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Three Things I Didn’t Learn in Business School

As I launch WorkMonger this week, I’ve been reflecting on my career in the social sector and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.  While I have frequently utilized classic B-school skills like finance, operations, and team leadership that I learned while earning my MBA at Duke, I have also come to realize that you don’t learn everything you need to know in business school.  Today, I thought it would be fun to look at three things I didn’t learn in business school.

1) We’re all in Sales

In business school, “sales” was a dirty word.  You don’t go to Duke to go into sales.  Many of us had done sales after undergrad.  Now we thought we were better than that.  After all, we were getting MBAs!  Most of us had our sights set on careers in finance, consulting, or tech.  I never took a class on sales.  I’m not even sure one was offered.

Fast forward to a couple weeks into my first job after business school where I’m serving as DC Metro Area Managing Director of Education Pioneers, a great non-profit that recruits and develops top talent for the education sector.  I walk into a Starbucks in Washington, DC to have my first meeting with a potential partner of Education Pioneers, and I’m nervous.  I’m hoping that we can help them out with their needs for top talent in outside-the-classroom roles.  But first, I have to show them how we can help.  That’s when I realize this was nothing more than a good-old-fashioned sales call.  Rather than peddling shoes or insurance, I was “selling” access to talent that could help them accomplish mission-critical work.  But the concept and the necessary skills were the same.

It didn’t take long before I realized that everything I did was sales.  When I met with graduate students, I had to sell them on why they should use their talent to improve public education.  When I met with funders, I had to sell them on why management in education mattered and why they should invest.  When I met with potential employees, I had to sell them on why Education Pioneers was a great place for them to achieve impact with their career.  As a member of the National Leadership Team at Education Pioneers, I had to sell my colleagues on new ideas, such as the Yearlong Fellowship.

What I’ve come to realize is that the negative reaction I had to sales was from my past experiences with sleazy salesmen selling a beat-up used car or some other poor quality product where they were just in it for themselves, not the customer.  But contrast that with someone who believes deeply in a cause or an idea or a product.  Someone who believes that this small piece of the world would be better off if we made this change, hired this person, invested in this new idea, or saw things in a different way.   When those leaders sell people on their vision of a brighter future, we all thank them afterwards.  So don’t turn away from sales.  Embrace it.  Just make sure you believe deeply in what you’re selling.

2) People work for Passion, Praise and other People – not simply Profit

Supply and demand is one of the most foundational building blocks of economics and, therefore, obviously business school.  If you want more of something, offer to pay more and you’ll get more of it.  When applied to people in the workplace, this takes many shapes, one of the most common being bonuses.  It’s a simple concept: set ambitious goals and offer a nice financial bonus to motivate employees to achieve them.  To achieve that extra money, good employees will push themselves for the financial reward.  Those who aren’t motivated to hit the goals and get the bonus aren’t the right employees.

At least this was the mentality when I was a 22-year-old investment banker for Citigroup in New York, and my workplace was entirely driven by our competitive bonus structure.  But that could only drive me for so long, and I left the finance industry for the non-profit sector before business school.  Interestingly, when I started at Education Pioneers back in 2009 we also had a bonus system.  But by the end of the year, we had done away with it.  We realized it wasn’t achieving the intended goal.  Yes, our employees would always appreciate more money – who wouldn’t?!  But in the long run, they were motivated to reach their goals because they were passionate about the lives they changed when they reached those goals.  And they were driven to work for phenomenal leaders who not only moved the team towards worthwhile goals, but who invested in their team along the way.  Yes, employees profiting financially from a job matters.  We all have bills to pay and the electric company doesn’t accept passion or praise.  But financial compensation is the baseline.  It’s the cost just to play the game.  It’s not what wins or loses the game.  And it’s definitely not what builds and motivates a great team.  Passion, Praise, and People do that.

3) Embrace Risk

Business school, understandably, focuses on how to make the right decisions for a business.  We studied cost/benefit analysis, investment decision frameworks, and how seasoned executives had handled key decisions in the past and what outcomes had resulted.  Many times, the decision was made to minimize risk, as long as an acceptable return was achieved.

That may be the best way for an executive to avoid a shareholder lawsuit, but its terrible advice for people.  People are not businesses.  And the world’s problems will not be solved by avoiding risk.  There are far too many children who are not receiving access to an excellent education, people living on the streets in need of housing, and adults who are un(der)employed in need of work.  And when confronted by massive challenges like these, you can’t eliminate risk.  You have to embrace it!  Acknowledge that nothing significant will ever change in systems without leaders who are willing to take incredible risks.  Yes, there will be risks that don’t payoff.  Some may even do more harm than good.  But we do better when we try new things and push ourselves to confront the realities with which we are surrounded.  After all, what’s more inspiring – the leader who promises change at the margins, or the one who stands up, casts a vision, and rallies a crowd to a risk, but a risk worth taking?

Taking these lessons to heart, I am embarking on a new adventure: entrepreneurship.  Earlier this week I launched WorkMonger, an organization focused on connecting the right social sector employers with talented individuals for full-time, part-time, and contractor jobs.  I ask that you join me on this adventure!  Today’s problems need as many talented individuals as possible working to tackle them and achieve a positive impact.  Whether you are looking to make the transition from the private sector to the social sector on a full-time basis, a stay-at-home parent or retiree who wants to work a few hours a week from home for a cause they care about, or a young professional with time in the evenings and/or weekends who wants to support a cause and make some extra money, we need talented people like you to step up and act.  Join the WorkMonger movement.  Explore our website.  Submit a Job Seeker or Employer profile.  Spread the word about WorkMonger.  And before you know it, you’ll be selling others on the virtues of working in the social sector and serving your passion, not just profit.  Together, we’ll embrace risk as a necessary friend and try something new for a worthwhile purpose.

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