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In General

Posted by: Kristen

Although I’m always a bit wary of generalizations, I believe they can and do serve a purpose. For example, in marketing we constantly speak of a target demographic or market segment. By definition, these are populations for whom a given trait is generally true. Hence, generalizations can be useful, but they can also be limiting unless we recognize their constraints.

Let’s take for example the trait of height and look at the figure below.  The figure shows two normal distributions of height, one for males and one for females. The average height for women is 65 inches (5.4 feet or 165 cm) and for men it is 70 inches (5.8 feet or 178 cm). So, it’s true that men are generally, on average, taller than women. If we were to consider the sizes of clothes that men and women would need, we might even say something like “Well, men are taller than women, so men’s clothes should be longer.” This is fine, and we are in fact speaking about the population means for whom the majority of men and women would be near and for whom this statement would be true.

Figure from http://www.usablestats.com/lessons/normal, with my own dashed lines added at the means.

However, let’s look at the tail ends of these distributions. While the tallest man is taller than the tallest woman, the area under the pink curve but to the right of the blue dotted line represents the number of women who are taller than the average man. By stating that “men are taller than women,” we ignore all these women in the tail end of the distribution for whom it is not true. From a business perspective, our generalization may cause us to miss out on a potential niche market (clothes for tall women), but from a cultural perspective this further impacts the way we may feel about ourselves or anyone in a tail end.  The generalization, though true on average, implies that if men are taller than women, then women who are taller than the average man are somehow not as “womanly.” Similarly, men who are shorter than the average woman may not feel as “manly.”

In business, generalizations are a way of life. We use them constantly to describe our target demographics and their wants and needs which can be quite useful in determining what goods or services to provide. But the key is not to forget that while something may be true for the average customer, there will always be those for whom it isn’t. Knowing the average customer is important, but knowing only the average customer is limiting. By ignoring a tail end, we may miss out on valuable opportunities for inclusion both as businesses and as societies.

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Being Sloan

Posted by: Kristen

Ok, so I haven’t posted here for a while and I hate to say that it’s because I’ve been too busy, but as my Sloan colleagues will know – we really have been busy! And I selfishly took the whole weekend to not do any schoolwork (aside from reading the 8 articles that are assigned for today’s start of an optional block-week course).

Although I’ve learned many things about Leadership, Strategy, Marketing, Finance, etc. over these last 10 weeks, I’ve also learned a lot about my identity as a Sloan Fellow and the value afforded by my prior professional experience. Although there has been some debate in our class regarding the relative value of the Sloan vs the MBA “brand,” I’ve realized how glad I am to be a Sloan.

After sitting next to an MBA student on our way back from a “trek” to a regional affiliate of a multinational organization, I discovered that we Sloans have it pretty good in many ways. The vast majority of the attendees on these treks are MBAs and we had been asked to rate this one on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best ever. Although it was only my first trek with LBS, I would have given it a 3, based on the fact that if we’re to believe what we’ve been taught in class, that people are the most important asset of a company, then I didn’t particularly feel like this company thought of us as potentially valuable assets. To be fair, they did have some senior managers available for us to network with, but at 3 in the afternoon with no food all day (other than coffee and biscuits at our arrival), we were offered only stale doughnuts and wine, weirdly enough. In my experience, having seen the spreads that companies put out for their own employees or external VIPs, I was a bit surprised that there weren’t at least some sandwiches. In addition to the food, I found the presentations to us to be somewhat lackluster, held in a neighboring, similarly lackluster building in the middle of nowhere. The organizer even thanked two of the presenters for speaking at such short notice (citing how such “agility” is valued there). That plus some other signals made me suspect this company may not have planned things out terribly well.

Interestingly, my MBA friend rated it as a 4.5. She said she’d been to many of these things and that they’re not often well-organized by the hosting organization. She confirmed that the food is often minimal or lacking altogether, which is why she recommends to her colleagues to bring snack bars on these treks. She also said this was the first time there had ever been wine (I think this may have boosted her scoring of the trek by at least a half point). If being an MBA from one of the best schools in the world isn’t enough to get you sandwiches, then being an MBA may not be as easy a ride as some of us may have thought, despite the awareness of the brand. This all made me realize how truly valuable prior professional experience really is. It will be no piece of cake for us Sloans either, but I believe our many years’ experience will give us a big advantage in getting to where we want to go. Our experience informs our judgment for the better although we may not always realize it. I, for one, am very glad to have it.

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Business and Biology

Posted by: Kristen

Recently in our Strategy course we evaluated the concept of strategic evolution in addressing the question of how an organization can best structure itself in order to maximize its competitive advantage. As someone with a background in the life sciences, after having spent an intensive month so far covering topics such as management, governance, and finance, I confess I was particularly pleased to come across some old but familiar concepts from studies of biological evolution and ecology. What I found striking was the degree of relevance they had to the business world. In essence, the same problem is posed to any system (whether it be an organism or an organization) that must compete with other systems for limited resources: What is the best way to balance between becoming specialized to a niche to maximize profit and remaining generalized enough to preserve the ability to quickly adapt in case the environment changes? It makes sense to look for lessons from biology, which has had eons to work on this very problem through the process of natural selection.

One well-studied example of this is the story of the peppered moth in the UK. Prior to the industrial revolution in the 1800’s, the peppered moth looked, well, peppered – with sprinklings of light and dark patches on its wings as camouflage to match the lichen-covered trees and stone buildings they lived amongst. Most of these moths had similar light-colored markings; only a small fraction of them born were significantly darker than the others due to natural genetic variability. However, these darker ones were easily spotted amongst the light-colored environment and were typically picked off by predators before they could reproduce.

White-bodied peppered moth

Black-bodied peppered moth

With the industrial revolution, trees and buildings near major cities in the UK became noticeably darkened from the soot emitted by coal-burning factories. The change in the environment favored the dark-colored moths over the light-colored moths. It was now the light-colored moths who stood out amongst the background and were soon picked off by predators, while the darker ones survived to reproduce. By the late 1800’s the majority of the peppered-moths around industrial cities were dark-colored. They had become, through the process of natural selection, highly adapted or “specialized” to their environment.

Now imagine what happened when they eventually cleaned up the soot? The environment quickly became much lighter. Those dark moths that had just a little while ago been so well-adapted and successful now stood out amongst the light marble, stones, and trees of the city. Those that had been the most fit for the environment were again the least fit and their numbers were again reduced by predators and so on.

So, what can the adaptation and survival of the peppered moth tell us about optimal strategies in business?

1. Specialization allows you to thrive but may come at a cost if the environment changes.

2. To reduce those costs, maintain some intrinsic variability in order to adapt as quickly as possible to a new environment.

3. Unfortunately, the optimal amount of intrinsic variability is hard to know. In biology, the answer seems to be “just enough” and is likely a function of the degree of potential change in the environment constrained by the amount physically tolerable by the organism.

4. It doesn’t always work. Although the moths endured, there are plenty of examples of species (and companies) that have gone extinct because environmental changes outpaced their innate ability to adapt.

5. Think ahead. These moths were fortunate to have had enough intrinsic variability to allow them to endure the selective pressures that were put upon them since they weren’t able to predict nor prevent the industrial revolution from happening. While there may be forces beyond our control that will ultimately shape our futures as well, we also have nice big brains that allow us to have, hopefully, a more active role in our own future in the choices we make as individuals, organizations, and as a species. We can stay informed about changes in our environment and find ways to influence and predict them. We can diversify our businesses more or less depending upon the degree of those predicted changes. We can make a best guess. It isn’t easy and there are no guarantees, but that is the challenge of life, both in biology and in business.

Light and dark peppered moths on a healthy tree where the light-colored moth's camouflage is best suited.

For more information and photo sources, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppered_moth_evolution

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Managing Expectations

Posted by: Kristen

We often hear about the importance of managing the expectations of others. The degree of difference between what we say may happen and what really happens can affect us in multiple ways. We have all experienced the joy that comes from getting something much better than expected, as well as the disappointment that comes from expecting something good but getting something bad instead.

As we aim to succeed in life and in business, we try to avoid disappointing others; in relationships it helps to preserve personal credibility and in the stock market it influences an organization’s value. Indeed, there are entire industries devoted to predicting financial performance and the value of a business is often measured by comparing predicted outcomes to real ones. It is clear that what others perceive and expect to perceive has an impact on us, but what about the expectations we have of ourselves? How do we manage those and what happens if we fail to do so?

Last Friday we completed a course entitled “Understanding Top Management” taught by Prof. Dominic Houlder, though I think it should have been called “Understanding Everything.” The course had quite an effect on all of us, evidenced by the comments of my peers (e.g. “this is my most favorite course I’ve ever taken”), as well as the standing ovation and expressions of personal gratitude Prof. Houlder received at the end of it. The course taught us to critically evaluate four components of an organization: its frames (perspective), relationships, processes, and values, and how those impact the observable outcomes. The same process of deconstruction can also be applied to the individual and the consequences of one’s choices. In his final slides he challenged us to question how much of our identity, meaning, and self-actualization comes from our work and in doing so, challenged us to evaluate our own expectations of ourselves by examining those four components.

Because expectations impact credibility and value, when we fail to meet our expectations of ourselves we risk harming our confidence and sense of self-worth. The mismanagement of self-expectations is possibly what has led many of us to the Sloan program. At some point, we started to question whether where we were in our careers was really the best place for us to be. Although many of us are still unsure about what to expect following the Sloan, with its emphasis on self-awareness and critical thinking, I believe we can reasonably expect at the end, as Prof. Houlder put it, to “be yourself more, with skill.” That’s something I think I can manage.

While we’re on the topic of expectations – It’s not unreasonable to have some preconceptions about what an LBS professor might be like. Of course a great education, great work experience, consulting, etc., but click the link below to read an interview with Dominic Houlder – you may be surprised:

http://www.dharmalife.com/issue25/fistful.html

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First Impressions

Posted by: Kristen

It has been a while since my last entry as I was waiting for the program to start in order to capture my first thoughts and experiences. It started Tuesday. It’s now Friday night. In December when I first sat down to write my initial blog entries, I had looked over some blogs from other students and had wanted to avoid what seemed to be the typical entry of a business school student – “I’m so busy doing x, y, and z. It’s so intense but I love it. See all the great skills I’m learning, etc…” And here I am, already doing the same.

These initial days of “Sloan-ing” have been long: lectures, meetings, interactive events, readings and assignments. We have all become gradually more and more bleary-eyed over these last few days, but as our sleep has diminished, our sense of camaraderie has grown.

So what has it been like? Our first official course this week was “Executive Leadership”. A couple of the main take-aways for me have been the following:

  • There is a weird trade-off with personality: characteristics that may seem ideal for success may work well early on but may then be maladaptive for long term success. For example, a leader who initially seems confident and charismatic may later become unable to admit mistakes or may develop a sense of entitlement. Those who are charming may become passive-aggressive. It’s the same old story – the qualities that make you fall in love with someone may be the same qualities that you end up hating them for.
  • How to prevent this? Self-awareness is the key. The more aware you are of your traits and the effect they have on others, the more success you’ll have. This not only requires a certain degree of sensitivity, but also requires one to actively seek out feedback, especially as one ascends the organizational ladder.

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Though the lectures have been interesting, the personalities in the room have been even more so. There are all the typical types you would expect and some you wouldn’t. Despite much of the class clamoring for attention for the first hour or so of the first lecture, things seem to have settled down – perhaps as a result of the personality tests and 360 review feedback we received later that day. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed receiving my test results since it seems I’m not quite as crazy as a certain husband of mine may have thought. But I’ll be happy to hear any feedback on that.

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I never thought of myself as the type to go to business school. I also never thought of myself as the type to work for the pharmaceutical industry. As a PhD student in Neuroscience, and later as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, my colleagues and I generally agreed that industry was somehow slightly evil, populated by smiling, suit-wearing Machiavellians who overused words like “leverage” and “synergize”. Yet here I am in business school in order to further my career in industry. Fortunately it hasn’t been quite as bad as I thought.

Since leaving academia, my role in the pharmaceutical industry has been within what is often referred to as “Medical Affairs”. My past roles as a Medical Science Liaison and Team Leader have largely involved medical education and project management. I have viewed my work and that of my team as ensuring that health care practitioners are provided with objective, current and relevant information about a given product in order to help them make the best decisions possible regarding a patient’s treatment. From the industry’s perspective, my role has been to “develop the market”, but in this sense, both the patients’ and the industry’s interests are aligned; more patients treated appropriately benefits both parties.

Having worked now in disease areas ranging from the relatively common to the ultra orphan in both the US and Europe, one of the most interesting aspects has been learning about different markets, regulatory issues, and access challenges in a variety of landscapes. I have become particularly intrigued by the decision-making processes that underlie the strategies required to deal with these issues. I have not agreed with all the decisions made at higher levels. Yet I knew that if I ever wanted to have any influence on them I would need to better understand all the factors involved, hence my decision to pursue a business education.

In the last several years I have come across one or two Machiavellians, but generally the people I’ve met in industry are charming and funny intellectuals, even if they do wear suits a lot of the time. I expect my new Sloan colleagues will all have different stories to tell about their journeys to LBS and how they came to realize it was the right thing for them. I look forward to meeting them all and especially to leveraging our past experiences in order to synergize new business solutions for the future.

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An Introduction

Posted by: Kristen

Hello, I’m Kristen Cardinal, thrilled and honored to be a Sloan Fellow, Class of 2011. I come to the Sloan with a background in academia and the pharmaceutical industry. I’m looking forward to reading the blogs of other students and to sharing my experiences over the coming year. Since this is my first foray into business education, I’ll start with addressing the two most common questions I’ve encountered so far.

“So, what exactly are you doing? Is it an MBA?”

The Sloan program is not an MBA, although it covers many of the same core topics. Instead, the Sloan MSc in Leadership and Strategy focuses on mid-career professionals who, like me, aspire for something greater, and aims to provide a transformational experience along with the credentials. There is an emphasis on decision-making within organizations and understanding how to be the best leader one can be. It is one-year, full time program, and is only offered in three institutions around the world: Stanford, MIT, and LBS.

That, more or less, is how I explain to people what it is I’ll be doing next year.

“What made you want to do this?”

This was the question I most needed to know the answer to before I was able to commit to the application process, not least of which entailed surmounting the GMAT (no small task given I’d been out of university for 12 years). To best answer why I’ve decided to pursue a business degree, I’ve included an excerpt from one of my Sloan application essays regarding my career objectives:

“One aspect of the pharmaceutical industry that is unique amongst others is that, by its nature, the products it sells are directly related to health. At times, this can create a dilemma when decisions must be made regarding the development of new products or indications. Decisions against pursuing new treatments because of financial concerns are not rare. Although we have an obligation to the shareholder when making these decisions, I find it disheartening that society’s health may suffer the consequences, particularly when new business models are emerging that may provide solutions to this dilemma. Both my immediate and ultimate career objectives are directly related to improving this situation: I wish to explore the use of new business models within the pharmaceutical industry to bring more products to market quicker and cheaper, to the benefit of both industry and society.”

Although I don’t know what my future will be like after this program, I feel more confident now regarding my future career than I ever did before. I know the program will be challenging and difficult at times, particularly for someone like me with no previous formal business education. But that is precisely why I’m doing it. There are no guarantees about when, or if, I will ever find my “dream job” afterwards, but at least I will be pointed in the right direction. I can’t wait to start.

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