Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Business School with a Family

Early on in 2009, my wife gave birth to our second child. As I held my daughter for the first time, a mix of emotions came over me. On one hand, I was as happy as could be. The Lord had already blessed me with a son, and now He was blessing me again with a beautiful little girl. But on the other hand, I felt a tremendous sense of nervousness. You see, the day before my daughter’s birth, I found out that I had been admitted to HBS. As exciting as getting that news was, it brought with it a guarantee of large scale, disruptive change for not just me, but for my family as well. Up until that point, the change had all been hypothetical; now it was more or less set in stone. Roughly seven months after my daughter’s birthday, I would be transitioning from the active duty Army, moving my now family of four to a new city where we knew no one, enrolling my son in a new school, going from generating an income to living off of student loans and starting a full-time graduate school program while my wife stayed home with our daughter. As I gazed into my daughter’s eyes, the gravity of my decision to pursue an MBA after the military and the effect it would have on my family hit me like a ton of bricks.

I suspect that this feeling of nervousness is common among many of you who have or who will soon have families – and rightfully so. But after graduating from HBS this past May, I can say that the two-years at business school were two very enjoyable years for both my family and me. Many of my friends (both students and spouses) will also tell you that they too thoroughly enjoyed their time at business school. Financially, everything worked out just fine (see my previous post on financing your MBA), I had a lot more time to spend at home than when I was on active duty, and my wife and I were ultimately happy with the decision we made. So was all that worrying and nervousness for naught? I would say unequivocally “no”. It certainly guided us in preparing for the transition. That said, we could have most certainly done things better along the way – beginning in the pre-matriculation period – that would have made our lives easier and somewhat more enjoyable. Below are a few of my lessons learned for making business school work with a family:

Before school:

  • Reach out to other new admits with families, especially if your school uses a section/cohort/cluster approach to the first year. In most top-10 business schools, 5% or less of the incoming class will have children, and the all-consuming first year section experience will make getting to know parents outside your section exceedingly more difficult. And if your section is like mine and has only one student with children in it (me), not knowing anyone else in your class who shares that common bond with you can be problematic. Your school will likely set up a Facebook page for the new admits that should be a useful tool to help you identify other parents in the incoming class. Working on building those relationships before school will make those first few months all the more enjoyable for both you and your spouse.
  • If you’re considering putting your child(ren) in daycare or preschool, be sure to apply for those programs as early as possible. The good programs on or near your school’s campus will fill up very quickly. If you wait until you actually move to the area, or wait to do it a month or two prior, it will most certainly be too late. Even if you’re waitlisted, being #2 or 3 on the list is much better than being #22 or #23.
  • Join your school’s partners’ (a.k.a. spouse/significant other) club email listserv. In the time leading up to matriculation, emails will be sent regarding job openings at the university or in the community in which your spouse may be interested. They’ll also send links to welcome documents and other useful information guides that will help make your transition go more smoothly.

At school:

  • Once you get to school, really get involved with the partners’ and kids’ clubs. My wife and I were a bit lukewarm in our involvement early on and wish we hadn’t been. These clubs are a great way to meet and really get to know others in your class who are married with children. Depending on how active you were during the pre-matriculation period, you may have already corresponded with some of these individuals and can thus continue building even deeper relationships. Nevertheless, both clubs are very active and are always planning something (family activities, partner outings, play dates, etc.). Put simply, they are great resources for you and your family and I can’t say enough about them. Think of them as a family readiness group of sorts.
  • Treat business school like a job. I got better at this as time went on, but wish I had been more thoughtful about time management in the beginning because it really does make a world of difference. I’m convinced that the best way to be successful both at home and in the classroom is to treat business school like a job. You know your class schedule for the entire semester at the beginning of each semester and can (and should) therefore plan around it. I highly recommend devoting 30-45 minutes every Sunday night to mapping out your schedule for the next week. I used my Microsoft Outlook calendar, but any scheduling system will work. Start with blocking off time for family commitments and work your way down the priority ladder from there. But more importantly, stay committed to your schedule. Doing so will make your life easier and significantly less stressful. My guess is that you’ll be surprised at how much you can actually get done in a day if you’re thoughtful about and committed to your schedule. One caveat about being intentional with your time is that it does tend to remove spontaneity from your life. This is a tradeoff that you’ll have to make, especially in the fast-paced business school environment where it seems like there’s always something going on because there is always something going on.

Fortunately I’m not the first (and will surely not be the last) person to attend business school with a family in tow. The advice offered here only breaks the surface on how to make the two-year business school experience enjoyable for both you and your family. Reach out to alumni who started business school with families to learn how they prepared for and handled things once school actually began. Once at school, talk to classmates with families to learn their tactics for balancing school and home and strive to continually get better at it. With a little pre-planning, creativity, and commitment, I’m confident that you and your family will fondly look back on your MBA experience with tremendous satisfaction.

- Rob C., Guest Blogger and Co-Founder of MilitaryToBusiness: Consulting Service for Top Performers.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Military versus MBA and private sector careers

A lot of people ask me questions like: Why did you decide to get out of the military? Now that you've made the transition, what do you think of your MBA experience? What about your private sector career path? How do you compare a military career to one that an MBA and a private sector career may offer?

The purpose of this article is quite ambitious... to provide some insights onto the last question: comparing a top military career to a high trajectory civilian one.

All of the questions I listed have complicated answers and are really separate from each other, despite having a similar theme. Among my peer group, people generally got out of the military for the following reasons:
  • Frustration with lack of meritocracy and lack of control over one's own career
  • The inability of the military to match job positions that actually make use of one's individual skills and desires
  • Being required to work for weak superiors
  • General frustration with unnecessary bureaucracy
Certainly some people got out for opportunities to make more money and not have to deploy away from one's family, but those were much less influential decision factors, at least among my peers. After all, low pay and deployments was something we knew we were signing up for. The list I put forward above however, were not, and what's worse, are largely self-inflicted by the military.

A much more comprehensive study on why some of the best military officers leave the service was conducted by a friend of mine at the Harvard Kennedy School and is available for download. It revealed that many military officers believed that top officers would stay in the service if the best officers got the best assignments, were promoted faster, had more opportunities for professional development (such as graduate school), and received pay for performance instead of time-in-service. This is a list that the private sector is fairly good at accommodating, which is why I believe so many leave for the private sector, not because of absolute pay levels or deployments.

Top performing officers who decide to stay in despite these challenges do so because of an unbelievable devotion to duty and to their troops, despite the realization that they could likely contribute in many more ways to the world by untapping their potential in the private sector. This type of leader who decides to stay in the military is rare, but fortunately there are some who do. Many don't however, and that perpetuates the cycle.

Comparing a top military career and a top civilian post-MBA career

So now let me get to the original question I am trying to address: comparing military and top MBA civilian careers. For the purpose of this comparison, let's make the following assumptions about the individual we are applying this to:
  1. If he/she stays in the military, he/she will be a top performer and is on track to achieve the pinnacle of all military positions as a field grade officer.
  2. If he/she gets out of the military, he/she will go to a top business school and enter a high trajectory civilian business career.
So before we begin to "compare" the military and a top post-MBA career trajectory, we have to first agree on what exactly we are comparing. We can compare all sorts of things, such as job satisfaction and financial compensation. We already know that for financial compensation, the military loses, so that is not a very insightful exercise. But what about job satisfaction? That is extremely difficult to measure in such broad context, and people will certainly disagree about how to measure job satisfaction.

So for my analysis, I decided to use a rough proxy for job satisfaction: responsibility. Responsibility is something which, though not a perfect proxy, can be more easily measured (how many people do you command? How many jobs do you influence? How much money do you manage? How much impact do you have on those you manage/command?). I also believe that for the go-getter personality I am conducting the analysis with in mind, he is highly motivated by the impact he can make in his life, and therefore responsibility is high on that list which drives job and overall life satisfaction. This does ignore other things like work-life balance, but we have to start somewhere in answering the question.

As I began to think of how I could explain my thoughts on the subject to somebody who is even outside of the military, I realized how complicated it would be, and decided to capture the essence in one graphic, which is posted below.

An explanation of some of what you see:
  • Job responsibility in the military is highly erratic. People who leave company command may wait in some cases 10 years before getting close to the level of responsibility they had before, even if they are the best performers in the entire military.
  • Job responsibility in the military, given the assumption of a highly successful career, while fluctuating, is still much more predictable than the private sector. The blue military line is fairly predictable until one hits 22+ years of service, whereas the private sector career begins to significantly diverge and be much more unpredictable within a few years after business school. The dotted lines in both cases represent the upper and lower limits of, say, 90% of the target audience.
  • Both the military (blue) and civilian (black) lines lead to similar highs and lows (in terms of responsibility) at the end of one's career. Whether one is running an entire military branch of service, or overseeing a company that employes 400,000 people and drives global innovation, both have very very high levels of responsibility.
What else can we see from this graph? We can clearly understand why people get out of the military when they do; either after their initial 4-5 year commitment or after approximately 8 years. Once somebody makes the commitment to go past 10 years, it doesn't make as much sense to leave at say, 12, 14, or 15, especially given guaranteed pension at 20 years:

Career Abyss: Losing responsibility with time

Another surprise that most civilians have when seeing this graph is the concept of diminished responsibility for significant amounts of time in one's career despite peak performance and output. For example, a Lieutenant who is done with his platoon leader/command time, may have to wait another 3-4 years before being in a position of greater responsibility. If an officer is a Company Commander deployed overseas in his 7th year in the military, it can be argued that he will not have that same level of responsibility until he is a Battalion Commander, or at least an XO or S-3, which will be at least 6-8 years no matter what. However, if somebody leaves the military after Company Command, he will have to actually take a step down in responsibility post-MBA, and many will also have to wait another 6-8 years before being back at a similarly high level of responsibility. The transaction cost of leaving the military and starting an entirely new career can therefore be very daunting.

Another consideration, is that if that same officer is not deployed while in his Battalion level positions, it's possible that an officer will never again have as much truly impactful responsibility as when he was deployed as a Captain leading a company, even if he stayed and performed at the top of his abilities for another 30 years. These concepts are foreign to civilian counterparts, which typically expect a gradual accumulation of responsibility through one's career, though the idea is probably at least subconsciously understood my most military officers.

Another consequence reflected in this graph is the divergence of professional progress in the civilian sector versus the predictable and limited growth path afforded in the military. In other words, in the civilian career, one's path has a lot of flexibility associated with it, and to a much larger extent, is driven by one's performance and goals:

Aligning incentives

So people who will tend to ride along the upper red line have incentive to get out of the military, while people who will ride closer to the lower red line, have some incentive to stay in the military. This creates a perverse environment encouraging the best officers in the military to get out, as highlighted in the Kennedy School study. That is not to say that many top officers don't stay in the military, but those who do generally do so knowing that they sacrifice many career opportunities... though when it comes to the honor of leading troops, this can't fairly be compared.

In Summary
  • Military careers have extreme peaks and lows
  • Military officers have very little to no control when they can serve in the peaks, and are subject to some very long periods of lows
  • For some, the peaks make an entire career worth it
  • For others, they see potential to perform at a higher level when unbound from the bureaucratic, time-based promotion system of the military.
Some may trade the responsibility of managing 100,000 people in a private sector career for the honor of leading 12 in combat in the military. Unfortunately, the latter can only be done for a relatively very short time out of a long military career. Furthermore, in the private sector, one can rise in responsibility and contribute roughly proportional to one's performance and capability, which is not generally possible in the military (whether justified or not), therefore driving many top performers out.

There are many tradeoffs with both careers, and one can do a lot of good in both. The ideas in this article are well understood by many junior and mid-grade officers in the military (though I'm sure some would add a very different perspective). Some decide to stay in and some decide to get out... much of it depends on one's personality and priorities. It is important for junior officers however to understand some of these dynamics as they ask themselves the key question of whether or not they will stay in the military for a career or not.

Disclaimer: One things that is difficult to capture in this article is the different type of responsibility one can have in the military versus the private sector. For example, if a young team member is responsible for 4 lives in combat, that is certainly more responsibility than a manger who oversees 4 people in a shop. But how does that compare to a manger that is responsible for 500 employees working in a factory? What about 5,000? Or 50,000? Or a business person who makes decisions that affects billions of dollars in capital, and the livelihood and income of potentially thousands of people? In short, it's difficult to compare and different people will have very different views... but instead of not going through the exercise at all, I made some general assumptions and presented one point of view.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

MBA Application Essay Strategy: Career Vision

Without a doubt, the career vision essay is one of the hardest questions in any MBA application. Indeed, it’s a difficult question for any young professional to answer, but it’s especially so for military veterans. As military veterans, you have little-to-no experience in the private sector, and therefore seemingly little context with which to frame your vision. You’ve just begun to dip your toe into these waters, so how could you possibly know where you want to go and what you want to do? Perhaps a quick look at what veterans go on to do after business school will point you in the right direction. But I think you’ll find this exercise fruitless. Veterans go on to become consultants, bankers, private equity investors, entrepreneurs, and general managers...just like most other newly-minted MBAs. And telling the admissions board in your essay that you can’t wait to be a consultant isn’t going to earn you any extra points. So, is it even possible for veterans to provide believable answers to this question? In my opinion – YES, absolutely, but you need to approach it wisely. While HBS has dropped this traditional question from its required essays this year, the question is still implied in it's new essay (Why do you need an MBA?). Furthermore, most other top business schools are asking it in one form or another as well. And even if you don’t write about it in an essay, the question is bound to come up in an interview, so developing a well-laid strategy for tackling it will be well-worth your time. In this article, I’ll offer a few pieces of advice that will help you craft a winning answer to this vexing question.

The first mistake that many veterans make when answering this question is that they’re too specific in their answers. They essentially come up with a career roadmap. This is understandable since this is how we’ve been trained to think. If you were planning on making a career of the military, you could pretty clearly map out your next 25 years to include promotions, geographic moves, top-level schools, etc. But that’s not what these business schools are looking for. There are three problems with this approach. First, it’s just not believable – it’s very unlikely that as a veteran, you’ve got a firm enough grasp on all the career opportunities out there to know exactly what you’re going to do. Second, it reveals a lack of understanding of reality. In reality, a career roadmap is quickly rendered useless. No plan ever survives first-contact with the enemy, right? The same holds true for career paths following business school. And third, it’s just not very interesting. The admissions committee is reading thousands of essays and wants to be wowed. A too-specific career vision essay risks reading more like a snooze-inducing career manual than an attention-grabbing story.

The next common mistake that veterans make is that their answers can be far too vague. If the clearest takeaways the reader is able to draw out of your essay are along the lines of “this candidate wants to lead people,” or “this candidate wants to have an impact,” then your essay falls into this category of unconvincing ambiguity. These takeaways, in and of themselves, are not bad, but they only begin to scratch the surface of what’s needed. 99% of the applicants with whom you’ll be competing also want to be leaders who have impact. So if that’s all your essay communicates, then you haven’t done anything to separate yourself from the pack. Beyond that, a vague answer to this essay could indicate to the admissions committee that a few things could be true of you: you have no idea what your career vision is, you haven’t invested the time reflecting on the question, or you’ve just taken a stab in the dark at something that might be interesting to a reader but that you really have no interest in. Clearly, you don’t want to give the admissions committee, or anybody else, a reason to think these things of you, so do yourself a favor and don’t be vague.

So far, all of I’ve done is tell you what not to do. Don’t be too specific, and don’t be too vague. And you’re thinking that it sounds like there’s a very fine line to walk somewhere in the middle. You’re absolutely right, and that’s partly why it’s so hard to get into top business schools, regardless of who you are. But, now I’d like to offer a way to find that fine line.

The approach I’m proposing incorporates just three simple rules:

1. Be authentic: For this essay to be both believable and interesting, your answer must be authentic. It has to be sincere. Don’t fret over picking an industry to write about. Many veterans think they need to put their stake in the ground somewhere so they just choose something…like consumer package goods or renewable energy. In most cases, unless you can really make your case that you were made for these industries, picking an industry like this just won’t seem authentic. So start by reflecting on what you’re passionate about. What are you great at? What do you love doing? What activities really energize you? And when answering these questions, think about function before industry. The next step involves orienting your passions toward your career aspirations. Maybe you love working with a blank slate and creating something completely new, and thus you can’t wait to be an entrepreneur. Perhaps you relish the opportunity to develop and mentor people one-on-one, and therefore look forward to further honing your leadership abilities and investing in individuals as a general manager. And perhaps you do have an industry, say real estate, that you’re truly passionate about, and you’re clamoring to learn the art of the deal and develop your first property. These would all be a great start to developing your career vision. Whatever it is you end up deciding to write about, if you make sure it’s a real passion, and not some manufactured answer, then your essay will meet this first critical requirement of being authentic.

2. Talk about results: While it shows great ambition and confidence that you aspire to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the admissions committee is much more interested in learning about what you’ll do as that CEO. What impact will you have? Other than the fulfillment of personal ambition, what will be the result of you reaching the pinnacle of corporate success? Think about the mission of the schools to which you’re applying. Take the mission of Harvard Business School as an example: “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Focus on the last part of that statement. It doesn’t say “we educate leaders who rise to the top of their respective organizations.” So as you craft your response to this question, think about the difference that you’ll make. Translate your career vision into tangible results that the world and other people will feel, and you’ll be on the right track.

3. Connect the dots: Remember that this essay is but one piece of your candidacy and that it needs to make sense in the context of the rest of your story. While most of your application, including your other essays, will be a reflection of your past, who you are, and where you’ve been, this essay affords you a rare chance to talk about who you want to become, where you want to go, and what you aspire to accomplish with your life. The last thing you want is for this beautifully written essay to be floating out there on its own, so make sure that you’ve taken the time to link your vision with the rest of your story, both past and present. As the admissions committee reads your essay, they should think to themselves that the essay could only belong to you, because yours is the only puzzle into which this piece fits.

So, clearly, this is a tough essay to get right. In fact, according to conversations MilitaryToBusiness has had with admissions committees from several top schools, it’s the most common weakness with military members’ applications. But this doesn’t mean you should avoid the question and choose another that’s easier to answer. Try to view this question as an opportunity to shine and standout from the group. Just make sure you understand what it takes to nail this essay before you begin to attack it.

One final suggestion: before you begin brainstorming potential answers to this question, read a few of these HBS Portrait Project essays to get your creative juices flowing.

-Dave C., Guest Blogger and Senior Consultant with MilitaryToBusiness (bio)