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The MBA Summit: What Amazon, Google & McKinsey Really Want From MBAs

Ross Dean Scott DeRue (Upper left), Amazon’s Peter Faricy (lower left), McKinsey’s Ellis Griffith, and Google’s Grant D’Arcy

Byrne: Great point. And you know what I love about this discussion? Twenty-five years ago, when you were thinking about an MBA Peter, we were talking finance, statistics, accounting, and marketing in the contest of a business school. And now we’re talking about rolling up your sleeves, and getting really involved in the challenges that a business might face. We’re talking about what it takes to work effectively in teams and become a great collaborator. The whole conversation has changed and that’s just really exciting.

Let’s move on to another big issue: the people who get an MBA to switch careers. Ellis, a lot of people go into consulting from a different industry. How important is the MBA in allowing someone to make that often difficult transition from an entirely different industry or background?

Griffith: That’s a great question. And also it actually builds a little bit on what we were just hearing. I think when I started an MBA, I thought I was going to go and learn some mechanics of how a business works. I didn’t know all of the ins and outs of all these different pieces and I’m gonna learn about them. What I didn’t really expect was to necessarily learn about me. And I think that is the big transition. That’s the big switch. You take this time to learn about some of these things that are really technical and tactical, but then you learn about yourself and how you can put yourself in that situation, in that problem, and what you can contribute.

So I think there’s another switch that MBAs experience. You absolutely learn the mechanics of how business works, but it’s also about where I see myself and my place, and how I can contribute to the business community and to the community at large. So the transition is really about moving from a single focus, your industry background and experience, to having a broad focus in which you could be asked to do really anything in any discipline. That is much more about how you see yourself in any business challenge.

Byrne: One of the most underestimated aspects of business education is the amount of introspection that you’re guided through. There is no other academic discipline, not even psychology or philosophy, that guides its students so carefully through a journey of who am I? What am I best at? And what should I devote my life to? Grant, you’re the most recent graduate on the panel. Did you go through that experience?

D’Arcy: I did. And I think what I got out of business school in particular was a bias towards action. We’re not looking for people who become potentially paralyzed by the amount of information that they can find in any particular area. We’re looking for people who are willing to think about and apply the Colin Powell 40/70 rule. They’re comfortable making a decision with 40% to 70% of the information. They are not going to wait until there’s too much information, and they are not going to make the call too early with too little information. They are able to take a stance when the time is appropriate.

Having the ability to advise real companies, having the ability to go in and invest real capital, let’s you experiment with your own methodologies or modes of doing. You learn whether you pulled the trigger too late or maybe you pulled the trigger too early. Experiential learning allows you to find that sweet spot so you know where you’re able and comfortable to do that.

DeRue: And the key to get there is to provide the experience. What we’re talking about is instead of reading about a case study of something that happened in the past, you are the case study. And so you’re developing the business tools and skills, but you’re also going through this very personal transformation process. To enable that personal transformation to happen, you have to surround that with the coaching, the feedback, the assessment that’s necessary to make sure we’re learning from that experience.

Because Ellis and I could be in the same exact experience, but learn fundamentally different amounts and different lessons. Mentorship, coaching, assessments, and feedback enables you to face failure and fall down, only to get back up. It develops that adaptive capability and that resilience so that next time you do it at Michigan Ross or Yale or Berkeley, you’re better at it. And then by the time you get to McKinsey, Amazon, or Google, you’re even better at it. And you’ve learned about yourself in a really fundamental way. Because we’re not only developing business people, we’re building human capability here that I think is really important.

Byrne: Peter, some candidates wonder how important is the pre-experience before getting an MBA in your hiring decisions? At a tech company, for example, is it helpful to have engineering experience before getting an MBA? Is that more valuable to Amazon?

Faricy: It is. I think it’s funny because that’s not my educational background. If I were to go back and rewind it, although I love what I did, probably having a harder science discipline undergrad and coming back to get your MBA right now would be a great accommodation. You know, I don’t know how you say it but  mathematics and computer science are the new sexy for an undergraduate degree. You combine that with an MBA and you’re well-prepared to be able to build and manage things in a technology company. From the students we’ve hired, I think that three to five years of experience prior to getting your MBA is super critical. You do want to have enough real world experience that you’ve learned how things work. Maybe you’ve had some success. Maybe you’ve had some failures. But you have a reference point of how things worked in whatever industry that you were in. And I think you’re able to provide a richer experience for yourself and for your fellow students, and for the faculty when you come back with that kind of experience base.

I obviously love the hard science piece, and I think the other companies do as well, but we also have a completely open mind. If you happen to have a background in the arts or something other than the hard sciences, we really center at who the person is, not necessarily what it looks like on their resume. So I think the MBA gives you a chance to restart and replant yourself if you’ve figured it out a little bit further down the line.

Byrne: I’m sure it’s a similar story at McKinsey.

Griffith: Just the same. I was a Japanese Studies major. I’m not sure how helpful that’s actually ever been.

Byrne: So if I’ve done work in the Peace Corps or Teach For America or middle school, you’re not going to hold it against me?

Griffith: Some of those fundamental things are important. ”What was your major, where did you work, what’s the work that you’ve done, and how did you do in school?” Just as a small reframe of it, I think that the idea of your story, and who you are and who you want to become and how you write that story really matters, whether you were a Japanese Studies major or worked for the American Cancer Society. People are looking for inspiration as well as evidence of action.

Byrne: Grant, how important is the internship? I know a lot of companies today use summer employment as a tryout for full-time hiring. Is that true at Google?

D’Arcy: It is true at Google, and frankly in my situation it’s more common that someone who has not been in a strategic or operational role before, has done an internship. Maybe you’ve done it at McKinsey or somewhere else, but it’s important to check that box. We’re thinking whether you have enough experience to come in and do a specific role in the organization?” And the answer depends on your story. Are you telling a consistent story about how you’ve gained those skills? Do you have that commitment to putting in the work to show that if you’re coming to tech and you did not have the hard science background, are you taking coding classes? Are you advising startups in the Ann Arbor/Detroit region because there’s plenty of them? And are you taking the steps to be able to tell that consistent story? If so, then an internship might be plenty of experience. If not, then you might want to turn that internship into a full-time gig, get those hard skills with that organization, and then figure out how to pivot from a consulting role, an operational role, into the tech industry.

Byrne: Okay, Grant, you’re only six years out of the MBA program and you have one of the coolest jobs in the world. Head of strategy at Google’s Moonshot Factory? How’d you get that job?

D’Arcy: A lot of good fortune. There are two things that I wanto to say specifically about the MBA. One: A lot of humility was instilled into me during my journey through business school. Not just the failures that I experienced, but the ability to take leadership roles among my peers, find out how to build consensus among people who might have drastically differing opinions, or how to submit a team project in a particular class. But I also gained the ability to realize that I should admit when I’m ignorant. That is actually a strength that I now have as a result of my MBA. I can go in and say, “I do not know, but I have the capability to learn rapidly,” and that makes me more valuable.

Oftentimes, people come into an MBA program to switch industries and roles. I had consulting experience and non-profit experience but knew I wanted to do something strategic that would have an impact. Could I have gone into Google X in the strategy role right out of my MBA experience? Probably not. I didn’t know technology, I didn’t know how startups worked; What I needed to do was go into Google’s biz-ops team, which is their corporate strategy group, learn that world, do a couple projects from there, with X, and then make the transition over. I know we’re all in a hurry to get to the end state and where we think we want to be, but if you look at that North Star, and you’re next step takes you within 30 degrees of that, that’s probably the right next step. You do not need to make that jump all in one. And if you can tell a consistent story of how that next step gets you there, it’s going to be even more valuable as you do it.

Byrne: So when you were in school, did you have an internship at Google?

D’Arcy: I actually interned with the Civic Consulting Alliance, which is a non-profit organization that offers pro-bono consulting for the city of Chicago and Cook County. That experence solidified my desire to have impact at scale, and technology was likely the way to do it. Seeing how some of the systems and processes worked in arguably one of the more forward-thinking local governments helped, even though they were dependent on a relatively slow rate of adoption of technology to have impact. My first MBA job was with Google.

Byrne: So I’m sure you believe that if you didn’t have an MBA you wouldn’t have your current role?

D’Arcy: I would be nowhere close to my current role today.

DeRue: We knew him when.

THE COMPLETE MBA SUMMIT

Candid perspectives from MBA students, admission officials, and employers

VETTING TOP MBA PROGRAMS

HOW TO GET INTO A TOP BUSINESS SCHOOL

WHAT AMAZON, GOOGLE & MCKINSEY REALLY WANT FROM MBA HIRES