In the wake of the worst economic crisis in decades, many business schools find themselves in the crosshairs of accusation regarding who is responsible for producing, or failing to produce, well-prepared and socially responsible business leaders. After soliciting feedback from MBA graduates and studying the thought-provoking debate hosted by the Harvard Business Review (http://blog.hbr.org/how-to-fix-business-schools/), it appears that there’s room for improvement in bridging the gap between academic theory and business reality. In today’s complex business world, filled with volatility and ambiguity, applying a one-size-fits-all model to different business scenarios will soon relegate its followers to obscurity and possibly failure.
But all is not lost. As an MBA student or recent graduate, educating yourself on the following three components will help you achieve a successful career that fits who you are and what you want to accomplish.
1. Engineer Your Bridge
The first step in bridging the gap to a successful post-graduation career is to envision and create a clear blueprint stamped with your personal passion and vision:
Live with authenticity. Engineering your future begins with identifying your internal compass. Take time to evaluate your core values, identity, and strengths/vulnerabilities. Attain a measure of self-awareness — who you are and where your identity comes from. Lead with your authentic self by upholding ethics and principles that reflect what matters most to you. If you lead with authenticity, passion, and purpose, you’ll be well on your way to living a happy life and achieving a meaningful career. A good resource is the book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George, Peter Sims and David Gergen.
Understand the corporate culture. To lead with your authentic self within a unique corporate culture, you must learn how to crack the corporate code and be aware of unwritten rules. Ask yourself what behaviors are rewarded; who are the role models; are you encouraged to take risks or to simply follow direction; are different points of view welcome and valued. Explore resources to help you navigate. For example, in his book Cracking the Corporate Code, Price Cobbs uses real-life examples to reveal practical strategies for dealing with cultural and organizational challenges.
Be a visionary architect of your future. Armed with knowledge of yourself and your corporate culture, design a development strategy that clarifies your personal and career goals. Be ambitious and make a bold plan. Consider using a practical tool such as the HARD method introduced by Mark Murphy in his book Hundred Percenters: Heartfelt — intrinsically motivated; Animated — inspirational; Required — reasoning for the goal; Difficult — push the envelope. Share your plan with others and ask them to hold you accountable for your progress.
2. Build Your Bridge
Now that you have your blueprint in mind, you’re prepared to start construction. The right tools and resources will help you establish not only your place in the company, but also a voice that will be heard and respected from day one:
Find valued mentors. The word mentor derives from the Greek mentos, meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, passion.” You want mentors who can see your potential, want you to succeed, and will provide honest feedback. Seek advocates who will help you navigate the culture and mitigate your blind spots, while challenging you to stretch your capacity.
Build a network. Cultivating a solid professional network will be crucial for your career advancement. Don’t limit yourself by your job description; connect with others both inside and outside of your work group by learning what they do. Walmart, like many other companies, offers its associates formal sponsorship and mentorship programs, affinity groups, and a variety of development opportunities. Active involvement can help you reach your planned destination earlier in your career.
Establish a strong personal brand. Most psychologists agree that five traits are essential in managing perception: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Use these descriptors as a guide to assess the nature and status of your personal brand. Identify and commit to specific changes in attitude, behavior, and character that will strengthen it. Be open with others in soliciting feedback as you make adjustments along the way. Harrison Monarth’s book Executive Presence: The Art Of Commanding Respect Like A CEO offers practical strategies and techniques to help you establish credibility in your personal brand.
Become a subject matter expert. In business school, you accumulated general knowledge in a number of business disciplines. In a corporate environment, you will likely be assigned to a specialty area that requires specific knowledge and skills. Waste no time in closing the gap between generalist and specialist by mastering the skill set, knowledge base, and ability required for the job. Many companies encourage cross-functional assignments, internal transfers, and job shadowing. Leveraging these opportunities can help you quickly build your professional credibility equipped with the breadth and depth of the business. This will enable you to synthesize new ideas and demonstrate your value to the organization. The site 12manage.com offers a generous tool box with hundreds of models and concepts under 12 business categories, including strategy, communication, leadership, and decision-making.
3. Cross Your Bridge
Management isn’t as much a science as it is an art. Artistry triggers insight and vision based on intuition. By crossing the bridge to the career you envision and engineer, you maintain the balance between science and art. Mastering the following practices will help you unleash your full leadership potential:
Become indispensable. Sam Walton advocated swimming upstream. When he founded Walmart in 1962, no one foresaw the future with retail in rural areas. Nearly half a century later, the company has become the largest retailer in the world with more than 8,000 stores and 2 million associates. Unfortunately, most of us are driven by inertia; continuing to do what we’re already doing. We’ve been conditioned to avoid rocking the boat. How do we break this cycle? In the book Doing What Matters, author James Kilts advises, “Continuous dissatisfaction with the status quo is the best way to keep growing as an individual and an organization.” To become indispensable, you must think creatively and deliberately sharpen your judgment and decision-making skills to achieve innovative breakthroughs.
Assemble a high-performing team. All work is done by teams. Your ability to assemble a high-performing team is a key to your effectiveness at every stage of your career. Surround yourself with people smarter than you. To inspire happy, productive team members, you must first understand what motivates them and help them understand the team’s common goals. The leader and team can then become effective partners in creating a high-trust environment that offers challenging and rewarding work, recognition of personal accomplishment, and opportunities for personal growth and advancement. Working together to build this type of open environment will equip your team to deliver exceptional results. The book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, demonstrates Abraham Lincoln’s leadership lessons — humility and emotional intelligence, through creating a team of talent rivals to confront the challenge of civil war. When President Obama was asked which book he would take with him to the White House, apart from the Bible, he mentioned this one.
Lead and manage at the same time. Warren Bennis differentiates leaders and managers in his famous phrase, “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.” To be successful in today’s business world you need to simultaneously lead and manage: Know where you want to go (vision), what’s most important (value), how you’ll get there (strategy), what success looks like (measurement), and then carry out the shared purpose with your team (execution). It becomes critical how you articulate a compelling vision of the expected results, create and communicate a shared purpose, nurture trust involving accountability, predictability, and reliability, and spend your time developing people and inspiring them to march forward in achieving the vision. Keep in mind you will always be measured by the end results and value you and your team deliver, not how many hours you dedicate to your work. In other words, don’t confuse results with effort.
More than 2,000 years ago, Confucius said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” Reflection helps shape your world view – who you are and what you want to accomplish in this world; imitation refers to the theories, models and tools you learn and use to achieve your goals; and experience speaks to sharpening your skills and advancing your knowledge base. As a life-long learner, you never stop recalibrating the career path and refining your practices to successfully reach your ultimate career goals, while staying true to who you are and what matters most to you. The choice is always yours to make.
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