I graduated from my alma mater, Binghamton University, for my undergraduate degree in 2007 and my MBA in 2010. Over the years and during my career, I have gained a full appreciation for the education I received from the university. In my opinion, it definitely prepared me for success in the working world. Moreover, I have worked with and for great alumni from the school. When I was asked to be the guest speaker at the graduation for the Professional MBA program [the same one I completed], it was an easy answer to say yes. It was refreshing seeing another sharp, enthusiastic, and motivated class graduating from the program. It was an honor and privilege to be part of their experience. The university asked me to share my experience with advancing in my career after the program and speak about how the MBA has impacted my career. Of course, I could never outline everything that I feel has been important in the progression of my career within the length of a speech. As a result, I decided to focus on one skill that I believe is critical in the advancement of everyone’s career. In addition, it is a skill I see in the most successful leaders in business. It also allowed me to comment on the value of the MBA within the context of that skill. At the end of my remarks, I also used the opportunity to speak about how technology will drastically change the professional services jobs and how we will need to adapt to it. Below is the written version of my speech.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Nevertheless, there is nothing more powerful than an unforgettable story. No matter how great your logic may be or how right you think you are, it is meaningless if you cannot get someone to believe what you are saying. The ability to tell a story is a very important tool that you can have to persuade and influence others. If you have not seen or noticed it yet, you will see this trait in the most successful people in business.
As part of my job at my company, my group is one of many that supports our CEO and CFO during the earnings release process. If you have never listened to an earnings call for a public company, it is an interesting experience. Ours start with opening remarks from the CEO highlighting what management wants the market to view as the key takeaways of that quarter. Then, the CFO goes into more details about the company’s results that reiterate what the CEO said and expands on additional strengths of the company. Afterwards, there is a Q&A session with Wall Street analysts. That part of the call is where the action happens. There are very difficult questions that are aimed at searching for weaknesses in an organization and testing whether our leaders are competent and strategic enough to manage the company. Imagine being dunked into a tank of sharks. Each shark is trying to make you bleed just a little. If you do, the other sharks will smell the scent and attack. That is what the experience is like for our executives. To say the least, it is a high pressure situation.
In preparation for that earnings call, our CFO has many calls with the different business segments and regions throughout our company. During those meetings, he expects a story he can sell to investors and the market. If he sees a number without an explanation, he will ask “What is the story behind it? I’d like to hear it.” Great results are easy to talk about. Underperforming results or setbacks require tact in explaining how the organization is handling the issue and moving forward or maybe there is actually a positive story… maybe it is a short term expense due to an investment that will generate a strong return later on. Our executives need to be ready to explain significant numbers or fluctuations as well as handle any curve balls that are thrown their way. They understand that they can either control the narrative with a great story or the market will make one up for them… and it will likely be negative.
As you progress through your careers, the art of storytelling will be one of the most important skills you can possess and refine. Like the companies or businesses you work for, you are a brand. Whether it is a big internal or external opportunity you are vying for, you are trying to market and sell your experience and skill set for the role. As a result, controlling the narrative of your image and reputation at work or your resume and credentials with a prospective employer will be crucial to the advancement of your careers. Decide how you want others to perceive you then conduct yourself and craft your story to steer them to that perception.
How does your MBA fit in that big picture? I was asked how things will change by a group of your predecessors two years ago. For dramatic effect, I answered absolutely nothing… in the short term. You will not feel much different when you wake up tomorrow. You will not instantly get a promotion or big raise at work on Monday. On the plus side, you will get your Saturdays back [The Professional MBA program at Binghamton is based in New York City and is a full day of classes on Saturdays] and have a lot more time on your hands to enjoy your hobbies or see your family and friends.
Nevertheless, you will see and feel the impact of your MBA in the long run. When you look at job descriptions and requirements for higher level positions, you will see that while a MBA is not required, it is preferred. When I have gone on job interviews, it is definitely a distinction that has stood out to interviewers. One of them was impressed and asked me “Why did you get a MBA? You didn’t need it with the rest of your resume.” In response, I took the opportunity to speak about my motivation and drive to continuously grow my skill set and knowledge rather than try to only do the bare minimum at or outside of work. I wanted him to come away concluding that I would go above and beyond at his company and in my role. Your MBA and the reasons you have for getting it will be different. Regardless of those reasons, it is important to craft a story, specific to you, that accentuates some of your greatest strengths when you are asked about your MBA.
It is also important to remember that your MBA is only a chapter in the book you are trying to sell and use to differentiate yourself as the best candidate. It is only a part of the whole. It should be sold as a part of your total package. It is not something you could or should rely on by itself. Of course, be mindful of your long term goals and the resume you will need to get there when you make key career decisions. To the extent possible, align your experiences to your future aspirations. Your overall resume and the highlights you decide to list on paper are the most critical part of your story since you need it to get yourself in the door of an opportunity.
Once you get through that door, have great stories and examples from your work or life experiences that speak to your best traits and qualifications. Based on my experience as an interviewer and interviewee, interviewers ask their questions to try to determine whether you have certain qualities. Some of them are leadership, competency, technical knowledge, ability to work in a team, and communication skills. You won’t know exactly where the conversation will go so think through your stories beforehand and have multiple ready that speaks to various qualities. When possible, steer the conversation toward talking about your strengths and topics you are most knowledgeable about. Remember to demonstrate your best qualities and not just tell someone about yourself. Your stories should note your specific actions and the direct impact they made to support the key takeaway you are trying to emphasize.
In addition, be cognizant of your tone. You want yourself and you to come off as positive. It is human nature for an individual to be open to and more willing to accept an idea or another person when their positive emotions are triggered. As a real life example, our group recently interviewed and added a new member to our team. We evaluated three internal candidates. Each one had an impressive resume and brought different experiences to the table. I would say two of them were honest, but not negative, about why they wanted to transition out of their current groups. However, it was still one of the key factors in our decision on who we selected. The head of our group summed it up well when he heard our feedback and noted “It seems like two of them are running away from something while one of them is running to something.”
When you are asked why you are looking to leave a group or a company, it rarely pays to bad mouth it. Focus on speaking about the experience and skills you acquired that make you valuable to someone else. Try to comment on the aspects of your job you enjoy that you also see in your prospective job. Ideally, you can transition the conversation to how you feel the next opportunity is a logical progression of your career based on the chance to combine and utilize multiple experiences in your past while also getting the chance to acquire new skills and grow more than you would if you stayed at your current role. Again, explain why you are excited to run toward something.
By completing this program, it tells me something about every graduate here. You do not want to settle for just ok and you are willing to push yourself and work to achieve more. That trait will serve you well in the future. Change is constant and continues to occur at an accelerated pace. When you think about how much has changed with technology, you should also ask yourself the next question. How will it affect my career and jobs in general? Automation drastically changed the manufacturing industry in the United States in the early 2000s. Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence has already or will soon disrupt the professional service sectors. For example, the Big Four accounting firms are developing robots that can audit. In terms of law, there are already prototype robots that are as good or better in analyzing legal documents and identifying key issues than lawyers…. and they do it much faster.
I would be lying if I told you I did not feel disconcerted or worried about the future of jobs at times. However, change will cause disruption but it will also create opportunities. While technology will eliminate some jobs, it will create new ones. There is a great quote from Jack Welch where he says “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near.” He was talking about companies. However, you can also apply it to individuals because we will have to continuously evolve in our careers. Our task will be to stay up to date and adjust by refining and acquiring the skills for tomorrow’s jobs and opportunities. Unfortunately, I do not have a magic template on what to do. There are a few things I would recommend to stay up to date on the shifting landscape and enhance your resume. Try to attend industry and alumni events. Maintain your networks whether it is former classmates or former coworkers. Grow your networks. Utilize, reach out to, and have conversations with the alumni from your alma maters. Most alumni are willing and happy to share their experiences and career advice. It will help you find out what your peers are seeing and figure out what skills you will need to have. Your network might even provide you with an opportunity you would not find out in the general market. On the other hand, also give back to your alma maters. It can be in the form of a monetary donation or giving some of your time. Share your experiences and guide the students and alumni after you. As the prestige of the school grows, the prestige of your resume also grows. Moreover, younger generations can give you a fresh perspective and insight into new and coming trends.
Right now, it appears analyzing data will be the key skill in the near future as the compilation of data can be outsourced or automated. However, the desired skillset will change. For this reason, continuous education is critical. Since you are all sitting in front of me today, I know you understand and value it. A MBA is formal. Some professions also require formal continuous education in the form of live classes or webcasts. However, it does not need to be formal. You can teach yourself by reading periodicals or books about your field or the economy. You can also do it through conversation. There are plenty of free videos that will teach you how to do something or explain an issue. With today’s technology, most information is at your fingertips.
Finally, try to hone the skills that a computer cannot replicate as well. Your soft and interpersonal skills will be important. There are robots that can carry a conversation with a person now. I think most of us would get a kick out of talking to a robot for the first time. After the novelty wears off, it has already been proven that human beings still yearn and need interaction with other human beings. There are just some feelings a machine cannot truly replicate. For example, can a robot tell a story? It can compile one. However, it cannot infuse it and convey it with the emotional resonance and believability that a person can.
It is the end of the MBA program but you are only at the beginning of your careers. There will be difficult challenges and key career decisions in the future. With the completion of this program and your other successes that got you to this point, you have proven you have the ability, drive, and foresight to ride the wave of change to success instead hoping to see whether it bypasses or crushes you. Remember, write your own stories instead of letting someone else write it for you.