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.