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The Key to a Successful Post-MBA Career

Welcome to the first in a series of guest columns focused on career strategy in the MBA context … a topic that should be squarely in your sights whether you’re considering applying to business school or are currently in the thick of the admissions process.

A Wharton professor of mine was once asked in a public forum what he thought the key success factor was for MBAs pursuing the most highly competitive and rewarding job opportunities. He observed that the critical variable that seemed to predict long-term success was the extent to which a student understood and expected the 5-7 year time span beyond business school to (also) be one of intense work and sacrifice, every bit the equal to the process of applying to and undertaking the MBA in terms of calories burned and mental energy expended.

Regardless of what jobs students pursued or how much they were compensated upon graduation, those whose careers truly took off – the ones who now lead their respective organizations – were preparing, it seems, for an additional, non-trivial phase of concerted effort and toil during the post-MBA phase of their professional lives.

In contrast, he felt, those students who felt they should be rewarded more speedily – whether in terms of title, status, or pay – for their admittedly considerable investment in graduate school, or for their previous experiences, were at greater risk of disappointment and of erring in the quest to find solid footing, a good match, and the right launching pad for a career that would result in progressively greater amounts of responsibility, compensation, satisfaction, and, ultimately, the ability to ‘job sculpt’ and integrate one’s professional life with personal interests and family needs.

It’s an important observation to make and a thought worth bearing in mind because we are conditioned to think of admission to business school as a sort of culmination, due in large part to the substantial full-time salaries offered to MBAs, rather than as a starting point to a more compelling drama. (It’s the long-term slope of the compensation curve that truly matters, by the way, even if that initial pop is a worthy goal and gratifying affirmation.)

As I reflect on that professor’s comments, I realize how potentially revolutionary and liberating it is to attribute students’ ultimate success rates to something that can only be defined as “having the right mindset.” Notice he did not say that students who major in Finance, or those who start their own companies, or who lead student organizations, etc., are the likeliest to succeed. Rather, it’s those who realize, and perhaps even welcome, the fact that their professional lives might be a bit of a slog after graduation (not an arbitrary, meaningless slog, mind you) who are most likely to find traction and see a truly satisfying return on their MBA investment.

There are other things to keep in mind – the per capita cost of hiring an MBA and the alternatives to hiring MBAs, for example – that influence the equation for what drives MBA student success rates, but those topics will have to wait till next week, when I’ll address the employers’ perspective and the resource-intensity of MBA recruiting as well as the increased competition from holders of MBA degrees other than traditional, two year full-time MBA.

If you’re applying to business school now, and even if you feel your own post-MBA “dues-paying” time might be on the shorter side of 5-7 years after graduation, the first point at which you’ll accurately be able to assess the outcomes of this big undertaking (and perhaps whether it was all worth it) will be roughly 2020, at about the time that Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics. If you plan to be in Japan for the Games, as I do, let’s meet up then and compare notes!

BIO and contact info:

Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum. Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.