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Jane Austen, Balzac, Dostoyevsky And Your Career



Last year I gave a speech at a local university on careers and management. The audience was composed of current and former MBA students. For some reason, I thought about that speech last week and I remembered one particular part of the evening. It was that 10 minute segment that I would like to discuss today.


In the past I’ve written a lot on the MBA and its uses and abuses. In general, I think good MBA programs can be invaluable to an ambitious professional seeking to move their career forward. However, I think there is a certain component lacking to almost all MBA programs. That is today’s topic.


At the end of the evening there was a question and answer session. I remember one eager and intelligent young lady, maybe around 25 years old, who had a serious question. “How can I best prepare myself to be a manager?” she wanted to know.


I looked at her and some thoughts ran through my head. In front of me was someone with a great future. This was a smart, articulate and motivated professional who would be a credit to any organization. She was attending one of the world’s finest universities and was in a solid MBA program. She has all the courses in analysis. She had explored all of the case studies. She was technically and academically superior to 90% of her peers. I wanted to tell her something that would crystalize all of that study and hard work and help propel her to greatness.


My response to her came from a moment of clarity within me and, unfortunately, created a moment of confusion in her. I know I gave her the right answer but I fear that I did not have time to explain it to her. Well, in an effort to reach her and others like her, here is the best advice that I can give any person who wants to manage a team or department.


Read good literature. Read Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, etc. In fact, read them before you read Jack Welch, Tom Peters or other business authors. Indeed, I would go a step farther and read them instead of reading today’s business philosophers. Here is why…..


Let’s cycle back to that 25 year old. Her hope is that within a few years she would be a 27 year old manager charged with leading and directing a group of professionals. She will review them, give them raises, hire them, fire them and do all the things a manager does. She will have their professional lives in her hands. Her training to date has been all about systems, analysis, budgets and metrics. She has studied organizational dynamics and knows all about Power Point. However, it is doubtful that she knows a lot about people. That gap is a tad awkward, don’t you think? The raw material for a manager is their staff – people. A manager’s job is to motivate and improve their staff. How do you do that unless you know something about people?


More accurately, how can a 27 year old manage a department composed of people 30 years older than her? How can a 27 year old motivate people with different value systems and personal priorities than her? How can a 27 year old understand the thoughts of someone with half her educational background but who is twice her age? Where is the common ground and life experience that will allow her to see things through her staff’s eyes and, in doing so, be better able to motivate and manage them? After all, if you are managing a 10 person department you are managing 10 different viewpoints on things. Those 10 different viewpoints come from 10 different people who are at 10 different places in their lives. One may be going through a divorce. One may have lost a relative last month. One may want a promotion. One may be content in his or her current job. The variations are infinite.


The biggest misconception about managing professionals is that you will be managing a group of like-minded people who share a common goal.  Like the population of Lake Woebegone, your staff will all be above average. Like Plato’s Utopia, your staff will all be above petty politics and jealousies. Like Communist Russia, your staff will all be nobly focused on the common good.


Unfortunately, you will soon realize that some days your staff may more closely resemble kindergarten. Managing will remind you of herding cats.




As a manager, you will quickly realize that the missing component of your education is an understanding of people. Not people in the macro, organizational chart sense. People in the messy, stubborn real life sense.


This is 2014 and your staff will have options other than to work for you. You will have to motivate, cajole, threaten and prod them forward. You will both teach them and learn from them. You will live with them and your lives will be intertwined. You will be their boss but they get a vote too. There is nothing lonelier than a boss without a staff.


The problem is that most of your staff will be very different than you. They may be older. They may not be as smart. In fact, one of the most shocking things for any young manager is the day that they realize that, yes, there are stupid people in the world and, in fact, some of them will be working for you. Ouch.


Your staff will have different motivations then you. You are driven. They may just want to get through the day. You are excited by your job. They just want a paycheck. You are at the beginning of your career. They may be two years from retirement.


The reality is that the world is an imperfect place and it will be your job to get the most out of a mismatched team. Make no mistake about it- all teams are mismatched. There is no corporate organizational god who puts together a perfect set of skills for every assignment. If your team was perfect, it wouldn’t actually need a manager. It will be your job to blend a flawed group of individuals into a reasonable effective group.


To do that you need to understand who they are. That is not easy for someone who is entering management at a young age. Youth and hubris often go together. Let me clue you in on something- you are not as inspirational as you think. It will take more than clichés and a title on a business card to get your team’s respect. The question is – how can you gain an understanding of people whose life experiences are remote from yours?


Or, in other words, how do you compress years of life and a variety of different personal viewpoints into one person as quickly as possible? How do you speed up your personal rate of maturation?


You read good literature. You read good literature that is character driven and you try to understand the characters as people. You learn about motivations that may be different than yours. You learn that people can make decisions based on different criteria than you would. You learn that there are indeed things you don’t know. And, hopefully, you learn to appreciate people in all of their true diversity. By that I do not mean the false diversity of quotas. I mean the true diversity of everyday life.


Of course, the hope is that you will see the many things that may not be obvious to you now. Things like-

1) “Anna Karenina” and how people can make decisions that are harmful to themselves

2) “Pride and Prejudice” and the dangers of personal stubbornness

3) “Father Gorot” and the despair of age when confronted by youth

4) “The House of Mirth” and the pitfalls of indecision


The quickest way to learn about life without experiencing it is to put your mind in the head of a well written character and internalize that character’s experiences. Read these novels to learn about people. Don’t read them as a literary critic. They are the best soap operas ever written. I guarantee you that it will make you a better manager. In a perfect world, every MBA program would have a course that dissects the characters in two novels from a managerial standpoint. Maybe a case study of the decisions people made in “Age of Innocence”, for example? I have no doubt those courses would make anyone a better manager.


As ever, thanks for getting this far and don’t forget Right Recruiting for all of your recruitment needs.

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