Business as a Service Profession: A Rant

I normally don’t do this, but I felt I should share some of my thoughts about what I’ve seen as a big problem with the whole MBA culture.

As expected, I usually get people emailing me their profile, or posting it on the various discussion forums where I post. It’s usually the same fundamental question: “What are my chances at school X, Y, or Z?” or “How can I improve my profile to get into school X, Y, Z?”

No issues with that whatsoever. In fact, I welcome it. I do get a bit of a kick when in my own way I find that my work has helped others for the better (not just with b-school admissions, but to see their life’s work or who they are or who they *could* be in a way they may not have thought of before). And it can be incredibly humbling too because quite a number of the people I’ve worked with are so incredibly talented and accomplished at such a young age.

However, I did get one inquiry that frankly shocked me, but pointed to a larger problem that seems to be pervasive in the kinds of people who are attracted to business school and to business careers.
This person basically asked me whether joining the US military will help him get into business school. This person laid out the reasons for enlisting in the same self-interested manner that any other “MBA-type” person would for any business career. It was mostly about him and his self-development.

I would hope that you understand why this is a problem when it comes to deciding whether to serve in the military.

Anyhow, I wanted to use the “to join the military or not” as an extreme example of what I mean about SERVICE.

The concept of service isn’t some feel-good, morale boosting concept. It’s a very practical thing. So much of what the military does whether on the front line or in a support role is dependent on TEAM. No one fights alone. No one does anything alone. Everything is co-dependent. You put your life in the hands of others, as they put their lives in your hands. That level of trust and integrity between officers and their enlisted men is essential for survival. Yes, it’s principled, but it’s also practical and ensures the greatest chance of success and survival.

That very concept of service — to serve others — not just to “serve your country” in the abstract, but to serve the men and women that are working under you and above you is ingrained in the military.

Of course, as human beings there is always some element of self-interest and self-preservation, but for the military apparatus to be effective, the people involved in it have to be driven by far more than saving their own ass and wondering “what’s in it for me?”

And that is precisely the problem with the MBA culture and the mentality.

There is absolutely no sense of service or selflessness — because, for some reason, in the business world it’s supposed to be “every man for himself”. Some Darwinian race to the bottom of what people are willing to do to one another. It’s all about ME. And not about US.

You don’t have to all of a sudden quit your high flying job, or forgo going to Harvard Business School and join the Marines. Nor do you need to work in nonprofit full-time. Nor do you even really need to volunteer at a nonprofit.

It’s not about “jobs” or what you can put on your resume.

It starts with the mentality that IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.

You don’t have to change anything about your current situation. But a change in how you see your situation and how you approach your current situation is where the real difference lies.

Of course there will be self-interest. You want to make more money. We all do. You want a more prestigious job. Those are nice things to have. And you don’t have to give up any of those desires at all. BUT, it’s got to be far more than that.

You can be self-interested while still approaching your current job, volunteer activity, career aspiration, school, etc. with the mentality of:

What can I do to contribute?
What can I do to help [him/her] on my team do a better job?
What can I do to be more giving of my time, more compassionate, more empathetic?
What can I do to truly listen to what others have to say (and not just hear) and to understand, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them?
What can I do to be the one *holding* the spotlight to shine on others, rather than waiting for the spotlight to shine on me?

Now, I’m sure I’ll get some cynical business type (and the business types other than lawyers relish in being cynical) assuming that what I am suggesting here is somehow naive or unrealistic.

To which I challenge you — the more self-absorbed and self-interested you are, the thicker the walls you will build around you over time. The more you care only about yourself, the less people will care about you. If you want to know why there’s such a backlash against MBA types and the business community, it’s precisely that. The perception is that MBAs only care about themselves, they are greedy, they are obsessed with money and prestige, and they care far more about themselves than they do about their contributions. And while such broad brush strokes may be unfair, it is rooted in some truth. Yes, med students want money. Yes, law students want money. Yes, even film students want money. We all want the same things no matter what profession we’re in. We want nice houses, nice cars, a comfortable life, a powerful and respected position in our community, awards and accolades that boosts our ego, etc. The problem with the MBA culture is that it often doesn’t go beyond that — and the excuse is always “I don’t have time” or “I need to pay off my loans” or “my family comes first” — problems that for some reason some MBAs feel are unique to them and them only. We all have problems.

Many other professions have some sort of “higher cause” ingrained in the ethos of that profession – an ethos that even the most cynical and jaded doctor, lawyer, filmmaker, journalist, etc. at least acknowledges (and perhaps even a little grain of it remaining somewhere). In business school, that lack of ethos that points to some sort of SERVICE is a major problem and source for why we end up with such a nihilistic and amoral business culture.

None of the other professions are perfect by any stretch, but at least medicine has “to heal others”. For law, it’s “to serve the law, to bring justice to others”. For film/writing/dancing/music, it’s “to make art”. For journalists, it’s “to uncover and communicate the truth”. For teachers, it’s “to enrich the minds of others with wisdom and knowledge”. Even for sports, no matter the hijinks or egos of some athletes, few if any athlete feels they are bigger than the sport they play.

What is the ethos of business? To simply enrich our own pockets? (the “shareholder value” argument is a masquerade for self-interest). To say that it’s self-interest or to maximize profit isn’t an ethos rooted in anything human or aspirational. It’s simply nihilistic.

Maximizing profit or shareholder value is HOW we stay in business. But it’s not WHY we do business. And so many of us in the business world have failed to separate that.

Who knows, maybe with this economic crisis, a new idealism and ethos may become codified within the business community to replace “shareholder value as the sufficient end in itself”. Business schools have a part to play in that, as do MBA students and applicants alike. It starts with all of us.

Service. Business as “service”. Business leadership as “service” – to serve others, to serve constituents. I’ll let you ponder and decide what that means to you specifically.

Soldiers lay their life on the line for their fellow soldiers. A ship captain lays his life on the line for his shipmates. A pilot who safely crash lands in the Hudson uses his brief celebrity to fight for the rights of his fellow pilots and to lobby for greater safety measures. Firefighters lay their lives on the line to save people everyday.

These people are heroes, but many of them will say that they are simply doing their job. Why? Is it purely out of modesty? Or is it because there is an ethos of service embedded in their profession that is hammered into them from the day they sign up, which encourages them to act in such a selfless manner?

And to the cynical who feel resigned to the fact that the business world, the MBA, etc. “is what it is” and can’t change or that any goodwill you do will be a lost cause, I challenge you as follows: If you are so cynical to have no faith in others, why bother living at all? If you have no hope, then each day you get up your body and mind may be alive, but your soul sure isn’t.

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