You have an MBA from a good school. If you are fortunate, you also have a well-paying job and are looking forward to starting a career. You are well aware that the environment you are entering is unpredictable owing to the ongoing pandemic. There are anxieties, and maybe a sense of unfairness that it had to happen right here, right now. After all, this was not something you signed up for. How do you navigate this uncertainty?
In the last six months, I have had over 40 small-group conversations with recent MBA graduates and students. Many are bewildered by the upheaval in their lives. Some have been bitter. Some have found their own path, and come out stronger. They ask a lot of questions. More often than not, I do not have answers. But I learn from, and with them. This piece attempts to share some of that learning. Much of it reflects my own mistakes in this and other periods of my life. I hope it is useful. The credit goes to my students, who trusted me with their questions and answers. Here it is, distilled in three segments:
Refuse to be a victim
Maybe your employer delays the joining date by three months. Maybe you start off working remotely, and do not experience the workplace connection you had heard so much about. Worse still, someone in your family is infected, and you spend a long time in your isolated bubble.
It has happened to many of you already. It can happen again. The first step in dealing with the unpredictability is to accept that randomness exists; it has happened, and there are aspects you cannot change. Once you accept it, you can focus on the things you can control. If your joining date gets postponed, there is an opportunity to build new skills and be better prepared. If you refuse to indulge in self-pity, every experience can be an opportunity for growth.
Crises reveal character, and resilience in crisis builds a quiet confidence. As author Randy Pausch says, “It’s not the cards we are dealt, but how we play the hand.”
Remain a student after you graduate
If you are trying to become a leader, it is a journey and a lifelong one. Do not confuse your degree with your education. There are a few simple principles which may help:
Have a budget for learning: Just as we have an annual budget for food and clothing we should have one for learning. This includes books, videos and online courses. What skills do you want to strengthen this year? How can you stay relevant three years from now? Five years from now? What is your plan? Do not outsource your learning completely to the company you join (no matter how well-intentioned or wonderful it is).
Learn about people and relationships. Many people are going through difficult times. This is true of work and personal life. If you see the signs, you can pay heed and help. Volunteer on a project where you have expertise. Become the colleague people want on their team. Your biggest asset in the workplace is your reputation, and it gets built every day through small acts of collaboration.
Reflect on your experience: Whether things go right or wrong, ask why. Maintain a reflection diary. Find a mentor in your professional and/or personal circle and share your reflections.
Cultivate your inner child: The child is curious. The child asks questions. The child can follow multiple passions and is not uni-dimensional. How many good questions did you ask yesterday? Last week? If the questions taper off, work and life can easily get into a rut.
Understand privilege, freedom
Do not take what you have for granted. If you have an MBA and a job, you are privileged. If you are staying with family and wondering whether it is now safe to order food in, you are privileged. A sense of gratitude fuels acceptance, and a desire to contribute to the less privileged. It is an early sign of leadership and the rare MBA develops it early.
Freedom is something you value when you don’t have it. The ability to walk to a store is a valuable freedom. You did not see it as a freedom earlier, but you do now. Today, more than ever, our mutual freedom depends on being responsible, and if even 10 per cent of the population is not responsible, our freedom will reduce.
The world of business needs leaders who learn, care, take personal responsibility and are willing to be vulnerable. If this piece helps you take baby steps in this direction, it will have served its purpose.