Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black November -- Pitch Black or a Shade of Gray?

"This shirt is black...NOT!" ~ Borat

About a week or two into my Darden experience I first heard mention of the phrase "Black November", initially mentioned casually by members of the Career Development Center, then in my conversations with second-years. The implication seemingly was that we needed to prepare for some sort of business school apocalypse, with recommended courses of action including writing all of our cover letters and networking with all possible company contacts in September, stocking up on canned foods, boarding up our windows, and assuring our friends that just because we wouldn't be speaking to them for 30 days didn't mean we were dead.

In a way, they all were right. First of all, Darden does lie in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning that it is literally darker these days. Today saw a mere 9 hours and 45 minutes of daylight in Charlottesville, and extra gloomy daylight at that as we had overcast skies and drizzle all day today.

If I took a measurement right now on the Darden intensity meter, where:

1 is "still going to the gym and buying my own groceries"
5 is "down to 6 hours of sleep a night"
10 is "keeling over from physical pain"

...I'd estimate that most first-years right now are at about a 7 or an 8. The last four months have seen a gradual cranking up of this dial to the point where now we face a crush of deadlines related to exams, job searches, and the end of the calendar year. I do see my friends on the town a fair bit less now than I used to. Our old Thursday night social activities have greatly diminished. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I spent most of my time at home catching up on emails, coursework, and other unfinished school tasks, much to the dismay of my parents and siblings. Throw in my 10-year high school reunion and my family didn't see much of me at all.

This is not to say that Darden wasn't intense at the beginning. I received an email recently from a former coworker asking me if I was "surviving the Harvard-Bootcamp-of-the-South", and his portrayal of Darden wasn't entirely inaccurate. Darden's reputation is that of a very hard working business school, and with this reputation I definitely agree. The beginning of Darden felt very intense too, but in hindsight we weren't yet confronted with that many obstacles. You get acclimated to the intensity over time, at which point the Darden first year throws more at you and you frantically struggle to keep your head above water.

My walk home from Darden now looks rather dismal

Having survived this month, however, I don't think November was entirely black. Or as Borat might joke, "This month is black...NOT!" The simple truth is that business school is what you make of it. If you de-commit from joining activities, shun the ever-present corporate recruiters, refrain from networking your butt off to make job interview closed lists, and content yourself with average grades, you're unlikely to be overwhelmed here.

And I don't think that packed schedules are unique to Darden students. The holidays are a stressful time for many people, not just those at Darden. At other top-tier business schools, my friends all invariably seem to be busy, busy, busy. Business school is like a good buffet -- you walk through continually piling delicious foods onto your plate, but once you reach the end of the line your plate is overwhelmed by a mountain of stuff, and you're now sad that you haven't left room for dessert. You're going to need to leave something unfinished because there is no way you can eat everything you've selected.

Darden students choose to be busy. They choose to pursue lucrative investment banking and consulting jobs, knowing well ahead of time the rigors of these recruiting processes. They choose to network endlessly to build a group of professional contacts which will get them a step ahead in building careers. They choose to join clubs and get involved with volunteer projects. They choose to be prepared for case discussions and exams.

The overwhelming part about November is that all these activities converge simultaneously to demand extraordinary amounts of your time. Choosing which to pass up becomes very difficult. You still want a great summer job, but you still want to be prepared for the cold call, but you still want to raise funds for the local food bank, but you still want to sleep. Deciding which to eliminate can, at times, feel like choosing which of your sons to kill. Most students still try to do it all (except the sleep part, I think we've all given up on that).

Keeping a long-term perspective, though, I think we'll find that all this difficult work was worth the struggle. One look at the refreshed second-years here reveals that these hectic times do pass, and the wisdom we learn this month will help us focus our priorities in the world of business. Darden's mission is "to improve society by developing leaders in the world of practical affairs," and this time management crash course will be a valuable, practical developmental lesson for all of us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Time for Your Questions!

Reaching into Ye Olde Mailbag to answer a few interesting questions I recently received from a prospective Darden student:

Can you tell me more about the classes, clubs, and culture at Darden in respect to your experience and interests?

First, a little background on me for those who didn't read my first Darden blog post.  I came to Darden after working for six years at an energy trading company in northern Virginia, and prior to that attended MIT where I studied economics. My background is heavily analytical but in a narrow sense of analyzing the risks and returns of financial contracts in North American power markets.  I wanted to expand my breadth of knowledge in an MBA program.

Darden has always been known for its very strong general management curriculum.  In fact, this year the Financial Times ranked Darden #1 in the world in the general management specialty, ahead of an ivy-covered school up in Cambridge, Mass.  I didn't want to specialize deeply at business school and I find that Darden discourages this, at least in the first year, by sending all of its students through a rigorous curriculum of core classes.  Darden strongly emphasizes a holistic approach to managing an enterprise.

In addition to wanting breadth over depth, I also was drawn to Darden by its superlative faculty.  In my undergraduate experience, most professors only emerged to lecture, then retreated back into their research labs.  By contrast, the professors here are extremely approachable, and most keep an "open door" policy over in the faculty building.  Without question, their top priority is to help you learn, and students commonly preserve relationships with faculty well after classes.  You even will see faculty show up to Darden Cup events.  No surprise, then, that Darden's high-touch faculty were ranked #1 in this fall's Princeton Review ranking.

Furthermore, I was drawn to Darden by the case method.  Admittedly, it's an inefficient means of learning, requiring more preparation than other approaches, but I find it equally if not more effective.  I have a "learning by doing" style and tend to lose interest with a lecture approach.  In fact, while visiting a competing school I actually fell asleep in a dry post-lunch marketing lecture.  The case method forces me to stay on my toes and find a way to contribute to the class discussion.  The most rewarding learning experiences here come when either I'm able to convince a student of a better approach to a business problem or when another student corrects my mistake.  You won't get fooled twice when you see a similar problem in the real world!

Culturally, Darden is a very tight-knit community, I think by virtue of being in a smaller town and also due to the types of students who get admitted here. Students at Darden are very interested in helping one another, be it with schoolwork, recruiting, or just helping with personal issues -- you should see how much free food my roommate has received after having his leg wrapped in a cast.  During my undergrad I felt that MIT was a cold, harsh environment, and I thrive on the support I receive from my classmates at Darden.  The environment here resembles a friendly town in the Midwest, like those near where I grew up.

Finally, there are many students here who share my interest in the energy industry.  The Darden Energy Club draws in speakers from industry who teach students about energy topics, and Net Impact actively engages the student body on sustainability issues.  Both set up opportunities for students to meet important industry players in a small setting. For example, Net Impact arranged a meeting for a group of interested students with the CEO of Gevo, maker of a next-gen biofuel / ethanol killer.  Pretty cool stuff if you ask me.  Right now the two clubs are working jointly to set up a Sustainability and Renewable Energy forum at Darden in February, and so far I've been able to bring in an associate at enXco and an executive director at NextEra, both Darden alums.  Again, pretty cool!!

Can you speak to the career opportunities?

Very broad.  A who's who of Fortune 500 companies have appeared on Grounds this fall, ranging from General Electric to Google to Proctor and Gamble to Amazon to DuPont. And of course there's all the big name consulting firms and I-banks.  Even though the overall job picture in the US still looks pitiful, from what I've seen MBA recruiting has been strong this fall.  If you want to land that big marketing job with the big boys, Darden can certainly help place you in a position to nab it (with a lot of hard work on your part, of course).

The Pillsbury Doughboy visits Darden!
(thank you General Mills)
If you're like me, focusing on smaller renewable energy companies, the Darden alumni network has been very helpful.  My focus has been primarily off-grounds with alumni who have been very willing to spend 30 minutes on the phone talking about what they do.  I'm pleasantly surprised at how simply I've been able to build up a network of industry contacts, which should pay off when my job search becomes particularly intense.

Broadly speaking, any application tips?

For any business school application, not just Darden, you need to think deeply about how you fit with the school and its core values.  These schools at the top of the heap are just so darn competitive that if you aren't able to demonstrate that fit in your application, your application gets tossed quickly into the "no" pile.  I don't care how high your GMAT score is or how great your past experience is -- you just won't cut it.

For Darden in particular, I think you need to show how you fit in with what Dean Bruner calls "high touch, high tone, high energy".  The dean can describe this more eloquently than I can in his blog (and this blogger also has a clear characterization), but I'll summarize as follows: you must show through your past experiences how you took action to build a stronger community.  Darden wants driven people, but not those driven to excel at the expense of others. Darden needs students who will give much of themselves for the sake of the group, and you must express a genuine interest in being actively involved here.

(Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  Feel free to keep the questions coming.  I can be reached at HarrisJ12@darden.virginia.edu)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Feels Like "CEO Month" at Darden

One of the cool aspects of being at a top business school that often gets overlooked is the exposure you get to "C-level" executives* in big business. These titans of industry descend upon Charlottesville to teach lessons about general management which just don't come out on paper. There's a different feel to a case discussion when the chief protagonist is in the room!

In my little world before business school, I sat everyday in a suburban office building, analyzing the movements of power markets.  It was good work, but the world of corporate America felt remote.  At Darden, this is certainly not true!

Tomorrow's speaker: Kevin Sharer from Amgen

This month at school has been packed with business leaders:

  • First, Eric Spiegel, the President and CEO of Siemens, the biggest little German electronics manufacturer you've probably never heard of (only a mere $98 billion company), who spoke about his transition from being a lifetime consultant to overseeing the operations of 405,000 employees in 190 countries.
  • Next, Wendell Weeks, Chairman and CEO of Corning, who spoke to students about managing breakthrough innovation at one of America's last-standing technology manufacturers.  A very candid speaker who provided a refreshing long-term perspective to investment in a world which often seems to value quarterly earnings more than great products (let's just say Wendell doesn't like Fidelity).
  • The following day, Kevin Plank, CEO and Chairman of Under Armour.  Kevin told the remarkable story of a man who 15 years ago turned an idea for a non-cotton athletic undershirt into a business operated out of his mother's basement, then transformed it into a multinational company crossing $1 billion in sales this year.  Their advertising also pumps you up..."We Must Protect This House!"
  • Today, Bill Hawkins, CEO of Medtronic, the world's largest medical device manufacturer.  He shared his lessons on leadership (start by surrounding yourself with a smart, diverse group people) and personal fulfillment (have fun!), and also talked about his company's challenges in continuing to develop life-saving products in the highly politicized health care industry.  A Darden alum!
  • To cap it off, tomorrow we have Kevin Sharer, Chairman and CEO of Amgen, the world's largest biotech pharma company.  Today he and Bill grabbed lunch together at Darden -- to be a fly on the wall for that discussion!  Tomorrow's chat is titled "Healthcare, Leadership and Life".  Should be great!

In my first three months at Darden, we've also received top executives from Target, American Express, Samsung, Cargill, and DuPont, just to name a few top companies.

Preparing for cases can get a little dull sometimes, and it's a treat to take a break to hear the perspectives of these guys.  Their lessons might sound like common sense -- follow your passions, take risks, step out of your comfort zone, believe in yourself -- but clearly they work!

*For those of you who don't know what "C-level" means (as I didn't until about a year ago), it's corporate lingo for the Chiefs: Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), etc.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Feel Better Aaron!

In case those of you at Darden haven't noticed, my roommate Aaron picked up a not so pleasant injury at Darden Cup football on Saturday...

Ruptured Achilles tendon.  Ouch!  And he wasn't the only one.  Monday morning's walking wounded also included a dislocated finger and a wrapped up hand with some bone chips potentially locked inside.  Not to mention the other three first-year students already on crutches, and we have something of an injury epidemic on grounds.

Make sure to look out for one another so we don't have any more mishaps, particularly as we enter the high cocktail season around the holidays.  Clearly we're all not 21 years old anymore, so make sure you warm up properly before you exercise, especially as the mercury drops in the thermometer.  Also, if you see someone who took a knock, offer a helping hand.  I'm sure your kind gesture will be appreciated!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Everything I Needed To Know About Time Management I Learned In My Operations Course

I enjoy being able to extend the lessons from my coursework to the mundane details of my everyday life. Perhaps this is just the inner nerd in me thinking creatively while getting bored doing something else, but I think there is a personal benefit to such thinking. If I can break my course material out of the theoretical business context within which it resides in the classroom, I'm able to master the material better. Just how my mind works.

Professor Raul Chao
Recently in Term 2 I finished a required first-year course in Operations, a study of the underlying processes by which firms create and deliver value. Like nearly all classes at Darden, we were taught by a great member of the faculty, Raul Chao. Raul excelled because he insisted that his students get their heads out of their spreadsheets and understand the processes at a high level.

A day or two into the class, I realized that I could model my life as a process. Rather cold, perhaps, but let me explain. A process is defined as the method by which inputs are transformed into outputs. At a manufacturer, a process might take raw materials and convert these into widgets. By making this process more efficient, the manufacturer could produce more widgets in less time.

Let's extend this to my life by analyzing my daily "bed-to-school process". My alarm rings, I take a shower, brush my teeth, shave, get dressed, eat breakfast, and walk to Darden. I've been able to make this process more efficient in several ways. For instance, I pack my bag before going to bed at night so I'm not stumbling around looking for all my notes in the haze of the morning. I also eat a quick breakfast of yogurt, fruit and cereal. One of my roommates eats eggs every morning, but I don't know how he finds the time to cook them. I'm not one to hit the snooze button...need to get every minute of sleep I can! I don't check emails before leaving as I can read them on my smartphone while walking to class.

So I'm fairly efficient at getting from home to school, especially after I've consumed my first morning cup of coffee. But what about the rest of my life? You realize quickly at business school that the experience is what you make of it -- you can't possibly make enough time to do everything. You can study your butt off, you can socialize your butt off, or you can try to balance. The key is to not waste time on the little things so you have enough time to dedicate to the priorities which are most important to you.

In Operations, you persistently attempt to identify the "bottleneck" in your process, the element which limits the capacity. In my life, the bottleneck is pretty clearly...me. I can only read and understand cases at a certain rate. If I spend more time studying then I have less time to go to the pub and make new friends. Both studying and socializing get in the way of finding a summer job.

Operations managers also spend a substantial amount of time on inventory management. If I become less efficient at processing the tasks in my life, stuff piles up. "Inventory" in my case might mean emails to send, companies to research for summer jobs, cases and tech notes to read, or friends and family to call. If I take on too many projects at school, my utilization increases and more things wait to get accomplished. As the unpredictability of arrival of tasks increases, the inventory level increases. Basic queuing theory!

Yesterday's schedule
You spend a couple days in Operations learning some Japanese. "Muda" is waste, non-value-adding activity in the process. "Kaizen" is the idea of continual improvement in the process. A "kanban" is a scheduling system which manages information and material flow in the process. In my case, the muda could be the time spent walking home between school and learning team. If I bring the next day's cases with me to Darden, I save 20 minutes to study and catch up. My Outlook task list serves as my kanban, making sure that I prioritize key to-dos. My learning team embraced kaizen when we decided to split the labor of preparing cases...there just isn't enough time in a day to individually prepare all the cases AND do all the networking, socializing, and exercising you need.

Proper time management is essential in business school. Make sure you've mastered your own system before you apply.