• Chris Barbin

College vs. The Real World

[Published in shorter form on Forbes.com]

It seems parents are willing to sacrifice almost anything to ensure their kids get into a good school -- their savings, free time, and judging from the recent college admission scandal, even their integrity.

As a father of three kids (one in college and two on the way) and a former Silicon Valley CEO, I can understand the pressure both parents and kids feel when it comes to getting into the right college. Many companies will only look at resumes from a well-known university. Hiring managers will invariably prioritize a degree from Oxford over Occidental. And for some positions, a higher level degree is almost required.

But is all the money and pressure worth it? Especially when you consider that tuition at four-year institutions is already at an all time high and when so many recent graduates are underemployed?

I believe the answer is yes, college is absolutely worth it. It’s almost a necessity these days for those who want a career in the “corporate” world. But it’s also no substitute for experience. There are many skills that business leaders need which can only be honed through real world experience.

Some colleges recognize this and are starting to insert more hands-on work experiences, such as my alma mater Bates University (where I am a trustee). Bates is pushing a concept of Purposeful Work, work that is both meaningful to the student and relevant to society. Pushing purposeful work into the college experience takes on many different forms. For Bates, it means adding more practitioner-taught courses or funding internships for students who can’t afford to work for free. It means bringing on programs like Bobcat Ventures, a student run program, funded by Bates, which offers year-round workshops, alumni visits and an annual pitch competition to promote entrepreneurship which I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with for the past year.

Winner of the most recent Bobcat Ventures pitch competition

As Bates President, Clayton Spencer, says: “You don’t figure out your passion until you are out there doing the work.”

3 Ways College Prepares You for Leadership

Communication. Colleges are good at bringing together people from different cultures, backgrounds and socioeconomic bands, and forcing them to work, live and explore together in fairly tight quarters. Many schools also offer the opportunity to study abroad. I was fortunate enough to experience this as an undergrad, and as a kid from a small town in New England who had never left the country, trust me, this was a huge eye opener.

It’s well proven that diversity drives broader thinking and better performance in business. However, many people going into the workforce may have never ventured outside their hometown. The appreciation that students gain during their college years for those who look, think and act differently than them will not only make them a better co-worker and leader, it will also hone their communication skills. Skills needed to raise money, build a business case or motivate a team.

Competitiveness. No matter what college you attend, you’ll more than likely meet people who are smarter or more talented than you in some way. That exposure and the meritocracy that colleges can foster can teach young professionals the mental toughness and fortitude they’ll need as leaders when everything is not always up and to the right.

Extracurricular activities - whether that’s band, debate, the school newspaper or sports - can also teach students how to work as part of a team. Four years on the Bates track team training under the legendary Walt Slovenski taught me a great deal about accountability, teamwork and perseverance. Walt made it clear that everything we did as individuals contributed to the broader group, not unlike how a company operates. He also made us run 80-100 miles a week, even in a foot of snow, to drive that point home. It was tough, but character building. As you progress through your career and lead your own teams, the lessons learned through competition and teamwork - and that not everyone actually wins a trophy - are important.

Critical thinking. Even if you go into college knowing exactly what you want to do, most schools require undergrads to take other courses. This is especially true in liberal arts colleges like Bates, the school I attended in Maine where I am currently a trustee. As a political science major forced to take economics, I wasn’t a big fan of this requirement at the time but it taught me to connect the dots and to ask good questions. It taught me to be curious.

No one is an expert in everything, especially in business. College is as much about the process of learning than learning a specific skill or subject. If you have the right teachers, they can teach you to connect different ideas, which is critical in any leadership position, especially when exploring new terrain.

I talked about these three “C’s” at a recent Bates University event in San Francisco where I spoke to a group of alumni on the topic of company culture and entrepreneurship. What I didn’t speak about at the event though was how college doesn’t prepare you, even the best schools.

3 Ways College Falls Short

Consideration. What separates managers from leaders is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, to understand what motivates and drives people. That consideration and empathy is what helps you tap into the motivations of your customers, investors and most importantly your employees. It’s what helps you fine tune your decisions and make you a better practitioner, especially if you’ve had the opportunity to be on both sides of the table. I love Mark Cuban’s recent post that a ‘shark’, who believes in business these days one must differentiate on being nice.

When I sought my first rounds of VC funding, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But after operating a company for more than a decade and investing in other businesses of my own, I am much clearer on what matters to those investing money, to those on your team and why those things matter. While some people may be born with more empathy than others, remember empathy is a practiced skill.

Consequences. Nothing beats the knowledge gained through practical experience, and being around for the consequences. It’s one thing to hear about the history of political science in a class, but very different to work on a political campaign. It’s one thing to write a business plan in a vacuum. Quite another to build, and then have to adapt a plan in the real world when conditions change. Sure, there are some consequences in college, but a bad grade is different than watching your candidate lose a race or having to lay people off (some of whom might be your friends).

First-hand experience will teach you more than any book or course. It will show you what work you love, and what work you hate. It will teach you that it’s OK to fail and how to learn from those failures. Luckily many schools are inserting this experience earlier in the journey. Gallup/Bates research shows that 63% of millennials had on-the-job experience during college vs. 51-53% of GenX or Boomers who had that experience during college.

Contacts. While you will make contacts in college and business school, your network as a student will pale in comparison with the contacts you make throughout your career - customers, co-workers, managers, mentors, investors, partners and the random people you meet along the way. Establishing a strong network is part of the equity you bring to the table as a leader.

Building a network is more than just keeping up on LinkedIn or Twitter. It requires proactive commitment, and a conscious cultivating of relationships throughout your career. In every chapter of my career, I’ve had to look for mentors to help guide me. Find them and ask for advice. Go to the right events to meet new people. Embrace the people who leave your company and stay in touch. Ask for introductions and make introductions for others. Don’t blow off people’s emails. It’s simple in theory, difficult in practice.

So when it comes to college vs. the real-world, I don’t believe it’s one over the other but a combination of the two that will define the next generation of leaders.


© 2019 by Chris Barbin. All right reserved.