Saturday, May 01, 2004

Lunch Continued 
Before continuing on the conversation from yesterday, I would first like to clarify some of my comments. To use the example of Shell, for example, you had Philip Watts who was the prime instigator of behavior that began as simply aggressive booking of reserves but over time became illegal because of the inability to go back once the process began. Directly under him you have Walter van de Vijver, who inherited the mess when Watts was promoted to CEO. In order to succeed in his job Van de Vijver was put in the position of continuing the charade that Watts began. This doesn't mean that Van de Vijver is a bad apple that must be removed, he has been led into unethical behavior by Watts. So, you remove Watts and install someone with some ethical fortitude and you would probably find that Van de Vijver, and those under him, will quickly toe the new line, most likely with enthusiasm.

This line of reasoning seems tinged with sympathy for corporate executives, and it is proper to question the impartiality of my source, as well as myself, in thinking this way. I maintain, though, that 99% of those at Enron, Shell, Arthur Anderson, MCI/Worldcom, etc. were merely trying to do well at their jobs. That may have required doing some unsavory things, yes. But I imagine if any of us were in that same position we would probably end up rationalizing our actions and going down the same road. We are, after all, only human.

Anyway, at the end of our lunch I asked the HBS alumnus to tell me a little bit about his career progression from HBS graduation to his present position. He worked in mostly small to medium-sized companies for much of his post-HBS career. He spent the first two years out of school with a firm that eventually went bankrupt. Right around the time the company was falling apart he was called by a man who interviewed him at HBS and offered him a position. He had turned it down, and the interviewer told him he would try again in two years. Two years later, to the day, the interviewer called him back. Anyway, at one point he got involved in a small private firm and helped it grow enough to go public, which is where he first became wealthy. From there he got involved is a medium sized firm that went through a series of mergers. The mergers meant that he wound up doing very well in what became a Fortune 500 firm.

The takeaway I got from the career conversation was that there is probably a lot more value in going to work for a Fortune 1000 firm straight out of school rather than a Fortune 20 firm, like my present employer. In a smaller company there is much more visibility, movement, and responsibility, and you maintain the opportunity to be picked up by a large company because of the experience you have gained that you probably couldn't get, at a similar age, in a large company. He also advised me to stay in a technical field, since I could leverage my engineering degree to my advantage. Indeed, a mechanical engineering degree is likely a lot more useful when trying to become a CEO than it is when trying to become a top dog in money management. Hmmm, food for thought...

Anyway, that pretty much covers lunch. I know this is pretty long, so let me know if you have any questions or if I did a poor job explaining something...

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