Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Summer Retrospective Part I: The Summer Team

As promised, the following is the first in a series of posts about my first LGO summer. Before going any further, I want to point out that a few of my classmates -- Annie, Limor, and Paul -- have already done a nice job summarizing their summers, so please check those out before reading on.

This first look back on my summer will focus on the summer team experience. At MIT, as in many MBA programs, group work is not only encouraged but is often required. To avoid those uncomfortable moments that accompany student-selected groups (you know, when the people sitting around you all buddy-up with the classmates on their other side, leaving you in a group by yourself -- does this happen to anyone else?), MIT assigns the teams for us. As I mentioned in my previous post, the team assignments are made in such a way as to maximize diversity, the theory being that we will learn more from our classmates as a result. However, in "diversifying" these teams, the school has available a limited amount of information about us (from our application materials, I assume), meaning that a team could consist of six people from different countries (something they would know from our applications) who are all allergic to peanuts (something probably not on an application, though I guess it could have been brought up in the Sloan cover letter: "My experience with peanut allergies has made me an ideal candidate for your school..."). More realistically, there could be unforeseen personality clashes among the group members. This has the potential to result in tension among group members, which could obviously adversely affect a student's experience in the program. These things are inevitable, and they happen every year. On that note, let me talk more specifically about my team.

Before meeting my new LGO teammates, I was a bit nervous about my future group experience for a few reasons:
  1. I tend to be quiet in group settings. This is exacerbated when I am in a group with at least one dominant (loud, bossy, overbearing, opinionated) member or when uncomfortable (due to unfriendly, disrespectful, tactless people).
  2. I am extremely non-confrontational, so tensions within my group, especially when they are at the surface, would be a nightmare.
  3. I am afraid of looking or sounding stupid (however, this was unavoidable, since I was starting a program in which most of the material would be completely new to me)
With these fears in mind, I was assigned to Team 8, a name that we nerdily changed to Team Infinity (as in an '8' on its side -- get it?). We were certainly a diverse group -- of the six members, there were five guys, two international students, five engineers (I was the sole non-engineer), one sponsored student, one married student (me), one person born during the Carter administration (me -- by 15 days), and, fortunately, six likable, polite, understanding, motivated people. Thanks to these characteristics, we got along extremely well (maybe we were all hiding our true feelings inside), and, likely as a result, performed quite well on our assignments. Interestingly, one of the things that initially seemed like it could be a hindrance to our team's success -- the fact that we had two non-native English speakers -- turned out to be one of the things that brought us closer together. For instance, we all learned the material better by helping interpret some of the difficult English terms for our international teammates, and we bonded and laughed over all of our cultural idiosyncrasies and misunderstood phrases. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as I hope it was for the rest of my team. We have had it repeated to us innumerable times already, and I am beginning to think there's some truth to the business school promise that we will learn at least as much from our classmates as we will from our professors.

Next time: I will write about the classes and teaching methods we were exposed to over the summer.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Just a face in the crowd

Since I have already failed to keep my promise of two posts per month, I will try to make up for it with a bunch of posts over the next couple of days. I'll start with a post about recent events and follow that up with a few that summarize my experiences over the summer. So, here we go...

Today, we finished up a four-day MIT Sloan orientation, during which we met the non-LGO portion of the MBA class of 2012. It was a bit reminiscent of moving up from kindergarten to first grade in that we were separated from most our LGO (kindergarten) class and dispersed among a new and unfamiliar group of people (first grade). As we did back then, we stuck close to those we knew and carefully examined those we didn't to make sure they were all right but all the while sought comfort in those familiar faces around the classroom, at lunch time, and on the ride home from school. Going into the week, I was excited to meet the rest of the class, but also very curious about how the LGO students would (or wouldn't) fit in among the larger group.

Before going into detail about this week's events, I want to quickly summarize what happens to us this fall. Sloan divides first-year students into six "oceans" or cohorts (I am in Ocean A, also known as "Atlantic," which, as a lifelong East Coaster, makes me feel right at home). The 48 LGO students are evenly distributed among the oceans; our ocean assignment is based partly on avoiding conflicts with our Fall semester engineering courses. We end up taking all of the core MBA courses with our ocean.

Within the ocean, we are divided into teams of 6-7 people, which are intentionally made to be as diverse as possible. For instance, my team has two international students, one American minority student, backgrounds ranging from finance, to consulting, to real estate investment, to engineering, four of us are married, two are female, get the point. As part of ensuring diversity within each group, no two LGO students are on the same team.

The agenda this week was quite scattered. We spent time getting to know our new teammates, particularly on Tuesday when we went to a place called the Warren Center and engaged in a day of team-building activities. We were introduced (or re-introduced, in the case of the LGOs) to the Case Method of teaching. (This was a burdensome introduction, as it required reading 60+ pages of dense material in preparation for the discussion). The reward of the case discussions was a pair of plenary sessions in which we got to ask questions directly to the case protagonists. It was absolutely incredible to see the cases come to life during these sessions and really made me appreciate being at a school that could provide these experiences. More details on this in a bit...

We spent a lot of time talking to our new Ocean-mates and classmates in forced (through games) and unforced ways. (I am getting good at small talk, though I'd still rather scratch my eyes out of my head than do it.) We also got exposed to the type of help we'll be getting from the Career Development Office during our time at MIT Sloan through a presentation and with a session devoted to teaching us how to better tell "our story."

Two short lists follow, summarizing my thoughts at the end of the week.

Orientation Week highlights:
  1. Plenary sessions with case protagonists. The first was with Victor Reinoso (MBA '97) and Michelle Rhee, Deputy Mayor of Education and School Chancellor, respectively, in Washington, D.C. They were extremely impressive speakers, and their dedication to implementing unpopular but necessary changes in the D.C. school amazed me. The second session was with the ex-CEO of Veridian Corp., a former defense company. He spoke about running a company in which a values-driven mission was given priority over financial metrics.
  2. Getting to know my new team. So far, so good. My team seems like a great group with lots of different experiences from which we can draw during our work together this semester. Most importantly (to me, that is), there aren't any overly strong or confrontational personalities in the group, something I feared encountering in the MBA crowd.
  3. The general Class of 2012 personality. I had made all sorts of assumptions about typical MBA students. Aggressive, obnoxious, demanding, arrogant, ostentatious -- just a few words that came to mind. Apparently, I was wrong, at least within the class of 2012. I was happily surprised with the modesty, sincerity, honesty, and self-deprecation I observed among of the vast majority of the students I met.
List of Uncertainties going forward:
  1. How the LGOs will fit in among the Sloan population. There seemed to be a mixture of approaches taken by the LGO students this week. A few threw themselves into the Orientation experience as if they were new students themselves. A larger number (myself included) gently and cautiously stepped into the experience, attending all sessions, trying to meet new people, but also seeking out fellow LGOs for company during awkward mingling sessions. There were also quite a few LGOs who put minimal effort into meeting others and skipped many of the orientation sessions. As relaxing as it would've been to be in this last group, I want to really take advantage of the limited time I have here in school, and that means meeting as many people as I can, learning from them about different industries, functions, cultures, geographic regions, etc. I will gladly subject myself to as many awkward conversations as it takes to get out of this experience everything I want to get out of it.
  2. What the Sloan population expects of us. Over the summer, I felt I learned a great deal about working in a team of peers. With a new team this fall, I would like to use my summer experience to help navigate some of the difficulties we will inevitably face. However, I want to avoid coming across as the know-it-all LGO guy. I also realize that allowing the team to figure things out for itself could have more long-term benefits for each of the team members. Some of my LGO classmates have expressed similar concerns about their roles in their new teams. I am quite curious to see how things play out.
  3. My comfort level in the Sloan classroom. Despite getting experience with the case method this summer, I was back to being my mute self in the two discussions this week. It turns out that the MBA class is filled with eloquent, knowledgeable speakers who thrive on extemporaneously voicing their opinions in front of complete strangers. This intimidates me. I hope that as I get to know more of my classmates, I will also get more comfortable speaking/mumbling in front of them.
That's enough for now. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on my first LGO summer.