When Stanford MBA's graduate, many of them want to stay in Northern California, and a lot of them do. Who can blame them? The weather is great, the area is booming economically, and there is lots of technological innovation going on. Most importantly, there are numerous other Stanford graduates in the area--so they can hang out with people much like themselves. Other graduates go into consulting, returning to firms that sometimes will pay for their (expensive) tuition if they stay for two years. Once again, they will be among people like themselves, with degrees from major business schools who often have similar life experiences. Research shows that similarity is an important basis of interpersonal attraction. Moreover, successful graduates have often achieved that success by following the rules. So they continue to follow the rules and pursue well-trod paths.
Simply put, Stanford MBA graduates, like many people from all over the world, find themselves doing a) what is sort of expected of them and b) following the crowd--succumbing to the enormous social pressure to do what everyone else is doing. Often following the crowd is wise. But for career success, it almost always is not.
As I teach in my Paths to Power class, people do better if they go to a place where they are not surrounded by numerous competitors who are quite similar to them. Much as a company would do in plotting its strategy, they need to go to places where they are relatively unique and where they can, therefore, add value that others can't.
I have become sort of "famous" for this advice, so it wasn't completely surprising that I recently received an e-mail from Omid Scheybani who graduated less than one year ago. Even though Omid had not taken my class, he had read the book and, interestingly enough, followed the career advice I give to great success. He wrote:
"I decided to leave the Bay Area after six years and go to China. The prospect of competing with 260 classmates for small start-up roles in the Bay Area was depressing. 10 days after graduation I was sitting on a plane to China--one-way, two bags. No jobs, no friends, no network, no language, no housing. Simply the aspiration to find a company that is on the verge of going international and the belief that I could help them do that."
"I ended up getting a job at Ofo which has pioneered the concept of "dockless bike sharing" with 10 million plus bikes across China. They are about 3 years old and have raised $1.3 billion. As their only non-Chinese employee among a staff of 3,200, I am now building and running their global business development unit--an opportunity I would have never been able to find in the Bay Area."
This anecdote illustrates several important career planning principles: 1) go where there is less competition; 2) find a job where you can add unique value (note that as the only non-Chinese how Omid can help link this company to the rest of the world); 3) be willing to find your own path--and not follow the crowd or do what is expected; and 4) perhaps most importantly, just like finance teaches there is a trade-off between risk and return in the financial markets, there is a trade-off between risk and return in careers as well. Playing it safe may be--and certainly feels--comfortable. But if you really want to accelerate your career, implementing a higher-variance, riskier strategy is the way to go.
And in the end, maybe the risk isn't that great. If things don't work out, you can always do what you were going to do in the first place. Over the course of a 30- or 40-year career, taking prudent risks, particularly early, seems very sensible. And who knows, you might wind up leading an important function at huge, rapidly growing firm--much earlier than even you expect.