We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.—T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"
If I were to summarize my first-year experience, I do not think I can do better justice to it than what T.S. Eliot—in less than 30 words—most beautifully articulated. Notwithstanding, from a situation of not knowing what I didn't know, now at least I know what I don't know. And this has only fueled my desire to explore even further.
It's been a wonderful journey so far. Looking back, I see so many milestones that I passed. Along the way I also had to shed a lot of baggage. It allowed me to learn new things, a few of which challenged some of my previously held beliefs. But since I was ready for them, it didn't come as a shock. On the contrary, I embraced it as an opportunity to reinvent myself.
Back in India, when I was researching for my MBA program, I generally saw one consistent emphasis that spanned most of the school brochures. They all mentioned how rigorous the first year was. But having been exposed to the Indian education system, I felt it couldn't get any worse. I thought, "After all, it's a master's program and it's supposed to be a professional course. They surely do not mean what they say. Or maybe they just like to make it sound tough. Things should be relatively easy." Little did I know how wrong I was!
Uncertainty: Get Used to It
Having finished my first year, I realize a lot has happened since I attended my first class last fall. Some of it seems crystal clear, some of it is a blur. Our day typically had three hour-and-a-half case discussions, some of which required three to four times more preparation time. And this was a five-day-a-week affair, unlike some schools that give at least a day's break within the work. It didn't end there. After classes we would have either some guest lecture, or a company information session, or some networking event, or a combination of these. Then we also had to sit in our study groups to prepare for some group assignment or Babson Consulting Alliance Program (BCAP) meetings.
BCAP is a unique Babson feature where teams of five to six first-year MBAs provide real-world consultancy to companies across different industries. Our team, with one American, one Indian American, one Nigerian, one Chinese, and one Indian (yours truly), were consulting to Symantec (SYMC). But then I'm digressing from what I want to say.
Going back to "rigors" of the first year, initially sleep was a commodity in really short supply. Later, although our workload did not get any lighter, sleep did go a few notches up on our priority list. All that changed, perhaps, was that our comfort level with uncertainty rose. (Incidentally, this is a quality that is much desired in the corporate world.) This essentially meant we were, at times, not fully prepared for the classes. Some of this (the excess academic load) is by design. In my many interactions with different professors, it came out that the academic load has been designed in some ways to be overwhelming, to reflect the real business world—and unless one quickly learns to adapt oneself by prioritizing things, it can soon inundate anyone. The underlying idea is to get the students to learn to deal with uncertainty and become more comfortable with it as early as possible.
Value of Teamwork
I had read a lot about some of the challenges facing the U.S. in the field of education. Of the population that graduates from high school, only 50% reach college. Out of these, only 50% actually end up getting their college degrees. And eventually, only 2% (of the entire original school-going population) finally have their degrees that are master's and above. It sure gets lonely up there. Going by these statistics, it is somewhat understandable why an MBA is designed the way it is.
So what has really changed in me? How do I approach things differently? How has my education so far prepared me for my career? Well…these are questions that require somewhat of a deep introspection.
While there are a lot of purely academic skills that I could talk of, I'll focus mostly on issues that have a much broader scope or impact, and are more universal in their relevance across different situations, functions, and industries. Teamwork definitely ranks very high in my scheme of things. Going back to my BCAP team, when we started our consulting assignment, we approached one another with much trepidation. Not knowing one another's cultures and value systems, we found it difficult to handle situations when differences arose. As a result, often our output, although not unsatisfactory, reflected some of these compromises.
Home Run in Consulting
By the end of the assignment, however, it was not that we stopped having differences; instead, we had more of them. What truly changed was our quality of interaction. We learned to accept our differences, and, in fact, used them to our advantage. We questioned one another more, debated all perspectives threadbare, and created an atmosphere resulting in outputs that genuinely reflected the best of our minds. As a result, our consulting assignment was a resounding success.
Our sponsor company's vice-president of office of strategy management was so impressed she canceled her next appointment just to sit thorough our overstretched presentation. She mentioned she had seen a few of these MBA student presentations before, and ours, by far, was the best one. She wanted us to now make this presentation to the company's CEO, CFO, and other senior executives. Eric Hemmendinger, our primary sponsor, said we hit a home run.
This experience has given me a peep into the world of consulting, some idea about handling clients, and quite a bit of knowledge about challenges confronting growing organizations. I'm confident this would hold me in good stead in my future career.
C-suite at Close Quarters
Going forward, right now I'm in Houston, on my summer internship assignment with Townsend Family Interests. Phillip Townsend, my boss, is a Harvard and MIT alum and heads several companies—Phillip Townsend Associates and Townsend Polymer Services & Information being a couple of them. Under Phil's guidance, I'll be working on some immensely exciting business opportunities that have potential for bringing some totally fresh ideas in the field of strategic marketing consulting.
My internship search ended with three offers—one from a biotechnology startup in Boston, another from a world-class optical networking manufacturing company in India, and this one from a group of companies in Houston. While the first two were also very exciting options (the second one required a week's stay in Bangalore, a month's stay in New Delhi, and the balance in Boston), I chose Houston for the sheer quality of experience and exposure that I would get. Working directly under the chairman and the president, I'm getting to see from very close quarters how businesses are run in the U.S.
The second year of B-school is not as rigorous as the first year. I'll have much more time. This will allow me to concentrate more vigorously on my future career preparations. Given my MBA education, I'm confident I'll be able to equip myself sufficiently with skills that will help make businesses perform better, thereby helping make our world a better place to live.
Having prepared, even if not fully anticipated, for what lay ahead, I was ready for this adventure called the MBA. In this journey I may have explored both charted and uncharted territories…yet I will not cease exploring…even if that means knowing the places—some of them previously frequented—for the first time.
Cheers and God bless!