Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rethinking the "American Dream"? - Part II... A Personal Reflection

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In my last posting, I reflected on the current state of the ubiquitous concept of the “American Dream”. Although my attempt was to summarize my thoughts around this subject in a clear and concise manner (an act that always poses a challenge for someone verbose like me), I had several questions and topics running through my head:


1. What is the intended meaning of the “American Dream”? Is the prevalent modern thought in alignment with the intended meaning conjured by the person who coined this phrase?

2. What lessons, if any, has the recent “Great Recession” provided us vis-√†-vis the “American Dream”? Have expectations around incremental wealth and power generation after generation become unreasonable?

3. Should we collectively reflect upon the core values that drive (or should drive) the actions and results of this great society, and potentially redefine this quintessentially American concept?

4. What are the implications for our career strategies?


Whereas I touched upon the first two questions last week, I wanted to share a bit of my personal story as a prelude to answering the third question.


Born in Yugoslavia, my family and I, having been granted political asylum, migrated to Hungary shortly after the start of the Yugoslav Wars in the early ‘90s. Fueled by the grand ideas of the “American Dream” promoted by migrant success stories and popularized in American TV shows, I migrated to the US just over twelve years ago, leaving my family behind in Hungary.


My story is not atypical in this country. In fact, and at the expense of seeming a bit self-celebratory and clich√©-like, the United States has greatly benefitted from the hard work, determination, talent and innovation brought on by fellow migrants who often overcame significant obstacles to achieve success in the “land of opportunity”.


While at the Darden School of Business, I was amazed to find that there were many classmates with personal and professional stories (and consequently, ambitions) that paralleled mine. Furthermore, I was relieved to see that our respective definitions of the “American Dream” were closely aligned. That is, each of us had a simple goal in mind: to surmount relatively meager family beginnings, and achieve a higher level of professional success than our parents and grandparents, while at the same time adhering to core ethical (and oftentimes spiritual) values and beliefs.


I believe that blending strong personal convictions in universally acceptable ethical and moral codes with aggressive professional aspirations are absolutely essential in pursuing the right kind of “American Dream”. We should encourage others to do so as well.


To be continued...


Rethinking the “American Dream”?

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The economic malaise that has plagued this country the past couple of years has spurred much discussion in various media outlets about the need to re-examine the current state of what is considered the “national ethos” of this land: the “American Dream”. Some folks have simply lost faith in this quintessentially American concept, while others feel it needs to be re-examined, and subsequently redefined. Having migrated to the United States a little over a decade ago from Eastern-Europe, I wanted to offer my thoughts on this over-used phrase that inspired me to take the figurative leap over the pond in the first place.


The famous phrase, sloganeered by historian and writer James Adams, first appeared in his book entitled “Epic of America” nearly eight decades ago:

“The American Dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”1


For me, the above quote is unmatched in capturing what the essence of the “American Dream” should be. Alas, I believe that since the coining of the “American Dream”, generations of natural born or would-be naturalized citizens have taken the liberty to create various derivations of the intended meaning of this powerful slogan. Over time, for not an insignificant chunk of society, the “American Dream” morphed into an ignoble ideal that centered around material wealth at the peril of completely ignoring the other critical values inherent within the phrase, while dismissing essential moral and ethical frontiers. Of course, embedded in all the above is the unmanageable amount of leverage that consumers and businesses have built up over time.


It is partly due to these oftentimes rogue and exponentially inflated expectations that our economy has sunk to historic lows. Ironically, many members of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, who experienced tremendous wealth creation and associated quality-of-life improvements, particularly in the 1990s, have since 2007 seen their life savings take an irreparable hit. Understandably, this has forced many, who otherwise would have opted for retirement, to lengthen their stay in the American workforce for a few more years. It has also forced the older generation (them) and the younger generation (us) to collectively re-examine the current state of the “American Dream”, what it should mean in today’s environment, and how we can come up with a collaborative approach to ensure future generations will not abuse this wonderful ideal that should otherwise serve as a core strategy for advancing the proper welfare of this country.


Next week, I will continue with my thoughts on this topic, offer my examination on how the “American Dream” should be redefined (or the true intended meaning re-emphasized), and what the implication of all this will be for our career strategies. Stay tuned….




1 Library of Congress. American Memory. "What is the American Dream?". Accessed August 21, 2008.

The Value of Leadership Development Programs

Throughout my seven-year tenure at my prior employer, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the brightest employees of the company, many of whom have become my close friends. This group of ambitious and hard-working women and men were part of multi-year leadership development program (LDP) that hired young talent internally and externally, generally targeting a handful of top business schools renowned in the areas of general management, marketing and finance.


As I gained experiences across a variety of functions and business units, advancing through several promotions during my tenure, I could not help but notice the significant value-add these people generated in their respective businesses, and the subsequent career-enhancing success they had in various parts of the organization post-LDP. These LDP participants represented a diverse collection of multi-dimensional industry knowledge, different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, varied educational experiences and different socio-economic backgrounds. These factors, targeted screening methods and hiring guidelines, that were, of course a pre-condition to being part of the group in the first place, contributed to developing a group environment characterized by strong work ethic, a desire to collaborate (or lead, when necessary) and deliver results, diversity of thinking, and perhaps most importantly, humility.


While I worked with many exceptional people at my previous company, the group I described above clearly elevated itself from the masses, and its members collectively inspired me to explore not only attending business school full-time, but also to prioritize and tailor my career search to join a top leadership development program post-MBA.


At Darden, a school mostly renowned for its case method instruction, academic rigor, excellent general management curriculum and collaborative atmosphere, students were exposed to a variety of recruiting companies offering leadership rotational programs. Many of these programs were characterized by a functional specialization (i.e. marketing, operations, finance), while others were broader in nature – i.e. general management rotational programs. While, without exception, all of these companies offered excellent opportunities to learn, develop, apply and lead, with the eventual goal of ascending into the upper echelon of the respective organization, for me, GE’s Experienced Commercial Leadership Program was the obvious choice for the following factors that, in my opinion, make this program best-in-class:


Strong Emphasis on Continuous Learning

ECLP is widely known for its semi-annual Global Conferences, where program participants come together in a US (July 2009 – Greenwich) or international location (January 2009 – Prague) for a week of applied learning and fun (yes, those two words can, in fact, be combined, forming a unique experience). ECLP members attend five such Global Conferences throughout their two-year tenure in the program, where they get to interact and learn from company executives and functional experts, perform community service, and get to know fellow program members who hail from all corners of the world. These Global ECLP Conferences, efficiently organized for every critical detail, effectively showcase the broad spectrum of talent and diversity that characterizes this program. In addition to the Global Conferences, specific business units extend additional training opportunities for ECLPs. For example, for those of us in GE Capital, the next Global Conference in January 2010 will be preceded by a week-long applied seminar in Risk Management, a function whose basics everyone working in financial services should be comfortable with – especially given the current environment and the turmoil that was the precursor.



Highly Collaborative Atmosphere

One of the reasons I chose to be part of GE is the strong cultural tie between ECLP and my business school, where strong teamwork prevailed over a self-promotion of individual efforts. In addition, given that ECLP has been around for less than a decade, each and every program participant and alumnus understands that supporting each other during and post-program should be an inherent part in making ECLP the absolute best talent pipeline for future commercial leaders in industries within GE – and perhaps outside as well. In a subsequent blog post, I will describe the pleasant experiences I had with current and former ECLPs who were more than willing to help me get up to speed on some of the critical projects I have undertaken.



Industry Expertise and Functional Diversity

What is more important? Being a functional generalist or an industry expert with broad commercial experiences. Given recent trends in the global economy, workforce supply and demand elements, coupled with company expectations of their leaders and the ever-increasing need to develop and maintain competitive advantage on a global scale, I would side with the former. While the broad mission of ECLP is to develop commercial executives within the company, in support of this goal, program participants are given the opportunity to work across a wide array of commercial functions within a specific industry, developing broad commercial knowledge with domain expertise in a specific industry (e.g. Energy, Commercial Finance, Healthcare). For example, ECLPs in GE Capital, in addition to fulfilling more traditional sales and marketing roles (I work in Strategic Pricing as my first rotation), will have the opportunity to complete rotations in Risk Management and Capital Markets – both critical areas of many financial services companies.


Solid Executive Support

The program was developed and is championed by Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE. Any program, initiative or project that garners strong support from top-down will have enduring success, plain and simple. Organizational efforts often fail because they do not have the support and advocacy of company leaders. In contrast, initiatives that are supported, promoted and fostered by company leaders (including the CEO and his/her officers) will inevitably succeed, because in time, these organizational efforts will draw support from critical layers down the organizational hierarchy. Although I just started ECLP full-time a couple of months ago, I attended three Global Conferences, where in each instance, the CEO and other company leaders played an integral role in augmenting our experiences by speaking to us and sharing their experiences in person.



Reputation

An avid fan of management books (although more recently, I have become disillusioned by the self-celebratory tone many business book authors have undertaken in their publications), I have often read about GE’s exceptional strength in developing business leaders. I admit, prior to joining the company, I was initially skeptical of the company’s heralded status in talent development. However, this quickly subsided once I saw all the time, money, energy and incremental emphasis that went into providing the requisite industry, functional and leadership training for ECLP participants (as well as other leadership program members). While the company is known for promoting from within, it is not afraid to export its world-class management to lead other organizations. Just like having high-level executive support behind ECLP has been critical for its success, so has the reputation of GE as a “management factory” reinforced the notion, and complemented all of the above factors, that this is the right place for future business leaders to join.