Brian & Ann's European Experience

Sunday, January 16, 2005

MBA Start Week

I just finished my MBA “Start Week”. I’m pretty sure the model for start week is Boot Camp. Just a quick recap: a little over a year ago I decided that an MBA would not only be a useful career tool, but would actually teach me a lot of things about business. In the parlance of that great orator Donald Rumsfeld, the known unknowns. And with that, an end to the military metaphors.

I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Executive MBA program at the Rotterdam School of Management. I have a great story to tell about the two GMAT tests I took so I could get in, but we’ll save that for later.

The RSM alternates within Europe as the fifth or sixth best business school, depending on the year and who’s doing the rankings. And while I am very happy that the school is very prestigious, that was really secondary for me. It was within commuting distance of Dordrecht, and it was in the Netherlands (so I could get a chance to learn Dutch). Oh, and it was the only school I applied to. I later found out there is a term for that actually: suicide school. Scary.

Anyway, things worked out (kind of, I still am not having anything contributed into my 401k plan) and on Monday January 10 I started school again after a sabbatical of seven years. I expected the Executive class to be small (which it was), mainly male (something like 85%), largely Dutch (also true, 56%) and full of smart people who probably were in high-powered careers and jobs to begin with. When starting an MBA, it is at least good to know that you are smart enough to know that you really have no place being there. Thank god no one told admissions.

The average age of the class is 32.9, so our birthday is coming up soon (in case any of you want to send gifts…). There is a predominance of engineers and people who work in some financial capacity, a few IT-oriented people, and maybe four or five Marketing-based people… including me. There is no one in publishing or any media field that I am aware of, and I am one of about four Americans.

Immediately, after all the introductions and speeches from people like the Dean and the head of the program and such (who you see exactly twice at any school ever: your first day and your last), we immediately got down to business. First thing’s first, we were split into two groups. These groups stay static for an entire year. Then we were split up into groups of six. This is the group we will stay in for the first semester. Mine has four Dutch people and me. We were supposed to have a sixth, but he’s Brazilian and his visa didn’t get cleared until the third day of class.

My three classes this semester are Managerial Accounting, Management Science, and Management Information Systems. As you can see, there is a heavy focus on management.

And now I must digress for a second.

One of the first things I realized from our first workshops and classes, was that I had not been thinking about management the right way. The first description of a manager that really stuck with me was given to me by a guy named Ryan Lafferty, the CFO of the start-up I worked in right out of college. Ryan was a consultant at Andersen or some such, and he knew his shit. He once told me that “a manager’s job is to remove obstacles.” At the time I was in a very operational unit (Production) and most of the issues I dealt with were simply small problems that needed a decision on, or fairly non-intensive personnel issues.

I slowly learned that a manager was also distinguished by a degree of responsibility. Being a manager means you’re responsible for things. You need to meet certain targets and you need other people to do all the work needed to realize those targets. Took me a long time, since I generally preferred to just do things myself, but I slowly developed the “a manager is a coach” philosophy, where the performance of the team was the critical success factor.

Now I am at the point where I believe that a true manager, the one that you would trust with a really big and important job, has a few other important dimensions that I had always associated as good traits, but now have a more concrete definition for. A manager requires judgment, because a manager is someone who is paid to make tough decisions, often under uncertainty, and often with heavy potential impacts. A good manager is also a leader, inspiring people and communicating a vision that people can feel comfortable following. And finally, I now also add to the list a strong sense of ethics. It is impossible to be a leader, to inspire people and gain their confidence, without being able to consistently demonstrate ethical behavior.

I’m sure I will continue to learn, and redefine these concepts, but the first few days when you start something, before you get sucked into the details, are like the impressionable first years of life. There is a brief window where a space is created for something new to be internalized, or for something to be altered or redefined in you.

Now, I certainly hope to also get a lot of exposure, experience, skills, and education also for my 38,000 Euros, but right now I am fairly happy to start here.

As this is my first night free for six days. The first night that I have not stayed up until 1am just trying to get through all the reading, never mind the homework, I am going to take my leave and sleep for about fifty-four hours.


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