Monday, October 8, 2012

Cultural Fit

Culture was designed in a petri dish culture!
The word "fit" is all the rage among admissions officers, and for good reason.  This short-hand term is used to designate whether or not the culture of the school aligns with your own needs and interests.  But what does this  idea really entail?  Within an anthropological or sociological model, it describes the values, norms, rituals, and structures of a society.  Does that apply to business school as well? Follow me down the twisting path of extended metaphor and let's explore the culture of business school.


Well, as we all know, there wouldn't be much culture going around without nutrients to keep the members alive.  Food brings people together, and business school does more than bring people together, it shakes them up in a blender hoping to create entrepreneurial or economic reactions.  But what kind of foodies are business school students? Perhaps they are hunters and gatherers?  

Hunters are lithe, agile, and fierce.  They are ambitious and highly motivated.  They will get the job done, poaching talent and skinning the competition.  Gatherers on the other hand are patient, growing an idea from conception to completion.  They bring people together in a petri dish of exploration and collaboration.  All schools will possess a healthy mix of both, but some schools actively cultivate one over the other.  How hungry are you?


Without ritual, any society's activities are meaningless and uninspired.  School culture is reinforced and invigorated through ritual, from weekly bar crawls and socials to annual fundraisers and conferences. Ritual brings entertainment and drives us forward.  Business schools are a hub of cultural transfusions and schools actively promote activities or designate students to do it in their stead.  Either way, rituals may be highly structured (pre-term orientations) or unstructured (international trips during breaks). Students run events, tutor inner-city youth, and drink cocktails with professors.  One thing's for certain; they're never doing nothing.    


Schools all develop and then cling to their own philosophy of education and ethics. Philosophy is central to any society because it is the glue that holds the people together, be it through religion (philosophy beyond ourselves) or science (philosophy within ourselves). Some science is religious and some religion, scientific.  Schools like MIT and Booth worship their math gods, whereas Stanford and Kellogg meditate on their multi-armed gods of soft skills.

Again schools sit along the spectrum from faith- to science-loving, but all students subsist on their school's particular, yet pervasive primordial goo, commonly referred to as the koolaid. We drink it in gallons and boy is it good.  Whose koolaid do you prefer to drink?


All societies organize themselves according to an agreed set of rules, even if those rules seem arbitrary to outsiders.  Derived from their philosophies, these rules can be altruistic, masochistic, or benign. Often, to prevent people from violating these rules (or to deal with those who do), societies encode this morality into law.  Business schools do the same through honor codes, but more broadly, they promote values through their unique moral hierarchies, channeled through a lens of socialism or individualism.  Do you prefer to work toward the Good by supporting the group or by supporting the self? If you believe the greatest good is achieved when an individual reaches his true potential (Ayn Rand anyone?), then attend a school that boasts the achievements of individuals.  If you believe the greatest good is promoted when society's lowest common denominator is elevated (John Locke anyone?), then attend a school that talks more about impact made on groups. Whether you're helping an individual or a group reach her intellectual, social, physical, or emotional peak, there's an underlying social good you're pursuing. Do you believe great individuals create a better society or that great societies great better individuals?


In any society, you're bound to have people who fall outside of the mainstream.  The majority rules, and at business school it's no different.  While it may seem counter-intuitive, I believe that the larger a school is the less impact diversity has--that is to say, without help.  When there are too few students to create a sub-group, students will inevitably find themselves in the company of strangers.  They cannot create a mini-tribe of likeminded inviduals, so instead they become acquainted with people who are different from themselves.  Society is certainly strengthened by the presence of diverse teams with varied backgrounds, but our friend group is ultimately more a reflection of our own personality than the amount of diversity in a school.  We're like honey bees, only looking to pollinate flowers that smell the way we like. Schools proactively combat this nature by building out cohorts and study groups that formalize the "cross-cultural" experience.  Will you flock to a large flock or a small one?

Questions to ask yourself

So I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on a school's culture.  I've only visited Stanford and Haas in person, and as many have said before me, a visit is the best way to see for ourselves if it's a match.  What I can recommend are some questions to ask yourself while choosing a school.  Inevitably, we will have a preference one way or another about the fit, and we make more informed decisions when we know what we like. Most of us want a balance, and fortunately schools often offer both sides of the coin. Noneetheless, in a world of scarce resources, business schools prioritize or outright applaud certain traits, codifying it into their program, curriculum, and admissions process. Help yourself to a school's culture and see what tastes the most delicious! And no, prestige is not a cultural trait.  All schools have a sense of "We're the Best at X" and are proud of their accomplishments.  Exclusivity is prestige is exclusivity is prestige. Everyone prefers a club that others aren't allowed!

Food: do I prefer lots of opportunities to learn from my classmates or from famous CEOs and professors?

Ritual: do I prefer to fill my time with volunteer work and charity, networking and conferences, or clubs and leadership?

Philosophy: do I prefer number crunching or emotional lunching?

Government: do I want my peers to care more about impact or legacy? 

Diversity: do I mind being assigned to a group of random strangers? 

There are plenty of other questions we should be asking ourselves.  Once we have some idea of where westand, we can turn the questions on their head and pose them to current students.  Ask how a school promotes any of your priorities and see how their responses fit within your own cultural values. 

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