Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"I've Got Mine Too"

Getting your MBA is a pretty great accomplishment. After so much hard work and sweat, after awhile you get the feeling that you really are pretty superhuman inside, like you could look any corporate challenge with your steely, educated eyes until it (not you) blinked. This is probably what accounts for so much of the zeal (and hubris) newly-minted graduates (not just MBA's) feel after walking across a big stage and having so many people clap and take pictures of them.

Over time, of course, the zeal becomes tempered by the cold, hard reality that in most cases, your colleagues and managers aren't going to drop to their knees and beg for an audience in your bright shininess. They won't back a truck full of money up onto your front lawn and dump it just because you went back to school. They won't automatically promote you either. Chances are, you will either take a vacation to reward yourself (maybe as short as a day), but when you walk back into the office that next work day, things really won't be all that much different. I went back to work today and I think I experienced just about the best anyone could really ask for: a few colleagues patting me on the back and saying congratulations, and one person asking (probably not totally in jest): "hey, are you walking a little taller today?"

This is where it starts getting a little scary. Where is the fame and fortune promised by the MBA program brochures? Where are all the job opportunities that are supposed to airlift themselves into my e-mail inbox? And, come to think of it, yeah! Where the hell is my truckload of money, anyway?

Truth is, the next part is all up to you. And it's dangerously easy to get pretty complacent with your bigshot new degree and sit in your big shiny palace waiting for people to ask you for an audience. I can really see myself doing that, so I probably need to re-read this blog post at least twice a week just to prevent it from happening.

I'm actually more concerned about the opposite: becoming one of the people who lose faith in their degree, don't use it to its fullest, or don't use it as the stepping stone it was meant to be. Throughout my program, I've been shocked by how many people I work with already have their MBA's (usually earned in some distant past) but have jobs in which they use little if any of their executive skills. I'll reveal a little of my snobbishness here, but I've met sales assistants, junior consultants, even admin assistants who apparently have their MBAs, and every time I meet one of them, it freaks me out a little. One of the maxims I've tried to keep to during my program was that I didn't want to end up with the same job (or even on the same trajectory) I had pre-MBA, yet that's precisely what so many people seem to let happen.

So my real enemy is the "oh, yeah, I've got my MBA too" syndrome. Rather than expecting someone to hoist me up onto a pedestal, it looks like it's up to me to go build my own castle.

Stone by stone.

Now We Are Free

It all ended so quickly, and really without much fanfare. Sure, there was the big graduation ceremony at the University campus on the brilliant spring day. There was also the marching band, the commencement speakers, the caps & gowns, and the friends and family all gathered to wish us well and tell us how proud they all were of our accomplishments. Because it WAS such a major accomplishment, after all.

All day, I couldn't get the thought out of my head: I'll see that person next week in class. I don't need to say goodbye to them now, because we're sure to have another farewell get-together soon. What didn't really sink in until after everyone had left was: this was the last official time we'd all be together. These 60 or so people who all made the same decision I made more than two years ago, who worked at it every week right there with me, and who I got to know much better than I expected to. Now all of these people were dispersing on the lawn with their families, taking pictures and heading off to celebratory lunches and parties all over the city.

And just like that, I had a masters degree. Or at least a piece of paper inside a very nice-looking degree holder telling me I would receive my degree by mail in 6-8 weeks assuming I met all the requirements of the program. (Does anyone not get the diploma? I wondered)

I have been lax in updating this blog during April and May. So much happened right up to the end, and I plan to write about it in the weeks and months ahead-- not as an account (in real time) but as a reflection. I still think there's value to that, and if I'm lucky, this MBA-esque education won't end when they finally (hopefully) send me that diploma in the mail in 6-8 weeks.

The real question now is: what are you going to do with your shiny new $84,000 degree, mister? That could fill another blog in itself....

By The Numbers

So what does it take to get your MBA? Now that I'm organizing all the stuff I amassed during my 20-month course of study, I came across these two data points tonight:

  1. A total of 190MB of e-mail
  2. 1.68GB of disk space (including 2,981 files and 109 folders)

If only there was some way to track the gallons of coffee.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Last Day

Class is over. No more homework. No more panic that I've missed an assignment or fear that God invented accounting simply to torment me. Just like that: we're done, baby.

Of course it didn't all end without some really good theater. Today was the second day of our international team business plan presentations, and it was my team's turn to present for 25 minutes in the mid-morning. The audience today was a bit smaller than yesterday, apparently because all the Poles who presented yesterday started drinking last night and told everyone they had no plans of stopping just to come to class. (you've got to admire that boldness) And it was great watching the Europeans in the class as they ignored the faculty's instructions to pay attention to the presentations-- there were laptops up, Blackberries in use, and even newspapers unfurled in class throughout the morning. It was also amazing to see the sheer megapixels on display as just about every Chinese student had a cellphone camera, SLR, or camcorder running at all times. People up on stage felt like they were being stalked by paparazzi. And the visiting professors from Europe delighted in droning on with 5- and 10- part questions that weren't really questions at all, but rather more a chance for them to speak and be heard. It made me really happy I wasn't part of European Academia.

And then it was our team's turn to present. As I've written elsewhere in this blog, our team was, shall we say, unique, and to see us all up there on stage presenting was a little surreal. After so many months of working alone when we should have been collaborating, after so many 5am Skype calls to accommodate the schedules of the Chinese who never showed up to the calls anyway, after coming together this past Monday with no slides prepared, there we were, all ready to present and be done with this thing.

I do presentations for a living, so I've been in worse situations. I knew my material well enough to know that I could talk for 25 minutes off the cuff if needed, and I knew from experience that people probably wouldn't be able to tell if I did. So I kicked off the presentation, delivered my slides, and handed it over to my teammates for their parts. I also tried to keep things moving so we wouldn't run out of time for our last slides like several other teams had done.

Everything went pretty well-- no disasters, and I really had to give it to my international colleagues for standing up in front of 75 people to speak their second language under the pressure of the clock while also being recorded on video.

Then came the part I'd been waiting for: our Chinese team member, Mr. Delegater, the one who considered himself a Chinese Jerry Seinfeld and who had delivered a 10-minute unsolicited speech to the class on the downfall of capitalism earlier in the week. His assignment was simple: walk through the financials, and close with a story. I knew he wouldn't be able to stick to any of that, so I was excited to see how it all played out.

I wasn't disappointed. He began with a rousing speech on how he was asked to be "the closer," but in reality he was more like "the TERMINATOR." It was brilliant theater, and it was actually cathartic to have my classmates see firsthand what I'd been complaining about since our project began last fall.

For the next 10 minutes, he told stories of rabbits, hotel guests as caged animals, caves, and he even managed to work in a joke about polygamy (that one prompted one of my American classmates to stand up and walk out of the room). I was laughing behind him, because it really couldn't have ended in any more of a surreal fashion. He barely mentioned financials at all, and the feedback from the class was that they would have invested in our venture if only Mr. Delegater hadn't been part of our team.

Oh well, you can't win them all, and this was a pass/fail class anyway so I doubt we'll fail. If anything, I think the faculty may have felt a little sorry for us up there on stage with The Terminator.

What I do know is this: it feels absolutely amazing to be done with school. Bittersweet, to be sure, but only after walking out of that classroom for the final time did I begin to feel the weight fall off my shoulders. As I drove home along the Mississippi River in the brilliant spring afternoon, I let myself dream about untold luxuries like free time, pleasure reading, and reasonable bedtimes.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Diplomacy Cruise

OK, so we've had a week to get to know our international teammates and we've struggled to assemble what looks like a decent PowerPoint presentation for Saturday. Now it's time to party, right?

Not exactly. Our class had organized a dinner cruise on the Mississippi River for tonight, after a full day of presentations from other teams. At first I didn't want to attend because our team presents tomorrow, and also because I didn't want to spend one more penny on entertaining my Chinese teammates after they left me stranded at my hotel in their home city of Guangzhou in March when I visited.

But, in the end, I am a softie, so despite the fact that the Chinese guys were still perplexing to me (and despite the fact that their contribution to our team project is still sorely lacking), I decided to pay the $36 per person to host them on the cruise. My wife joined me, as did the wife of Mr. Delegater from the Chinese team.

And you know what? It was a really good time. Our class, alone together on the quiet river, cruising, drinking, eating, and sharing stories. And for the first time I could really see the gratitude of my Chinese teammates. That just doesn't come through on Skype or in e-mail. It was a fitting end to this maddening process of developing our team business plan, and it set the stage for what I hope will be a successful presentation tomorrow.

Monday, May 11, 2009


So we had our first face-to-face team meeting tonight to work on the presentation we'll deliver this coming Saturday to the class. We've been working on this since Thanksgiving, and as I've written before, our two Chinese members have contributed just about zero to the effort thus far. Not surprisingly, this has produced more than a little intra-team angst, and we all came to tonight's meeting with heightened tensions. Last night's dinner was a good icebreaker so at least we had a little understanding of everyone's quirks and personality, but tonight was where the rubber needed to meet the road. Some of the other teams already had their presentations complete, but our team had yet to even start.

So we gathered in one of the breakout rooms in the MBA center on campus, my American teammate and I ordered (and paid for) pizza, and our Viennese counterpart fired up his laptop and started in on the slides.

Only one of the Chinese guys even brought their laptop. (How can you participate in a team PowerPoint session without your laptop?)

Over the next three hours, we muddled through it. Personalities were further revealed, especially on the Chinese side, and we began to understand why the output from their side was so lacking throughout our project: one was extremely shy and unsure of his English language skills (though he seemed a lot better with his English than we'd be with our Chinese), and the other was a born delegater, which meant that everything about his body language, demeanor, and personality indicated he was a person of great importance, he possessed a natural sense of humor that transcended his broken English, and that somewhere, there just had to be a staff person who would do his work for him. He of course was the one who came to the meeting without his laptop (or even a pen and paper).

I would later learn that this second Chinese teammate had made somewhat of a name for himself by standing up in class earlier in the day and giving an unsolicited 10-minute speech on the downfall of capitalism and how the current economic crisis in the U.S. was evidence that the fallacies of democracy were finally coming home to roost.

The class decided he must be a high-ranking Party official, sent to get his MBA and monitor the rest of the class.

In the end, we cobbled together something akin to a PowerPoint presentation that may actually enable us to graduate. We'll see-- we walked out of that breakout room tonight with a lot of work ahead of us. Our presentation is in five short days.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

And So We Meet

As I've written elsewhere in this blog, one of our biggest projects in the MBA program has been to collaborate with international teams from our sister MBA programs in Vienna, Warsaw, and Guangzhou. The effort kicked off last fall and seemed innocuous enough at the time-- we get to meet four other people from different cultures, all of whom were engaged like us in an MBA program pursuit, and we would work together using technology for videoconferencing and collaboration to create a business plan to introduce an existing product into a new market.

Sounds simple, right? It should have been, only I was not prepared for the cultural and technology barriers our team encountered with our Chinese teammates. It was difficult to tell if they were, in fact, living in the same world as we were. They seemed incapable of using any of the tools we were given (document sharing websites, wikis, Skype, e-mail, even telephones). Apparently one had to walk 10 miles from his house just to get to a computer (these are MBA students, right?). And it seemed every week someone was taking someone else to the hospital, where they would spend days or even weeks just recuperating from what seemed like common illnesses or minor injuries. All of these things conspired against our Chinese counterparts being able to make any team call or meeting, and they claimed to never receive 75% of the materials we'd send them in e-mail.

Soon, we began to think they were lying. Or really really lazy. We learned all about guanxi (or "saving face") in our international relations class, and about how central this notion was to Chinese culture, so we didn't want to call their bluff (for fear of embarrassing them), but round about Christmas things began to get really crazy.

They stopped showing up to all calls, and their turnaround time on e-mails was averaging 1-2 weeks. They would send e-mails saying they could not work on important team deliverables or meet deadlines because they were "busy" (this was the one that really got me).

Then in March, we had the opportunity to meet our two Chinese teammates when we visited their school in Guangzhou. Only neither of them came to meet us. And they didn't call or e-mail to explain. They just left us sitting in our hotel while other teams took their American counterparts out on the town. Later we learned one claimed to be in the hospital for 25 days, and apparently the other was just "busy".

Like all good Americans, we vowed revenge: no special treatment when they came to visit us in the U.S. No gifts. No American tourism package. We worked hard to make sure we too were "busy" (though we hoped we wouldn't need to bring out the hospital excuse).

And so they arrived: from Warsaw, from Munich, and from Guangzhou. Next week they will be walking with us across the stage and our Chinese counterparts will be receiving the same MBA diploma all the rest of us will receive (don't get me started on that, either). Tonight we met them for a dinner in a beautiful restaurant overlooking Minneapolis.

Walking in, I tried hard to swallow my bitter revenge intentions. I met my Polish and Austrian counterparts after so many Skype calls, and it was great to put faces to voices. "Maybe the Chinese won't come after all," I mused, meaning my night had a chance of being redeemed.

Then the elevators opened, and like a pack they emerged. Soon I was spotted by my two "busy" teammates from China. We sat down and ate dinner together. And it wasn't terrible. This was some pretty powerful evidence of the importance of meeting and talking face to face. I'm someone who tends to favor technology for these types of things, but for all its convenience, there is something about getting to know the measure of a person by sitting down and talking with them. You're probably thinking this is all pretty basic stuff, but until tonight I didn't have room for it in my plan-o-revenge.

In the end, I was surprised to find that, despite the fact that they have contributed absolutely nothing to our team efforts thus far, I still liked my Chinese teammates as people. That will probably complicate the work we have ahead of us this week to revise and present our team project (it's easier to just write people off than to come to terms with liking them), but maybe that's part of what this whole crazy project was intended to teach us about in the first place.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Paid in Full

Now that I've survived the China trip, and now that graduation is just days away, I thought it was a good idea to actually make my final payment to the University. With a single click of a mouse just minutes ago (made from a coffee shop, no less), I moved tens of thousands of dollars and made my final tuition payment. I am now officially paid in full for my masters degree. Hard to believe. In college, I remember ominous trips to the bursar and/or financial aid office to sign ominous documents pledging my life away (hey, what's the rest of your life when you're 19?), but today it's all so much more disconnected. When you're sitting in oak-paneled offices or facing crabby accountants who take every opportunity to remind you of the gravity of the entanglement you're about to enter into, it's a lot easier to feel like you're parting with something of value. On the Internet, paying electronically, it all seems like a video game. One hella expensive video game, but a game nonetheless.

So here's where we stand a mere 34 days before graduation:

  • Tuition paid: CHECK
  • China trip: CHECK
  • Managed not to go insane while working with crazy virtual teammates in China: CHECK
  • Lectures complete: CHECK
  • Graduation cap and gown in closet at home: CHECK
  • Subtle melancholy of leaving academia beginning to set in: CHECK
  • Feeling a bit like I'm about to get released from a prison where I'm sentenced to do three hours' hard labor every night: CHECK

Now, just one paper and two group presentations left to go. Bring it on, baby!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Re-Entry's a Bitch

It's been almost a week since I returned from my trip to China with the class. Aside from the usual battles upon returning (re-acclimation to the time zone, food, and hectic pace of family life), I've been increasingly unsettled about things that, until this morning, had baffled me. It has to be more than sleep deprivation, I told myself, and this morning in the shower (where so many insights dwell), I finally received the clarity I had been seeking.

First off, it's lousy being back. Sure, I complained last week how much I wanted to get home, how tired I was of eating dim sum and not being able to drink the tap water, and how I was weary of living out of a suitcase. But it was still travel, and I am a traveler at heart. Now that I'm back home, the only thing I want to do is whisk my family back to all the great places I visited (OK, maybe not Guangzhou unless it's after the rainy season) and show them all the amazing things I saw. This feeling is made all the more intense by the fact that almost half my class is still in Asia on many exciting adventures, and every day I see their photos posted to Facebook and other sites, and I think to myself, "I should have extended too." Even though I'm sure that, had I done so, I would be complaining now about the heat or about having to lug 50 pounds of formalwear into the heart of China or Thailand. It's an odd feeling, this schism that has occurred in our class with half of us back home and already complaining about the routines of work life and with the other half of our class still posting pictures from paradise. Eventually they will come home, I keep telling myself, though their photos still look pretty darn spectacular. Another time.

Second, so much mental energy was invested in simply surviving until China-- for almost 20 months, this is what many of us have held up as the mile marker during the darkest times. "If I can just make it to China," many of us have told ourselves, "it will be worth it." Now not only have we made it to China, we've come back. What next? What are we supposed to use as motivation now?

This second point feeds into the third: this wild, crazy, maddening, mind-expanding, wonderful journey of graduate education is rapidly coming to an end. We have just one more class together, April 24, and even that isn't a typical class day because it will consist solely of team presentations. Sometimes I feel like this whole experience went from 100 miles per hour to zero in the space of a few days. Nobody told me it was going to decelerate so quickly. I've written here before about the nagging fears of not having the forced discipline of team projects or looming class deadlines to keep me focused; now I wonder if I've really changed enough of the dusty synapses in my brain to really sustain anything close to my current level of productivity. And what about all the people in class? Part of the magic of this program has been learning from the diverse experiences of so many smart people. In my daily business routine, I don't encounter anywhere close to this diversity of people (though I am fortunate to work with extremely smart people)-- what to do upon departing the company of so many new friends and classmates? We talk about reunions but time will tell how much of that actually transpires. Personally, I hope we do continue to meet at the Corner Bar or some similarly grand locale.

Lastly, I am haunted by all the opportunity I sensed two weeks ago and which I can even now sense fading into the routine of everyday work life. Many of my classmates enjoyed their visit to Asia, still others couldn't wait to get home, and I looked at everything there as a potential job opportunity. "I want to move my family to this country and live here-- how can I make that happen?" was my frame of reference for everything I saw and experienced. That's putting a lot of pressure on yourself, and now that I'm home and have told all my fantastic stories to my family, I think they are ready to move today. Back in the States, though, I'm struggling to keep up my connections and find the time to do new research (jobs, benefits, apartments, cities, expat options, etc.).

All of this will sort itself out, I know. Perhaps what I need to set about doing once I walk across that graduation stage is to attack the expat relocation opportunity with the same rigor as I gave to my studies. If I can do that, we may yet get to live out some of the dreams I saw as possibilities last week. The good thing, at least, is that I have all those places in my mind now as possibilities.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Think You Know China?

So you think you know China? Here are just some of the many amazing facts I've noted this week during our visit to Shanghai.

There are about one hundred country-level international technology parks in China. There are 1,000 additional technology parks in the Country that are at the provincial level.

China is the #1 snack and beverage market in the world.

China is the #3 blog market in the world.

China has 738 million mobile subscribers (55% country penetration), while the U.S has just 234 million.

China has 298 million Internet users, while the U.S. has just 225 million.

There are 100 million online gamers in China, and 75% spend more than three hours per day online.

There are 350 million instant message users in China, almost none of which use Western IM services (China has its own service, called QQ).

Chinese issue 700 million Internet search queries per day, and the Chinese search market is growing at 70% CAGR.

350 million people come from single-child families (due to the country's one-child policy, introduced in 1978). These children have been raised with the best of everything and have typically had focused care from four adults (two parents and two grandparents). Soon these single children will be having their own single-child families. This is what makes the China market different from any market in the world.

Since they are single children, Chinese kids have made 50% of their friends online.

Even the smaller cities in China have populations of 3-5 million people each.

Best Buy China is able to have a new private-label product designed, manufactured, and on store shelves in just three weeks.

Local automakers in China are still growing at 14% annually, serving just the China market.

A site that was farmland five years ago now hosts a technology park with 4,000 companies and 12,000 employees. Space will open in 2012 for another sixty thousand employees.

70-80% of companies in Shanghai are now focused primarily on R&D and sales to the internal Chinese market, not on exports.

Last year, U.S. ports were not able to keep up with materials and goods being shipped from Shanghai. Goods often needed to be re-routed through Canada and then shipped by train or truck back into the U.S.

The Shanghai region, about the size of Montana, has 100 million residents (inclduing 2.5 million university students).

Ten years ago, China had just 10 MBA programs. Today there are over 100 MBA programs, and 20,000 MBA's graduate in China every year.

Most Chinese multinational companies now say their primary competition is internal Chinese start-up companies, not Western firms.

Welcome to the Future

Greetings from Shanghai, China. Hard to believe that all the classes, homework, and pressure has led up to this moment. I'm sitting in the St. Regis Hotel overlooking the city skyline (including the tallest building in the world), and we depart early tomorrow morning for the next leg on our journey: Guangzhou. We left Minneapolis five days ago and so much has changed in that time. I didn't bring a PC with me (hard to believe, I know) so I haven't been able to get much access to a decent computer until tonight (having borrowed the netbook of my classmate Michael), so this is likely to be a long post.

Where to begin? Let's start with sheer scope. There are 22 million people in this city-- that's almost 10% of the entire population of the U.S. So think about how to house, transport, feed, and entertain all those people-- that will give you some sense of the infrastructure that exists here. But it doesn't really scratch the surface in terms of what China means to the rest of the world. I came here with many preconceptions, formed in part from negative impressions from last year's Olympic Games and also from my more recent (and disappointing) work with my Chinese cohort as part of our virtual team project. So I didn't really expect to be blown away by this city in less than a day. Right away, very little was as I'd imagined. There is so much progress here, and the spirit of the people is very akin to the U.S. spirit of colonial or pioneer days. The people here simply believe that anything is possible, and more and more of them are able to see those types of changes in their everyday life. Buildings sprout up literally overnight, and it's obvious that the landscape of this city is changing by the day. They are working now to get ready for the Expo 2010 international event with a dizzying amount of road and other infrastructure construction. And because all of it is funded by the government, you just know it will happen and be ready to dazzle the world when the Expo opens next year. I have to laugh at this unabashed forward push when we are debating so much over marginal infrastructure investments in the U.S. It would take decades to accomplish what is already happening in Shanghai, and that has profound implications.

I came here believing China was the manufacturing center for the world, working harder and cheaper than anyone else to execute on American orders. In the company meetings we've had over the last few days, I now see that Chinese companies are exporting not only products, but also innovation, back to the U.S. (innovation that China owns and which is also being sent to countries other than the U.S.). I came here believing China was getting hit by the global economic downturn; I now see that orders are already ramping back up for many Chinese firms, due in no small part to the fact that the economy inside China is still growing. I came here believing China's core competency was exporting things to U.S. companies; this week I have seen companies growing by leaps and bounds just to meet internal Chinese market demand. Soon they won't even need U.S. orders to keep their businesses growing. I came here believing Chinese companies worked to help U.S. companies maintain their competitive edge; I have seen this week how Chinese companies now consider internal Chinese start-ups to be more of a threat to their business than multinationals. I came here believing the Chinese government made everything happen in Chinese industry, that Chinese industry in essence had no life apart from government support. This week I have heard stories about private ventures cropping up everywhere (solar-powered water heaters being one of them) as models that the Chinese government is now analyzing to see how to better execute in the future.

I have seen entire cities where there was only farmland 15 years ago. I have gone to the top of the tallest building in the world, looked across the street and seen what was formerly the tallest building in the world, and looked the other way across the street and seen what will soon become the new tallest building in the world. I have ridden the fastest train in the world, a maglev train that covers 30km in under eight minutes. I have visited a corporate office park where 4,000 high-tech companies have set up shop-- and where farmland dominated just five years ago. I have toured phase 2 of this office park with its 12,000 resident employees, man-made lakes and parks, and beautiful condos. And I have seen plans for phase 3 of this development, which will add houses, offices, parks, schools, shops, and railroad lines for another sixty thousand people.

And while I have experienced firsthand Shanghai, a city of 22 million people, I have also listened to a lecture on how best to ramp up manufacturing capacity in a remote Western Chinese city-- a city that itself has one hundred millionresidents.

This is China: so much bigger than you can imagine. Growing so much faster than you can imagine. Dealing with (and solving) challenges on a scale you cannot imagine. So much more innovative and leading edge than you can imagine. So much more embracing of change and of the future than you can imagine (and, dare I say so much more than even my country). So well-equipped to meet the challenges of tomorrow. So enabled by its central government (which isn't anywhere as draconian as you think) to execute on any initiative worthy of development (did I mention the country is designing its own aircraft and plans to manufacture 2,500 of them-- one of the largest aircraft manufacturing assemblies in human history?). So ready to surprise everyone who lives elsewhere and thinks they know China.

I've told people back home that I truly feel I have traveled into the future by coming here. I am seeing things this week that I only dreamed about prior, and I am seeing them on a scale that I never could even conceive of. Most surprising? The Chinese, justifiably proud of their achievement, talk about all of these things with a sense of certainty and acceptance to make you think they are as common as the sun rising in the morning. I am simply blown away. Blown away, and also completely enticed.

Monday, March 23, 2009


We leave for China in less than a week. While that's stressful in and of itself, I'm having an opportunity tonight to experience a fascinating real-world example of all we have been studying and discussing in our International Environment and virtual team project this semester. While the virtual team project was, in the end, a highly disappointing experience (more on that later), I'm learning tonight that I've cultivated quite a sensitivity to international team introductions.

As I type this entry, I'm sitting on a call with my sales colleagues from work based in the U.S. as they host their introductory conference call with our sales colleagues in China. These Chinese colleagues are responsible for the China side of the same customer the rest of us work with in the U.S. This call is our first meeting with them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my U.S. colleagues began the call by launching right into a PowerPoint litany of the customer account as viewed from the U.S. side. They aren't even presenting any of the China-based information, nor have they given our Chinese counterparts the opportunity to even speak up on the call and share information about their side of the business.

As I'm learning, this is what Americans do. I include myself in this characterization by the way. In the spirit of education and partnership (and always with the best of intentions), we tend to speak first and ask questions later. The irony of this particular situation is that I will be on the ground in this very location in less than a week-- I'm already arranging face-to-face meetings with the colleagues on the other end of the conference bridge. It will be fascinating once I'm on the ground in Shanghai to get more perspective on their side of the discussion, and to see where we can take this partnership moving forward.

This is one of the clearest examples of classroom learning applied to real-world scenarios I've yet seen, and it's also great to realize that I have indeed learned quite a bit in this program. Soon, the chance to put it to use!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Our Last Lecture

It's a beautiful Spring day here in Minneapolis, and it's also our last official lecture of this program. I thought this day would never come, and now that it has, it's amazing how light we all seem to feel in class today. We're still several months away from graduation, and we still have a lot of classwork in front of us (don't forget next week's trip to China as a class), but it's clear we have rounded the bend and are now winding down. We delivered our team presentation this morning for Business Law, we just had a lecture on immigration law, and now we're on a break before heading into the second half of our last International Environment lecture.

More reflections to come on this momentous day, no doubt, but just wanted to check in and communicate how great it feels.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Crossing Over

Something happened today. It was really strange. Don't get me wrong, the pressure is still very intense to complete our work prior to leaving for China in a couple of weeks, but today it felt like we crossed some great divide and were now heading down a steady path to graduation. Before today, it seemed we were always climbing up the hill; today we crested and it now seems we are headed down the other side. It's a small thing, really-- mostly mental, I'm sure-- but today I could breathe easier.

Maybe it was the graduation toast we had at lunch. The first-year students and our professors toasted us at lunch with moving and funny speeches, and as I looked around the room at my classmates, for the first time I saw them as fellow alumni, almost as if we'd already begun morphing from students into graduates. Again, it's a small change, but it's made all the difference for me emotionally. Today was one of the first times I've had a glimpse backward at all we've gone through and learned together, and it was great to finally be able to have that. We can see the end in sight, though there's still boatloads of work to be completed before we step on that plane to China together in a couple of weeks. And it's immensely satisfying to look back on where we've come from and how we've all grown together.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

International Tension

I've tried, oh how I've tried. I've really tried to approach my international team project with the most optimism possible, to make the best of it. When I first met my teammates from Poland, Austria, and China after Thanksgiving, I wondered how things would go. At that time we had what seemed like an eternity to complete our deliverables, and our Skype calls (when we had them and when a quorum attended) were pleasant.

Then came Christmas. Then came our decision to launch our theoretical product in Poland, not China. Then came Chinese New Year (which apparently results in the largest country on Earth literally vanishing for a full month), and a full month break for our Poland counterparts (sure would have been nice to know that ahead of time).

Now we don't have team calls. We barely e-mail. I don't think anyone has done any tangible work toward completion of our project (which is worth 45% of our grade). And our project is due in 26 days. If that isn't enough to make a hyperactive American like me fill his hyperactive pants, I don't know what is.

Mostly I have been sorely disappointed by the utter lack of interest and participation from our Chinese team members. We heard stories of how they checked out if you didn't pick China as the country in which to launch your team's business. But from the start we had some real problems with our Chinese guys. One claims to have to walk 10 miles to get to a computer; both seem incapable of using a telephone, even for local calls to dial into our team conference bridge. And both insist on holding our calls at 6am U.S. time, when it's most convenient for them. And then they almost never show up (the last time they were on a call was before Christmas).

So this is how it's gone. I'm surrounded by other teams who have their projects all but complete (though to be fair there are also some teams who have had just as poor an experience with their Chinese counterparts as we have).

What am I supposed to think of all this? That the American and Western Europeans scared the Chinese away? That they were just "too busy" to participate in the project? That they lost interest after we selected Poland as our go-to country? Who knows. All I know is that I'm sitting here about ready to do the work of two guys thousands of miles away, and it doesn't sit well with me at all.

You want to know the worst part? The two worst parts, actually, are these: when we visit China in less than a month, we have an evening reception with our Chinese teammates (do I really want to even meet these guys?), and then they come to the U.S. in May to deliver the presentation (they haven't worked on) and graduate with us.

All I can say is: if this was supposed to be an exercise in getting us to learn about collaborating globally, we've learned that collaborating globally can be much more lopsided an effort than we thought. If it was supposed to be an effort in forcing us to work with people who may be difficult and/or unresponsive, all I can say is that, were this a real business endeavor, those Chinese guys would be so firedit wouldn't even be funny.

So the clock ticks away, and again all I can say is: sigh.

Don't Look Down

Last year I developed the ability to calm myself when faced with a new topic or some subject that I had historically convinced myself I sucked at. Statistics, for instance. When I'd be in class (completely lost) or at home in the quiet, terrifying dark of night struggling through the homework problems, the only way I was able to get anything done was by taking deep breaths and by convincing myself that "you can do this, buddy." It worked-- I learned more last year than I ever thought I would, and in the end subjects I thought would destroy me (again, Stats comes to mind) were in fact some of my favorite classes.

Due to the sheer volume of work on the schedule for March 2009, however, I'm finding I need to tap those First Year anti-panic skills again. Each night I literally have to open my master schedule for the semester and look at the specifics of what I have to do between now and March 27 (when classes end and we all get on a plane to China). It's a crapload of work, let me tell you. At times the panic of "omigodomigodomigod" becomes almost more than I can handle, and it runs the risk of crippling me in my ability to be productive in my job, and it also threatens my peaceful state of mind for evenings with my family.

It's like I'm on a tightrope miles above the earth, making good progress but still with no idea how or if I'm going to make it to that other side. And I keep looking down. I really need to stop looking down. And breathing.

The Stealth Semester

Last year was brutal-- we knew it would be. Endless hours of pain and suffering when you really didn't understand what was going on in some classes at all, excellent professors that pushed you really hard, and at some point, the dawning realization that you were not, in fact, going to die, that you really might survive first year and someday have that coveted MBA degree hanging on your wall.

Then we had the summer off, which seemed more like four straight months of parole. We were giddy with all the free time we suddenly found ourselves experiencing. Of course there was the dirty little secret that we probably didn't make as good use of that time as we swore we would that sunny day in May at the Corner Bar (I know I sure didn't get much done over the summer), and as the retreat weekend in September approached and we picked up our first half ton of books for second year, we assumed the insanity would resume forthwith.

And then, nothing. It was really easy. Our third semester was much less taxing than either of our first two, and looking back I should have known something was up, that at some point the whole thing would come crashing down just when I was at my most vulnerable. BAM!

This last semester has been much harder than expected, but the strange thing is that it really didn't look all that hard on paper. Nor did the professors seem as masochistic as some of the ones from last year. Hey, this is the semester we all get to go to China together! How bad could it really be?

Well it's turned out to be the most nail-biting of all the semesters. Again, not because the work is particularly difficult, just because we have so much of the work crammed into such a small space of time; we don't graduate until May 18 but three full classes are sandwiched between January 16 and March 27. That's insane. Today is March 1. In 28 short days I will step onto a plane to Tokyo (and on to China), at which point I will essentially be finished with my MBA work. Looking on the calendar that all seems so close, but in terms of work yet to be completed, it seems a million miles away.

Killer of Evenings

I'm trying to keep a positive attitude when I hear well-intentioned people around me say, "You're almost done!" From where I'm sitting right now, it sure doesn't seem that way. Something's different about second year-- last year the prospect of homework was somehow thrilling, or should I say less revolting than it seems to be this year. Last year I was actually able to commit the three hours nightly to doing the work; this year it's been so much harder to get focused. So what happens most nights is that a dull dread sets in sometime midday (about all the work I have to do in the coming night) and then when I set in to do the work, I can't be productive for very long. My mind wanders. The kids intrude. I find I really want to spend time with my wife instead. I fall asleep and don't wake up until 1am. Little things like that. I've come to really view homework as the Killer of Evenings, because even when I choose to skip it or when I work at it poorly, it's always a dull thudding that rains on all the things I might do in a given night. Oh, where art thou, graduation!?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Wolves at the Door

It has been interesting, to say the least, to be in business school at the very time America's entire economy and financial industry have been collapsing. Last year the pundits (and even many very smart people in Washington and New York) said it wouldn't be that bad. Then, after it WAS that bad, they said it wouldn't get worse. Then it got worse. A lot worse. To the point where I have come to seriously doubt the judgment of even the smartest leaders watching over our economy. After being in an environment where we actually discuss intricacies of finance and can see the gaping holes in what should have been sound logic, I'm trying to stop myself from thinking this tailspin we're in right now won't have a bottom until every one of us loses our jobs and our homes. Now that'll keep a fella up at night!

Now come the mass layoffs. Last week alone in this country, our economy lost over 100,000 jobs. I don't believe many of them will come back, and that is a stunning problem I don't know if we are even prepared to deal with as a society. My personal belief is that we have been riding high for 20 years or more on free and easy credit, becoming more and more distanced from what we can actually afford. This has given rise to glittering suburbs, large vacation homes, huge SUV's, and a level of conspicuous consumption unseen in U.S. history. Now we're all starting to learn a lot more about what we can afford, and we're finding we can't afford all that much. MBA's and non-MBA's are losing their jobs, and paradoxically the only/best cure is to do the one thing few of us can afford anymore: shop 'till we drop. When 2/3 of your country's GDP is based on consumer spending, and when those consumers can no longer spend, you're in big trouble. I've always considered our country's dependence on its shoppers to be perhaps our biggest weakness-- many of my better-educated friends called me crazy and pointed to sound statistics and rising index funds. Now many of those statisticians are re-evaluating their formulas and many of those index fund managers are either out of a job, or they're in jail.

It's a pretty crazy environment in which to be getting an advanced degree in business. Every other week, we file into a well-appointed classroom and are treated to catered food and thought-provoking lectures. All around us, the economy is falling apart, and it's come to the point where I wonder how many of my classmates will lose their jobs before we graduate. Since 50% of the people in my class have their program paid for by their employers (I do not), they are even more vulnerable.

We're supposed to be the leaders of tomorrow, all taking this step to improve our prospects for future wealth and success. That doesn't mean we're all not still scared as hell, though.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What Makes a Student?

I've been thinking about what makes a student, or what makes an educational experience. Going into this program, I thought graduate school would be different from college in terms of how I felt about the experience or how I saw myself day-to-day. Lately, though, I find myself (and many of my classmates) reacting, acting, and behaving in much the same way I remember from college. This has come as a surprise to me, so I'm thinking about some of the circumstances that might have come together to create this situation.

Here's some of what I've come up with thus far:

  1. School (in terms of a long-term program in which you're enrolled) is really a solitary endeavor, whether it be grad school or college, because at the end of the day it's really you vs. the learning objective. Friends and family can support you (indeed, you couldn't "do" school without their support) but it all comes down to YOU: your performance on exams, your reading and retention, your commitment and participation.
  2. Whether grad school or college, it's still "you vs. the professor" and "you wrestling with the big ideas." It's been funny how my classmates in this program (in our 30s and 40s) still take on much of the same mannerisms and behavior as college students. We complain about workload, we commiserate about assignments, we debate the gritty details of each professor's approach to teaching, we complain about grades, we meet at the Corner Bar after class, and we're always really tired. Our clothes may be fancier than those we wore in college, and many of us may have since gotten married and have families of our own, but deep down we're still students.
  3. The material is challenging. Learning should push us beyond our comfort zones, and anyone who attended a decent college (or who's attending a decent grad program such as ours) will find their horizons expanded. I've found that this is much more difficult to achieve in "everyday life" when working in the corporate environment.
  4. The "cohort" structure of this program breeds much the same closeness and shared triumph over adversity as college did. Only recently have I realized that my MBA experience would be completely different (and much less memorable or cohesive) if I wasn't experiencing it in a cohort format. I fully expect to walk out of this program, as I walked out of college, with lifelong friends. I don't know if that would have happened in the full-time or part-time MBA program, and it has made this experience much more worthwhile.
  5. The diversity of our class forces each of to see things from the perspective of another. This just doesn't happen much in the business world-- too often we end up surrounded by people who are too much like us. In college, as in this MBA program, that hasn't been a problem. Who knew I'd end up debating (and loving the dialogue) with a stock trader who refused to wear shoes to MBA class? I never would have met that person in my "normal" life, and looking back, I've learned a lot from many of my classmates (beyond what's in the syllabus).

Hopefully I'll have more to add to this list as time goes on, but there you have it for now.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

And Through the Wire

We're getting rolling on our international project, and it's proving more interesting than expected, but not for the reasons I thought it would. On paper, our goal is simple: work with another person from the class, along with two people from sister programs in Europe and two people from affiliated programs in China, to develop a business plan for a new or expanded venture that you'd like to take to a new market. Work together with people you've never met face-to-face, refine your approach and content, and create a 20-30 page paper and a PowerPoint presentation to be delivered in front of the class in May (when everyone from the international programs will be traveling to the U.S. an graduating alongside us).

Although our assignment would seem easy, the implementation of it is hard. For example, how do you effectively collaborate with people in timezones 13 hours ahead of you? (our answer has been to have weekly conference calls at 6am U.S. central time, which is really starting to take a toll on me) Also, what technology to use to communicate? We tried international conference bridges and dial-in numbers, but apparently our colleagues in China don't use telephones, so in the end we settled on Skype (which works fine for the rest of us, as long as we're not trying to use it from work) Next, what technologies do you use to collaborate? Setting up a wiki seemed like a great idea to those of us outside the Communist world, but apparently China doesn't allow access to many of the websites the rest of us take for granted (msn.com, wetpaint.com, etc.) So we are using e-mail for way more than it was intended to be used for.

We began having calls with Skype last month, and we have our first major deliverable coming up in six days: a summary of our topic, our team's approach, and our rationale for selecting the market, product, and strategy we did. Again there have been issues: our Spanish counterpart is on a plane, and our Chinese counterparts seem to always be missing calls due to the need to bring their children to the hospital. Apparently one of our China colleagues also must walk 10 miles from his home to access a computer (these people are in business school, right?)

This really isn't what I was expecting, but I suppose that's part of the genius of the design of the whole project: get us outside our comfort zones and force us to honestly examine ourselves in a cultural mirror.

There have also been the surprising cultural nuances, again largely with our Chinese colleagues. When discussing topics initially, one of them wanted to do a chain of Chinese medicine clinics, because as he said, "everyone knows that Western medicine is poison." (my wife is a doctor, so you can imagine the self-restraint I had to employ on that one)

When it came time to write up our market justification, the Chinese wrote about their country's complete adoption of capitalism and total abandonment of Communism ("Is that so?" I found myself asking in amazement) and about how there was no racism or political strife in China ("Repression of Buddhist monks, anyone?" I wondered). Then I realized that these were people who had likely never traveled outside of China, and who certainly had never enjoyed free access to the Internet or to uncensored news reports. So I've decided to focus instead on fact-based conversations; things like "Can you access flickr.com from China?" that can be verified relatively easily to prove whether censorship is, in fact, in force.

Perhaps the most memorable comment from the Chinese came when one of them saw my Skype profile photo (with my very short hair) and remarked, "You know, you look a little like an American monk." That was how we ended it on our last team conference call-- how can you really hope to top that?

Back At It

Wow, has it really been over a month since I last posted on this blog? A lot has happened since then (the end of first semester, four blissful (though cold) weeks of vacation, the holidays, a roadtrip with my family to Chicago, and the resumption of classes) but blogging is such a habit-- you either do it regularly or you stop doing it completely. For me, there's never been a middle ground. Same thing with journaling (which I've been doing since 1990) and exercising (which I'm sorry to say has all bit stopped since starting this program): either I do it regularly, or I miss a day or two and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

We're back at it now, having begun the last of our four semesters of b-school, so I figure I need to just sit down and resume typing. Strange to say, but I also think the fact that my classmates started following the blog just this year put extra pressure on me-- last year I could operate in relative anonymity whereas now I write always wondering what people will read into what I write (and, of course, what I leave out). But I feel the need to resume, if for no other reason than the whole experience will be over before I know it, and without some sort of log like this to remember the details, it will all just seem like so much reading and so many assignments.

So, I'm back at it. Let's see what happens in our "Senior Year".