Thursday, August 25, 2011

Darden FY Day with Habitat for Humanity

Hello everyone! I returned to Charlottesville last week and it is glorious!! The life of a second-year in business school is sweet indeed!

No time for rest with me as I was immediately thrust back into the swing of things. This year I've joined fellow blogger Lily West on the Darden Outreach Committee, where I will be helping to coordinate Darden's involvement with our community neighbors. We have an ambitious agenda this year, including a canned food drive, tutoring at local schools, and a fund-raising dance marathon!!

Last week was orientation week for the incoming First Years. This year Darden introduced a new Outreach Day at the end of the week on Saturday for interested FY volunteers to break away from school and contribute to the C'Ville community. Students were able to participate in activities with the SPCA, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and with Habitat for Humanity.

I took charge of the Habitat effort and am proud to report it was a great success! We had two shifts of roughly 40 students each putting up dry wall and siding on a multi-family community of homes. I'm especially proud of the students who made it out for the early (8AM) shift after a late Friday night of partying! The crew leaders with Habitat were grateful for the assistance and impressed with what the FY students were able to accomplish.

This new group of students is definitely service-oriented and off to a great start in school. You can see all the pictures from the day here. Welcome Darden Class of 2013!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summer Learnings

As the summer internship winds down and Report Out Day has past, a time of reflection is upon me. Trapped inside by the Houston summer heat (under a heat advisory for the entire month of August thus far), I sit at my computer to ponder the insights I've gained over my 11 weeks here.

My summer at Waste Management has been a tremendous learning experience and I am delighted that I had the opportunity to work there. I have connected with a great network of colleagues and MBA intern peers, and I am grateful at the level of responsibility and access that WM entrusted in its interns this summer. I certainly recommend the WM Organic Growth Group to any incoming first-years considering an internship next summer.

With that overview in mind, I give you all a list of key learnings from my summer. Several may sound trite, but certainly these are meaningful to me.

1. At a public company, the shareholders are the boss
Of course this is obvious, but the meaning didn't sink in for me until recently. Before business school I had worked at a private company without any outside investors, so I knew exactly who I was ultimately answerable to -- his office was down the hall.

In the weeks leading up to WM's 2nd quarter earnings announcement on July 28th, I knew things weren't looking too rosy. Discretionary costs such as travel were being pared back and I had heard about a hiring freeze, but those who had been around for awhile said this wasn't cause for concern. Then, three days before the earnings release, I learned that my summer mentor had been laid off, along with several other employees at corporate. Earnings were dismal as I suspected, 5 cents/share below Street estimates, and WM's stock was pounded (as I write this, it is down 20% from when I started my internship -- which hopefully won't be held against me when managers consider a full-time offer!).

Since I joined WM, its stock (blue line) has had its butt kicked by both the S&P 500 (green line) and arch rival Republic Services (red line)

Now I had seen people terminated at my pre-B-school job, but never any of my close peers or people above me. Having my mentor Greg laid off hit my morale -- hard. I had lost the person I could bounce ideas off of for my summer projects, or ask questions about interpreting old analysis that didn't quite make sense. I had lost the person who set up intern lunches with all the managing directors that touch our group, and the person who made sure I was actually being paid. I just felt...loss.

Such is life at the big corporation, I realize. The layoffs felt reactive...unnecessary in better times. But when shareholders demand costs come down, the big corporation needs to respond.

CEO David Steiner talks about the difficulty in managing today's business while simultaneously investing in the future. Some investors don't care about the future, or don't believe in his story about why the company needs to change. I wonder how much these future investments played a role in missing the earnings estimate.

2. Corporate America can be very tribal
Even at a company of 70 employees, like my last job, cliques develop and managers develop favorites. That said, everyone pretty much knows everyone, and interacting with the entire organization isn't all that difficult.

At a 43,000 person company, of course, one couldn't possibly know everyone. One couldn't even know the 900-odd people at corporate. That said, I'm surprised by the extent to which people cling to small clans at a big company.

Take the 44th floor, for example. Next to the Organic Growth folks you have Corporate Communications. Down the hall are folks in Customer Experience and Marketing. These four kingdoms all seem to act independently, held together in a loose union by a common break room and air conditioning. Perhaps this is my fault, but I haven't even spoken with half the folks on my floor, probably. Off my floor this stat is far worse -- I have only been to floor 45 for the vending machine, and haven't even walked on floors 42, 46, or 47...all WM.

In analyzing this, I suppose that part of the reason could be that our projects rarely overlap. I associate strongly with those I work with, but as an intern I haven't generally been comfortable introducing myself to those who I don't. And I think this is the culture at WM. I hope that as a full-time employee I would act differently.

End of my ride-along on a truck, pulling in to the scale at the Atascocita Landfill

3. Enforcing culture from the top is a struggle
I sense a near universal disdain at WM for Human Resources. I think people's gears get ground partly by the prolonged orientation days and the ever-present reminders about how to spell G.R.E.E.N. (Great operations, Respected brand, Empowered employees, Engaged customers, Neighbors of each other and our environment -- it's on my screen saver!). I see the struggle -- managing a big battleship of an organization and trying to steer it to be a high-performing operation by delivering messages to people who generally want to be free thinkers and not told what to do.

At my old company, culture was rarely discussed, which was both good and bad -- a high-performing company evolved over time, but analysts sometimes felt overworked with a lack of purpose. The approach of the big corporation feels somewhat "1984"-ish at first, but perhaps I would grow accustomed to this messaging over time.

4. At a large company, the information you need is usually somewhere internal -- unlocking the gatekeeper can be a big challenge
During intern HR orientation (everyone's favorite!), we played a game in which your team needed to cross a vicious desert to reach a mining village, with the goal to bring as much gold home as possible. Your team could ask an old man for advice, but your team would lose time for hiking and mining, and the old man might prove unreliable. Turned out that the old man knew his stuff.

For almost every project I've needed information on this summer, there's usually an "old man" at WM (not literally, of course) with the wisdom to guide me to an answer. However, accessing this information is not always easy. Sometimes I wouldn't know that information was available internally, or sometimes I wouldn't know who in a particular group to contact. I discovered that people outside one's tribe can become very busy and difficult to get a hold of. These communication differences were often magnified by the large distances between people, sometimes across the country even. And sometimes information would be withheld, as the gatekeeper feared the information may be used against him.

I'm not sure how WM could improve its information sharing, but certainly reaching folks in the big corporation was not nearly as easy as in my old job.

5. Public exposure can be cool...except when it's not
A nice thing about working at a big company is that people outside the company know what you do. Well, they probably don't know what YOU do, specifically, but you probably don't need to explain what your company does to them. In my old job, explaining what a power trading company did and why it was valuable for society was a big challenge!

The WM Organic Growth Group explores all sorts of cutting-edge investments into new waste conversion technologies, some of which have really cool potential (in my humble opinion). The group was even profiled in the December 2010 issue of Fortune magazine (see my March posting). However, with that exposure means all sorts of used-car salesman coming to WM with crackpot ideas on how they can turn waste into gold. I've needed to screen several, which has been fun...or not!

I'd never worked before for a company that could buy space for its logo on a stadium scoreboard

6. Some companies DO value work-life balance
A BIG positive from my summer. Leaving in the evening by 6PM has been lovely, and I've put in a fairly pathetic effort in trying to fill all of those extra hours in my day. I still remember the days at my old job of sometimes trying to sneak out at 5:45 to catch friends for happy hour downtown -- people definitely took notice there. At Waste Management, on the other hand, the seemingly early departure is strongly encouraged. Definitely a plus.

7. I'm still young
Surrounded by a pool of recent college graduates at my old company, it was easy to forget that I remain a recent entry into the job market. Working in the company of "grown-ups" at WM has pleasantly reassured me that 28 is still a young age and that a life of career potential awaits!


Well, that's a wrap on my summer. Time to pack up my car again and head back to Charlottesville!