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.


One Response to “The Value of Humility”

  1. Great post Mike,

    Only one question still lingers in my mind. What about the person who adequately prepared, has lots of great work experience, is fairly humble, and still didn’t get the job?

    More to the point, do you think that you could have devised a better plan for them in retrospect (which you most certainly will have to do next year) or do you still leave a lot of the recruiting process up to chance?

    In which case, it’s just a hard thing to be a second year coach because you have to get used to the idea that many, otherwise deserving students aren’t going to get offers no matter how hard you work with them.

    Again, good post.

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