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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


Mylène Farmer Will Perform at Stade de France in September 2009

Mylène Farmer (France’s answer to Madonna) has announced (and sold out) 2 shows at Stade de France for September 2009. If I had gone to INSEAD last year, I could have caught her shows at Bercy, seen in the clip above.

The Blogger Experiences Reverse Culture Shock

Global Monoculture

“When you have lived in and been integrated into more than one culture, exposure to a different mindset changes your own. After that first long sojourn abroad, the true culture shock comes on your first trip back home. People ask seemingly ignorant and annoying questions. You realize that your countrymen’s knowledge of the world is limited to a mixture of TV, myths and illogical conjecture. Their prejudices seem shockingly narrow.” –Skyfrontier

I’ve been in the U.S. for 2 weeks now, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I feel like a foreigner. Because I’m white and English is my native language, Americans assume that I’m one of them. On the street political campaigners try to solicit my support for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. At the airport, the Immigration officials direct me to the passport line for Americans. I try to protest that I’m not from the U.S., but they all seem to doubt me. At Penn, cafeteria staff express annoyance at my ineptitude with my PennCash swipe card. I blend in like the veteran students, so no one realizes that I’m new.

But my biggest challenge has been relating to people. In France, the way to tackle bureaucracy is to condescendingly challenge the interlocutor in fluent French. I tried this aggressive tactic in English last week at Penn when I faced an inept admin person in the International Student Office who was clueless about how to handle my U.S. visa. His supervisor, a motherly Indian lady, rushed out to defend him by protesting to me, “Can’t you see that he’s new here?” Her guilt trip succeeded in making me feel like crap. My self focus has made me ignorant of how other people might be going through the same transition.

My friend Andre argues in his blog Skyfrontier that the global nomadic experience engenders us with a perilous smugness as we arrogantly cling to our ‘amplified’ understanding. “In France they do things better/worse… etc.” As INSEAD nomads, we are tempted to challenge everything based on our heightened awareness and experience.

Are the Almond Croissants at Au Bon Pain up to par with those baked at Frédéric Cassel on rue Grande? Should I keep my mouth shut when American students wax enviously about pro-worker employment laws in Europe? Should I politely nod my head in agreement and confirm their thesis with tales of 6 week annual vacation leave in France, or should I ruin their fantasy with wretched stories of les perturbations on the RER D?

Alternatively should I voice support or protest when the Unites States is used as a normative example or the de facto benchmark for democracy, human rights, taxation, capital markets etc. ? Would my protests just fall on deaf ears? Who wants to know about the flexible U.K. public company listing requirements, the 10% income tax in Zug, Switzerland, universal health care in Canada, gay marriage in Spain, and other forward-looking laws which make the U.S. seem comparatively antiquated.

If food can be considered the embodiment of a nation’s civilization, perhaps we should read something into the numerous food trucks which surround UPenn and which dispense daily sustenance out the back of a kitchen on 4 wheels. In France the geography of alimentation serves a descriptive function… Laser printed signs in the INSEAD cafeteria (err, restaurant) proclaim that today’s beef comes from the Netherlands, and the Monoprix flyer proclaims that the Brie on special this week comes from Melun, and not Meaux.

In the U.S., food geography is used fancifully in an evocative manner to conjure up exotic images of distant places, never visited. “Organic Black Egyptian Licorice Tea Leaves” boasted one menu board. The last time I visited Egypt I remember tea coming only in one variety—the overly sweet sort that comes in a short glass cup topped with mint leaves. But to whom can I protest? The waiter? My fellow dinner mates who as American will likely frown at my futile objection?

As our year at INSEAD comes to an end, these questions will not remain purely academic as we face the reality of going back to work and in most cases, a more provincial existence. Get ready for the coming culture shock.

The Blogger Goes for a Swim- French Style

The Rules

I’ve mentioned the swimming pool next to INSEAD in a previous blog post, but last weekend I finally broke down, pulled out my skimpy thong-style Speedo swimsuit and went for a swim at the ambitiously named “Stade Nautique de la Faisanderie”. The chart you see above resembles the process flow charts studied in our Operations Management class, and is displayed prominently at the pool entrance. Of particular interest is the last caption where the boy eats his sandwich and remarks, “J’ai passe un agréable moment en respectant les règles d’hygiène et de sécurité.” (“I had a good time in respecting the hygiene and security rules.”) This mantra sums up the bizarre philosophy of the swimming pool management, who in their zeal to create an efficient pool have managed to diminish the user experience, by eliminating convenience and fun.

After paying admission and buying an obligatory bathing cap, swimmers are forced into a unisex change room after passing through an antiseptic foot bath. No benches or counters are present in the changeroom, to eliminate the risk of losing belongings or having them stolen. Individual change booths are provided for dressing, but there is no private same-gender space to engage in locker room chatter. The emphasis here is on efficiency– get in, change into your swimsuit, and get out.

I’m told that many swimming pools in Europe follow this strange model, which in my opinion robs customers of the whole experience. There are no free towels, no convenient place to hang your coat or relax. I remember the gym I went to before I came to INSEAD. The facilities were just as good, but everyone seemed more chill. A group of Russian pensioners used to do vodka shots by the pool, every Saturday afternoon, after their swim. The whole point of going to a swimming pool is to escape from the everyday grind and misbehave. Kids love to run on the pool deck, scream, dive into the pool cannonball style, engage in towel fights, make floods in the change room etc.

Men and women seek kinship in the locker room, seeing others naked and in being exposed to a wide range of body types. It’s not an erotic experience, but rather an opportunity where you can learn to feel comfortable about yourself. As my youth disappears, I find myself checking out the bodies of older men– looking for the sags, wrinkles, and grotesque scars which in time will visit me too. But enough of my strange nostalgia.

I am amazed how water parks have recognized that customer willingness to pay is enhanced by emphasizing the fun of the customer experience, while swimming pools like the Stade Nautique de la Faisanderie blindly assume that swimming in an inherently fun activity for which customers will pay, regardless of how bureaucratic they make the experience. I still might return to the pool, but only because I would like to amortize the cost of the bathing cap I purchased, in order to see its Cost per Visit come down.

The Blogger Learns to Accept the French Aversion to Free Plastic Bags

Paper or Plastic?



Trivia question: “What commodity do the French value above all else?” If you guessed baguette or price-controlled AOC wine, you deserve an honourable mention– but the real answer is plastic bags. I thought I had arrived at INSEAD with everything I could possibly need for the year… 2 financial calculators, an athletic-cut business suit, shorts for the warm weather, and gloves for the winter. I even brought a year’s worth of dental floss and razor blades figuring that drugstores here would charge an arm and a leg for ’em.

In hindsight I should have thought to fill my suitcase with plastic bags. For someone like me who grew up in a country where supermarket cashiers smiled, bagged your groceries for you, and commenced each conversation with, “Paper or Plastic?”, France can be a bitter pill to swallow. Here you are expected to bag your own groceries under the watchful eye of cashiers who hiss at you if you take too long. Forget about free grocery bags. The supermarkets charge you for plastic bags if you can convince the cashier to sell you them. I am starting to think that cashiers in France are penalized by having the cost of plastic bags deducted from their hourly wage.

There is of course an environmental rationale behind the anti-plastic bag campaign, but the trade-off is that it requires consumers to carefully plan their shopping trips in advance. Because INSEAD participants lead busy lives, grocery shopping tends to be a spontaneously impulse event. I keep forgetting to show up at the grocery store with my own bags and thus I am forced to endure the same tortured ritual each time… the cashier scowls me with a disapproving look and reluctantly sells me some of her cherished plastic bags. On several occasions, they have even gone so far as to lecture me on the new legislation that will completely forbid all forms of plastic bags.

I just nod my head and smile… and dream of living in my version of Atlantis, where bags are free and plentiful, where the cashier does all the work, and I am free to peruse the latest celebrity gossip in the tabloids by checkout counter.

P.S. I found the caption photo by typing “Groceries” in Google Image. It pays to turn off your “Safe Search”!

The Blogger Posts His Suggestion for the Official INSEAD Theme Song

This song should definitely trigger positive memories of jaunts to Paris for those of us at INSEAD in Fontainebleau… or maybe just bad memories of Kraftwerk and electronic music.

The Blogger Reflects on INSEAD’s Reputation as the ‘Finishing School’ for Europe’s Elite

INSEAD Parking Lot, Circa 1970

Last week I had a revealing conversation with someone in the INSEAD community who bemoaned the decline in the quality of students at INSEAD over the years. To protect his identity, we shall endearingly call him Mr. Lily White Euro-Snob. It’s not that Mr. Lily White Euro-Snob thinks that today’s INSEAD students enter with worse grades, GMAT scores, or work experience. Quite the contrary. Today’s INSEAD student is probably smarter and more qualified than ever before. What has however changed is the student demographic.

Whereas the old rigid French and German language requirements once screened out all but the children of Europe’s elite– students (or participants in INSEAD parlance) who spent their summers and winters in Lausanne, Monaco, and Saint Tropez and who showed up on campus in sports cars which made the faculty envious, nowadays a much wider cross-section of participants attend from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. INSEAD has long been sensitive to its reputation as a ‘finishing school’ for Europe’s business elite and has worked hard to counter it with tough academic standards and financial support for needy participants.

Paul Fussell wrote in his timeless 1983 classic Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, “In the absence of a system of hereditary ranks and titles, without a tradition of honors conferred by a monarch, and with no well-known status ladder…. Americans have had to depend for their mechanism of snobbery far more than other peoples on their college and university hierarchy.” If indeed INSEAD has served a similar function in post-war Europe, do class and social hierarchy constitute learned behaviours that can be acquired in an MBA program, or are they as some suggest, intangible qualities that fewer and fewer INSEAD participants possess? Should we bemoan the vanishing of the trust fund jet set from the streets of Fontainebleau, or celebrate the democratization and meritocracy of the admissions process? Thrown in the mix is the inescapable issue of race and national identity. Just as the global business world is increasingly focused on India and China, so is the INSEAD MBA class increasingly comprised of participants from Asia. The “nicest kids in town” (to quote Hairspray) are no longer exclusively white Europeans.

What does this mean for the Euro-Snobs who harken back to INSEAD circa 1970? Two experiences stand out in my mind from my first week at INSEAD. Last week an Asian student posted a critical e-mail on the internal NetVestibule bulletin board, grumbling about the fact that so few shop clerks in Fontainebleau spoke English. The Euro-Snob in me was tempted to flame him and question his arrogance for coming to a school in France and not knowing any French. Besides, what kind of cultured educated person doesn’t speak French, or at the very least, express profound embarrassment and regret at his inability to speak French?

The second incident took place this evening at the welcome cocktail party, when I found myself explaining to a classmate that white wine served with crème de cassis is called Kir, and when served with Champagne, as it was at the party, is called Kir Royale. Hadn’t this person ever been to a cocktail party? What is the value of holding a degree from Europe’s top finishing school, if you can’t supply the requisite sophistication and cosmopolitan understanding expected from members of the elite?

Speaking French and knowing proper food and drink terminology might have once signaled status and hierarchy, but are they relevant in today’s world of technology millionaires and booming Asian economies? The painful answers are no. In today’s human capital economy, they are fast becoming about as relevant as peerage. And so I raise my glass of Kir Royale and toast in French, “A votre santé” … for the demise of the Euro-Snob is near.