Tag Archives: ambition

‘If you aren’t an idealist at 25, you’re a rogue; if you’re an idealist at 50 … you’re a fool’

In the headline above I’m paraphrasing Winston Churchill, who is alleged to have said: “If you’re not a communist at 20, you’re a rogue; if you’re a communist at 50 you’re a fool.” In fact the quote in one form or another goes all the way back to Francois Guisot (1787-1874) who said during the French Revolution: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” (Republican meant something altogether different from the GOP, of course.)

This quote, in its various iterations is saying: Society expects its young men and women to have ideals and seek to change the world. It expects the fire and passion of youthful optimism and its critique of the status quo, even if it is rash or naive. If the youth do not have that, what do they have? (Whatever they have, it’s worse than naivete.)

When you are in middle-age, then okay, it is expected that you accept certain compromises and adopt a measured cynicism.

Why is the quote important for MBA admissions? Simply, if you are applying for a full-time MBA program you are likely to be somewhere between 23-30; that is still in the age bracket where you should have fire in your belly to change and improve the world. If not, that means you just want to advance yourself and make boatloads of money, and while Adcom likes those driven to succeed, the whiff of narrow self-oriented goals is a golden highway to being dinged.

What does it mean to change and improve the world? See my previous post on this. It does not mean hugging trees in Roanoke or digging wells in Sudan or other “bleeding-heart” welfare-service missions, which, frankly, are a low credibility angle for MBA applicants.

It does mean using your new business and management skills for broader societal benefit, in addition to your own benefit.

Wider benefit that you create can come in developing a new product or service or business model that challenges and improves an industry. To take some famous examples: Herb Kelleher created a no-frills airline (Southwest) that brought air travel to the masses; Ted Turner (CNN) made global news sexy; Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) developed a platform that brings social communities together in an unprecedented way; Niklas Zennström & Janus Friis (Skype) brought free voip calls to the world — and in the process decimated exploitative national telecoms parastatals.

These were not do-gooders. But they were industry “revolutionaries.” They didn’t look at their sector and say “I just want to be a senior manager and go up the corporate ladder.” Whether as startup entrepreneurs or sitting corporate executives, they were ready to challenge industry status quo’s to build something more ideal. That’s the kind of 20-something idealist you need to be for MBA admissions.
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How Mr Swatch can take you past management consulting as an MBA admissions platform

The Economist recently ran an obituary of Swatch magnate Nicolas Hayek, and this offers me a concrete example to explain why management consulting is a weak long-term goal for MBA admissions.

(Yes, I’m always pushing clients to give clear examples or anecdotes to back up their MBA admissions claims. So this is me “practicing what I preach.”)

In 1982 Hayek was brought in as a management consultant by a group of banks to advise them on the sale of Switzerland’s last big watchmaking conglomerate which they had bailed out a few years earlier. But, rather than merely consult on sale-exit strategies, Hayek created and led a group of industrialists who bought the conglomerate from the bankers, and built it into the world’s largest watch company, with almost a quarter of the global market, with Swatch as the lead brand.

As the Economist says: “Mr Hayek’s strategy of making cheap watches more cheaply and expensive watches more desirable helped lift the rest of the Swiss watch industry, which is once again leading the world. Last year Swiss firms exported nearly 23m timepieces worth more than $12 billion, a figure that would undoubtedly have been far, far smaller had Mr Hayek stayed in management consulting.”

The point is: Hayek had two careers ahead of him in 1982. He could have stayed a management consultant, advising on deals, for a fairly prestigious, reasonably well-paid life. Or he could do what he did: turn the ailing consortium around through industry-innovative operations, cost restructuring, and marketing management, to totally renew the Swiss watch industry. He was a leader, innovator, decision-maker, and business-builder at the ultimate level.

If Hayek was to have presented his career options to Harvard or INSEAD or LBS, etc., which of the two routes do you think the b-school Adoms would have favored more?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fine to say you want to spend some time in MC in the short term, taking advantage of the rapid exposure to different industries and skills. But at the end of the day, management consultants are advisors, not doers. They are always the bridesmaid, never the bride. If Hayes had stayed a management consultant his value to everyone (including his MBA alma mater) would have been a fraction of what it became, and his obituary would never have been splashed across the world’s financial media.

When the admissions committee of a top MBA program is looking at you, they want to think that you may possibly one day be somebody like Hayes (in your own industry and in your own way.) If your career goal is consulting itself, you are telling them there is no chance of that.

How to dent the universe (or how to apply for an MBA like Steve Jobs would)

In dealing with MBA admissions clients, I’m always looking for ways to push them beyond the ordinary, both in terms of how they frame their life to date and what they plan to do in the future. I also counsel applicants to ‘think like a CEO-in-waiting,’ that is, ask: what would a senior executive do here? What would she say? How would he apply?

The poster child for the pathbreaking senior executive is business legend Steve Jobs, Apple CEO. I recently came across a site called MBA Naukri that has collected Job-isms, some of which I have reproduced here as guidance in ‘reaching for more’ in an MBA application.

1. There is no shortcut to excellence. “Use your talents, abilities, and skills in the best way possible and get ahead of others by giving that little extra. Live by a higher standard and pay attention to the details that really do make the difference. Excellence is not difficult – simply decide right now to give it your best shot – and you will be amazed with what life gives you back.”

2. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. I’ve got it down to four words: ‘Do what you love.’ Seek out an occupation that gives you a sense of meaning, direction and satisfaction in life. Having a sense of purpose and striving towards goals gives life meaning, direction and satisfaction. It not only contributes to health and longevity, but also makes you feel better in difficult times.”

3. Create something to give back. “You know, we don’t grow most of the food we eat. We wear clothes other people make. We speak a language that other people developed. We use a mathematics that other people evolved… I mean, we’re constantly taking things. It’s a wonderful, ecstatic feeling to create something that puts it back in the pool of human experience and knowledge.”

4. Fail and rebound. “I’m the only person I know that’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year… It’s very character-building.Don’t equate making mistakes with being a mistake. There is no such thing as a successful person who has not failed or made mistakes, there are successful people who made mistakes and changed their lives or performance in response to them, and so got it right the next time. They viewed mistakes as warnings rather than signs of hopeless inadequacy. Never making a mistake means never living life to the full.”

5. Dent the universe. “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here? Did you know that you have big things to accomplish in life? … Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Granted, it’s much easier to say stuff like this if you’re a billionaire celebrity not a cubicle slave. But you can see that if Jobs himself were applying for an MBA he would not be saying something nebulous like: ‘upon graduation I plan to go into management consulting and then transition to be a manager in the IT sector.’ He’d tell you exactly how he was going to dent the universe, why that was a worthwhile and necessary thing to do, and why it was his deepest inner purpose to do it.