Yahoo’s Scott Thompson and the Trap of Marginal Thinking

By - May 21, 13:33 PM Comments [0]

Are you considering padding your resume or record as you apply to college, graduate school, or a job? Think again. This past week I came across several articles at different times and on different topics that you should know about.

Obviously there are the stories about Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s embellished college record. Just a few hours ago Yahoo confirmed the inevitable: Scott Thomas is now the former CEO of Yahoo. Non-existent degrees on resumes are a hard thing to claim “oops!” about. He is out.

What does a falsehood from thirty years ago reflect on his competence to run Yahoo today? Whether he had the degree or not, don’t his recent accomplishments speak more loudly about his abilities than some stale studies from three decades ago?

That phony degree in computer science may not reflect one iota on his managerial skill, but it speaks volumes about his integrity. In all likelihood if he had just told the truth, he would still have been chosen to be Yahoo CEO, and there would have been no easy target for activist shareholder, Dan Loeb, the CEO of Third Point, to go after Thompson, much less win three seats for the Third Point group on Yahoo’s board.

But Thompson didn’t tell the truth and apparently hasn’t been consistently telling the truth about his academic record for years. Consequently, he is no longer CEO, and could be facing problems with the SEC, and his reputation is in tatters.

That leads to the second story I saw this week. It didn’t generate the headlines of Yahoo’s board shakeup, but the questions and conclusion are surprisingly similar.

Back in January prestigious Claremont-McKenna College acknowledged that a senior administrator had falsified data reported to U.S. News for its highly influential college rankings. The administrator resigned in disgrace. Claremont apologized and hired O'Melveny & Myers LLP to provide the correct data and to detail the extent of the misrepresentation since 2004. Per the Morse Code, the blog of Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S.News & World Report, and based on the newly verified data, Claremont McKenna’s 2012 rank is correct and will not change.

That’s mind boggling! That administrator lied, lost his job, damaged a top school’s name and for what? Nothing. The ranking with the lower, accurate data is unchanged.

While the saints among us may be feeling very smug at this point — “The bad guys got their due, and I would never make up something on my resume.” — I’d like to point out a third article I read this week – this one from Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. In the fascinating “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Dr. Clayton Christensen writes about the “trap of marginal thinking” both on bottom-line and ethical decisions. In his attempts to teach students how to live a life of integrity he writes, “The marginal cost of doing something ‘just this once’ always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will typically be much higher.” He is so right.

Applicants (and applicant parents): Please, please, put your best foot forward in your applications BUT make sure it’s your foot. Don’t embellish. Don’t falsify. Don’t lie. You should have learned this in kindergarten, but if you didn’t, realize that the long-term cost of these falsehoods can be far higher than whatever pain or small cost is exacted by simply telling the truth.

Scott Thompson just learned this lesson. That Claremont McKenna administrator learned this lesson. It would be wonderful if applicants and their parents could also learn this lesson — before their names find their way into the headlines for some long-ago “inadvertent error” that clearly was intentional.

By Linda Abraham, president and founder of and co-author of the new, definitive book on MBA admissions, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.

This article originally appeared on Technorati and was recently reprinted on the Accepted Admissions Consulting Blog, the official blog of

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