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Nicole Lindsay is the author of The MBA Slingshot for Women: Using Business School to Catapult your Career, which aims to help female graduates avoid running into professional roadblocks that disrupt or derail their careers.
Ms Lindsay has several years’ experience working with female MBA graduates. After three years working in financial services, she moved to Yale School of Management where she oversaw minority and women admissions. She later joined Goldman Sachs, managing the investment bank’s MBA recruiting initiatives and in 2009, she became the executive director of New York Needs You, helping college students who are the first in their families ever to attend college to realise their college and career ambitions. She also has an MBA herself, from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
In her spare time, Ms Lindsay enjoys the performing arts, watching sports and travelling. She has visited more than 40 countries.
1. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
Graduating from college with honours. Today, the honours programme at the University of Connecticut is really robust, but back then it was largely an independent journey. I completed extra projects and papers for classes and wrote an honours thesis, while keeping up with my rigorous party schedule. And I would trek to New York City from Storrs, Connecticut, to go to the library for my research as there was very limited internet access. Graduating from college was like graduating from high school – both were a certainty. But on my college graduation day, in the basketball stadium filled with thousands, I was one of the few graduates who were called by name.
2. What is your favourite memory from the time you spent studying for an MBA?
My fondest memories of business school are of the more intimate settings. I learnt so much more from and about my classmates when we had time to listen to, debate and ask questions of each other. My learning team is a perfect example. We met five nights a week for nine months. As we analysed business cases, we discussed everything from how many shirts George a vendor should order to whether a company should continue to manufacture glue when they know that children are using it in developing nations to get high. It was so interesting to see how differently we each assessed situations and came to conclusions.
In my last year, I took a reading seminar on US president Thomas Jefferson with a Darden legend, Professor John Colley. The class of less than 10 students met in a pavilion on the lawn of the university that Mr Jefferson built. It was an incredible and at times frustrating exploration of leadership. He is the founder of a school that I am so proud to call my alma mater, yet his actions towards those enslaved on his plantation were abhorrent, particularly given his rather evolved view of blacks.
3. Who are your business influences?
Two women who inspired me very early in my career are Octavia Matthews, a fellow Darden alumna who I met when I was 22 years old and Virginia Hepner who was one of the first executives that I got to work with [in finance]. They were both tremendous role models – displaying authenticity, presence and self-confidence in male-dominated environments.
4. How do you deal with male dominated environments?
I probably had a more difficult time in my career adjusting to female-dominated environments. Most of my early professional experiences, and many educational ones as well, were in male-dominated environments. I have a twin brother and an older brother. I love beer and watching sports. I had a pretty high degree of comfort also because I was confident in who I was and resolved early in my career not to hide myself to “fit in” with the crowd. Not that I could have hidden anyway – I was a black woman in mostly white male settings.
When you spend lots of time with people who may not understand you – or worse have erroneous or stereotypical views of you – it can be exhausting. The only remedy is to have an enduring and unflappable sense of who you are, quirks and all. For example, I’m happy to hang out with the guys, but affinity groups are critical for me. So I’m a visible participant in gatherings of women and minorities. That’s who I am. Being in a male-dominated environment often requires a bit of flexibility from women, but it shouldn’t mean losing yourself and your values.
5. What would you do if you were dean of a business school for the day?
I would change up the Organisation Behavior course [and] split the class into small groups of four or five students with two to three alumni per group. Many students rail against OB courses. They tend to underprepare for class discussions because the topics may feel like common sense and just wing it in class. Students can also be pretty dismissive of others viewpoints or the need for the class to engage deeply in the subject matter. Executive MBAs, like MBA graduates, who are generally more senior, tend to value discussions of leadership, teaming, conflict resolution and human resources since these capture some of their most significant current business issues.
6. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
My 11th grade English teacher, Annette Arase gave us a quiz on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and one of the questions asked us to name three cars that the Joads passed along the road on their way from Oklahoma to California. We all looked at each other, miffed. Out of the 450+ pages in the book, my teacher expected us to remember old cars described on one page? In a room full of overachievers we all failed that quiz because, as Ms Arase explained, we didn’t study the aspects of the book that captured its excellence. Details matter, especially when the small elements build to a great whole. The Grapes of Wrath was a seminal work in part because of the exceptional and historical detail.
I had been a mediocre student to that point, but that advice sparked something in me. My studies became personal – my own journey to understand and achieve excellence. This approach later carried over into my career – my attention to the seemingly small things has been one of my greatest strengths and professional assets.
7. What is your favourite business book?
I don’t know if it’s my favourite book, but the one that has stayed with me most profoundly is The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. It was required reading for my first-year Operations class at Darden. The book reinforced for me the importance of storytelling as a teaching tool. I like to have the underlying data and the background so I can fully understand a concept or a process, but the story is how I put it all together. It is the glue. I’ve found that when I speak to audiences or when I am training groups, the stories are what they find to be the most compelling and then they open themselves up more for the actual concepts or advice.
8. Which three top tips would you highlight from your book?
Plan your MBA experience. A typical US full-time MBA programme is only 21 months from start to finish. European MBA programmes are even shorter. If business school is to be a career-accelerator for you, then you have to squeeze every ounce of value from the experience. What knowledge, skills and relationships do you need to build in light of who you are now and who you want to become? How will you approach the 4Cs – classroom experience, club engagement, career exploration and community life?
Dream big. It’s amazing how many of us have stopped dreaming about what we truly want from our lives and career. Compromise is a reality that we will all face at some point in our careers, but don’t settle or give up on your aspirations now.
Build your all-girls network. Having a supportive network of women is important and significantly more women long to be part of an all-girls network than want to go it alone. I’m not suggesting that you only have women in your network, but rather that you purposefully build strong professional affiliations based on gender. I encourage you to actively approach, support and rely on other women.
9. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?
As you leave school, think back to two years ago before you started business school. What was your goal? What were you trying to get, to be or to do with your MBA? Were you successful? Did you achieve some or all of it? I found that a number of women don’t finish school with the knowledge, skills and relationships that they thought they would obtain in business school. Overall, they are satisfied with their MBA experience – excited about a better job and the phenomenal friendships that they built. However, they are missing the career-accelerating experience they thought business school would give them.
Even if your graduation day has passed, it’s not too late to claim the promise of business school. Be aggressive in developing the knowledge, skills and relationships that will be critical to your future success. From connecting with professors to attending conferences hosted by the school to serving as an alumni volunteer, you can engage with the school and tap its incredible resources.
10. What are your top tips for networking?
Networking is a flawed term. It doesn’t capture the importance of connection with other people and generates trepidation for women who don’t like its transactional nature. We have to focus on relationship management – we initiate, cultivate and then maintain relationships. It’s not enough to get networked once – the connection needs to be nurtured for it to grow. Women are outstanding relationship builders, we tend to feel that it’s more authentic.
Tip one: Share your needs. Only you know what you need and you have to tell others. I’m not suggesting that you start off your introduction with a list of needs, but know that people often want to be helpful and you need to be ready to reveal where you could use support.
Tip two: Don’t obsess about what you have to offer. I often find that women are less likely than men to cultivate relationships with senior professionals, unsure about how they reciprocate value in the relationship. While you may not be able to add significant value now, you may be able to do so down the road.