Career Planning and Leadership: Interview with Dr. Alexandra Michel

“I think that leadership is something that we project onto the world because it gives us the ability to predict something… whether the top person has any effect at all is still debatable. For comparison, if the conductor were to fall off the stage, the orchestra would continue playing.” – Alexandra Michel

Dr. Alexandra Michel, previously an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, has done extensive ethnographic research on investment banking. Her work has been featured in a multitude of media outlets, including Fox News, NPR, the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. She is now a professor at the Penn Graduate School of Education and advises executives and doctoral students, training them to take on leadership roles. Her clients include senior executives and organizations across such industries as banking, consulting, technology, business services, manufacturing, entertainment, healthcare, and education. The Penn Innovators in Business Network asked Dr. Michel to share some of the advice she has for undergraduates today, especially those looking to go into investment banking and consulting.

What advice would you give undergrads as they seek their future paths?

“What makes you attractive for a broad range of organizations is to have high grades and to do something that somehow stands out because organizations in the past have hired on subject matter expertise, but now they tend to hire on intellect and attitude. People select you based on how mature and interesting you are, so if you are doing something else with your time, then that would certainly make you stand out [for elite career paths].… But stepping back, you might want to explore other options for careers. It is very interesting to be in banking and consulting, but recognize that it is going to suck you into this herd mentality, so try to step back from it and consciously counteract it and see whether there are other options for you because other people like you get sucked into it and at some point believe that there is nothing else in this world.”

Is there anything specific you would tell students looking to work on Wall Street?

“When I was at Goldman and when I helped with recruiting for my current clients, we had stacks of resumes on our desk. We weeded them out within minutes based on GPA. And if you have a spelling error, you’re out because detail orientation really matters. If there is a problem with one of your numbers in your presentation, people will ask what else is wrong and one error can be very costly for an organization. Then, once you’ve narrowed it down somewhat, people are looking for someone who stands out in a way; they look at you from the perspective of what a client will say about this individual, and if you’re doing something else with excellence, it just makes you interesting.”

What are the main pillars of leadership?

“I personally don’t believe in leadership. I think that leadership is something that we project onto the world because it gives us the ability to predict something. There’s this psychological experiment where there’s a school of fish swimming and there’s a fish swimming in the front, and when you ask people, what is that fish in the front doing? Most people will say that that fish is leading… clearly it’s an ambiguous stimulus. You could also say that that fish is being chased by the group of fish. In the same way, organizations are ambiguous stimuli. There’s so much going on in organizations that whether the top person has any effect at all is still debatable. For comparison, if the conductor were to fall off the stage, the orchestra would continue playing. In fact, that is not just my personal bias, there are literatures that have emerged called the romance of leadership, explaining how given we cannot explain organizations, but we want to in order to feel in control; that’s why we are postulating that there is this one cause that influences everything. But in fact, there are substitutes for leadership. Substitutes for leadership mean that organizations have found a way to guide people’s actions. So hiring people who are either intrinsically motivated and who have subject matter expertise or through other processes. In other words, you can structure organizations such that leadership is simply unnecessary.”

Is there anything you would say to women looking to go into leadership positions?

“Investment banking and law firms have the hardest time attracting women into leadership positions. At entry classes as associates and analysts, it’s 50–50, but women drop out earlier. There are these ridiculous explanations that it’s just because women are more attracted to their kids and then have things to do with their lives other than working. The one thing I would tell you is to recognize that that isn’t the case. A recent article shows that a consulting firm had issues with retaining women, and their explanation was that somehow women have more difficulty mustering the intensity of the job, so they require specialized accommodations. But once researchers were in the organization, it turns out that men were just as stressed out, especially fathers. Managers, even when they were women managers, had these suspicions because of cultural stereotypes that women must be just about to build a family or they must have that special relationship to children. All of these are stereotypes. There are just as many women who could work as intensely as men can, but unfortunately organizations do not always recognize that. So my advice to women is just to know that that is a stereotype and maybe look for organizations where more women are in leadership positions. That seems to be the one predictor for making something like that possible for yourself.”

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