Essential for Change

Years ago I went through the MBA program at Columbia and loved the experience – two of the best years of my life. I learned so much about business in such a short period and when I wasn’t in class or studying with my cluster, I was rushing downtown to attend other B-school events – lectures, receptions, dinners. I draw on these treasured lessons almost every day and take advantage of the alumni network, but I also draw, perhaps even equally, on the two years I spent in the Peace Corp prior to B-School.

Comparing the two is a study in contrasts. While both experiences were life changing and formative, Peace Corp days were quiet and slow. No one was closely tracking my progress, no one was telling me how I should be spending my days. Although it had been obvious to me that I should set a goal and develop a plan for achieving, the mantra of our 3-month initial training contradicted this, “wait and all will be revealed.” This was far from the analytical training that would be the focus of my graduate studies two years later, yet it proved essential for change. There were three main points of the Peace Corp training that I think about almost daily.

  1. We shouldn’t be bringing pre-conceived agendas to our communities. Our goals and assumptions are often not as solid as we think and the more open we are to other solutions, the richer the outcome.
  2. Learn what the priorities are for the community. These are often not immediately obvious. This, of course, can be translated into “know your customer.”
  3. Become a trusted member of the community. Earn, through consistent engagement, the right to be considered part of the group, not an outsider imposing suggestions. This is how you gain loyalty and although you might be able to achieve similar results through intimidation and force, the results will undoubtedly be short lived.

These three points have help me many times over the years succeed in business, yet I am constantly surprised by the fact that many managers I interact with are not familiar with, or don’t value, these soft skills that are so important and critical for long term success.