Career Management: News and Notes

In Profile: Consultant Michael Drapkin

What's a good first step on the road to becoming a top management consultant? Try playing in a major symphony orchestra.

It's a strategy that worked out well for Michael Drapkin, a consultant who's survived and thrived through some very interesting career turns. Fomerly a Senior Technologist at top web agencies Razorfish and Avalanche, Drapkin now works with numerous dot.coms at his consultancy firm, Drapkin Technology as well as chairing the E-Commerce programme at Columbia University. We begged a bit of time from this self-confessed workaholic's schedule to answer a few questions about career planning and strategy.

How did you get into consulting?

In 1998 I held CTO and Director positions with prominent firms that both failed miserably. At the end of that year, instead of significant equity in thriving companies, I was back on my own, along with everyone else with "Chief" in their title. I decided to go back to consulting, then my instincts kicked back in. I started a new firm and it took off. '98 turned out to be invaluable in ways I never imagined - I made a huge number of client and vendor relationships that I was then immediately able to leverage, and I continue to do so today.

Michael Drapkin

If you had to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

Sometimes one fantasizes about going back and doing some other things, such as becoming an expert skier or a Talmudic scholar in Jerusalem, but in reality everything I've done is working to my benefit and helping me today, so I probably wouldn't change it. My early days as a professional symphony orchestra musician taught me discipline, the ability to perform under battle conditions and to understand what it takes to strive and succeed. My early tech days formed a great foundation I fall back on now for being able to organically decide how things should be put together. My early ventures taught me sales, marketing and focus and the myriad startups I've worked with taught me why businesses succeed and why they fail. Plus my many projects have been useful, especially the failures, so I know what to watch out for before things go awry.

How do you value educational vs. job experience?

Ironic question, given I chair the E-Commerce program at Columbia University. While I have a college degree, the bulk of my knowledge is self-taught. College is very important to give you a framework for how to learn, but the real learning is always done on your own, and that is a gift you either have or don't. Job experience is invaluable as there are things you just can't learn out of a book. I think that specific programs, like the one I chair, can help you get jump started into a new area and fill gaps, so they do have their usefulness.

How important is an MBA?

An MBA is good for learning the lingo of the business world and for making contacts, but the downside is that it isn't a panacea for how to be successful at business. B-school gives you a very narrow cross section of how business works, which needs to be widened and deepened with real world experience. I judged MBA presentations at NYU a few months ago, and not a single one of these talented students came up with anything practical.

How worthwhile is it to formulate a career strategy?

Another loaded question. I was just invited to lecture on that very subject at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, so this could obviously be the subject of an entire essay.

Everyone wants to know where he or she is going, especially if you are highly motivated, so it is inevitable that a career strategy be formulated so that you can efficiently use your time and resources for achieving your goals. From early high school up until I landed a job with a major US orchestra (in 1982), I was single minded in my pursuits of my goals. When I finally landed a major symphony job, I suddenly realized that I was too much of a maverick to be in that kind of structure for the rest of my life - one chief and everyone else an Indian. That was a shock, but it also taught me that you never know the direction that your life will go, or where you eventually will want to go. So I always advocate planning tempered with flexibility so that you can be ready to take advantage of the gifts that life tosses your way. In fact, that is what I enjoy the most about what I do now - I never know what will interesting opportunity or client will come across the transom, and that is tremendously fun, exciting and satisfying.

To others it is horrifying.

What does management mean to you?

When I originally interviewed for a project manager job at Lehman Brothers(the Wall St. firm) back in 1993, that was the only question my boss asked me. I answered something like the following:

"The purpose of management is to see that your firm's goals and objectives are met. The manager is empowered to take responsibility and see that all steps are taken to arrive at that goal. This includes the management of staff and other managers and project leaders, acquisition of resources and products, and engendering the cooperation of others who may control resources you need to achieve your goals."

My upcoming book has a section on Project Management, and I start that section with that very question: "What is project management?" (you'll have to buy the book to hear the answer - grin)

Visit Michael Drapkin online at


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