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Michael E. Porter is a university professor at Harvard, based at Harvard Business School in Boston. He is a co-author, with Robert S. Kaplan, of How to Solve the Cost Crisis in Health Care. In this recent interview with HBR Ascend, Michael Porter spoke about his work on sustainable competitive advantage and how individuals can apply this concept to their careers. He also discussed why it is essential for young managers to understand strategy and its basic concepts. Edited excerpts:

Can any of your work on sustainable competitive advantage for nations and companies be usefully applied to individuals’ career? 

When you’re building a career, you’re building a skill base, a knowledge base, and your human capital. You want to expose yourself to the best ideas and to the best training and to the best experiences you can have. At the end of the day, like in a strategy, you want to have some distinctive assets. You want to have some unique contribution that you’re well-equipped to make and you need to find the kind of organization and the kind of business which will allow you to realize what you want to accomplish. When I am talking to my students about their careers and about what their next step is, I’m always asking them, “How is this equipping you for where you want to ultimately go in life?" 

Have you ever thought about this in relation to your own career?

Sometimes it takes us a while to figure out what it is that we really want to do as human beings. I didn’t start out life planning to be a professor, but life is this journey and you get presented with things and you learn about yourself and what you can accomplish. 

It wasn’t until my second year when I went to HBS, that I got inspired by a set of problems in strategy and economics, and I got some training, and one thing led to another and I discovered that I had some aptitude that was relevant. And the future opened up and I said “Gee, this is where I’d like to go." And then I had to equip myself to have the skill to do that, and that took a long time. For many, many years I read every business magazine article about every industry and every company that I could find. I steered myself through hundreds and hundreds of different industries so my core initial theory started to emerge. 

I really enjoyed trying to help people, understanding how to think about very complex problems and provide the frameworks. But again, it was a lot of pieces that fell together. I am an aerospace engineer by training; it’s that engineering training and that systems thinking that really is the foundation on which all my work lies. 

Now I didn’t get the aerospace engineering degree because I was going to be a professor. I got it because my dad was an engineer, who thought his son was going to be an engineer, and I liked aerospace so I did that. Life is a set of building blocks. You build your own personal capabilities and you find what really motivates you. You can’t be doing something because you have to do it or because it’s prestigious. You have to ultimately get into a situation where you love what you’re doing. 

There’s a perception that strategy is only for senior leaders. If I’m an early career professional, what role can I play with respect to strategy and what understanding of strategy do I need?

A young professional has got to understand the strategy of the company if they’re going be effective at what they do and if they’re going to stand out. In the end, the hard thing about any complex large enterprise is getting all the people marching in the same direction, and strategy is the definition of what that direction is. There are certain best practices: If you’re a marketing person, you have to read all the marketing literature, you have to know what the latest and greatest ideas in marketing are, you’ve got to know the digital advertising world, how to use the internet to communicate with customers, etc. What sets people apart is the ability to take those disciplines and actually apply them in a way that reinforces their particular company’s advantage. I can tell you that a senior manager would be very, very excited to run into people like that.

HBR Ascend is a digital learning companion for millennials and graduating students in India. For more, log on to

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