10 takeaways from my first semester in the W.P. Carey ASU MBA program
“You’re going to be busy,” an executive told me after learning I had been accepted to the MBA program at the W.P. Carey School of Business. “But it’s a good busy.”
I didn’t realize how right he was.
Much like my first Ironman triathlon, my first semester of grad school somehow managed to break me down, beat me up and challenge me to the core, while invigorating and strengthening me at the same time.
I slaved over homework, group projects, papers and presentations all weekend, every weekend, and stayed up past midnight most weeknights. I developed a recurring eye twitch in the weeks leading up to exams, and replaced a rigorous exercise routine with copious amounts of coffee.
Constructive disruption. Enlightening masochism. Creative conflict. “A good busy.” Call it what you will.
But as I mentioned in my 2014 Awesome Bucket results, I can already tell the decision to pursue my MBA is one of the best moves I’ve ever made – and I’m only a quarter of the way through.
Intense courses in Organizational Behavior and Theory, Statistics, Accounting and Leadership not only taught important business concepts, they taught important life concepts.
I learned as much about myself during this first stage as I did about any of those aforementioned topics. Pursuing an MBA (with skill, dedication and enthusiasm) doesn’t just make you a better worker or manager, it makes you a better person.
For example, the final assignment in one of the classes required me to create my own leadership guidebook, in which I explored, connected and organized my personal values, motivators, dreams and past experiences as they pertained to my leadership ability (and the kind of leader I’d like to be).
As a compulsive, introspective, self-deprecating, over-analyzing goal-hoarder, you can imagine how much time and thought I put into this exercise – probably way too much. At the same time, you get what you put in and this exercise added a lot of clarity and direction to my career and leadership path.
Here are two quick excerpts from my leadership guidebook:
How do you define success? An exciting lifestyle designed for learning, accomplishment, creativity and service.
Leadership statement of purpose: To inspire others. Through creative, adaptive and authentic leadership, I serve to make the world better and more beautiful. I commit to continuous learning, and work to be a thoughtful friend, active listener and clear communicator.
One of my biggest misconceptions entering the program was that the MBA wouldn’t start paying dividends until after it was obtained and added to my resume.
I was surprised to see concepts, connections and real-life applications from class arise almost immediately. For example, at work I was recently picked to join an exciting strategy-focused team. One of our first tasks was to to watch Simon Sinek’s excellent TED Talk, How great leaders inspire action. Coincidentally, I had watched and analyzed the same video a few weeks earlier as part of a class assignment. It was great to be able to apply many of the concepts and lessons from class to the workplace, with a clear connection and relevance.
“OK, dude – I get it,” you’re probably thinking. “You had a good first semester, and we should all get our MBAs.” Yeah – definitely.
As much as I learned in the first semester, I also see many areas for improvement.
To make the intense commitment and arduous process worthwhile – and to make sure you keep improving and learning from the experience – you can’t just go through the motions. Here are some of the top lessons I learned from the first semester. If you’re in school, I hope they help you get as much benefit from your classes as I did from mine. And if you’re not in school, many of these concepts can scale to other aspects of your career and life.
10 tips and takeaways from my first semester in the W.P. Carey School of Business
- Focus on people first. Put the good of your customers, colleagues, classmates, employees, friends and family before your own. See their perspectives, understand their motivations, go out of your way to help them and everything else will fall into place.
- Diversify your network. One of the best parts about going back to school is meeting and working with people from different backgrounds and industries. Make friends, join as many different teams as possible and extrapolate this diversity to your circles at work and in your personal life. Surround yourself with motivated, caring, positive people who will support you, argue with you, challenge you, improve your weaknesses and give you honest feedback.
- Make the team better. Every team and group project is different, and you need to be able to adjust to the different roles and demands of each assignment. Sometimes you need to take control and make things happen. Other times you need to step back and let the chips fall where they may. To improve in this area, simply and consciously focus on making the team (or situation) better. Set clear expectations, be nice, assume that everyone else on the team wants to do a good job too, and never show signs of frustration. Here’s an excerpt from my Leadership Guidebook that elaborates on one of my biggest challenges in this arena:
My self-discipline and drive for accomplishment can sometimes serve as a double-edged sword and obscure my emotional intelligence in the process. In essence, I get so focused on the task that I lose sight of the intrinsic needs and motivators of my colleagues and teammates. Reflecting further, I envision my value of service playing an important role in combating this conflict. For example, if I focused as much on providing value to my teammates as I do on providing value to customers and digital audiences, I think I would make major strides.
- Ask questions like an annoying reporter. Some courses factor your contributions to classroom discussions as part of your grade. While this incentive creates a somewhat competitive environment, it also offers a lively opportunity to engage with the concepts, elevate the discussion and show your ability to think critically and creatively explore unique perspectives. Develop an intense interest for the topics by connecting them to aspects of your own life, look for holes in the discussion and ask lots of probing questions. Go ahead, be that guy – just make sure your incessant hand-raising is geared toward benefiting the class (and not just your grade).
- Simplify presentations. Rambling, scattered, text-heavy, self-serving presentations are a recurring theme in business school and Corporate America. And as much as I talk about avoiding the snoozefest PowerPoint presentation, in one class, I fell victim to the trap myself, packing too many concepts into my slides and diluting the overall resonance of the key points. To avoid this, here are some of my key values for an effective presentation: keep text to a minimum, focus specifically on a few main points, think about what the audience wants to hear, use humor, metaphors and anecdotes to tell an entertaining story, and obsessively practice your delivery.
- Practice with pen on paper. It takes more than just reading and note-taking for me to succeed in classes like Statistics and Accounting. In these courses, the real learning and retention is derived from practice problems, concept-application exercises and hours of pen-on-paper repetition.
- Take meticulous notes. Dissect every class reading assignment with a critical eye and an active imagination. It’s a good sign if your books are littered with notes, underscores, arrows and asterisks. Taking organized notes not only helps process the information, but it also can make it easier to contribute to the class discussions. For example, I tried to put together a bulleted list of key points and questions from the readings for every class.
- Don’t complain or get frustrated. This is practically impossible to observe 100 percent of the time, but it’s something I’ve noticed that sets effective leaders apart from the rest. Nobody wants to hear you complain, and showing frustration only makes whatever problem you’re dealing with that much worse. Instead, stay upbeat, resist the instinctual urge to get upset over adversity, and focus on solving the problem and making the situation better. Much easier said than done, but a worthwhile effort nonetheless.
- Crack a joke, tell a story. Creativity is one of the main differentiators I’ve noticed in projects and presentations both in the classroom and at work. It’s all too common, and very easy, to take a literal and direct approach to assignments. The ones that stand out take the time to explore the creative process and accomplish the goal with a fun and often surprising style. Specifically, humor and storytelling work wonders in engaging audiences, professors and graders alike.
- Give the full measure. Some people get good grades and ace exams with no sweat. Unfortunately, I’m not so gifted. I realized early on (even in the application process) that if I wanted to get A’s I would need to work extremely hard for them – especially considering my journalism and communications background (and lack of formal business training) put me a few steps behind many of my classmates. When I committed to pursuing my MBA, I also committed to giving the full measure and squeezing the most benefit out of this experience as possible – anything less would be a waste of time and money.