Get Close to the Action

Some folks are fortunate. They know exactly what they are good at, like to do and where to go
after HBS to pursue their aspirations and dreams. My hunch is that a far larger number are not so
certain and are talking to friends, professors, mentors and counselors to try to figure out what path to take. These sources of advice are usually well meaning and informed, but they all have biases based on preferences, values, experience and maybe even personal dreams. I admit to some of that bias too in thinking it best early in a career to find out what good looks like and understand based on firsthand experience what makes an enterprise tick at the most fundamental level. More on that later.

Advisors come in all shapes and sizes, and you need to be careful to not let them sway you too much. The least useful voice to listen to is peer pressure. It is very powerful at this life stage and at HBS. The drumbeat is very loud. Banking: glamour, prestige, high pay, and excitement. Consulting:
broadening, learn more before choose path, prestige, and good pay. Startup: lots of responsibility, no bureaucracy, be the next Facebook/Microsoft/you name it. Besides, as the critics say, no one in their right mind would ever go to a big company with its bureaucracy, politics and lack of opportunity to put your recently learned skills to work. I would just comment that all big companies are not alike and there is a lot to learn there. For some choosing banking, consulting, or a startup is just right. These are paths many of your predecessors have successfully taken and might be just right for you. But make sure you choose them because they met your needs and not due to peer effects. I know this is easier said than done.
Where is the action in a firm? You might hear that business development and strategy helping
the very top team shape the firm, rubbing elbows with and hopefully being mentored by the CEO,
putting all your recently developed skills to work, and using the job as a springboard to a top post
leaping over those unfortunates laboring in the Provinces is optimal. I would argue with very few
exceptions this is exactly the wrong way to start. The one exception is where you are certain- and I mean certain- that the job is a two year or less stop for you to be assessed and learn and then move to a big functional or even small general management role. Those opportunities exist but they are in my experience very, very rare and proof is only convincing when others before you have taken this path and you meet them. More often than not these jobs are paper shuffling exercises with little impact on the firm and park you in the waste land of corporate staff with little chance to be known by and develop the sponsorship necessary to move into the line where the real action happens. There is no such thing in my travels as a business development or strategy career in a good firm. The real strategist in a good firm is the CEO and his or her staff. Those are the jobs I would urge you to work towards. The best way to really understand the business, develop credibility that will last a career, hone your leadership skills, test yourself, and get to feel the true culture of the place is by working either close to the customer or product. This may seem counterintuitive to aspiring CEO’s who are understandably optimistic about their skills and potential with a desire to put the general manager perspective we all focus on here to work as soon as possible. However, these jobs in sales, marketing, production, product design, operations, regulatory, and policy affairs, and product management all have important characteristics that will serve you well. You see how the work really gets done, how the top looks from the field, what the customer and competitor feel like up close, what it means to make budget or achieve objective, how to work in teams, how to lead and the list goes on. Do not worry about mentors, being noticed or getting on the fast track. You will shine by doing your job, being a constructive team player, having a positive attitude, and growing. Mentors will choose you; promotions will happen; and the always talent short and leader hungry organization will embrace, challenge, and help you grow. My bet is that you will look back sooner than you think when you are sitting at the top table making the big calls and remember and understand viscerally what is really going on based on spending time where the action happens. Your credibility with the organization, confidence in your decisions and joy in the privilege of leading will be permanently enhanced by those early days close to the action.