Does it matter where you went to school?

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(MoneyWatch) Every year, Amazon (AMZN) hires hundreds of MBA graduates. Where they come from, they say, doesn't matter as much as the way they think. According to Jennifer Boden, who runs their university programs, Amazon wants entrepreneurial thinkers who are good at using data to drive decisions and get new products to market fast.

She said that where you went to school didn't really matter and that experience counted for more. I'm not entirely sure I believe this. The target schools she mentioned - Carnegie Mellon, Wharton, Michigan - are a good deal more famous for their quantitative style than their entrepreneurial flair. And it's hard to imagine a true entrepreneur eager to join a company rapidly becoming famous for treating its low level employees like robots.

But she makes a good point in arguing that jobseekers can expect too much from their school's name or even from their degree. Thinking that the institution's reputation will stand in for your own is always a mistake. I've lost count of the number of people I've known (and sometimes hired) for whom getting into a big name school was pretty much the biggest achievement of their lives. They hoped to ride on that -- and many did. But their work was never interesting and their leadership didn't inspire.

We are rapidly approaching a moment in which the number of candidates with great degrees from great schools are plentiful -- even over-supplied. What makes the difference isn't your ability to get into these places or even to emerge with a decent degree. What matters is who you are and what you've achieved outside of the warm embrace of an institution. The true test of a great employee isn't their MBA or their quantitative skills but their ability to see what is needed -- in the company, in the market -- without being told.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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