MBA Diary: Contact, clashes and a humbling learning curve

Our first three months as MBA participants at IMD have gone by at great speed. Because we spend as much as 100 hours a week inside the school’s wonderfully equipped campus buildings, I hardly noticed the winter as it arrived and departed.

For the first time in 10 years, I feel the everyday pressure of an intense workload but without any of the stress associated with running my business, a fashion sourcing office. We – the 90 IMD MBA students in my class – find ourselves in a unique environment and have discovered that, as well as exchanging our own business stories, we have unparalleled opportunities both to experience and to learn more rapidly than ever before.

My wife and two sons have adapted well to Lausanne, after our busy lives in Shanghai and New York City.

On (too infrequent) occasions, I share the joys of watching our one-year-old son learning to walk: he carefully places first one foot and then the other and, with gained confidence, starts accelerating. Then, inevitably, he stumbles and tumbles, before standing up to begin anew. At IMD I am experiencing a similar process, in virtually everything we do.

Take leadership. When we embarked on our 10-month intensive journey, I knew we would be involved with group work but I had thought of it as primarily a way to share our assignment workload and share experiences. I did not expect it to be a laboratory in which I would be tested in “how to benefit from the leadership styles of others”. My first study group comprised seven individuals, of seven nationalities and backgrounds, who spoke a total of 12 languages.

Psychoanalyst

At first, I failed to evaluate the underlying team dynamics that inevitably occur under pressure. We struggled, trying to understand how to work together better – not only to increase the quality of our projects but also to build friendships and avoid animosity. We questioned our behaviour and provided extensive feedback to each other. Feelings and emotions surged; we were tired and our natural defences vanished. As we went through emotional highs and lows, we left our comfort zones and learnt, through experience, to improve our behaviour and deal with who and what we are.

Alongside this introspection, IMD offers us the possibility of exploring the nuances of our personalities with the help of a leadership-focused psychoanalyst. As we are now entering the second phase of the programme and joining a new group, I understand how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to test and stretch my boundaries in a “safe” environment.

We have multiple occasions to reinforce and assess our team skills in the real world.

We dedicate most of our Saturdays to a start-up, supporting the entrepreneur. Our team assists a small, yet quite successful British mobile software company in repositioning its strategy and incubating the next big idea.

And two teams of IMD participants have recently claimed the top slot in two business school competitions – the L’Oréal e-Strat and the ECCH business school case challenges. In part, both teams won thanks to their ability to evaluate and synthesise business plans in a manner that goes well beyond applications of simple frameworks.

This second phase also marks, for some of us, the beginning of a search for our “dream jobs”. Although both career professionals and experience have trained us to ask good questions and prepare our CVs, I am still in an exploratory phase as to what I could, or should, or even must do. Shall I approach fashion consultancies? Shall I approach fashion companies for business development? Or should I seek an undervalued brand for sale and then turn it round with the help of a private equity company?

I’m using all the networking and internet tools at my disposal to gain some insights. While I was in New York, “French Tuesdays” – organised networking events – were the best way to meet talented executives. While in Shanghai, networking happened more by chance than through groups.

IMD has taken our social networking a step further. It organises on-campus events all year long in our executive programmes. The school’s IT department has developed phenomenal software to assist in building and accessing our social network on campus and to “make the invisible visible”.

Each participant enters his or her profile and interests when beginning at IMD. Then, on campus, we have the opportunity to contact, using the software, other executives with similar interests. This alone has given me – and each of us, I’m sure – powerful sparks of energy as we get to know each other and thus “connect”.

Priceless advice

Each week, I can research the names and interests of others on campus and extend an offer to meet a new potential-friend-and-contact for coffee or lunch. Three weeks ago a few of us attended a lunch with Nick Schreiber, ex-CEO of TetraPak. We were surprised to learn that Nick had taken the time to study each of our profiles extensively and then used them to give us targeted and priceless advice.

Together, we are also widening our horizons outside IMD. We are attempting to recognise some of the key issues we will face when we graduate in November. Earlier this month our entire cohort was invited to the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva and had the privilege of listening to and exchanging information with delegates of the main countries involved in the Doha Round. It was an eye-opener.

In the same vein – exploring tomorrow’s challenges in inter­national political economics – we will fly to South Africa in June to understand the problems the country now faces, 13 years after the first multiracial elections.

Since many of us aim to be leaders at a global level, there can be no better preparation than this kind of trip. We will interact with business leaders and also with stakeholders from all walks of life.

It all comes down to IMD’s own motto, which I’ve come to treasure: “Real world. Real learning.”

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