When you think of a career competitive advantage, you generally think of a skill you have, how you organize your life and even the school you attended. I received many emails on the previous post about competitive advantage being less important than comparative advantage in your career.
In this piece I am focusing on how you fund your studies as a major point of building a career competitive advantage. While I refer to my undergraduate studies, this line of thinking applies to masters, doctoral and MBA candidates.
How you fund your studies can be the largest career competitive advantage you can generate, which sets up this enormously strong foundation to help you in the future. So when you are thinking about funding your studies, realize that grants, school scholarships etc., are not always the best options.
A lot of students, I would say the majority, worry most about getting so-called full-ride scholarships from their schools. They ignore corporate funding which can be a far bigger competitive advantage to have.
Note, this piece is not about whether or not you get funding, it is about the type of funding you need to create this career competitive advantage.
I went to a pretty average high school that was 11 kilometers away from one of the most prestigious and elite private schools in the country. They had a lush hockey arena. We had a football field serving as a cricket field, baseball field, athletic field, meeting arena and general catch-all.
Just to be clear, the field was literally a piece of land with four corners that were so bare it looked like a dust bowl. When I visited the school 5 years ago it had actually become worse, if that was even possible.
Despite my seemingly hopeless school, at least we had a library. When I was 12 I read the entire encyclopedia. My general knowledge was so high that school friends would collect money to send me to competitions and share the spoils.
Sadly, the spoils weren’t that large for 1st place high school competitions fielding low-income students, so that promising business endeavor soon fizzled.
Throughout high school I was an outstanding physics student, good at math, very good at speaking and had a ridiculously high general knowledge. I was an outstanding debate student, which meant I regularly took the school board to task for all manner of issues, and won.
As student council president I led the school on several walkouts. My high school principle decided to channel my energies by making me captain of the debate, physics, history teams etc. We won every single competition that year.
Fixing a problem
The fact that I led the debate team to success would surprise many since I stuttered like Captain Jack Sparrow’s drunk parrot. My stuttering was so bad that students would laugh in class. It did not bother me much. These guys would laugh at anything so they were hardly a group whose opinion would force me to pause and reconsider my status in life. I reasoned that things were so bad it could only get better.
In the process of fixing the stuttering problem, I identified three patterns.
First, if I started sentences with certain words, the stuttering stopped. Certain words, for me anyway, killed the stuttering. I have since realized this is a common technique to fix stuttering.
Second, I noticed that if I used my hands when I spoke, I would end up watching my hands and this somehow helped me. It was also incredibly distracting for my peers, which helped in debates. High school students rarely speak with their hands.
Third, I realized that opponents would underestimate me due to the stuttering. And since they underestimated me, I could pounce on their mistakes. So the stuttering gave me an advantage.
The first and second patterns helped me overcome the problem by the end of high school.
However, in some situations, intellect and hard work can only get you so far if you have no cash on hand. Education is ultimately a business and the best schools are for-profit enterprises.
Building a career competitive advantage
The only way to get out of my situation was through a scholarship. There was no other way since my family had zero funds to pay for my studies. I was smart enough to realize that even if I went to a good university, I needed a truckload of money to compete with the best students.
That is the point of this piece: where you study matters less than your ability to effectively compete where you study.
I could not pursue just a partial scholarship or the very common full-tuition scholarships. There were plenty of those, but I still needed to eat, and I had no money. I reasoned there was no point attending a great school and having to attend classes like a zombie, due to an insufficient diet.
If that happened, I might not have gone at all since I was merely setting myself up for failure. I needed a very special kind of scholarship. I needed a scholarship that generously paid for clothing, accommodation, expenses, tuition, travel, internships and books – basically everything. There are probably only a handful of scholarships in the world that are so comprehensive.
But they exist.
The trick is to distinguish between what I call status and guilt scholarships. I was, thankfully, clever enough to realize this when I was in high school. It is a distinction many students fail to make at their peril.
If you are pursuing a master’s degree, about to do an MBA or even doctoral studies, this logic still applies. MBA students in particular tend to rely far too much in my opinion on school funding.
Status scholarships have great appeal, are dazzling on your resume, impress everyone and are highly sought after. They are scholarships so heavily in demand that they do not need to pay much; they have what is known as a premium-discount.
If we applied this analogy to consulting, McKinsey has a premium-discount. The name is so powerful, that McKinsey will pay less than peers and competitors, and still attract the best. Status scholarships are like that. They offer less money now, since they assume it has value in the long-term.
The Rhodes scholarship is a status scholarship. It is highly prestigious.
Recipients of premium scholarships are “oohed” and “aahed” when they mention it, but they are probably on some kind of food stamps throughout their studies.
Guilt scholarships are offered by, to put it crudely, guilt-ridden multinationals. When some of these giant corporations operate in emerging markets, they may have to make deals with oppressive regimes or displace large parts of the population to build mines, ports, power plants, etc.
Sometimes they run dubious clinical trials on the population or sell dodgy formula to babies. The list of alleged evils is quite long. It is hard to say whether any of the allegations are true or even if the alternative is any better.
These companies end up trying to negate the negative publicity by offering these incredibly generous scholarships. If you dig deep enough in their annual reports or websites, you will find these details. Guilt scholarships are largely unknown but open powerful doors since it is in the interests of the multinational to see you succeed, and they move mountains to accomplish this goal.
What these sponsoring companies do to help the recipient is going to be a topic for another piece since it is worth examining further.
A third option is to simply pursue a bursary or bursary scholarship, which are very common in some countries. It gets the job done but is far less impressive, less competitive and less financially generous. There is also some indentured servitude required, which I was loath to pursue.
Here was the brief window of opportunity opening up just for me. I was the ideal candidate. Like a skilled trader, I had found a fleeting moment in time when my commoditized heritage could actually be unwound into something valuable. Like any good trader I had to unwind my position soon lest the markets change.
Knowing the scholarship existed was one thing, while winning it was an entirely different issue. I had no idea where to start and had very little advice.
I developed a strategy after a lengthy process of detective work and requesting copies of the annual reports of the world’s largest alleged environmental offenders, given this was the pre-internet and email era. To pursue one of these guilt scholarships I reasoned that I needed to apply to very good schools.
Great scholarships do not fund studies to mediocre schools. So I applied to a top school, which made it harder to get admitted, and for one of the guilt-scholarships.
That is one of the many cruel ironies of the education system. The students who most need great scholarships are very rarely able to qualify for, let alone even consider, a good university. Yet, those very same scholarships will only consider you if you apply to a good school and get in.
If you do not get in, you lose the scholarship. But I knew this was my all-in moment.
Mentoring for students in high school is crucial. I can personally assure you that just about everyone thought I was crazy to even consider spending all that scholarship money on getting an education. I could have bought a good house given the full value of the scholarship.
Changing the rules of the game
There were several rounds of interviews for the scholarship. I arrived at the gleaming head-office of the Fortune 500 behemoth and had to spend the entire day going through a round of interviews with psychologists, business unit leaders and finally members of the board of directors.
My skill has always been to connect with people, especially older people. I believe this is the moment when I built this skill.
Only two of the finalists received the scholarship and I was one of them.
I know why I received the scholarship. Although my grades were great, the scholarship committee was looking for someone who made them look good. I was good at reading the needs of the committee and reflecting it back. They did not want a smart and poor kid who wanted to be an engineer.
There were a million such kids out there applying with these limited ambitions, just grateful to get a chance, any chance really. That is not enough to win these kinds of scholarships
You have to give the committee a chance at redemption. They want to see they are helping someone who wants to be above average and who will get there. Someone they could hold up as an example. They have to feel special about whom they select. They basically wanted a trophy scholar.
When I sat down with them, I did not follow all 1,000 applicants and claim to seek a future in chemical engineering. I specifically carved out a niche for myself and said I wanted to major in thermodynamics, but more specifically the exalted niche of chemical thermodynamics, and build rocket ships and engines to change mankind.
That just sounds better than chemical engineer and would probably be less work as well for me. In essence, I gave them the one thing they wanted to see.
They wanted someone who would give them a chance to say, “Yes, some of the things we have to do causes disruption and turmoil, but we trying to help where we can, and just this year we helped a student from x community go all the way to y and achieve x…” You get the point.
The key to any successful negotiation is to ensure what you give the other party is more than what you receive.
In my final round, I turned the tables around and literally interviewed them.
I did this for a simple reason. If the committee followed the interview script I expected, my lack of leadership roles and extracurricular activities would be quickly exposed at the beginning of the call. Poorer students usually do not have time for leadership roles. They are just trying to survive.
Frankly, as a poor student you should not be volunteering for Teach for America or it’s equivalent. You should just go home and teach your destitute cousins every weekend and holiday. It’s the same thing and you should not need to be paid to do what is expected of you.
In practical terms how would this work in my home? I have played this around in my head a few times and it cannot be solved. How could I convince my parents I am going to build homes for other people when our own home needed care or, at the very least, my relatives needed a home?
On that basis, I could not compete against the other applicants who were building homes in the Detroit Inner City etc. There was one lady in the final round interviews who had led a fundraising campaign to rebuild a dam in Vietnam. How do you compete with that?
Therefore, I led the interview so that I could shift the conversation to where I was strongest, my reasoning and debate skills. We ended up having this long debate, which I initiated, about the role of multi-nationals in emerging markets. They seemed to enjoy this, especially since I could quote numbers from the annual report better than the CFO could remember them.
I did not lie about my weaknesses. I just placed them down the agenda at a point when my strengths would have already neutralized any reds flags my weaknesses should have raised. When we eventually got to my resume, it was more a formality, and the warm halo of my reasoning skills cast a positive glow over my leadership gaps.
This is also known as changing the rules of the game. If I had started with my weaknesses, the entire tone of the debate would have shifted to me having to prove my worthiness by asking for the scholarship. When you start on the back foot, you can rarely switch to the front foot.
The secret to success is never to ask for anything, not even a scholarship. Never ever be in a situation where you need to justify anything. If you choose to prove your credibility, then you actually have none.
It is like the bank that needs to explain why it does not deserve a credit downgrade. The mere act of responding to the rumors implies it deserves a downgrade. It is far better not to respond. You need to set up the situation so that you are invited into something. This takes far more effort, but there are little to no concessions required on your side in this scenario.
It is called strategic patience. Design things so that you can wait out a situation until the pieces are in your favor. Any decision in life that needs to be rushed is probably a bad decision.
Therefore, when I was offered the scholarship, I was in a rare position to negotiate the terms, which I did. I got a laptop out of it. Just so you know, this was a long time ago and laptops were still a novelty.
I was able to negotiate because I never explicitly asked for the scholarship. It was offered to me.
And it was a big thing when I won the scholarship, the first person in the history of my school and district to do so.
Maybe in another piece I can explain how to use this career competitive advantage.
Michael Boricki is a partner and director, based in Firmsconsulting’s Toronto office.
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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.