photo by Naotake Murayama
As store endcaps and TV commercials are quick to remind us, the beginning of a new school year is approaching. While this time can be stressful for students (and teachers) at any level, a special level of anxiety faces incoming graduate students at elite business schools.
Bloomberg Businessweek recently published a letter intended to relieve such stress. The letter has been passed from upperclassmen to first-years at the Stanford Graduate School of Business since the late 1980s, and has also circulated at Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The scanned version, available as a PDF, includes a fax timestamp from 2007 and a 1994 addendum from the letter’s author, Shirzad Bozorgchami (now known as Shirzad Chamine).
The letter, which runs six pages including the addendum, contains advice that strikes me as a mix of good and bad. As with any advice, on business or any other topic, the key is to consider the source. Bozorgchami wrote the letter when he was in his second year at Stanford. While this situated him well to speak on some topics of interest to a first-year student, it gave him less perspective on others. Here are my reactions as a business owner who earned his own M.B.A. almost 30 years ago.
Bozorgchami tells his reader, “Neither your summer nor your first permanent employer will have any idea what your grades were.” I cannot speak for most employers in the late ‘80s, or even other employers now, but at Palisades Hudson, that simply isn’t true. We ask job applicants to send us their unofficial transcripts in order to understand both what they studied and how they performed. One of the things we look for is consistency; we want to see students who gave their best all the time and did not only excel in classes that they found interesting or easy.
This is not because we are making any sort of moral judgment about a given approach to academics. It is purely a business judgment. Our staff needs to perform at a high level for all the many tasks we do, even if some of those tasks are not the most exciting or enjoyable parts of our jobs. Clients’ financial statements must be exactly right. You can’t get sloppy when entering their investment results, nor can you carelessly swap a number or two on a tax return. Grades are not the only way we create a picture of a potential new hire, of course, but they are often a good basis for judging an applicant’s attention to detail and work habits.
Of course, we typically hire undergraduate business or economics students from a wide assortment of good schools. While all of them provide a solid foundation, they are generally not the sort of extremely selective environment that was reflected at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in the ‘80s - or today, for that matter. It is probably true that a grade of “P” in Stanford’s Graduate Business School means “plenty good enough,” as Bozorgchami writes. (Then and now, GSB grades are H (Honors), HP (High Pass), P (Pass), LP (Low Pass) and U (Fail).) If we were hiring Stanford-educated M.B.A.s, a P might be “plenty good enough” for us, too.
But even so, we would still want to see evidence that the M.B.A. applicants we interview are prepared to give the job their best efforts all the time. When you are a graduate student, your studies are your job. Your transcript should reflect that you took them seriously. And this is still true to a large degree even if, like me, you attend business school part time or at night while holding down a full-time day job. I was a courthouse reporter for The Associate Press when I was in business school in New York.
It is probably true that graduate students at Stanford cannot read every word of every text they are assigned. But how does a business student know which words - or articles - to skip? Presumably their professors have judged the assigned readings worthwhile, and students should give professors the benefit of the doubt by trusting that most assignments are not a waste of time. Moreover, students typically pay a small fortune to attend the program. A single student living on Stanford’s campus who does not receive financial aid can expect to pay over $99,000 in tuition, fees and expenses in his or her first year. Why wouldn’t students want the full benefit of the education they are paying for?
Bozorgchami cited a study conducted “about 20 years ago” at the time, which found that “the factor most closely related to success to be sociability, not grades or thoroughness.” I think it is safe to say that the business world of the late ‘60s was very different, in many ways, from the business world of the late ‘80s. It was certainly very different from the business world of today. “Sociability” is probably not the primary factor, in and of itself, needed to advance in the business world these days. Of course, being a kind, friendly and moral person is not unimportant for those looking to advance professionally. But it isn’t enough by itself.
He goes on to write, “My own experience has been that most of the minute details taught in GSB courses will never be used.” I don’t know whether Bozorgchami still feels that way 25 years later, after having served as the founder and CEO of several organizations.
I use the business skills I learned in graduate school every day in my work, most of the time unconsciously. Whether it’s trying to motivate people to get through a difficult task, navigating a business or human relations issue that could create legal complications, or just deciding when and how to expand the business and take calculated risks, I apply concepts - and details - that I absorbed in business school without conscious though. Of course, for me business school ended nearly three decades ago, so sometimes I need to go back and refresh myself on those details. But my experience is that you do use what you learned, and that you use it even more later in your career than you do in the early stages.
There is a simple reason for this. In many business programs at the undergraduate level, professors teach students how to perform well as part of a business. High-powered graduate business programs, on the other hand, generally teach students how to run a business. But many, if not most, business students don’t have the opportunity to run their own businesses until quite a few years later, which is why many things they learn in graduate school may not have much immediate application in an entry-level position.
Some of the letter’s advice does ring true. You can, and should, be a good person and be yourself as you progress in the business world. Selfishness and nastiness will not get you very far. And yes, you should not strive to be part of the elite high-achievers - the H in GBS’ system - if you know that the goal is unattainable for you or if the price of attaining it is more than you can reasonably pay. But you should not aim to skate by with the minimum acceptable level of formal study, either. You will probably never again have the chance to focus on learning new concepts and reflecting on what you learn from classmates and instructors without the day-to-day pressures of getting your work done.
I also agree that graduate students should try to relax and enjoy their educational experience. But learning how to relax and enjoy your work while still giving the job your best is the real lesson of business school, at Stanford or anywhere else. It’s a lesson that works for many people besides business students, and one that will make all the difference over the course of a career.