Are You There, M.B.A.? It’s Me, Industry
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Are You There, M.B.A.? It’s Me, Industry
Business-school graduates usually go into consulting, finance or tech. But there’s a whole world of other opportunities out there.
By Suzy Welch, WSJ
Jan. 27, 2023 1:43 pm ET
I awoke again not long ago to news of layoffs, in this case Alphabet cutting 12,000 jobs, or 6% of its thought-to-be-impervious workforce. My immediate thought wasn’t “too bad” or “not again.” It was “bingo.”
Yes, bingo, albeit not the game of chance you played at summer camp. I’m thinking of Industry Bingo, a game I invented to play with my students at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where I teach a class called “Becoming You: Crafting the Authentic Career You Want and Need.”
“Becoming You” may not sound like your typical M.B.A. class. Its story is this: After a long and wonderful career in business journalism, I came to a strange and terrible impasse. The strange part was Covid, which caused my regular TV and speaking gigs to evaporate. The terrible part, and it was very terrible, was that I lost my husband, Jack, in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit America. I won’t say my double whammy was worse than anyone else’s, only that it threw me into a what-do-I-do-now tailspin.
When I shook it off—after two years, what choice do you have?—I was filled with a desire to do something new and meaningful, namely teach. Thus I found myself in the office of Raghu Sundaram, Stern’s dean, who was, briefly, under the mistaken impression I was there to discuss taking on a section of one of the school’s established courses in leadership, strategy or some other topic I’d spent the past few decades opining about.
Well, not exactly, I told him. I was actually hoping to teach a class about figuring out what to do with your career when you can do almost anything because of your education and good luck in life—the class I wish had existed when I was at Harvard Business School. I had desperately needed that class, and I knew I hadn’t been alone. I will be eternally grateful that the dean was the first cheerleader for “Becoming You,” and we were off to the races.
I myself had jumped from HBS to consulting. Trust me, I had no natural-born interest in crunching numbers or researching competitive sets, and I wasn’t even really sure what consultants did all day. But in 1988 that’s what newly minted M.B.A.s all did—consulting or investment banking. Some 10 of my classmates defied the groupthink and set off to a mysterious place called Silicon Valley. We thought they were slightly nuts, adventure junkies, even fools. Several of them are billionaires now.
But I digress. Ever since my own detour into consulting, which lasted seven years, I’ve watched countless smart, shiny new graduates from great (and good) colleges and M.B.A. programs follow the same path. Fabulous degree in hand, with every opportunity in the world before them, off they march, lockstep, to “the big three”—consulting, banking and, starting in 2005 or so, tech. In some cases, the underlying impulse is financial security (read: repayment of student loans). But there’s more to it. It’s a deeply rooted group instinct, virtually inexorable. I wouldn’t call it lemming-like, but maybe lemming-esque.
Unlike lemmings, though, members of this herd survive to have regrets. A lot of very smart, very capable people, usually in their late 30s and early 40s, wake up miserable one day. Over my years as a journalist specializing in the workplace, I saw this phenomenon so often I came to dub it “The Velvet Coffin”—a state of cushy creature comfort encased in emotional or intellectual dissatisfaction.
“Becoming You,” as I conceived it, would help avert this fate by encouraging M.B.A. students to think about careers another way—as a journey toward their “area of destiny,” the world of opportunity that exists at the intersection of their authentic values, their strongest skills and aptitudes, and the kind of work that interests and excites them intellectually and emotionally. Sure, some of my students would still end up in consulting and banking and tech, but if I taught the class right, others would have their eyes and minds open to—dare I say it—jobs in industry. That’s right, in companies decidedly not selling advice, professional services or shipping software and devices conceived by engineers—but making and doing real stuff.
Which brings us back to bingo. My assumption when I began “Becoming You” was that almost all my students were attending business school to pivot in their careers, and I was right. You don’t take a two-year, six-figure hiatus from life to stay on the same trajectory. I was also right to assume that most of my students had entered their M.B.A. program with wide-eyed, open-minded dreams about what could be next—only to find themselves increasingly fixated, month by month, day by day, on landing jobs in (sigh) consulting, banking and tech.
Why this narrowing? I put this question to my students again and again and heard the same answers. A job at McKinsey, or Goldman, Amazon or Bain, JPMorgan or Google offers money and security, they told me. It’s a sure thing. It makes your parents happy. It impresses your friends. It looks good all around. You’re set.
There’s one more dynamic I observed. For my students, and I’m sure for top M.B.A.s elsewhere, banking, consulting and tech companies are there—on campus. They’re in your face, in your inbox, on your social media making their case. They’re everywhere, all the time, with fun internships and bold promises of how much you’ll learn and grow with them.
Also important, they have a narrative. I heard it repeatedly, because my students parroted it back to me: Even if you don’t stay long-term, with our credential on your résumé and professional development programs, we’ll set you up for your career! The big three are so persuasive and make it so convenient to get a job that it ends up feeling inevitable.
Bright, shiny college grads and M.B.A.s are funneled toward the big three because the big three make it their business to funnel them. Even my “Becoming You” students, all of them self-selected to be thinking about intentional careers, were constantly taking interviews with them. After all, they were there.
And so I came to class one day with Industry Bingo cards. They looked like regular bingo cards, except each square contained one of the other industries in the universe—aviation, mining, hospitality, daycare, publishing, forestry. The list goes on—alternative proteins are an industry now, for goodness’ sake. Fitness is an industry. Renewable energy is an industry. Waste management, aerospace, nursing, arts management, chemical manufacturing, trucking, construction, home decor.
All of these industries (and many more) are composed of companies with smart, inspired leaders and open jobs in human resources, finance, marketing, strategy and product development. Many, if not all, have as much opportunity for personal and professional growth as consulting, banking and tech do. How do I know this? Because of course they do.
I also happen to know, as you do, that there is a labor shortage. Companies can’t find people to hire. That explains why the big three are out there recruiting so hard. But why isn’t industry?
Sure, there are some big non-big-three companies on campus. But only a smattering. After playing Industry Bingo, my students would be revved up to talk to companies in, say, farm equipment or recreation or automotive, only to find none were recruiting. “Go find them yourselves!” I would exhort from my podium. Some did, but others couldn’t escape the omninpresence and expedience of the companies wooing them on their own turf, and who can blame them?
But you can blame industry—which I love, by the way. I recently gave a speech to female executives in the restaurant industry, and I left the event levitating because of the beautiful, positive energy in the room emanating from these amazing, smart, passionate leaders. Industry is filled with doers, true believers, innovators, and just good people. But during the Q&A, so many of the questions had been about how hard it was to find great new talent. I did (politely) holler at them a version of, “Why aren’t you recruiting at Stern, my friends?” only to be greeted with blank stares. Later, one executive told me, “We tried recruiting M.B.A.s one year. No one was interested.” I am sure that’s true.
There’s a famous book titled “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” The adolescent protagonist shouts out to heaven for answers to life’s big questions. I am here to suggest the time has come for industry to shout out at M.B.A.s—not with questions, but with answers for those seeking careers (and thus lives) of growth and learning and opportunity.
Why? The timing is right; it’s a unique moment. Hello, today’s M.B.A.s are waking up to the same news we are. A recession is rumored, and layoffs are happening. Beyond that, there’s the cultural change wrought by the pandemic. Don’t get me started on quiet quitting—slotted for a 15-minute conversation in class, which went on for the entire semester. Suffice it to say, today’s M.B.A.s seek meaning and purpose from their work like never before. They want to make change; they want to have an impact. They don’t want to be cogs in machines. Perhaps most important, they are coming to realize that no job offers security—not even one in banking, consulting, or tech.
So, are you there, industry? If so, consider that this could be your moment to change the talent game with new, bold narratives about the work you do, the lives you change, the futures you contain. Young, talented people at M.B.A. programs everywhere are poised to see you and hear you anew. Draw close, and meet them where they are.
Mrs. Welch, a longtime CNBC contributor and author, teaches at NYU’s Stern School of Business and is a senior adviser at the Brunswick Group.
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