Source: Poets & Quants
by Jeff Schmitt,
June 24, 2016.
In every board room, you’ll hear executives pay homage to business as a force for good. Too often, it amounts to little more than syrupy sentiments and half-hearted measures. Not for Libby MacFarlane, who graduated from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business with her MBA in May. She is a true believer that business can create value and fuel social good. It is an ideal she lives by — the cornerstone of everything she does.
When earthquakes ripped apart Nepal in 2015, killing nearly 9,000 people and wiping away over 800,000 homes, MacFarlane swung into action. She used her nonprofit, HeartMind International, to deliver culturally appropriate mental health treatment to survivors. Before that, she successfully executed several initiatives at InfoSys to reduce the firm’s impact on the environment, following her CEO’s call: “If you see a gap, fill it.” In fact, you could argue that MacFarlane’s legacy at Fuqua, whether it was her stewardship of Net Impact or organizing workshops and case competitions, was leading where there were gaps — and inspiring her peers to do the same.
Looking back, MacFarlane had her reservations about joining Team Fuqua. “Coming to business school,” she confides to Poets&Quants, “I had imagined that I would have to put on some sort of protective armor over my beliefs. I thought I would have to defend my core values — my values of sustainability, feminism, honesty, work-life balance, and being present with others.” While she may have imagined MBA students to be cold numbers-crunchers, her fellow students quickly turned the caricature on its head. “I soon realized just how many like-minded people walked the halls of Fuqua with me and that it was I who needed to open my mind and expand my definition of who goes to business school and how you can change for the better once you’re in it. This surprised and also changed me. “
Indeed, business school is full of surprises. No matter how many blogs they read or brains they pick, candidates are bound to overlook a key piece of the experience. That’s true of even the MBAs who graduate at the top of their class, and it’s one reason why Poets&Quants asked its Best & Brightest MBAs from the Class of 2016 to share “the most surprising thing” they learned from business school.
FORGET PARTYING — B-SCHOOL IS A FULL-TIME GIG (AND THEN SOME)
Guess which answer topped the list? Business school is no party. That was the big takeaway for Yale’s Sarah Esty, who earned a joint MBA-JD degree through Yale Law School — the top-ranked law program in the United States. “If going to business school is like drinking from a fire hose,” she quips, “I was drinking from two fire hoses in balancing SOM and Yale Law School.” She quickly learned that earning an MBA was as equally consuming a venture as law school. “There’s this stereotype that business school is one giant party or networking event, but at SOM we work hard. There are constant problem sets due, short papers, presentations, and lots of team meeting times to do group work.” That said, the exhaustive nature of the MBA experience came with a caveat, Esty adds. “SOM does throw really good parties too.”
It’s a different kind of busy, too. Even students who’d seemingly mastered time management in the work world sometimes found themselves overwhelmed. Take Jessica Davlin. Before entering Duke, she worked in cybersecurity for both the FBI and the White House — not exactly 9-to-5 gigs. Still, business school presented quite an adjustment for her. “Until I was in the throes of a full course load, recruiting, classwork, and extracurricular activities,” she explains, “I didn’t fully comprehend just how little time there was in the day. … It forced me to be intentional with my time.”
One reason for this adjustment: B-school schedules appear (at first glance) to be pretty open — deceptively so. That’s what tripped up Wyatt Batchelor, a U.S. Army Ranger who enrolled at Columbia Business School. “Your academic schedule seems like you will have a relatively good portion of time throughout the week to do whatever you want. However, you quickly learn that networking, clubs, social events, and recruiting put demands on your time and easily make your schedule competitive to what it looked like when you were working a full-time job.”
MODELS AND BALANCE SHEETS? NAH, THINK SOFT SKILLS AND INTROSPECTION
This dynamic adds a counterintuitive wrinkle to the mix, according to UCLA’s Maeghan Rouch, who returned to Bain & Company after graduation. Her big epiphany: Grades don’t matter like they did when you were an undergrad. “As a Type-A student,” she confesses, “I always cared about grades … but my time in business school wasn’t about getting A’s.” Instead, she says, it’s a time to learn for real. “I’ve approached all of my classes with the mindset of gleaning all I can to get what I need to be successful in business and in life, and not to game the syllabus and get an A. It was a bit challenging for my Type-A self at first, but ultimately became a very freeing and empowering way to approach business school.”
Along with grades being played down, some Best & Brightest graduates say they were caught off-guard by the emphasis on soft skills — described as the “fluffy stuff” by Tarana Shivdasani, a Goldman Sachs veteran who headed up “social affairs” at the London Business School. But don’t assume it was just quants who struggled to master those elusive people skills. Washington University’s Allison Campbell is a classic poet who majored in history and Spanish as an undergrad and worked in hospitality before going for an MBA. Over time, she quickly recognized how important soft skills were to getting things done. “I started out my MBA experience fulfilling all the core, technical classes. As I progressed, I have learned the organizational behavior classes provide significant value as well. When I worked on consulting projects and my internship, I reverted to examples from these behavioral classes to navigate the politics.”
In fact, some grads described their MBA experience as a solitary exercise, where the real goal was to better understand themselves so they could better grasp a clearer framework for making decisions. “I have been definitely taken aback by the amount of introspection and retrospection involved in the program,” confesses the University of Cambridge’s Sean Heisler, a project manager. “Business skills are surely evident in the coursework, but so much of the learning is centered in reflection, something I’d often forgotten to make time for in my work years prior to Cambridge. That won’t be a mistake I make again, given the sheer value that it’s given me!”
CHANGE CAN BE A HUMBLING EXPERIENCE
Although B-school clearly has a learning curve (particularly in the core Finance course), it also spurs a startling growth spurt. That was the transformation Kyle Wehr went through during his first semester at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. “Everyone is coming in with different backgrounds and experiences and the program needs to elevate all of them to the same foundational level. The growth is incredible. I felt it in myself and in my classmates as we moved through the core courses.”
One particular area where first-years evolve is in how they think. Indiana’s H. Kyle Hebenstreit, who previously worked in motion picture development and distribution, had relied heavily on creativity over structure. Over two years, his problem-solving approach has completely changed, laying the groundwork for his transition to working as a consultant for Deloitte. “I was amazed at how quickly the curriculum allowed me to shift my thinking to support a more ordered and evidence-driven style of thinking,” Hebenstreit acknowledges. “It was what I was yearning for coming back to school.”
The process could be humbling at times, asserts Purdue’s Adam Ruri. For him, growth involved recognizing where he needed to improve — and taking action. “The most surprising thing for me, especially as a salesperson, was my inability to effectively sell myself. I had never experienced as much rejection as I did when I first started applying for positions. However, once I realized what I was doing wrong, I had much more success.”
For the University of Cambridge’s Dipika Sawhney, transformation was the natural outgrowth of a B-school curriculum that leans heavily on collaboration and reflection. While many students enter MBA programs with an end in mind, the journey will invariably take many on a far different path — one they should embrace. “Be prepared for the unexpected,” she counsels. “Most of my classmates are going to change their current job function, industry, and/or country. With business ideas flying, a lot of entrepreneurs are going to be created, too. The time to reflect, learn, and grow means people and their priorities often change.”
MBA STEREOTYPE: BACKSTABBERS. MBA REALITY: BACK-SLAPPERS
Time isn’t the only variable driving change at business school. Another: the countless opportunities available to students. Classes may introduce students to new ideas, but clubs, projects, and activities expose them to new ways to apply what they learn. Not to mention that B-schools are traditionally a popular haunt for name executives and thought leaders. As a result of this access, students can often find themselves in conversations — and even dinners — with their heroes. “We have heard from leaders such as Les Wexner (chairman and CEO, L Brands), Craig Banner (president, U.S. Morning Foods at Kellogg Company) and George Barrett (CEO, Cardinal Health), just to name a few,” writes Ohio State’s Sarah Sublett, who’s ticketed to Procter & Gamble after graduation. “We’ve been given the opportunity to visit local breweries, major manufacturing plants and even spend time with Warren Buffett. As MBA students, I never imagined we would have access to such wonderful resources and business leaders. I was shocked by how willing business executives were to lend their time or a helping hand.”
In the end, though, it’s your classmates who can make or break an MBA experience. For many, their peers filled many roles: teacher, cheerleader, confidante, and helping hand, just to name a few. In their differences, classmates found their strengths. In their shared experience, they found their voice. Together, they widened and enriched the discussion, says Babson College’s Bryanne Leeming, whose JumpStart venture teaches children how to code. “I was surprised by how many different academic backgrounds my classmates came from. On day one, I sat next to a lawyer and an artist on either side with two engineers in front of me and a teacher behind me. The experiences my classmates bring from their previous careers drive the discussions forward. Business can learn important lessons from other industries and occupations.”
While class diversity may have deepened the learning, it was selflessness that made learning possible. Just ask the University of Texas’ Stephen de Man. A former teacher himself, de Man was amazed — and grateful — to find how much his classmates would go out of their way to help him. “I’ll never forget studying for my first accounting exam. Our study group mates were joined by students I hadn’t even met yet, sitting down to walk me through concepts and practice problems. Everywhere I turned, there was support and someone willing to make sure I could be successful. Coming from the nonprofit sector, this was the opposite of the cutthroat competitive atmosphere I envisioned in a business environment.”
BIGGEST SURPRISE OF ALL: HOW FAST IT ALL GOES BY
Forget frothing corporate climbers and decked-out Gordon Gekko wannabes. For the University of Washington’s Becky See, the Class of 2016 had higher ambitions than making a quick buck before ducking out to drink piña coladas in the Antilles. “I thought the focus would be about financial gains and maximizing profit,” See admits. “I was really surprised to see so many of my classmates who want to do good for the community, by the humility of everyone, by the compassion exhibited. There was far more focus on the importance of people beyond themselves than I expected at a business school.”
Now that the Best & Brightest MBAs have graduated and begun streaming back into the workforce, they have encountered a final surprise — one that takes time to truly appreciate: Just how fast business school goes by. “It literally feels like I just started my MBA,” Brigham Young University’s Kirk Steele laments, “and yet the two years are (already) done.”