The Value of Humility

May 15, 2008

The first year came to an unceremonious close last week as I turned in my last exams on Thursday afternoon. I didn’t take a sigh of relief, as did many of my classmates. But the time certainly flew by… it is cliche, but it feels like yesterday that I walked into class for my first day of prematriculation accounting class. Of course, much has been learned over the course of these last nine months, and I’m very excited by this summer’s opportunity with McKinsey in Stamford.

A good friend invited me over for a few beers and burgers on Friday night, and another friend joined us. We would head out to enjoy the local nightlife later and join many of our classmates celebrating the end of the semester. But first, we took an opportunity after eating to rehash some classic card games, including one that I hadn’t played since middle school… does anyone remember Egyptian Rat Screw? As we loaded dishes into the dishwasher, our conversation moved to recruiting, as it somehow does far too often, and my friend remarked that getting hired by a consulting firm is really a crapshoot… a matter of luck.

I disagreed, stating that I felt that preperation is key, and that no one who was unprepared got very lucky at all… so he qualified his earlier statement by first assuming that everyone came into the interview process prepared, an assumption that I would judge as a giant leap of faith.

But, since I will be working as a second year career coach, I decided that the matter deserves more reflection. A quick time out here: second year career coaches are a Darden institution wherein second year students take a class, for credit, where they primarily work with first year students to navigate the summer position recruiting process. My career coach was instrumental in helping me prepare for my career search, and I am very happy that I will be able to pay it forward next year by helping the Class of 2010.

In my efforts to secure meaningful summer employment, as well as my efforts to help my classmates do likewise, I never really stopped to consider what seperated successful candidates from unsuccessful ones. In a way, who am I to judge? I prepared fairly well, and, as my friend said, I got lucky. Some very smart, well-prepared people didn’t secure the offers they desired. It is extremely difficult to secure a summer offer in consulting given firms’ hiring contstraints in the face of a large number of interested applicants.

Some people came from very appealing backgrounds, had proven themselves very capable and intelligent while at Darden, and put forth a solid effort networking and polishing their resumes and cover letters. Yet they failed to get interviews. My assessment is that these people did nothing wrong… by and large they were just younger and tended to have fewer years of full time work experience under their belts than most firms would like. Most of these folks are spending the summer working in excellent positions for great companies and will have a very appealing value proposition when full-time recruiting resumes in the fall. I’m confident about their chances… about their “luck”.

Some were truly unlucky… these are the people who prepared hard, earned several interviews, and practiced for them. However, maybe they got the nightmare market-sizing case that would sink everyone but a market researcher. Maybe they got the case where you had to remember that some people still drive up to hotels and ask for a room rather than trying to make reservations (I know: I got that case and forgot that some people don’t book rooms over the internet or phone… and no, I didn’t get an invitation to second round with that particular firm). In any case, these folks just had bad luck, and they’ll get a fresh set of strikes the next time at the plate in the fall. Their “luck” will hold up this time, I’m sure of it.

Others just didn’t prepare hard enough. This isn’t because they are lazy, rather, it’s because they probabaly underestimated the rigors of the case interview, or because they overestimated their own abilities in the case interview. I think they’ll adjust and their “luck” will change in the fall, as well. Plus, they’ve seen what doesn’t work, and they’re a few steps ahead when recruiters return to grounds.

The final group is a group of intelligent people I would put into a very small minority. They prepared well, and they’re very smart and creative. These folks are the ones who would currently be enjoying an offer with the firm of their choice if not for one thing: the perception, true or not, that they lack humility.

Humility is a priceless commodity and a sign of emotional intelligence. It’s a way of framing intelligent insights in such a way as to sound helpful and not condescending. I’m not sure where it comes from… maybe it comes from being bully bait in junior high, maybe it comes from being exposed to deep sadness, or maybe it comes from a worldly view, one in which the individual sees his or her own accomplishments, however great they may be, in light of the overarching greatness of the world. Top business schools are, typically, full of folks who are accustomed to being superstars in their old field. Once in business school, they are thrust into an environment where they are surrounded other superstars. For me, this was a realization of how diminuative my own accomplishments really are… there are people in my class who have defied far greater odds and have achieved far greater things. I’m in a surreal sense of awe of their capacity to learn and am constantly finding myself grateful for their insights and being allowed to be counted among them. For the very, very rare Darden student that doesn’t gain this same sense of… humility, well, that person will suffer in any interview, and especially one with a firm that by design relies upon human interaction to do business. Arrogance, the evil opposite of humility, smells worse than body odor and is detectable the moment it enters the room. I think that true arrogance is filtered out by the Darden admissions process, and I am grateful for that. But even a more benign lack of humility, real or imagined by the interviewer, can sink a very high potential candidate in a field as competitive as consulting.

So, I suppose it comes down to luck. And hard work. And experience. And, of course, humility.

 

Grounds

May 1, 2008

The first year at Darden is wrapping up (exams are next week), and it’s become quite surreal. I look around at my classmates and wonder where the time went. Time is fleeting, and it is even more so as you grow professionally and personally… you seldom get a chance to pause and reflect. In fact, this is the best thing about blogging, and I thank you, my kind readers, for your interest and your moments of reprieve from your own busy lives.

Penn State University, where I completed my undergraduate education, is a beatiful campus. Campus is a key word. The University of Virginia does not have a “campus”. There are only the “grounds”. Another vocabularly outlier is the collection of terms used to describe classes of students. “Freshmen” are “first-years”, “sophomores” are “second-years” and so on. Sometimes I wonder if I’m at a world class business school or if I’m attending Hogwarts.

The analogy sometimes holds in class, as well, as what I can only describe as magic is used to show how we as future managers can hope to create value for various stakeholders. In particular, I have recently become enamored with the ins and outs of finance. I have no financial background at all, but I have really enjoyed my finance classes at Darden so far, and I have made an effort to schedule more finance classes next year. After almost a full year of specified and mandated curriculum (we did have an opportunity to schedule three electives in the last quarter of our first year), it’s quite interesting to have the opposite problem: too many choices. But I am happy with my selections. I hope to learn more magic next year. 

 Darden’s grounds are located on the northern end of the University’s grounds. In reality, the Darden School and the Law Schhol are seperated from most undergraduate areas of grounds, which we creatively call “main grounds”. This seperation is minor in real terms, as only a five or ten minute walk will close the distance. However, the distance sometimes seems longer. Often, Darden students feel like tourists when they visit main grounds… there just are hardly any academic or social reasons to make the trip. Main grounds stand between Darden and downtown Charlottesville, where many head for nightlife, but they too often are only a blur in the window of a taxi at the head and tail of an evening.

But the University of Virginia is a great school. Founded by Thomas Jefferson as his last major endeavor, the school has been a lynchpin of academic pursuits in the nation. Numerous scholars have studied here, including one of my favorites, Edgar Allen Poe. The McIntire School of Commerce was recently ranked a close second only to Wharton in BusinessWeek’s ratings of undergraduate business schools. The athletic teams are competitive in the ACC in almost every major sport. My twice-weekly swims in the pool at the Aquatic and Fitness Center are punctuated by the banners hanging on the wall asserting the swim team’s continued dominance in the ACC. Last weekend, Virginia hosted the ACC Lacrosse Championship Tournament (we lost to Duke in a close one). And last fall the football team turned in one of the best seasons on record, and Chris Long was taken second in the NFL draft on Saturday.

My connection to this institution is important to me, even though it exists only through my two-year MBA education at Darden. Thus, in our class elections a few months ago, I ran for the office of Darden University Judiciary Committee (UJC) Representative. UJC is a student-run adjudication committee that manages any disciplinary action outside of Honor violations. The Honor Code, so endemic to the University and our way of life, deserves special mention here. The Honor Code is an ethical framework designed and maintained by students. It is a self-governing institution that ensures that all students maintain integrity. The tenants are simple: do not lie, cheat, or steal.

However, there are many matters that are not Honor violations that must be adjudicated. These matters are often involving student breaches of criminal law, and thus any University sanction is incremental to any sentence the criminal justice system hands down. The UJC investigates these matters, presses UJC charges if necessary, and assigns counsel to represent both the compaintant and the accused. The complaintant could be any member of the University, but it is usually a representative from the office of student affairs. 

My position made me a UJC judge, so I am one of five people to sit on a trial panel during a UJC trial. My peers and I must decide first on the matter of guilt (if the accused has plead not guilty) and second on the matter of sanction (if the accused has been found guilty). The sanctions are to be educational, proportional, confidential, and in the best interests of the University. They range in severity from only a verbal admonition all the way to expulsion for extreme cases. I typically average 2 trials per week, which is a significant investment of my time.

However, it’s also one of the most rewarding things I do. Beyond the obvious benefit of connecting with the parent institution of Darden, it’s also an opportunity to work with a group of students from throughout the University that I would not otherwise have met. Students come from the Law School, the Medical School, the Curry School of Education, and many others. Most of the students are actually undergraduates, and it’s very fun to work with younger people in something that they take very seriously. Sometimes I feel it ages me a bit, but it also reminds me that although I am not 21 any more, I also have a few solid years of perspective and experience to share. Sharing perspective in a non-condescending way is a critical skill I know I will need in my future career.

I have enjoyed the experience enough that I have applied for and received an opportunity to be a second-year career coach next fall. This means that I will help a group of first-year students in their efforts to secure summer employment. Although I have a wealth of coaching and mentoring experience from my time in the Army (and I also benefitted greatly from the mentorship of others, as well), I feel strongly that this is an excellent opportunity to work with a very diverse group of very smart people. Darden only accepts very special students, and it will be my honor and privilege to work with a group of them next fall and winter. Also, I’ll receive class credit for my efforts :-).

I went running last week through main grounds… every time I do that, I find new nooks and crannies of the school that I didn’t know existed. I hope that my new connections to main grounds will be just like that… overturning stones I simply may have passed over in the past, and seeing what is underneath.