Both Sides of Kenan-Flagler

"MBAs run around like frantic idiots but are courted by huge companies as rock stars. It is no surprise that this combination of frenzy and entitlement leads to cheating"

I used to think poorly of Duke MBAs. As a UNC recruit, one of my fondest memories was Welcome Weekend, where all admitted students are invited to meet each other and figure out whether Kenan-Flagler is right for them. While attending, I wanted to see how advanced I was at the fine art of diagnosing who would be ill enough to choose Fuqua over Kenan-Flagler.

My first suspected victim used to be an engineer, had a GMAT of 770, and got into seven different schools. When asked about his interest in North Carolina, he said, "Oh the weather. It’s so nice," and then proceeded to sweat, nervously tic, and stare intently at me, playing the crack addict to my crack. Clearly he suffered from Fuquash: the inability to relate to humans.

Others were afflicted with Fuquardation, or arrogance and entitlement falling just short of Whartonitis. This could be diagnosed by simply asking them, "What do you do for a living?" Infected parties came just short of an elaborate PowerPoint presentation-style pitch followed by a monopolization of group conversation revolving around their pet horse and its food likes and dislikes.

Now, it turns out that these people did not go to Kenan-Flagler, but they also haven’t been among the numerous upstanding and well-balanced people I’ve met from Fuqua. Concern has been voiced over Duke MBA ethics; I heartily disagree. According to a recent survey, 56% of MBAs cheat, yet somehow Fuqua is the only MBA program that can catch them and then admit to it! To me, that seems more like an accomplishment and less like a scandal, and I hope you don’t fault them for it in your search.

At business school you learn to look at both sides of complicated situations, and accordingly in this post I’d like to share my positive and negative thoughts on the MBA as a whole, and the Kenan-Flagler experience in particular.

The MBA: Invaluable

My ability to manage time and stress has skyrocketed, and overall I think through problems in a broader and more insightful fashion. A lot of my gut instincts on management and decision-making have been reinforced, while compelling evidence has been provided through 360-degree feedback and interactive course work that other habits need to go.

As for the career benefits, I’ve seen English teachers turn into financiers in 12 weeks. The MBA is worth every penny to career-switchers and adds incredible value to folks who don’t have strong business backgrounds. Just as important, the size of my professional network quadrupled overnight and continues to grow daily.

The MBA: Dinosaur

MBA programs give you credibility, new skills, and a great network, but there are plenty of ways they could go about it better.

Most classes in most programs revolve around lecture and case studies; this is not going to continue to fly for the MTV generation. I fully understand how teachers feel that asking questions and discussing a shared case is interactive, but they clearly haven’t grown up in the highly immersive multimedia world that most echo boomers come from. Integrating real-time simulation into the classroom as well as experimenting with group participation could favorably affect learning.

Furthermore, the core economic principles that most programs teach come from a microeconomic and macroeconomic world where people are rational, systems are closed, and equilibrium is always reached. Considering how irrational people are and how open and dynamic our economy is, I can’t help but think we’re getting led astray, and books like The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker go a long way to confirming this fear.

Finally, I think programs create overload for overload’s sake while at the same time coddling students. MBAs run around like frantic idiots but are courted by huge companies as rock stars. It is no surprise that this combination of frenzy and entitlement leads to cheating. I think a less insular environment that is more integrated with the real world and local community would help students stay focused and balanced, making them less likely to make poor decisions.

Kenan-Flagler MBA: Great Strides

It is hard to put into words the culture that exists at Kenan-Flagler. People care about each other, are natural team players, exhibit a lack of arrogance unheard of in the MBA arena, and naturally embrace challenges with a can-do attitude. The small class size makes it possible to develop a tight-knit community, and lifelong friendships start getting built early and often. Professors go out of their way to make a relationship with you if you’re interested in one.

There are also some innovative classes that make learning fun and effective. This last mod, Business Plan Analysis, gave me the chance to review a business plan once every week, see the founder pitch it, and then see an actual venture capitalist critique it, all the while trying to carve it up myself. In Strategic Marketing, the course revolved around a market simulation that integrated all sorts of in-class exercises where we learned how to properly conduct conjoint analysis and logit-driven decision-making. This class had almost everything I hoped to learn from an MBA packed into six weeks.

Social events like Casino Night and MBA Follies were outrageously fun, and it is hard to complain about winning student lotteries to catch UNC basketball games. (I saw Kentucky, UPenn, and NC State live this year) This has been, without a doubt, the best year of my adult life and a decision I will never regret making.

Kenan-Flagler MBA: Next Steps

I’ve loved my first year, but there are changes that Kenan-Flagler could make to go from a consensus top 20 to a consensus top 10. For instance, I think we need to rethink how we position the relationship students have with staff. The reviews we give teachers highly affect their careers. Their P/F grades for us mean very little. This system is built to enhance student satisfaction, which is a noble goal, but in my opinion holds back teachers from giving frank critical feedback and robs students of a more disciplined classroom where respect is required.

On the other hand, graduates have complained about career services and yet, to the best of my knowledge, we only grade the department as a whole instead of having mechanisms to give aggregated real-time feedback on individual performance. In our first year, we had mandatory career learning sessions that were at times overcrowded and poorly orchestrated, with content that was sometimes not very useful. Eventually most of us developed outstanding relationships with career services staff, but initially I would have described the student body’s relationship with career services to be one of animosity.

Finally, as we continue to attract more top-flight talent, we may witness a culture shift. We excel at low-ego teamwork, but our student body is not a hotbed for ideas or intellectual curiosity. To start successfully wooing people who get into Stanford with more than just money, we need to foster more intimate opportunities to grow as creative business thought leaders. To get the sophisticated older candidates that we lose to Harvard we may need to get a little less "kegger" and a little more "wine and cheese." I think we could be more intellectual and sophisticated without trading our good attitudes and teamwork skills, but I would also argue that we already have one of the best balances of these traits in the top 20.

Putting it All Together

Overall, I’d say that getting an MBA and coming to UNC were great decisions. I came to UNC to "go green," and have had great success applying learning from the classroom to real life. In my sustainable enterprise class I was lucky enough to have four brilliant teammates take a risk on going outside the box and doing an unconventional final project on applying sustainable resource management techniques used on fossil fuels to human capital management.

That is to say, my hypothesis was that we treat oil better than we treat people, and if we take the thought behind sustainable resource management and apply it to HR and then measure profit-driven results, as opposed to cost-savings results, we can actually reengineer how we hire, grow, fire, and retire employees. The concept is kind of like LEED certification, how people determine whether buildings are being "built green," for HR.

I pitched the idea to a local HR consulting firm, SURVE, and together we’re going to build a system that will provide specific metrics, systems, and tactics for maximizing talent selection and management while consistently enhancing long-term shareholder value. I hope to demonstrate the power of sustainable systems thinking not as an environmental or social movement, but rather as an elevated form of doing business altogether. I expect my summer and second year to be fruitful, mind-expanding, and exciting and look forward to sharing those experiences with you.

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