Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cultivating a Personal Brand

I recently received the latest issue of Fortune magazine, the "50 Most Powerful Women" issue, and saw Oprah Winfrey's face smack dab on the cover.  I don't know what you all think of Oprah, but I find her to be obnoxious.  I can't stand how this self-aggrandizing diva has taken over daytime TV, thrust Dr. Phil upon American society, and courted a zombie clan of book club members who fawn over every title she recommends.  Ugh.

As I was about to disgustingly chuck this issue into the trash, I noticed an interesting quote floating in Oprah's hair, "Now I accept that I'm a brand."  Being in business school and taking a marketing course now in Term 2 at Darden, I became interested and flipped in to read the article.

Recently, I saw a talk as part of the Darden Leadership Speaker Series by Susan Sobbott, Darden class of 1990 and president of American Express OPEN, titled "Cultivating Your Personal Brand".  It was an excellent speech, and you can watch it on YouTube.  As a leader in one of the most prestigious corporate service brands in the world, Susan clearly knows a thing or two about marketing.  I didn't need to come to business school to learn that Coca-Cola, IBM, and Microsoft are the three most powerful brands in the world, but before Darden I had never considered the brand "Jonathan Harris".  Susan, along with the rest of my Darden experience thus far, has made me think about it deeply.

Susan defined a personal brand as, "What you're known for."  The brand is, "what people are saying about you to someone who has not met you.  It precedes you."  She illustrated this by flashing a picture of "The Situation" from the show "Jersey Shore"; like him or not (and I'm deep in the "not" category), when you see his picture thoughts and feelings flash into your mind.  This is a personal brand, and you don't need to be famous to have one -- just ask your friends.
"Brand 56"
Still don't think personal brand is important?  Consider this guy, one of my first-year colleagues.  Flash back to Orientation.  At the beginning of his presentation, our opening guest speaker projected this picture.  Who is this guy?  The auditorium stirred.  The public humiliation continued as the speaker then proceeded to analyze what this guy might be projecting with his football jersey, his hands, and his facial expression.  The speaker has permanently linked the student in our heads with a drug-abusing Giants player from the 1980s.  I hope this guy someday launches a company someday called "Brand 56"; imagine the irony.  The speaker's lesson was clear: beware what you place on Facebook!    [and your personal blog...]

How do you get a personal brand?  According to Susan, first you create one.  You ask, "Who do I want to be?"  You get deep inside and find what motivates you.  I had a friend recently forward me an excellent video by "peak performance strategist" Tony Robbins, who asks the question, "Why do we do what we do?"  This self-assessment is absolutely critical.  If you don't know yourself, you won't place yourself into situations in which you will do your best and be happiest.  I will admit to being as guilty as most of you of not assessing myself enough during the first 28 years of my life.  But being a career changer in business school, figuring out what makes me tick is essential to placing my future on the right course.

Your next step is to make this brand go to work for you.  You think about how this brand comes through in all your actions.  You stay consistent.  "The Situation" will make $5 million this year on the basis of his persona alone, including an awful performance on "Dancing with the Stars".  He's always the same person, even if that person might be arrogrant and nauseating.
Always in character, with the red shirt unbuttoned.
The third step in creating your brand, according to Susan, is authenticity.  You work with what you've got.  You need to be believable for your brand to resonate.  Susan listed a couple steps to make sure you get this resonance.  First, you take an honest and objective inventory of your strengths and weaknesses.  Next, you believe in who you are.  You apply no judgment to your package, you're not self-critical, you accept your set of assets and you run with them.  Finally you must be true to and be proud of who you are.  Be realistic; don't put yourself in situations you won't enjoy.  Fit in the way you fit, and create an environment in which you will truly flourish.

Perhaps no one defines personal brand like Oprah.  She doesn't even need a last name.  She has her own magazine, and she gets called out awkwardly at awards shows.  Well, gear up, because you're getting even more of her once she wraps up her syndicated show after this year.  From the self-referential universe of Oprah comes OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.  With $189 million in funding from Discovery Channel, prepare yourself for instant blockbusters such as "Oprah's Next Chapter" and "Behind the Scenes: Oprah's 25th Season" (which opens featuring Oprah in her bathtub).  But give this prima donna credit.  Oprah is making this all happen without a cent of her own money -- all she contributes is her time and her brand.  Imagine if your brand was worth this much!   But even Oprah experiences psychological hang-ups. In the Fortune article, Oprah asks, "If I'm a businesswoman and a brand, where is my authentic self?"  Exactly the question we all should be asking ourselves.

What's my personal brand, you may ask?  I'm still working on it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

International Food Festival Pictorial

On Saturday evening, Darden hosted its annual International Food Festival in beautiful Flagler Court. The festival reminds us how wonderfully diverse and talented our community is. Whoever invented this idea was a true genius.  After all, who doesn't love eating food?

Following a couple hours of stuffing ourselves full of the cuisine from over 30 countries (plus several "special" U.S. states), several students performed for the community. At the end I was amazed that Darden had admitted me despite my complete lack of cooking, singing, dancing, or music-playing talents.

Here's a pictorial I captured of the event. To those considering applying to Darden, let me say, "If you lived here, you would be home right now!"

Team Mexico – many types of tacos!

The Hawaii table – "Island Party".  My roommate Aaron (on right) brought home the pulled pork leftovers :)

Gumbo and jumbalaya at the Louisiana station – "TJ's Best Purchase"

Team Colombia

Peruvian table.  Great sweet rice pudding!!

One of my learning team members worked the Caribbean table, serving tasty jerk chicken.

Team Texas.  Of course, they think they are a country.  And of course, everything is bigger there.  They served my first-ever (and second) deep-fried Oreo.  Verdict: Awesome!

True to the "everything is bigger..." motto, I think Texas had the biggest serving area of all (even bigger than China)

My classmate Allen represents Texas in his cowboy get-up.  Ideally he would start wearing this to class.

Team China.  Perhaps the most popular station at the festival, they sadly were mostly out of food when I arrived.

As consolation for the lack of food, however, the table did teach me how to write my name in Chinese!

Scandinavian table.  The sunglasses were completely unnecessary. (Isn't it completely dark there in winter?)

My other roommate, Ronald, shows off his salsa dancing skills with "Latina for a day" Stephanie from Hawaii.  After this performance, I'm sure Ronald will have no trouble attracting the ladies!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

First Two Months, A Recap

The first two months at Darden have been full of new and exciting adventures.  I'm surrounded daily by smart, fun, talented people.  I'm glad I'm here.  I won't be able to catch you all up on everything that I've seen and experienced, but let me hit the highlights.

Wine tasting at Kluge Family vineyard
I moved to Charlottesville on July 27th after a week at my mom's house following my around-the-world trip.  It was a good decision to move here early because you get the chance to settle in which you don't have time for once school starts.  Additionally, by not getting here early you would be missing all the great pre-Darden parties happening in Charlottesville!  You want to meet as many people as you can in this time because once school starts it gets harder.

Darden at the beginning felt a lot like high school.  The class sizes are roughly the same (Darden is 339 and my high school was 381) and you're living in a semi-permeable Darden "bubble", taking classes and generally socializing with the same group of people.  As friends get made you see cliques form, though people at Darden are pretty open to socializing with anyone.  Gossip spreads quickly.

West Lawn of Monticello
I made sure to make the most of my time before school, going wine tasting at one of Charlottesville's great vineyards, playing beach volleyball and pickup soccer, and visiting Monticello, the residence of Thomas Jefferson.

Darden first year began on August 16th and hit me like a ton of bricks.  For one thing, I wasn't ready to start my day at 8AM.  I realize this is a typical time in much of the corporate world, but I worked for six years at a company where a 9:30 arrival was the norm, and before that I was in college, in which early mornings are rare.  Hence, I had gone ten years without seeing the sun rise on a regular basis, and I started off groggy!  Luckily, Darden has free coffee everywhere, and I got used to the early alarm after a couple weeks.

Darden brought in some good speakers for our first week.  We had the chance to ask the CFO of Target about his new customer rewards strategy and had a case discussion about global employee development at Samsung attended by one of their VPs.  The last day contained a team-building exercise with our new learning teams.

The three cases per day ritual started full throttle on August 23rd.  Term 1 consisted of classes in Decision Analysis (Excel modeling, Monte-Carlo simulation, and basic statistics), Accounting (mostly managerial, with basics of balance sheets and income statements), and Leading Organizations (models of collaborative leadership).  As a numbers guy, the first two classes were much simpler for me the third, but thankfully the Darden class has a very balanced skill set, and my section had many captivating discussions which helped me get a grasp of the leadership models.  In exchange, I could help my colleagues with stats :)

New Darden FYs enjoying C-Ville
Darden is on a new term structure this year, and its schedule is unlike any of the other business schools I considered.  At Darden, you have four weeks of classes (which meet Monday-Thursday), and then you take exams.  Crazy fast!  Exams, which are take home at Darden, began September 17th, which is before some business schools even start classes.  Following the exams is a recruiting-focused week, with lots of briefings from Fortune 500 companies.  The week was a nice break and also a good reminder of every business school student's #1 priority: Get A Job!!

After recruiting week, and of course a few more parties, we catapulted into Term 2 on September 27th.  Hard to believe, but we're already half-way through courses in Marketing, Macroeconomics (referred to at Darden as "GEM"), and Operations.

So far, so good!  I've done well in my classes thus far, was elected review coordinator for my section (helping prep students for exams), have made many new friends, and even formed an informal Mexican eating club (this will be the subject of another blog post).  Speaking of food, I'm off to the Darden International Food Festival, with food and performing arts presented by students from over 30 countries (and I'm not counting Texas).  Makes me hungry just thinking about it!

It's not Darden without some T.J. lovin'

Monday, October 4, 2010

Birth of a New Blog!

Welcome to my new blog! Over the next two years, I will attempt to distill the wonders, the delights, and occasionally the tribuations of the MBA experience. By reading, I hope you will discover the "je ne sais quoi" of life at Darden.

Today I was inducted as a new member of the Darden Student Bloggers. To be perfectly honest, the first feeling that popped into my head when I learned I had been selected was "Oh cr-p...I DID volunteer for that!" I had completely forgotten that I had nominated myself several weeks ago, back before Darden really heated up. But though my head is still wrapping itself around how I can fit writing a blog into my already-packed schedule, I am happy that I am able to bring the life of a Darden student to all of you. Being selected is an honor.

First of all, this is me. Hello. My name is Jonathan Harris. This is my official Darden photo. If you visit Darden you can find this photo on the Class of 2012 wall in one of the main hallways. I don't think I have worn a suit and tie since this photograph was taken.

I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA and I went to undergrad at MIT, where I majored in economics and management. I am the only person in the class of 2012 who attended MIT, and I also think I am the only person in the class who grew up in Wisconsin, so I like to think I bring "diversity" to the Darden classroom. After college I worked in the Washington DC area at a small energy trading firm called DC Energy. It is a great company and you all should check it out if you're interested in power or natural gas markets. After six years at DC Energy I decided to call it quits and head to business school. I wanted to move into a project development role at a renewable energy company, and I strongly felt that I would need an MBA to master the broader business skills which I wasn't exposed to in my previous trading role.

Between my job and Darden, I took a few months off to reset by travelling around-the-world. Literally. Over 63 days I visited 11 countries. I loved the cultural exposure one receives from seeing so many different places, and I now have a much greater appreciation for how big and diverse our world actually is. If you want to know the best way to spend your summer prior to starting to business school, read my travel blog.

On my trip I started blogging for the first time. I had a lot of friends in the US who wanted updates from my audacious trip and a chance to live vicariously through my travels while they sat at work back home. Despite being a "quant", turns out they thought I was pretty good at the blogging. I thought no one would continue to read the thing after awhile, but when I returned home I had several friends tell me how much they loved the blog, and they encouraged me to continue writing so they could live vicariously through me at Darden.

And so the new Darden blog was born. First, the blog needed a clever name. To find inspiration, I went to the man so many at the University of Virginia look to for divine guidance, Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence and the father of the university, "T.J." hovers as an unparalleled legend in these parts. You see Jefferson's image almost everywhere at Darden, including at the end of Flagler Court, where he stands perpetually staring at his scroll.

You see, Jefferson was a bit of a semantics snob. For one thing, undergraduates at UVA aren't freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, but rather first-years, second-years, third-years, and fourth-years. This reflects the Jeffersonian belief that learning is a never-ending process, rather than one to be completed in four years. At business school we go by the first two distinctions (abbreviated to FYs and SYs), which is fine by me.

More difficult for me was getting accustomed to referring to the campus of the University as "GROUNDS". If you think this sounds like a highfalutin and ridiculous term, you are correct.

Again, there is a history behind the term...Jefferson believed that "campus" connoted a place of plain value, unbecoming a hollowed ground of wisdom and knowledge, the acquisition of which must forever perpetuate beyond your time in Charlottesville! Hence, years of referring to other schools of higher learning as "campuses" needed to be drilled out of me. I still slip on the term every now and then.

The Darden School of Business specializes in general management, and in addition to running a business one could also manage "grounds" (either as a weekend hobby or even a full-time profession), hence the blog name "Grounds Management" was born. I hope you appreciate the amount of thought I put into this.

Well, being two months into my Darden experience already, I have a lot to catch you all up on. Time has flown by here. I hope you all enjoy the journey with me!