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Trevor Fetter gives advice to the graduating ECs.

Sr. Lecturer Trevor Fetter

After so much unpacking, it’s time to pack. What will you bring? What will you leave behind?

If you’re completing your first year, we’re basically talking, in travel terms, about an extended weekend. I hope the weather is good, that you like the destination, you get a good room at the hotel, the exchange rate is favorable, and you want to go back for a longer visit. It’s a summer job, not a long-term commitment, and that should be an opportunity to learn, to see if the fit is good, and to build a network that could help you turn this into something more permanent.

The stakes are higher for our friends in the EC. If you haven’t yet found that right job, don’t worry; you’ll likely have something firmed up very soon. It’s just a matter of time, a bit of luck, and making sure you’ve opened the aperture of your job lens wide enough. Remember that companies don’t operate on the academic calendar; they’re hiring as needs and opportunities arise, and they’re bringing new people on throughout the year.

So, whether you’ve made a commitment to a job or have yet to do so, let’s talk about what to pack in your HBS suitcase and what to leave behind.

First, you’ll be packing a credential that will lead your new colleagues to make a lot of assumptions about you. You’ll want to live up to some of these expectations and not others, and the environment you’re entering will drive many of these assumptions. For example, if you’re going to a company that is loaded with MBAs, the expectations will be close to reality, because your new colleagues’ experience is so similar to yours. Where this gets tricky is in operating companies, especially those where you’re the only MBA. It’s safe to generalize by saying their expectations will be high in two categories: your analytical and problem-solving skills and your leadership potential.

Terrific! What could be better than being presumed to be competent and prepared to lead? This is truly an advantage. Don’t blow it by mishandling your new surroundings and colleagues. Be humble, open to new and different people, and be eager to learn about the company and about your co-workers. Bring with you those skills you honed for getting to know and appreciate the differences and perspectives of dozens of strangers in the early days of your experience here.

The 5 Ps (Preparation, Presence, Participation, Professionalism, and Punctuality) should be high on your packing list. During your MBA education, our classrooms have simulated business environments like management meetings, team meetings, and board meetings. Every organization has its own culture around the 5 Ps, and demonstrating high standards in the work environment will set you apart. Through the case method, you’ve practiced quickly digesting lots of information, discerning what’s important and what’s irrelevant, and using fact-based analysis to reach conclusions you can defend. You’ve done it hundreds of times. And while the real-life version is deeper and more consequential, it’s very similar. Bring those skills to the real world.

On the other hand, there are certain traits some of us develop at Soldiers Field that are best left there, a form of biohazard that should be sealed in one of those “I dare you to close me” Color baggies we’ve all been using. (Pro-tip: A strong forefinger and a solid thumbnail are key.) This do-not-pack list would include grabbing airtime for the sake of accumulating participation points, “building on” someone else’s idea when you’re really just re-stating it, shooting blanks from the hip, and arguing against someone else’s idea just because you can. Also, I’d suggest that if you find yourself starting to say “in our section, we did…” or “we had a case on that,” the idea might be expressed in a more generalized and inclusive way. And if a new colleague asks what you were doing before you joined the company, avoid making them go through the “twenty questions” method to painfully draw out “I was in graduate school…business school, actually…in the Northeast…in Boston…at Harvard.”

With all the advantages of the MBA education, you’ll have a strong wind at your back once you re-enter the workforce. Our campus has also been a very safe space for some behaviors that can present risks in the workplace. Students in my LCA and FRC sections know that I maintain a “Top 10” list of ways executives get in serious trouble, but it’s worth mentioning a few of them, because if you can mitigate the risks of personal failure, you’ve got a lot of momentum pushing you toward success.

There are a few very common, high-level risks. Socializing or traveling with work colleagues is one example. On campus, everyone is a peer. At work, there are power asymmetries, even at an early point in your career, and even among people of similar ages. In the workplace, it’s good to be friendly, but don’t feel like you need to be friends with your co-workers.

You’re used to communicating constantly and casually through text, e-mail, Slack, and social media, to name a few methods. In the workplace, your communications are all discoverable. Lawyer friends like to say that the e in e-mail stands for eternal, embarrassing, evidence. Be careful with what you “say” and post, and be especially careful with humor. When things go wrong, nothing seems funny in hindsight.

In recent weeks we’ve seen stories of young investment bankers pushed beyond the brink, cleverly publishing a mock firm PowerPoint deck with their complaints, and firms responding in various ways. Now that you’re going to become the boss or the client of the people doing the jobs you might have done before business school, what kind of boss or client are you going to be? Will you perpetuate practices that you had to endure, or will you show some empathy for those who have followed you? They are working hard to enable you to succeed. In a more tangible sense, this gets at one of the biggest risk areas: bullying or demanding results that are not achievable.

Here are a few suggestions as you approach your new job. First, relax about finding a mentor (relaxing generally is good advice). Your mentors will become obvious and will find you. Second, don’t be reluctant to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” You may think you’re expected to know everything, but you’re not, and bluffing is risky. Third, here are some magic words: “what do you think?” And (to someone who works for you): “I know what you do, it’s important, and I appreciate it.” Fourth, understand and respect the administrative and compliance policies of your workplace. It sounds dreary, but these things are important and fall into the category of mitigating the risk of failure.

Maybe the most important thing to pack? A big smile. You’ve done it. You’ve either completed the incredibly rigorous boot camp we call the required curriculum, or you’ve finished the entire two-year program and will soon receive an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. That meant a lot in 1908 and it means even more in 2021.

For the EC students, I want to say a big congratulations; we’ll miss you. You rose to the occasion last March when we plunged headfirst into a world of uncertainty and made a quick pivot to life in a lockdown and our virtual classes. Please stay connected to the school, your classmates, your section, and your faculty. There’s much more to learn over your careers and life, and HBS should be a primary resource for lifelong learning. Come to your reunions and attend HBS events. You’ll never be disappointed that you made the effort, and you’ll likely regret it if you don’t.

And for our student friends in the RC, thank you for your extraordinary openness to join us at Harvard Business School mid-lockdown. Your enthusiasm and positive outlook have lifted us all. Enjoy your summer, and hurry back to campus for the fall. The experiment must continue! 

Trevor Fetter (MBA ’86) is a Sr. Lecturer in the Accounting and Management Unit at HBS. He teaches the required courses Financial Reporting and Control and Leadership and Corporate Accountability, as well as the Short Intensive Program “The Life and Role of the CEO”. Before joining HBS, he was Chairman and CEO of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a Fortune 150 company. Earlier in his career, he was CFO of the movie studio MGM and an investment banker. In addition to teaching at HBS, he serves on corporate and non-profit boards and advises several early-stage healthcare companies. More importantly, he was fortunate to have Shani Carter as a student in LCA and to work with her in the fall on an independent project from which this column is inspired.