Learning to Be Myself

"No business school&teaches everything you need to know. What we learned&was that your MBA shapes and complements you but it doesn't define you"

A lot goes on in an MBA program. The internship is by far one of my most important experiences I have had. So let's go there.

On my first day I looked at the summer associate sitting across from me. After some introductory conversation I asked him what school he went to. "Columbia," he answered. "What did you do before?" I asked. "I was a consultant at Deloitte & Touche for five years."

I turned to the girl next to him. Same two questions, to which she answered, "Harvard," and "a captain in the U.S. Marines." O.K. Career-switchers, but nevertheless, I began to think my background was the farthest from the current internship at hand, which made me the least likely to be good at anything and which meant I should probably just get up and walk out.

Cue inferiority complex. Lucky for me I got the unique parental advice to "just be yourself." At the time I thought to myself, "this, coming from two people who have never worked in Corporate America, so, no way." That "myself" is the product of my parents from California, noncorporate, research-inclined, and nutty. Per hints from various sources such as Gawker and those who post on it, I decided to act as stiff and humorless as possible as well as be ready to get yelled at, because I thought that was what was required in the banking industry.

Shelving My Complex

Granted, part of the reason I chose the bank I did was because of the incredibly knowledgeable and cooperative culture I had sensed. But perhaps the perception was too good to be true, and one could never be too cautious. Turned out my earlier sense was right on the mark and one could indeed be too cautious.

A week into my internship the intuitive head of recruiting sat me down and said, "Rachael, I don't know you all that well yet, but I know you are not being yourself. You have 10 weeks here. Be yourself. We have to feel like we know who you are in order to consider you for full time." O.K., if he says it, then I'll listen. So I promised him and vowed to myself to be, well, myself. This is harder than one would think, given the New York corporate bank environment. It was somewhat of a new balance of myself. I began by shelving my aforementioned complex.

The structure of the summer played a pivotal role in the type of work we were given. I was in a class of 25 summer associates. We each had three rotations, each one lasting three weeks, and we met at least two or three times a week for training, social events, classes, speakers, networking, and projects.

Going for the Quant Track

In the class of 25, due to my background I was not considered one of the quantitatively focused summer associates. Nonetheless, I was far too curious to let the quantitative methods sneak by me, so I requested a quantitative rotation for my first three weeks. And even the brief three-week glimpse I had was enough for me to decide that was exactly what I wanted to do.

I researched the 130/30 method of investing; analyzed performance, attribution, and volatility data on money managers. I decided I really should have paid better attention in statistics because this stuff was fascinating and concluded that I loved the work. I found myself sitting alone at a desk at 10 p.m. on a Friday playing with data, trying to find correlations and draw conclusions.

It was a new low/high point, depending on who you're talking to and what you have planned on a Friday night. Still, I had two more rotations to show me some other great types of work in the bank.

Back Home to L.A.

For the second rotation, we had the option of going to a regional office. I chose that and found myself right back where I had come from: Los Angeles. My regional rotation involved reallocation for a client portfolio, prospecting, assembling flipbooks of a client's portfolio performance, and attending client meetings. I was able to see the culture of the bank transcend the 3,000-mile distance and maintain the same professionalism and extensive knowledge base as the New York headquarters.

My third and final rotation was back in New York with a group focused directly on client relationships and day-to-day interactions. The exposure was extremely varied, ranging from walking through debt restructuring options for a client to fee analysis as well as learning about the legal layers one must navigate when establishing offshore custodians.

So, the million-dollar question (or rather, the $40,000 question): Did my first-year MBA education help? Holistically, yes. The work over the summer was varied and challenging, and Georgetown gave me a platform from which to work and understand it. And, to my surprise, the soft skills classes were more useful than anything else.

Going Over the Limit

Nevertheless, there were moments when I stood, blank-faced, with the voice in my head screaming: "Why didn't you learn this?!" After speaking with other MBAs from other schools, I found I was not alone. I guess there is no business school that teaches everything you need to know. What we learned over the summer was that your MBA shapes and complements you but it doesn't define you. Let me explain.

Throughout the summer we had a class. The class met regularly, either once or twice a week, from 5:30 p.m. until about 11. No, really. 11 p.m. The trainer who led the class is a managing director. He started the second class by chastising us for not being ready to go at 5:30 sharp. Three summer associates began a presentation that was abruptly halted when the trainer's timer buzzed 10 minutes later. By this point we had been told by multiple people not to applaud because, well, they said "just don't." So the room sat silent. And silent. And silent.

Then, the managing director tilted his head ever so slightly and directed a question at the person who had done the most talking: "Why do you think you went over your time limit?"

The young man standing in the front of the room was clearly unnerved. He stumbled over a few potential excuses until our trainer interrupted him and said, a little louder, "Why did you exceed your time limit?" The young man stood up a little straighter and said, "because I spoke for too long."

I use this example because this was one of the common underlying themes of the class: giving ourselves a very hard look, catching human mistakes, judgment errors, and then using what we found to improve our performance not only as individuals but also as members of a workforce. We discussed ethical cases and we reached standstills, we critiqued each other's presentations, we ranked each other, and these were a few tasks among those we were given that made our shoulders sag a little and our heads tilt down but that also ultimately forced us to work together, help each other, and remember that getting an MBA is great, but that we are, after all, human. Soft skills? Well, call it what you want. I admit it wasn't computer programming, but I will also say it wasn't easy. And I am truly grateful for this class.

An "Easy Read"

We each did at least two presentations: an intro about ourselves and a presentation with assigned topics that ran the gamut from things to do in New York over the summer to personal investment styles. I can safely say I had the hardest topical presentation among all of us. On a Monday night I was assigned a 530-page book, Complexity Economics. I was to review the book in a 10-minute presentation to the class the following Friday, which, by the time I got home, gave me three and half days to work full-time and read the book.

One can imagine his or her reaction to a task like this. Mine was similar. It was a mixture of disbelief, despair, anger, and a little more disbelief and despair. I decided to march to the trainer's office and ask him what in the world he expected me to do. So I made the appointment, gathered a note pad, and knocked on his door.

I sat down and meekly asked, "So, how do you suggest I go about this?" He responded that I should distill the main points of the book, relate it to our summer work, and then offer my review and opinion. Sensible. Then he looked at me straight-faced and said, "It's an easy read, shouldn't be too much trouble."

Putting It in Perspective

At which point it dawned on me that I was being selfish. I was making the task personal and impossible, which would waste everyone's time. And so the task became clear: It was turning a self-described impossible task into something it was meant to be: a presentation that will educate and benefit the entire class and waste no one's time, including my own. One of the questions he had asked us earlier in the summer was, "Who do you want to be?" He had us write down our answers and then asked us whether were really moving in the direction of what we had written.

I wanted to be a part of that incredibly knowledgeable and cooperative culture I had sensed and then experienced for the past nine weeks, and this task, as well as everything else I learned, was a step in that direction. I returned to school energized and determined to learn as much as possible. I'm taking hard classes that I enjoy on a different level because now I see how applicable each concept is. The summer did a magnificent job in taking the framework business school has built for me and filling it in with depth, color, and application. Now I'm relying on my second year to bolster that framework and expand it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE