The Decline of Corporate Elitism

When I was a kid, I always hoped and dreamed that I would get into one of those Ivy League schools. Unfortunately, I was a disaster of a student (and a ridiculously undisciplined Asian student to boot). Yes, I had well over a 4.0 GPA, took 26 total AP classes in high school, but I really succeeded by my ability to test well. I never studied, barely did my homework and didn’t read assigned texts. In short, I just happened to be really lucky. But I also didn’t have the drive that it takes to get into one of the elite institutions of higher learning. Those schools, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, were reserved for those voted “most likely to succeed” in their high school yearbooks.

Upon graduating from college (from what turned out to be an excellent, small, liberal arts college), I didn’t land that highly desired job in consulting or investment banking. Those jobs primarily came from colleges more elite than my own. So I fought and clawed my way into situations where I would learn and grow, eventually creating this blog not as a public space, but as a place to record my thoughts so I’d remember them in the future.

I now have the pleasure of helping my clients understand how strategy can impact all manner of HR, talent and service delivery outcomes. One of the most interesting in recent years has been a focus on understanding staffing outcomes in the college recruiting area. The old conventional wisdom has always been to get the most elite candidates from the most elite colleges. After all, these are the best and the brightest, and what CEO does not tell the world that they have the best and smartest team in the world? Unfortunately, this conventional wisdom does not work out for all it’s cracked up to be.

My favorite case study comes from a global financial analyst firm. This organization recruited from one of the Ivy Leagues for years, but ultimately they ran some analytics and discovered that the Ivy League candidates not only didn’t perform better, they often performed worse than candidates from “middle of the pack” schools. The most successful candidates (those promoted into management and eventually reaching executive ranks, those who had long tenure rates, and those who became great leaders and people managers), were often from public sector universities in “Po-dunk, Middle-of-Nowhere.” The analysis revealed a single striking characteristic difference: the sense of entitlement.

It turned out that candidates from elite schools were indeed smarter, but they also had in their belief system that they could do better – no matter where they were. There was not only a continuous striving to get to the top faster, but a sense of discontent no matter how good their present state was. This ultimately lead to early voluntary terminations in less than 2 years, and a striving for job/title inflation that was counter-productive to real experiential growth.

On the other hand, candidates from “Po-dunk” were so excited for the opportunity, happy they were in New York instead of “Po-dunk” and genuinely appreciative that they somehow got into one of the elite financial firms, that they worked their butts off and formed long term relationships with their companies. Ultimately, sticking around and putting in some real effort ensured that many of the “Po-dunk” graduates made it into executive ranks, probably as quickly as the elitists did (after 6 company changes).

Another customer, an engineering firm, found that not only did the school not matter (which would seem odd in engineering), but what did matter was how well this organization could form high quality relationships with Ph.D candidate advisors. A high quality relationship with a professor guiding many engineering Ph.D. candidates was a significantly better predictor of the new hire’s desire to put in hard work and stick around. After all, if your Ph.D. advisor got you and many of your predecessors an opportunity at a job, and they are all experiencing success, aren’t you going to do the same thing?

The point being that the old conventional wisdom isn’t the formula for recruiting success anymore. The pressure high school kids face these days to get set up for life by getting into the best colleges is also creating very bad precedent and expectations. Just the idea that they think they will be “set up for life” by getting into the right schools is turning off employers. More and more of my customers are doing deep analytics to understand where their top college candidates come from, and increasingly it’s not the elite schools. If you’re still following the old conventional wisdom, it might be time to revisit your strategy.

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systematicHR is a daily news and commentary site about HR strategy and technology.

3 thoughts on “The Decline of Corporate Elitism”

  1. Outstanding addition to the conversation. Consider Google’s discovery that college credential isn’t a predictor of success (data from a few years ago) as additional support for your observations. Add the growing sophistication of “non-traditional” education platforms, and it appears the first truly radical transformation in 200 years of higher education and our assumptions about it may be underway. Great news!

  2. Just recorded a Radio Show with Wharton professor Peter Cappelli, whose new book in June is “Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make.”

    After I unseemly bragged about the immediate payback of my scholarship-financed Harvard BA, he touched on some of your same issues, at much greater length in the book.

    Unfortunately he won’t air until 2 pm ET May 6, which no one will remember. Just wanted to mention his book.

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