Last week I stumbled upon an article by the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group telling twentysomethings how to “accelerate” their careers. Rich Lesser has based his advice on his own splendid, if safe, one — a few years at Procter& Gamble followed by an MBA from Harvard and then 28 years at BCG. Along the way he has spoken to thousands of young people and felt moved to tell them where they were going wrong — and how they could become more like him.
The piece was on LinkedIn months ago but BCG is so taken by Mr. Lesser’s insights that it is still trumpeting them on social media. However, when I read the article through to its conclusion — “with self-reflection, focus, and a commitment to investing in yourself and making a difference, you can find the place that is right for you” — boredom gave way to alarm. This was very bad advice indeed and I needed to protect twentysomethings from trying to follow it.
His first tip is to choose “something you find truly energizing and satisfying”. This sounds OK, but there are three things wrong with it. It is vapid — no one would recommend a job that was enervating and frustrating. Second, it is unhelpful, as when you are in your twenties it is hard to know if you are going to find a job satisfying until you have tried it. Third, it sets expectations far too high. Even the best jobs are only intermittently energizing or satisfying. For a lot of the time they are boring or frustrating or both. The gap between expectation and reality is the biggest problem for millennials, and Mr. Lesser ought not to widen it.
Next he suggests going for an employer where you will learn things. “Your twenties are a unique period to build a set of capabilities that will last a lifetime.” No, they are not. No set of capabilities, as he puts it, lasts more than a decade or two apart, possibly, from the ability to form a sentence, add up and get on with people. Skills and experience get out of date.
His next criterion — can I make a difference? — is more problematic still. Not only is this the wrong thing for 20-year-olds to ask, as no one makes a difference when starting out, it is wrong for people of any age. I am not sure why we have become so hooked on difference-making. Surely it all depends what the difference is. The palliative care nurse at the Whittington hospital who nursed my father in the last days of his life made a difference I will never forget. Equally Sir Philip Green made a difference that the pensioners at BHS won’t forget in a hurry either.
For most wage slaves it is hard to say what difference we make, but that does not render our jobs pointless. Do management consultants make a difference? Do I? It all depends on your starting point. I imagine today I will make a minor difference to Mr. Lesser — though perhaps not a positive one.
His final question is the worst of all: can I find balance? The answer to this is no, as there is no such thing as balance. Instead all workers have a choice: working all the time, or not working all the time. It would be better if the CEO of one of the grandest management consultancies in the world told 20-year-olds that he ran a sweat shop for the elite and that working there would mean having to cancel all dates, all birthday parties and all fun outings at a moment’s notice.
Like Mr. Lesser, I have had a safe, unimaginative sort of career involving just two employers: JPMorgan and the Financial Times. But since my day, and since Mr. Lesser’s, two big things have changed. For us, the corporate life was more or less compulsory if you were interested in business; now it is optional as there are start-ups instead. Some people are suited to life in big corporations, others less so. It is hard to know until you try it, so my advice is to take a corporate job early on to find out how much you (dis)like it.
The second change is that working life is now so long, there is no hurry to get it right first time — which leads to my second point. If you take a few bad turns, it does not matter.
In deciding to go for P&G and then BCG Mr. Lesser drew up spreadsheets — only in the end to go with his heart. I did no such thing. I went for JPMorgan and later for the FT because they were the only companies offering me a job. It seemed a great reason to pick them then. It is still a great reason today.