I saw an article on poets and quants (I’ll cover my take on “poets” and “quants” later) about black and white pictures and essays from Harvard Business School students.  It was really good, and it made me want to write.  The truth is that if I’d never gone into business, I would have been a writer, which obviously puts me in the “poet” category. Writing is a beloved art.  Something there is about the permanence of written thought that makes life better and wholesome.  It’s an ongoing comfort, a refuge of stillness and reflection.

Businesses and especially business schools live in a world where being smarter than everyone else is valued highly.  Unfortunately, quantifying who’s smartest is not well done.  It starts with the GMAT which is a test that goes up to 800 points (I got a 640 for what it’s worth, an average score in the world of big biz schools) which schools often use as the primary indicator if someone is smart enough to be part of their program.  The problem with the GMAT is it’s a problem solving test and some people are great at these types of things and some aren’t.  It doesn’t cover off on many other types of competencies that are relevant to businesses.  If you get an 800, and there are a handful of people that do every year, does that mean you’ll be next gift to business?  Frankly, no.  It doesn’t mean you’ll be poor either.  It’s a table stake for entering business schools of a certain repute.

After this everything gets pretty fuzzy by quantification.  Most everything is qualitative in nature.   You get into programs by interviewing, which is naturally a qualitative situation.  Many might argue that GPA is quantitative, but that’s again very nebulous.  Business schools grade on a curve where the worst you can really do is a B-.  They want everyone to have high GPAs as the school doesn’t look good with people getting lower grades.  The counterpoint here is that this curve is a forced stack of all people within the program and as such is quantifiable.  That’s mostly true, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that most grades are project based and that individuals are subject to some things out of their control.  Additionally, very few employers hire based on GPA (exceptions include consultants and investment banks) and so in reality GPA doesn’t matter all that much.  Some students really focus on it and others don’t, it certainly wasn’t my focus.

So with business schools, the real criteria is which school you go to.  As in traditional businesses, the brand of the school has become very important.  There are some very big names, and then there are a lesser rung, then outskirts and more generic, recently started institutions.  Any school worth their salt is accredited.  I’ve always been in the camp that the school doesn’t make the student, that the student makes the student, and later on professional.  I’ve met and worked with people from some of the largest brands in the world, and I can say wholeheartedly that there are very few true superstars.  Instead there is a spectrum of value in the student bodies and many of them are particularly suited toward certain types of work.  Nothing wrong with that.

Yet there is this focus on being smartest, which in my views is not truly quantified, nor should it be.  Ultimately if you had to capture everyone’s intelligence and prove it out in a number based on some ranking system, it would be flawed.  Greatly.  Someone out there can calculate faster in their head, write a better algorithm, describe a product, plan a meeting, set a strategic vision, represent a company, garner attention or write a memo better than others.  But that one ability does not make them smarter, nor does it make the legions of lesser abled individuals less valuable to an organization.  Yet within competition comes the eagerness to grab onto something simple enough for human understanding, hence force ranking.  All skill sets add value and at a certain level such as within major MBA programs, everyone has skill sets of value, some more than others, but very few so far outside the standard deviations from the mean that they warrant attention.

In layman’s terms, no one is all that much better than the next person in terms of intelligence.  Rather, the people with the ability to be malleable and apply skill sets to multiple situations can excel.  There are situations where people with extreme aptitude in certain areas can excel in that exact type of role, but those scenarios are less likely simply by the nature of those roles and those people being smaller in number.

Ultimately, the breeding grounds for where most workers in the business world come from is one where “being the best” is highly valued and poorly quantified.  The result is that many students from many institutions assume they are “the best” but don’t have a true understanding of what that means or why they’re compelled to say it.  Being the best is certainly something to shoot for, but it’s not something everyone can be, nor it is an objective measure for most students.  What they (we!) should be focused on is the ability to accomplish real business outcomes for customers, the company and, yes, shareholders.

EDIT:  After reading this, I feel I missed a few things.  The most important is that not all people in business school care for “being the best” but that it’s an overtone of the institutions.  Some individuals wholeheartedly embrace it and others can do without it.  But it is there, and it continues on in the roles they take after school.  I believe this is a really large difference between biz school grads and others of different disciplines, the competition is a huge driver.  So much in fact that it can be a wedge for silos.

In terms of intelligence, there are technically smarter people than other people based on historically tested aptitudes, but the margin for differential is meaningless based on my experience.  The value of people who want to work in teams and promote that team regardless of individual ability can add a great deal to an organization; while the destructive force of those out to prove themselves better than their peers can be monumentally destructive.  There is an interesting go between here though, the tyrant that is maniacal about the end service or product the customer uses.  They seem few and far between.