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Definition: couch surfing

When one finds oneself homeless and resorts to sleeping on the sofas of friends. A common predicament for MBA students coming back from exchange, or an unlucky by-product of shady estate agents.

Such was my unfortunate situation between first and second year. But I was saved by the gracious generosity of a classmate (and fellow blogger) who let me impose on his household for four weeks.

You’ve undoubtedly heard that the MBA is “a great place to meet new friends”. And I know that’s just an afterthought next to “the amazing new job I’ll get” or “all the business contacts I’ll have at my disposal” for those of you thinking about it. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but I’ll say here that if you spend your two years right, you’ll surprise yourself by how much your new friendships come to mean to you. Truly, it’s something you have to experience (rather than read about through me) so the good news is that you’ll all have something wonderful waiting around the corner.

A few months after graduating, the richness of my time at London Business School was fittingly topped off by two invitations to India and Croatia.

India

As though I weren’t already embarrassingly indebted to my friend for giving me a place to sleep, I must now face the hospitality of his family: being personally greeted at the airport at 3am, then swept off to a suite in the same hotel President Obama stayed in just a few days before my arrival (the restaurant in the lobby is reportedly Bill Clinton’s favourite and has been visited by every President since), a tailor made sari for the wedding reception, Bollywood musicians and actors… It all made for an unforgettable three days of lights, colour, and happiness.

Croatia

Who would have guessed that watching a lamb roast on a spit could be so mesmerizing? Or that you could opt for deer goulash instead of wedding cake? The energy needed to dine, drink and dance from 6pm to 6am was more than I could muster. Most notably, it was here that I became exposed to a clever device I hope to see replicated in many other weddings: designated naptime! Yes, following a mandatory snooze from 6am to 9am for all guests, the excesses of last night’s dinner was followed up by a heavy brunch before we were all allowed home.

Perhaps, dear reader, you are unmoved by the prospect of cultural glitz and glamour in faraway destinations. And fair enough, no one embarks on business school for the purpose of collecting wedding invitations. But when I consider how, on my recent trips, I’ve received not just the affection of a classmate, but the overwhelming hospitality of family and friends dear to him (owing simply to the fact that we shared a classroom) that speaks to the strength of the relationships that are built here. It’s hard to imagine how, had I not made the decision to come to London Business School, I’d have the privilege of being treated like a long lost relative by folks I’ve never met, anywhere in the world.

So when a complete stranger raises his glass to toast you, and is joined by hundreds of other in a hall filled with candlelight, you’ll know the feeling.

Cheers and a happy new year.

Joyce

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“Full Time” MBA

Posted by: Joyce
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Family and friends like to scoff at my claim that I study full time. Glancing at my calendar, it’s not hard to see why. It’s in stark contrast to Alex’s calendar several posts down. Important to note is that I did NOT skimp on electives. I’m taking the maximum number allowed, and would take even more if the school let me.

Cal

I suppose one could view this as a testament to the flexibility of year 2. You see correctly—entire months of December and February completely open. And I’m especially tickled by the 72-day stretch between Jan 8 to Mar 22 where I have no classes whatsoever.

A question I sometimes get is “What’s up with your class selection? You’re attending one of the best finance schools in the world and I don’t see a single finance elective.”

Consider yourself in the following situation: you majored in finance in undergrad, interned at a combination pension-endowment fund at 22, shuffled your feet for a few months at a brokerage before eventually settling into the world of corporate finance for 5 years. Then you come to London for your MBA and ace your mandatory core finance class without a lick of studying.

My question to you: are you still going to load up on finance electives?

Have I deserted finance in the manner of a burned-out banker? Hardly! I absolutely adore finance, and have every intention of bringing it with me to every new role I take. (Future co-workers beware; I have a tendency to preach the power of NPV like a missionary out for converts.) But I didn’t come to London to become deadlier in something I already do reasonably well. In stereotypical fashion, I was atrocious in strategy, hadn’t a clue about marketing, and networking? I’m that sorry person who walks past the business class section of a plane and wishes with envy in her heart to one day be able to comfortably strike up a conversation or exchange business cards like I always see them doing before take-off.

But anyway, in light of my featherweight schedule, what else do I get up to in between?

  • Technically still on my summer internship, but on reduced hours since Homeland Revenue restricts me to 2.5 days per week. The internship itself has been superb. I was curious about how “business” a work environment could be when the office is a congestion of 4-inch heels and fashion magazines—but oh do they know their business, and have the financial results to prove it. So, do keep your minds tuned to “business” when I reveal that one of my projects had me riffling through French lingerie catalogues for a week…

  • About 1 day a week on Second Year Project. We’re developing a business plan around the winning project from our stream’s Discovering Entrepreneurial Opportunities tradeshow—hot chocolate! (The good kind, not stuff that comes from a pouch of powder.)

  • Working on the novel / reading other novels. I’d like to say this is totally unrelated to the MBA, but part of it is because my brain screams for genuine fiction after reading yet another Harvard case. Don’t get me wrong, the content and intended lessons make the Harvard cases great tools, but the authors’ attempts to inject meaningless contextual drama is tedium. “Steve Smith admired the skyline from his office window before returning to the glow of his computer screen. He sighed. 11:47pm, 134 unread messages, and an 8 o’clock meeting tomorrow morning where he’d have to present the strategic future of the company. Where to start…” How about starting by getting to the point?

  • Catching up with classmates, getting to hear about everyone’s grand designs. Bonding with my wonderful flatmates Nicole and Don, and enjoying the best that British reality tv has to offer.

  • Lots of sleeping in. Loading up now in anticipation of a return to full time work life.

Sometimes I wonder if this jives with what most people expect a full-time MBA to be like. The only justification I can offer is that you get a lot of built-in “worry time”. In practical terms, that means a lot of time worrying about recruitment, worrying about the economy, worrying about classes, and worrying about how to distract yourself from worrying too much. I suppose those can *sometimes* be legitimate activities, but it’s pretty cool how much time frees up once you stop reading every article in the FT, or brooding over the postings on careers portal.

Oh, and if you had any lingering doubt about how much time you’ll have available for all of life’s little extracurriculars, have a think about how much time the average student spends on Facebook.

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Care to guess which one landed us invitations to London Fashion Week?

It began as an innocent post-internship rendezvous in Soho with a study group friend. We ran the gamut of regular MBA topics—electives, second year projects, Dean’s List speculation(!)—and while they are standard fare for MBA talk, I can see how it wouldn’t be easy for a stranger to break into the conversation.

As we chatted away obliviously over martinis, I was suddenly faced with the daunting task of engaging the party of gourmet chefs who had just joined us on the left. What do you say to three French culinary experts enjoying a round of drinks (red wine of course) on their rare Friday night off? Having been in the mode of language and conventions for business leaders, was I now inept at introducing myself to people with different passions? I used to be much better at this… what happened? I wasn’t happy about this sudden episode of brain failure.

I wonder whether this links to why some critics condescend on the value of an MBA. Maybe they’ve encountered one too many of us and are sick of not understanding our conversations! I can see why too. I’ve caught myself using terminology which would be obfuscating jargon to anyone who, for instance, hadn’t spent three hours in a strategy class studying “value-chain analysis”. For MBAs, those three words hearken back to a thirty-slide lecture on the framework’s particulars… but it understandably sounds a bit hollow to some others.

I remember the networking training we had on campus: how to write email introductions, request meetings, the kinds of questions to ask… all the way down to the most basic skill of shaking hands (according to the trainer: the “fleshy bits have to touch”). Definitely skills to be practiced and honed, but I would personally advocate some out-of-MBA practice too. Don’t let the great socializing skills you had grow stiff from lack of use!

But back to whether I managed to uphold a scintillating conversation with our party of chefs. Well, I must have muddled through somehow for we ended the night with an invitation to a fashion show (one of the chefs has a designer girlfriend) and a great recipe for quiche Lorraine.

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Things which are (apparently) humanly
possible to accomplish during your MBA:

  • write a book,
  • get a publishing deal,
  • throw a massive launch party to celebrate.

Highlights from a friend who began her MBA
exactly one year before me…Oh, and on top of that, she also started her own
consulting company.

I couldn’t be more thrilled or proud of
her, but given that we both started with identical resumes, it’s impossible to
avoid feeling like I’ve squandered some of my time here.  She’s written a book while I’ve produced little more than a smattering of blog
entries!

Obviously, the point isn’t to outdo each
other tit for tat. But the fact remains: yes, I could (should?) have done more.
You might console me by saying “But Joyce, everyone
can always be doing more, even your friend with superhuman energy. This isn’t
one of your beloved math functions which can be “maximized.” True, very true. But
if maximizing isn’t an option, how do you know when you’ve done enough?

Crossing the LBS threshold is a bit like
hitting the reset button. Whether your life before was characterized by an
early start, false start, late start, or lucky start, everyone gets lined up at
the starting blocks again. And with that kind of level-setting, suddenly there
are no more excuses to fall back on; your performance is your performance. How will
you feel when you see others pull ahead?

“Hang
on, everything I’ve been told about LBS says that everyone helps each other and
it’s less competitive than other schools. What’s with the race analogy?”

Perhaps no one orchestrates deliberate
psych-out attempts, but consider these scenarios which arise naturally from
student panic:

  1. “If I don’t get a blackberry or iphone,
    I’ll miss the sign ups for [insert: important networking event] and not get a
    spot.” 
  2. A friend confides, “I’ve sent twenty job
    applications and only landed three interviews” (Meanwhile, you’ve sent a
    whopping total of two—for positions you genuinely want, but now you wonder if
    you should have spent more time on Plan B.)
  3. Another friend confides “Man, I’ve been
    studying accounting for two weeks now, and I’m still not ready.”  (Meanwhile, the exam is tomorrow, and you’ve
    only just opened the text.)

I believed myself relatively immune to these
insecurities, but they creep in regardless, if only to exist a few seconds in
your head before being banished as complete folly. The good news is we all find
ways of coping, sooner or later. The sooner you figure out how though, the less
likely you’ll wake up one day wondering how you got suckered into following the
herd mentality. The lure of sticking your foot (and every other appendage) into
every door, window, nook and cranny can easily tempt you astray unless you
adamantly resist.

It starts by being told a thousand times to
“make the most of your MBA”. But it’s merely preachy prattle until you figure
out what that actually means. Many will mistake it for not missing out on any
job prospect they’ve lived their whole lives not knowing about, could probably happily
continue not caring about, but will end up considering anyway because it’s the
MBA and “I should make the most of it”.  Errr…
right. And so begins the rigmarole of elbow jostling at Career Services events.

I guess that’s what I mean by finding ways
to cope: remembering it isn’t a race, being confident about missing out, and
stopping short of going overboard with your exploration. Keeping perspective
doesn’t require anything grandiose. As far as superficial methods go, some
folks like calendars with inspirational quotes superimposed on pretty
landscapes. I’ve taken to filling the empty spaces on my formula sheets with
pictures of Nobel Prize winners… mostly out of self-deprecating humour (it’s
infuriatingly funny having the face of someone brilliant taunt you as you
trudge through an exam), but it’s nonetheless refreshing to recall other achievements
which are produced from dedication—beyond this MBA bubble of ours.

Anyway, time-management envy aside, I’d
still consider MBA part 1 a resounding success. I haven’t a book to show for
it, but it’s too early to call. An entire year of MBA part 2 has yet to play
out and I’ll be moving to Lant
Street in a few weeks—living in Charles Dickens’
old haunt might yield a surprise or two.

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Listed!

Posted by: Joyce
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So I know everyone is excited about our MBA being ranked
number 1 in the world right now, and it goes without saying that I’m as
delighted as ever.

Another recently published ranking—but perhaps not one most
business students would find relevant—is Esquire Magazine’s World’s Best
Dressed Man. Barack Obama… Roger Federer… wait!  Is
that my boss on the list with them?!

Lo and behold, there he was, and I absolutely couldn’t
believe it. Ever since I began working with him last fall to launch his fashion
line, I have been constantly amazed by his ability to generate publicity and
media attention. In fact, there is a BBC documentary to look forward to in a
few months—we’ve had camera crews following our progress as a new business. (Hopefully
any footage of me stammering on camera won’t make the final cut.

All in all, it’s been exactly the kind of entrepreneurial
project I was hoping for. During off-days between classes, I head over to our
“office” on the other side of Regent’s Park to delve into the business of fashion.
As glossy and preened as finished projects look on magazine pages, the reality
is that we huddle around laptops on the kitchen table, hold design councils in
the living room and contrary to what certain FedEX commercials will tell you, it
isn’t beneath this MBA student to work the mailroom when the situation calls.

I was originally attracted to entrepreneurship because of
the task variety. Now, I find myself enjoying it because it is a daily test of
the limits of my resourcefulness. Maybe I should have signed up for consulting
estimation practice cases—you know, the ones where they ask you to guess how
many ping-pong balls it would take to fill Wembley Stadium. The other day, I
found myself staring at a storage room full of fabric and having to quickly estimate
the value of our inventory. And maybe I should have also spent more time at
they gym, because yesterday I let my humble ankle be part of a photoshoot for
women’s legwarmers!

Between all the readings, assignments and case studies, it’s
easy to slip into a mindset where the cranium dominates. But spreadsheets,
formulas, and strategies on paper eventually require someone to DO something
about them before they add any value, and at least for me, the entrepreneurial
route has helped me connect better with the “doing” aspect.

(As a side pitch, for those of you who enjoy volunteering, The
LBS Volunteering Committee organizes many non-cranial events to help you do
more doing!)

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Milkround Musings

Posted by: Joyce
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In MBA vernacular, milkround is what we lovingly refer to as the month of January. In January, classes and homework go on hiatus while career-search activities reach peak concentration.

Maybe it’s just me, but there is something unsettling about the term milkround. For one, milk delivery is in decline, a nostalgic fragment of a bygone era. For another, it implies that we as students only treat this as a matter of going through the motions: suit up, show up, hope you make an impression, then onto the house next door.

Before setting foot on this campus, the excitement and enthusiasm about our future careers could barely be contained. They drove us here, we minted them in our application essays and we prepared for the possibility of new pursuits. And now? Well, unless you’re really turned on by the calcium-enriching power of milk, milkround might not be the best descriptor of how January fits into your career goals.

In a way, I can understand how the term first got started. Both logistically and out of fairness, it makes sense to give students and employers a uniform recruitment schedule. It saves students from wondering whether a more suitable job will crop up three months later, and it gives employers equal access to students. Unfortunately, it might mean getting worn out from attending presentation after presentation or repeating your "elevator speech" one too many times.

I’m not suggesting that recruitment ought to happen differently. If being methodical works, it works. I only worry about the bright-eyed intentions we all started off with. Perhaps I am reading too much into the word, but maybe invoking the euphemism says more about our social collective than we want to acknowledge.

(If you’ve made it through all the semantics in this post, dear reader, I thank you! If nothing else, I know these extended musings driven entirely by one word would have made my former English teachers proud.)

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The English Cut Suit and Hip Hop

Posted by: Joyce
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Today was a very incongruous day. 

Inside one of London's most revered bespoke tailoring firms, I shook hands with a record producer who sells sneakers on sushi-bar-style conveyor belts as part of his hip hop clothing line. 

My decision to come to London Business School was predicated on getting exposed to different examples and avenues of success when it comes to business. One could argue that location isn't important anymore… given how connected the world is online. But tell that to the century-old shops on London's "Golden Mile of Tailoring", or the young, mega-star jetsetters who want their suits made the old-fashioned way.

Stepping into Anderson & Sheppard felt like stepping into a time machine. Their history is steeped in the pages of their appointment books and the patterns that hang on the rails of the cutting room. Seeing it all resurfaced a question I've been pondering for awhile now: are we too fixated on this notion of "growth"? Much of what we learn here in business school is concerned with growing revenues, growing profit, growing market share, etc. But what about doing things simply and excellently, without the ambition of global expansion? Would that exclude you from being "a successful business"? I think I have my answer. When you're the best in the world at what you do, the world comes to you.

So, many thanks to the people Anderson & Sheppard who patiently explained how everything worked in their cutting room. Student life can be hectic, but I definitely recommend visiting some of the local or more traditional firms in and around London (in addition to the time we spend courting our large corporate partners). This is London–there aren't many other places in the world where tradition and history so seamlessly co-exist with cutting edge modern times.

To end, here is a picture of sneakers on a conveyor belt.

Bape

(Photo Credit: BAPEXCLUSIVE store in Tokyo. Taken from www.bape.com)

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(My favourite quote from the movie "Man on Fire".)

It's been a few days since the MBA class of 2010 had their first exam, and upon reflection, that line fits the experience perfectly.

With only four lectures of material to study, some simple supply and demand curves, I thought I had this economics exam covered. 

I should have thought again.  The material might not have been "tough", but it did test how well trained I was. 30 minutes, 20 questions, 0 time to think. Not only did you have to learn it, the answers had to be excavated instantly from your memory if you wanted any chance of finishing on time. 

I suppose this underscores how we're expected to perform once we're back in the working world. No one is going to pull out a textbook while in a boardroom.  Nor do you have have time to ruminate over a point someone's made before they move on to the next one. The standard isn't about having knowledge at your fingertips anymore; it needs to be at the tip of your synapses. 

We haven't gotten the results back yet, but as for me… LESSON LEARNED!
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And survey says…!

Posted by: Joyce
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“Congratulations, you are remarkably well-suited for a successful career in… [insert target career you’ve had your sights on since starting your MBA].”

Well… something to that effect.

Most of us come into the MBA with a certain level of self-awareness. That is what got us here in the first place, right? Now what, might you ask, would two hours of online surveying tell you about yourself? Well, I have just completed ticking off responses to a deluge of probing questions about my strengths, weaknesses, values, and interests as part of the Career Leader assessment. True to what we were told during our Career Services Orientation, here were some tools we could use for self-assessment and introspection—a critical factor when it comes to landing that dream job.

The survey results, not so surprisingly, didn’t hold many surprises. But before you discount the practical value of such surveys, let me tell you what I did get out of it. For one, it was an absolute pleasure reading such a glowing review about my strengths. For another, I have never seen my weaknesses so eloquently described that they hardly seem to be the severe flaws we tend to think of them as.

The value, as I see it, is not that these results will reveal some startling insight you never knew about yourself. Most of us already know ourselves very well implicitly (and the quality of the classmates I have met so far confirms this.) Rather, what you might get is a nicely-packaged set of words, clauses, and phrases which perhaps express your capabilities better than you could articulate on your own—especially under interview anxiety. Upon reaching the last page of the survey, it struck me that I was holding a precious document filled with killer interview-prep material.

My advice: Do the surveys. Then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

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