In Must I Bank? on today's WSJ Opinion page (now behind their paywall, but still accessible via the first link in this Google search), Jonathan Knee of Evercore Partners and Columbia Business School astutely narrows down the career options faced by MBAs (and by extension to most business professionals) to three primary paths: Sales, Analysis and Operations:
Like all service professions, investment banking is fundamentally a sales job. Individuals who feed on human interaction, and have natural empathy (sales is about putting yourself in your customer's shoes), do well in sales. Being good with numbers, often assumed to be the key to banking success, will be of little use in getting a big office with a view if you do not have sales aptitude.
Private equity, like hedge funds and other investing jobs, is essentially analytical. These are solitary professions, and one is judged on the quality of the analysis produced. The quality of this analysis is in turn assessed on highly quantifiable metrics – like whether the stock you recommended went up or if the investment in a private company you sponsored turned out well. If the classic sales person is a deeply social being, the typical analytical person is a bit of a loner.
Working at a start-up or any other company is an operational job. Operators must communicate and "sell," both internally and externally, to effectively function in their positions. Operators must also be "analytical" enough to attain the domain expertise needed to achieve credibility in their operating role.
But the defining characteristic of the operating role is a commitment to a continuing level of involvement with the organization's objectives. A sales person makes a sale and moves on. Analytical people make a call or do a trade, and reap whatever rewards that insight yields. Operators are in it for the long haul.
Most jobs fall into one of these three categories: sales, analytical or operational. The odds that the same person would prosper equally in more than one of these environments are low. The personal qualities that each position draws upon are simply too different. Some...introspection in order to identify which category would likely yield the greatest personal satisfaction is an excellent investment.
...Dedicating oneself to any profession...should not be undertaken lightly. Doing so would ignore the unique gifts that each of us has to offer. It would also meaningfully reduce our chances of ultimate personal fulfillment.
You could argue that Knee's three-headed framework is an oversimplification. But what I find useful is how many career paths can be boiled down to one of Knee's three options and how the framework's simplicity forces us to ask whether we truly understand the essence of a given profession.
I also think Knee's observation that banking is actually a misunderstood sales field (in which analytical skills are helpful but not sufficient) is a comment on our business culture's habitual failure to appreciate the importance of sales (and the interpersonal and relational skills that make a successful salesperson). As an MBA working in a business school, I see this attitude reflected in how we develop future business leaders--strategy and finance are held in the highest esteem, while sales is something of an afterthought.
In my experience as an organizational leader, I found that operational and analytical skills were useful, but sales skills were essential. The organization's effectiveness was impacted by my ability to analyze options and to execute operational plans, but its very survival depended on my ability to sell--to build relationships and convince others to invest their time, energy, faith and money. As we grew, I hired people whose operational and analytical skills were stronger than mine would ever be--but everything started with that ability to sell.
I benefited greatly from the operational and analytical education I got in business school, but I suspect I would have been a better leader after graduation had there been a greater focus on sales, relationships and interpersonal skills, i.e. "soft" skills.
Someone who really gets this is Tom Peters. From a November 2007 post (his first-ever in all caps, apparently, reflecting his rage):
BOB WATERMAN AND I, IN 1980, DEVELOPED A MANTRA IN THOSE DAYS OF YORE WHEN "STRATEGY [STRATEGIC PLANS] WAS EVERYTHING." WE SAID:
HARD IS SOFT.
SOFT IS HARD.
THE READILY-MANIPULABLE NUMBERS ARE THE TRUE "SOFT STUFF."
THE RELATIONSHIPS-LEADERSHIP-"CULTURE"-"ACTION BIAS" [OR NOT] ARE THE TRUE "HARD STUFF."
I'm hopeful that Stanford's new curriculum and its emphasis on experiential education and leadership development (soft stuff) is a step in the right direction.