I was out to dinner last week, and at the table was a young lady with an education degree. She was expressing frustration that her younger siblings are far more prosperous than she is.
The company she works for is offering education assistance, so she’s planning on getting an MBA to pivot her career and hopefully position herself for a more prosperous future.
I have an MBA myself. When I pivoted my career from real estate management, I too thought that an MBA might be a huge benefit, and it was. But I had two undergraduate business degrees, so, for me, the MBA helped to partially bridge what a dramatically different income level was.
Currently, I’m in a job that I love, and I’ve been in for nearly 30 years. But it took me 14 years at a lot of different jobs before I figured out that I wanted to be married and what I enjoyed doing. Ironically, it was dramatically different than what I thought I enjoyed.
Since a lot of you are heading back to school this month, and today is Labor Day in the U.S., I thought I would share how I found my path to a job I enjoy so much that I’m dreading retirement rather than looking forward to it.
Let’s talk about that. Then, I’ll close with my product of the week — an “oldie but goodie” from Microsoft.
Is an MBA Really Necessary?
Let’s start with whether you need an MBA degree.
MBA programs are designed to be an advanced generalist class on how to run a big business. Generally, though, curriculums can be very different, even at the same school. They provide insight into a large company’s different operational, financial, marketing, and HR aspects.
The MBA degree potentially provides two benefits:
- If you don’t have a business undergraduate degree, the MBA makes you more credible as a middle or higher manager. Those who get the most significant benefit from an MBA seem to have already a job they are qualified for and want to advance in management.
- The breadth of added knowledge allows you to understand where you might like to work within a company, because you get a taste of many functions in a large organization and may discover a career path that you’d enjoy which you’d otherwise not have discovered.
If you don’t have a management job, or a technical or business undergraduate degree, you likely are going to need to take some undergraduate business courses to qualify for an MBA course of study.
But suppose you have an undergraduate degree in education, and you don’t have the business experience to qualify for a low-level management position in a functional business division in a company. In that case, the MBA won’t be as effective. It was never designed to stand alone. Its purpose is to supplement existing experience and background, thereby making your knowledge more current and you a more valuable employee.
So, what I recommended the young lady get, instead of an MBA, is a master’s degree in either marketing or communications, because that would better bridge her undergraduate degree into something more business oriented.
You see, when you lack the background for a position, you don’t need breadth; you need that background to advance, and the MBA being a generalist degree won’t give you that.
However, you do need to know what you want to do, because a focused degree assumes you know what you want to do, and if you don’t, it will be a waste of time and money.
Discovering What You Want To Do
Many of the people I grew up with ended up in jobs they hated, in failed marriages, and spending most of their lives looking forward to a retirement that they also don’t seem to enjoy.
While I did spend a bit of my young life looking into different jobs, I found more things I didn’t want to do than things I did. I looked at sales jobs because those that are good at sales make a ton of money, but found that, because I’m an introvert, I didn’t enjoy sales at all, nor was I good at it. I looked at law enforcement and the military, but because I’m colorblind, the jobs I wanted weren’t available to me.
I had a weird idea that working in a big company with lots of meetings would be fun because you’d be chatting a lot and never really have to do much work. Then I worked for a tech firm with lots of meetings, and I hated them; people talking about stuff but doing very little drove me nuts.
Despite that, I was able to leverage my MBA into a management development program that allowed me to try various jobs. I discovered that I enjoyed finding and figuring out how to fix problems, but once that was done, I wanted to move on rather than fix what I found.
I was able to do a stint as part of an experimental Tiger Team at IBM under internal audit, where we were missioned to find problems and develop remedies for those problems. I figured I’d found my career forever home.
Then, the CFO that founded the Tiger Team concept left, new management wanted a more compliant and far less engaged audit team, and I moved to competitive analysis. I loved that job, largely due to the incredible managers and team. Unfortunately, several influential executives didn’t care because we commonly pointed out that their assumptions were false, and again the team was disbanded (and the division subsequently failed).
Interestingly, the motivation to terminate both teams was because we were embarrassing leadership by surfacing problems that reflected poorly on them, but covering up those problems instead, resulting in the division’s failure.
I also came to realize — granted, it took me a while — that if you are an internal problem solver, you won’t be taken very seriously, and way too many executives conclude the easiest way to fix a problem is to get rid of the messenger.
So, I loved making the discovery, but doing it from inside the company created an ethical dilemma; if you told management what they wanted to hear, you’d do well, but the company would fail; and if you told them what they needed to know, they were as likely to get rid of you as they were to fix the problem.
As a result, I decided to explore being an external analyst. Then it simply became a matter of finding the right firm.
When I started at Dataquest, I pointed out a trend that no one else had highlighted, became famous almost overnight, and had an initial year of fallout as several CEOs attempted to get me fired. Fortunately, they failed; I was recruited by another company, became Sr. Research Fellow, and then spun out on my own, where I finally found my place in the world.
But I got here by not staying static. Admittedly, many of the moves were unprompted, but they allowed me to figure out what I enjoyed doing. Then I was able to fine-tune how I did it to optimize my experience.
Had I stayed in real estate, law enforcement, or entertainment, and hadn’t moved around; I’d likely be miserable, retired, and looking forward to death as opposed to enjoying every day I have this job.
The longer it takes to find your direction, the less likely it is that you’ll find your ideal path, and the less time you’ll have to enjoy it, assuming you find it.
Internships, company research (finding a firm with the culture and priorities in line with your goals and personality) and moving around will help you discover what you love. Then you can use a postgraduate degree to accelerate your advancement. But if you go for the advanced degree first, you’ll likely find you wasted that effort and picked the wrong degree category.
You don’t want to reverse picking the appropriate direction first and then accelerate toward the related career. All you’ll accomplish is going in the wrong direction faster, making it increasingly more complex to course correct.
If you accept it, your mission is to find your path and, once you do, your next moves will become far more self-evident.
One final comment on personal relationships. Figure out what you need in friends and choose those that enhance your life and you enjoy being around. If you decide to get married, make sure your spouse and marriage fit within your life plan. You want a spouse that is a life partner, not a clothing accessory. If you enjoy the hunt, maybe marriage isn’t for you until the hunt gets old (which for some, it never does).
I’ve been incredibly fortunate both in terms of my career path and marriage. I wish the same for you.
I try to surface new products every week, but some of the products I’ve used for decades never get any love. I was around for the birth of Microsoft Outlook, and what made that email client fascinating for me was that it wasn’t supposed to exist. There was an Exchange email client, and it sucked. But a group of developers acting mainly on their own created Outlook, and it was so much better that the Exchange email client was discontinued.
It is simple, easy to use, reliable, and its predictive typing has improved significantly this year. It doesn’t aggravate or annoy, and while I often complain about software and patches, I don’t recall ever complaining about Outlook.
I’ve been using Outlook for more than 20 years, and while it had several issues early in its life, it was still so much better than any other email client for the way I work. I run it on both of my PCs and my smartphone, and it just seems to quietly, without drama, get better and better year after year.
I live on email, and I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t have a decent email client. Outlook, initially and today, is that email client — and to show my appreciation for a job well done, Microsoft Outlook is my product of the week.