Grades Matter

June 15, 2008

Well, school is out and I’m back in the working world. I often chuckle at the thought that this is my first private-sector job since peddling shoes at a mall in college.

The move to New York was surprisingly painless, even though I had never been to the city before the interview season last winter. I knew I’d like the city; I’ve always liked cities and the idea that I can find pretty much anything at any time of the day or night. What surprised me is my favorite part of the city: Central Park. I started going because I needed a place to run, but I quickly became infatuated with the sights of the city from the relative tranquility of the park’s beautiful Jackie O’Nassis resevoir.

The job was to be the most exciting part of the summer… a whole new career, top quality firm, and an opportunity to apply the lessons I learned at business school. And the verdict is that I have not been disappointed. The first day, I came in for training. WIthin the first morning, I was issued an excellent new computer, a Blackberry, and a whole box of office supplies, including personalize business cards and stationary. The level of preperation the firm put into the arrival of my fellow summer associates and I really impressed me.

Three days later, I was staffed on an operations study with an information technology company. The focus of my team’s part of the project is developing a way ahead for the company to recruit and develop new talent while improving their productivity in the face of a specialized workforce that is rapidly approaching retirement eligibility. This is an excellent client and the team is really great. Our team is one of many working with this client, and we’re doing very high-level, high-impact work. What I had expected was the analysis, team dynamics, and hard work. What has surprised me so far is the length consultants go to in order to be sure that the client, and all of the invested personalities, understands and is comfortable with each step of the process. I’ve been very impressed, and I know that I have a lot more to learn.

But the title of this blog is “Grades Matter”, so I’ll focus on that for this blog. Many business school students believe, or profess to believe, that grades at business school don’t really matter. Well, they matter to me. The idea that many of these folks have is that business school is just a way to get a great job and build a great network. Indeed, these are important goals of business school, and a hundred blogs could be written about them. And there are probably a lot of stories about business school students who have spotty academic records that go on to achieve great success. Grades aren’t necessarily important to achieving future success, I can definitely concede that point.

The reasons grades matter to me is that they are an extrinsic motivator, and, more importantly, they provide a metric of success. At Darden, the grading system is based on a forced curve, with a limited number of A’s and B-‘s, and a larger number of B’s and B+’s. B-‘s are generally an acceptable grade in small numbers, but large numbers of them indicate academic weakness and could be grounds for academic probation, and, eventually, dismissal from the program. It’s worth noting that this is pretty rare… the admissions staff does a good job of accepting students who are ready for school and also advising those who many need a little preperation before beginning. F’s are given out, but I think they are very rare and are used to motivate struggling students halfway through a course (many core classes at Darden give interim grades halfway through).

I tried very hard in my first year to earn B+’s or A’s in each class. The reason is that I felt that this was a good goal and would keep me working hard (it did), and that I thought that a B+ meant that I had achieved a truly solid understanding of the course work. Comprehensive but not exhaustive. Exhaustive understanding requires a mastery far beyond what can be learned in any classroom, even one as dynamic as that found at Darden. That said, a B is still a very acceptable grade and indicates that one has developed a grasp of the most important themes of any class. Grades are also imperfect… no doubt that there are examples of students with B’s who have a better true understanding of the course material than a classmate with an A.

I think it’s always important to measure oneself. When I go running, I take a GPS watch to track both my time and my distance. In the Army, I had a goal for each dimension of my job: a high fitness test score, a good evaluation, empowered subordinate leaders and enthusiastic, invested soldiers. During the recruiting season, I had a list of companies and firms that I wanted to spend the summer with, with certain of these weighted heavier in preference than others. Goals should be attainable and challenging. My goals for this summer: be ready to ramp up my training for the USMC marathon in October starting in August, earn a full-time offer from the firm, and spend at least a few days surfing. I had my goal regarding my grades last year, and I’m happy to report that when final grades were reported last week, I found that I had reached my goal.