Early Saturday morning I woke up to a flurry of text messages from a young banker I had met at an MBA information session 2 years ago. We had talked briefly about his interest in completing an MBA, and the services offered by my firm, MBA Link. He decided not to engage our services at the time.
But on Saturday morning he explained that he had sent in a hastily written 3rd round application to a top 10 school and had received an interview invitation for this upcoming Thursday. He felt strongly that he needed help to prepare for the interview, as well as a supplemental essay he had to submit, and was insisting that I meet with him for 3 hours on Sunday to help him prepare.
This was an unusual request for a number of reasons. First of all, interview invitations for internationals applying in the third round are almost unheard of. Second, we typically work with our clients for many months to help them prepare for this moment, so the time pressure was very real. Last, it had long since passed that I managed client work myself, delegating that duty to a team of consultants that are, under most circumstances, significantly more qualified than myself. With such short notice however, there was no chance to assign this task to anyone but myself.
So it was with some hesitation that I agreed to clear my calendar on Sunday to serve this last minute client personally. My reason for saying yes was simple. We position ourselves as the resource for ambitious young talent applying to ultra-competitive schools. That means providing that service when it’s convenient, but also when it’s inconvenient. We view it as a sacred duty and we stand on our heads for our clients. So there was no saying no.
The young man that I met with that day was earnest and prepared. He shared with me each of the elements of his application that he had already submitted, and his ideas on how to manage the interview and final essay. Any feelings of reluctance to give up my weekend (I typically work 12 hour days during the week) soon evaporated when I could see how keen this young man was to receive my help, and it wasn’t long before he had lit my fire completely.
Even with our severely abridged timeline, it was essential I develop the deepest understanding of his history and goals. We spent almost 90 minutes going through every aspect of his life and career up to this point. He grew up in a simple town in India, with unremarkable parents and little going for him but a good brain and a willingness to work harder than people expected him to at every turn.
A chance encounter with a visiting professor led him to leave his local university to study finance at a prestige university in Europe. But even after graduating, he started his career in finance at the bottom, working grueling hours for little more pay than I had received as a public school teacher (my first job out of college). But he did everything he was supposed to do. He took on responsibility he didn’t have to, in excess of his own tasks, developed relationships with mentors and navigated his career path with courage and deftness. He had managed to double his salary almost every year of his career.
He had been living in Singapore for a few years at this point and was now in a highly coveted role on a trading desk, making several hundred thousand dollars a year. This was the point I asked the all important question; why did he want to get an MBA? His answer blew me away. Not because of it’s uniqueness per se, but actually because it was the right answer.
He explained that after all these years and all this success, he had never gotten satisfied and never closed his eyes. And what he saw at this stage of his career were a lot of people in positions like his getting eliminated during a restructuring, only to be replaced by younger, hungrier, cheaper talent – and finding themselves not only unemployed, but practically unemployable. In the humblest language and tone, he shared that he had noticed that the highest levels of management in his bank were all taken by people who had MBAs, and had a broader sense of what to offer than their own specific skillset. In a word, he wanted to learn how to be a business leader.
To fully understand my reaction to this, you need to realize that at this phase of my career with my own business, my interaction with the young professionals we serve is largely limited to sales. I hear people out, try to determine if we can help them, and explain what we can do for them if they’re interested in getting our help. The deep exploration of a client’s particulars isn’t something I’ve had access to personally for some time.
As a salesperson, I face a lot of rejection. There are lots of reasons people choose not to engage us:
- cost: young professionals who intend on spending hundreds of thousands on an MBA, inexplicably, cannot afford a few thousand on getting professional help
- ego: applicants feel the accomplishment of getting admitted to a top school would be diminished if they get some help. They want to see what will happen applying themselves, without thought to how deeply this decision might affect their future career path
- credibility: they know my background, but some part of them suspects I must be some kind of hack if this is the best I can do with my career. Why wasn’t I in banking, consulting or tech, making the big bucks as they soon will be?
I’ve faced some combination of the last three objections hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in the last few years. I wouldn’t say it bothers me all that much, business is growing at a good clip and I’m more than grateful for the clients I do have. But there is something special about talking to someone who came from nothing to achieve incredible levels of success who so completely understands what it is we do, and more importantly, why.
In this moment, I received an all important reminder. This is more than a business. The people we help are real. They come to us with their dreams in their hands and ask us to show them how to put the pieces together. There’s no amount of sales growth or efficiency improvements that can replace that. What we do helps people. What we do changes peoples lives.
I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.