Step up or Give up

I met a friend for lunch, whose heart was heavy with conflict. He was at that dreaded forked path in life which creeps up every so often when we choose to wear blinders and not make an active choice about the direction we take and own our future. Its like the story about the guy who jumped off the building and thought to himself “so far, so good” as he was dropping because he had not hit the bottom yet. Some would argue well at least the guy dropping is positive and has a glass half-full attitude. I would point out that it does not matter whether his glass is full or empty, he has to make a decision: either change his situation or die.

For my friend, the fork was a choice between staying in Atlanta or moving out West to California. He grew up in the Southeast and Atlanta had been his home for 10+ years. He had friends/family in Atlanta, a wonderful piece of property and was comfortable with the easy going lifestyle of good weather and modest pacing. However there was an itch spreading its ugly fingers throughout his body and consciousness. It beckoned him to try his luck out West in LA, the city of angels, dirty needles and plastic eye candy in heels. Given his background was the music industry, what better destination to explore the greater depths of his potential and do something that he loved.

Now of course, I am all for changing scenery and taking chances and pursuing what you love. Go out west. Follow your bliss. Worse case scenario you can always come back to the comforts of your previous life and at least know you gave it a shot. However, I believe that the itch in my friend is a symptom of a greater calling, a bigger question. And that is, what are you gonna do with your life? How are you going to make an impact? Forks in roads are not forks at all when you decide to take a direction. They are alternate routes to the same destination provided you have a plan, a purpose. Pick your purpose, and the universe will yield…it will get out of your way like fish in a stream avoiding a bear. Step up or give up…it really is that simple.

Leadership the Burt Way

The look of love is in my eyes when I hear a Burt Bacharach track — especially when he lends the limitations of his own untrained voice to a track like on “The Look of Love.” His voice scratches like a needle on vinyl, full of goodness and sweetness with all the whimsy of a camel’s tail. It is a softening agent that works on the hardest of hearts.

At first listen, you cannot hear him. The orchestra behind him is a big wave consuming him, riding him into a sandpit. And it is because he does not shout. He dials down the longing breaching his loins to a whisper. But that’s the genius of Burt. Instead of being something he’s not, which is a great singer of heft and volume, he’s just himself, a hip dude with an ear for nuance. His quiet forces the listener to listen and journey into his world of compassion, love, and humanity.

As I have noticed with singing, leadership is too often characterized by boom and force and meanness. It is not a coincidence that a disproportionate number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are tall and have a deep voice. For some reason, we instinctively fall in line when figures of tremendous height with a James Earl Jones voice stand before us. Force yields fear, obedience and effective delegation. But Burt teaches us a different path. Love and good nature and the abnegation of self are the more sustainable enterprise. If only all CEOs listened to some Burt Bacharach.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Hit it, Burt.

Leading is Doing

Have you ever done a team building exercise? It usually involves a random assortment of stuff like a blindfold, a hula hoop, 5 tennis balls, Lego blocks, a stomach for inebriation, a pinch of humor and an abundance of trust. Corporations do it to foster team identity and community amongst employees outside the grind of work. MBA programs do it for similar reasons but more so to develop instances for students to practice their leadership skills within a team setting.

I have engaged in a few team building exercises but there was one that stayed with me from an MBA prospective weekend, where I was blindfolded with seven other people. Our task: to build a tent. Here was the punchline. Even if I was not blindfolded and had a book of instructions, I still would not have been able to build a tent. But here we were like Gilligan Island castaways with no eyesight, no prior relations to one another, and an impossible task ahead that would make McGyver blush. We did have a little help. There was a person in our group who was a mute….meaning he could see everything but was restricted from talking. So communication was dialed down to prehistoric claps and grunts with the one person who could see visually how to build a tent.

At the outset of the task, I did the leadership thing. I spoke first with a vision. I stated that if there were any tent building experts in the group they should be the project lead. Two men admitted to having experience and so they took up the charge. I felt good. I was first-to-market with this epiphany. My second epiphany was that I know that I don’t know. And instead of adding another cook to the kitchen I decided to surrender my executive right to lead and shrunk to the background in perpetual silence so the “real leaders” could get to work. I have worked in flat organizations, small start ups, where there was no clear leaders or established hierarchy and it was a hot mess, because everyone talked over one another. Noise pollution is hazardous to progress and the best alternative I have learned is elimination of waste i.e. those who cannot add value or offer expertise. Hence, throughout the whole process I was in the corner listening to work get done, shielding myself from any tent poles that might spring by accident and hit me.

We finished the task in record time all because I pointed out that those with a tent background should lead and more importantly I got out of the way, right? No. Not exactly. After the glow of my triumph died down and I had a moment to reflect, I was disappointed in myself. While my plan for not being a liability was great i.e. getting out the way, shielding myself from getting randomly hurt, I was not an effective asset, at least not one that inspired leadership. My instincts were good but I used them to protect myself from embarrassment, not lead the team to victory.

Now some might argue I am being too hard on myself, but the truth is I used leadership and delegation to isolate myself from the process and productivity. That’s not a good thing because every member of the team should and can contribute in meaningful ways. What held me back? Was it fear of failing the process? Was it laziness? Am I just a talker, not a doer? Not so sure. But I do know even if you don’t have all the answers you do what you know how to do. For instance, my skill might be communicating the process not doing it. Therefore I should have been the talker. Here’s how it should have gone:

“Who knows how to build a tent? I don’t know how. But I do know there is a process. Those who know the process tell us. Then we should delegate. What I will do is section out the pieces,etc” . ..Standing out as leader but recognizing other talents is where the moral of other people wanting to work for you comes from. Lack of expertise is no excuse not to get involved. Don’t think that its a tent but more a process that needs to be completed. Something needs to be constructed and there’s a process around it. Leading is Doing.

Applying is like Dating

The most grave error that MBA hopefuls make is to allow themselves to get sucked into the ranking order of top business school programs. Their eyes glaze over from the sheen and big bling of MBA brand, not substance of choice. What invariably happens is that everyone ends up applying to the same top three schools: Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton or the Top 10, which fluctuates yearly. Most applicants never fully understand that like dating is about finding the right person, applying is about finding the right school for you. Fit is the key, or the key won’t fit.

I made this mistake. Because my story was that of a creative and non-traditional I erred in thinking that the only way to offset the “perceived” holes in my brand was to buy a School Brand that could cover those holes up because it was so highly ranked. Employers would be so distracted by the height of my accomplishment of getting admitted to a highly ranked school, that they wouldn’t ask the tough questions which could poke holes into my credibility and substance, at least so I thought. I spent a few years forcing fit, agonizing and getting waitlisted and denied from these so-called “Super-Tiers”, the whole time, ignoring other great schools, where I could more effectively develop my leadership and accumulate skills necessary for professional growth. The process of reapplying dragged me through a few hits on the chin, and deep self-introspection to eventually realize that I had to accept and love myself for who I was today, not tomorrow (i.e. not if I retook the GMAT, or took more quant classes or did more volunteer work). And the school that could also accept and love me for who I was today, was probably the right school, the right fit.

I recently met some amazing applicants who got into Cornell’s Johnson School of Business, a great school in rural Ithaca, but were on the fence about committing because they were wait-listed at a top 10 program like Northwestern’s Kelloggs. Apparently, the school they were waitlisted at asked them to take a course in Statistics in order to possibly bump up consideration by the decision committee to accept them. Now I’m not saying that you should give up on your dream, your number one. If you would die on the sword before giving up on your number one, then by all means push yourself and take the steps asked to make that happen. But having gone through this personally, I have to say that this set up feels very much like the girl you’re dating who says she will commit to a long term relationship only if you make more money or lose weight or something. In other words, there is writing on the wall, that she does not want to tell you because it might hurt your feelings: She’s Just Not that Into You.

The point is, is the school you want to go the school that would only accept you if your GMAT was higher, even after you had given your all to make it the highest score? Is the person you want to date the person who only dates you because you make a certain amount of money or look a certain way? I get it…we must have standards and that’s where we derive self-worth to a degree. But there comes a point when your efforts may be delusional and are a reflection of how you feel about yourself as was the case with me. You are expending exorbitant amounts of energy to be accepted by an institution when what you really need to do is to accept yourself for who you are.

When applying to business school, think of the analogy of dating, because it is appropriate and will help you trace your motivations more accurately. Find the right “fit” for you…Because remember, after getting in there still lots of work to stay in and be successful there and beyond. You don’t want to let the process beat you up so much and go through some much damage that by the time you do get into your program, you’ve got nothing left to truly enjoy it.

10 Resume Commandments

1. Thou shall keep the resume to one page, no matter how much experience you have.

2. Thou shall keep all fonts uniform. Times Roman is solid.

3. Thou shall not use jargon…Don’t “-ize” anything. Don’t productize, don’t monetize, don’t supersize, etc.

4. Thou shall not have an objectives sentence. That’s what cover letters are for.

5. Thou shall only use action verbs after bullet points. No nouns, adjectives or participles.

6. Thou shall use the STAR Method to uncover your professional value. Describe every bullet as Situation, Task, Action, Result.

7. Thou shall not describe what your team did, but what YOU did. What was your personal contribution to the project?

8. Thou shall have accurate titles and employment history dates. Some schools hire investigators to verify your background.

9. Thou shall have others review the resume. Your peers and colleagues are good sounding boards for an effective resume.

10. Thou shall rinse and repeat commandments one through nine.