Tales of the Newly-minted MBA

One moved back home. Another said his career subscribed to "chaos theory." The career paths of new Harvard Business School MBAs have wandered, some very far, from where the young executives had anticipated.
by Julia Hanna

How do real-world conditions and shifting personal priorities influence a young MBA's early career path—those first five to ten years that executives remember as being of such critical importance?

To find out, Harvard Business School professor David A. Thomas gathered five recent alumni at the 2003 H. Naylor Fitzhugh Conference to tell their stories—the ups, downs, and detours that brought them to where they are today.

"I moved back home. That's where I started," said Joseph Williams (HBS MBA '99), cofounder of Wakefield James, a firm that purchases and improves privately held manufacturing businesses. After describing the nitty-gritty details of scraping together the firm's first purchase in a post-September 11th economy, Williams highlighted a few key takeaways for aspiring entrepreneurs: "In a democracy, your downside is limited—you're not going to prison for failing," he said. "Begin with the end in mind, and remember that faith is power—you have to believe in something, whether it's fruit flies or God."

Beverly Anderson (HBS MBA '97) had ten years of experience in financial services before coming to HBS; after graduation she worked at First USA for several years before joining Novantas, a start-up consulting firm located in New York. The first eighteen months, she recalled, were "absolutely wonderful. I felt like my mentors at the firm were really excited about the work I was generating." When the consulting industry experienced a downturn in 2001, however, Anderson said that the dialogue changed, shifting to her suitability for the work at hand.

"That was a conversation I was absolutely unprepared for," she recalled. "I questioned every aspect of my being. I hit the wall."

Fast Rebound

At that point Anderson found sustenance in personal and professional relationships that allowed her to talk through the situation and regain her psychological footing. "In the middle of last summer, when no one was hiring, I found six jobs. A new level of confidence came out of that experience," said Anderson, who is currently the senior vice president of strategic planning at Fleet Boston's credit card division.

Begin with the end in mind, and remember that faith is power —you have to believe in something, whether it's fruit flies or God..
—Joseph Williams, HBS MBA '99

"My career subscribes to the chaos theory—a mix of passion and practicality, risk and reward," said Carl Horton (HBS MBA '95). His parents moved to Washington, DC, in 1978 to work for Jimmy Carter, Horton recalled, initiating his interest in politics. Over the years, he juggled his commitment to public service with the more pressing demands of earning a living. After stints at Bain & Co., J. Crew, and Old Navy, he landed his current position as vice president of People's Bank in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Now he's decided to follow another turn in his career path and announce his candidacy for Mayor of Bridgeport. "It's not a perfect fit with our family's life plan," said Horton, alluding to the financial downside of a public sector salary, "but now is the time to follow my passion."

What about the so-called "toolbox" of MBA skills? Thomas asked panelists. How did business school prepare them for the real world, and what did they wish they'd learned?

Do things that seem a little strange and leave you a little exposed but give you access and huge returns over time.
—Beverly Anderson, HBS MBA '97

"I didn't learn how to hire and fire people," Williams said. "I wasn't prepared for that aspect of running a business."

"I learned to take risks," said Anderson. "Do things that seem a little strange and leave you a little exposed but give you access and huge returns over time." Being an MBA, she continued, "is one component of all that we are—you have to become a whole person, someone who is bigger than a degree or a checking account."

The Politics Of Work

Gregg Gonsalves (HBS MBA '93) said he values the ability he acquired to assimilate large amounts of information, but was unprepared for the political aspect that accompanies most jobs. "Networking and building relationships are key—pay attention to those 'softer' skills," advised Gonsalves, sector head of Goldman, Sachs & Co.'s Aerospace & Defense Group and a managing director in Goldman's Industrial & Natural Resources Group.

"Don't wait until you're desperate to contact mentors," said Sara Crutchfield Clarke (HBS MBA '97), vice president of corporate strategy at Showtime Networks. "Find ways to stay in touch, and have a clear means of articulating your story to others."

"Mentors come in all sorts of packages," added Horton. "White, black, female, male, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, older, younger…we can't always look for someone who is three levels above and looks exactly like us."

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.