The Blogger Bids Adieu in His Final Posting

Look back to us as we look to you; we are related by our imaginations. If we are able to touch, it is because we have imagined each other’s existence, our dreams running back and forth along a cable from age to age. Hold this paper to the light. It is a mirror, a delusion, a fact in the brief continuous mystery we share… Draw close. Let us tell each other a story.” -Roger Rosenblatt

The MBA myth tells us that leaving our jobs for an intensive period of business study affords us the ability to re-write our script. Feeling stuck in a dead-end job? Tired of your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse? Bored by life? Or maybe you feel—or even know that you really are destined for greatness. Never mind that it hasn’t happened yet.

Allow me to seduce you with a dream… a second chance in life. Maybe you went to a crappy undergraduate university, or maybe you missed your chance to get that job you always dreamed of at Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, Google, McKinsey, or Microsoft. Or maybe you actually graduated from Harvard and worked at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, but found yourself strangely unfulfilled.

The MBA solution is simple and seductive: write the GMAT, crank off a few essays about wanting to conquer the world, pass two alumni interviews, and voilà, the world is your oyster. Tuition will be billed separately, of course.

Each INSEAD MBA participant comes to Fontainebleau with his/her own aspirations in search of a personal goal. Like all mythic journeys, my year at INSEAD has fulfilled some expectations and fallen short in others. But the undercurrent of my MBA experience has been the enduring question of whether I have changed.

On Monday I went into work to complete some HR paperwork for my new post-MBA job. I stopped by my boss’s office to say hello. While waiting outside his office, I ran into a subordinate for the first time, one of 6 managers who will be directly reporting to me. She recognized me and said, “Oh, you’re the new Director!” As I spoke to her, I was hyper conscious of the fact that I was making my first impression on her. The entire exegesis of Daniel Goleman and a decade’s worth of Harvard Business Review articles on leadership flashed though my head in an instant. I took the plunge and spoke naturally, without hesitation. After a year away from working in my industry, I surprised myself by carrying an informed professional discussion using many of the people skills and techniques I gained in my MBA. Having mastered both worlds, it felt great being adept at navigating both the theoretical aspects of management as well as the practical business side. Oh, the places I’ll go.

The end.

So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.” -Puck

Environmental Neurosis and the Irresistable Seduction of Money: How I Learned to Forget About Climate Change and Love Louis Vuitton

Last fall, shortly after I started my INSEAD MBA, I had a prolonged debate with a classmate who was actively involved in a student club called INDEVOR which is affiliated with Net Impact, an international group devoted to promoting corporate social responsibility (CSR). Like other members of INDEVOR, this MBA participant was fully brainwashed in the rhetoric of global warming, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship. I had a lot of fun poking holes in the ‘Holy Grails’ of CSR such as carbon trading and climate change.

Having spent the last 5 years before my INSEAD MBA in a small Middle Eastern country, I had been completely sheltered from the whole CSR bandwagon. It might seem hard to believe for some people, but all of these environmental and ‘do-good’ issues are really not on the radar screen in most places. Until I moved to France, I really had no idea how big this issue was in Europe. Most rapidly developing countries (including the one I worked in before coming to Fontainebleau) have more pressing economic and security issues to deal with. ‘Saving the world’ is not high up on the agenda.

As I debated CSR issues with my INSEAD classmates, I was shocked at the dogmatic nature of CSR adherents. They were unwilling to accept any critique of carbon trading or even entertain the idea that global warming might not be man-made. At the same time I was fascinated by the cognitive dissonance which these students exhibited. Many of them seemed deeply troubled by their presence in a business school and deliberately voiced ‘conciliatory’ messages intended to resolve their troubling anxiety. These messages usually involved professing a desire for a post-MBA career in social development or non-profit work. And for some strange reason, my fellow MBA participants would eat up this crap and provide positive reinforcement for these do-gooders. Any expression of wanting to spurn the corporate world and save the planet was met by my fellow classmates at INSEAD with that crazed permanent grin endemic to schizophrenic people. When I shared my own rather traditional post-MBA career goals with my classmates, I was rewarded with scorn!

Of course, I thought that these CSR types were complete flakes and really needed a psychologist to treat their neurosis. If someone genuinely believes in saving the world, they join the Peace Corp, become a social worker, or join a monastic order. Yet for some reason, these people choose to come to business school where they proceed to put on a show of being seriously disturbed by capitalism, global trade, and pollution. And like Al Gore, the carbon trading huckster who buys Ponzi Scheme pollution credits from himself, to magically neutralize his private jet flights, many of the loudest do-gooders at INSEAD live anything BUT ascetic lifestyles.

Surprisingly, rather than being challenged and called on the carpet for their immaturity, these students were further encouraged by companies who have also been infected by the delusional CSR sickness. Companies come to campus spewing the same CSR drivel and trot out dog and pony show speakers to share their wisdom on sustainable development and climate change. In their colorful recruiting material, they haul out the correct buzzwords and rhetoric to show that they too have joined the cult of CSR. I have yet to meet an oil company during OCR, talk about oil, or a consulting firm talk about corporate restructuring projects which involve ‘downsizing’ companies. It’s all touchy feely Kumbaya stuff. One company which I interviewed with during the recruiting season boasts on their website that they are now officially “carbon neutral”. Ironically, sometimes the marketing pitch is out of sync with the recruiting team and many of my classmates have to their surprise been unceremoniously dinged for spewing the CSR rhetoric during interviews, only to be politely told, “Err, we don’t do that kind of work!”

And so I must confess a certain Schadenfreude when one by one, the INSEAD CSR devotees went for the most evil capitalist corporate jobs imaginable. One student who had received multiple offers for corporate jobs made a nauseating show of parading around campus to elicit sympathy for his predicament. He wanted to save the world, but someone forced him against his will to write the GMAT, apply to business school, suffer through the year, apply to corporate jobs, and now he was being forced against his will to accept the offer! And once again, rather than slap this student into reality, everyone was sympathetic. Well not everyone– I certainly won’t be shedding crocodile tears for this particular neurosis.

Another INSEAD CSR adherent shocked me a few weeks ago during a marketing case about Louis Vuitton, when he said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to work for Louis Vuitton?” Huh?! Why would he want to devote his career to convincing women to buy overpriced purses with ugly letters on them? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with trying to get people to buy expensive handbags with ugly letters, unless of course you publicly espouse the mantra of social change. I’m not faulting my classmates for taking these corporate jobs, I just wish they had the maturity to stop whining about wanting to make money and succeed in the business world.

The Blogger Sees The Light at the End of the Tunnel

With 2 weeks left in the MBA program, my year at INSEAD is quickly coming to an end. Not being especially nostalgic, I already have one foot out the door. I’m ready to move on. I booked a flight to leave France early, so I will miss the graduation ceremony that INSEAD chose to convene in a Big Top Circus tent that has been erected in the parking lot. (If the Dean is reading this, please find a more glamorous venue for next year!)

If there’s one realization that I’ve had lately, it’s been how expensive my year has been. When you take your post-INSEAD salary, deduct the cost of rent and loan repayments from your net after-tax income, the numbers can be scary. The luckiest few are those headed to tax-free countries in the Gulf. Those of us who will work in the developed world, will be happy to finish each month with a few dollars in our bank accounts.

A classmate asked me why I felt the need to leave early and start working. “Loss mitigation”, was my answer. I’m keen on changing that negative sign on my personal balance sheet, to a positive sign. Yes some will argue that my INSEAD MBA is a revenue generating asset, blah! blah, blah!, but unfortunately no mortagage bank is willing to securitize it, to help me buy a house. I will need a $40,000 to $80,000 cash downpayment for that.

In a recent Career Services panel, a recruiter from a leading global headhunting firm observed that MBAs are often surprisingly naive about their own personal finances and career development. I’ve gone 9 months without a salary, since my last paycheck in September 2007. High up on my action list are starting work, maximizing my pension contributions for 2008, and repaying my debt. If I had taken my $107,000 USD opportunity cost of coming to INSEAD, and invested it in a global stock index fund earning an average 6% net inflation-adjusted return, I would have saved $822,411.29 at retirement in 35 years from now. This would have translated into a $41,120.56 annual retirement annuity payment, in constant 2007 dollars. I am however optimistic that I can recoup my opportunity cost in after-tax dollars in a short enough time frame to render the present value of my INSEAD investment positive.

But part of that optimism means making smart choices.  Vacation will have to wait until the holidays, next December. Why take one now, when I can earn a full salary while using my vacation time? My year at INSEAD has been one long vacation. A costly, stressful roller coaster, yet a rewarding vacation. And now I am eager to finish my remaining school assignments, get back to the real world, and start using the skills I learned here at INSEAD.

The Blogger Prepares For His Drug Test

The Ultimate Job Test

“Give me a little drink from your loving cup.
Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.”

-LOVING CUP by the Rolling Stones

My fellow INSEAD bloggers have described some of the demeaning experiences they’ve had to endure during the employment recruiting process. I thought that nothing could top the stress-test interviews of investment banks and consulting firms– I was wrong. I’ve been asked to submit to a drug test. When I told my classmates at INSEAD, the European MBA participants were really shocked. The Americans on the other hand, were quite familiar with the practice. It seems that asking potential employees to urinate into a cup is an accepted business practice in the U.S. And so for the last week I’ve been stressing out– Should I take allergy medicine when I start sneezing? Should I eat that poppy seed bagel? Do I risk being dinged because some inaccurate test labels me a drug addict? In a country where the sitting president is a former cocaine user and alcoholic, does it seem fair to screen out job candidates who occasionally use marijuana? Or maybe drug testing is employed precisely because of the President’s past affinity for Bolivian Marching Powder.

My Own Private Boxholm

“On Monday, March 13, 1967, 31-year-old Arthur Keller, who graduated from Harvard Business School two years previously, entered the office of the Hedblom Co. in Boxholm, Sweden, for the second time in his life. He had just been appointed managing director of the company.”

Back in September, the INSEAD MBA program began with an introductory management seminar taught by Prof. Gareth Dyas. We studied a 40 year-old case featuring the pseudo-named Arthur Keller, a young Harvard Business School grad who graciously accepted the challenge of a general manager position in the isolated Swedish town of Boxholm at a moribund women’s dress factory that was bleeding money in the face of cheap imports.

Prof. Dyas used the example of Arthur Keller to question whether any INSEAD MBA participant was willing to accept the risk and challenge of a general management position upon graduation, or whether we preferred to take more glamorous consulting and finance jobs that would pay well but be devoid of any real management responsibility. Boxholm, Sweden served to represent the literal and figurative ‘end of the world’. Arthur Keller left his glamorous life in the big city for a small manufacturing town with no opera, no professional sports team, and had it existed back then, no Starbucks! But what Boxholm lacked in amenities, was more than offset by the long-term upside in Arthur Keller’s job. By choosing the road less trodden, Arthur benefited from immediate responsibility and the chance to prove himself as a manager.

As I went through the recruiting process in P4, I faced the difficult choice between what I would term PowerPoint/Excel jobs vs. Boxholm jobs. It wasn’t simply a question of consulting and finance jobs vs. industry jobs– PowerPoint/Excel jobs also exist in industry. The dividing line is whether a post-MBA job will consist of managing slides and tables, or managing departments and having P&L (profit and loss) responsibility.

PowerPoint/Excel jobs can be tempting. I remember stepping into the offices of one company with whom I interviewed in Boston last month. They had a panoramic view of Boston Harbor, a professional chef’s kitchen, a gym overlooking Cambridge, and a 100 inch plasma TV in the marble and walnut boardroom. I was seduced by the glamorous atmosphere, but at the end of the day, the content of my work would have been to support senior management.

Today I received an offer from what I would call a Boxholm job. It’s not an MBA Leadership Program, it’s not located in a sexy world-class city, and no one’s eyes are going to light up at a cocktail party when I tell them about my new employer. But on the other hand it’s a real general management position. I feel passionate about the industry and by the chance to roll up my sleeves and manage people, budgets, and real deal negotiations, as opposed to modeling them in the abstract and advising others on how to manage them.

In describing this job to some of my MBA colleagues, I have received mixed reactions. Some Wharton MBAs friends were horrified when I told them about the job. They couldn’t fathom that I would actually be working for a real company with revenues, expenses, employees, and budgets, as opposed to a private equity fund, finance firm, or consultancy. Undoubtedly, part of their opposition is rooted in money. Although the base salary will be similar to my colleagues’ pay, I won’t be getting 6 figure bonuses each year (probably not even 5 or 4 figure bonuses)! My financial reward will come slowly. My friends mourned the fact that I was moving towards a career path devoid of shortcuts. When I described this job to an INSEAD professor, he looked at me and warned that life would be tough out there in the ‘real’ business world, away from the bubble of banks, consultancies, and Fortune 500 companies.

It might seem surprising to the uninitiated, but elite business school graduates today seem less interested in becoming managers. Everyone wants a fast-track to wealth and success, with finance and strategy roles seen as the preferred route to get there. I remember attending an INSEAD cocktail party in Paris during P3, where I met Hélène Ploix, the first female INSEAD MBA graduate. Hélène runs her own investment fund and sits on the Board of Directors of BNP-Paribas and Publicis. At the cocktail party, one of my French classmates approached her with a very blunt question– How could he achieve her level of success? Without hesitation she responded that her general management experience was the decisive factor in opening doors to the boardroom.

I must confess that part of my attraction to general management jobs resides in a depressing C.V. that I came across at work, early on in my career. The C.V. in question belonged to a guy who graduated with an M.B.A. from N.Y.U. 5-7 years previously. He had gone into finance and worked on Wall Street for several years. But 2 layoffs later, he was just another faceless banker who by luck, circumstance, or mediocre talent, had failed to make it. Being a pessimist by nature, I looked at the resume and immediately understand that this guy was doomed. He was just too senior for jobs in the $100,000-$200,000 range, yet he lacked the experience and skills for jobs in the $200,000+ range. No Wall Street bank wants to hire someone from his class who hadn’t earned the expected career promotions, and no real company would be interested in hiring a Wall Street reject with no operational or management experience. Sure he had some options to set up his own investment fund or try to join a small one, but seeing this poor shmuck’s C.V. left an indelible mark on me. It made me realize that an M.B.A., even from a top school, is a rapidly depreciating commodity. You have a few years to translate it into valuable experience, usable connections, or a nest egg. This imperative seems all the more necessary in the high risk/high reward financial world. Am I too timid to risk everything on such a course, preferring instead a ‘safer’ career track that will give me practical management experience instead of a ‘brand name’ on my resume? Maybe.

It is both exciting and intimidating to face the decision whether to accept a general management position or to pursue a traditional MBA job. I am still going through the recruiting process and I have several more second round interviews coming up. I won’t make any decisions until I exhaust the other possibilities.

By the way, I received a ding this morning from a job I had applied to over a month ago. When I get a chance, I have to remember to ring the recently re-installed ding bell at the INSEAD campus bar.

The Blogger Returns to INSEAD After Spending a Semester at the Wharton Business School

I’m back in Fontainebleau after 2 months at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia. It’s great to be back in France. I quickly got into my old routine– INSEAD classes in the morning, biking in the forest in the afternoon, and house parties at night. I even remembered to bring plastic bags to the French supermarket and to go there before they slam the doors shut at 7:30 PM. Below are some pictures from my stay at Wharton. They show the Wharton building (Huntsman Hall) above, the gigantic Penn bookstore, the undergrad fraternities on campus, the Spring Fling, the INSEAD baseball trek, and our farewell INSEAD dinner at Chili’s (Hey it was $2.50 Margarita night!)

One of the biggest differences that I noticed about Penn, was the presence of so many young 18-22 year-old college students. Because INSEAD doesn’t have an undergrad program, you don’t see anyone under 26 on campus (Well maybe Professors’ kids and MBA participants’ infants). At Wharton, I felt like an old geezer next to these cheery-faced (acne-faced?) freshmen. I hope the pictures convey the sense of carefree youthful exuberance that you feel on campus at Penn.

The Blogger Puts on His Game Face

INSEAD Career Interview Preparation

“There are 3 masks:
The one we think we are,
The one we really are, and
The one we hold in common.” -Jacques Lecoq

French Theater legend Jacques Lecoq’s smartest career move occurred in 1948 when like many present-day INSEAD participants, he successfully made both a geographic and functional change. In Lecoq’s case he traded the physical education field in post-War Paris for the study of Commedia dell’Arte in Italy. Indeed his fateful decision to go to Italy would bring him in contact with his collaborator Amleto Sartori, the craftsman who helped Lecoq revive the iconic Neutral Mask. Pedagogically, the Neutral Mask was employed by Lecoq to endow acting students with an emotional honesty and economy of movement that had been abandoned over the years in favor of a more craft-style acting technique. Of course, a more critical reading of the Neutral Mask reveals its repressive qualities which demand a forced balance and unnatural receptivity from wearers.

I have caught myself wearing my own Neutral Mask all too frequently during the current P4 recruiting season as my self has become muted. It catches you by surprise when evil HR people quiz you with loaded questions– “How would you feel about starting out in a sales position?”… Is this a trick question? Does she want me to say “Yes”? If I say “No” will I torpedo my candidacy? Should I mold my answer to what she wants to hear? (assuming I can successfully guess what she wants to hear). For me the psychological stress of recruiting lies in having to adopt a new mask for every interview.

“Sure I’ve always dreamed of living in [an isolated town in Germany/Ohio/ China/Siberia].”… “Sure I look forward to travelling 5 days a week.”… “Sure I’m happy to accept an internship with no guarantees of a permanent offer.” These sentences start to effortlessly roll off your tongue until you wake up one morning unable to recognize yourself.

The moment came after a fantastic first round consulting interview. I had nailed the 2 case interviews, charmed the pants off the male and female interviewer, and was really impressed by the firm. But then the HR coordinator started to piss me off. They stuck algebra problems in front of me and demanded to know my standardized test scores– in short, they didn’t trust their own judgment and preferred to rely on external measurements. My GMAT score is over 700, so I had nothing to hide, but I graciously jumped through all their hoops like a trained dog. Yet inside I started to resent the fact that they were simply searching for a reason to shoot me down as a candidate. Companies will defend themselves by claiming how hard it is to distinguish from so many qualified candidates, particularly at a school like INSEAD, but from the candidate’s perspective, it raised questions about how this organization would treat me after I was hired. Would one partner take charge of my career development, or would I simply float along through the machine, constantly being pushed and pulled by an inhumane system?

And then it happened. I went to an interview last week with a company that didn’t require me to wear a mask. I was myself, they were themselves, and no one had to put on any airs. It was such a feeling of relief. From the moment I walked into this company’s office I felt at home. I can’t say that about any of the other companies who I’ve interviewed with during the recruiting period. For the first time I met a company that wasn’t interested in making me jump through hoops. They had a real hiring need, I had the qualifications they were looking for, and no time was wasted on artificial HR interview parlor tricks. It felt so liberating to finally take off the masks, abandon my game face, and at last be myself.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask