“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.