Category Archives: Career

Environmental Neurosis and the Irresistable Seduction of Money: How I Learned to Forget About Climate Change and Love Louis Vuitton

Last fall, shortly after I started my INSEAD MBA, I had a prolonged debate with a classmate who was actively involved in a student club called INDEVOR which is affiliated with Net Impact, an international group devoted to promoting corporate social responsibility (CSR). Like other members of INDEVOR, this MBA participant was fully brainwashed in the rhetoric of global warming, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship. I had a lot of fun poking holes in the ‘Holy Grails’ of CSR such as carbon trading and climate change.

Having spent the last 5 years before my INSEAD MBA in a small Middle Eastern country, I had been completely sheltered from the whole CSR bandwagon. It might seem hard to believe for some people, but all of these environmental and ‘do-good’ issues are really not on the radar screen in most places. Until I moved to France, I really had no idea how big this issue was in Europe. Most rapidly developing countries (including the one I worked in before coming to Fontainebleau) have more pressing economic and security issues to deal with. ‘Saving the world’ is not high up on the agenda.

As I debated CSR issues with my INSEAD classmates, I was shocked at the dogmatic nature of CSR adherents. They were unwilling to accept any critique of carbon trading or even entertain the idea that global warming might not be man-made. At the same time I was fascinated by the cognitive dissonance which these students exhibited. Many of them seemed deeply troubled by their presence in a business school and deliberately voiced ‘conciliatory’ messages intended to resolve their troubling anxiety. These messages usually involved professing a desire for a post-MBA career in social development or non-profit work. And for some strange reason, my fellow MBA participants would eat up this crap and provide positive reinforcement for these do-gooders. Any expression of wanting to spurn the corporate world and save the planet was met by my fellow classmates at INSEAD with that crazed permanent grin endemic to schizophrenic people. When I shared my own rather traditional post-MBA career goals with my classmates, I was rewarded with scorn!

Of course, I thought that these CSR types were complete flakes and really needed a psychologist to treat their neurosis. If someone genuinely believes in saving the world, they join the Peace Corp, become a social worker, or join a monastic order. Yet for some reason, these people choose to come to business school where they proceed to put on a show of being seriously disturbed by capitalism, global trade, and pollution. And like Al Gore, the carbon trading huckster who buys Ponzi Scheme pollution credits from himself, to magically neutralize his private jet flights, many of the loudest do-gooders at INSEAD live anything BUT ascetic lifestyles.

Surprisingly, rather than being challenged and called on the carpet for their immaturity, these students were further encouraged by companies who have also been infected by the delusional CSR sickness. Companies come to campus spewing the same CSR drivel and trot out dog and pony show speakers to share their wisdom on sustainable development and climate change. In their colorful recruiting material, they haul out the correct buzzwords and rhetoric to show that they too have joined the cult of CSR. I have yet to meet an oil company during OCR, talk about oil, or a consulting firm talk about corporate restructuring projects which involve ‘downsizing’ companies. It’s all touchy feely Kumbaya stuff. One company which I interviewed with during the recruiting season boasts on their website that they are now officially “carbon neutral”. Ironically, sometimes the marketing pitch is out of sync with the recruiting team and many of my classmates have to their surprise been unceremoniously dinged for spewing the CSR rhetoric during interviews, only to be politely told, “Err, we don’t do that kind of work!”

And so I must confess a certain Schadenfreude when one by one, the INSEAD CSR devotees went for the most evil capitalist corporate jobs imaginable. One student who had received multiple offers for corporate jobs made a nauseating show of parading around campus to elicit sympathy for his predicament. He wanted to save the world, but someone forced him against his will to write the GMAT, apply to business school, suffer through the year, apply to corporate jobs, and now he was being forced against his will to accept the offer! And once again, rather than slap this student into reality, everyone was sympathetic. Well not everyone– I certainly won’t be shedding crocodile tears for this particular neurosis.

Another INSEAD CSR adherent shocked me a few weeks ago during a marketing case about Louis Vuitton, when he said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to work for Louis Vuitton?” Huh?! Why would he want to devote his career to convincing women to buy overpriced purses with ugly letters on them? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with trying to get people to buy expensive handbags with ugly letters, unless of course you publicly espouse the mantra of social change. I’m not faulting my classmates for taking these corporate jobs, I just wish they had the maturity to stop whining about wanting to make money and succeed in the business world.

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The Blogger Prepares For His Drug Test

The Ultimate Job Test

“Give me a little drink from your loving cup.
Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.”

-LOVING CUP by the Rolling Stones

My fellow INSEAD bloggers have described some of the demeaning experiences they’ve had to endure during the employment recruiting process. I thought that nothing could top the stress-test interviews of investment banks and consulting firms– I was wrong. I’ve been asked to submit to a drug test. When I told my classmates at INSEAD, the European MBA participants were really shocked. The Americans on the other hand, were quite familiar with the practice. It seems that asking potential employees to urinate into a cup is an accepted business practice in the U.S. And so for the last week I’ve been stressing out– Should I take allergy medicine when I start sneezing? Should I eat that poppy seed bagel? Do I risk being dinged because some inaccurate test labels me a drug addict? In a country where the sitting president is a former cocaine user and alcoholic, does it seem fair to screen out job candidates who occasionally use marijuana? Or maybe drug testing is employed precisely because of the President’s past affinity for Bolivian Marching Powder.

My Own Private Boxholm

“On Monday, March 13, 1967, 31-year-old Arthur Keller, who graduated from Harvard Business School two years previously, entered the office of the Hedblom Co. in Boxholm, Sweden, for the second time in his life. He had just been appointed managing director of the company.”

Back in September, the INSEAD MBA program began with an introductory management seminar taught by Prof. Gareth Dyas. We studied a 40 year-old case featuring the pseudo-named Arthur Keller, a young Harvard Business School grad who graciously accepted the challenge of a general manager position in the isolated Swedish town of Boxholm at a moribund women’s dress factory that was bleeding money in the face of cheap imports.

Prof. Dyas used the example of Arthur Keller to question whether any INSEAD MBA participant was willing to accept the risk and challenge of a general management position upon graduation, or whether we preferred to take more glamorous consulting and finance jobs that would pay well but be devoid of any real management responsibility. Boxholm, Sweden served to represent the literal and figurative ‘end of the world’. Arthur Keller left his glamorous life in the big city for a small manufacturing town with no opera, no professional sports team, and had it existed back then, no Starbucks! But what Boxholm lacked in amenities, was more than offset by the long-term upside in Arthur Keller’s job. By choosing the road less trodden, Arthur benefited from immediate responsibility and the chance to prove himself as a manager.

As I went through the recruiting process in P4, I faced the difficult choice between what I would term PowerPoint/Excel jobs vs. Boxholm jobs. It wasn’t simply a question of consulting and finance jobs vs. industry jobs– PowerPoint/Excel jobs also exist in industry. The dividing line is whether a post-MBA job will consist of managing slides and tables, or managing departments and having P&L (profit and loss) responsibility.

PowerPoint/Excel jobs can be tempting. I remember stepping into the offices of one company with whom I interviewed in Boston last month. They had a panoramic view of Boston Harbor, a professional chef’s kitchen, a gym overlooking Cambridge, and a 100 inch plasma TV in the marble and walnut boardroom. I was seduced by the glamorous atmosphere, but at the end of the day, the content of my work would have been to support senior management.

Today I received an offer from what I would call a Boxholm job. It’s not an MBA Leadership Program, it’s not located in a sexy world-class city, and no one’s eyes are going to light up at a cocktail party when I tell them about my new employer. But on the other hand it’s a real general management position. I feel passionate about the industry and by the chance to roll up my sleeves and manage people, budgets, and real deal negotiations, as opposed to modeling them in the abstract and advising others on how to manage them.

In describing this job to some of my MBA colleagues, I have received mixed reactions. Some Wharton MBAs friends were horrified when I told them about the job. They couldn’t fathom that I would actually be working for a real company with revenues, expenses, employees, and budgets, as opposed to a private equity fund, finance firm, or consultancy. Undoubtedly, part of their opposition is rooted in money. Although the base salary will be similar to my colleagues’ pay, I won’t be getting 6 figure bonuses each year (probably not even 5 or 4 figure bonuses)! My financial reward will come slowly. My friends mourned the fact that I was moving towards a career path devoid of shortcuts. When I described this job to an INSEAD professor, he looked at me and warned that life would be tough out there in the ‘real’ business world, away from the bubble of banks, consultancies, and Fortune 500 companies.

It might seem surprising to the uninitiated, but elite business school graduates today seem less interested in becoming managers. Everyone wants a fast-track to wealth and success, with finance and strategy roles seen as the preferred route to get there. I remember attending an INSEAD cocktail party in Paris during P3, where I met Hélène Ploix, the first female INSEAD MBA graduate. Hélène runs her own investment fund and sits on the Board of Directors of BNP-Paribas and Publicis. At the cocktail party, one of my French classmates approached her with a very blunt question– How could he achieve her level of success? Without hesitation she responded that her general management experience was the decisive factor in opening doors to the boardroom.

I must confess that part of my attraction to general management jobs resides in a depressing C.V. that I came across at work, early on in my career. The C.V. in question belonged to a guy who graduated with an M.B.A. from N.Y.U. 5-7 years previously. He had gone into finance and worked on Wall Street for several years. But 2 layoffs later, he was just another faceless banker who by luck, circumstance, or mediocre talent, had failed to make it. Being a pessimist by nature, I looked at the resume and immediately understand that this guy was doomed. He was just too senior for jobs in the $100,000-$200,000 range, yet he lacked the experience and skills for jobs in the $200,000+ range. No Wall Street bank wants to hire someone from his class who hadn’t earned the expected career promotions, and no real company would be interested in hiring a Wall Street reject with no operational or management experience. Sure he had some options to set up his own investment fund or try to join a small one, but seeing this poor shmuck’s C.V. left an indelible mark on me. It made me realize that an M.B.A., even from a top school, is a rapidly depreciating commodity. You have a few years to translate it into valuable experience, usable connections, or a nest egg. This imperative seems all the more necessary in the high risk/high reward financial world. Am I too timid to risk everything on such a course, preferring instead a ‘safer’ career track that will give me practical management experience instead of a ‘brand name’ on my resume? Maybe.

It is both exciting and intimidating to face the decision whether to accept a general management position or to pursue a traditional MBA job. I am still going through the recruiting process and I have several more second round interviews coming up. I won’t make any decisions until I exhaust the other possibilities.

By the way, I received a ding this morning from a job I had applied to over a month ago. When I get a chance, I have to remember to ring the recently re-installed ding bell at the INSEAD campus bar.

The Blogger Puts on His Game Face

INSEAD Career Interview Preparation

“There are 3 masks:
The one we think we are,
The one we really are, and
The one we hold in common.” -Jacques Lecoq

French Theater legend Jacques Lecoq’s smartest career move occurred in 1948 when like many present-day INSEAD participants, he successfully made both a geographic and functional change. In Lecoq’s case he traded the physical education field in post-War Paris for the study of Commedia dell’Arte in Italy. Indeed his fateful decision to go to Italy would bring him in contact with his collaborator Amleto Sartori, the craftsman who helped Lecoq revive the iconic Neutral Mask. Pedagogically, the Neutral Mask was employed by Lecoq to endow acting students with an emotional honesty and economy of movement that had been abandoned over the years in favor of a more craft-style acting technique. Of course, a more critical reading of the Neutral Mask reveals its repressive qualities which demand a forced balance and unnatural receptivity from wearers.

I have caught myself wearing my own Neutral Mask all too frequently during the current P4 recruiting season as my self has become muted. It catches you by surprise when evil HR people quiz you with loaded questions– “How would you feel about starting out in a sales position?”… Is this a trick question? Does she want me to say “Yes”? If I say “No” will I torpedo my candidacy? Should I mold my answer to what she wants to hear? (assuming I can successfully guess what she wants to hear). For me the psychological stress of recruiting lies in having to adopt a new mask for every interview.

“Sure I’ve always dreamed of living in [an isolated town in Germany/Ohio/ China/Siberia].”… “Sure I look forward to travelling 5 days a week.”… “Sure I’m happy to accept an internship with no guarantees of a permanent offer.” These sentences start to effortlessly roll off your tongue until you wake up one morning unable to recognize yourself.

The moment came after a fantastic first round consulting interview. I had nailed the 2 case interviews, charmed the pants off the male and female interviewer, and was really impressed by the firm. But then the HR coordinator started to piss me off. They stuck algebra problems in front of me and demanded to know my standardized test scores– in short, they didn’t trust their own judgment and preferred to rely on external measurements. My GMAT score is over 700, so I had nothing to hide, but I graciously jumped through all their hoops like a trained dog. Yet inside I started to resent the fact that they were simply searching for a reason to shoot me down as a candidate. Companies will defend themselves by claiming how hard it is to distinguish from so many qualified candidates, particularly at a school like INSEAD, but from the candidate’s perspective, it raised questions about how this organization would treat me after I was hired. Would one partner take charge of my career development, or would I simply float along through the machine, constantly being pushed and pulled by an inhumane system?

And then it happened. I went to an interview last week with a company that didn’t require me to wear a mask. I was myself, they were themselves, and no one had to put on any airs. It was such a feeling of relief. From the moment I walked into this company’s office I felt at home. I can’t say that about any of the other companies who I’ve interviewed with during the recruiting period. For the first time I met a company that wasn’t interested in making me jump through hoops. They had a real hiring need, I had the qualifications they were looking for, and no time was wasted on artificial HR interview parlor tricks. It felt so liberating to finally take off the masks, abandon my game face, and at last be myself.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

The Blogger Survives the Ups and Downs of Recruiting

Ed Norton is Consoled After Receiving Another Ding

In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the nameless narrator (played in the film version by Ed Norton), rebels against the corporate ladder and what he calls “the IKEA nesting instinct”, by dropping out of society and exposing himself to the raw emotional reality of cancer support groups and the physical violence of extreme fighting. In the sequel, he might choose to attend INSEAD.

Recruiting is hard because companies woo you to apply by sponsoring cocktail parties, bombarding you with free pens, bags, corkscrews, and dinner invitations. Like a homely girl with braces and acne in high school who is flattered by the slightest attention from boys, your self-esteem is boosted and you are lulled into applying. But then you are unceremoniously rejected because based on a 30 second scan of your resume, you are deemed too old, too technical, too artsy, disloyal, too international, not international enough etc.

The companies that you thought were safe fall backs, reject you, while the obscure long shot can’t wait to interview you for a position in a country whose name you can’t pronounce. One frustrating aspect of recruiting is that companies will never tell you that the reason they don’t want you is that they’re overstaffed and not hiring. I was rejected for an interview at one place that I really wanted, and so I used my INSEAD alumni network connections to glean the following information:

… I can share with you a conversation that I had back in January of this year with someone from HR. I was trying to find out why another friend of mine was not invited to interview [with them] and was told that recruiting is closed for 2008. They wanted 5 and got them: 2 from INSEAD and 3 more that I haven’t met. ”

My self-esteem might have been spared had the company shared this information in their PFO letter, but alas why would the company want to share their hiring targets and staffing needs with an applicant? Better yet, the company and INSEAD’s Career Services office should have told me to apply back in fall while there were still positions open.

And so without this information, we applicants tend to internalize the rejections. What did I do wrong? If I was good enough for a free corkscrew, coffee chat, or dinner, why not an interview? Where is Meatloaf with his hormone-induced man-boobs when you need someone to hug?

The Blogger Receives Interview Invitations and Interview Rejections

INSEAD’s Career Link Jobs Board, Circa 1982

Recruiting has started and so have the rejections and interviews. I will try to keep score and at the end of the process I hope to provide you with the final box score numbers of jobs applied to, 1st round invites, 2nd round invites, and offers (hopefully there will be at least one!) but for the moment, I will only say that I have received both good news and bad news.  Yesterday I saw a poster on the door of a Philadelphia McDonald’s that read, “Now Hiring Store Managers, salary up to $57,000”.  When I have a chance, I’d like to run a net present value simulation to calculate the break even point between working at McDonald’s vs. going to INSEAD.

The big Wharton Studio 54  party is coming up on Thursday. The theme is Jungle Love and I suspect (fear?) that many Wharton MBAs are planning to dress in loin-cloth or body paint. I think I will just wear club clothes. The party will feature shooter-boys in thongs and shooter-girls in bikinis, pouring shots. Who says only INSEAD MBAs know how to have fun? The following day I have a Goldman Sachs conference in New York, so I hope I can recover in time.

The Blogger Takes The Career Leader Test

Post-MBA Employment

Yesterday I took the Career Leader test, and discovered that I am best suited for a career in marketing or as an advertising exec. I have some serious reservations about the Career Leader methodology which I will discuss below, but for the moment I will focus on being an ad man. A friend once explained to me that creative people work in theatre… slightly more talented created people work in film and television… but the most talented creative people work in advertising!

I have always been reluctant to go into advertising for two reasons. As an optimist in the intelligence of mankind, I have always been skeptical that consumers will actually fall for pitches– are women so naive as to really believe that Shampoo X will give them silky soft hair that will make them more attractive, OR are men so naive as to believe that Shampoo Y will reverse the effects of baldness and give them richer, fuller hair? Moreover, assuming that consumers will buy the message, I’ve always wondered whether convincing people to buy stuff was really the best way to use my intelligence and skills.

Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam and Naomi Klein’s No Logo vilified branding and marketing for an entire generation, but a truce appears to have been reached under the rubric of socially responsible marketing. Marketers have raised the bar on ethics and nowadays promise not to advertise sugary cereals to kids, tobacco to teens, or SUVs to drivers. (Just kidding about the last one!) But seriously, were I able to satisfy my ethical hangups about advertising, would I be happy with a career in marketing?

My best friend quit his job as a brand manager because as he put it, he got tired of trying to convince people to buy more salad dressing. Obviously there are enough people out there who enjoy spending their careers trying to convince people to buy salad dressing, beer, automobiles, and shampoo to sustain the marketing industry. But am I one of them? According to Career Leader, the answer is “Yes”!

For the uninitiated, Career Leader is the Frankenstein offspring of modern management science cross-bred with those ridiculous career interest surveys that your high school guidance counselor may have administered. I remember taking one such test in 10th Grade by filling in oval bubbles next to yes or no propositions such as, “I would rather be an airline pilot than an accountant.” Back then I was pegged to be a salesman, so I must have tempted fate in pursuing my current career.

My beef with Career Leader and other pseudo-scientific attempts to determine career interest or aptitude, is their ignorance of subjective preferences and qualitative aspects of different careers. One might express an interest in becoming a lawyer, without an appreciation for the fact that lawyers spend most of their days reading and writing legalese with little client interaction or time spent in court. Others might think they want a career in non-profit work without realizing the challenges of constant fundraising and the organizational politics involved in NGOs or charities. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain bemoaned the CIA-educated newbie chefs (yes Virginia, the other CIA) who hadn’t appreciated the 10 to 10, 7 day a week schedule imposed by the restaurant industry.

Career Leader is a miserable replacement for Vault guides, networking, internet message boards, talking to alumni, and reading up on an industry. As I reviewed my test report, I was overcome with a nauseating recognition of huckster techniques such as the Personal Validation Fallacy. If I had wanted astrology and fortune telling I would have stayed up late and watched an infomercial.