Why business shouldn’t be your first (or only) degree. (in process)

This is a work in progress –– as are most of my posts. I am fulfilling a compelling desire to write by doing just that –– writing. Unfortunately, I seldom have the time, or creative process, to complete a work in one sitting. So, I intend to capture my urges to the extent I can and return, as I can, to advance my work. Hence, this post is incomplete. If you like it… let me know; what better motivation could there be for me.

First, an admission, I have an MBA. Worse still, my undergraduate degree is economics. Oh, well, having come this far, I’ll also admit to the Business and Commerce stream in High School. That just might colour the following statement ironic, or perhaps stain it hypocritical. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that a business degree shouldn’t be your only degree. Even more provocatively, I don’t think that the esteem in which ‘biz’ students, and the business schools they attend, are held is appropriate to the contribution either make to society or even business itself.

Central to my argument is the fact that business graduates don’t make anything. They are, by their own terminology, ‘overhead’ – a ‘cost of doing business’ or what you and I would call (well, you anyway, because I know and do use that term) an expense. Their presence makes everything we buy cost more. Business graduates are scorekeepers, nothing more. Now, a scientist, a doctor and a mechanic — they produce something. A farmer, a cook, a bricklayer, a painter, a ditch digger, a teacher, an author, a singer, a mother, a philosopher are producers, too. All directly produce something tangible or intangible that would not otherwise exist and which has value in and of itself. The ‘in and of itself’ is vitally important. What does a scientist produce? Theories. However obscure in meaning or tenuous in benefit they appear, theories are raw materials which become components in our technological toys. (Einstein’s theory of relativity is the reason the MAP app works on your smartphone.) Scientists are essential. I’ll come back to Einstein.

Are business graduates essential? Well, imagine if you purchase a basket of apples, or a dozen ears of corn from a roadside stall at the end of the lane by the farmer’s fields, or perhaps a CD or DVD after a musician’s performance, right in the hall, just as you leave; it’s very likely that all of what you’ll pay will go directly to the producer of that product. And, that money, revenue or income (lots of terms exist, mostly to confuse) will, allowing for the amount that the producer takes to fund the quality of life they desire, go right back into the creation of more products. Now, it’s quite possible for the farmer or musician to hire a business grad to figure out the best price to put on the basket of apples or CD cover, but why. or In their defence, they might (and too often do) say that it is by their efforts that products come into being and by their efforts come to market and it is by their processes that the money paid for such products cascades beneficially through all the people and processes that link the producer to consumer.


Interning is not Working for Free

Overhearing a recent CBC Radio 1 (Canada) discussion of Internships, capped an increasing awareness of the idea of ‘working for free’ to break the Catch-22 facing some many young graduates – needing a job to get experience but needing experience to get that first job. Someone, somewhere at some point came up with the idea of ‘interning’ to prime one’s career with that essential first experience. Now, it isn’t, as media discussions and opposing editorials present, a matter of being a good or bad idea but ensuring that if you do intern you obtain meaningful experience worthy of your resumé. As a former executive – and more importantly a sales professional – I’d like to offer some suggestions for those considering interning that will increase the prospects of it being a positive and valuable experience that will get you the paying job you desire.

“What if I work for free?”
In the dispirited gloom of your parent’s basement that follows, “You just don’t have the experience we’re looking for…” heard over and over, offering to “work for free” starts looking pretty attractive as a path to experience, some experience, any experience. It isn’t, so don’t.

It is fatal to offer, in desperation, “to work for free just for the experience“. Even worse is to append, ” I’ll do anything…” to your appeal. Worse still, if your offer is accepted (almost always a begrudging “Well, okay *sigh*, but I’m doing you such a huge favour.“). Doing so, essentially establishes your ‘worth’ at zero and it’s impossible to recover from that. To work without pay might seem free initially, but it will cost you money; any expense you incur interning that wouldn’t otherwise arise (Eg. travel, lunches, work clothes, tools you use, even the ‘opportunity cost’ of your time) is an investment that you’re making to obtain experience. Worse still, that ‘huge favour’ can be readily withdrawn at the first sign of any costs attached to you being there. And I assure you that such costs will arise. Recognize that you’re making an investment not just in yourself but in the business where you intern.

Don’t be mistaken in thinking that finding an internship will be any less difficult  than finding a job. Consider how resistant you are to free offers on the internet, from sales clerks and strangers on the street who open with, “Psst! Can I interest you in…”  ‘Free’  triggers suspicions about hidden costs, tricks or trouble. Often, the unstated or unacknowledged thinking behind such appeals is what salesmen call the ‘puppy dog approach’ and crack dealers call “having a little taste…” They’re hoping that you’ll come to like the product, because they can’t otherwise close the deal. And branding yourself as a salesman or crack dealer can’t be good.

But, if you’ve concluded that interning is the best (perhaps only) option to breaking into the job market – and with youth unemployment (15-24) running about 14% in Ontario it just might be – then the idea is worthy of serious thought and careful planning. The key objective is position yourself as an INTERN (capital letters) not as an entry-level employee they happened to get for free. While you’ll likely be doing entry-level work, that can’t be all you get to do. At a minimum being an INTERN should give you the opportunity to shadow, observe and interact with senior staff well beyond the entry-level pay-grade, to receive regular feedback on the contributions you make, and to expect a reference letter at the end of your Internship. You should also be prepared to submit a report at the end of your Internship.

Creating an Intern Agreement

A verbal contract is only as good as the paper it’s written on.” (Samuel Goldwyn) If the idea of presenting an agreement to an executive causes you to blanche, then there’s much work to do. A written agreement is essential. First, drafting such a document forces you to consider all the aspects of interning and, hopefully, how you will resolve any issues that might arise. The agreement is where you ‘brand’ yourself as an INTERN and establish what experience must be included for the internship to have mutual value.  Most importantly, having and presenting such a document to an executive transforms your relationship from that of desperate unemployed unexperienced supplicant to INTERN. I cannot stress this enough, and will deal with this at greater length.

For the moment, however, here is a short list  in the form of questions to consider. These questions are essential to the Intern Agreement that you will ultimately present. In future articles, I’ll elaborate on each of the questions and add to the list.

Planning an Internship

  1. What experience have you identified as necessary but lacking on your resumé? One source of answers is the interviews you’ve had. What were you told? You did ask, didn’t you? If not, consider adding that question to the, “So, have you any questions for us?” opportunity at the end of the interview.
  2. Where can you get the kind of experience you need? Again, your job search should include inquiry calls to prospective employers asking what experience they require or value highly. Oh, and if they tell you, don’t forget to ask why. You’ll need to know that when planning your internship. Remember, there’s a lot of places where you can get relevant experience not directly related to your career aspirations.
  3. What are you willing to do as a intern? ‘Anything’ is not an answer. I doubt there’s a business without overloaded staff. Sure, it’s fine to fetch coffee, print and collate and put out the trash but what other work are you able and willing to do, such as proofread reports, format documents on the computer, prepare agar tubes, archive documents, update files.
  4. How long are you willing (or can afford) to intern? There are two parts to this, avoiding, “You’re still here?” and creating, “What you’re leaving?” Specifying a term, lets you create an evaluation point, enables scheduling of key experiences.


What Now?

I’ve done some cool stuff during my career; at least I think so. At the time, there was no suggestion that I had a career at all – it was a random walk through life and business, jumping at whatever came along. I was Don Quixote, taking on the most improbable of challenges with boundless enthusiasm.  Most ended badly economically but ended wonderfully in experience.

I’m at the looking back stage of life now. I never should have gone into business, but I was good at it. I have an MBA – for what it is worth. I just wasn’t good in the cutthroat, get-it-done style. I enjoyed partnerships with interesting people and interesting projects. I especially loved startups and the creative thrill of listening to an idea and for one moment imagining spectacular outcomes – success, fun, travel, esteem. Out of all the dispiriting rejections, “… that’ll never succeed.”, that entrepreneurs encountered, I was always willing to believe, to share the passion, and give them a chance “… well, if you believe, then let’s see what it would take to MAKE this succeed.” I never deterred; I informed and tested and moulded and always strove to find a path.

Mostly, I liked small projects working shoulder to shoulder with enthusiastic, undisciplined entrepreneurs. Maybe I had more or better tools of business, maybe I was better at analysis but they had spirit and courage. For every success there were many, many failures; I was particularly good at failure, an important contribution because each failure is essential in the ratio of failures to successes. As I see it — I was contributing to the success of others – every failure meant that somewhere, someone was achieving success.

I had no specialization, I just took on whatever came along. I was a hummingbird of  business, flitting from idea to idea, giving what I could and finally – toward the end of my career, realizing that the theme, if any.  of my career had been seeing dreams, sharing the transient joy of embarking on a new idea with the limitless enthusiasm of (arguably naive) entrepreneurs and giving dreams a chance. There was never a ‘Plan B’ for these entrepreneurs; there was only certainty, self-confidence and a single path. As the formulas and rigour of business analysis led to dispiriting insights, I saw adaptability, flexibility and grit. For those undertakings headed for the undertaker, I saw the emotion of disappointment, fear at the loss of savings – some deep, deep losses, the marvel of relationships as partners endured or abandoned, and I saw lives changed – for better or worse – the broken and lost, the indomitable spirit.

I guess my career was one of observation. It was an emotional roller coaster – my investment was the full depth of my enthusiasm and effort and sometimes money. I seemed to evolve a farmer’s sanguine perspective, that whatever the crop this year – large or small – whatever the events greater than man – drought, storms, insects – that challenged, I found the spirit to accept – not  surrender – and look into the future with hope.

Few of those I worked with have kept in touch. I wonder at the outcome. Was there another attempt, was there resignation, was there the liberating acceptance that allowed them to return to former careers in the satisfaction that ‘they’d taken a shot’ and felt good.

I’m a believer that every experience leaves a mark. I believe that it is important to find the good in every experience. Sometimes dreams die – over the kitchen table with family, at the bank with bankers, the boardroom with investors or in the dashboard glow of the loneliest twilight drive, unconsciously following a trail of taillights in a trail of thoughts that will end in a decision which is in the same instant the heartache of disappointment an incredible unburdening as the decision resolves every impasse and the unsolvable that have been your nightly companions. Suddenly, the unbearable, the unthinkable shrinks to manageable dimension, a future appears, hope returns and you can face the future.

The guessing game of ‘what if and if only’ always leads to believing there would have been a better outcome. What I learned is that each failed attempt lead to deeper insights of what one truly values.

In September of 2001, I completed a summer-long implementation of a national marketing campaign in the US. I had funded it personally. I had excellent product and wonderful business partners. Prospects were back from summer relaxation and ready to do business. There were sales to make, bids to submit, contracts to negotiate, the joy of closings and the fulfillment of delivery. It wasn’t to be. As I watched the smoke from New Jersey, my thoughts went to the victims and their families. It was much later that I would feel the impact as my clients – municipalities – simply stopped purchasing.

This isn’t a tale of sadness. It defined me. To others I lost a business, a house, a car, a wife and a way of life. Fight as I might – and I did – I came to realize that I had strayed so far from who I am, what I felt to be of value, what I really wanted to do and how I want to life to unfold.

This is not the beginning of my story, it is the turning point. I can’t say I found courage or strength, but I did find me.