The Golden State

Prof. Kevin Sharer

It is the season for the EC to close in on career choices and the RC to lock in internships. The realization is dawning that HBS is actually a twenty month experience that quickly is over. You must have questions. What industry? What functional area? What company? Compensation in the first few years? Experiences of recent HBS grads? What about my life partner’s aspirations and interests? Most
people at your stage also begin to think about a family. We seek a road map, but none are reliable or sometimes even apparent. It seems to some that this first job choice will have an enormous impact on the future, but we also know that a high percentage of HBS grads change jobs and companies within a few years of graduation. These job, career and life choices can seem like a maze shrouded in fog. What to do? How to optimize around a few reliable, future option generating choices that could meet our aspirations for life and work with a life partner who also has high career aspirations? Here is an idea. Let’s raise location to a top three position in the job choice algorithm.

My recommendation is that the top first two job choices are industry and company. Pick the combination you find interesting, has good growth prospects, you embrace the values, and you will be proud to be a part of and represent. Your first job in the company you choose is much less important than these two choices. You will not be in it long, and by doing a good job you will create attractive future opportunities for yourself in the organization. It is that conceptually simple. My experience
talking with students these past five years is that most wonder if the decision should be based so fundamentally on these choices. It seems too straightforward, but it actually is this conceptually simple.

For those of you who just cannot see yourself anywhere but the NYC/Boston financial services ecosystem, my location advocacy is probably a bridge too far. For those others of you that can imagine life outside NYC/Boston, I have a suggestion. Go to California. Some disclaimers about your columnist. I have spent over half of my life in California growing up, lived in Los Angeles for twenty years while at
Amgen and am moving to San Francisco next year. I am experienced, but clearly have a bias. My experience and that of many others I know support the idea that making California your defining choice and then finding the industry/company is a credible option. It might sound backwards to choose place then job but let me make the case. California is gigantic in every possible way: economic, range of
industries, population, cultural environments, growth prospects, influx of talent, educational and medical centers, inflow of capital, etc. The Northeast also has many, many positive characteristics but where you went to prep school and college can really matter. Who your family is can matter. California is not a pure meritocracy, but your family and pedigree matter much, much less in my experience. The vibrancy of the economy and the innovation ecosystem is the envy of the world. My great good fortune was to lead the biggest company in the world in an industry that did not exist when I was your age –
biotechnology. The two leading companies in that industry were formed in California. Many other industries have similar stories. California is a magnet for talent so you will be in one of the places where the best and brightest are drawn and congregate. The range of options in either Northern or Southern
California can provide opportunities for two career families. I smile at my friends who complain about the taxes. My view is that if you are worried about marginal tax differences, you make so much money you do not need to worry about it. I realize I am in the minority here. The beauty of the environment and unmatched in the world climate matter too in ways that are hard to describe, but when you
experience them you just feel better. Living in a vibrant, aspirational place with other talented people where anything seems possible and the outdoors always beckons is hard to beat and worth considering.

California is not perfect, but in my experience and view no place else is close.

Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.