Lost in Translation

March 17, 2009

The sign over the restaurant in Beijing listed its name in two languages, Mandarin and English. Of course, I couldn’t read the Mandarin name. I could easily read the unfortunate English name, however: “Meat Patties Explode the Stomach”. The mistranslation got me thinking more deeply about what else is sometimes lost in translation between two cultures.

I spent the last 10 days in China on a Darden-sponsored Global Business Experience (GBE). These trips are available to both First Year and Second Year Darden Students, award course credit (which is helpful in lessening the load during the rest of second year), and, most importantly, offer an opportunity to explore another country from a cultural, social, and economic perspective.

China is a developing country. 1.3 billion people live in China, with about 40% living in the urban areas and the remainder scratching out a living in the countryside further west. But that is changing fast. One startling figure we heard on the trip is that 500 million people are expected to move from the country to the cities in China by 2020 in search of better opportunities. Even in this downturned economy, where China’s exports (which drive the economy) dropped by 20% to the US and 40% to Japan, the nation is still projected to reach a target of 6-8% GDP growth. This is relatively slow in a nation boasting up to 14% growth in recent years, but still represents one of the few major world economies not currently sinking into recession. The government recently enacted a stimulus plan worth more than $500 billion to help sustain growth.

Of course, the China model will have to change… it’s as unsustainable as America’s consumer-driven economy. The Chinese save like crazy, largely owing to a lack of social safety nets and a lack of mature capital markets in which to invest. These savings are piled into government-owned banks, which then use the capital to invest in US Treasuries. We spend the funds loaned to us here in America to help stimulate our economy. Our consumers buy billions each year in goods from China. This cycle is not sustainable, and it’s not particularly helpful to either country. China is stuck producing goods low on the value chain (even technology manufacturing is typically outsourced work where the biggest value added parts, such as processors and software, are actually produced in the US), and earning low margins while polluting their environment, utilizing cheap labor, and using their natural resources. The cheap labor is no longer among the world’s cheapest… rising wages and benefits are pushing more of the lowest value-added work to even lower cost nations in south Asia. The US, of course, cannot keep borrowing from China’s savers to buy imports, relying on some future value that may or not be realized in order to repay our debts.

However, my feeling during the trip, and particularly during the visits to Cheung Kong Business School, one of Darden’s partner schools in Shanghai, was that this dysfunctional relationship is recongized by the Chinese government, and that they very much want to do something to fix it. They are anxiously seeking ways to stimulate domestic consumption, and are working to improve the regulation and transparency of their fledgling capital markets. Their businesses are looking to move down the value chain to sales and marketing and up the value chain to product development and design; Lenovo is a great example of a Chinese company that has successfully done this with their continued successful perpetuation of the Think brand they acquired from IBM.

What is probably lost in translation on our side of the pond is perhaps just as embarrasing as the “Meat Patty” restaurant sign. In America, we tend to think rather arrogantly of our system of government as universally best. I love my country, served her honorably, and think she is still the shining city on the hill, the beacon of hope and freedom to which all men and women can aspire. However, I think we’re generally naiive in thinking that we’ve cracked the governing code somehow, that what works so well for us would work just as well everywhere else. I saw the consequences of this hubris first hand during my tours in Iraq, where we attempted for several years to compel the Iraqis to impose a Jeffersonian-style democracy on their people, virtually ignoring the pre-existing tribal power structures that had been in place and functioning successfully for thousands of years. We watched as a dysfunctional central government bickered and toiled while the country burned down around and inside the capital, and we shed blood to protect a democracy that could not hope to succeed among a people who had neither asked for it or desired it in any way. During my second tour, great reconciliation was achieved as the tribal leaders were finally engaged and brought into the national conversation; their conversion spelled the beginning of the end for Al Qaeida in Iraq and their participation in the recent national elections indicated the first true national legitimacy the government had earned. It is this, and no surge of troops, most responsible for the recent success in Iraq. This was not a repudiation of democracy, but rather a recognition that democracy is not portable; to be successful, it will not look the same in two completely different civilizations. Democracy must reconcile itself with culture, not the other way around.

I think this is the case in China, too. Though still governed by the Communist Party, this title really holds true in name only. Civil liberties, though still lacking by American standards, have expanded significantly in China and will continue to expand as long as the nation can support it without threatnening its own security. International criticism rages on about China’s dealing with Tibet and Taiwan, and much of this criticism is of merit, but every year progress is made toward an honest and respectful dialogue on how to best settle these complex issues.

China, I learned during my visit, is without a doubt a capitalist nation. The remnants of a state-driven society remain (state-owned enterprises continune to exist though their prominence is slowly receding), but the people remain incredibly individualistic, driven by their own ambition and their desire to improve their lot in life. Their discipline and capacity for education is astounding. Entire cities drawfing America’s oldest and greatest cities have risen in a decade, filled with modern amenities and infrastructure.

America’s bottom-up approach to governance works well for us, our mature economy is well-supported by a government that refreshes itself every 4 years. But in China, where the economy and the social systems being put in place now rival that of America’s reconstruction after the civil war, longer term planning is more prudent to ensure sustainable and cleaner growth that provides  maximum equality of opportunity to everyone, and this lends itself to China’s top-down approach to governance… for now. As China continues to mature economically, we can only hope to enjoy its historical and beautiful culture while taking solace in its gradual movement toward a more open and inspiring democracy.

On occasion I fill some of my free time watching network news on television. This was particularly important to me during the recent election, as I felt it was important to be an informed citizen prior to voting. Of course, I did not restrict the information I used to educate myself to television media, but I did find it a convenient way of covering a lot of ground while shoveling down oatmeal and yogurt before heading to class.

Sometimes I’m a little inflamed by the content or the spin shown on these news programs. Many people would recommend changing the channel or turning the television off. I have a slightly different take.

A big reason why I came to Darden was the case method. All too often, any given case discussion in class does not end with full agreement. The fact of the matter is that the debate itself is healthy (and in the case of business school, serves as an impactful way to learn and retain complex business concepts).

So I find myself debating with the television occasionally. This is an honest, albeit embarrassing confession. Only when I feel the antagonist is beyond whatever redemption is possible by my proclamations made to an electronic box do I actually change the channel (Discovery Channel is always a safe bet).

A portly, balding nightly news commentator on a mainstream news network has recently begun stirring my ire due to his attacks on the H1-B visa program and his irrational attachment to protectionist trade policies. The H1-B visa attacks have become increasingly virile as the economy has gone from awful to nearly catastrophic. To make matters worse, a non-profit organization (likely political action comittee) called the Coalition of the American Worker has begun showing misleading commercials showing laid-off workers leaving their offices. Their preposterous insinuation is that these jobs are not being lost to a downturn in the economy due to myriad factors that should be the focus of our collective examination, but rather that legal foreign workers are taking their jobs. This disgusting xenophobia and barely-concealed bigotry is taking direct aim at some of my closest friends at Darden.

Darden is an international business school, with a class made up of students from dozens of countries. My class (2009) boasts a population of over 35% international students. Many of these students are happily planning on returning to their home nations after graduating, and some are headed to other nations. Some are planning on taking positions here, in the U.S. for at least a few years… and possibly extending their stays until they can legally become U.S. citizens.

We would be lucky to have them. The fact is, the H1-B visa program is not bringing in blue collar workers to depress labor rates, nor is it bringing in masses of workers that have mediocre credentials and skills. This program is for exceptionally gifted people: doctors, scientists, and business leaders. I’m talking about people in these professions showing the most potential for greatness, not your typical C student.

These people are value creators. America, still the beacon of opportunity, is the best place for them to flourish. The value they create will create a sustainable strategic advantage for America’s businesses and institutions… an advantage that without a doubt has led (and will continue to lead) to significant job creation and continued feasibility of our way of life.

Could an American do these jobs? Of course. America boasts a plethora of her own high-potential, gifted individuals (some of whom are my classmates as well). However, at this level, at the very top of these professions (now and in their future state), there is a constant shortage, regardless of how bad the economy becomes. It will take the best efforts of all the best qualified people, including our H1-B professionals, to lead us out of this mess.

My sense of the issue of diversity is well-defined but remains difficult to articulate. I feel strongly that there is an inherent value in diversity. Bringing people with different backgrounds and perspectives together in order to allow them to bring collective talents to bear on a problem is far more effective than bringing in a homogenous group of gifted problem-solvers. Furthermore, the overall diversity of the group enhances the learning opportunities for each participating individual, broadening their horizons and making them more effective leaders and problem solvers.  The classroom at Darden has provided me with convincing proof of concept for this theory. I know my business education has been significantly enhanced by the contributions of my classmates, particularly due to our collective diversity.

I would hate to lose that advantage when I return to the working world this fall. And I shrudder to think of an American economy struggling to resist depression without the benefit of her diversity and the world’s highest potential professionals.

The Pivot Point

January 20, 2009

Today the world feels different… somehow changed. The feeling of the air that surrounds us is somehow clearer, cleaner. Today’s events and their implications humble us all.

Colin Powell told the audience watching the news this morning about his entry into the US Army over 50 years ago, shortly after the integration of the military. When he left New York to drive to his assignment in Fort Benning, Georgia, he drove. South of Baltimore, he had only one option for lodging for the remainder of the trip, a motel in South Carolina. He wasn’t welcome anywhere else. This was less than a lifetime ago.

One of my new classes this quarter is Thomas Jefferson’s Reading Seminar, which is a class that focuses on readings centered around the life and times of the founder of the University of Virginia and his compatriots. Reading seminars involve a lot of… well… reading. In anticipation of the challening volume of pages, I began reading the books over winter break. I find myself intrigued by the early political divisions of the new nation, among those who we generalize today as patriots and heros of the revolution. The founders of this nation did not agree on everything, and in fact significant disagreement on the direction of the union existed, particularly between the Federalist and Republican parties. I find myself even at odds ideologically with TJ at times, much to my surprise, though the full contribution of the man and his impact on our daily lives certainly overwhelm any reservations I have about the positions he took.

The greatest appreciation I’ve gained from the reading so far (keeping in mind that we actually don’t have our first class meeting until tomorrow) is that our union was once fragile, and remained imperfect (the failure to resolve slavery is a clear example)… and though our union is now stronger, it is clear that imperfection persists. Maybe that’s why we have healthy and fundamental disagreements.

Regardless of one’s politics, one cannot fail to be impressed by the magnitude of what we as a nation and a world collectively accomplished and witnessed today. We must also maintain a healthy regard for the challenges that remain ahead… but I am confident that we can overcome.

Indeed, we can.

The irreplaceable myth.

January 8, 2009

My winter break during my first year at Darden was exceptionally busy. I travelled to the bay area for a job trek (essentially checking out jobs in Silicon Valley), home to Maryland for Christmas, off to Vegas for New Years, and then back to Charlottesville to cram for internship interviews.

This year I took the opposite extreme. I went home, visited family and friends, but I didn’t travel anywhere exotic or crazy. I had a pleasant and surprisingly fun New Years holiday with my parents. I did take a flight to Florida to visit my father and stepmother, and I picked up Newsweek’s annual most powerful people issue to read on the plane.

In that issue, one of the most powerful people mentioned was Steve Jobs, the charismatic leader of Apple, Inc., who has led the company from the brink of economic ruin in 1996 to the forefront of technology leadership and an unprecedented financial success. The subtitle referred to Jobs’ irreplaceable status in the eyes of pundits and shareholders alike, increasingly in focus as his health has recently been called into question. This reference led to some level of reflection on my part. I had recently received an email from one of my old superiors, who humbled me with warm words referring to my service in Iraq in 2006. He charecterized my efforts as vital and therefore irreplaceable, and admitted for the first time that this affected his choice of my assignments, obstenstibly keeping me from riskier missions. Despite the degree of this compliment and the warm shudder it sent through me, especially in light of far more accomplished and vital performers in the art of war at that time who spent countless hours in harm’s way, I found myself somewhat chagrined.

Part of my military bias is the sense that no one is irreplaceable, that no personality is so dominant and no one’s efforts or even leadership so important that we should consider that person irreplaceable. Jobs is a sure leader, a man who embodies the very spirit of the company he built, then saved and built again. Apple, Inc. is Steve Jobs. But he is no demigod. Jobs is all too mortal, but there is absolutely no reason that Apple, Inc. must be congruent to that mortality. Companies are certainly mortal, and the current recession certainly has borne this truth out. But the death of companies and organizations in general need not follow that of their leaders.

Succession planning is a critical role of any leader. The ageless role of the squire, the apprentice, the protege, even the first-born son has served as the greatest indicator of humankind’s recognition of this fact. The folly of ignoring this prudence can be shocking in retrospect. Benjamin Franklin died shortly after writing his historical condemnation of slavery, more than 70 years before abolition. The nation’s loss of his vision and leadership was not reconciled by subsequent inherited firm resolution at the national hero level and the immoral act of slavery was hence endured by an agitated nation for decades more before the Civil War nearly tore the union to shreds just shy of its centennial.

Succession planning is not only critical due to simple mortality, but also the turbulent times that often require a change in leadership for myriad other professional and personal reasons. Someone must be ready to step in and take over at a moment’s notice, and the very definition of poor leadership is that which builds an organization of dependency.

No one is irreplaceable… this status is reserved only for ideals, principals, and the best of our hearts. Any other conclusion is narcissistic, myopic, and, perhaps… delusionary.

The New Year of 2009, besides bringing such sober reflection, also brings an opportunity for resolutions. This year, it’s a return to a suitable level of fitness. I took off working out for a few weeks. It was interesting how much it bothered me at first, and scary how easy it later became to just forget it. I feel like I quickly degraded to frightenlingly bad shape. While in Florida, I jogged while taking one of the family dogs on a run, and was quickly panting and even dizzy. Now, I’m working out twice a day (most days) and hating/loving it. But I already feel healthier. If I make it to November before breaking down on this one like I did last year, I think things will work out just fine.

The final note of this post is regarding the upcoming first year recruiting process. Last year, I noted with dismay that many (though certainly not all) second year students were unavailable to assist first year students during the first week of classes at Darden. First year students are now ramping up their internship interview preparation, and the current job market is competitive enough to be scary for anyone, regardless of how well prepared or credentialed.  The first week of classes for second year students is actually not regular, 6-week courses, but rather is a week of intense classes that run up to 10 hours a day. These courses, called J-week classes, are a great opportunity to try out something different or address a particular weakness while covering enough credits to lighten the coursework in another quarter. For example, I’m taking a class called “Ethics through Theater”, which I have found to be fantastic. We are actually writing, directing, and acting in plays… all in a single, intense week. Despite the intense classwork, I resolved not to repeat my experiences from last year and make myself available to help first year students with their interview preparation. I have found them very grateful and genuinely interested in feedback and advice, which is the most meaningful response I could receive. I’m proud of my classmates that have also jumped in to help our first year class, and I’m confident that companies and firms will face a very well prepared first year class and a number of difficult decisions when they show up on grounds in a few weeks.

The first semester of my second year at Darden is coming to a close, and recruiting is over. I’ve accepted an offer from a consulting firm (just today, in fact) and am now content to relax a bit, finish up the last few weeks of exams and projects, and make plans to travel, surf, sleep, and generally relax during the three big breaks left: winter break, spring break, and next summer.

Already, the nostalgia is beginning to set in, even though there’s a full six months left until graduation. You see, I really had a good time as an undergraduate student. Excited about graduation and what lie ahead, I was surprised when I became emotional on my final drive home from Penn State. That was six years ago, and now I suppose I wary of being taken by surprise again… of underestimating the true value and wonderful nature of higher education and the environment it engenders. I know that I have built relationships and friendships that will last for the remainder of my life, as I did as an undergraduate student and again as an Army officer.

We’ve been told more than once that, for the vast majority of us, this is our final academic experience. I hate to think that’s true for me. I just really like being in a classroom. I recognize the value of learning through experience… believe me, it is the best learning laboratory one could benefit from. Nonetheless, there’s something to the innately selfish act of concentrating solely on one’s own personal and professional development for a while.

Of course, returning to the real world and the workforce doesn’t have to be the “tunnel”… but I don’t think it will ever be as bright, at least for me, as that which I enjoy while living the life of a student. If I had my druthers, and deep pockets, I would emulate the great American hero, Van Wilder, who as a 26 year old undergraduate student valiantly resisted the urge to graduate and finally grow up. But, alas, Peter Pan is a fairytale, and Neverland doesn’t really exist, even in Charlottesville, VA. Now I’ll focus on enjoying the fantasy for the next six months, and figuring out a way to make my way back for a doctorate sometime in the future.

A digression if I may (and I may, because this is my blog): If you see one movie this year, it should be Slumdog Millionaire, the Dickensian film by Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame) about a young Indian from the Mumbai slums who is somehow winning millions of rupees on a quiz show even though he lacks the formal education normally required to know the answers to the questions. A love story in disguise, this movie warms ones heart and is especially poignant in the wake of the recent tragic terrorist attack in Mumbai… a city that strikes me as as close to Victorian London as is possible in the modern world, and an inviting city that I will most assuredly visit as soon as possible.

If you see a second movie, see Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. If you think all high school drama/comedies are unrealistic and just plain awful (as I did), this film will restore your faith in the things that really matter in high school (and for that matter, life): love, faith, and music.

I’m pretty sure the closest thing to running hell on earth is the final five miles of a marathon for which one is ill-prepared. If you read my previous post, you know that I was training for the Marine Corps Marathon over the last few months. Last Sunday was the big day. I turned the half on Hayne’s Point (13 miles) at just over 90 minutes. I was flying, well ahead of my pace for my desired 4 hour finish.

At mile 16, I was surprised to find myself exhausted. At mile 18, both knees suddenly stopping protesting and began demanding. Stop! Defeated, I took a walking break. Throngs of previously vanquished fellow runners surged past. I picked it up again and ran a bit slower until mile 21. Then I had to rotate between walking breaks and running every mile.

At the end, adrenaline and inspiration (see previous post) pushed me through the finish at 4:11…. 6 minutes faster than my previous best, but not quite my goal of 4 hours or less. Clearly, my lack of long distance training caught up to me. Next time I’ll prepare better… and aim for a 3:30. The best lesson I learned from this marathon is that I’m capable of being a pretty fast runner… I just need to work on the endurance. I will train harder next time.

So, after a long week of interviews (6, to be exact) and a number of challenging classroom assignments, I ran 26.2 miles and had to spend the following week (which included several more interviews) limping (going down stairs was especially terrible!).

There is good news to report on the job front… I have an offer! I am still interviewing, however, so the future is far from certain.  But in this economy, it is very gratifying to have an offer, and I really like the firm that extended it, so I’m excited. I’ve also noticed that my interviewing has gotten better (or at least so it seems)… this could be because the pressure is off.

I watched this week’s historic election with great interest. Although I hope to keep politics largely out of my school blog, I think anyone can recognize how monumental this election was, and what it means about the state of our nation. I was surprised to find myself emotional on Tuesday evening, particularly at 11 pm. America is truly a wonderful place.

My first grades of the year have been reported, and so far it’s good news: I’m on track with my success from last year. I’ve felt slightly detached from classes this fall, largely because of all of the other demands of my time (recruiting, Consulting Club, and University Judiciary Committee). With the recruiting efforts winding up, the marathon behind me, and the UJC docket thinning, I am now able to get back to the very real and appealing task of learning.

My parents (maternal side) made the trip to Charlottesville on Friday for Family Day at Darden. I really enjoyed showing them around, and they had a good time attending classes. We had dinner on the downtown mall (which is fabulous if you’ve never been to Charlottesville). Saturday was a trip to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. What luck! Saturday was the official opening of the new visitor center, which is a much nicer complement to the historic site than the old ticket office.

As I wrap on this update, I recall it’s been several weeks since my last update. I hope to update more frequently as the year continues, and as other demands subside.

 

The run

October 7, 2008

I started out Thursday afternoon around 2 pm. I had my GPS watch, which measured my distance and pace, fully charged and strapped to my wrist. I had my iPod Nano, fully loaded with all of my punk rock favorites, secured in my armband. I had a running belt around my waste, holding a combination of water and snacks. I even took the time to rub a little Vaseline on my chest to prevent chafing (I dare you to go on a long run without it). On the way out the door, I popped an Alieve and jogged off.

On the first few miles, my mind wandered, as it typically does, to the most pressing current concerns in my life. Schoolwork, getting a job in a very uncertain market after graduation, my school activities, and my brother’s upcoming wedding and the associated plans ran in circles in my mind. As I turned from Milmont onto Barracks, my I began drilling myself on the questions I could expect to answer in my upcoming interviews. I started with behavioral questions. As I reached the summit of the hill on Barracks and turned onto Rugby, my focus shifted to the math problems that would serve as the foundation of my case interviews. I love to test my fraction to decimal skills: 1/6 is 0.17, 1/7 is 0.14, etc. I also like playing with the big numbers: 1% of a billion is 10 million, so 7% of 3 billion is 210 million.

My mind shifted to the exams that were coming as I turned from Preston onto McGrady, and I considered how much I should prepare. Darden is great in that if you prepare for class every day, you need to study very little as you enter exams. Unfortunatey, a somewhat insane schedule early in the second year (see previous post) meant that I am less prepared than I was in the past, and I knew I would need to set some time aside to prepare for exams, focusing on the few complexities I hadn’t yet driven through to complete understanding.

After a short stint up the hill on Ridge-McIntire, I turned onto Cherry and took my first break. Chewing on a Clif bar, I took stock of my physical state. I was only about a third into my 18 mile run, and my left knee was already a bit shaky. I stretched it while I walked, chased the energy bar with some water, and started off again. I switched from the sidewalk to asphalt when it was safe to do so… asphalt is much softer as a surface, and is thus less harmful to achy joints.

Cherry took a while. Two miles later, I turned on Cleveland, and then onto Jefferson Park Ave. I know I’m nearing home, and this is where my mental discipline began to be challenged. The plan was to hit home at 9 miles (halfway) and start on a new lap of the same run. As I ran to Alderman and past Scott Stadium, where the Cavs beat Maryland the night before, the little devil jumped up on my shoulder and began trying to persuade me into cutting the time in half. After all, it had been 90 minutes, and I was really feeling it. I was out of water. I had a lot of things to do, and could easily stop. Couldn’t I just count this as an intermediate training run, and pick a day during the week to do the full 18?

I knew better… I had tried the same thing the week before. I ran into my apartment and refilled my water bottle, took another walking break, then started running again. As I repeated the lap, my thoughts drifted away from the pounding of the pavement and the entertainment the iPod earbuds were delivering in my ears.

I am training for my second marathon. I will run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC in a few weeks, and this long run would be the cornerstone of my preparation; from this point on, it would be all shorter, sustainment runs. The first marathon I ever signed up for was the Paris Marathon in 2005. I didn’t train hard enough and wasn’t ready to run it when the day came. Then I deployed to Iraq for the second time.

Despite the daily violence and terrible heat, the military hosts a marathon every fall at Al Asad airbase. No, I didn’t run it, but I knew one Marine officer who did. Megan McClung not only ran the marathon, she also organized it. I remember yawning and rubbing my eyes one morning at our daily Battle Update Brief, and saw Maj McClung stand up, full of energy, and brief the day’s media events (she was our Brigade’s Public Affairs Officer). During the briefing, the commander asked how her training was going. She answered that she rose at 5 am that very morning and ran 20 miles around Forward Operating Base Ramadi. FOB Ramadi is not Paris or Charlottesville. Running there means running on rugged tank trails in the thick humidity and dusty air. It means running around mortar craters. It means running the same 4 mile loop over and over again; it’s the only stretch of road safe enough to run on without threat of indirect fire (and this means only that the threat was minimal, not non-existent). And Maj McClung ran 20 miles in these conditions before she started a typical 18 hour day. I was impressed. When she went to Al Asad to run the marathon that she had organized, she returned with a time nearing her personal best, hobbled only slightly by an injury that kept her from winning a new personal record.

In Iraq, over the course of two tours, I lost a number of friends to the violence. In December 2006, I lost three more. One of them was Maj McClung.

I discovered a few of my friends had signed up for the Paris Marathon, to be held in April 2007. I had already missed the initial deadline for open registration. But I was able to pay a premium for a travel package that included a race entry. I began to train as much as I could in Iraq, and finished after returning to Germany February 2007. I ran the race this time, galvanized by the inspiration I had gleaned from the memory of my friend.

My schedule now is even busier, the chances of preparing for a marathon even more remote. A friend recently commented that he couldn’t believe I could find the time to train. But I know better. When I came upon the halfway point of my run, ankles and knees sore and feet swollen, shirt covered not just in sweat but also in salt, and have the opportunity to just stop at home and not finish the second half, I thought of Maj McClung, racing the hot sun in the early morning down an arid tank trail on FOB Ramadi. And I kept running.

The certainty of uncertainty

September 26, 2008

Last year, in the heat of my first year of business school, I recall being told that the second year of Darden would be relaxed by comparison.

This is not entirely the case. If you were wondering why it took so long to update (over a month, a new record that I’m not proud of), this is it. Life has been very, very busy.

First year at Darden is intense, but it is predictable. Each day, I spent four and a half hours in class, an hour or two in company briefings, a few hours working on my cases, and another two or three hours in learning team.

Second year is different. At the end of the first year, I volunteered to be a second year career coach, the Vice President for Fundraising in the Consulting Club, and the University Judiciary Committee representative for Darden. I also scheduled four classes, including some notoriously complex courses. In short, being busy in the first year is part of the design. Being busier in the second year is different; it’s a choice. A masochistic yet rewarding choice to become involved in the school and its going concerns.

And, of course, there is recruiting, which starts very early in the second year. This year, the Career Development Center replaced second year company briefings with networking nights, where students can meet with several companies at once and discuss career opportunities in a relaxed atmosphere (with drinks!). It’s still a very professional event, but it’s superior to briefings if the company doesn’t have a lot of new information to present. A few companies have elected to hold off-grounds events, or to invite second year students to first-year events. This has also been an excellent opportunity to meet with these firms in a more standard setting and learn more about what has happened in their company over the course of the last year. In many of these companies, a year is a lifetime, and their message for potential future leaders may have changed quite a bit.

But the mood is a bit changed from last year. The struggles of the financial system has begun to weigh on recruiting of finance and banking-minded students. We are in a period of great uncertainty, a period that is almost scary to truly consider. The failure of Lehman Brothers and Bank of America’s purchase of Merrill Lynch will probably cost some of our most talented second-year students their full-time job offers.  The massive downsizing on Wall Street and at financial institutions across the country is flushing the market with talented young men and women, and they will actively pursue the very same opportunities that the Class of 2009 will seek.

How will this effect the rest of the economy? Will my classmates pursuing careers in consulting, general management, and marketing also be affected? Uncertain. But probably. For one thing, many of my banking friends are taking a second, longer look at consulting, and many are starting to make the move. This new crop of bankultants are talented, experienced, and will be very attractive to any consulting firm. And now, some consulting firms are reluctantly reporting a slowly emerging softness in key parts of their business.

And then there’s the bad news. Although I would love to see the $2,000+ per American citizen that a total of $700 billion represents not get spent buying loads of bad securities at inflated prices in order to inject liquidity into our financial system, I know that it is the only possible way to avoid an economic disaster rivaling that of the Great Depression. I know it because, finally, after many classes and a special faculty panel convened before a capacity crowd at Darden’s Abbott Auditorium on the subject, I understand how we arrived here. And I understand why we’re teetering at the edge. If capital markets freeze, it’s not just the banks, bankers, and consultants who will suffer. Everyday, otherwise healthy businesses will be unable to access credit. Not just credit they need to fund expansion plans and new hiring… they will be unable to secure funding to make payroll. They will be unable to pay their bills. They will go bankrupt. And our government and the Fed will be paralyzed to do anything at that point. Our very national security, so rooted in our economic health, will be imperiled. So, I guess we have no choice.

“Do we really want to play chicken with the Great Depression?” – Professor Peter Rodriguez

No.

Grades Matter

June 15, 2008

Well, school is out and I’m back in the working world. I often chuckle at the thought that this is my first private-sector job since peddling shoes at a mall in college.

The move to New York was surprisingly painless, even though I had never been to the city before the interview season last winter. I knew I’d like the city; I’ve always liked cities and the idea that I can find pretty much anything at any time of the day or night. What surprised me is my favorite part of the city: Central Park. I started going because I needed a place to run, but I quickly became infatuated with the sights of the city from the relative tranquility of the park’s beautiful Jackie O’Nassis resevoir.

The job was to be the most exciting part of the summer… a whole new career, top quality firm, and an opportunity to apply the lessons I learned at business school. And the verdict is that I have not been disappointed. The first day, I came in for training. WIthin the first morning, I was issued an excellent new computer, a Blackberry, and a whole box of office supplies, including personalize business cards and stationary. The level of preperation the firm put into the arrival of my fellow summer associates and I really impressed me.

Three days later, I was staffed on an operations study with an information technology company. The focus of my team’s part of the project is developing a way ahead for the company to recruit and develop new talent while improving their productivity in the face of a specialized workforce that is rapidly approaching retirement eligibility. This is an excellent client and the team is really great. Our team is one of many working with this client, and we’re doing very high-level, high-impact work. What I had expected was the analysis, team dynamics, and hard work. What has surprised me so far is the length consultants go to in order to be sure that the client, and all of the invested personalities, understands and is comfortable with each step of the process. I’ve been very impressed, and I know that I have a lot more to learn.

But the title of this blog is “Grades Matter”, so I’ll focus on that for this blog. Many business school students believe, or profess to believe, that grades at business school don’t really matter. Well, they matter to me. The idea that many of these folks have is that business school is just a way to get a great job and build a great network. Indeed, these are important goals of business school, and a hundred blogs could be written about them. And there are probably a lot of stories about business school students who have spotty academic records that go on to achieve great success. Grades aren’t necessarily important to achieving future success, I can definitely concede that point.

The reasons grades matter to me is that they are an extrinsic motivator, and, more importantly, they provide a metric of success. At Darden, the grading system is based on a forced curve, with a limited number of A’s and B-‘s, and a larger number of B’s and B+’s. B-‘s are generally an acceptable grade in small numbers, but large numbers of them indicate academic weakness and could be grounds for academic probation, and, eventually, dismissal from the program. It’s worth noting that this is pretty rare… the admissions staff does a good job of accepting students who are ready for school and also advising those who many need a little preperation before beginning. F’s are given out, but I think they are very rare and are used to motivate struggling students halfway through a course (many core classes at Darden give interim grades halfway through).

I tried very hard in my first year to earn B+’s or A’s in each class. The reason is that I felt that this was a good goal and would keep me working hard (it did), and that I thought that a B+ meant that I had achieved a truly solid understanding of the course work. Comprehensive but not exhaustive. Exhaustive understanding requires a mastery far beyond what can be learned in any classroom, even one as dynamic as that found at Darden. That said, a B is still a very acceptable grade and indicates that one has developed a grasp of the most important themes of any class. Grades are also imperfect… no doubt that there are examples of students with B’s who have a better true understanding of the course material than a classmate with an A.

I think it’s always important to measure oneself. When I go running, I take a GPS watch to track both my time and my distance. In the Army, I had a goal for each dimension of my job: a high fitness test score, a good evaluation, empowered subordinate leaders and enthusiastic, invested soldiers. During the recruiting season, I had a list of companies and firms that I wanted to spend the summer with, with certain of these weighted heavier in preference than others. Goals should be attainable and challenging. My goals for this summer: be ready to ramp up my training for the USMC marathon in October starting in August, earn a full-time offer from the firm, and spend at least a few days surfing. I had my goal regarding my grades last year, and I’m happy to report that when final grades were reported last week, I found that I had reached my goal.

 

The Value of Humility

May 15, 2008

The first year came to an unceremonious close last week as I turned in my last exams on Thursday afternoon. I didn’t take a sigh of relief, as did many of my classmates. But the time certainly flew by… it is cliche, but it feels like yesterday that I walked into class for my first day of prematriculation accounting class. Of course, much has been learned over the course of these last nine months, and I’m very excited by this summer’s opportunity with McKinsey in Stamford.

A good friend invited me over for a few beers and burgers on Friday night, and another friend joined us. We would head out to enjoy the local nightlife later and join many of our classmates celebrating the end of the semester. But first, we took an opportunity after eating to rehash some classic card games, including one that I hadn’t played since middle school… does anyone remember Egyptian Rat Screw? As we loaded dishes into the dishwasher, our conversation moved to recruiting, as it somehow does far too often, and my friend remarked that getting hired by a consulting firm is really a crapshoot… a matter of luck.

I disagreed, stating that I felt that preperation is key, and that no one who was unprepared got very lucky at all… so he qualified his earlier statement by first assuming that everyone came into the interview process prepared, an assumption that I would judge as a giant leap of faith.

But, since I will be working as a second year career coach, I decided that the matter deserves more reflection. A quick time out here: second year career coaches are a Darden institution wherein second year students take a class, for credit, where they primarily work with first year students to navigate the summer position recruiting process. My career coach was instrumental in helping me prepare for my career search, and I am very happy that I will be able to pay it forward next year by helping the Class of 2010.

In my efforts to secure meaningful summer employment, as well as my efforts to help my classmates do likewise, I never really stopped to consider what seperated successful candidates from unsuccessful ones. In a way, who am I to judge? I prepared fairly well, and, as my friend said, I got lucky. Some very smart, well-prepared people didn’t secure the offers they desired. It is extremely difficult to secure a summer offer in consulting given firms’ hiring contstraints in the face of a large number of interested applicants.

Some people came from very appealing backgrounds, had proven themselves very capable and intelligent while at Darden, and put forth a solid effort networking and polishing their resumes and cover letters. Yet they failed to get interviews. My assessment is that these people did nothing wrong… by and large they were just younger and tended to have fewer years of full time work experience under their belts than most firms would like. Most of these folks are spending the summer working in excellent positions for great companies and will have a very appealing value proposition when full-time recruiting resumes in the fall. I’m confident about their chances… about their “luck”.

Some were truly unlucky… these are the people who prepared hard, earned several interviews, and practiced for them. However, maybe they got the nightmare market-sizing case that would sink everyone but a market researcher. Maybe they got the case where you had to remember that some people still drive up to hotels and ask for a room rather than trying to make reservations (I know: I got that case and forgot that some people don’t book rooms over the internet or phone… and no, I didn’t get an invitation to second round with that particular firm). In any case, these folks just had bad luck, and they’ll get a fresh set of strikes the next time at the plate in the fall. Their “luck” will hold up this time, I’m sure of it.

Others just didn’t prepare hard enough. This isn’t because they are lazy, rather, it’s because they probabaly underestimated the rigors of the case interview, or because they overestimated their own abilities in the case interview. I think they’ll adjust and their “luck” will change in the fall, as well. Plus, they’ve seen what doesn’t work, and they’re a few steps ahead when recruiters return to grounds.

The final group is a group of intelligent people I would put into a very small minority. They prepared well, and they’re very smart and creative. These folks are the ones who would currently be enjoying an offer with the firm of their choice if not for one thing: the perception, true or not, that they lack humility.

Humility is a priceless commodity and a sign of emotional intelligence. It’s a way of framing intelligent insights in such a way as to sound helpful and not condescending. I’m not sure where it comes from… maybe it comes from being bully bait in junior high, maybe it comes from being exposed to deep sadness, or maybe it comes from a worldly view, one in which the individual sees his or her own accomplishments, however great they may be, in light of the overarching greatness of the world. Top business schools are, typically, full of folks who are accustomed to being superstars in their old field. Once in business school, they are thrust into an environment where they are surrounded other superstars. For me, this was a realization of how diminuative my own accomplishments really are… there are people in my class who have defied far greater odds and have achieved far greater things. I’m in a surreal sense of awe of their capacity to learn and am constantly finding myself grateful for their insights and being allowed to be counted among them. For the very, very rare Darden student that doesn’t gain this same sense of… humility, well, that person will suffer in any interview, and especially one with a firm that by design relies upon human interaction to do business. Arrogance, the evil opposite of humility, smells worse than body odor and is detectable the moment it enters the room. I think that true arrogance is filtered out by the Darden admissions process, and I am grateful for that. But even a more benign lack of humility, real or imagined by the interviewer, can sink a very high potential candidate in a field as competitive as consulting.

So, I suppose it comes down to luck. And hard work. And experience. And, of course, humility.

 

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