I had the great joy this weekend of speaking and judging at the MBA Odyssey. It's a sort of competitive academic Olympics for the top MBA Schools. Twelve big-name schools like Harvard, Cambridge, Haas, Dartmouth, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, among others, all competed for two days at Columbia University. The winners of the competition were Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, with HKUST and Harvard Business School in second and third, respectively.

I was blessed to be included among the speakers. I was in good company with the CEOs of LVMH, Johnson & Johnson, and Petrossian. As I thought about what to say to these young and smart MBA candidates, I thought it best to just share some of my observations about success. I explained to them that as a business columnist, I am constantly looking for two things: patterns and anomalies. I watch for patterns of success and failure, and then look for people who successfully buck those patterns.

I told them it was a mistake to always look to be the anomaly, as sometimes the pattern shows the best path, but that either way, it's nice to have the choice. Below are 10 anomalies of successful attempts I have noticed through the years. The attendees seemed to find them valuable, and I hope you do as well.

1. Stop being nice.

Most people don't want to make others feel bad about their work, especially when someone has put a lot of time and effort into a project. But when someone is headed down the wrong path or, worse, taking the whole team toward the cliff, it's time to stand up and speak, even if you will offend. You don't have to be unkind, but honest and straightforward feedback is necessary to get to the top. The best people will appreciate the directness.

2. Do your homework.

It may seem odd that I was telling the top business students in the world to do their homework. Obviously they must, or they wouldn't be at those schools. But when I asked the 100 or so students how many of them research attendees on LinkedIn prior to an important meeting, less than 50 percent raised their hands. I told those whose hands were lowered that they needed to step up their game. For the hand-raisers, they needed to identify their blind spots and focus their efforts to account for them.

3. Show up.

I am still amazed at how many opportunities in my life have occurred because I was the only person to ask a question or respond to a challenge. The most successful people I know consider every opportunity, even if only to determine not to act. Then, when appropriate, they ask or take action.

4. Collect people.

When I hit age 40, I was surprised at how many of my early friends and colleagues had risen to important positions in powerful companies. The bigger network you build, the broader opportunity base you own. It pays to keep in touch with people, and it is so much easier today with LinkedIn and Facebook. You never know who will be just the person you need 10 years from now.

5. Plant seeds.

The other thing I realized at 40 was that the best things in life take time to cultivate. Whether it's a new business, a great relationship, or even a killer marketing program, almost nothing worth having comes without consistent attention over time. That's why successful people are rarely looking for a quick hit. They are instead starting small projects today, which they don't expect to harvest until fruitful years later. My own most recent venture (which is soon to take off) began as an idea in 2010.

6. Help people remember you.

I pointed out that typical competition for a consulting business would likely have six or seven groups of top MBAs giving their pitches in black or gray suits, white shirts, and dark ties. I then asked how each of them would be memorable. There was a lot of seat squirming when they looked around and saw exactly the attire I had described right there in the room. The most successful people know how to stand out and make an empathetic connection so they are remembered when the time comes to transact.

7. Act with intention.

Everything in life occurs either by design or default. We can't always determine which way it happened, but that is rarely the point. Extremely successful people design as much as possible, even if it's only to know how to compare the opportunities in front of them. It's much easier to execute when you have either a plan to follow or one from which to deviate.

8. Focus on right, not just done.

My own experience at Fordham Business School has shown me there are many students focused on just finishing their degree and moving on. The most successful people I have seen are amazing at figuring out how to get things done quickly, but also in the right way. Given the choice, they will always reset the timelines and expectations to make sure things don't fall apart when it counts.

9. Choose a preferred destiny.

I asked the students how many of them had considered or knew who they wanted to be in 10 years, and less than a third raised their hands. I then pointed out that people investing $150 thousand and two years of time in a prospective company would usually like to know what a long-term vision of that company would look like, so why would they treat their MBA--which cost the same time and money--any differently? Successful people have a vision that fits their wants and needs and then they strive for that vision, even if it changes.

10. Pursue the awesome experience.

These students did not invest their time, money, and thinking to live a life of mediocrity. They chose a path to success. And that means fulfilling the needs of their life, having a great, entertaining time doing it, and learning from the unexpected that is bound to happen along the way. Successful people will always shoot for the intersection of all three things: need, entertainment, and the unexpected.

Published on: Mar 23, 2015
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