Surprise! Business School is Just the Beginning
Everything seems to be going right: you finished college in first-class style, got your first “real” job, received a promotion, maybe landed a second “real” job, nailed the GMAT, applied to the business school of your dreams and miraculously received admission. During business school you secured a solid internship, and then a full-time offer at a great firm. You’re set for life right?
Not so fast. It seems that many MBA candidates fall into the trap of viewing the MBA degree in this quaint and oversimplified way—that once they walk across the stage at convocation, they can just put their life on cruise control and coast up to the C-suite. Unfortunately, I have been a victim of subconsciously thinking along these lines at times in the past couple of years. It is a mode of thinking that I, as well as many other recent MBA graduates, don’t realize they are in until reality slaps them in the face and helps them realize their career view may be misaligned with the way business works.
Many MBA graduates find that their first job after school feels like starting at the beginning again. Even though MBA programs teach valuable business skills, freshly minted MBAs often have a steep learning curve to ascend in order to master the institutional knowledge relevant to the new industry or job function they have just entered. Additionally, the scope of responsibility in most post-MBA jobs will be much wider than that of a pre-MBA position. This can be very exciting and rewarding, but also brings a slew of new challenges that some freshly-minted MBAs do not anticipate.
If you plan on entering an MBA program in the near future, or are currently an MBA candidate considering the next phase of your career, thinking hard about how post-MBA jobs are different than pre-MBA jobs can help shape your perspective on your career plans. Planning in this way can be a valuable exercise in helping you develop the types of skills you will need in order to increase your chances of future career success. Here are some of the things you should be thinking about as you step off the MBA rocket ship and land back in the real world:
- Heightened Expectations and Increased Commitment: Before your MBA, employers didn’t pay you very much and your expected tenure at your firm was probably 2-3 years. After your MBA, you will likely be paid significantly more and the firm you are working for will assume you will be there a lot longer. Thus, the pressure to perform will be higher and there will be an increased focus on proving your value to the firm. What your firm “buys” when they hire you is raw potential, and it is up to you to convert that potential into valuable results. This pressure can be stressful, especially when you are still learning a new industry and job function, but it can also be incredibly motivating. You have the opportunity to make a real and lasting contribution to the firm you work for instead of simply churning out a few dozen PowerPoint decks over a 2-3 year period.
- Managing People: Remember your first job out of college where you reported to a thirty-something-year-old that seemed like they didn’t know the first thing about how to manage people? Well, now that thirty-something-year-old is you, and despite all the social psychology that they teach you in business school about management, you probably aren’t very good at managing people either. As a pre-MBA individual contributor, most jobs will require you to be responsible for your own work and that’s it: receive a task, do it well, and check it off your list. In a post-MBA capacity, you will probably be managing a few pre-MBA employees and they will know more about your industry than you do because of their 1-2 year tenure at the firm. If you think managing people is easy, you probably either haven’t done much of it, or you are blissfully unaware of your shortcomings. Good managers are rare and managing people effectively is a career-long pursuit. So, my advice here is to develop management skills before you land your first post-MBA job. Volunteer for a leadership position at a local non-profit or become a co-chair of a student group in your MBA program. The ability to manage people becomes more and more important as you progress in your career, so try to at least get your feet wet in management before your career depends on it.
- Ambiguity – Strategy Creation is Much Harder than Strategy Execution: Before your MBA, you probably didn’t have to think all that much about the direction of your firm or the direction of the project you were on. Those decisions were made by someone more advanced than you. After your MBA, you won’t be making decisions about the overall direction of your company, but you will see a marked shift in your responsibilities from being a task-doer to a strategic thinker. Now that you are in a post-MBA role, you will be given responsibilities that are ambiguous, and it will be up to you to determine the optimal route to your objective. For someone used to taking instructions and then delivering on them, this can be frightening. On the other hand, this new responsibility can be exciting. You own work product and can use all the skills developed in your MBA to make real business decisions affecting the direction of your team. You are now not only a task-doer, but a task creator. To this end, be sure you spend time before and during your MBA working on problems where there isn’t one right answer and the path forward is unclear. Most business decisions don’t have a “right” answer, but they might have a best answer, and your ability to ask the right questions and determine the best answers will be an asset in your career progression.
After reading this post, my hope is that MBA hopefuls and current MBA candidates will realize that career planning should not just be oriented toward securing a great job out of your MBA, but succeeding in the position you land after your MBA. There are too many prospective MBAs that plan up to the point of signing their post-MBA job offer letter, but don’t think enough about their ultimate goal of succeeding and growing in their post-MBA job.
Don’t get me wrong, securing a great job coming out of business school is a great achievement, but that alone will not set you on the path to a successful future career. You still need to work hard, work smart, and realize that the skills you developed to gain admission and excel in your MBA program are only a part of the broader array of skills that will make you successful in your post-MBA career.
 Average job tenure of 25 – 34 year old workers in the United States is 2.8 years (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Please see the links below for additional articles on skills desired in MBA graduates: