What business leaders can learn from PhD candidates

I went to graduate school at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman, Montana. Uncle Sam drafted me into the Army before I could finish my PhD program, but my heart remains a lover of the Big Sky Country.

One of my fellow PhD candidates — I’ll call him Larry — taught me the importance of taking a disciplined look at what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and how to accelerate getting there. He was married and after four years at MSU spent getting his undergraduate degree, saw getting his PhD as a means to fulfilling his vision rather than an end in its own right.

Larry’s wife had taken a clerical job at the university. While the job didn’t pay much, as an employee’s spouse he didn’t have to pay tuition, a major economic boost. As a married student, they were able to take advantage of the university’s subsidized housing for married couples. Larry recognized the importance of clarifying and documenting the university’s expectations. In those days, a PhD candidate was expected to take four years to complete the degree. Larry asked himself why. Why four years? Why not three or even two? He sat down with his adviser, and pushed the administration to specify exactly what he would have to accomplish in order to earn his PhD. He kept asking, “When I accomplish these items, then I can graduate?” He pushed and pushed until he had clarity and absolute confirmation of what constituted successful completion of his program.

With that checklist in hand, he focused every day’s actions on achieving each requirement. Two years later, much to the chagrin of the MSU administration which had been counting on another two years of cheap graduate student labor, he graduated with his PhD and went on to a highly successful career.

Another colleague of mine had a very different experience. After five years at a prestigious California university, Tom realized that the school was perfectly happy to have him as a PhD candidate in perpetuity. (He was, after all, cheap labor available to assist the professors in their research.) He sat down with his adviser and forced clarification of what it would take to finish the program. Finally, after spending six years as a PhD candidate, he got his degree.

Yet another colleague of mine went through the entire four-year program at another California university. Bill finished his research, wrote the thesis, and his adviser scheduled the usually pro-forma defense. When he appeared before the committee to defend, however, they informed him that his research area was unacceptable. “That would have been nice to know three years ago when I decided on the topic! My adviser said the topic was acceptable, so I think it’s a bit late to question it now.” Needing to get on with his life, he left the university with a bad taste in his mouth — and no PhD.

Here are the lessons I drew from these three sets of experiences:

  • You must have a clear sense of what you want to accomplish and why.
  • You must take personal responsibility for clarifying expectations – what it will take for the stakeholders to be satisfied with your results.
  • You must take personal responsibility for how you will achieve your goals. There are usually dozens of paths that can get you to your destination. Pick one that leverages your passion and competence.
  • You must ask yourself, and verify, how what you’re doing today is consistent with getting where you want to be in the future. If it isn’t consistent, it’s up to you to change what you’re doing or where you want to be in the future.

Whatever your personal, professional, or corporate goal may be, you must have clarity with yourself and every stakeholder on the what, why, and how. Once you have defined the what and the why, communicate it to everyone who can help being part of how you achieve it.

A strategic planning process that clarifies the what, why, and sustains the how will enable you to turn vision into reality. If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, read my latest book – The Chemistry of Strategy, check out our service offerings online, contact us by email, or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

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