This episode of Business Casual had special guest Suzy Welch, who — amongst her MANY accomplishments — is now teaching a course at NYU Stern called “Becoming You”. The goal of the course is to help MBA students determine explore career paths that might veer from the norm of the main job categories that MBA programs might funnel you to (e.g., consulting; banking; tech).
How did Suzy develop the course, and what are some of its take-aways? Listen to the podcast to find out!
Hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets& Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast. We have a special guest in the house, Suzy Welch, who is a management professor at NYU Stern. She’s a professor of management practice. Uh, she’s been teaching a very popular course there called “Becoming You”.
We’ll get into that in a moment. With me, of course, as always, are my co hosts, Maria Wich-Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Caroline is a former managing director of admissions at INSEAD, and the co founder of Fortuna Admissions, and Maria is a former Harvard MBA. Not former, you’re always a Harvard MBA when you graduate with that degree and the founder of Applicant Lab.
Of course, Suzy Welch is the widow of the legendary chairman of General Electric, Jack Welch, who has a Harvard MBA herself. And in fact, when she was thinking about developing a course, one of the things that Suzy told me was she wanted to develop the course she never was able to take at Harvard, but wished she did.
Thank you for having me. I’m absolutely delighted to be here. So tell us what led to your course. It’s one of the most popular courses among MBAs at Stern, and it’s an unusual and innovative one called Becoming You. How do you become you? You take my class. I said the full name of the class is becoming you crafting the authentic life you want and need.
It has a little, you’re right. It has an unusual origin story. So I’m going to run through it pretty quickly. So I had had a long career as a business journalist myself, um, both on, uh, CNBC on the today show and writing, writing books with Jack and working for, Oh, the open magazine. And, and, uh, I actually also had a stint as a CEO at a tech startup and.
Was kind of, um, enjoying all the different things I was doing with my life. And then, uh, very unfortunately, um, Jack got very sick. And, uh, I stopped working, um, to take care of him in his last year or so of his life. And then right after he died, two weeks after he died, as a matter of fact, COVID struck. And like everyone else in the world, I went into the woods.
I was kind of gonna go into the woods anyway. We were well aware of, um, of our short. timeframe with Jack and I knew that there was going to be a period where I needed to kind of go away and regroup. And then COVID made that period really, you know, quite long. And after about two years, I came out of the woods because the Today Show called me and asked if I would come back on.
And I went back on and they were like, well, you come back and you know, we’re all back now. And I said, yes, but I was thinking, I think I’m ready to do something new with my life. I don’t, I think I had a wonderful, fantastic run, um, on in broadcast journalism, but something else is calling me and right around that time, a good friend of mine wrote to check in on me and said, Oh, I mentioned your husband, Jack in class, uh, the other day, because I’m teaching X, Y, and Z, um, I’m teaching at Stern now, by the way.
And I thought, huh. Stern, and it was like this light bulb, the kind of moment where I thought that sounds fantastic. So I went to go see the Dean. He’s called by one and all and at NYU Stern, and he was incredibly gracious and said, hi, you know, I’m hearing that you were thinking about. Maybe coming and teaching as an adjunct and I said, yeah, and he said, well, what would you like to teach?
Would you like to teach communications? Would you like to teach leadership? You start sort of rattling off different classes. And I had done a lot of thinking and a lot of research before that meeting because I knew exactly what I wanted to teach. I wanted to teach the class. That I should have taken at HBS but what didn’t exist then.
So I said, I said to my actually want to teach this class, and he said, um, he said, I described the class to him and he said, but we don’t have that class. And I said, that’s right, I’m going to. Go write it. And he said, have you ever written a class before? But in fact, I had, I’d written a lot. The first draft of the entire curriculum for Jack’s business school, J. W. M. I. So I said, well, I have, but I mean, I know I’m not a curriculum writer, but I have a very clear vision of what this class could be. And I am sure that the thought bubble above his head was, I will never see this woman again. Um, he said, okay, why don’t you go ahead and go write it? And I went away and I wrote it.
It was. Yeah. You know, like you, I’ve written several books and I know how hard it is to write a book and it was a lot harder than writing a book. Um, and I did a ton of research. I don’t know if you saw homeland where carry, like, has the wall filled with all these, like, stickums and tapes. And that’s what my office look like.
I mean, I was creating this class. I wanted to create a clear methodology where you could figure out what you should do with your life because I believe that it’s the eternal question is what I want to do with my life. But I also believe that. Thank you. There’s a problem in business schools in general that people get on a conveyor belt they go there with the, you know, everybody goes to business school to pivot, everybody, why would you go if you didn’t want to sort of do something new and different.
And they get there and the world seems so wide and so exciting and so filled with opportunity. And then they get on this conveyor belt and they go directly into consulting and investment banking. And as I tell my students, don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are consultants and investment bankers, but it’s not for everyone.
And you are inexorably pulled to it when the world is wide and the world needs you coming out of a good MBA program needs you very much. Um, and instead you go to consulting or investment banking. So in, you know, I’ve just never, ever heard anybody say, I want to grow up to be a consultant. And so I had a feeling that there were unfulfilled. Dreams out there and it catches up with you. Typically, when you’re around 50 and you have one of those talking head moments where you say, what is this beautiful house? What is this beautiful job? My God, what have I done? And I wanted to and I actually play that whole clip for my students. And because they’re young, they’ve never heard of the talking heads or that song.
And so I shout out the words. My God, what have I done? So they get the point. Um, and so that was the point of the, of the class and we didn’t know how it was going to go. I am grateful, very grateful to NYU for giving me the chance. Um, and the class, uh, took off and it kind of, it, it felt, it filled a need, it filled a need.
Now, Suzy, after you earned your MBA at Harvard, you did a very conventional thing. You signed up for Bain and Company.
I was poor.
That’s something you regret?
No, I don’t regret it. But I, and I talked to my class a lot about that fact. I. Was a reporter. I had been a reporter as a crime reporter, the Miami Herald, and I paid for my MBA out of pocket along with a little bit of help from my first husband, Eric.
And he and we then he lost his job and we had no money. We’ve lived in a … we lived in a very unsafe place because we were. Counting pennies, we were burglarized three times. I mean, it was, I needed money. And I found out that if you were a Baker Scholar from Bain, told me, if you are a Baker Scholar, we will pay off your entire debt if you come and work here.
And so I was close enough to being a Baker Scholar after my first year that I thought I got one goal and one goal only, and I’m going to be a Baker Scholar and I’m going to go work at Bain and I’m not going to feel this way anymore, which, and you know, it was, Scary. And so I, I use actually my experience of Bain as an example to talk about how one value can drive your life.
And it did. And I have no regrets about it. I met the most marvelous people who are still great friends of mine. And I learned a ton and I got a lot of self confidence around business. And so I don’t have any regrets that I did it. I did it for too long. That’s for sure. No, I’m thinking that your course, uh, really involves making people more introspective about their lives and what they want to achieve in those in their life.
And I wonder how you do that. How do you plunge them into that space, uh, where people think long term about what their obituary may eventually say about them. Yeah, well, I 1st day of class, I say, if you’re if you’re here, because you think this class is going to be easy, please go because this is a very hard process.
It’s a, you know, people think it’s going to be woo woo, but the word is out. It is not woo woo. This classes is a, I have a methodology. So the construct that underlies the class is that, um, that. Um, that we should all, we will all have the most meaning in our lives if I, if we seek an area that’s called which I call our area of transcendence.
Let me just back up a little bit. Imagine three spheres. If you would. The 1st is your values and what you truly believe, not generic stuff like family achievement and travel, right? But your true values, what you really care about in life, what really motivates you? Um, that’s 1 sphere. The 2nd sphere is your aptitudes.
These are very, um, hard to know when you are pretty good at everything, which most students at good MBA programs are they’re pretty good at anything. You know, I mean, if somebody told me Suzy, you need to become an architect. I could have become a pretty good architect. I mean, it’s just you go because I.
I’m educated because I’m generally competent. Should I be an architect? I’d be the worst architect in the world, frankly. And so then imagine aptitudes as a second sphere. And then the third sphere is the areas of economic growth that call you emotionally and intellectually. And the area of transcendence is at the center, is at the intersection of your values, your aptitudes, and what we call opportunity, which is the areas of economic growth.
Okay, because we can’t all be calligraphers that call you intellectually and emotionally and we methodically walk through each 1 of those spheres. We spend 2, 3 hour lectures on excavating your values through a series of exercises that I’ve either adapted from the literature or that I’ve invented. Most of them are invented, but I 1 of them that’s very key.
I worked with a psychiatrist who was at the University of Washington and then, but there’s a series of values. Excavation exercises and at the end you have a clearer sense of your values. First of all, you’ve learned what gets in the way of you finding out what your values are, and we sort of work on those and then we come out and people have a new and clear sense of what their values true, truly are.
Sometimes quite shocking, uh, for people who have been in denial about their values or don’t like to admit their values. And then, with the aptitudes section, we do a lot of testing. Aptitudes can be discerned through testing. We do, um, the uScience test. We do Enneagram. We have experts come in and speak about that.
But every member of my class has to do a 360 feedback. That starts the first day. They send it out to raters. Uh, you can send it up to 25 raters, and they all find out how the world receives them. And we spend two classes, uh, uncovering what your true aptitudes are. And then we have a, Uh, class on economic opportunity.
This is pretty hard because what’s going on with the economy and where the areas of growth are, are, are hard to pin down, but I have some excellent experts who come in and talk to about us about that. And we talk about what it really means to love a space or a product or a, or a, or a role, you know, like loving HR for instance, or loving a certain, uh, you know, my son is in game design because he just loves games and it, he, it wasn’t enough for them just to be his hobby.
So. Um, we spend a session on that and at the end, each student must take this new raw data and derive from it using their best thinking. As I like to say, their area of transcendence. If this is the data, what does it tell you? And then they have to present to class what their next 40 years of their life are going to look like.
And they do it by they can. There’s a menu of ways they can do it. I give them four dates going into the future, and they have to choose each one of those dates. And they either have an Instagram post, or a LinkedIn post, or a letter to their children, or a diary entry. And they tell us the story of the next 40 years of their lives based on what the data would suggest they should be doing with it.
Wow, that’s pretty powerful. So it’s searching for your, as you put it, your area of destiny. Now, it’s an area of transcendence because I used to say it was area of destiny. I did, but destiny is the wrong word. Transcendence is the word I love. And I’ll tell you why. Um, with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the top one was self actualization when he first came up with the hierarchy of needs, but he revised it himself four years later.
Um, and he put another little peek on it and he called it transcendence, which is self actualization plus. Giving back so that this is what my students and actually, probably all people desire, which is to be self actualized to be your best self as Oprah would say, but also in doing. So, in some way, serve humanity.
In some way, be doing something that makes the world a better place or makes a group of people better off or whatever. So my students and I think all people in general want to be in this area of transcendence where they are in their, their best selves. They’re sort of in peak flow, but in a way that is also contributing to society or the world or their family in a way that’s meaningful to them.
So that’s why I call it area of transcendence.
Now, Maria, your thoughts.
Yeah, Suzy, you know, it broke my heart when I read in the article that you said, Oh, I wish at Harvard business school, they would have had this class because when I attended HBS, they actually did have a class like this. It was called self assessment and career development, and it was really transformative for me.
It really gave me the courage to walk away from, you know, when I entered HBS, I did not originally have any plans to pursue the consulting or the banking types of paths. But wow, that Pressure is just, this feels like everyone else is doing it. , and like you, I also came from a family of modest means and, you know, you can’t help, but start looking at those salary reports.
Uh, and you know, you can’t help but have your attention grabbed by them. Uh, and so when I took the self assessment class, it’s funny. I wanted it to tell me a certain narrative about myself that wasn’t true. I wanted it to tell me that, you know, yes, Maria, this is the path that , you should pursue.
And I remember being actually a little bit grumpy. With my results when they came back, because it was like, well, actually, you’re really a creative person and you really bristle against hierarchy just for the sake of hierarchy.
Uh, and so it these typical paths are the last paths you should follow. , and while I. Did not really want to hear that news. , I’m glad that I got it right because it was really transformative. It did prevent me from spending all of the time and effort into pursuing one of these roles that in fact would have probably made me miserable, and it’s really funny because there’s like this big week, second year, where everyone is interviewing and everyone’s trying to get those typical post MBA jobs. Uh, and instead of me doing that at all, I just took some of my classmates who were from Asia who had never been to Latin America. to Peru. We went to Machu Picchu instead.
Uh, and that was a magical week and sure I gave up this path, that the siren song has started pulling me towards it. But taking a class like this really gave me the confidence to verify that this really wasn’t the right path for me.
And I’m glad to see that you are replicating this class at NYU Stern. , it’s one of these skills or levels of introspection that most business schools just don’t teach. And that’s really a shame because, I think that they’re doing folks such a disservice.
I think good business schools are now getting getting religion with it. I mean, I think the more and more I mean, I think that when I was doing the research, I actually went before I went to speak to the 1st time.
I thought, oh, surely. And why you has this class by now. Because I heard it, you know, my son, when he was at Stanford took a class that was like this, and it was called the happiness project or something like that. It did not succeed in making him happy, unfortunately, but he’s happy now. Now he’s happy because we’ve got the great baby and all those other things going on.
But, uh, but it didn’t when he was there. Um, but I would say that I was surprised. And so I’m really glad, um, that more and more business schools have this opportunity. I frankly, you know, It wouldn’t hurt if it went into the undergraduate programs in different schools as well. Um, kids who are in that age frame are a little less formed and don’t know, you know, we’re really sort of in transition more, but frankly, uh, I think it has a place also with a cohort of people who are not quite so far along.
Caroline, we often talk on on these podcasts about the need to be introspective when you actually apply to business school. And 1 would that that exercise in and of itself would would put you on the right course. But apparently it does not.
[CAROLINE DIARTE EDWARDS]:
Yeah, it’s very true. I mean, reading the article that you wrote about, um, Suzy’s work made me think of some of the work that we do with our clients, right, to help them develop their career vision.
And we often get feedback from our clients when they go to business school that having gone through that process, it helps them get a lot more out of the program. And I’m sure that’s the case with your students as well, Suzy, that once they’ve done this class, they’re able to really leverage the resources that’s there.
So much more effectively because they have a much stronger sense of what they want to get out of the program and how they want to carry that forward. We’re in a little bit of a pickle right now because the class is at this point is over subscribed to the point where only second semester second year students can take it.
Right. So the most common comment I get from people is exactly to your point, which is, I wish I took this first. Term because it would have changed all the classes I took. And, um, and so we are, uh, I don’t know how we fix that because obviously you want to make sure the kids are getting it before they graduate.
But yeah, I think it is an incredibly important exercise. The problem with the exercise. And I don’t know how you experience this with your own practice, which, uh, it sounds so incredibly valuable is. It’s hard to get people to do the hard work of actually identifying their true values aptitudes. You can test for.
So I’m always happy when we hit the aptitude section of it. Those are tested, but true values. People have a lot of time, a lot of trouble sometimes. A, accessing them, and B, admitting them. Yeah, that’s, that’s very true. And I think part of that comes with maturity. Um, and so, I really like the point that you make that, um, that it’s not, it’s not an end point, right?
You’re not looking to get to an end point. It’s an iterative process. And so I think that, um, you know, there’s value in doing this at different stages in, in one’s life, right? As you said, it could be good at undergraduate stage. It’s good at graduate school stage because people change, people evolve, and they have greater insight into themselves as time goes on, greater self awareness, and that will, um, you know, inform the process.
And I was very interested in what you said, you talked about how you went into consulting post MBA and what a wonderful training ground that was, but you stayed too long. And, and so, you know, that made me think about how this, this one’s career is, is a process of change. Right? And so how do people, you know, they, they do your program, they do your course, they get this wonderful vision, they get this inspiration, but maybe when they’ll really need that is five years down the road or 10 years down the road when they are getting to a point where it’s It’s time for a change.
And as you say, people kind of get stuck, right? They get stuck in a career. They think I can’t let go. It’s a great employer. I’m in this sort of golden cage and I, I call it the velvet coffin. I mean, I put it in a coffin and I talked to them about it. You get in it. very comfortable. You get addicted to the money.
You really like the people. Um, it has just the right amount of stress for you and it’s good enough. And the next thing you know, the lid is closing on you. I use this very graphic term because I want them to understand that you can wake up at age 50 and say, my God, what have I done? I actually have them read this unbelievably painful article.
It was beautiful. the Atlantic. of a man who found his wife’s diaries after she died and consultation with the children. They agreed that they would read her diary. She had died of breast cancer and they find out that she had not lived in any way, the life she was, she had lived. And, um, and it, yes, but I want them to feel that “owie”.
Because we settle, we settle because it’s of expedience and optics and habit and many other things. And so what I like to do is send my students off with a, with a tool that they can use several again and again. I mean, I don’t think that, you know, the answer to them, the final answer is in my class, here’s the tool, here’s the journey.
Um, here’s your, what’s your, what’s your best thinking without the pressures of the daylight. But I would like you to pull this out once a year and review it. Um, and I’d like you to revisit this process. And if you’ve fallen off the. Journey, as I like to call it, because it is a journey and they’re going to be hills and valleys.
I mean, I, I talked to them a lot about how events get in the way. I mean, my life was going along in a way that was just very splendid. And then my husband got sick and that happens. A kid goes off the rails. Uh, you know, you, you break your leg and you, you can’t go in and then you’re replaced. I mean, just things happen.
And so, but the question is, if you don’t, Have a journey or a destination in mind, you know, you end up going on a lot of different roads and that is also not fulfilling. And so, um, I, I do think that they should revisit it. If no other reason, just to kind of freshen up and remind themselves, but also because the economy is changing.
I mean, I every many, many people’s jobs are going to be radically different. And so you may be going towards someplace, but that job may disappear or a new industry may bubble up. That is so exciting to you. I mean, I. We, I have an expert come in and we talk about the four big mega trends. And some of these are sound very, very, you know, sci fi.
And I ask every time one of these trends is presented, is anybody’s heart pounding? Is anybody’s heart pounding? And I always get some hands because it’s a beginning of feeling like this is very cool and they need to be thinking about that. We also play industry bingo because frankly, when you’re in business school, you just stop thinking about all the industries that exist.
Um, there’s 135 industries and suddenly you sort of think there’s four. There’s consulting, there’s banking, there’s real estate, and if you’re wild, okay, there’s, if you’re crazy, there’s retail. Okay, what? And so, you know, it’s like, I, we play bingo and I literally, I say, I’m, I’m doing this just so that you hear the names of these industries out loud.
Aviation. That’s an industry, you know, and I go through them and then they get very excited because they want to win bingo because these are MBA students. They all want to win something. So, you know, they, you know, you can, your world gets very narrow. If you don’t keep on coming back to asking these very big, hard questions with some kind of construct now, have you seen the impact on your students of the course?
That is so unreal. I have, I mean, that it is like, I, you know, Jack, one of the things he used to do when something got very excited. He used to say in the veins, in the veins, as if he even had any idea what a drug would be like, or feel like the guy was, you know, a beer was like as big as it got for him.
But I get that because I have seen students lives radically transformed in front of my eyes. I mean, I often jokingly this is a joke I call my class. The class where everyone cries, because there are so much emotionality. And I mean, I saw a student present her area of transcendence. She was in financial reporting at her company, took the class as a lark had no kind of actually, she was a big skeptic at the beginning.
Everyone’s like, get somebody who comes in and like, okay, I’ve heard a lot about this class. You just prove it to me. So she came in really. Button down financial person, airy transcendence presents to the class. She’s going to become an interior decorator. She’s like every I learned, I have been living a big lie.
This is what I love. This is what I do in my free time. All my aptitudes confirm. This is what I want to be. And I’m going and I’m blowing it up. And this is what I’m doing. My husband and I have come up with a business idea. He’s in real estate. We’re going to work together. We’ve got this idea. And she was on fire.
And everyone cried. I mean, to see, I mean, and I’m, if I could tell you this was the exception, I’d be lying because every single semester we get this and, um, it’s just, um, mind blowing to be a part of it. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. It’s yes. So, but okay. By contrast, I had a student come in.
And she was wildly confused, and she actually wrote me her opening essay, asked them to write me a personal letter at the beginning saying why they’re taking the class. And it was very painful. She said, I’m confused. I’m in despair. And it was filled with despondency and self doubt. And she got up and gave her area of transcendence presentation.
And she said, I started off this class. So confused about what I was doing and what it confirmed for me is there is a reason I am doing all of this. I am in the right place. It is hard. It is where I belong. I’ve made the right choices and this class has been so affirming to me because nothing is going to change.
But at least I understand why I’m doing it now. And everyone cried. I mean, it was just very powerful and I thought this is just as useful as the person becoming the interior decorator. Is this is a person who’s discovered that the stuff that’s hard has a reason to it and she’s bought in. So it’s all good now, given that most people won’t have the benefit of taking your course who are listening to this podcast.
I wonder what advice you might convey to help them make the right choices. Now, you know, most people who are listening to this are people who are in the process of consideration of an MBA and applying to an MBA program questions. Should they be asking themselves right now? Well, I think they probably crossed the bridge to understanding why they’re getting their MBA.
I mean, I think you get your, I often joke with my students that I was the only person who went to get an MBA because I needed to learn more about business. I mean, I had been a crime reporter. They switched me over to covering business and I was like, I don’t know a ding dang thing about business. I don’t know anything.
Google then. So I couldn’t sort of Yeah. Brush up on myself. And so I had to go to business school to learn about business, which I found fascinating. Um, but, um, business school has got all these things, um, where you can learn about, um, jobs and roles and functions. And I guess my advice would be take advantage of them.
Like, go to all those meetings, go to all those info sessions. Uh, you’re going to get, you’re going to get a herded very quickly onto a conveyor belt. And so fight that, uh, and go to the, you know, go when somebody is on campus or. Some teacher knows a lot about some topic, you know, uh, find them and keep, keep your aperture as wide as possible once you get there, because you’re going there to open up possibilities for your life.
And then you get there and you start narrowing it down very quickly. And I’d, I’d fight that, fight that very hard. Yeah. That’s really good advice.
Well, uh, hey, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us today. Really appreciate it for all of you out there. I hope you learn something about, uh, really just thinking more deeply about what you want to do with your life.
Um, because I think you’re right. So many people just are funneled into these positions by virtue of peer pressure and the need to pay off those loans, and they’re not thinking long term about what’s going to make them happy. What’s going to make them fulfilled and how they are going to lead the most meaningful life possible.
So, uh, I wish all of, uh, all of us could take your course, uh, even me at my late stage, I think I could learn something from it as well. Well, I think that actually, I, I, I, I’d love to figure out ways for people who are not in business school to take it because I do know the value. Absolutely. Maybe a book, Suzy?
Can we look forward to the book?
Yeah, I, you know, uh, um, I can’t hear you. You know, writing books is very hard. You know, it’s like, I don’t, I don’t know if I have the heart for it, but I do, I do want to figure out a way where more people can take it. I don’t know what that is, but I, I would love to do that.
And some of this harks back to actually your book, 10, 10, 10, right transforming idea, uh, where I bet you the seeds of this course were originally planted.
I actually in the executive MBA program at NYU, where I have 2 extra weeks with becoming you, I actually do teach decision making as part of it because.
Part of why we don’t do the right things with our career once we’re getting our MBA, or even before we go to get our MBA, is we don’t know how to make a good decision. And so that’s, that’s part and parcel with this is that we have to decide, but first we have to know how to decide.
Indeed. Suzy, thank you.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
All right. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants You’ve been listening to Business Casual, our weekly podcast. Thanks for tuning in.