Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns

If you know me, you may be quite surprised that I’m quoting Donald Rumsfeld here — and I promise I’m not getting political (yet) — but this infamous quote is actually very applicable to my first semester at Haas!

As I mentioned before, I’ve spent the past 12+ years in the non-profit sector, so I knew going in that there was a lot I didn’t know. I’ve never taken any sort of business class (mostly the fuzzier sciences and drama) so it’s no surprise that microeconomics and accounting are new to me – known unknowns, that is. And there’s certainly known knowns too, lest you think I’m a newbie to business (marketing for sure, and I had plenty to share in Leading People, our organizational behavior core class).

But this week I’ve been puzzling over which company to pick for the Gallup Strengths-based Business Development Workshop I’m attending. Attendees have been charged with writing up a research profile a company of our choice — a large, US-based, publicly-held company, with multiple divisions and complex business operations. I have no experience with any company like that, except from the consumer perspective! To me, this is really an unknown unknown – the strategies of such a company are very different from the three local cultural nonprofits where I’ve spent my career. Non-profits have their own complexities and there are quite a few national charities (American Red Cross, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for example), but they’re not in the scope of this project.

So how do I even begin to narrow it down? I’m not currently working in a sector that would “count” for this project – so do I go for tech, consumer goods, green, financial services, entertainment? Do I browse the listings at finance.google.com? Do I use some of my newly acquired accounting knowledge (return on equity!) to pick a super-profitable company with high margins (Apple)? How about one that produces a product I’m addicted to (Diet Coke)? Maybe one from Fortune’s Top 100 Best Companies to Work For list (Whole Foods)? I’ve worked at an art-house movie theater, so maybe a big movie studio (Lionsgate) – or a big company that owns a movie studio (GE or Viacom)? Or a company with values that resonate with my own (P&G maybe?)

I also got some great advice this week from Alison Davis at the MBA-Nonprofit Connection: endeavor to apply every project in my MBA to my non-profit career goals. How can I find the angle in this project to apply the experience to the very-real differences in the non-profit sector? I’ve signed up for this workshop to explore my leadership style, and gain experience in developing strong consultative selling relationships – something I think will be very applicable in future dealings with donors and supporters.

So readers, help me out. Comment with the company you would pick if you got to choose!

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