Preparing for a new role

I recently caught up with a few friends who are taking on leadership roles in new organizations, either following business school or after being a part of a company for a short amount of time.  They asked me for advice on preparing for these changes.

Here’s what I proposed:

First, understand your customer’s experience.  We were talking about a health care company, so I proposed reading a book written by a patient about their experience.  It could be walking in the front door of a retail operation, or installing the application of a Saas business.  The point is that you need to understand how your customer sees your operation, and the path they take from finding your company to completing a purchase.

Second, find an objective view of your organization.  For publicly traded companies, this is contained in their annual reports and their earnings call transcripts.  For nonprofits, it could be their annual reports or their IRS form 990 filings.  For private companies, it might be their reports to their board or their investors.  In any case, it’s important to get a view of how the organization is doing on the metrics that it holds itself accountable to.

Third, reflect on who you are as you step into the role.  Great leaders have self-awareness and behave proactively.  They know what they bring into a situation that is of value, and they know what they want to learn from the experiences they design for themselves to have.  They take a long term view of what they want to achieve, and they keep those goals in sight so they can continue to work toward them over the long term.  I suggested two quick exercises to help with this:

  •  Write down your “why”:  We all have a reason that we show up in the morning.  As a leader in a new role, you should take the time to reflect, write it down, and share it with your team.  And, as you go through this process, ask yourself whether the story you are telling will resonate with those around you.  Is what you are saying true? Will your reasoning make sense?  Are you connecting your experiences and interest with your daily activities in the most compelling and authentic way possible?  If you allowed yourself to be more vulnerable, would you be able to share a better story?
  • Reflect on the connection between your ideas, actions, and outcomes: Beliefs -> Behaviors -> Results.  I’ve found this simple framework to be a remarkably insightful way for me to think about how I show up at work.  Are my stated beliefs reflected in my daily actions?  Will those behaviors yield the actions I want over the long term?  How will I react during the time when my behaviors are not yet producing the results that I want?

Fourth, and most importantly, build relationships.  Organizations run on the human connections, on community.  Take the time to find and connect with people.  Listen and help when you are able.  Celebrate whenever possible.  Enjoy the experience of being together doing whatever the worthwhile work is that you have found in common.

Value of an MBA

I was visiting home for a few days during the summer after finishing from my graduate program, and my father asked me a question:

“I read that Mark Cuban thinks an MBA is a waste of time.  Do you still think it was a worthwhile investment?”

My first reaction was that Mark Cuban has a business degree himself.  And he does, graduating with a B.S. BA from a great school.  But then I looked up the quote, which was from a Reddit session:


I agree with his assertions, though not the final assessment.

If your need is better knowledge, there are cheaper faster ways to acquire the necessary information.  If you don’t have the experience you need, there are faster ways to find the skills you require.  If you’re not able to convey your qualifications effectively in an interview, you can hire a career coach to help you speak more effectively.

Is investing in yourself a path to nowhere?

And yet I still chose to invest in an MBA.

Here’s why:

If you know what you need to reach your next goal, go out and get it.  But if you don’t know how to grow to the next level, or you don’t know the right questions about your next step, or you don’t know how to move beyond thinking like an individual contributor to thinking like a business owner, and if you don’t have a community to help you…

…than an MBA might really help.

While an MBA will give you a range of new skill sets, it is not an investment in acquiring specific capabilities.  There are numerous graduate degrees that will help you analyze data, or make financial projections, or understand accounting.  An MBA is an investment in choosing the right things to apply your skills to, in asking the right questions, in figuring out what matters most.

And—spoiler alert—the answer is people.

Sure, you’ll learn about the numbers, and the financial statements, and the analytics.

But if you don’t start with the right question, all the analytics in the world won’t get you to the right answer.

This isn’t to say that numbers don’t matter.  The spreadsheets and the revenue forecasts and financial statements all have to come together to make sense.  You can’t ignore the numbers and be successful: they’re necessary, but not sufficient.

If you only think about the people and ignore the numbers, you’ll be missing an opportunity—because you won’t be able to make the change you want.  But if you only think about the numbers and ignore the human being involved in the decision, you’re missing the point.  Because the people are what matter.

And here’s the thing:  if you put the people at the center of the decisions you make, and you understand the numbers, and you take the time to build real relationships, and you’re willing to have the authentic conversations necessary to bring others along with your vision of the future—you can make a difference.

And that’s what I learned in my MBA program.  It’s all about the people.  If you have the right perspective and put in the effort, you can make a positive change.  And life is better when you can do it with friends.

So – that’s why you would consider investing in an MBA.


Positioning Your Contribution: Experiences & Interests

I’ve talked to multiple friends over the past few weeks who are considering starting a new direction in their careers.  As they describe how they are thinking about their next phase, they tend to start with their experiences and their skills, and talk about their options based on what they think they can get.  Like they’re choosing from a menu at a restaurant.

Choose the tools based on your project, not the other way around.

I think this is the wrong approach.

What if we started with our interests instead?  What do I like to do?  What am I interested in?  What do I think is important?

I’m not suggesting that you should search for some undefined passion before starting a new direction, or that you should only pursue work that speaks to your soul.

But I do believe our interests have value.  If we’re interested, we’re more engaged, more focused, and more cheerful in our efforts.  This attitude is a huge advantage, and worth paying attention to.  And our interests can change in the future.  But if a topic, industry, or idea engages us–we should pay attention. 

So when you start a new direction, set your “Why” based on a forward-looking positive outlook grounded in your interests:

  • I’m excited about the trend towards value-based healthcare
  • I love the scaling new processes to grow a product
  • I think the idea of networked teams can take collaborative productivity to a new level

Once you know your “why”, you can rightly view your experiences and skill sets to create a targeted perspective on the contribution you can make going to forward.  You can understand what your positioning should be, where you are unique, and where you can add differentiating value.

Your experiences are essential, but don’t neglect your interests.