There is a stark contrast between the beginning and end of an MBA student’s first year.
The casual observer would immediately notice that the latter period is not nearly as festive. There are few celebratory parties or outings to the local pub. In spite of the more agreeable weather, the campus lawn is noticeably bare. Yes, it would be difficult to confuse the atmosphere of this London Business School with the one we were introduced to almost a year ago.
This change is not accidental. It is the result of the immense transformation my classmates and I have experienced. We are still as ambitious and self-
confident as we were when we arrived. However, that ambition now comes with a little more focus, and the self-confidence is more benign.
Probably the most obvious reason for the change in demeanour is that the first year took its toll. The relentless deluge of assignments and the arduous internship search left us mentally fatigued, while constant interaction with individuals who are just as smart, focused and motivated as ourselves brought new humility.
Frankly, being constantly exposed to classroom assignments, teachers and each other lost its lustre. We longed for a different existence to allow us to replace the title of student with the more sophisticated one of professional. The ensuing summer internship would be our salvation. It would remind us why we came to London Business School to devote almost two years of our life to business education. However, this eagerness was somewhat tempered, because what lay ahead was even more uncertainty and risk.
During the school year, we had the benefit of being both unaccountable and omnipotent. We could engage in impassioned debates about how as chief executive of a certain company we would have done this, or if we had been the banker on that deal we would have structured it like that. Insulated from the consequences of such decisions, and privy to all critical information about the case, we were able to solve complex business problems with relative ease.
We knew that once we began our internships, this would no longer be the case. The information would be more nebulous and the outcomes of our decisions would be unpredictable. Any seriously bad choices could cost a lot of money. So in approaching this impending summer period, what lingered in the back of our minds was a collectively felt, unspeakable thought: “Were we really up to the challenge?”
It was not that we lacked confidence in our talents. Rather, it was that we were not sure we had fully acquired the necessary skills. Absorbing so much new and complex information in such a short time was challenging. Although we all found a way to pass the exams, it was impossible to know if our academic achievements would translate into success in the real world.
Yet if this lack of confidence in our skills was not enough to worry about, there was another thought that we dared not voice. “Was this industry, company and/or internship right for us?”
Many of us were working in new countries, in entirely different industries, new companies and positions. Some even had the additional burden of working in a different language. In spite of our ability to convince human resources staff otherwise, there was no real way of knowing if this summer job was going to fit. We all knew that our summer could be a wonderful experience or an utter disaster.
Yet as the first year ended and we scattered across the globe, there was guarded optimism. While most decided that their opportunities to test their skills lay in places such as New York, Paris, Hong Kong and London, I felt that mine resided in Nigeria, with the young, indigenous oil company Oando.
As I informed others of my unconventional summer plans, a weird sense of déjà vu set in. Just a year earlier, news of my plans to pursue an MBA in the UK elicited responses among my friends in the US. “Why was I going there? Weren’t there opportunities here?” Now I had to answer the same inquiries.
Yet the reasons that led me to London Business School were similar to those that led me to work for Oando. It offered a test unlike that presented by the alternatives. I knew that the challenges of Oando and Nigeria could enrich my growth and assist my development into a global business professional.
Obviously, one does not have to go to Africa to test one’s new business skills. For most, firms such as Goldman Sachs, Shell or Booz Allen are adequate proving grounds. Regardless of where that challenge lies, it is important to remember that failing to test oneself would be a mistake.
Taking the easy road would only devalue the tremendous time and effort expended to make it this far. But there is another reason taking a risk at this stage is recommended: you can easily recover.
No matter what happened during the summer internship, we knew that during the second year we would be able to look for employment in another industry or firm. This served as further encouragement to step outside one’s comfort zone. For me, plunging into the challenging environment of Oando and Nigeria was not too frightening. I was comforted in knowing even if my foray into African business and the energy sector was unsuccessful, I would have another opportunity to find my way.
Fortunately my experience was rewarding and enriching. In spite of numerous challenges, over the summer I discovered just how much I had learnt. My newly acquired skills allowed me to discuss the entire value chain of the organisation’s activities.
Although no expert, I saw that I could make a meaningful contribution. But the skill that was critical was the ability to build trust and relationships with my colleagues. Without being able to establish a rapport with them, my technical know-how would have been irrelevant. Experience from my previous career and London Business School were instrumental here.
So as I return to campus, I am glad I decided to put myself to the test. And I’ve realised how much I learnt in the first year. If my internship experience is not enough validation, the presence of the new MBA class confirms this. The unbridled enthusiasm and confidence on display stands in contrast to the reserved demeanour of my classmates.
Still, we second-year students should not bask in our accomplishments, for we have a long way to go. But we have made it over another hurdle, and are that much better prepared to become the global business leaders that we aspire to be.
For previous diaries go to www.ft.com/businesseducation