I started my distribution career at Grainger in the lowest job in the company: Truck Unloader.
I was a college student working towards my degree at a very – ahem – regal pace. This was driven by a combination of poverty, immaturity and having no idea what I wanted to do with my life (I was born in Canada and we immigrated to the US when I was one year old; once I learned I couldn’t be President, nothing else interested me…).
One day while I was working the shipping bench in the warehouse, our district manager tapped me on the shoulder and told me he wanted me to apply to the Branch Manager training program. After carefully analyzing the complex implications of this decision – which would entail dropping out of school and moving out of state – for about two seconds, I agreed.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to manage a big branch in the Chicago area, near the corporate office. I had intended to finish my degree along the way but now found myself a dropout. Somehow, I was nonetheless promoted into the marketing department.
One of the main reasons all of these good things happened to me was that a series of managers decided to overlook the fact that I had no degree. Moreover, Grainger not only paid the tuition so I could finish my undergraduate degree, the company also sponsored my MBA. When I left Grainger after 15 years as Marketing VP, I’d only had a degree of any kind for about four of those years.
Perhaps it was these experiences that led to my seemingly-contradictory view of a college education: I absolutely insisted our two boys graduate from college (they both did) and I simultaneously demanded that the HR departments supporting marketing remove the phrase, “College degree required” from the jobs I posted.
The reason I insisted my sons attend college is that, despite the sponsorship I enjoyed from some important leaders, I sometimes felt the very real discrimination you face in the business world if you don’t have a degree. I didn’t want them to have to fight that and there’s no point in facing avoidable obstacles in your career – because while I don’t care if candidates have degrees, many companies and managers do. Not having a degree gets in the way of even being considered for many jobs, no matter your other qualifications.
And yet the business world is full of highly successful leaders without degrees. I have been blessed to meet a wide variety of outstanding CEOs, VPs, entrepreneurs and other leaders who didn’t graduate from college. You may be surprised to learn that many famous and successful business people aren’t college graduates, including Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Ted Turner, Larry Ellison and countless others.
When those HR professionals would argue with me about the “college degree required” qualification, I would ask, “Are you telling me that Steve Jobs is not qualified to be a marketing manager in this company?”
There are occupations where a college degree really is required, such as jobs ranging from accounting and engineering to medical and legal professionals. But in business, I’ve found that such a requirement is an easy way for HR to screen applicants, yet it makes about as much sense as eliminating candidates based on astrological signs.
I understand the benefits of attending college. It’s a real accomplishment that is justifiably on every graduate’s resume. But other credentials are just as important and establishing a degree requirement when you recruit for jobs does more harm than good because it filters out many great candidates.
Think twice before you overlook individuals in your own organization who don’t have degrees. Consider sponsoring their college educations if it’s important to you. You may find that your future VP of Marketing is unloading trucks in one of your branches. Seems far-fetched, I know, but I’ve heard it can happen.
Feel free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.