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Cracking the elite code: being at ease in unfamiliar territory

When you started your first job out of university, did you suddenly feel you had been thrown into a completely unfamiliar environment, also commonly referred to as “the real world”? Did you feel intimidated by your bosses or find that your colleagues seemed less collegial than your university classmates? For me, the transition from the academic world to the “real world” – as much as a team room full of McKinsey consultants can be considered the real world!! – was definitely a shock. I felt completely out of place. People were different, habits were different, opinions were different – nothing was the way I felt familiar with. I had never really understood why this happened to me (and so many others I knew). I assumed I probably lacked “networking skills” or “communication skills” that one was supposed to need for happiness and success at work.

Then, I came across a fascinating  book written by sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan – Privilege: the making of an adolescent elite at St Paul’s School. The author is himself a former student and then teacher of the elite US boarding school. He describes the history, values and sociology at the school – the different types of students at the school, how they fit in and what challenges they face. I found so many parallels to my own experience in “elite jobs” in the business world that I could fill a book on it (and one day I might!), but there were three lessons that I found immediately applicable to my current career success and job satisfaction that I want to share immediately. I will summarise heavily for the book is written in detailed academic style – if you are used to reading social science research and academic papers you will breeze through it, but not everybody might, so I will highlight the key lessons.

Turns out, there are three characteristics that really set apart successful members of the “elite” from those who fail to fit in and thrive in their work place:

1. Being at ease: imagine two new employees, equally smart. Let’s assume the join a top consulting firm. Both are equally hard working, have excellent test scores and CVs. Now imagine one of them always knew she was meant to join this firm. Her father and other relatives who are mostly corporate executives have always advised her that this was the best career start she could make. She chose the right degree at the right business school to maximise her chances of landing the job. She knows many alumni already working at the firm. When she joins, she is among family, in the place she is meant to be. She is at ease. Now consider her peer. He comes from an educated family and has recently completed a PhD in political science. He is very smart and eloquent and has done impressive internships at well-known think tanks. His plan was to become a diplomat or join an international organization, but he slowly realises as graduation approaches that these organizations are far less interested in offering him a paid position than he expected. Careers in these places can be very slow and depend on personal networks and politics rather than merit. He has amassed debt of $100,000 over the course of his degree. He suddenly has the opportunity to earn a much higher salary than he would ever receive as an entry level political analyst, while gaining valuable consulting experience that will open many doors for him in international organizations later. When he joins, there aren’t many people of his background on his first team. He doesn’t share the same sort of values that most of the MBAs share. His parents and professors might be surprised if not disappointed by his choice.

Who do you think will be more successful in their first year? Who will be at ease? Who will be content? Though the answer is obvious, you need to go one step further and think about ways of using this information to your advantage. To be at ease, to join the elite, you need to feel at home in your job. You need to make yourself believe that you are where you are meant to be, that this is your home, your type of people, what you were meant to do. If you can think like this, your job will become so much easier. You need to be at ease with your decision to be in the job you are. Even if you are unhappy, don’t resent your choice. Remind yourself WHY you chose this job and why this was the right decision for you, in the given circumstances and under the constraints you operate under. It will help you immensely.

2. Embracing hierachy: when you join an investment bank as an analyst and do grunt level, mindless work correcting power point slides for pitches on deals that will never happen, there are two approaches you can take: resent the job and the work you are made to do, be annoyed that just because you are the analyst who gets the tasks nobody else wants to carry out (coffee, anyone?), complain about a hierarchical environment in which senior executives make sure juniors have a bad experience because that is what they went through in the past. As you can imagine, you might not stay in the job or become successful with this approach. The other approach is to focus on the long term and have confidence that this hierarchical ladder is a great and clear path for you to get to the top. All you need to do is fulfil the steps that have been laid out for you and be patient, and you will end up on top. It turns out those who expect to get to the top eventually embrace and trust hierarchies – this has a very positive impact on their motivation and performance

3. Gaining trust and respect of senior management: one skill that set elite students apart was dealing with teachers, and the same would apply to junior employees dealing with bosses. Those who succeed have the critical skill of building intimacy while maintaining hierarchical boundaries and showing respect. It is a very fine line and one many who have little experience dealing with people of power and authority struggle with – the author found that particularly minority students and those from poorer social backgrounds faced issues building relationships with teachers, which impacted their grades and recommendations for scholarships and elite colleges. If you lack this skill, you might either respect people of power so much that you do not dare to speak to them and thus fail to gain their acknowledgement. Or you might be painfully aware that you have to promote yourself and network with your bosses, but you might be awkward about it and thus come across as pushy or aggressive. It is a fine line to walk indeed, and as so few master it, I believe building intimacy while respecting boundaries is the key to success at work. One way I have found for achieving this is by seeking advice from seniors. This way, you communicate with them, appear eager and curious while also showing respect for their experience and knowledge, and you learn how senior management thinks in the process. I am sure there are other ways of going about it, but this is one I came up with and tried after reading the book, and I have found it to be very effective.

Think about how you could apply these approaches in your job. I have found it made a big difference to my job satisfaction and performance, and I challenge you to start experimenting like a sociologist at work and share what you find!

Did you read a headline today that women bankers are more prone to risk-taking than men, despite the myth that they are more risk-averse? Did you feel that some journalists even implied under-qualified women propelled onto bank boards should take part of the blame for the financial crisis? I can’t blame you, because this is how the press reported a Bundesbank discussion paper on “Executive board composition and bank risk taking”.

I read this story in the Guardian, the Financial Times and in Here is the City. I was surprised that the wording of their articles was almost identical, as I thought their journalists are supposed to be paid for independent research and editing, not just for copy pasting press releases. Being a “woman banker” myself, I was of course skeptical of this reported “study” and decided to have a look at the actual discussion paper, authored by – surprise surprise – three male researchers who investigated how board room composition in terms of gender, age, experience and educational background was linked to risk-taking.

Let’s look at what the press reported and what the so-called “study” actually found. My favourite is the Guardian article by Philipp Inman. The headline reads: “Women executives in banks prone to more risk taking, says study. Study for the German central bank claims the presence of women in senior roles was a contributing factor to the crisis.” Wow, that’s serious stuff! But what is the first sentence of the actual article?

“Women at the top of the banking industry spur their male colleagues to take bigger risks, according to a study that undermines the widely held view of the calming influence female staff have on testosterone driven company boards.”

That is not really what the headline said, is it? So women should not be on boards, because their presence alters the male board members’ behaviour negatively? The solution, of course, is to remove women from boards.

Interestingly, I found no such strong words in the actual study, which is somewhat more vague and reasonable. Here is what Philipp Inman could have found in the actual study, if he had bothered to read it, instead of copy pasting  a press release:

“However, in the three years following the increase in female board representation, risk taking increases although the change is economically marginal. Our exploration of the underlying mechanism suggests that this result is mainly attributable to the fact that female executives have less experience than their male counterparts.”

First of all, the paper says that the changes in risk taking are ECONOMICALLY MARGINAL. But that seems to be enough for a Financial Times headline to report that women bankers have caused the financial crisis! Not only that, but they go on to note that this may be attributable to a lack of experience – but check the wording! Interestingly, the authors do not say that the female executives IN THEIR DATA SET happened to have less experience, but claim that female executives as a rule have less experience than their male counterparts, which is curious!

If you read the “study” further, you find that risk taking decreases with more PhDs and more years of experience represented. As the women in the data set happened to be younger on average and to hold less PhDs, the authors clearly could have separated out these factors to see if women board members lead to more risk taking all else equal, but either they didn’t, which calls the validity of their analysis into question, or they did (which is hinted at in their reference to “female executives having less experience”) but decided not to go into it as it would call into question the whole point of the discussion paper – to argue against women bankers on executive boards.

Given the rather modest claims of the Bundesbank discussion paper, I do wonder how this story made such sensational headlines across the financial press this morning. Who placed it there? It is another case in point for why we need bloggers and independent journalists,  because many established journalists we do have do not seem to be taking their duties seriously anymore!

Why do women score lower on the GMAT?

I’ve been curious to find out why women score lower on average than men on the Graduate Management Admissions Test – GMAT – when they apply for business school. Girls tend to achieve higher grades than boys in high school and college by now, and they make up an increasing proportion of college graduates. Women who graduate from Business School have, on average, GPA’s equivalent to those of men. How come then, that they don’t score at least as high as men on the GMAT? I decided to dig a little deeper, and have uncovered a few interesting statistics in the “Profile of GMAT Candidates“.

The facts…

In 2010 – 2011, women scored 24 points lower on the GMAT than men (530 vs 554).  This underperformance can be observed no matter how you look at the data – by region, by undergraduate degree, by business school programme – in as good as all groups, women reach a considerably lower score on the test.

There are however, two groups of women who reach or even outperform their male peers, and this is where it gets interesting: among test takers younger than 20, female test takers score 607 on average vs 586 for their male counterparts, outperforming them by 21 points! For those aged 20-21, the score is almost the same (568 vs. 571). With rising age, the gap between male and female test takers widens.

There is a second group of women who score just as high as their male peers: those from East and Southeast Asia. In every other ethnic group, men outperform women in the GMAT, but not among East Asian candidates, where both groups score 578 on average.

Could it be that we have the ambition gap at work again? I assume those candidates who take the GMAT in their teens are the most ambitious, driven candidates, and among those,  women even outperform men. Equally, those from a culture that values high achievement and high test scores do equally well in competition against their male counterparts.

For most other women, it looks like they might not set their bar very high when it comes to the GMAT. While male candidates aim for the perfect score or a 700+ score to reach a very high ranking, it appears that many female test takers do not aim as high, as long as they can gain admission to a good business school. Maybe men are more likely to set themselves an aspirational goal of scoring 800, while a female candidate might be more than happy with a 710 score.

I can only speculate that is is down to ambition – perhaps combined with lower self-confidence when it comes to the quantitative part of the test. But it is hard to accept that women could not do just as well as men on the test. Let’s hope the achievement gap narrows over the next years!

What do you think? Why do female candidates score lower on average on the GMAT? Is it ambition? Lack of self-confidence? Preparation? Let me know!


Step 1: get a seat at the table. Step 2: play to win!

I am reading a fantastic book at the moment called PokerWoman: How to Win at Love, Life, and Business using the Principles of Poker by author and entrepreneur Ellen Leikind, and I want to share some lessons from it with you today. The book is about how to apply poker strategies to your personal life and career to achieve success. The book starts out from the observation that not many women take a seat at the poker table, just as not many enter highly paid, male dominated professions.

In a sense, long before the glass ceiling enters to limit opportunities, many women are limiting their career opportunities by their choice of degrees, entry level jobs, and hobbies. They shy away from activities dominated by men because they don’t feel at home or are afraid they will be the odd one out. By choosing not to take a seat at the table, they miss out on valuable opportunities to learn and advance. I have observed this in my job many times. First of all, only about 20-30% of applicants to investment banking jobs are female. When they get hired, they tend to be less aggressive to go for the well-paid trading jobs, as these are currently predominated by men. I know that on the trading desk, it’s not that women don’t get hired or don’t advance. It’s usually that they don’t even try to get hired. When we try to recruit traders from the graduate class, at most 1 out of 10 candidates who want to work for our desk are women, even if we explicitly encourage them to talk to us. When we do offer them to try out our desk, they often opt for a sales desk instead at the last minute out of fear they won’t succeed.

Many female young professionals like to play it safe and lack the overconfidence that tends to help male candidates take a shot at very competitive roles and positions. And lesson number one from the book Pokerwoman is: be in the game. If you’re not in the game, you can’t win!

It made me think about a lot of situations where women shut themselves out of the game. They don’t learn computer languages or product design, they are less likely to invest in the stock market, they are more likely to leave the workforce or reduce working hours after having children, and these are all ways of shutting yourself out of the game. Though these decisions can make a lot of sense on an individual level, the overall effect is unfortunately that we continue to be under represented in political and economic decision making, as apparent in the World Economic Forum at Davos (I highly recommend this Bloomberg article on Sheryl Sandberg and diversity at Davos).

It’s a great read so far and I am expecting to learn much more as I continue reading this thought provoking book. To sum up the lesson today, step one is to get a seat at the table! Step two is to play to win! Have a good week everyone!

By the way, for those of you who want to earn a seat at the table, make sure you apply to McKinsey’s Next Generation Leadership Workshop!

Next Generation Women Leaders workshop with McKinsey

I have just come across this fantastic opportunity for European students and young professionals: McKinsey’s Next Generation Women Leaders Workshop, held from March 22 – 24th 2012 in Paris! In this workshop, participants will learn about how women leaders are shaping the economy, meet inspiring leaders and understand how to leverage their unique leadership style.

You are welcome to apply if you are a female student (BA, Master’s, MBA, PhD) of any background or experienced early professional across Europe with less than three years of work experience.

Who will be the lucky 100 to be invited to Paris? Wish you all good luck!! Seize the opportunities as they arise!