Outliers … And Business School

I’ve been taking a lot of packing breaks this week and trying to do a lot of reading. It’s been great. I hope I’ll be able to spare some time once school begins. I recently finished the book “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell. It’s the 2nd Gladwell book that I’ve read this summer. The premise of the book is answering the question, “why do some people succeed more than others?” I thought this was a pretty appropriate book considering I’m headed off to law school and business school especially at Northwestern, where there will undoubtedly be a lot of aspiring CEOs, General Counsels, Partners, and Managing Directors. The real question, though, is which of us will ultimately become the outliers of the world?

The fact that these schools have so many successful people brings up the question, what is it that these students do that makes them become successful? Do I have to get perfect grades, network with the most people, ace my job interviews, get promoted every year, or do I just have to get lucky. When I go to the bookstore, I can usually find a hundred biographies of famous people and self-help books that try to answer that question, and give me the seven habits (now eight habits) that will get me there. In fact, I’ve even read a few of them. However, what’s different about Outliers, is that this book puts much less focus on individual characteristics and emphasizes one’s environment, the people you come across, the breaks you are given, and the year you are born, basically all the things that are determined by chance. It’s the complete opposite of all the motivational books out there.

As part of his argument, Gladwell references the 10,000-hour rule that explains how much high achiever practice in order to become great (i.e. Beatles practiced music for 10,000 hours, Bill Gates practiced coding for 10,000 hours, Tiger Woods golfed for 10,000 hours, etc). While he agrees that these were extremely talented and highly practiced people, he also argues that most of us ignore the fact that these individuals had opportunity to practice, that the stars aligned for them to have good coaches, facilities, and mentors to help them achieve greatness. He also argues that if the stars hadn’t aligned for them, then they would have turned out much differently, as there are a lot of other talented, hard-workers who could have done achieved the same things.

In my opinion, Outliers is pretty well-argued and inspires me not only to work really hard in school but also to understand that some things are out of my control. The book also makes me think a lot about my future classmates. Who I will meet? Who will be in my section, my class, and in the seat next to me? Which folks are going to end up being really successful one day? And will I be one of those people?

Who knows. But sometimes it’s interesting to think about it, and it’s also pretty exciting to know that I’ll be around a lot of successful people at both schools.

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Thursday, August 13th, 2009 Business School 3 Comments

“Blink” and Business School

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, a book that draws psychology research to discuss the ways people make decisions. I think the topic is highly relevant to b-school students, since graduates spend their careers as managers and leaders who make important business decisions.

“Blink” is a book about the first two seconds, the instant conclusions that we reach about things that sometimes are accurate and occasionally far better than analysis. Gladwell contrasts these “blink” decisions with the longer decision-making process, where one observes the world, takes in information, analyzes the data, considers biases, formulates opinions, and then makes decisions.

Gladwell says that “we live in a society dedicated to the idea that we’re always better off gathering as much information and spending as much time as possible in deliberation,” but he contests that this is not always true and provides concrete examples to back that up.

Reading Blink as a pre-MBA student, I not only saw truth in Gladwell’s theory, but I also saw the value that this framework also has in business, where decisions often tend to be too long and drawn out. I’ll discuss a few examples that came to mind as relevant to MBAs:

If you’re an admissions officer and you’re judging the caliber of a b-school applicant, how much do you analyze the candidates grades, standardized test scores and company history, and how much do you trust your quick interpretations about their leadership potential, motivation, and promise in the classroom. These latter traits are often picked up right away in an application.

If you’re a professor quickly assessing a student, how much do you analyze past grades and previous test scores and how much do you consider the influence the student has in the classroom and your snap judgments about their ability? As a seasonsed professor you should be able to asses these latter characteristics quickly, right?

Company Interviews
If you’re an industry interviewer screening candidates at b-school, how much do you look for someone with industry expertise and quantifiable success over their pre-MBA career versus a career changer who you can immediately tell is motivated to learn and has the leadership potential to do well.

Consulting Interviews
If you’re a consulting recruiter looking to hire MBA candidates, how much do you analyze GMAT scres, finance and strategy courses, and the case study performance and how much do you trust your snap judgment about their client presence, charisma, and conversational intelligence, which happens in just a 30-minute interview.

If you’re an entrepreneur, how much do you analyze the external marketplace using analysis and your 4Ps framework. Alternatively how much do you trust your instincts about consumers and your ability to sell? You usually know the answers to the latter issues right away.

Venture Capital
If you’re a VC firm looking to invest capital, how much do you analyze financial statements versus trusting your instinct about a promising product and a strong management team, which are often quickly apparent.

Performance Review
Finally, as an HR manager or line manager charged with rating, promoting, or compensating employees, how many days/weeks do you analyze performance metrics (i.e. HR actually does this) and how much do you consider determination, leadership skills, or potential to succeed in an organization. HR folks usually know these employee criticality levels right away.

Overall, I think I agree with Gladwell’s point, that the very best decision-makers, (in my case…business decision makers) are the ones who understand how to use both processes. While applying to business school, it is definitely important to allow admissions officers to use both types of decision making processes. Admissions will definitely make snap judgments about your writing style, leadership roles, and your pre-MBA work experience, so your must write your application with the big picture in mind, focus on the first two sentences of your essays, and ensure that recommenders quickly convey their points to keep admissions interested at a high level. At the same time, admissions also wants to see results, so it’s important to provide a certain level of detail in your essays and on your resume. It’s a tough balance that takes a lot of time and lots of revisions to optimize.

During school, students will have the opportunity to grow in both domains, taking both experiential and leadership classes as well as quantitative and analytical classes. The onus is on us students to determine the mix of classes we want. I personally hope to put a lot of time into experiential and leadership classes, but also know that there is a lot of value in the others as well. Rather than over analyze my schedule and class options ahead of time, I’ll probably make quick (i.e. “Blink’) decisions along the way based on what makes sense at the time.

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Friday, July 31st, 2009 Business School 2 Comments

Never Eat Alone

Leading at a law firm or at a business today is dramatically different than it was many years ago.  The world is bigger, information travels through different channels, and organizations and processees are far more complex than they were before. So how can you still influence important decisions and shephard important deals in the midst of this complexity?  In my view, it all starts with building good relationships.

A colleague of mine recently recommended I read the book “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. He recently gave it a read, and he told me that my style and background reminded him a lot of Keith.  I didn’t think too much of it at first, but trusted his opinion so figured it might be worth a shot. So I picked up the book about two weeks ago and just finished reading. It’s definitely a good read. It’s definitely relevant for those in the MBA world. And my colleague was definitely correct. I’ve found a number of things in common with Keith.

In the book, Keith lays out the specific steps he uses to connect and stay in contact with others—friends, colleagues, family, and associates. He basically sees the world around him as a place that should be based on generosity, where he helps friends and colleagues, and helps people connect with each other, rather than networking for personal gain.

I enjoy his approaches and theories about networking and also agree with the emphasis he places on it. But whether or not you agree with his philosophies, I think the topic is very relevant for all of us MBA applicants/admits/students. In MBA programs, students’ schedules are jam packed 7 days a week–studying for class, practicing cases, attending and planning events, meeting with professors, and the list goes on.  We will all interact with thousands of different people in a 2-year span. And if you’re on your game, this process begins well before we ever set foot in our first class.

As such, I think it’s important to think about what you want to get out of those interactions. Perhaps you want to run for a specific club leadership role or maybe student government. Perhaps, you want to meet everyone in a certain company or industry or maybe just find the right colleague who can prep us for a job interview. Perhaps you want to make sure you have a huge network after school or maybe even just have a really good time there. Maybe you want to do all of that. No matter what your goals are, making friends and contacts is an important part of school.

We don’t all have to be power networkers, but I think it’s important that we figure out how we want to balance our networking energies and schedules with everything else. And while most of us will have some preconceptions about our strategies going in, I suspect that we really don’t know yet, so it will be a lot of learning as we go. One thing I do know is that once my program begins, I don’t plan on eating alone too many times.

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Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 Business School 7 Comments

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.


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