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Archive for March, 2009

In middle school I used to blush violently when called on to answer a question, when losing my train of thought in a conversation, when I would spill something at lunch, when Austin of excessive hair product use would say hi to me in the hall.  Not that he ever did.  But I imagine I would blush if he had.  Basically, I blushed – and we’re talking obvious, noticeable, beet-red, somebody-crack-open-a-window kind of blushing – with or without reason.    

By 10th grade, I lost some weight, figured out how to tame the frizzy hair, got my first clothes from the Banana Republic.  By then, I even got me a boyfriend and started to get half-decent at tennis.  It didn’t get Austin to pay any more attention to me, but little by little I gained self-confidence and the blushing went away.

The going was good for some 14 years, until just this past year I decided to rediscover blushing.  Actually, it wasn’t so much a decision.  Blushing rediscovered me.  On multiple occasions I’ve found myself blushing uncontrollably in the oddest of situations.  After having asked a well-phrased legitimate question in class taught by my girl-crush prof; when updating club members on an initiative I’m leading; while talking about the most mundane things at dinner.   

Now, people at INSEAD have different ways of reconnecting with their childhoods.  These include drinking enough vodka to kill a bear, hooking up with their groupmate, showing midriff in class,wearing hot pants, costume parties, getting obsessed with a classmate to the point of stalking them.     

I also seem to be reconnecting with my inner tween but in a rather awkward, inconvenient way.  

Being ‘awkward’ was so in last year in the States.  Everything was awkward.  Getting to class late was called awkward.  Things that were ironic (bitchy chick getting ass handed to her on Finance exam) were mislabeled as awkward.  Embarrassing moments (not remembering how it is that you ended up naked at Tavers) were called awkward.  And actual awkward moments (saying/doing the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person) were called out and reveled in – as if calling a moment awkward brought great communal catharsis.  It’s like you actually wanted awkward moments to happen so that you could call them awkward – and when none happened you called all other occurrences awkward.  If I recall correctly, it was kind of fun.   

Thus, the emergence of the lastest Generation Next meme: The Awkward Turtle.  The Awkward Turtle is a gesture (see video) that’s performed when an awkward moment happens.  Rather than just saying ‘awkward’ in a sing-song voice, you (you being a college sophomore) put your hands together and move your thumbs to make the Awkward Turtle swim. 

Last year I met the 24-going-on-13-year-old who wrote the seminal article on the Awkward Turtle in his college paper.  The Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post then wrote articles on the phenomenon and quoted him.  You could say he’s a minor celebrity of this meme.    

But it turns out that this part of the world is not familiar with the Awkward Turtle.  That’s not to say that awkward moments don’t happen at a staggering rate – but no one calls awkward moments awkward.  It’s more likely that my classmates haven’t spent much time hanging out with 13yo kids.

Then again, INSEAD is like being back in middle school:  I’m always blushing, you’re always drunk, everything is awkward.  Maybe you better go practice doing the Awkward Turtle.

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I’m writing from the deep rabbit hole of electives selection.  It’s tricky trying to balance the time for an internship search, club activities, conference planning, independent study, a crapshoot of a social impact elective (whose quality depends entirely on a team I’ve never worked with and how good your McKinsey mentor is), and the seductive possibility of taking something like Mergers and Acquisitions just because the prof is supposed to be good.  Or maybe that’s in Singapore.  

A mistake I made in undergrad was being too focused on double majoring.  I took six classes a term, worked my ass off, and didn’t focus on making friends or taking advantage of an amazing city I lived in.  Luckily, I got a chance to make up for all of that in grad school and in the next 7 years I spent living in the said city.  And while it’s still impressive to tell someone that your school gave you not one but two shiny diplomas, I now regret not having taken more classes in media or economics or psychology.  All this working my ass off also didn’t go too well because when I stopped to breathe 10 years later, I realized that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing or where I was heading (or more precisely, not heading).    

Today, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do in the next 3 years, but not the vaguest sense of what’s to come in the next 20.  How is taking a class in Environmental management going to help me run a goat cheese farm in California when I’m 55?  How is a class in M&A going to matter to my career as a magazine editor when I’m 43?  

One class I know I have to take is Negotiations.  If nothing else, I should be able to win a few more arguments with the boyf.  It’s not that we have many arguments, but I’ve never won one in the 3 years we’ve known each other.  My style of arguing tends to be very emotional: “you [always/never] [do/say] [this/that/the other]”.  At which point he counters with “that’s not fair, do I [always/never] [do/say] [this/that/the other]?”  His main quibble is with my lack of verbal precision, so the argument devolves into something around word-choice.  The problem is that he’s about 10 times smarter than me, and much more articulate, but maybe I can score an occasional point by learning some Nego tricks.  

Right… this rambling post just went in a weird direction.  I think I was taking about electives. 

Having just one year at INSEAD makes selecting how I spend my time a very high-pressure exercise.  What if what I think I want to do right now turns out boring/unfulfilling to me in another 6 years?  What if the role/market I select ceases to exist due to the expiration of the Kyoto protocol/end of air travel/deregulation of industry X/end of civilization/the bird flu/global domination by Iran?  Should I capitalize on my newfound, newly validated touchy-feely abilities and take more classes on self-assessment, psychological issues, etc?  I hear they’ve sexed up HR – they call it talent management these days.  

[Elegant transition here]

In other news, I have my first on-campus interview with a consulting firm.  Yeah, I know.  I said I wouldn’t interview with consulting firms.  But at least they have a practice in something that is remotely interesting.  AND, I’m batting one /one, baby!  While you might think that track record is nothing but impressive (sarcasm), maybe I should apply to more jobs.  And maybe crack open a book to find out what a case interview is.

[Meaningful conclusion here]

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Welcome to the country club

The grades are out, and I can comfortably give up any false hopes of accidentally making the Dean’s List. And you, Chicken Little, can stop crying wolf about failing. I might be mixing metaphors.

After the finals, I had walked out with the false sense of having done well. So I kept my mouth shut while everyone griped about the exams. And I didn’t want to be like the chick (you know and i know – but she doesn’t know – that she acts that obnoxiously to make up for how insecure she is and should really stop acting like she’s cuter than she actually is), describing the finance exam as containing “4th grade math.”

I thought it was at least 6th grade. But now I know just how mistakenly smug I was.

I do, however, feel perfectly validated by my perfect score in LPG. To all of you with your perfect finance scores – feeling validated for having done well on an exam for a class you took during undergrad – to all of you going around saying the LPG grades are random, I say this: pah, you’re wrong!  As a recovering quant dork of questionable social skill, I consider this grade in Touchy-Feeley a feather in my cap.

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I’m starting to realize that the 75 hour sleep deficit I’m running for the month isn’t doing good things for my ability to control my moods.  I used to be a champion sleeper.  The company I worked for was pretty chill – showing up at 10:30 was perfectly fine, as long as you didn’t miss any meetings and were getting things done.  So I’d get to bed around 11:30, wake up by 9:45 and make my way over to the office.  I didn’t have too much responsibility either, so I didn’t stress out much.  This also got boring after a while, so I thought I’d inject some stress into my life.  

These days I don’t get to bed before 2, ever.  And when I do get to bed, I can’t sleep.  I’m running a to-do list in my head, I’m having an internal dialogue/argument with my favorite LO prof.  In the morning I wake up in a panic, thinking that I’ve overslept. 

I’m not a cheery, happy person by default…

you: really?!

me: yes, see the rest of the blog.  

[On that note, actually: one of my friends thinks that the blog is unnecessarily hard on INSEAD and Fontainebleau.  I’ve offered her the platform to write a counterpoint piece.  Stay tuned!]  

But happiness has a way of sneaking up on me.  I usually realize how happy I feel when I catch myself humming Faure chancons or bits of Carmen in Francais.  On Tuesday night, I was inexplicably on top of the world.  I was feeling that giddy high you get when you’re hiking at 13,000 ft and your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen.  I was feeling this way right after a conversation with a friend I’ll call Chicken Little.  You know who you are.  In contrast to his always-falling sky, I was amazed to realize how everything is going my way.  We got a check plus on our strategy assignment.  I’m getting lots done with one of the campus clubs.  I might be one of five people on campus who’s having a functional (no, amazing) long-distance relationship.  Then I woke up the next morning and felt completely drained.

And that has been how my entire week has gone.  One moment I’m absolutely thrilled by the creativity and energy of my classmates.  The next moment I wish the whole world would go away.  One moment I’m beaming after an exciting and inspiring conversation about social entrepreneurship by the Camembert (that’s the main reception area to the uninitiated), the next moment I want to kill the next smoker to thoughtlessly throws his cigarette butt on the grassy hill outside the bar.  One moment I’m dancing my ass off at a party in my sweet sweet 80s outfit (yes, I brought the leg warmers with me because I knew there would be an 80s party – just like I knew there would be a stoplight party.  Just as I know there will be a pimps and hos party, and maybe a beer pong tournament, and an Edward 40hands party.  You could say that business school is kinda predictable).  The next moment I’m looking to run home and seeking someone who wants a designated driver who learned to drive stick on YouTube.

But in all, P2 has had more highs than lows.  The seniors here tell you that when you select electives, you should take some classes just because they are taught by absolutely amazing faculty.  You might not care about the subject matter beforehand, but you will after.  While we don’t yet get to select classes, this is the case with our Finance II prof Pekka Hietala.  When Nikkos made his dry jokes in micro, he would turn to the class and make (what someone described to me as) his penguin face.  That was your cue to laugh, even if you didn’t get a joke.  Pekka seamlessly weaves his S&M jokes into explanations of future call and put options, or describes traders doing arbitrage at Evil Bank as picking up pennies from the floor of the exchange.    (Pekka is on the board of the Evli Bank in Finland, and at some point, some profile somewhere misprinted the bank name as Evil Bank.)  I look around and wonder how come the entire class is not in stitches. 

But you can’t have ups without the downs.  After Pekka’s class, I checked my e-mail and got a message from a close friend.  He had been laid off along with another 20 people at my former company.  That’s 1/6 of the staff, with more to follow.  This is a brilliant guy whose contribution to the company has been transformative, who’s been an inspiration to me as I seek to make a career change.  In this financial crisis, he has become overhead.  It sucks.

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This July ’08 alum has put down this blogger’s reins, but was kind enough to share his impressions of life 8 months post-INSEAD.  Enjoy!

::

What a difference 8 months makes!  I graduated from the INSEAD MBA program in July 2008, yet it feels like ages ago.  Monoprix, Champagne fines, National Week, the December Promotion, the July Promotion, they all seem like vaguely familiar relics of the past.

I am now firmly entrenched in the real world again, in a high pressure career, living in the U.S. amidst an economy that is rapidly deteriorating. But I can’t say that I feel any different. Life post-MBA is a series of contradictions. I live in a working-class neighbourhood, earn a 6 figure salary, spend a good chunk of my net income on INSEAD loan repayments, and I just came back from a week at Club Med.  I’m not exactly poor. But I don’t feel rich either. Even when I go to Barney’s and buy Hugo Boss suits, I remind myself that I’m merely dressing the part of the spiffy MBA, which for the record, no one cares about– The degree that is.  MBAs are a dime a dozen. Half the managers in my department already have MBAs, and the other half are using the free company tuition reimbursement to pursue one. Of course they will become alumni of online schools such as the University of Phoenix and no-name community colleges. But as my boss warned me in my first encounter with my company’s CEO, “Mr.__________ is embarrassed to have graduated from a third-tier school. Don’t mention that you went to INSEAD or Wharton!”  And so I immediately banished the three letters “M.B.A.” from my workplace e-mail signature file, and I constantly beat myself up for failing to have stopped my overzealous secretary from ordering the nameplate on my door with those jingoistic letters that cost me 50,000 Euros. I remind my staff to draft memos without writing “M.B.A.” as an honorific after my name.

From the vantage point of my general management position, the fact that I went to b-school in Fontainebleau is completely irrelevant on a day to day basis. I mean this both in the sense that prestige and school rankings cannot help me with the overdue and overbudget I.T. implementation project that is sitting on my desk. It goes without saying that I have not yet been asked to calculate a discounted cash-flow, value out-of-the-money stock options, or determine the net present value of anything.

But I don’t want you to think that I have any regrets about pursuing an M.B.A., or that I feel melancholy or unhappy. Quite the opposite!  I truly love my post-MBA job. It’s everything I could have ever wanted.  I manage a large staff and my work has an immediate impact. I attribute most of my self-confidence and comfort level for sitting in high-level meetings with my experience at INSEAD. I can’t say enough about the INSEAD alumni network. I continue to be amazed by the MBA grads I meet. They are all worldy, yet so down to earth. But nostalgia over one’s alma mater only goes so far.   Once you leave the bubble of b-school and re-enter the real world, it’s a tough job with tremendous responsibilities and pressures for what is initially a middle-class lifestyle.  After maxing out my 401K pension, paying my health insurance premiums, and making my monthly INSEAD loan repayment, I am essentially financially equal to where I was pre-M.B.A.

The economy is in a deep recession, but somehow I missed the ride up and the ride down. I work in a counter-cyclical stable industry and so the carnage on Wall Street might as well be the conflict in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Gaza. I come home after a long day at work and watch the news clips on CNN.  I don’t know if I should feel lucky that I still have a good job and that I feel completely insulated from this crises that is happening, but I must confess some lingering anger to both the investment bankers who caused this mess, and towards the irresponsible American consumers who bit off more than they could chew. Given that 50% of my gross salary vanishes from each paycheck in income taxes, insurance premiums, and pension contributions, I am fairly confident that I am bailing out a whole lot of banks, insurance companies, and homeowners. Not that my fiscal prudence is rewarded—I am certain that under President Obama my net income will invariably shrink to 40% of my gross pay, to subsidize the lifestyle and California McMansions of single mothers with 14 children.  At this rate I will not be able to afford my own home or have children until age 40, in time for my INSEAD 10 year reunion.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, some vague Dickensian in-between state—neither the best nor the worst of times– Well, at least for those of us who don’t work in Finance. When I go to INSEAD alumni events, I run into the Wall Street victims… shell shocked optimists who ramble about starting their own investment funds, making a radical career change, or going into Green energy.  Envy? Pity? How should I feel towards them?

True story—A few weeks ago I was walking in midtown Manhattan at 9:30 PM on a weeknight, tipsy from 4 beers. Of all the nicotine-addicted people to waltz out of their office for a smoke at the hour, comes the McKinsey & Company partner who interviewed me last spring in my futile attempt to become a consultant.  We exchanged pleasantries. He seemed very stressed out from his late night at the office and suggested that I was very lucky to have not gone into consulting. I nevertheless reverted to ass-kissing/networking mode and made the requisite inquiry about his children and a gratuitous comment about his fortune to have a front-row seat to the financial crises among his clients.

I went home and thought about the tension-filled relationship between INSEAD MBA participants and the Career Service Office staff. Each year they must deal with another MBA promotion filled with ambitious, self-absorbed students who have paid 50,000 Euros (which is more than many of the Career Services staff earn) and expect that an MBA will perform career magic for them. Wouldn’t you?

Warren Buffett recently pointed his finger for much of the current financial crisis on quants—the “nerdy-sounding priesthood” who used “esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like” to convince a lot of over-educated investment bankers to make some very stupid mistakes. If I’ve learned anything since I left INSEAD, perhaps it’s the fact that there are no shortcuts. The climb up the corporate ladder only gets tougher on the upper rungs. Hard work and more hard work. And so I leave you with another quote from Warren Buffett recent letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders: “Beware of geeks bearing formulas.”

Million Dollar Spatula

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Dear P2 Professors, 

We, the class of December 2009, have been here at INSEAD for MONTHS.  We’re quite set in our ways.  We’ve grown soft with all the touchy-feeliness of P1.  We got used to the humor of Nikkos, the classroom drama of GP, the molly-coddling from Michelle Lowry, the motherly qualities of Michelle Hibon, and the continuous talk of sex and alcohol of Theos.   

We like to ramble during class, debate fine points of organizational behaviour, and challenge each other’s thinking.  We like taking an hour to really parse the whys behind the case.  We want to understand things for ourselves rather than have you tell us what to think.

We don’t like to raise our hands, or be forced to contribute during class discussion.  People who have things they want to say will say them.   

We know that we only have 6 weeks and that there’s a ton of material to cover in class, but telling someone that ‘this isn’t the time to ask questions’ can be quite discouraging to class discussion.  Our egos are brittle.  Let us down easily.   

Let us debate points among ourselves instead of debating them one-on-one professor-v-student.  We must learn to defend our points with each other rather than being told we’re wrong.   

Listen to us.  When we say one thing, don’t put the complete opposite thing on the board because that’s what you were thinking in the first place.  We come from interesting places, we have interesting stories to tell – it’s possible that you can also learn from us.  We know you’re not listening when you disagree one moment and then echo our thoughts 5 minutes later.

Respect our intelligence.  We don’t need to be asked direct questions about the case or have the case structured for us immediately.  If you put up a slide, don’t handwave around it when someone asks a legitimate question.  Admit when you don’t know something – it’s obvious anyways.  Don’t ask us to accept things as gospel because we like to think and question and understand.  That’s how we learn.

I hope you don’t take this the wrong way.  We are excited about the case readings.  We respect you by coming prepared for class.  We know that we have a lot to learn.   

Kind regards,

MBA/MRS December 2009
PS.  Papa, I’ll do my taxes this weekend, okay?

PPS.  My dear Tiger, I hope the spelling and comma placements are now to your liking.  XO

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P1 ended with exams that (with the exception of Accounting) certainly did not insult anyone’s intelligence, and probably did a fine job of separating the men from the boys.  While everyone pretended not to care how they did, most people stuck around afterwards discussing the exam questions.  I had a dream about one of the finance questions some 2 days later – I think I had to do that question in an interview.  WTF?

Post exam, it was curious to see the nationalities all grouping together, and debating Question 3 of finance in Italian, Greek, Arabic, etc.  Immediately after UDJ, everyone got properly drunk at the bar, and eventually headed off to get more drunk and very sunburnt in Chamonix.  

Being antisocial, I did my own thing and got yelled at by some INSEAD alumni friends of the boy who said that we both should have gone on the Chamonix trip.  

Now I’m officially a P2.  I so didn’t want to be back on campus today.  I wanted to be somewhere in a real city, with real shops, and real restaurants, and real chamber music.  Where you can walk 8 miles in a single day, feel exhausted and barely cover a part of the city.  Where they have kebabs and curries that are to die for.  Where jeans still cost an arm and a leg despite the recession.  Okay, that last part I’m not so keen on.  And then at the end of the day, instead of leafing through your 6 binders of course readings and wondering how you’re going to read 4 cases and still be up by 7AM, you can watch episodes of Lost and 30 Rock, or read a novel about that really cool city you’re visiting.  Yeah, a novel.  With fictional characters that you can relate to.  And a plot.  Remember those?

But after the first session of Strategy, things started looking up.  P2 is going to be far more interesting than P1, if the first case of Process Operations Management (deliciously abbreviated to POM) is any indication.  P2 is also when the on-campus recruiting starts out in earnest.  I’m really torn about whether or not to put on a monkey suit and go make nice with the consulting firms.  

On one hand, consulting would be a great way to pay off those loans early.  On the other hand, I might be too precious to work 90 hour weeks.  Consulting is the easy answer to the question of what to do with yourself.  This is of course my being presumptuous that these jobs are mine for the taking.      

During my extensive soul-searching (read: unemployment) prior to INSEAD, I thought a lot about what motivates me.  One of those things is ownership.  I’m very possessive.  I need to be responsible for whatever I’m doing.  Owning “strategy recommendations” or a pretty PowerPoint deck at the end of a project just doesn’t seem right.  

But I suppose taking hors d’oeuvres from McKinsey can’t hurt.

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