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

After graduating from Ross in 1995, Peter Faricy has had a fascinating career starting with McKinsey & Co., Ford Motor, and now Amazon for the past 12 years

Byrne: So let’s get into a question that I think every MBA and every applicant ultimately wants to hear. What do MBAs do at Amazon in their first year at your company?

Faricy: Well, one thing I’ll say before I give some examples is that I think it is important to get to know the companies that come on campus because you might be surprised by the breadth of roles and opportunities they have. In other words, we try not to just partner with one club here at Michigan as an example. It would be obvious for us to partner with the Technology Club. But the reality is, we hire HR leaders, finance leaders, product leaders, and operations leaders. If you name a discipline within Amazon, we hire every single one of those roles here on campus. And so we actually spend a fair amount of time with the career counselors and with lots of different groups of students talking about each of these different areas, and we encourage them to explore the breadth of Amazon because we’re convinced many students here would find a particular part of Amazon they could fall in love with.

I hire primarily product leaders. We hired a Ross MBA a few years ago to launch the wine business on Amazon. So we gave this person an ambiguous project: We said we want to start selling wine, which it turns out is very hard to do on the Internet. We gave them a very small technology team and we said, “We’ve got the launch date all set for you, and you’ve got about nine months to get this thing ready and off the ground.” It’s kinda one of these rocket ship roles. You have to be able to handle ambiguity. You have to be able to be energized and ready to roll.

We also hire, just as another example, we hired a Ross MBA to lead the pricing technology we use for all the small businesses and entrepreneurs who sell their products on Amazon. And it’s a really big deal because we help these entrepreneurs price their products competitively. We help them do it in a way that’s automated so that they don’t have to spend time manually doing their pricing, and it’s a program obviously that if you didn’t do well, you could cost people a lot of money, if you messed up their prices.

Both of these are entrepreneurial examples of real operating roles that we would send you into right from the very beginning. Our internship and full-time rolesare designed to get you up to speed in the business. These are real operating roles, and we need someone to deliver something of substance, usually pretty quickly. So they’re very big, very meaty, very exciting roles. You’ll feel very valued right from the very beginning.

Byrne: Ellis, what does a first-year consultant at McKinsey do?

Griffith: They feel valued, absolutely. Traditionally you walk in and you’re just a generalist consultant and that has been our most frequent path but so much has changed over the years. There is still a generalist consulting track, but we also have many other options. We have general management, we have financial management, we have practices that you can go directly into, such as digital practices. No matter where you go, you will be solving difficult problems, you will be working with a team, you will be innovating, you will spend a lot of time in a team room, much like the ones that are here at business school, working with other people, collaborating, listening to ideas, developing solutions, and using every single skill that you acquire through your MBA in that first…I was gonna say minute, but I’ll go with month.

Byrne: All right, Grant, what did you do in your first job at Google?

D’Arcy: I was in the group called Biz Ops, business operations and strategy. I like to call them recovering consultants. So it is folks who have decided to make the leap from a consulting background, banking, or another analytical or quantitative role, into a strategic and operational role within the tech company. So we were the SWAT team, going in and figuring out relatively thorny problems around Google. And frankly, just to set expectations, I was an associate coming out. I was doing very similar work when I graduated with my MBA, as I did when I went into consulting out of undergrad.

We all work for very glamorous companies that have lots of people who are excited and chomping at the bit to come work for us. That means we get very qualified people. That means sometimes we can hire overqualified people for the role that we are looking at, and potentially it might chafe some individuals a bit. So when you come out, that humility, that skillset that you develop within an MBA from your previous experience, you just need to trust that the best folks will advance. And if you feel like the role you’re doing is something that is not fully utilizing your talents, you need to show how you can fully utilize those talents.

Byrne: Is there anything an MBA applicant or student can do right now to help make themselves more competitive as a candidate for your company? Ellis?

Griffith: Absolutely. I think it starts with that core of knowing yourself and telling your story. It starts with how you’re going to be an innovative person in this world, and how do you contribute to the community at large, and really knowing that and solidifying that, even before you begin, is great. When I started my MBA, I actually thought, “I am going to learn finance.” And I’ll admit, I am not a amazing math person. But I was committed and I sat through this finance class and I looked at everybody who looked just like Peter getting excited like, “I get this!” and I thought, “I do not get this. I do not.” And I was freaking out. I thought I had come to the wrong school. At that moment, I went and talked to my advisor here and said, “Many of these classes are so easy but finance isn’t.” My attitude was, “I’m going to beat it, and I’m going to get it.” At the time she said, “You know, it might be that they’re not easy for everyone.” I was like, “Oh no, I’m sure they’re easy.” “Nope,” she said. “Not easy for everyone. Maybe you’re not a finance guru, but you can pass, and you’ll do fine.” Ultimately, I did and I went into the HR field when I came out of business school. So the idea of making yourself competitive by making yourself you is absolutely the key to me.

DeRue: Just to add to this, if I look at where our students are gravitating toward over the last several years it’s teling to see what opportunities students opt into. We have a program that we launched called Story Lab out of our Sanger Leadership Center, and it’s all about helping students find and discover their story, and teaching them to tell that story—not just in an interview context, but in life generally. I think we had 700 students participate in this year alone in some version of Story Lab. Which is interesting, because it’s all about them discovering their story and being able to tell that story.

And then through our Center for Positive Organizations, we have this tool called the Reflected Best Self and it’s sort of in the Strengths Finders realm. You go and solicit stories from people in your life, personal and professional, and they tell stories about when they saw you at your best. And then you derive a set of themes that are the strengths that you may often take for granted. The exercise lets you know what makes you unique and different. Students are voting with their feet, they’re asking and demanding these opportunities as a way to discover those strengths to better craft their careers, not only in the short-term, but also in the long-term. To hear you describe what you look for in the ability to tell stories is the same thing our admissions teams are looking for on the front end. And I think for prospective students, that’s a really powerful lesson from both the companies as well as the schools. Be you and do you really well.

D’Arcy: On my end, I think there’s such an obvious dissonance when the story you’re trying to tell and your passion fail to align. It is so obvious when someone is saying, “Hey, I really want to work in tech,” and you look at their resume, and the person majored in marketing, focused on marketing, did internship in marketing, and was the head of the marketing club. You’ll say, “All right, tech marketing is something you could do. Why is strategy the role that you might want here?”

So what I advise people is if you want to be a consultant, ask what is the skill gap between you and a really excellent consultant today? And then ask yourself how can you knock that down during the two years you have in an MBA program so you can be able to go in and authoritatively say to Ellis, “I am going to crush it here. I am going to be a phenomenal consultant, I have advised companies, I have built the quant background to be able to do this. Frankly, I’ve been mentored by someone who’s already at this company, and I feel like I would be able to step in on day one and be valuable.” If you can tell that story, if you can build on it, identify the gaps in your skillset and close them, you will be golden. It’s so easy to tell the people who’ve put in that work versus the people who have not.

Byrne: So Grant, you must have ESP, because you just answered the first question from our livestream audience. Someone out there is asking, “What advice would you have for MBA candidates as they approach their MBA journey?” Scott, what’s your counsel?

DeRue: One piece of advice I would offer students is to use the MBA as an opportunity to explore. I think a lot of students come in with a fairly narrow view of “I’m gonna be X” or “I’m gonna be Y.” Most students shift while they’re in school, and then shortly after school. And I think that the two years that you spend in an MBA program is a wonderful opportunity to expose yourself to different content like corporate finance that you may not understand or appreciate. To expose yourself to people who are in different careers that you’ve never even heard of. And to build an experience set as opposed to a skillset that allows you to discover the path that you want to follow both in the short-term and in the long-term. I think that requires an openness to experience.

Byrne: Peter, your advice?

Faricy: I’m going to take a different angle on this. Sometimes I see students trying to optimize for the company name or the title or the money. And I would do something completely different. I would find what you love, and I would really try to align yourself so you can go do that. I think eventually the people who are the most successful really actually love what they do, and they don’t view it as an occupation or work. They ove the environment they’re in, and I will tell you when I graduated from here and I worked for McKinsey, and these last 12 years at Amazon, I’ve been really happy. That obviously helps to enable great happiness in your personal life. So don’t allow yourself to make a compromise for something that will be more short-term. Find something that you love, find some way you can make a big difference in the world, and go do that.

Byrne: Really good advice.

Griffith: I want to add only one thing: As you approach this journey, approach it with full openness. It’s not about money, and it’s not about status, and it’s not about that one particular job. It’s about optimizing for all of those and who you are and how you fit into that equation. I can’t tell you in words how much I admire my classmate who opened in downtown Manhattan a cupcake and beer pairing restaurant. I just can’t even tell you how happy that makes me. And apparently they’re good together. There are infinite possibilities and a singular goal as you enter this journey actually can hold you back from finding what’s really going to inspire you.

D’Arcy: Can I add one piece to that as well? Get out of this castle. This campus is beautiful, but get out of this castle and go explore the academic institution where you are. Michigan is phenomenal. It has a number of top 10 graduate schools. I took classes or was in extracurriculars with people from the school of education, the school of natural resources in the environment, and the school of public management. I basically was trying to get myself as broad of an education as I could while I was still going after my MBA. Many business schools are in similar environments. Don’t just hole up with your business school classmates. Go out and try and take full advantage of the full institution.

Byrne: Okay, here’s our last question from the audience. Do you think an MBA is more, less or equally as valuable as the day that you received yours? Scott?

DeRue: Admittedly, I am biased in this conversation, but I think the MBA from a top school is as valuable as it’s ever been. So many prospective and current students think about the short-term value of that first job, career placement, and starting salaries. But I think longer-term about the personal transformation that can happen and the community that you’re part of. That’s an underappreciated aspect of business schools generally. You will become part of a lifelong community of really talented professionals who care deeply about that community. And I think that’s a really important piece of the value equation.

The return on investment is an important calculation for everyone. MBAs are not cheap. And so you have to think about what the return on that is, and I think the pressure in business education today is on schools that can’t justify or warrant a return on the investment that you have to make. But if you look at the top 10, 15, or 20 schools that are out there, whether you look at short-term career metrics or long-term value, the value I think is as strong as it’s ever been.

Faricy: MBAs from top-tier schools, including Yale, Berkeley, and Michigan, are as valuable today as they were back when I got mine in ’95, but I do think there’s been a large number of MBA programs that have been added, and lots of online options, and it’s dizzying. I think that you should be discerning. You have to find a school that you think is going to push you and help you learn. And I love these schools that are pushing the envelope on how to learn more interactively, because the old days of sitting in a big room doing case studies, is the beginning and end of your education. That is an old-fashioned model and not very useful. If you’re going to get one of those MBAs, you might not be getting your money’s worth. But I think the high ROI MBA programs are still as valuable today as they were 20 years ago. Very, very valuable.

Byrne: Ellis, as head of inclusion and diversity at McKinsey, I’m thinking that frankly an MBA is great for someone who’s making the transition from a less traditional field or someone who hasn’t had all the opportunities in life of growing up in a privileged environment.

Griffith: Yeah, absolutely. Today the MBA provides opportunities that maybe we didn’t know about 20 years ago.The application of an MBA is so broad across so many industries, so many sectors, across so many types of world problems and government agencies. I’m not sure we thought of it that way back then. And I do think it gives us the opportunity to level the playing field. MBA programs are eager to have people from diverse backgrounds. It’s a starting point for people to gain equal access to the corporate sector and other fields.

DeRue: I would propose that business is the most powerful force on the planet for creating both economic prosperity, social mobility, and personal opportunity. Even if you don’t go into the private sector to Ellis’s point, the tool set and the capabilities that you’re going to develop, as well as the community that you’re part of, will help you at an NGO or the non-profit sector. These are the tools that are going to enable you to create innovation, to create value in those sectors as well. So if you think about the impact you want to have in the world, the MBA sets you up in a way that is quite unique in affording you both the capabilities and the opportunities to have that impact. And so to me the value of the MBA in the short-term and the long-term is all about who you want to be and putting yourself on a path to have impact in the world.

Byrne: So Scott, you’re telling me that you’re really running the moonshot factory?

DeRue: Yes. Coming from the private sector, I came to appreciate just how important business was in society and how powerful education is to transform people’s lives, to enable them to capture those opportunities. You put those together, and what better place to work than a business school?

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