Reflections

It’s nearly a year since I graduated. It feels like 3 months, but that’s life. I have been meaning to write this post for at least 9 months but it is hard to reflect on something when you still feel a part of it… more on that later. For now, let’s just say that I feel the need to complete the circle and reflect on my MBA experience before it’s a distant memory- not only for my own benefit, but hopefully for someone else’s too.

 

Deciding to enroll on an MBA is a big decision- and certainly much bigger than I gave it credit at the time. On reflection, I am so glad I made that decision since it was business school or a house… and what’s the point in owning a house as part of a life that you don’t particularly enjoy?

 

Where I honestly feel I missed out was in the preparation to apply. Make no mistake, if going to a big-name, prestigious school is something that is important to you, then you really need to be starting your search a minimum of 2 years before you intend to start your program (which, for a standard two year course is a terrifying 4 years in advance if your proposed graduation date). Many people have said an MBA is a long-term decision, but I’m certain not many applicants truly understand exactly what that means. The MBA community needs to do a better job of making people aware of this so that they can plan better for such a life-changing move.

 

Thankfully, for me, it was never going to be about going to a well-known school for anything other than my own vanity (which, let’s face it is a terrible reason to spend to spend upwards of $100,000). I have written on these pages that where you go to school is becoming less and less important, and even in a city like Boston where hardly anyone knows the Hult name against the likes of Harvard or MIT, it only really opens the door for interviews for your first job out of school. You still have to walk through that door, impress people and perform well which depends on the individual, not the education or a recognizable institution.

 

This has been, without doubt the hardest blog post of them all to write. This is because it is almost impossible to properly reflect on such a major step in your life just three months after you have graduated, especially with the pressure of finding a job thrown in. Many of the major rankings systems base their results on surveys of students 3 months after they graduate. Frankly, this is ridiculous.

 

There are far too many factors in a graduate’s mind so soon after they have left school to give an objective reflection, the biggest of which is the need to convince yourself you made the right move when you are frantically searching for employment to pay off those intimidating loans. On a more personal level I still felt so ‘plugged in’ that it was hard to really impossible to take the emotion out of any evaluation. Three months after graduation I was in my second week of my new job… how on earth could I tell if I had made the right MBA decision back then?

 

Naturally there is no point reflecting on something without considering what you wanted to achieve in the first place. It’s obvious to say that MBA applicants have as many motivations to apply as there are stars in the sky but for me it was simple: use the MBA as a catalyst to take myself to a better place in both my personal and professional life. I am pleased to say I have achieved both so far, and while there are undoubtedly many twists and turns in the road ahead, I am certain that the experience has given me everything I need to succeed in both aspects. You can obsess about your choice of school all you want, but this feeling only happens if it was the right move to take an MBA in the first place.

 

Personally, I feel very fortunate to have landed where I did. I am currently (July 2014) Chief Operating Officer for a small hospitality consultancy in Miami. I achieved most of what I set out to do before my MBA- I have a much better work/life balance, genuinely enjoy going to work everyday and feel that I make a difference to our clients through my work. Undoubtedly I am on a journey, and this is not the final destination but simply the first step. My MBA wasn’t directly influential in getting me this job, but that really doesn’t bother me… it put me in the right place a the right time and I can have no regrets about that.

 

On a broader scale, there is an example of almost every possible eventuality from taking an MBA in my class of 2013. There are those who have prospered, landed incredible jobs on eye-watering salaries in big name companies and are living their own personal ‘American Dream’. There are also those who have struggled after graduation, returning home to former companies and/or former positions when they really didn’t want to. Some have started their own ventures, many more wish they had, and others are still searching for their path. Most tellingly, I’m certain that very few regret their decision to take an MBA now that they are a few months removed from the experience.

 

It is therefore impossible to speak in absolutes as to what you will get from an MBA. It will depend on you, the individual and no one else. Fortune is certainly a factor, but as the saying goes “sometimes, you make your own luck”. Make no mistake, a few letters after your name alone is not going to get you a better job in the same way that a nutritionist will not help you lose weight if you continue to eat five Big Macs a day. In contrast, the experience can be pretty much anything you want it to be if you give it everything you’ve got and manage to pick up a bit of good fortune along the way.

 

An MBA doesn’t change who you are, but if you work hard enough and get some luck along the way, it is a fantastic way to help you become what you want to be.

Bad Apples: When Team Members ‘Go Bad’

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Business school is often frustrating… Too much work, not enough time; too much theory, not enough action; too many chiefs, not enough Indians. I could go on.

One of the arenas that generates the most frustration is teamwork. Without exception, MBA team tasks force you to work with others from very different backgrounds, specialities and goals and there is no doubt that team work is intentionally designed to cause conflict in a controlled environment. It is often stressful, always challenging but oh-so-rewarding when you manage to navigate through difficult waters and achieve something you never thought possible.

That’s the theory, at least: the reality is much less predictable. In fairness, I have been very ‘lucky’ with my teammates in projects so far when I compare my experiences to some of the other horror stories I have heard. Without going into details, it only takes one bad apple to destablise a team, particularly when the team is newly formed and the members have not had to deal with this situation before.

However, having a bad apple in your team is not always the disaster it may seem at first. There are a number of reasons why that particular person may not ‘fit in’ with the group, such as previous experiences, different culture or simply having different ideas on what they want to get from business school. You can only really engage that person once you understand what is (or isn’t) motivating them.

While it’s certainly a challenge, if you can help to turn that person into an active and engaged team member the rewards are huge. It’s not easy, but the situation is realistic to the business environment. People like this exist in the real world, too, and if you can figure out a way to get diverse teams working harmoniously you are likely to be a step ahead of the competition in the job market.

As my Dean once said to me… where else are you going to be able to talk about such rich experiences with diverse colleagues? Where else are you going to learn how to get the best out of teams, no matter who you have working for you? It’s incredible what you learn at business school… hardly any of the really useful stuff comes from textbooks.

Graduates: Eleven Reasons Why I Will Never Hire You

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There’s an interesting slideshare presentation doing the rounds on the internet at the moment. It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, very funny but also has a very serious message: not all graduates are created equal.

The list of reasons is not exactly new material, such as not being prepared for interviews or failing to do even the basic research. But others are, well… a bit more surprising.

Take number 6, for example… “You don’t know what you want to do”. At times I have been guilty of this, but having hired a few people myself in the past the response is absolutely correct. Who in their right mind is going to hire you and invest time and money in your future if you can’t even convice yourself that you really want the job? Everything you do, from your resume to your follow-up note really has to hammer the point home if you are going to be the competition.

Similarly, no one want to hire a ‘jack of all trades’ candidate. So many times I see careers advice urging people to fill their gaps or work on their weaknesses, but what does this really achieve? No one can be great at everything. Wouldn’t it be smarter to really stand out for something and use this to differentiate yourself? Maximize your strenghts.

Another sage piece of advice is to do an internship, or two or three, particularly if you are looking to change career after you graduate from your MBA. This takes all the risk out for the employer (and yourself) and is a great way to build contacts for the future.

It’s a great article for graduates of any age and any experience. If you haven’t read it already, take 5 minutes to read it… it may just help you land your dream job:

MBA Schools: What’s in a name?

A conversation with a Hult student last week reminded me of an interesting dilemma a number of MBA applicants face during the application process: how important is a B-School’s name and reputation when choosing where to study and when planning your next move at the end of the course?

Like most students, my application process began attempting to understand the major ranking lists produced by companies such as the Economist and FT.com. For an international student who wasn’t versed in the history and reputation of the majority of the (American) schools on the list, this can be a very daunting task with many unfamiliar names in a surprising number of unfamiliar places.

When speaking to my Hult colleague last week, it seemed her friend was undecided about where her best option lay- with a mid-600 GMAT and a strong career in the finance industry, should she try her luck at the top schools, or instead aim for somewhere slightly further down the list but still within the Top 50? Should she go for an established school whose name was well known, or should she look into a newer school with a more dynamic approach? How important really is a name?

A schools name is essentially its brand. It stands for its heritage, its quality and its mission. It takes a lifetime to build but just a moment to shatter. Many people aspire to study in the top-ranked schools and ignore the ones they have never heard of, which makes sense to them. But think of it like this… Would you really write off working for a company you haven’t heard of before without trying to find out more?

It goes without saying that each applicant should really assess their choices on a case by case basis, but here are some reasons why you shouldn’t write off the schools you have never heard of just yet:

1. The small fish/big pond problem- going to a big name school might be great… But how are you going to stand out in a class of 700+ students? Everyone is smart in B-School in my experience, so consider where you are likely to get more of the opportunities that employers covet? I have been fortunate enough to write research white papers for Boston management consultancies and co-write case studies to be used in MBA courses, to name just two examples. Back in October, I had the chance to pitch for $1 million in seed capital through the Hult Prize- all because I attend a so-called ‘second tier’ business school. Not only have these experiences helped me develop skills to a higher level than I could have dreamed of, they have also given me something very unique to put on my resume. I doubt very much if that would have happened for me had I gone to the Ivy League schools, great as I’m sure they are.

2. Timing is everything- not everyone plans their MBA two years in advance of it starting- I’m not sure why the big-name schools haven’t understood this yet. Closing applications in November is fine for those who have scheduled their MBA in well in advance, but most people realize that life doesn’t always work out that way. Although I had always planned to take the course at some point in the future, personally I could never have predicted that things would work out the way they did for me. I have previously written on this blog that I wasn’t prepared to wait another year to change my path, and I am truly glad that I had the conviction to follow my instincts rather than wait for the next application year to come around.

3. The International Context- this point may be specific to business schools such as Hult and Insead, but for me it is certainly a differentiator between the experience I have received here and the one I wold have had elsewhere. Travel has always been a huge part of my life, so the opportunity to combine that with my studies has been invaluable. Hult’s program is such that students can spend up to 3 months of the one-year MBA at another campus, spanning all of the major continents across the globe excepting Africa (at present). In my book, that counts for a lot. Add to that the experience of working daily with students from every corner of the globe, and being forced to consider your own assumptions about that which is seemingly obvious to you is a real eye opener that is hard to match elsewhere. On a wider scale, you will find that business schools you can’t name off the top of your head will almost always offer you something unusual in order to differentiate themselves- your job is to figure out if that adds value to you or not.

4. Names matter, but it’s what to do with it that counts- this point summarizes more than any other the truth that you should not write off business schools you haven’t heard of before until you find out more about them. There is no denying that an MBA from Harvard, Stanford or Cornell doesn’t look impressive on a resume. There is also no denying that an MBA from one of those schools may well get you interviews and other opportunities that others may not. One thing you can be sure of though, is that if you don’t stack up in an interview and prove that you can make a difference to that company, they won’t hire you (nepotism notwithstanding!). As a Hult student I certainly have to push myself out into the networking community more than students from most of the other Boston schools because the name is only 6 years old, and it can be frustrating having to explain to a lot of people what Hult is and what it does. Once I realized however, that this was also an opportunity to spread the word in a way that I saw fit, I felt liberated. There are no misconceptions about my school because hardly anyone has heard of it yet… I am sure I have made a couple about the Ivy League schools in this article, despite my best efforts.

Personally, having the ability to be part of the message is inspiring, assuming I can achieve positive things in my time in Boston. I love telling people about the incredible things I have had chance to be a part of since starting in September, and I won’t be stopping anytime soon. Yes there are areas for improvement, but helping to build something great by being part of the solution is far more fun than being ‘just another number’ elsewhere.

In short… Don’t be a B-School snob until you have done the research. There’s far more too a Business School than a name, you know.

A Blue Ocean View Of Career Strategies

“So what are you going to do with your career then?”

This question used to terrify me. Sweaty palms, sleepless nights… Pure terror. If you’re feeling the same at the moment, then fear not.

Having just finished a corporate strategy module, I have been thinking in depth about how it applies to my career as I search for the dream position to take after graduate school. Like many people, before this course, I thought I knew about strategy. I thought I had it all covered. In a nutshell, I thought that you should do the best thing for your company and reap the rewards. Pretty simple?

I can honestly say that my paradigm has never been shifted on a single issue quite as significantly as it has in recent months. Under the guidance of an expert strategy professor who was able to share real life examples of some complex and challenging situations he faces as a strategy consultant, I now realize I knew nothing at the beginning of the course and only know slightly more than that now. On top of everything else you can learn, a top MBA program will help you realise what you don’t know.

One issue the course covered was the difference between outside-in strategies and inside-out strategies. Should you, as a company’s chief strategic officer, look at what the market is doing and try to do meet unmet needs (outside-in), or should you infact focus on discovering what your organization is already good at and applying it to the market (inside-out)? If you think about it, it doesn’t just apply to companies- its an interesting model to use when deciding your career path.

For instance, think of it like this: should you look at the gaps in the job market and present yourself as someone who can fill them, or should you instead consider what you are good at and search for positions that allow you to do exactly that?

Well, to use the old consultancy adage, “it depends”.

The outside-in approach lends itself best to long term decisions. I am eternally jealous of those who have a calling to do what they do. Doctors, teachers, pilots and many others have generally gotten to where they are because they knew at a young age what they wanted to do and were totally committed to achieving that goal. As long as there is a need in the job market for that profession, if you have a calling then, as Nike say, “just do it”.

A good example is the future IT industry. In the US in particular, there is going to be a huge shortage of software engineers in the coming years. So anyone who is good with computers and can see a gap in the market would be well advised to start training right now. The cherry on the cake? A shortage of skilled workers usually leads to huge salaries due to simple supply and demand.

However, for the rest of us who never had that “calling”, it makes more sense to look inside first and then apply it to the outside world once you truly understand yourself. If you are still waiting for an epiphany regarding your career, don’t worry you are not indecisive as some may assume. Nevertheless, you certainly need to demonstrate that you have thought through your choice of career when you sit in that interview.

Metaphorically, look yourself in the mirror… And ask yourself some searching questions:

What motivates you?
What do you enjoy doing?
What are you good at?
Why are you a ‘Blue Ocean’ candidate, that is: what makes you unique? What can you offer that no one else can?

Once you know what you are good at, it becomes much easier to narrow your search by selecting career options that suit you, and eliminating ones that don’t. If you’re not sure what a certain career path entails, then ask someone.  Either speak to a careers coach or request an informational interview with someone in that role so you can ask them questions. If you phrase your invitation right, you will be amazed how many people accept your request to sit down and talk- after all, who doesn’t like speaking about themselves?

All in all, it doesn’t really matter if you look inside out or outside in your career decisions. What helps most people who really don’t know what to do with their career, is having a structure to follow that gives them confidence they are following the right path. Interviewers can’t fail to be impressed if you can show that you have really thought about who you are.

In a recent study, the one skill that CEOs consistently said they wanted to see most in their graduate hires was self awareness. Invest the time to consider who really you are, and you will be able to tell the whole world what you want to do with your career and hopefully, avoid all those sleepless nights.

The importance of being a networker?

If you are the type of person who possess a fine attention to detail, you will have already noticed that there is a question mark at the end of the title of this article. If you are the type of person who possess a sense of curiosity, you will almost certainly be wondering why that is.

One of the first things we are all told when embarking on an MBA in Boston is that networking is important- perhaps even critical- to finding the job you really want once you have graduated. Boston thrives on networks, and everyone from the careers team to the Dean are keen to tell you how important it is and provide you with chances to go and get involved.

I am vice-president of the entrepreneurship and innovation club at Hult and the opportunities to meet like-minded entrepreneurs here are incredible. I’ve never done the calculations, but there must be significantly more than one event for every day of the year, possibly even two. And that’s just for the entrepreneur community. The chances to meet people who may have, or at least know someone who will have, a dream job lined up for you in the future are colossal.

So why the question mark in the title? The point is that you never know if and when your network is going to come through for you. It may never bear fruit. Of course it doesn’t hurt to know people in a city, but the time it takes to build a virtual database of contacts who are more to you than just ‘that guy who made a funny joke about the hors d’oeuvres’ is colossal- particularly when you are on an MBA course that should take two years, but is done in half that time.

The trick here is to be selective with your appointments: go to the events that truly interest you and are likely to be attended by people you want to meet. Have an objective in mind and if possible, target certain attendees in advance so you can do your research. Make the most of your limited time.

I still do not know if my network will be of any significant use to me in the future. I’ve met some interesting people, and had a lot of fun doing it but only time will tell whether it comes through for me.

Then again, there is a more subtle advantage of networking that is seldom talked about: confidence. Not only does it encourage you to get out and be talkative about yourself to absolute strangers, it gives you practice for when you finally meet the employer of your dreams and also gives you the belief that you belong amongst those people. For many, that confidence is what gets them their dream job, not their contacts.

So get out there and give it a go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained as they say.

To MBA or not to MBA, that was the question.

In November 2011 during a rainy drive home on the M25 from another late night emergency at work, I had a sudden realization that I was unhappy. At best, my work as an area manger for a leading UK hospitality company was inspiring, challenging and hugely varied, but there and then I knew that my career had stalled and it was affecting my life. It was time to make a change.

Deciding to change is great, but how do you do it? I found that knowing you need to change your career path is much easier than knowing how to change it. There is no ‘right’ way to go about it because each case is unique- although there is certainly a ‘wrong’ way. I was fortunate to have mentors who helped me realize that making a knee-jerk decision to hand in my notice would be foolish: you never leave until you have something to go to, particularly in today’s job market.

On the face of it, doing an MBA felt like a great idea: a chance to go back to study, learn new skills, meet new people, increase your salary and then land a cool new job in a different industry, country or maybe even both at the end of it all. Easy. But then there is the cost- most programmes take two years and are far from cheap in their own right, even before you take into account the fact that you won’t earn a salary for that time as well. It was a calculated risk, and a very tough decision but it was absolutely the right one for me.

I arrived in Boston in August and truly haven’t looked back. It was a lot to take in all at once: a culture shock of living in a new country, finding accommodation, meeting so many new people and of course preparing for the intense MBA course itself. The pace of learning has been phenomenal and the schedule is extreme, so it feels like I am still in a full-time job.

I was lucky to receive some first-class preparation advice, but there are some things you can never be fully prepared for. A classic example is the learning environment you encounter on an MBA- unlike all of my previous education, learning theories and completing class work is only the tip of the iceberg. In an MBA you learn as much from each other as you do from the professors- a huge part of my learning has come from the experience of my peers and this has helped me to reflect on, and make sense of, my own experiences as a result.

From a careers perspective, this is ideal. I already have a much better understanding of who I am and what I need from my career. I now have a network of 210 people from 56 different countries and the use of all of their business contacts to find the perfect job opportunity for me. You really cannot put a price on such a valuable resource, and I’m surprised business schools don’t make more of it in their marketing materials.

Right now I couldn’t be happier with the direction my career is heading and the exciting opportunities that lay ahead of me.

What a difference a year makes.

Stuart Gilchriest, MBA Student

P.S. If you want to find out more about taking an MBA, I would recommend buying an excellent book called “What they teach you at Harvard Business School” by Phillip Delves-Broughton.

 

Note: this blog was originally published on my friend Saffron Fidget’s excellent website, Career Circus (careercircus.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/guest-blog-sg/).