Darden is in the talent discovery and development business. We look pretty far and wide for excellent inbound talent with which to fulfill our mission, “to improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.” And then we work very hard to develop that talent to have a transformational impact in the world. At this moment every year, we are well into the talent discovery cycle. Letters of admission have gone out for our MBA Full-Time Program and our MBA for Executives Program. About now, the candidates’ questions focus intensely on parsing out the differences among schools. Deposit deadlines are approaching. The candidates must decide, “Which school should I attend?”

As I told a group of admitted applicants at Darden recently, I have one consideration that dominates most others. Issues such as cost, convenience, geographic location, brand, alumni network, job placement, and others all arise in the candidates’ thinking, and justifiably so—but they are dwarfed in significance by the consideration I will tell. All too often, this consideration is a stealth issue that is overlooked entirely in choosing a school and then later discovered too late and with regret. My point is that it is far better to grapple with it now.

A few years ago, I was counseling a second-year student who had received two job offers and was trying to choose between them. The dilemma was stark: on one hand, high pay at a large, well-known firm in a big city to be part of a three-year leadership development program that would rotate him through many different jobs quickly. On the other hand, there was an offer for frankly low pay, to work for an unknown rapidly-growing small firm located in a dodgy neighborhood where the student would be a general manager from day one. The realities of student loans and economic uncertainty being what they were, the student was leaning toward the high-pay job offer. He seemed to be looking for my blessing on the choice.

Instead, I asked him, “where can you do your best work?” The look of astonishment on the student’s face told me that this was a new way of thinking to him. He offered some blah blah blah about hypothetical career progression. I politely suggested that he go away and think some more about my question. Not long after, he accepted the job with the small company. A few years on, he is successful in every way: happy, well-compensated, a big cheese in a much bigger company, and doing the work he feels ready and able to do. I’m glad that he and I had the conversation when we did. But the end of an MBA program is a little late to start thinking this way.

My advice to admitted applicants is to start wrestling with the question right now. “Where can you do your best work?” It’s deceptively simple and radically challenging. You must define for yourself two words in particular:

  • Work.  What “work” do you need to do or are you ready to do in the near future?  What “work” do you feel some passion for?  Do you hear a calling of some kind?  Students who enroll at the elite business schools aren’t there simply to bash through hundreds of tools, concepts, and buzzwords.  By and large, they are trying to work through a personal transformation of some kind.  A large majority of MBA students are contemplating the possibility of a career switch.  Virtually all of them feel ready for something bigger and want the kind of preparation that will accelerate them forward.  It is safe to say that the work you want to undertake at B-school consists of a complicated agenda that, to be achieved, requires some pretty sophisticated help.  It’s not easy; but that’s why they call it “work.”
  • Best.  Truly transformational experiences almost always arise in engagement with others.  Thus, “best” usually entails some judgment about how you like to engage.  The best learning is active, not passive; creative, not rote; deep, not superficial; challenging, not easy; and collaborative and coached in various ways, not simply competitive—how you accomplish all that requires serious effort on your part and some ingenious design work on a school’s part.

Among the 12,000 schools in the world that award degrees in business, you can find an almost infinite range of choices around the definitions of “best” and “work.”  Where can you do it?  At the end of the day, you must choose. 

From my perch as Dean, I see vast differences among the top schools—differences that seem invisible to rankings and guidebooks.  For instance, at Darden, we focus on the transformation of the student and therefore we design a total learning experience to include plenty of engagement, feedback, and individual choice.  As I have said on many occasions, what distinguishes Darden are “high touch” (a highly interactive, high-engagement learning approach), “high tone” (a focus on leadership development, not just the acquisition of tools and concepts), and “high octane” (a rigorous, transformative experience that is energizing and collaborative.)  We think that there is a great deal of “best work” to be done here.

The big point is that a life decision such as accepting a job offer or admission to an MBA program shouldn’t hinge just on the obvious criteria (dollars, title, location, etc.)  You must focus importantly on the work you want to do and how this choice can help you do it.  Where can you do your best  work?