Tag Archives: MBA

I Used to be Sensitive and Then I Went to Business School

Growing up, I was an extremely sensitive child.  My feelings were hurt very easily, but I wasn’t a crier or a tattler (though my brother would tend to disagree).  Self-confidence wasn’t something I had either.  So in an effort to make people like me, I worked hard, particularly in those early years, in school.  Now while the teachers appreciated this hard work and rewarded me for it, it wasn’t exactly popular with a particular group of my classmates.  And this group of classmates would make life pretty miserable when the teachers, the adults, were not around. 

During my grade-school years, back in the 1970’s, bullies were defined largely as those who physically hit other kids or who stole lunch money.  And it was clearly known who these individuals were and their actions often got them sent home from school.  What wasn’t recognized was the harassment bullies – these were the individuals who harassed others in a passive-aggressive non-physical manner and always out of sight of adults.  These were the individuals who while we were waiting for the teacher to get back to the classroom, would mess with my work and threaten me with physical harm if I said anything, or who would chant awful things at me as we walked from building to building without adult supervision.  These were the individuals that would call my home, sometimes several times in an evening, and either hang up or say something nasty and then hang up – anonymous as these were the days before caller ID.  And these were the individuals who had a sense of who was sensitive and quiet and went after the sensitive personalities like dogs on a hunt.  I wasn’t the only sensitive one they attacked, but it sure felt like it.

Now as I got into high school, the bullying wasn’t so in my face.  The early years of keeping my head low and studying hard and practicing music and sports in the same manner began to pay off.  The bullies were still there, but I didn’t pay much attention as I kept busy.  And for a bully, harassing someone who doesn’t pay attention isn’t much fun.  So they move on.  But, I was still sensitive and strived for perfection in all areas I could.  I wanted people to like me for doing things well as I strived to gain some confidence.  This would be something I’d carry on into college and into the workforce – I was the ultimate carrier of the banner:  “Work hard.  Play hard.”  And as I moved into my twenties, I gained some confidence and the bullies, and they are in college and the work environment too, took a back seat.

And then I went to business school.

Now business school is a different world.  Imagine putting together 300+ largely Type-A people who have in the past, been pretty darn successful in their undergraduate studies and in their early careers.  These individuals have always achieved high marks, some of them quite easily, and most of these individuals are pushy and opinionated and book- and some even street-smart (as in Wall Street).  You put these individuals into a class and they now must compete against each other for grades and jobs.  It’s really quite an interesting experiment and is repeated year after year in business, and law, and medical, and many other professional schools.

So I went to the Fuqua School of Business, at Duke University.  I entered business school thinking it was going to be a two-year conference where we would exchange ideas and think big thoughts.  In reality, it was two years of grinding work, no sleep, no money, and for me, stress about getting a job to pay off the enormous debt I was accumulating to pay for tuition and living expenses.  Business school is not something I would really want to repeat in my lifetime, but it was critical in overcoming my sensitivity and achieving a bit of self-confidence.  (I should also say that I met some of my most cherished friends and acquaintances there!)

In business school, 30%-50% of one’s grade is based on “class participation.”  In short, that means that you speak up or you fail.  Now I’d done my fair share of “speaking up,” but it was generally after all others had spoken and/or I was invited to add my perspective.  Being the first or second person to get my opinion or analysis on the floor was not my thing, but failing wasn’t either.  The first term was hard, but I survived.  The second term wasn’t as hard, and I survived too.  And then I realized that I was surviving and even thriving in some cases in the midst of a pool of some really aggressive personalities.  And while I could never out-shout them and still don’t, I could quietly keep up by offering opinions based on facts and data and experience.  And what is amazing, facts and data are a lot like having an adult in the room – it quiets the bullies quickly.  Moreover, bullies don’t like bullying individuals who bring facts and data.  It’s just not as much fun for them.

On occasion, in the workplace, I challenge my colleagues.  I hope that I do it respectfully, but my fear of being wrong or being bullied back for challenging is largely gone.  If I have data or information or experience that conflict with their opinions or plans, I feel a fiduciary, if not personal, duty to press them for how they arrived at their decision.  Oftentimes, I can’t disagree with their approach, and even if I don’t agree with the approach, I feel the need to support it anyway – more fiduciary duty there.  And I don’t take disagreements personally.  I don’t believe that a difference of opinion makes one of us wrong or right or one of us less intelligent than the other. 

And that is what business school did for me.  It gave me confidence to push my opinions, but even more confidence to support opinions different than mine as our team grades or company survival depends on it.  Business school stripped me of my over-sensitivity – it made me numb to it, thank goodness. 

And while I still cry easily at movies, or when I see my young children accomplish something, or when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner or Amazing Grace, I don’t cry or fret about bullies in the work place, in politics, on the road, or in our own community.  I respectfully face up to the bullies with data, facts, and questions, whether they are testing my bully-tolerance or that of others.

I still haven’t fully figured out how to help my children with bullies, since elementary bullies aren’t impressed with data or facts.  And Nicholas has received the sensitivity gene handed down from his grandmothers, so he is ripe for harassment and has already received some as the bullies test each Kindergartner for their bully-tolerance level.  We talk about it periodically and in addition to advising him to make teachers aware when it happens or if he feels unsafe, we talk much about how to react, which is really quite simply, not to react.  We even practice – I tease him, and we talk about how he should respond and how he should not.

It’s working for now and we’ll see how it goes.  And I suppose that in the worst case scenario, if I simply cannot help him overcome his sensitivity in these early years, there is always business school.

15 Years Later – My Battle with Macroeconomics is Over (don’t let the title scare you)

I’ll admit it.  Economics is a subject that has always been a bit of a mystery to me.  I was able to grasp the basics in the intro course offered at Alma College.  It was something about both nations producing guns and butter when one nation realized it was better at producing butter and the other guns, so then they began to specialize and trade.  We went from there through many formulas and scenarios, and various levels of understanding.  Through it, I always wondered whether each nation should always produce at least a little butter and a few guns for the purposes of survival in the instance that one got angry with the other and started holding back – something that perhaps, the United States should keep in mind – particularly when it comes to the food supply.

Then, three-four years later comes graduate school and of course, two required advanced level courses.  Microeconomics was quite rational for me – guess I’ve always grasped things better at the decentralized level.  Then came macroeconomics, and the mystery of it all came back.

If you haven’t experienced MBA students, particularly full-time, day MBAs, what you have to know is that by design, we are a very pragmatic people.  Our expectation is that we will be given the right tools to get the job done.  We want the tools to be tested – developed and debated by the theorists and/or highly paid consultants – and then taught the tools that won or performed most consistently.  We expect to be instructed and tested on how we’d implement the tools to better the business, and in most cases, aren’t so concerned about reworking the theories behind the tools.  We aren’t into theory.  That’s for someone else to worry about.  In our view, we are “paying,” via very expensive tuition, for clear instruction on the use of the best tools.

Frankly, MBAs get a bad rap for our pragmatism in our approach to learning and our expectations.  We are disparaged for not learning for the joy of learning, but rather for the quest to use tools and sound techniques to provide advantage to the businesses we are assigned to make prosper.  Yet, in our professional lives, if we don’t create advantage for our employers quickly, we are asked to move on and are replaced with another MBA that will.  We are pragmatic because that what our employers require of us – our professional lives and our ability to pay back the significant loans we took out to get the MBA degree depend on it.  Thus, practical tools are what we expect from our lectures and instruction – which brings me back to the topic of macroeconomics.

My professor for this course was an Englishman.  He was well known and often quoted in newspapers like the The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.  I was quite excited about taking his course because finally, I was going to understand this topic.  And I would come to know it well because he was also known as the king of the cold-call.  One never came to class unprepared and attention to the discussion at all times was necessary (no daydreaming ever), else you be publically buffooned in front of your classmates with participation points removed from your count.  It wasn’t an easy course.

So we would go through the lessons of macroeconomics and the various formulas that supported them.  We’d apply them to different scenarios, and sometimes the formulas would work and sometimes they would not.  There was always some good explanation as to why they didn’t work in that particular instance – it was often a “gotcha-type” reason, so you never gained confidence it how you were applying the formula or tool.  And we’d have to do things like hold “price” constant, and when we questioned the reality of holding price constant, more public buffoonery would ensue.

The exams in this course were also notorious.  They were timed.  He explained that perhaps two of the sixty students would be able to complete the exam.  It was designed such that there was too much content to get through in the two-hour exam period.  “Your goal, MBA student, is to grab as many points as you can – and you want to grab more points than the person beside you because grades are on the curve.  This is a eat or be eaten class.”  And for goodness sake, hold price constant and stop whining already.  The exam would have questions that would run something like this:  There is a tsunami in Japan, a bumper crop of corn in Russia, a drought in Florida.  What happens to the price of strawberries in Mexico (and no, this time, you can’t hold price constant)?

So, I survived the class.  And I can’t recall what type of grade I received, though I know I passed it at some level, though I do recall that this was one of those courses where a score of 30% was oftentimes the high score.  I realized weeks after the conclusion of the course that I was still confused.  Since I didn’t envision myself aiding the economies of developing countries and I was not going into investment banking with the need to predict impact of international events on the stocks I was analyzing, I figured I could move on and still contribute to the betterment of a firm when it came to marketing its products or services to its customers.

So, here we are in 2008 in the midst of a financial crisis caused by risky and probably fraudulent lending and trading practices which have rocked the global markets and financing industries.  The US government is buying loans, giving out grants (bail-outs), reducing interest rates, infusing cash, and foreign governments are doing the same.  And, to date, we aren’t seeing much success.  True, it takes some time and we’ll need to be patient.  But, things are not responding quickly, and there is no guarantee that they will at all or for sustained periods of time.  The globe, as evidenced by bouncing markets around the world, is feeling pretty vulnerable.

Yet in the midst of all of this chaos and bad news, I believe I finally garnered an understanding of macroeconomics.  I am finally free of consternation.  Here it is, all plain and simply put:

·         Recently, many nations have minimized the impact of the US economy saying that it no longer has the ability to impact global markets like it used to, and we US citizens had begun to believe that view.  But, it is still the case as the saying goes, that when the US market sneezes, global markets catch pneumonia.  We are a nation of consumers.  We might be obsessive in our consumption, but when we slow down and the orders stop coming in, there still is no other market out there that can absorb that which we do not buy.  The very thing that other nations criticize us for keeps their markets moving and their people working.  We’re still a player.  What a boost for our collective self-esteem!

·         It is true that no economic formula will hold true 100% of the time and we just experienced a real live case study.  Reduction of supply at the current level of demand should result in increased prices.  But as OPEC learned this past October 24th, that isn’t always the case.  As they often do, in an attempt to stop the freefall in the price of oil or simply to get more dollars out of each barrel, they announced their latest slash in production of oil.  In the recent past, oil prices climbed to new heights.  In this case, however, after the announcement, oil prices promptly fell.  So much for the formula.  Perhaps our friends at OPEC need to realize that when the patient is dehydrated, holding back still more water in an attempt to ration it for later will only cause the patient to decline in health still more.  (Yes, a simple analogy, but I’m a marketer and a mom, not an economist.)

·         Macroeconomics will likely never be one of the favored classes for pragmatic MBA students.  We want consistency, or at least, solid explanation of the error term.  Because much of what we are asked to do is to create order out of a world of chaos and competition, we want tools, techniques, and solutions with success stories and proven effectiveness.  Macroeconomics cannot deliver that, and once we accept that, perhaps we can better embrace it, and dare I say, even appreciate it

·         And probably most important for me as we enter the last week of the presidential and legislative elections, all the presidents, all the candidates for president, and both political parties don’t know what to do to aid our ill economy.  We are really in unchartered territory, and they just don’t have an answer.  So instead, they turn to finger-pointing and blaming, and probably those expensive and usually pointless meetings that they call “hearings on the hill.”  It’s easier to talk about how we might have gotten here rather than how we get out.  The reality is, they simply don’t know what to do to escape.  There is no single, proven prescription.  What has set me free from my congressional contempt is my pledge not to hold them responsible for knowing the unknown any longer (though I still wish they would at least offer some inspiration and optimism, a.k.a., leadership).  We are in the midst of a grand experiment.  We are living through a grand economic clinical trial and only when we are out of it will we begin to understand what worked and what didn’t.  I’m sure it will result in more formulas developed by really intelligent economists and they may even win Nobel prizes for their efforts.  I just hope they don’t hold price constant.