Foundation Week 2017

In some respects, it is hard to believe that we are already a week into our MBA programme. Thinking back over the past year there have been so many experiences that felt like finish lines by themselves. Passing the GMAT, getting accepted into Smurfit Business School, wrapping up your life and work to prepare for the task ahead; every point felt like a victory.  It is only now, standing at the end of Foundation Week, that we can look back and clearly see these accomplishments weren’t finish lines but qualifications to enter the race. On your marks, get set, go!

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The real starting line came at the threshold of the grand entrance to the main hall at Smurfit. On Monday morning, one by one, eager faces presented themselves at the door and joined the growing crowd around the banks of gently flowing coffee. Everyone was happy. Everyone was aware that the people in this room would become significant in each other’s lives. When our crowd was complete, we made our way to the lecture hall to get started. We were introduced to the faces of the many helpful names we’ve been interacting with via e-mail for the past several weeks. After warm greetings from the cadre of administrators, Damien McLoughlin took over.

Damien’s presence in the room is felt by everyone. By impressions, it seems that he might have had a bit more coffee than the rest of us.  He can smell the fear in the room. All of us are a bit anxious about our very first case study class. He peppers questions around the classroom while making soft jabs. He likes some manner of sports that I, as an American, didn’t recognise; it could’ve been soccer or hurling or… who could say.  He kept turning the screw by highlighting that “his team” had beat someone else’s team in an epic victory the night before. In between the jokes and jabs are very real questions about the task at hand. I can tell you, I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one who didn’t read the case study.

After an hour and a half with Damien, we could breathe again.  We had made it through the case study and no one had died. The afternoon of the first day was much like the morning.  We spread our attention across a range of topics from Finance to the Library. We were introduced to Professor Niamh Brennan for a primer course on report writing.  I’ll talk more about her later.  I slept very well on Monday night.

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For the second day of the MBA the Executive MBAs and Full Time MBAs split up.  Foundation Week is not only about getting a peek into the programme but also it is a very small window of opportunity to quickly galvanize our team.  It turns out that if you want to accelerate team development for a group of people who are all, individually, capable of being leaders, you have to blindfold them and then tell them to hurry up. In fact, blindfolds, giant spider webs, oversized jigsaw puzzles, inner tubes, and giant Rube Goldberg contraptions were all part of the craziness of day two. Without giving too much away I will tell you that the leadership development team did a masterful job at making 30 strangers quickly feel like good friends.

The third day of the MBA was a wake-up call for me.  The voice on the other end of the phone said “Good morning, remember how you said you wanted a world-class education?  Go get it!”  After some housekeeping presentations first thing in the morning we were back in the ring with Professor Niamh. Being in Niamh’s classroom (she does prefer to operate on a first-name basis) is a bit hard to describe. If you’ve ever thought that your educational aspirations are akin to growing a garden or perhaps a sprouting tree, you might be too delicate for her class. She is an intellectual fire-hose and you had better damn well be on fire if you are going to excel in her class. Day three is a veritable blitzkrieg of Financial Reporting. The MBA cohort consists of people from every professional background, financial and otherwise. As we rounded the fourth or fifth straight hour of Financial Reporting, you could pretty clearly guess who had the chops and who didn’t based upon the looks on their faces. Personally, I looked like an Edvard Munch painting.

Let it not be said that “Graduate school isn’t all fun and games” because that is precisely what the fourth day of Foundation Week was.  Games are a great way to learn, especially for the losers. I will go ahead and tell you that I learned a lot on day four. What was the game? It was a simulation game that brought the use of financial papers into focus. A team of game-makers (a-la Hunger Games) from Germany brought their talent to the Talbot hotel, the off-site location for the day.  In a re-mixed group of Executive MBA and Full Time MBA students, we were asked to build a company.  Each member on the team became a department head of a widget factory. Sales, Process, Procurement, and Finance, the teams competed against one another to try and flip a profit. Before lunch each team felt the stinging slap of the invisible hand as too much competition drove prices to the ground. After lunch, and after a great lesson on pricing strategy and competition, each team re-entered the market and tried to claw their way back from red to green. Most teams made it. Mine did not.

As I bring this post to a close I confess to you, dear reader, that there aren’t 1000 words in any language that could’ve done justice to describing the experience of Foundation Week at Smurfit Business School. But, I would like to offer a two-word description of the final day of Foundation Week as a gold-letter promise that the MBA programme is going to be everything we have hoped for: professional development. On Friday we discussed how to be better listeners, how to understand people better and, most importantly, how to be better communicators. We began the process of being better public speakers. The lessons on Friday made me realise that when this race is over, and I cross the finish line on graduation day, I won’t have merely learned – I will have evolved.

Thomas Strimbu, MBA 2017-2018

Reflections on the MBA Journey and the Road Ahead

Humanity
Random acts of kindness. The greatest lesson from the MBA – our humanity.

 

“Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards” Kierkegaard

 Forecasting is a doomed art! Those who try to predict the future invariably fail miserably. What I can forecast though is I will have mixed emotions of happiness but also sadness when this journey finishes. And boy has it been a journey! I decided to undertake the MBA because of a love of learning, for self-improvement and as a challenge: it was my treat to myself after a decade labouring as a consultant in the HSE. I also wanted to try to improve healthcare for all people within the HSE and I believed the MBA would give me skills to help achieve that goal. So was it the right decision?

It soon became apparent to me there are two tracks on the EMBA –those with and without children and partners. Where the course is a challenge for all of us, the real casualties of the MBA are the children and partners who suffer long absences, deadlines, cramming sessions for exams and late night skype calls. In the middle of my third semester my son said: “Dad, I don’t like the MBA, it means we don’t talk as much before I go to bed”. A stake through my heart! In fact my greatest stress throughout the course was, as we neared the end of the first lecture, would it end in time for me to talk to my son before he went to sleep.

It has been one of the most enjoyable learning experiences in my life. Academically highly educational with some truly inspirational teachers, a rich social interaction, life-long bonds made with team members forged through collective suffering, and most surprisingly of all, self-discovery. The Myer Briggs and 360 assessments really made me understand my motivations, passions and most of all my limitations. I also became aware that how I perceive and hear myself is very different to how others see and hear me. I gained wisdom through this course managing to avoid grade fixation and focussing on the journey itself; I feasted on the marrow of the MBA and mined the minds of the lecturers and classmates all washed down with at times contentious, but always good-spirited debate. The MBA was always about the journey to me, not the final arbitrary tabulation of effort.

So what of the future? We are clearly living in interesting and disruptive times. Moore’s law tells us computing power doubles every 18 months and we are at the dawn of AI displacing many millions of jobs as evidenced by the Fukoki-company outsourcing to IBM Watson Explorer recently. Other disruptive innovations including Crispr Cas 9 genome editing, 3D printing, driverless cars, internet of things, solar panel covered streets to power lights and cities, will all revolutionise our lives. We will live longer more affluent lives but will this necessarily translate to better quality lives? “Machinery which gives us abundance has left us in want, knowledge has made us cynical and cleverness hard and unkind, we think too much and feel too little, more than machinery we need humanity, more than cleverness we need kindness” (Charles Chaplin).

Equally compelling is the lurch to the political right, religious wars, economic stagnation with endless QE, lack of political leadership and the potential for further banking collapses with bail ins. But I have great hope for the future despite all these tumultuous events. That hope arises partly from my MBA experience because of the people I met. Simple acts of kindness: a mass card for a bereaved family member, baby hampers for a bouncing new arrival, organising a medical appointment for a child, and help for a classmate struggling with an assignment. An encouraging word, a kind smile, a nod that all will be okay.

This journey has made me wiser, walk softer and try to be kinder. Because the MBA isn’t about grades, it isn’t about degrees, it isn’t about money. It’s about people, the struggle you endure with them, learning from them and most importantly the friendship you give and graciously receive from them. I thank my classmates and lecturers for the wonderful two-year conversation we have enjoyed. Most of all I thank my family for tolerating this journey and carrying me along the way.

Maybe our journey isn’t ending, maybe it’s just beginning…

Colin McMahon ~ Executive MBA, Year 2