Harbus: Before we dive into things, would you introduce yourself, please.
Shafer: My name is Paul Shafer. I entered the MBA class in 1977, when invited. I graduated on time in 1979, likely in the middle third of the class. Since my career started in 1975 (before HBS), I have worked as an information technology (IT) practitioner, mostly for the Fortune 500, with very few breaks. In recent years I have risen to the role of principal architect of project management standards that are being enforced across a multi-billion dollar IT practice.
Harbus: Why come forward to share some of your HBS and career experiences with our students now?
Shafer: I believe HBS students are managing their careers at a historically dysfunctional time. Unless things have changed since I was there, students may not be hearing the truth about what awaits them once they earn their MBA degrees. They may be in for greater hard knocks than they deserve or expect, once they graduate. Far from receiving favorable treatment, they may not even receive a fair shake, and worse, find that their hard-won paper makes them a target. What I relate here is something I deeply wish someone had had the decency to share with my classmates and me when we were deciding whether to invest in HBS, or at least, once we got there.
Harbus: If you are sure of your story, why not cite names of people and companies involved?
Shafer: The purpose of this text is not to indict specific individuals years after the fact, but rather, to share important truths with those who may value them here and now.
A degree from HBS does not guarantee, nor even correlate with, a high salary and a corner office.
It is a very natural and healthy thing for young, high-potential people to want to distinguish and prove themselves. It is a very sick and dysfunctional thing to exploit them by stroking their egos and otherwise making them think they can readily achieve their goals when, in fact, if they achieve them at all, it will be through their own innate attributes against the odds imposed by a toxic corporate environment and not by anything as artificial as an expensive piece of paper. Consulting literature has reported over the years that a huge number of people, with and without expensive degrees, have left industry out of sheer disgust, to do their own purely entrepreneurial thing, join the nonprofits, or just opt out of corporate management and “getting ahead”. My own experiences across many industries, even in companies rated “best to work for in America,” bear this out.
Current HBS students face an additional obstacle of recent years-an economy in which tens of millions of jobs have been outsourced, and not just junior or blue-collar jobs. As only 1 example, in the 2003 timeframe, a major Wall Street investment bank announced that it was forsaking its traditional connection with Ivy League schools to get interns from India, thus saving 60 percent of the associated labor costs. After all, dollars trump traditional ties-as another door slams in the faces of those starting their careers.
All HBS graduates are not created equal. There is a difference between an “HBS grad” and a “Harvard MBA”. People coming from money and connections will always walk in where others are uninvited, and merely being an HBS grad does not narrow that gap.
An MBA degree’s impact on careers is much more situational than HBS wants students to know. The three groups it most benefits are those who need it least. These groups include those who grew up in privilege, whose personal and family contacts alone virtually assure their future; those who will sacrifice all-everything-for money, power and position; and those with a strong corporate tie that may even be sponsoring their MBA education. HBS students not in any of these three groups are at an elevated risk of having their expectations unmet.
Social class distinctions, and the importance of pedigree in the business world, are alive and well in American industry. The patricians who run America strongly prefer to hire like types for more senior roles. Their view is that a plebian does not become a patrician, with all the privileges thereunto appertaining, just by associating with patricians in a classroom for two years. In this way, social and career privilege works very effectively to preserve itself and bar newcomers.
I can recall one instance when, three years out of HBS, finding myself in an industry getting hammered by foreign competition, I was trying to identify career options. I contacted the HBS Placement Office for advice, but got no support. Two HBS alumni handed out referrals at an evening job change seminar. One was to a third HBS alumnus who advised me that an “HBS graduate” is not the same as a “Harvard MBA,” in that the former lack the pedigree and connections to make the HBS degree pay off. He offered no other help. Another referral was to a fourth HBS alumnus who suggested he might interview me if I donated cash to the HBS Alumni Fund.
Hands-on experience and practical skills can be more beneficial than your HBS degree, especially at times of layoffs and downsizing.
Five years out of HBS, when I interviewed at a large computer manufacturer, the hiring manager cautioned me that only hands-on systems skills, and not the MBA degree, would keep me the job.
Six years later, in 1990, the computer industry had hit the skids, and in general virtually no one was hiring anyone. I interviewed in the service industries with a major airline whose team of line managers informed me I was sitting there only because I had chosen a much more pragmatic path than most MBAs select and had hands-on skills they wanted to engage. They gave me a choice of which manager and job I wanted based on those skills, with no further discussion of the MBA degree. They pointedly stated that MBAs in the job market due to washing out from partnership bids in service firms were viewed by them as patently unmarketable.
HBS Career Services cannot be relied on to provide support that combats negative forces such as a dismal economy.
My HBS class, like most, was full of bright, motivated people who worked under continually high stress to learn, grow and help make their way in a business world that we sensed in the 1970s had become excruciatingly difficult. HBS projected an attitude that we were all part of a baby boom, at a time of intense competition for shrinking pie, so they need do nothing more than construct an obstacle course and we would all run through it like willing rats as we raced toward some kind of career prospects.
The summer job market after the first HBS year was poor. The HBS Placement Director rationalized this to us so that we would accept it as a temporary inconvenience and not perceive it as storm clouds on the horizon regarding ultimate MBA prospects after graduation. The “Big 8” (since then, “Big 4”) firm I worked for had no real plan for me for the summer, and I was underutilized. The firm let me know they would pursue me for a permanent work offer, but I had decided by the end of the summer not to work for them because I could not respect the way that they treated their employees.
As second year recruiting began, the HBS Placement Director advised us that the job market was significantly changing and that we should “pay our dues” in a 5+ year apprenticeship to learn a function rather than expecting to build a career based on an HBS degree. I received three offers: from the summer job’s firm, a small consulting firm that was high risk and marginal, and from an auto manufacturer wanting help with a system implementation (based on faculty recommendation). The auto mfr’s Personnel Manager, when hosting me for a site visit, indulged in ethnic slurs (I am an ethnic minority). He did not take me to lunch, but rather, had a real-estate agent take me out for a hamburger during which time she shared her concern that the Personnel Manager’s only
interest in her was sexual. Having heard enough, I rejected the offer from that company. The HBS Placement Director then advised me the job market was very difficult; that, like other students, I would need to vacate the campus immediately after the school year ended; and that I should accept the offer from the auto manufacturer or risk being unemployed indefinitely with no further help from HBS. He offered to contact his “friend” at a Big 8 firm widely viewed as marginal, but offered no other support. Some time later, the news hit that the HBS Placement Director and his staff were gone, but in the meantime, out of sheer necessity, with near-zero net worth, I had taken his advice and committed to the auto manufacturer. Among classmates I knew, there were noticeable instances of those receiving one offer, or a very late offer, or offers they could have received without an MBA from Harvard.
Having a degree from HBS not only does not ensure a fair shake, but might make you a target because you will be held to a higher standard and co-workers or superiors might resent your degree.
The Operations Manager I reported at the auto manufacturer seemed to have mixed views of me. He valued my systems work because it made him look good, but also seemed to view me as a threat to his position. He had no plans for me nor did we ever have discussions. The only training I received was in how to use advanced functions on the photocopier.
The auto Operations Executive who had been a major player in recruiting me, and who had suggested he would be involved with me on an ongoing basis, never contacted me. Department managers had no understanding of who I was or desire to talk with me.
As I completed the system implementation, my management indicated satisfaction with the work but no encouragement. Apparently, their only interest in me was getting the system implemented cheaply so I began researching a job change. I read a fiction article illustrating fact in Esquire, in which a graduate of a leading business school joined a prestigious services firm, failed to make the fourth-year cut, discovered little market for his strategic planning skills unaccompanied by line experience, and, finding himself on a fast train to oblivion, jumped off a skyscraper. Other than the overly dramatized ending, this cautionary tale rang true, so it made sense to build on my systems track record and not seek privileges based on having a high-priced degree. I had a sense that the job value of the MBA, if any, might terminate after five years or so, so it was particularly important to find a decent, stable employer at this point.
After leaving the auto firm and accepting my second job post MBA, to which I connected through HBS faculty referral, facts that could not have been previously known began to unfold, in a series of harsh, alarming interactions. My new superior, an Operations Manager, revealed he had been fired from his previous job in a “smoking gun” company,and his wife had divorced him. Needing to support himself and pay the legal settlement, he had apparently told the high-tech company in which we now worked that he was a systems expert and knew how to provide quick, cheap, leading-edge systems. It was not clear he had any real background in that area, as he shoved me into a commitment for providing such systems yet offered neither leadership nor expertise of any kind. The scale of the system needed went far beyond anything the company, or I, or others involved had done before, or that the industry had addressed through commercially available packages. We delivered it, though the impact on my health and on the careers of the managers responsible was very negative.
Racism and sexism are still present in today’s corporate world.
In the auto plant, department managers had an ongoing contest to see which of them could hire the female secretary with the largest breasts. Ethnic slurs in my presence were continual, such as the Personnel Manager publicly declaring, “Let’s have a pig roast!” or a teammate, feigning a sneeze, with “Ahhh.Jewwwwwww!” Later, in the first year at the second job, it became clear that ethnic slurs were not the exclusive province of heavy industry in America’s heartland.
It important to maintain your health now because the corporate world is not always supportive of employees’ medical conditions.
When I was at HBS, health concerns were foreign to me. Now, at 52, my peers and I view them as telling indicator’s of one’s situation in life not to mention expected lifespan.
During my summer internship, I heard from a young accountant from the Midwest that, knowing he was a hemophiliac, the firm had sent him for training to a sprawling rather than a compact campus, where he stumbled on steps and had to be rushed to the hospital to stop his internal bleeding, lest he die-and then the firm had begun sending him signals that he might better leave.
Later in the auto plant, I got the news that a Chicago MBA colleague of mine, in a higher-level role, was absent for a long while due to a cardiac event at age 29, and that such situations were not uncommon in that company even for young talent. (The cardiac event sounded like a heart attack but I know only that he suddenly disappeared and was gone for several months.)
The need is for HBS to reengineer itself, from an operation that exploits its aura from the past and the earnest nature of young people to lure them in, then shoves them into a 2-year obstacle course while sucking their pockets dry before shoving them out and disowning them-to one that is in the business of providing real, ongoing support and care, over a period of time, to high-potential people who are trying to build careers against very great odds. Each student might reconsider whether his or her goals will really be met by two years at HBS, rather than assuming HBS is the premier choice for anyone with real smarts, aspiration and motivation. Alumni of every stripe might offer support and truth to students and those in early career, rather than the usual self-promoting, evasive pabulum.
What I believe is more likely to happen in response to this text is this: HBS will respond with the usual non sequitur-“One out of eight of our graduates are CEOs”-not stating, but strongly insinuating, that correlation is causality for that group, and that the other seven eighths are not worth further consideration. There will be a backlash from HBS graduates who are concerned that the mystique enveloping the diploma they worked so hard to earn not be destroyed in favor of reality just so current students can have the benefit of the truth. And some of your current students will see themselves in this text and be forewarned-which is why I offer it. ?