Monday, September 17, 2012

Come, All Ye Generalists?

I'm very glad I read Philip Delves Broughton's "Ahead of the Curve" as well as Peter Robinson's "Snapshots from Hell" before jumping aboard the b-school train.

Both started business school when they were 31.

Both were from very non-quantitative "poet" backgrounds (Broughton wrote for a newspaper in London, Robinson wrote speeches for President Reagan, incl. 'Tear Down This Wall...')

Both have that writer's knack of observing and capturing the funny things around them while still maintaining a tone that conveys seriousness and sense of purpose.

Broughton's and Robinson's memoirs both describe the feeling that sets in when they get to elite business schools only to find lots of doors slammed in their faces.  The expectation was that they would show up, learn "how to do business" and would soon be Captains of Industry who chomped on cigars, set golf dates for three p.m., and left early on Friday to beat the traffic to the Hamptons.  What they both found, however, was that many industries aren't so welcoming to people who haven't been there and done that before.

The major exception so far is management consulting.  Every other career presentation, industry panel, or even interest club meeting has reinforced the idea that whatever *it* is (Private Equity, Venture Capital, Healthcare, Investment Management, etc.), it will only seek out those who already came from it.

This leads to some important questions:  (1) Then what's the point of b-school for those people anyway?  If you factor in opportunity cost of lost wages, they're forking over 400k or a lot more (depending on how you count it, and whether you include retirement benefits and projected raises) for...their old desk back?  More pressing for me is (2) What about those of us who came from somewhere completely different?

In come the Big League consulting firms, whose pitches literally say, "It's okay to be a generalist.  If you are a smart, intellectually curious person who likes to solve problems and work in teams, and doesn't mind some unpredictability and long hours, we want you.  We want to offer you a nice salary [2.5x what a Captain makes] and if you can hack it after four or five years, you can then manage the new MBA hires and do even better."

It's no surprise, then, that I'll be *rushing* several of those places to learn more.  Consider me intrigued.  I am also intrigued about Operations jobs with big, well-established firms.

As for alternatives beyond that, though, in comes a shoulder shrug and blank stare.

A big part of me wonders if there's some smoke-and-mirrors going on with the whole Catch-22 about industry and experience.  Could it just be a way for insiders to stay inside and protect their fiefdoms from knuckle-dragging party crashers who did other things with their lives after hearing Pomp and Circumstance several years ago?

To arrive at that question, I thought about the types of jobs I've either done or been around (thinking of civilian equivalents here) for the last 7 years.  Yes, there's jargon.  Yes, there's a training hurdle to overcome.  But the basic core skills that would make someone good sound a heckuva lot like what the Consulting Bigs identified (intelligence, work ethic, people skills, intellectual curiosity).

....But wait, doesn't that capture just about anything?  Save for things that require truly specialized advanced knowledge that takes all of the above PLUS years of very specific schooling (say, a neurosurgeon), something that requires a high level of raw intelligence plus industry familiarity (software engineer), or something that requires rare physical and mental endurance (a Navy SEAL), I don't think most jobs deviate too far from the way the Consultants laid it out.

I attended an "MBA jobs in healthcare" panel today where I heard the same saw about prior experience.  I'm just not seeing it.  I don't see how ONLY someone who had 2-4 years of exposure to that sector after college could then work in the Budget Operations office at a hospital, or how ONLY someone already from that world could go work on the Marketing side of the house for big pharma or a hotshot bio tech firm in Kendall.

In fact, those are precisely the types of jobs for which I would imagine someone's success level would correlate with the skill sets I heard in the "it's okay to be a generalist speech."

This will all be interesting to see as it unfolds (summer internship and job search for our class).  In the meantime, I just got an e-mail on the train ride home with an invite to a McKinsey event later this month.

It's already on the calendar.  

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