By Dan Vermeer, Associate Professor of the Practice and Executive Director, EDGE
Last week marked the beginning of a new academic year at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business—and for a new class of MBA students, the beginning of a new adventure. Even at this early date, anxiety about career choices is at high pitch. Today’s MBA students are more globally minded and socially aware than ever before; they want to have careers that not only match their talent, skills, and ambition, but also provide an opportunity to have a positive impact on the world. And they can. This is a terrific time in history for students and young professionals with a passion for driving social and environmental innovation to find meaningful career opportunities. But to prepare for these opportunities, students should cultivate a distinctive mindset. As the Apple advertisement says, changing the world starts with thinking differently.
With that in mind, here’s my advice to today’s MBA students who are thinking about their career options and pathways.
1. Pay attention to global trends. Don’t be distracted by short-term political dynamics, but focus on the systemic evolution that is happening around the areas that you care about. One of my former teachers stopped following the 24-hour news cycle and only read historical accounts and novels. He noted that this oriented him to the long-term dynamics that can often be lost in the daily news cycle, and gave him unique insights to guide his company and career.
2. Think about the impact you want to have, but also think beyond impact. Many of us want to do good in the world, but we have to be creative in the ways we frame problems, and strategic about the ways we intervene. How do you get access to the levers that can drive the scale, and the speed, to take on the issues at the proportions they require? For example, I work a lot on climate change, which is a classic “wicked problem”—massive in scale, hard to bound, involving many stakeholders, unfolding over decades. To address this challenge, it’s not enough just to get short-term incremental efficiency gains; it requires a profound reconsideration how we use energy and natural resources.
3. Follow the money. One important signal for understanding emergent risk and opportunity is to discover where capital is flowing. I had a conversation this morning with one of our students who said, “I really care about sustainability, but I’m also really interested in investment banking, and that seems like a total contradiction.” Actually, understanding how capital flows in the world, and strategically inflecting those investment is one of the most important strategies for creating positive change. A sustainability-minded investor can hold those tensions together, and develop a unique point of view on where the world is going based on where capital is currently being invested, and where value might be destroyed or created. Of course, it is easy to lose sight of these lofty goals in the pressure to outperform the market—so it has to be integral to your investment thesis, guiding all your investments.
4. Pay attention to metrics. When we look at the field of corporate sustainability, what we’re seeing right now is a transition from companies doing it because “it seems like the right thing to do” to really being able to evaluate and measure impact. Are we getting the kind of outcomes that we want? How do we put numbers against that? I think getting smart about metrics as they currently exist, and how to build meaningful metrics to drive the right behaviors is something all of you should be involved in as you pursue this path.
5. There are different forms of career security. You might think about career security in terms of going into a hot industry, or pursuing a particular job that looks like it’s going to grow. I think there’s another kind of career security. Have a point of view on what you think the most important issues in the world are. Find the things that really motivate you—the things that you think are the systemic variables in the equation of what makes the world work over the course of your career. You may find a for-profit, nonprofit, or government role to work on those issues—and then that organization may change course, and that position disappears. But if your thesis is right—that these are truly fundamental factors that generate global outcomes, create value, and drive risk in the world—and you develop expertise in that area, then you will continue to have opportunities. You may shift jobs, industries, geographies, but your commitment and deep expertise on one or more of the world’s most important challenges will give your career coherence and focus.
The world needs you. We need the best and brightest minds working on solutions to global challenges like those described in the Sustainable Development Goals. The opportunities for business to contribute to these goals are tremendous. But where and how you intervene, where you find an opportunity to connect your unique skillset with a pressing need in the world—that decision is in your hands. Make the next two years count.