The MBA Experience

Exactly a year ago, I was sitting in Fontainebleau,a I attended my first day as an INSEAD MBA Participant, Class of December 2015. With butterflies in my stomach, and a nervous energy, I didn’t know what to expect – it was a plunge that I had taken, unsure, whether this MBA was the right investment or not.

Today, one year later, I am back home, for a short break from what was effectively a yearlong Bootcamp (yes, a Life Bootcamp at that), I sit back and reflected on my life in 2015.

Over the past few days, catching up various friends and cousins I hadn’t had a chance to meet this past year, I was referred to read these articles which effectively stemmed from the following Quora answer that Ms. Sheryl Sandberg gave on the value (? – *if I may say so*) of an MBA in the Tech space.

“Going to business school helped give me a basic understanding in business. For some people and in some situations this can be helpful. That said, I believe – and at Facebook we believe – that degrees are always secondary to skills. In hiring at Facebook we care what people can build and do. While I got great value from my experience, MBAs are not necessary at Facebook and I don’t believe they are important for working in the tech industry.” – Sheryl Sandberg (https://www.quora.com/Did-Sheryl-Sandberg-find-her-MBA-helpful-Did-it-lend-additional-credibility-or-other-advantages/answer/Sheryl-Sandberg)

A few articles on various news sites/blogs even went on to quote Peter Thiel on his thoughts on MBA and Entrepreneurship.

And I completely understand why two of the most influential people in their respective spheres would believe that an MBA degree doesn’t help in their spheres.

There are better and cheaper ways for extremely motivated people to access that information, the course material – if I may say so, especially with the user generated content being available in almost every media format imaginable.

I do, on the other hand believe, that the MBA experience is the true value derived out of the time spent in a B-School. A degree is the tangible, visible piece of paper that certifies you to have taken X number of credits and passed.

What that degree fails to capture is the process of going through that entire year – the emotions, the pain, the pleasure, the bonds, the learning – not the one we get from just textbooks, but the ones we get from life and understanding the different perspectives and cultures in this fast growing global world.

A caveat here – as my UDJ (Uncertainty, Data & Judgement) professor would say- the sample size for the inferences is too small here – a single school that I can talk about. Also, INSEAD has been an outlier in the sense of having an intense 10 month MBA with 80%+ curriculum of a 2 year MBA course, with two full-fledged campuses (and a third satellite one), and having no major culture dominating (when the majority is less than 15% in terms of cultural speak), we are as diverse as it gets. It definitely is not a usual MBA course, and I haven’t attended others that I could compare it with. Unlike top MBA schools from the US, we have a more global perspective, with a wide range of cases, professors and topics discussed from outside mainland North America.

Most of the good MBA schools adapt with the changing times, with Professors not just being academicians but also practitioners of their fields.

MBA in essence provides us the same degree year after year, but the whole process and curriculum undergoes changes every few years.

I respect Ms. Sheryl Sandberg, and in there is value to her answer and the idea – for a job in the technology industry, you don’t need a MBA degree. Also, it depends on the school that you do your MBA from. Not every school is the same, and therefore not every experience is the same. There may be a few similarities and a few differences, but it would be an incorrect notion to value each and every experience as equal.

An MBA in 1995 was very different from an MBA in 2015.

To put that into perspective, when Ms. Sheryl Sandberg did her MBA in 1995, there was no Google or Facebook, there were no iPhones (and not even Blackberries which we call ancient today existed), mobile phone penetration was probably in single digits globally (if not in decimals) and we didn’t have people take their own pictures all the time, and selfies and hashtags definitely did not exist. I completely understand why Ms. Sheryl Sandberg would say that the MBA degree doesn’t help – most of the things she has to deal with on a daily basis, did not exist then. The idea of what is important probably was different 20 years ago.

INSEAD does not believe in only building skills, but also building character – because if one thing that the exponential growth has taught us is that skills today might not be relevant tomorrow, character lasts forever. I could go on to elaborate the quality of teaching, and the understanding that the professors bring to the class – the cases we discuss and the discussions that follow – but that would be digressing from the point I am trying to enunciate. What is great, is the value the professors bring to our lives.

The opportunity to discuss your queries, either in class discussions or one-on-one, with ex BBC News Anchors, ex Entrepreneurs, present Partners for Consulting Firms, PE Gurus, Financial Wizards and the authorities on their subjects, in their fields – all at your disposal. And over coffees and lunches and dinners and parties (ah, that had to appear), you get to know them better. You have the opportunity not just to connect on a personal level, but also an opportunity to network with people from other schools and industry through them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up on our MBA degree.

An MBA is one of the heterogeneous degrees – where the class is not made up of a single major, and we have people from all backgrounds – right from investment bankers, engineers and consultants to artists, news anchors, and museum curators. Someone from almost every field, someone from almost every region. In a class discussion, even a simple question like “how late is late”, evoked answers which surprised a lot of us. I thank our OB professors for balancing both context and culture in almost every discussion, because in this fast growing global economy a local understanding of both the mindset and markets is extremely important. And in a school like INSEAD (where we have no major culture), these discussions become all the more interesting. In global ambiguity of legal, ethical and cultural standards to navigate exponential growth of companies or startups these discussions help uncover blind spots. Also, the added benefit of free legal/tax/financial/operations advice from colleagues is available. We learn how to speak different tongues (for now I do know when someone is being not so kind to me in Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Romanian and French in addition to English and Hindi), learn how to talk to people from different walks of life, understanding their customs and nuances, and how to deal with uncertainty when we face it in different situations we might encounter. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up on our MBA degree.

Studying in a Business School allows us to interact with the staff that power this well-oiled machine. With a single Dean, and Professors visiting both campuses for full-fledged courses, bunch of students moving geographies almost every 60 days, the staff work behind the scenes to make it as seamless as possible. They say home is where Wi-Fi connects automatically, and the day I walked into the INSEAD Campus (open 24×7), in Singapore (I started in Fontainebleau), my mobile automatically connected. It was home. We can learn a lot from the staff and how they manage to achieve all this and more; how they work with virtual teams on a daily basis. It could be a logistical nightmare, the dual campus program, especially with the intensity, but it has been happening for 15 years now, and just keeps getting better. It is a learning that doesn’t have credits or professors, but is learning by experience and observation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up on our MBA degree.

They say that the MBA is a boring lot. From dropping eggs for assignments from 3rd floor of buildings, to having sharpies and post-it notes as parts of our toolkits (after all that’s what you would expect from a course co-taught with the ART School of Pasadena) ; from professors taking part in section games, and coming to class in a suit one day, and shorts the other, to our annual DASH (a quick google search of “INSEAD DASH” would be helpful here) – which is nothing short of Comicon, and the social life that allows us to know more about each other, make bonds, forge friendships, and make plans to play laser tag, get the girls to get us drinks on Ladies’ Nights, or organizing our versions of Chateau Burning Man Parties, I believe the thought of us being risk-averse might not be as true as people make us to be. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up on our MBA degree.

INSEAD loves to travel – be it between campuses, or almost every weekend – we love travelling with our colleagues, as they become friends and family, to explore the places that surround us. From running marathons in North Korea, to reading cases on the sandy beaches of Bali, to tasting champagne in the cellars of Reims and wine in the vineyards of Bordeaux, to watching the night sky during the northern lights in Iceland, to visiting locations in Europe, Africa or Asia over the weekend, we do it all in these 10 months. Travelling probably in itself could command an entire credit to itself. Having suitcases in classes on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings are a common sight. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up on our MBA degree.

All that aside, the greatest omission from the MBA degree is the people. The people we meet, the people we work with, the people we share our joys and sorrows, and rooms and space, the people with whom we share our time, the people who are strangers on our first day, but family by graduation. And not just from INSEAD, but also our partner schools of Kellogg School of Management, Wharton and CEIBS (one of the exchange student from Kellogg holds the record for the best crepes that I have ever tasted).

I still remember a discussion I had about IKB (International Klein Blue), at 2AM at a bar, and for the first time in my life understood why a single painting which is in a single colour, is so valuable. (Also, that was the day I left my keys in a jacket I handed over to another lady, and crashed someone’s couch, whom I never met over the next year due to the INSEAD double campus magic. She’s one of my closest friends. He cooked me breakfast, so well… )

Over the year I shared a house with a museum curator, and learnt a lot more than I had expected about Art – and all of a sudden the Google Art Project started making sense. You learn about things that you’d never imagined, about subjects that are probably not on your radar. It is discussions like these when you realize the similarities and the nuances of different fields, with subject matter experts guiding you. Sounds something like New Business Opportunities, and something we see happening in the IoT industry. In my study group alone, we had USA, Russia, Ghana, Spain, Germany and India covered. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up on our MBA degree.

I wouldn’t even begin with the technology focused courses, or the entrepreneurship ones, because I believe a person motivated enough can scourge the web for those resources. But, there is nothing that comes close to the discussions, and the ability to pick the brains of not just one, but a diverse group of people, understanding the perspectives of people who might be your future clients, customers, co-workers or investors. The access that the school network, the alumni, the professors bring left aside, the experience of an MBA today (as of 2015), does deliver a lot more than meets the eye.

I understand that the school I choose is a single point of sample data. I also understand that Ms. Sheryl Sandberg talked about the value that her experience brought to the job, not the degree – and I wholeheartedly agree with it – if I wanted just a certificate, I could’ve done a MOOC – but the articles underplayed the importance of the experience and overstated the unimportance of a degree. Given the influence she commands, I felt I should do my bit, knowing completely well that I am nowhere close to her in terms of share of voice or influence, but if people do stumble upon this blog, they’d know a little bit more about what an MBA in 2015 is about. One day, this will be obsolete – it could be in 1 year or 10 or 100 – I don’t know, but that is the very nature of an MBA – to evolve with time.

An MBA at INSEAD is one of the best years of our lives. It sure is a life Bootcamp, and if not for a job, do it for yourself.

 

References:

To know more about life at INSEAD you could have a look at http://moments.insead.edu/

It talks about what you don’t see in our resume or degrees.


Originally published at siddharthchaturvedi.com on January 5, 2016.

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