Thursday, September 28, 2017

Characteristics of Students Most Likely to Succeed

For a variety of personal reasons I had taken a hiatus from my blog for several months. But during this period I've developed a variety of themes, talked to people and am ready to start again. But I wanted to start by reposting a version of a blog that I had posted a couple of years ago. I've made a few minor modifications but I still get thoughts about this one post so just wanted to revisit it before starting again with some of my newer posts. 

When I was the Director of MBA programs, an applicant for the Walton MBA program asked me if I could describe the characteristics of students who had been very successful after graduation. I couldn’t answer him very well. I hadn’t really thought about it that much –I had focused more on characteristics of students who succeeded during the program (including starting jobs) as opposed to success a few years out. The question was intriguing enough and because past students stay in touch with me and I have information about many of them, I went through my past class rosters and pulled out a list of about 20 students (MBAs and senior undergraduates) who have been extremely successful (I call them superstars). I then started thinking about them (and even pulled out a few of their class projects from years ago)…what were their key characteristics as students? Which of those characteristics were commonly shared by all of them? I went into this without significant preconceived notions and was surprised at how many traits were commonly shared by the superstars. So here is my personal list that I think predicts subsequent success. It’s obviously unscientific, and may include a variety of biases.
Passion on the ground: All superstars I reviewed were passionate. They were passionate about something of interest (not always business) – mergers and acquisitions, international experience, animal rights, women’s rights…a very wide range of topics. I use the term passion on the ground, because these superstars backed up their passion with demonstrated actions. They didn’t just say that they were passionate about something – in fact sometimes I discovered their passions long after I knew them well. But it was inside them and they acted on that passion. Jen, now a rising executive in a Fortune 100 company, felt strongly about women’s rights –when you spoke to her you could immediately discern the depth of her knowledge. She had clearly read about the topic, had explored its various facets, and had volunteered with nonprofits focused on women’s rights. Once you met her, you were unlikely to forget her – and if ever you needed information/some assistance with respect to women’s rights, she always came to mind. It’s not clear why this characteristic (being passionate) matters – perhaps people with passion tend to be remembered more? Perhaps they develop a certain depth that comes across during conversations? Perhaps people just respect individuals with passion. Regardless, it seems that those with passion about something in life, often showed passion at work – it was just who they were. And for whatever reason, it seemed to work wonders for them.

Positive Energy: One of the characteristics that I associated with the superstars was that of positivity. When they entered a room, you could feel an increase in the energy level of the room– their very presence increased confidence that things would get done and problems would get solved. This is a very intangible characteristic. What creates positivity in an individual? Hard for me to say…Not quitting at the first sign of a problem certainly seems to be one. Psychologists have studied a concept they call positive affectivity and hundreds of studies have looked at this attribute. Positive affectivity refers to an individual’s ability to hold positive emotions in most circumstances. When individuals look at every situation positively they are more likely to view those situations as opportunities, while others may see them as threats. And since being in a negative emotional state (anger, frustration, and sadness) is known to make us consider fewer alternatives and make poorer choices, individuals with positivity are likely to find superior solutions. When encountering a major setback, positive individuals are more likely to actively look for workarounds than to feel sorry for themselves. They exemplify the first half of Confucius’ time honored statement: He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right.

Control of their Learning: It seems to me that superstars took control and ownership over their learning during their program of study and even afterwards. These were students who were not checking boxes to get a degree. They wanted to actively use their time in college to develop themselves. They did not ask advisors what courses to take and then take an easy path. Rather, they sought suggestions from advisors, thought about their own passion and future, talked to multiple people and then chose courses and paths that worked for them. One of the superstars, let’s call her Julie, decided to learn Chinese but not through a university course which she deemed as not giving her enough depth, but as an exchange for teaching a Chinese student English…and they both diligently worked at it for two years.
When superstars encountered a bad class or professor, they found alternative ways to learn the material. Julie, the person described above, decided that she was not going to get the knowledge she desired in one of the courses she was attending. So, in the following semester, she convinced another professor to sign her and 3 other students for an independent study to cover aspects related to that material. That group of students then engaged in intense self-study, meeting with the faculty periodically, and even created a project for themselves. She is doing extraordinarily well and continues to seek opportunities to learn. Interestingly, it appears that many of the superstars continued to focus on learning after graduation – Almost all that I am in touch with, are constantly sending and seeking book recommendations – they never really stop being students. And they never let someone else disrupt their learning – be it a group member, their text book or a bad professor.
 Moving on after Adversity (aka Resilience): One thing that strikes me about superstars is their ability to handle adversity. I remember a situation where a student was working on a project with me. Due to a mix up I did not take care of some key paperwork before leaving the country on a trip. The student had every right to be mad at me – due to my negligence, he was unable to participate in some activities in the summer and also missed out on a major funding opportunity. The student would have been perfectly justified in being mad at me. Had he done so, I would not have held it against him. But instead, he was extraordinarily gracious. He wrote me a note about how he had enjoyed working with me, and he has kept in touch with me since then. He showed extraordinary class and graciousness, and without knowing it he made me feel obligated … whenever I have had to do something for him (putting in a word for a job application, writing a letter, or even forwarding a career opportunity), I have done it with utmost zealousness. And this is something that I have heard from multiple executives and faculty. When someone acts with class while dealing with adversity, people notice. And it’s not just about letting one incident drag you down for a long time or create excessive negative emotion. It involves moving on and not dwelling on the failure or adversity — many of the superstar students showed an incredible ability to bounce back from adverse situations.
Work Management: Superstars appear to have a very good sense of their work responsibilities, and this sense is matched with an equally strong work ethic. From the work ethic point of view, superstars displayed an extraordinary commitment to get the work done…no matter how many hours it took they found a way to get the job done. They hated to ask for extensions or make excuses. They balanced work and play but not on a daily basis…they would have an extraordinarily busy week and then compensate by taking a few days off (a couple of them though did have the more traditional work day). But what I especially noticed was their awareness of their work load. They were forever looking at lists and schedules (interestingly almost all of the superstars I focused on used the old fashioned paper and pen schedules but that is probably a coincidence). They were aware of the time commitments they would have to make in the next few weeks and strategized accordingly. If there was a need to compromise on the quality of one project in order to find the time to excel on two others, they made that call early. If there was a need to negotiate a deadline, they did that early too. I think this habit served them very well as they moved into their jobs. In essence they were dependable and you could count on them to deliver high quality work in a timely manner.

There were more characteristics (appreciation for others’ efforts would have been my sixth) – but I set myself a limit of no more than five so that I could focus on those that were shared by most of the superstars. And does this mean that students who don’t possess some of these characteristics cannot succeed? No, in fact I know of a couple of students without several of the above characteristics who did succeed. But if I was a recruiter and had a way of accurately assessing students on these characteristics, I’d hire the ones who met the above criteria, because they would represent individuals with a higher probability of success.