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It is finally over. I am not referring to the MBA; despite the enthusiasm of many of my classmates after finishing our accounting exam, we have 16 long months to go. What has come to an end is just the opening semester of perpetual classes, complex projects and late nights.
Yet I feel a sense of accomplishment.
This does not stem from learning critical concepts such as how to estimate a company’s value or measure its performance. Many are they who can acquire such skills, which I know will not give me the competitive advantage I need.
What will give me the advantage is the ability to build and leverage relationships. This skill, which has come from informal interaction with classmates, alumni and teachers, is where the true value of my education lies.
This past September, I and the other confident, bright-eyed and ambitious members of the MBA class of 2008 knew what we wanted in our careers. We wanted jobs in investment banking or consulting. We wanted to work for the likes of McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and Proctor & Gamble.
I do not think anyone really knew how an MBA from London Business School was going to get us there. We just knew that holding these positions required an MBA from a top programme. We came hoping to get that box checked.
But four months after our arrival, that assurance has gone. It has been replaced by confusion, indecisiveness and anxiety.
This is not the feeling I or any of my classmates were expecting to have at this point. We should poss-ess an unflappable air of confidence. The market is robust and buoyant, and this is probably one of the best times ever to be an MBA student. What has happened to us?
From conversations with many of my friends, it is a natural phenomenon plaguing first-year MBA students across the globe.
MBA programmes completely restructure the way you view business and yourself. As a result, the job you initially wanted to have, or the company you wanted to work for, may not be right for you. You find that there may be other careers in other industries, companies, or regions that suit you better.
The realisation manifests itself through a combina-tion of classwork, club events, company information sessions and countless social gatherings with
classmates and alumni.
You begin to see what investment bankers, consultants or entrepreneurs really do, learn about companies you never knew existed, find out aspects of business you were oblivious to, and read about growth opportunities in countries around the world.
It results in a gradual shift that leaves you feeling uncertain and anxious.
The way to navigate through this uncertainty comes not through applying any of the fancy statistical or finance models you have learned in class.
Rather, the skill of building relationships, and capitalising on the resources these relationships can provide, is the answer.
In the past, I thought that relationship-building was another name for networking. I have come to realise that they differ dramatically.
My first realisation of the difference occurred a few months before starting my MBA. A former US Air Force colleague, who had recently joined an investment bank, told me that his greatest resource was his relationships.
He said he could not solve all his business problems by himself; he needed a strong network of people to help him. In order to leverage that network, however, he had to be willing to solve these other peoples’ problems too.
I heard similar words several weeks after my arrival on campus. Our careers director summarised the importance of relationships thus: “It is not who you know or what you know, but who knows what you know.”
The skills you learn in class will only get you so far. You can be the brightest person in the class, but if no one knows your skills or helps connect you with where your skills can be used, you will be left jobless.
I really did not internalise the importance of relationships until the school term was in full swing. LBS knows that, at the start of the programme, most students’ priorities are themselves. But no business pro-fessional has ever been successful using this philosophy. Knowing this, the school tries to force us all to realise the importance of others to our individual success.
Probably the most beneficial but painful practice is the placement of each student in a study group of six or seven. Most of your first-year projects are group assignments, and with some 40 per cent of your grade based on the quality of this group’s output, there is immense pressure to perform.
These multi-talented and multinational groups are destined to have friction. Our varied experiences and understanding of the world result in differing approaches to problems and their solution.
Most groups find ways of reconciling the diverse viewpoints, and in the process we develop strong bonds. We learn one another’s likes and dislikes, and skills and areas for improvement.
Ideally, we develop relationships with one another. These become infectious and permeate the other groups, our larger class or student body as a whole.
Our relationships act as mirrors, helping us find out what we truly like and what we are good at. They connect us to friends and colleagues who can help us get closer to where we want to be. As a result, people start to see what they really want to do and how they will get there.
Looking back over the past few months, I repeat, I feel a sense of accomplishment. The days of looking to gather business cards and calculating what someone else can do for me are over.
The reciprocity that comes from building relationships is the secret to the success of the best companies.
These companies do not look for what they can get from their customers; they look at what they can provide them. If this method can work for business, I am sure it can work for me.