, fame-and-status-in-5-years-or-less name here) story will most likely not be your own.

surprised much?

Yes, you’re smart, you’ve got potential, you’re a hard worker, etc. But experience is what companies begin to pay up for post-MBA. And experience takes time. And you can’t leapfrog experience by being smart, capable, a quick learner, etc. You simply have to DO, be exposed to multiple different instances, situations, political circumstances, changing industry landscapes to gain experience.

That takes time. No matter how fancy your B-school degree is, you’ve got to put in the time, in whatever industry you choose. And your first job out can be a trial, even the next one or two – you’ve got leeway to discover that mix of your passion/skills/value add. But eventually, you have to be an expert in SOMEthing. Potential is only cute until you’re asking to be hired as an expert in something (which starts to happen about 3+ years out). Then people want results. Past experience. A focus. A tangible skill.

For a generation without job security, hopping from job to job is normal, and being anywhere longer than 2-3 years feels like an eternity. But eventually, you have to pick a lane and get good at something. Deciding where to put your stake in the ground is scary (at least for me) – what if you can’t pull it back up again and you’re stuck along one path afterwards?

Am I a marketer? A strategist? A financial analyst? A mix of one, two or all three? Can one be a marketer if they don’t live and breathe digital and social media platforms? Or a strategist who doesn’t churn out waterfall charts and harvey ball-laden decks with my eyes closed? Or a financial analyst without relishing the thought of building LBO models from scratch (like any banker today builds any models from a blank sheet anymore anyways. Ha!)

If I pick one and double down, do I pigeon hole myself? If I try to be all three, do I appear too broad and inexperienced in anything? What if I want to learn something else? At what point does it become too late to say…become an ‘operations’ person? When is the cutoff for the ability to ‘career-switch’?

just…can’t…decide…

It’s been a while since I last posted here (I can’t believe it’s been almost a year!), mostly because at some point, while trying to figure out the answer to the above question, I decided to leave it all and remove myself from those (at the time, seemingly unsolvable massive) decisions and travel for a bit.

Maybe…this trip was indeed an escape. From the gravity of every day life decisions.

I’d like to think it wasn’t. I’d like to think it was a leap into the unknown, to discover which aspects of my life decisions truly matter most to me. A deliberate stepping off the hamster wheel of self-expectations and cultural mores or…a nimble sidestep off the path of self-imposed constraints I’ve woven for myself given the networks and career circumstances I’ve been fortunate enough to have over the years.

Only time will tell – I’m hoping I’ll have a better handle on how to best answer those questions when it’s all said and done. If nothing else, hopefully I’ll have learned something by the time I return! 

 

The anxiety of ambition – going from a Doer to a Creator.

Doing what I need to do to climb the ladder and build a brand is scary...

Doing what I need to do to climb the ladder and build a brand is scary…

I had the opportunity to talk with a couple of good friends recently – people I consider to be pretty amazing who have it together.

In the course of talking about our goals and ambitions and what were the obstacles to getting there, a theme became apparent – the very ambition that got us to where we are professionally was creating this huge feeling of anxiety about where we go next – and more importantly HOW we were going to do it.

As an MBA, or someone who’s just further along in your career, you’ve likely graduated from an order taker to someone who’s expected to sell, to produce, to create opportunities. Now, I’m really REALLY good at taking orders. I learned to be coachable playing basketball growing up and it got pounded in to me working at an investment bank after school.

But, what’s much more scary is that now I’m expected to think critically and synthesize information and get to the “Why does this matter”? And, I can’t rely on business other people bring in anymore – the higher up you go, the less you get to just execute on others’ sales ability – people want you to start bringing in revenue. Not just doing, but THINKING. CREATING. And that has been a very steep learning curve.

My time in finance taught me many amazing, useful things. What it didn’t teach me was how to think. I mean, really THINK about WHY I was putting this slide in, why this approach made sense for this client, why we were even in this position in the first place. In fact given that a large majority of people come from consulting, finance or corporate roles where there are layers of hierarchy, I’d venture to say it’s rare that people coming out of an MBA program were asked very often to think about the client, the business, our offering and how and why that should affect the project they were working on. They were told “this is the plan, here’s how we execute, and here’s your piece to do. Go.”

So fast forward to today where I’ve begun to realize that when you’re building a ‘career’ you need to have an opinion – a well thought out, informed, value-add opinion to build your brand…well things just got a little scarier.

The scary part about an opinion is that someone can look at me and say ‘That doesn’t make sense. You have no idea what you’re talking about. This is amateur hour.” – and I can’t blame it on anyone else. And it could be a great idea, but not explained correctly. Or it could just be…well, wrong. Which isn’t really that okay to BE when you’re an MBA (it feels like).

So what’s a girl to do? Start a blog! Lol (no, seriously – it’s part of why I did.)

But that’s just me. Everyone has to take a different route, but one thing that many people I know began doing to get to the next level all started with CREATING something and putting it out there – at work, in an industry publication, or going as broad as the entire online audience on the web.

Why?

– It forces you to have a point of view. If you aren’t focused in what you’re writing about, you’ll know pretty quickly (and so will everyone else)

It forces you to synthesize your thoughts. You know more than you think you do about SOMEthing or you wouldn’t have made it this far.

– It forces you to get over your fear of rejection (HA! Just kidding. I don’t know if I’ll ever be free of mine, but the more times you go through the nauseous feeling of “OMG, OMG, OMG, OMG, they’re going to hate it, what was I thinking, AHHHHHH!” , the less paralyzing it is in the future, which allows you to be more prolific)

– It forces you to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for your audience.

– Best of all, it starts you down the path of becoming that awesome impactful person who’s highly respected for what they do who that you mentioned you wanted to be in your essays (and secretly dream about being when you see your classmates who started a company on the cover of Inc. magazine)

So…that’s the way I’m trying to quell (feed?) my anxiety around getting to the next level. I know that can’t be the only skill or professional gap that others feel they’re missing coming out of school.

What did you find when you graduated that you wish you’d been taught, or trained in? How have you addressed it and overcome it? And if you haven’t…what are you doing to try and get there?

10 things I wish I’d known about getting an MBA (before I took out my school loans)

It’s been almost 2 years since I graduated from Harvard Business School, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I wish someone would have told me BEFORE b-school and definitely while I was going through my job search.

I used to have a roadmap for life...now it looks like this

I used to have a roadmap for life…now it looks like this

So here’s my top 10….

1. They were right – at least half of the classmates I know (if not more) are at a different job 18 months out than they had when they left school. Which makes me really question what the career services team gets graded on in terms of performance…

2. Nobody mentions how much more confusing and scary (and cash constrained) life gets AFTER the MBA. Yes taking out loans to go on trips during school is an integral part of making deeper relationships…but damn…I still haven’t paid off enough to get back to the original loan amount I took out to begin with!

3. Generally (and please don’t take offense if this doesn’t apply to you), if you dig past the surface “things are going great!” conversation BS, people who didn’t go into finance, consulting, PE seem truly happier – but no less stressed out. But people STILL chase those jobs coming out of school like their life, status, and future happiness depend on it (for the transferable skills of course. Right…)

4. It’s scary and frustrating as a career switcher to feel like I’m starting from scratch again while I watch my non-MBA friends who now have 7 years of experience kick ass at their jobs

5. Getting an MBA didn’t prepare me to DO actual skill work in my industry at all really. It taught me how to see a big problem and make snap decisions on what should be done. But actually DOING work?  I’m learning as I go and it’s a steep steep learning curve.

6. It’s going to take more time than I thought to do really BIG things (you know the stuff they allude to on your first day about how you’re going to change the world while forgetting to mention that it won’t happen quickly because you’ll likely be funneled back into an industry/job role that thrives on the status quo)

7. The expectations are SO much higher – at work, from friends, from myself, my family, would-be employers. Everyone expects you to be able to just DO amazing things, and KNOW things simply because you went to B-school.

8. Once you’re in the job…nobody really cares you have an MBA. If anything, some people who don’t have one hate you for it on the low.

9. Most people don’t want to admit to themselves that even if they knew what they really wanted to do…they probably still wouldn’t leave their well-paid, high status job to go do it.

But most importantly….

10. While my MBA prepared me to be able to speak eloquently even when I don’t have the answers – it most certainly did NOT help me figure out what I want to do in life, how to find my passion and purpose or give me any clarity on HOW I’m going to change the world. I tell a lot of MBA hopefuls that your time at school opens a thousand doors and exposes you to things you’ve never heard of before, but that can be paralyzing because what they DON’T do is help you figure out which one to go through. So you end up rationalizing why you followed the crowd (transferable skills, paying off loans faster and THEN you’ll figure out what you want to do, need another brand name on the resume to prove myself, etc.)

 

So, I figured I’d start a blog. And use it as an excuse to talk to MBAs and ask them about how they’re handling their lives and careers after 2 years of wedded bliss to the idea that they were handpicked out of the masses to do bigger and better things with the education and network from their MBA program.

Hopefully, I can have candid conversations with folks and share what they’ve learned, what they wish they knew going in (and coming out) and how they’re navigating the world with a few more letters after their name and all the expectations and pressures that came with it.

Maybe if I can get past the façade we learn to put up and hear some real stories, I can start learning how others handling work/life balance (ha!) while climbing the ladder, or choosing a path less traveled and the good, the bad and ugly that comes with that.

We learn in B-school (or at least at HBS) that social capital is scarce and no one wants to be associated with the person that doesn’t have it all together. But maybe if more folks knew it isn’t all rosy after you graduate and that many people are struggling with the same questions, insecurities, frustrations and life decisions, we could learn from each other’s experiences and create more realistic expectations for the droves of people turning to B-school as the next step in life.

Or not. We’ll see.

But if you’ve got a story – want to chat – have something to say about what you wish you would have known, hit me up! Would love to hear from you!