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Can a Career in Business Prepare You For Leadership in Education?

Recently, I was asked to kick off Management Leadership for Tomorrow’s “Social Sector Boot Camp,” a one-day gathering of young professionals—all people of color, all entering top MBA programs—who are considering a career focused on social impact. This opportunity came my way because I am, in fact, a professional with an MBA working in the social sector. Though I must admit that I am neither young nor a person of color, I hoped that my career journey might provide a lens for how these rising leaders could realize their full potential as high-impact social sector leaders.

You see, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher. After college, I worked in politics, but my road soon took me into the strange and interesting world of corporate America. Realizing how little I understood about this bizarre land, I went to business school; wanting to extend that education, I became a corporate management consultant.

Eventually, after a fortuitous conversation with a former colleague, I found myself planted squarely in the education world—first at Teach For America, now at ERS. I realized that my 10-year career in business was more like a hiatus from my passion for the social sector—but it was also a highly valuable opportunity to soak up skills and lessons that I could apply in an area about which I care so deeply.

In my remarks to these future leaders, I urged them to believe you can both “do good” and “do well” in 21st century America, and I shared a few lessons about how one can achieve maximum social impact in his or her career:

  • Our work and our impact require great leadership. Despite the many ways of looking at leadership, all great leaders have at least one thing in common—followers. What inspires these rising young leaders to follow?  They look for humility, openness to ideas, a clear vision, and confidence in it—as well as curiosity and a willingness to change in the face of new information.

    It turns out that these are not necessarily the attributes rising MBAs (or any of us) consider when we think about what it takes to “be successful” in our careers. In other words, we found great value in looking at leadership as an exercise in building followership.

  • Our work and our impact also require strong management skills. Some people call these hard and soft skills; others talk about “IQ” and “EQ.” Many top business schools today do focus on developing future leaders, which is necessary but not sufficient for success in the work we do. The rising MBAs I met at the Boot Camp were fairly blown away by the analytic rigor required to generate impact in the social sector—rigor that must accompany inspiring leadership.

  • Our work and our impact demand that we work with urgency. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously talked about “the fierce urgency of now.” More recently, in her bestseller The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin wrote, “The days are long, but the years are short.” In the social sector, this means that we must strive for rapid impact while also recognizing the need for sustainability in our work. We must act fast to have an impact on today’s 5th graders; we must “play the long game” if we want to create lasting impact for the generations that will follow.

  • Our work and our impact require intensive focus on the things that matter. Asked to offer advice to future practitioners of his chosen craft, the Negro League and Major League pitcher Satchel Paige said simply: “Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.” Education is a complex machine with seemingly limitless moving parts. Paige’s words remind us to block out the noise, simplify the complexity and do what we came here to do in the first place—for us at ERS, it’s to make a real, meaningful difference in the lives of children in America’s low-income communities.

Learn more about careers at ERS


Can a Career in Business Prepare You For Leadership in Education?
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