Will the Next MBA Grads Take More Risks?

Who cares what games we choose…little to win, nothing to lose.

So goes the chorus of the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s 1967 #1 hit song, Incense and Peppermints. This phrase — an iconic representation of ’60s counterculture — came to mind the other day as I read what one of my Wharton MBA students wrote in response to this question I posed to them as we began the fourth quarter of their first year: How are you thinking about the future in light of how the economic context has changed since you first arrived at Wharton in August 2008? She said that now is a great chance “for my classmates and myself to find real opportunity in the market mostly because we are starting with so little and have so little to lose.”

This sentiment was echoed by some, but certainly not all, members of the Wharton Graduate program class of 2010. One student recalled the lessons she learned following her entry into the job market after college: “I graduated in 2002 when jobs were tight and decided to do nonprofit for a year. If it weren’t for the state of the economy, I doubt I would have considered doing something different. Looking back, however, it was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had. From a leadership perspective, these diverse experiences and ability to adapt to change have been essential in my growth as a leader.” Another student expressed enthusiasm for taking on the risks of start-up life, realizing that this year’s “economic climate change was good for me…I’ve thought more about what would make me happy and what I want to do longer term — to join a small start-up company where I can help it grow, expand, scale and more importantly establish itself…having the opportunity to add value to an early-stage company excites me.”

Another said this:

This economic crisis has been more of a blessing than a curse…Coming to Wharton, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do…When I first arrived, I found myself immediately getting swept up in the ‘hot’ jobs: private equity and banking. I started to recruit for positions in these industries, without really thinking about what these careers would mean for the life I wanted to lead. It just seemed like a lucrative career option so I dove right in. I wasn’t the only one to take this approach. When the economic crisis started happening, the path to careers in these fields became much more difficult. Jobs were tougher to come by. This crisis forced me to take a step back and think about what I really wanted to get out of life. It caused me to think about what mattered to me in a career and a lifestyle, and it made me realize that banking and private equity were not the right thing for me. Since that realization (probably not long after Lehman’s failure), I changed my approach to careers and started to focus inward, asking myself what kind of impact do I want to have both professionally and socially. That is what has drawn me to a career in the renewable energy industry. It’s the best way for me to succeed professionally while giving me the opportunity to try to make the world a better place. I doubt that my mind would have been this open at this point if the economy were in better shape, and if the path to Wall Street weren’t so difficult right now.

Then there was the other side of the coin: fear and risk-aversion. One student illustrated the causes for anxiety by pointing me to this Forbes article, which describes how TARP rules required banks to rescind offers to students from countries other than the USA. Another wrote:

The economic downturn has embarrassingly made me much more conservative about my plans for the summer. I approached school vowing to not pursue consulting and to go after a position at a startup or work on my own business plan, but interestingly enough, I now find myself with a position in consulting. Some would argue that this is a better time than ever to take some risks and work on an entrepreneurial venture, but for some reason I have decided to do the opposite. Maybe I’m not as much as a risk-taker as I once thought — or maybe I just need to find the right business idea!

Based on my informal survey, I observe a split among current MBA students. It seems that most are choosing to adapt and reinvent themselves, taking risks to pursue paths they hadn’t considered before, feeling free to do so because they have little to lose. Others are reverting to the relatively safer confines of territory already traveled. My bet is that in the end the members of the first group (of whom I believe there are more) — because they’re consciously and deliberately seeking to align their values with the available opportunities to pursue them — will be more successful, in all parts of their lives, than those in the latter group. Let’s hope I’m right.

What do you think about how my students are thinking and what else should we be doing in our business schools to help them now?

One Response to “Will the Next MBA Grads Take More Risks?”

  1. Susan Shaner says:

    I just stumbled upon your website and your work this afternoon – how wonderful! I am a kindred spirit of your messages and focus.
    I agree that there is a greater likelihood that those who have opened themselves to take risks that align with their values will be successful, if not more successful, than their counterparts. As well, these kind of risks, have the potential to better stimulate the economy.

    I think business schools should be more holistically addressing the whole person as business leader, such as the work that Total Leadership espouses. With this focus, creating forums, information and experiences that validate and support the whole person and how that relates to what I call spiritual capitalism. This is based on an abundance/collaborative versus scarcity/competitive paradigm, where everyone wins. The assumption here is that what is good for the individual is also good for business. And business’s ultimately don’t want someone who is not aligned with their values as that hampers full productivity.

    The individual must first align with themselves and then with the business. It’s an inside job first. Often, we search outward and get swayed as individuals. Plenty of people thrive in “bad economic times.” This typically happens not only when someone has cash to fund some investments but also when they are fueled by their passion and in the mindset of opportunity.

    Encourage students to know themselves as people – really – to know what drives them, why and how they can align those true drives with practical applications that generate revenue. Help them to understand that money is a currency of energy and if they are lacking it, they are not in touch with some fundamental source of their own energy and life purpose. Energy is the currency of the 21st century. The alignment of our personal economies with the external economy is the only true win. Fear surfaces when people are disconnected from themselves and their true spirits. It’s as “soft” and “hard” as that.

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