Category Archives: MBA

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.

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

The Blogger Flies to the City of Brotherly Love

The Other Philly

I’m in Philadelphia now, although classes at Wharton don’t start until March 17. Above is a picture of a funny bus I saw while on vacation in Jordan (aka “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”) during the semester break between P3 and P4. You have to love the complete randomness of some Jordanian bus company owner deciding to name his fleet after Philadelphia.

My flight to Philadelphia from the Middle East was a 20 hour journey that included a free upgrade to business class, a free massage at the airport business lounge, a 7 hour layover back in Paris, a 50% off clearance sale on Lacoste at the airport, and most interestingly, a long chat with a management consultant who sat next to me in business class. (Pretty good overall…)

My consultant seatmate was an Engagement Manager from a boutique consulting firm who was flying to Germany with a Senior Partner and a Senior Consultant. They all seemed so intense, dressed in business suits on an overnight flight. I caught the tail-end of the Partner’s conversation to his underlings, something boastful about being able to compete with the world’s #1 strategic consulting firm (I’m not making this up!) What struck me most about these consultants was how contented they were. The Partner seemed really excited to go meet the German client and was clearly in his element. I’m going out on a limb here, but he seemed like the type who would go nuts being around the house with his wife and kids. He lived for his job, and he really loved it. This is something that I’ve noticed about my fellow INSEAD participants. Half my promotion will be applying to consulting firms for jobs, but how many of them really have the intense passion of this partner?

Even my Engagement Manager seatmate spent half the flight reviewing class notes from his top-tier Executive MBA program, and the other half preparing for his client presentation. I felt guilty for enjoying the Business Class pampering dressed in jeans and a muscle shirt, while he toiled away at his work dressed in wool gabardine. It’s possible that the juniors were heedful of the Senior Partner’s presence and were less inclined to relax. We exchanged business cards and talked about the merits of INSEAD vs. keeping your job and pursuing a part-time MBA. His boutique consulting firm is growing at a phenomenal rate and he encouraged me to apply.

The next 2 weeks will be busy. Even though I won’t have classes, I will be working hard on my job applications and on an independent research project under the supervision of a Professor. Still I have my travel plans for the next 2 weekends planned already… NYC followed by D.C. (Hey I need an excuse to use the flashy new Lacoste weekend bag that I bought on sale at the airport duty free).

The Blogger Reserves His Flight To Philly

Not as pretty as a Cheese Steak

Details Vols- Aller: Depart le Wed, 05 Mar 08 13:15 de Paris, Charles-De-Gaulle [CDG] sur US Airways vol 755

Retour: Depart le Sun, 04 May 08 18:15 de Philadelphie, Intl [PHL] sur US Airways vol 754

Prix: 1 x TARIF Adulte 377.00 EUR
1 x TAXES et FRAIS Adulte 71.63 EUR
1 x Ticket Electronique 0.00 EUR
TOTAL: ——————> 448.63 EUR

I’ve booked my flight to Philly for March and April to attend the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania for a spring exchange under the auspices of something which INSEAD ominously calls, the “Alliance”. As some of you readers may have discovered, INSEAD has developed its own strange language of “participants”, “periods”, “promotion” etc. which everyone quickly masters. My favourite INSEAD term is the overly-generous word used to describe the campus cafeteria in Fontainebleau, “The INSEAD Restaurant”. If I dare call it a “cafeteria”, my fellow MBA participants will usually look at me with a cross expression and say, “Is there a cafeteria on campus? Oh, you mean the INSEAD restaurant!”

I’m looking forward to being in Philly, and experiencing a U.S. business school. Some of my classmates have decided not to go to Wharton, because they are fearful of how it will affect their recruiting prospects (McDonald’s is always hiring). Indeed a wave of anxiety is slowly starting to sweep across the campus, as we realize that the intense wave of company presentations and interviews will commence, when we return from the upcoming P3-P4 vacation break.

Like all eager INSEAD MBA participants, I have started practicing for interviews. On Friday I had my first “mock consulting interview” with another student. It was a great learning experience, because he pointed out unconscious mistakes that could torpedo my chances in a real interview. In particular, my mock interviewer noticed a flaw in my response to “motivation” questions… I was just too realistic/cynical. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to readers of my blog, but I had mistakenly assumed that truthfulness and realism would be appreciated by an interviewer who asks, “Why do you think clients hire us? And why do you want to work here?” From my experience, companies often lack the headcount to perform projects themselves or in other cases, they bring in outside accountants, consultants, and legal advisers to validate management’s hypothesis, by ‘papering’ a transaction, or ‘rubber stamping’ a decision with an authoritative blessing. DING! Wrong answer.

The correct response as I now know is, “Your clients seek the high-level talent, experience, and intellectual capacity which you offer.” and “I’m looking forward to working with the top companies, and senior management of the most prestigious organizations.” My realization that recruiters want candidates who demonstrate sufficient naivety and wonder about their future job roles, would seem to bolster the idea that business school is an undertaking best pursued by those under 25.

Imagine a candidate for a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s… “You know I’m eager to find a job where I don’t have to fix my hair or make-up and I can show up hungover. It’s going to be hard work, but it fits my schedule.” VS. … “I don’t have much experience, but I’m a hard worker and I love your French Fries!”

Speaking of which… for fun I have posted the McDonald’s interview preparation tips… It’s scary because they’re not that different from the advice we receive from INSEAD’s Career Services office!


“Did somebody say…”Getting ready for your interview

The secret to a good interview is preparation. Here are some pointers on how you can make the right impression.

1. Refresh your memory.
Look at the copy of your application form so you can remember how you answered the questions. Take it with you to the interview.

2. Know your stuff.
Rehearse answers to questions like why you want the job, what your skills and achievements are, why you think you’ll fit in and what you think you’ll add to the company.

3. What to wear.
Wear something clean and smart that you feel comfortable in. If your interview is for after school, your uniform is fine. Pay attention to grooming too – that way you’ll feel and look confident.

4. On the day.
Make sure you leave plenty of time for your journey – plan to arrive about 15 to 20 minutes before your interview time. Check that you have your application form, mobile, map (if you’ve never been to the restaurant before) and of course, car keys or fare money.

5. Arriving
Let the shift manager know you’ve arrived.

“Did somebody say…”Some typical questions

Here are some of the most common questions that get asked at an interview. Think about how you’d answer. Ask friends or family for their advice on what you can say.

  • Why do you want the job?
  • What do you know about McDonald’s and why do you want to work for us?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are your career ambitions?
  • What achievements and skills do you think will be useful in this job?
  • What kind of things do you enjoy doing outside school/work?

You will probably be asked to give some examples of situations where you have worked or participated in a team and whether that worked well and if it didn’t work well, why?

Be prepared to discuss any customer situations you’ve been in where you may have faced a difficult customer and how you handled that.

“Did somebody say…”At the interview

If you’re really nervous take some deep breaths and try to relax. We’ll be asking you questions to find out a bit more about your skills and achievements.

Take your time when answering questions and try to show how your skills and abilities will help you perform the job. If you don’t understand a question, don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer to repeat it.

Your turn
Usually at the end of an interview, you’ll be asked if you have any questions. Now’s the time to clarify anything you’re not sure of. Good questions to ask are about the training and the prospects. You can also ask when you might hear if you’ve been successful.