Originally published in Psychology Today – November 29, 2023.
I just spent three weeks with Harvard and Stanford MBAs.
- Today’s vintage of tier-one MBAs and Ph.Ds. dream of impact and autonomy.
- When it comes to their careers, financial profit matters less and happiness matters more.
- In the search for meaning, MBAs are solving for the why, who, and where—rather than pursuing the how much.
This month, I had more than 400 one-on-one, career-oriented conversations with current and recent Stanford and Harvard MBAs and Ph.D.s. I hosted a roundtable discussion with a dozen Stanford MBAs in Palo Alto, held two on-campus recruiting events at Harvard with hundreds of students, lectured in Professor Whillans’ class, and returned to campus this week to teach three classes on hiring to 250 MBAs in Professor Bussgang’s Leading Tech Ventures track.
This is what surprised me the most:
- Generosity Over Greed. Some 28 years ago, newly minted MBAs were acutely focused on pursuing lucrative careers in investment banking, private equity, or consulting. Over the past few weeks, I was struck by how many students prioritize making an impact over making money. Many of today’s best and brightest graduates are working for top foundations, education technology companies, and sustainability-oriented organizations. In fact, a recent Deloitte survey showed that over the past two years, nearly 50 percent of millennials and Gen Zs made choices about the type of work they would do—and the organizations they would be willing to work for—based on their personal values (Forbes, 2021). This sentiment permeated my conversations. One Harvard econ Ph.D., for example, told me he is happy to be working for a top private equity firm right now, but his dream job is to work in government service in the finance ministry of his home country, Nigeria. Business schools, themselves, are even reimagining what they’re teaching to equip tomorrow’s CEOs for purpose, not just profit.
- Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast. No, I didn’t coin that term, nor is it new. The Father of Management, Peter Drucker, began sounding the alarm bell that culture—who you hire and how people treat each other—matters way more than having a great strategy. Some 30 years ago, MBAs didn’t seem to follow that advice. Today, things are different. Deloitte research revealed that nearly 40 percent of Gen Zs and millennials have turned down employers whose values do not align with their own (Deloitte, 2021). In fact, 80 percent of the conversations I had with MBAs were focused on talent and culture, while only 20 percent were focused on product and strategy. One student shared, “I know my happiness at work will be more about who is there at the employer and much less about what products or services they sell.”
- The Ultimate Status Symbol Today Is (Drum Roll Please) Freedom. Freedom to choose how you spend your time is today’s ultimate benefit. According to World Economic Forum research, 73 percent of Gen Z employees want permanent flexible work alternatives (Kumar, 2023). While autonomy is the fundamental thing top MBAs want, it’s not clear to them where to find it. There was talk of portfolio careers (that is, balancing several professional platforms versus exclusively joining one employer), taking on side hustles, and working from anywhere. By the way, no student expressed an interest in being forced to transport their bodies to an office, just to be watched while they work – and be made to feel guilty about exercising, volunteering, caring for an elderly parent, taking a child to a gymnastics lesson, or attending a worship ceremony. The best and brightest Gen Z MBA students are perfectly willing to work hard and be held accountable for results. But they will do so while in control of their own lives, calendars, and human needs. In fact, millennials rate work-life balance and well-being nearly as high as their desire for an increase in pay or benefits (Gallup, 2022). Big traditional employers who want to hire top MBAs, and who assume they can force these superstars to work under office supervision, are in for a rude awakening.
The bottom line: I was impressed with this vintage of tier-one business school students. I have confidence they will lead us well in business, government, and non-profits, and they will not only make a positive impact but also fill their lives with more meaning, enjoyment, and happiness than generations past.
Deloitte. (2021). For Millennials and Gen Zs, Social Issues Are Top of Mind – Here’s How Organizations Can Drive Meaningful Change. Forbes.
Kumar, V.S. (2023). Gen Z In The Workplace: How Should Companies Adapt? Johns Hopkins University.
Parmelee, M. (2023). Making waves: How Gen Zs and millennials are prioritizing—and driving—change in the workplace. Deloitte Insights.
Pandell, R. & Helm, S.V. (2022). Generation Disconnected: Data on Gen Z in the Workplace. Gallup.
About ghSMART and Dr. Geoff Smart
ghSMART is a global leadership advisory and analytics firm. It exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world. ghSMART’s Glassdoor ranking is #1 in the Consulting industry. Geoff Smart is chairman and founder of ghSMART and is the New York Times bestselling author of Who and Power Score