The tattooed MBA

By Felix Salmon
August 20, 2009
tattoo post has become very interesting, and now Ryan Avent weighs in with his take:

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The conversation in the comments to my tattoo post has become very interesting, and now Ryan Avent weighs in with his take:

Most people don’t tend to see things the way Mr Salmon does, but rather take outward signs at face value. Most jobseekers do dress up for interviews. Most young people seeking professional work do not get large, visible tattoos. Firms pay for fancy offices and hire college graduates, even though fancy offices and college graduates are expensive and shabby offices and a staff of non-graduates might signal that the firm is very good at what it does—so good that it doesn’t need to bother with the normal trappings.

In general, I think it tends to be much more costly to depart from convention than to keep to it, at least until a reputation has been established.

I’m reminded of this recent post by James Kwak, formerly of McKinsey & Co:

It’s not what you learn at business school that matters, it’s the screening function. Top business schools screen for the attributes that certain types of companies, including consulting firms and investment banks, value – above-average intelligence, ambition, presentability, ability to get along with others, willingness to follow orders, and a strong streak of conformism. McKinsey recruits people with Ph.D.s (and certain other advanced degrees) as well because the Ph.D. is an indicator of intelligence and (to some extent) ambition, but it is considerably harder to get a consulting job as a Ph.D. from a top school than as an MBA from a top school because of the other things that an MBA signals.

I think there’s a gap in the market here, for a new high-end management consultancy, and/or boutique investment bank, which only hires people with tattoos and which doesn’t employ a single MBA. Even if only a minority of potential clients see things the way I do, that could easily be enough people to build a strong and sustainable business.

Once upon a time, in fact, the City of London was full of “barrow boys” who had left school at 16 and made it rich as traders. In the US, shops like Bear Stearns and Salomon Brothers often took great pride in being staffed with hungry guys from the streets, people with the opinion that it’s making money which matters, not being respectable. Even now, certain corners of the market, like the inter-dealer brokers, have similar characteristics. But as an ever-growing proportion of smart kids goes first to a good college before even looking for a job, and as these firms become better established, it becomes very easy to fall back onto hoary conventions when it comes to staffing.

I’m dedicating this post to a certain heavily-tattooed bank flack who never went to university and who has suffered as a result — more for the lack of formal education than for the ink, it must be said. No one thinks that at this point in her career what she did or didn’t learn as an undergraduate would make the slightest bit of difference to her performance in the job, but somehow it’s always easier to promote someone else. It’s a sign of overcaution and laziness on the part of her managers. And in theory there’s no reason why that laziness and overcaution can’t be exploited by their rivals.

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