Thursday, April 1, 2010

Inside the MBA: perspectives from an NYU Stern MBA2 - vol. 5

"To thine own self be true" - Polonius, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3.

How many times have we heard this phrase (or a version of this phrase that our parents adapted to conveniently fit a given situation) and rolled our eyes ever-so-slightly? No matter how tired and overplayed this phrase may seem, it is a classic for a reason. And this morning, my subconscious was paid a visit by our dear Bard of Avon. Nope, business schools have not started offering courses in English Literature. I was in my New Venture Financing class and the guest lecturer, David Rosenberg (CEO of Hycrete and graduate of Columbia Business School), was doling out some advice on some of the things he wishes he had learned in business school. Because I was sitting in a quantitative-focused Entrepreneurship class, I was fully expecting him to say he wishes he had mastered valuations or how to negotiate term sheets more effectively. But instead, the key thing David said he wishes he had learned was management - how to hire/fire people, how to motivate your teams, etc. Wait. You're telling me you wish you had spent more time focusing on the soft skills?! Isn't that exactly what I've been trying to avoid focusing on for the last two years?

As women, I think we often take for granted our inherent talent at the "soft skills". Particularly in a business-school environment, where quantitative skills are often heralded above others, it can be intimidating to proclaim that you prefer the management side over the analytical. Personally, however, not only have I always been more comfortable at the qualitative "soft skills", I've simply enjoyed them more. Granted, in order to become a great leader, one must exhibit a strong grasp of both management and analytical skills. However, most people will have tendencies and proclivities toward one over the other.

What the MBA experience has taught me (after somewhat of a much-needed roundabout...but hey, it's always nice to realize you were kinda right all along) is that it is your responsibility to not only determine what your core skills and interests are, but to cultivate and adhere to them even when it may seem like everyone else is doing something different. I'd encourage you to have the courage to do what it is you really want to do...not just what you think you (or others) think you SHOULD be doing. Pick the school that you really want to go to. Focus on the areas that are really of interest to you. Pursue what it is you'd really like to do, not what you think you should be doing.

Of course, saying that you'll do something is far easier than actually doing it. I've certainly wavered many times and had plenty of self-doubts! But there are a couple of things that have helped me maintain a bit of clarity through the business school haze. So, for your consideration...

1. This is one I've heard from the time I was a prospective. Find a mentor. Your mentor can be female or male, but should be someone who knows you well enough to understand you well and also someone who you trust enough to have your best interests in mind. I've been extremely lucky to have some amazing managers in my career and, to this day, I value the candid and honest advice I have received from them.

2. Without my support network, I simply would not have made it through my first semester. As you begin to think about your transition to being an MBA, think about the relationships and activities outside of business school you want to maintain and how you will do that. Business school, particularly first semester, is an extremely hectic time. You will have plenty of people to meet and things to do within business school, but just like it's important to build your network with your new classmates, it's also important to keep yourself surrounded by people who know you outside of the context of the MBA. This way, when you find yourself able to only think and speak words like upside/downside, risk and return, synergy, network effect, economies of scale/scope, yada yada yada...the people who know and love you can remind you that there is a great big world out there full of many interesting things.

3. Laugh. Often. This is one that, admittedly, I sometimes forget to do in my stressful moments. Too many things to-do to think about! I can't have a giggle now! But of all the memories I will take with me from business school, the best ones are those when I was sitting in a study room with my group, simply laughing our heads off about the April Fools' joke one of them fell for.

4. Go west, young woman. Or wherever else you want to go. I think I have learned as much, if not more, from the travel I've done while in business school. For example, I was recently on safari in Tanzania with 17 of my classmates and observing animals in their natural habitat was more enlightening on human relationships than anything I could have learned in a management course (see above note on management skills).

As the weather warms and the school year starts to wind down, I hope you are all excited thinking about your futures. A little less than 6 weeks remain in my MBA career, but I'll be back with one more post before graduation!

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