Should you always go for the best?

Whether we are talking about going back to school or a looking for a new executive job, the question is, “Should you always go for the highest ranking university or the most prestigious corporation?”

Back in my parents’ day in China, all high school students took countrywide exams, the results of which determined university admissions. The higher one’s score, the more prestigious the school one attended. The ranking of each university as well as the scores of every student were known and matched so that the best performers went to the best schools. Decision-making back then was simple, but what about in today’s world with its abundance of choice?

Unless you must “satisfice” across multiple constraints that require significant compromise (e.g., a highly desired position, in a highly undesired location), then conceptually, the answer must be yes: go for the very best executive job opportunity or university admission that you can get. However, by what standard does one determine what is “the best”?

In my experience, whether you are choosing graduate schools or career enhancing jobs, there are six main criteria to consider in determining what “the best” means for us as individuals: three that matter while you are there, and three that matter when you are ready to move on.

What matters while you are there:

What will you learn and gain from being there? Make sure that the organization delivers on the content and experiences that you need to obtain during this part of your executive career. Early on, it may be better to join a larger organization known for its expertise in your field of interest to learn the subject area and gain contacts. As a more senior executive, you may get more out of joining a smaller organization with great aspirations and putting them on the map.

Who will you learn it from? This applies to the senior executives/faculty as well as to colleagues/fellow students. The quality of the people around you matters, because this drives how much you will learn.

Where is your best fit? Find the place that makes you feel at home and where you can be yourself while also being challenged. The people around you will be your tribe while you are there: make sure there are enough people who will lift you up and help you to achieve your aspirations.

What matters when you are ready to move on:

Who is in the alumni network? Only part of what you gain from a degree or an executive position is from the formal learning and training. Finding great future opportunities often comes down to leveraging your networks, and your fellow alumni and past colleagues may someday provide the important leads for your next moves. So when assessing a new executive position or further education course, ask about the backgrounds of your potential colleagues or classmates/professors – where have they come from and what do they hope to get from their current position or further study?

You should also attempt to find out what previous colleagues or students have gone on to do once they themselves become alums. This may be difficult in an executive job scenario, so perhaps visit Linkedin and use the ‘advanced people search’ to find out where the alums are working now – fill in the ‘company’ field and choose ‘past’.

What value does the organization provide as a “seal of approval” or pedigree? Look at the organization’s current reputation as well as its trajectory; make sure it is stable or, better yet, on an upswing. Also consider the optimal size and geographic reach: if you have international interests and want to work on complex issues across borders, then it is better to be part of a global organization with scale.

What future flexibility does the organization afford for you? Recognize that every place you land is a stepping-stone to your next adventure. A school or company with a broad range of offerings provides you a bigger “toy box” for experimentation without having to make costly moves. Similarly, an organization with a broader reputation delivers more than one that is highly specialized – unless you only want to work in that specialized area.

When it comes to obtaining a graduate degree, the upfront tuition can seem like a large sum. However, the rewards are reaped over ones entire executive career, with the potential difference in earnings power harder to quantify upfront when the decision is made. Saving $50,000 today by going to a lesser school may not be the best value proposition – it all depends on where your answers stacked up on the six criteria above. And in an environment of degree inflation, the schools with the better reputation will be more valuable.

Similarly, a job at a smaller, less established company could be great if it becomes the next Google, but that riskier platform could also end up as the next Bear Stearns. Even if they offer “double the pay,” think hard about how many years they will be around to make good on that monetary incentive. Career interruptions can be costly, so try to put yourself in a position where they are mostly of your own choosing.

The bottom line is that each candidate for “the best” situation must be evaluated on its own merits, with importance placed on finding a stable platform for your entire executive career. And remember, it’s important to have fun while you are going for your personal best.