Darden Diaries 14: Battlegrounds and boardrooms.

Some of the best things about a business school like Darden, nestled in the rich cultural heritage of Virginia, are the fabulous relationships it builds and fosters with great institutions like the US Marine Corps. What started as an experiment last year with only a handful of Second year students evolved into an experiential leadership course for more than 200 first year students at the Battlegrounds of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

Last weekend saw us travel to Gettysburg. Being welcomed by the dean of the US Marine Corps academy, wining and dining in the 18th century extravagance of the ghost town of Gettysburg, and most pleasantly experiencing undiluted chivalry all around in the form of chairs being pulled and doors being opened, was an interesting twist to the MBA experience. We battled wind chills of -10 degrees centigrade, defended ourselves from rain that attacked through numbed skin, and walked staff rides in the expansive battlefields, humbled by the conditions that soldiers fought wars in before modern warfare.

When I first bid for the course “Business & Leadership lessons – the battlefields of Gettysburg”, I wasn’t even quite sure how the two related. The more I acquainted myself with the American civil war, the north and the south, the cause each valued, the battles, the decisions, and the outcomes, the more clear it became to me how numerous business lessons could explode from one cannon fire of a strategic decision made by the Generals of both the union and the confederacy.

I was overwhelmed with the plethora of parallels in business leadership that were waiting to be made using strategic battlefield decisions. Be it understanding “Key Terrain” in a battle which directly translated to “competitive advantage in an industry”, to how General Meade of the north “manages diversity of commanders’ character” in his army to how a CEO “leverages diversity of thought and talent in an organization”, there were inferences everywhere to be drawn.

Never truly understanding why people needed to fight wars in the first place.  You would think that constructive conversation, talk, and debate could bring all the peace in the world. Clearly I choose to remain naive and idealistic when history is testimony to two world wars, several bigger/smaller/medium sized wars in the recent past and present, rendering peace talks quite irrelevant in  modern warfare.

In the end, what really stuck with me on the bus ride back  home with 100 other exhausted classmates was how we all will face situations in classrooms, the workplace, our organizations, our social networks, and our professional & personal worlds, which will demand us to go to war… but can the unique leadership style we develop at Darden enable us to resolve conflicts with tact and peace?

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Enough of the “white noise” already!

To the all Darden second round admits… Welcome! Also I want to enlighten you a little about the white noise at Darden! It seems fit with all the talks about how white noise is constraining the real potential of the US economy the past few months…

All your life you wish you could stand in the middle of white noise. You travel half way across the world, a few thousand miles closer towards the North Pole to experience this white noise. When you watched it in romantic Bollywood songs where the lead heroine could romance the hero for a whole song only with a skimpy black dress on, you never knew that she actually suffered from pneumonia the day after. You also think about all the Hollywood movies you saw and how a little boy finds his mother mysteriously in the middle of white noise. You drew a million patterns of it, coloring it in colors that it never originally existed in.

The first time you hear it, see it, and taste it, it is unreal. You want to keep staring at it right outside your window. You want to keep looking at it happen and see it film everything with its magic. You want to get all bundled up and get out with your boots. Stand in the middle of it all, let it embrace you, let it engulf you in its mystery, let it surround you with its warmth. And so you do. You try to capture every moment with the gadgets you own. You finally revel in the feeling you never imagined you could feel.

A few minutes into it and you feel like the mystery is slowly fading away. Your hands and feet start feeling different. In fact now you can’t feel them at all. You decide you have had enough and you start to walk away, you slip, and fall flat on your face and it just doesn’t feel like fun anymore. Getting to school takes ten minutes longer. You thank yourself for not having a car, for it would be an additional hour and a few hundred calories before you can even get it out of its trap. Any plan that involves the outdoors is out of the question because of all the noise out there.

And so ends the love affair with the white noise… You crave for golden silence for once… And then you realize that it could have been far worse, if you had decided to go to schools further up northeast or Midwest… and you thank your stars for the far less noise at Charlottesville and humbly wish for a lot more silence in the days that will follow…

As you can tell I have had enough of the white noise!

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Darden Diaries: Become a Gladiator.

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” – Russell Crowe, the Gladiator.

One of the most interesting things about being part of the case study based method of learning is being able to put yourself in a business situation three times a day, make a C-suite decision, and convince 60 other CEO classmates of the same. After almost a few hundred cases old by now, I realized how close this experience is to that of being a gladiator!

It’s not surprising how even the seating arrangement of the classroom enables this to happen. Having studied all my life in a classroom with endless rows and columns of benches all facing the blackboard and the lecturer, I found the amphitheater style setup in class, intriguing. I always thought that amphitheaters were for gladiators and performance art. Little did I know that each day at Darden was like delivering your best performance at being a gladiator!

When you walk into class with a recommendation for the protagonist of the case, backed with your in depth analysis, you feel like you have it all figured out. Of course barring the days you don’t have in depth enough analysis. And there will be some days when you don’t have any analysis despite hours of trying, only a vague instinct of what you should do. If you get “cold called” for your recommendation, you know that you have to walk into the center with everything you have got. It all comes down to “perform or perish.”

Most days your classmates are gruesome wild animals trying to tear you to pieces. It’s after all not a performance for the professor. He has seen numerous performances and can tell a good one from a lousy one. It’s all for your “classmates” a.k.a. “the wild beasts”, the rest of the gladiators and the audience. Your success as a gladiator is defined by how well you can convince others about your recommendation, standing tall in the end despite all the bruises, punches and low blows. Satisfying the audience, destroying the wild beasts, and taking on the rest of the gladiators with skill and precision.

Will there be days you will be battered in the middle? Will there be times you will limp, bleed, and lay sore with the wounds? Of course! They don’t call it a case study classroom for nothing. It’s not too far from the real world when you have to make tough decisions as a manager every single day. A case study class is true training ground for that.

Having said that, you can be rest assured that at Darden, unlike a gladiator, if you fail once, everything is not lost. You can always rise from the ashes like a phoenix and fight another day. And a gladiator who rises form the ground despite all his/her bruises, will entertain the audience more than the one who doesn’t rise up at all. 

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Darden Diaries 11: Recruiting and dating – Aren’t they similar?

“Recruiting is like dating.”

When I first heard this from a career advisor at Darden, I thought it made no sense at all. After all I was brought up to believe that hard work, grit, and determination could get you anything or anyone in life. Right? Err… Not quite.

Having spent close to 7 months going through the recruiting process, the more I think about it the more I realize that “recruiting is exactly like dating!”

Companies and candidates are like the opposite sexes trying to find the perfect partner. Often times when you think back to school, undergraduate, work, and for some, even now, you can picture exactly how the dating dynamics work.

There are always the “oh so popular guys and girls” who are extremely attractive, sought after, and the idea of being with them somehow makes you feel better about yourself – aka the investment banking and consulting jobs; they ‘may’ be the best fit for you but more often than not, you want them only because ‘you can’t have them easy’ and they are what everyone seems to be after all the time!

Then come the geeky yet super cool kids who could whip up complicated math and science into the most magical project or unbelievable test scores that make them somewhat peculiar. You can only attract only in that parallel genius universe too – aka the tech firms. You either totally want them or don’t want them at all. There is no “let me see if I might like them.”

Then there are the extremely unassuming kids but have numerous dimensions to them which no one ever had a chance to see unless you know them really well. Aka the general management firms which offer immense opportunity and depth in their roles yet somehow always remain a backup option to the prom.

Finally those who are the story tellers, poets, writers, and debaters, those who are dreamy, creative, and quirky. Aka the marketing firms which flaunt the coolest brands and labels; these kids are the ones you all want to be but you know you can’t because you simply aren’t as suave.

And so begins the ever seductive dating dance. You see them for the first time in the hallway (briefing), they agree to go for coffee (office hours), make endless phone calls (networking calls), meet them a couple of times (closed list events), dinners (cocktails) etc. Most nights you are double dating. You are either booked with too many dates, or you have no dates at all. Looking back, I don’t know which was worse, being on numerous bad dates, or desperately waiting for that one call/email from those who made your stomach flip with butterflies.

And then you finally click. You decide to see each other on the fifth date (the interview). This date confirms mutual feelings for each other. This seals the deal about whether you want to go to the prom/get engaged a.k.a. the summer internship. This may or may not materialize into a marriage (a full time offer), but at least you both know you gave it a fair shot.

While all we want at the moment is a date… any date … for the prom is close and everyone around you seems to already have a date (more than one in some instances!). What most of us forget is that you might “want” someone really badly and you might be the perfect fir for them, but if they don’t want you bad enough then that is not the kind of a relationship you want to be in anyway. Because even if you end up getting married, (you bid for an interview and get accepted), sooner or later one of you is headed for the door… and back dating all over again…

Some are lucky to find the perfect partner at their first try and others not so lucky… a few hit and misses and a few trial and errors, but when you look at life and relationships around you, you know that you usually end up alright.  So here is hoping that your perfect date and life partner is waiting just around the corner, because life is too short to simply settle for anything or anyone less…

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Darden Diaries 10: Who needs that vacation?

One of the best things about living in a picturesque and sleepy town like Charlottesville is that you can leave it for the winter. All through August, September, October and November, each and every Darden student dreams of the “holy” December break. I say holy because of Christmas that falls smack in the middle of it and of course that it seems like the “Holy Grail” – ever unattainable.

Decisions of how to spend these precious days before the madness of Term 4, internship interviews and cases begins again, completely depends on you. There are those who plan a complete nothingness trip and just bum around on a couch with their family. There are those who travel to warmer places like Florida (everybody seems to want to be here!). There are those who spend a fortune on plane tickets back to their home country and then there are those who spend the same fortune on plane tickets to their friends’ home countries to turn a complete adventurer. There are those who decide to go on an industry trek and mix work with a little pleasure and then there are those who just refuse to go anywhere from Charlottesville for reasons incomprehensible to me!

Being a south Indian with tons of family in the US on the West coast, the decision was fairly easy. I was venturing across the American expanse to visit my extended family and some giants of software innovation at San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Seattle, and Redmond. After much drama of almost missing my flight to San Francisco, I made it just in the nick of time. It was a great feeling to be at an airport and going somewhere… anywhere for a change! I could almost not contain my glee.

Finally the San Francisco lights twinkled beneath the aircraft! The best part about having family in every city that you plan to visit is that they pamper you to no end. Picking you up and dropping you to airports. Cooking delicious home cooked food. Showering you with much needed family love after the grueling first quarter at Darden. While the mornings were packed with visiting the likes of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, LinkedIn, Netflix, EA Sports (All my guy friends burnt with envy about this!), Group On, EBay, Thumbtack, Tableau, Expedia and Jawbone, the evenings were spent with uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents, nieces and nephews, all of them moving around their schedules for you to make your first visit to a new city in the US memorable! I met friends I hadn’t seen in years since college but it feel like picking off from where we last left. I finally retired to Boston for the remainder of the winter and spent Christmas with family at Yale, New haven. After all the touristy activities like the golden gate, the space needle, the first Starbucks store, and ticking off many many checklists in each city, I realized that in six months of being in the US, I had visited both the east and the west coast, Chicago and Detroit in the mid-west, Boston and Yale in the northeast… phew… Not bad for a start at all, I thought.

In the New Year, with hundreds of cities and countries left to explore on my bucket list, thousands of new experiences to be had, a million new things to be discovered, the only thing I could think about on my train ride back to Charlottesville, was my empty apartment and a gazillion cases that were waiting to be cracked for interviews and classes.

It was at this very moment when the train crossed New York that I realized – The person who needs a vacation the most is someone who just got back from one!

Graffiti at Pike Place, Seattle

Graffiti at Pike Place, Seattle

Years of used bubble gum stuck at a single wall, Seattle

Years of used bubble gum stuck at a single wall, Seattle

Space needle, Seattle

Space needle, Seattle

The most crooked Street, San Fransisco

The most crooked Street, San Fransisco

Yale, New Haven

Yale, New Haven

The Caltrain at Palo Alto

The Caltrain at Palo Alto

San Fransisco Emerging from the Bart station

San Fransisco Emerging from the Bart station

San Fransico wired

San Fransico wired

 

The Rebranded Purple yahoo tree

The Rebranded Purple yahoo tree

 

EA Sports

EA Sports

Long island

Long island

Google, MTV

EBay!

EBay!

 

 

 

Darden Diaries 9: How to “operate” like a manager!

Blue, green, yellow, red, black, white, orange, brown and pink. Brick 2 X 2, brick 1 X 2, angle bushe, connector, plate, brick 3X5, holder, knob, bow, arch, animals, peg, couple, axle, fence, flat tile…

If you still don’t know what I can talking about you have never played with Legos as a child! Every child’s first lesson in spatial concepts, motor skills, pattern recognition and most importantly, engineering. Legos were one of the primary reasons I chose to study engineering. As much as I liked playing with barbies, the sheer joy of building the LEGO truck with Mr. and Mrs. Lego driving in it was what childhood memories were made of.

So you can imagine my surprise when years later, half way across the globe, in a prestigious business school, all 330 MBA students stood in front of tables filled with LEGO blocks! Were the professors pulling a fast one on us??? Nope. This was an exercise in lean operations management. Concepts like takt time, demand, supply, throughput time and rate of a process, idle time, inventory management, hiring and firing excess workers, performing as a team and maximizing efficiency were being taught through this Lego game called “Gazogle”. A team consisted of 4 assemblers, inventory movers, supply manager, quality assurance and numerous others. We were given the process flow which had numerous flaws and we had to design a lean operation which ensured maximum profitability in the end. We could do anything from changing the lay out of the work tables, allocation of workers and processes to minimizing idle time, firing anyone who was redundant( this was obviously a lesson in people management!) and basically anything else that seemed best for our operations to flourish.

It was experiential learning at its best. Without actually being taught, we recognized, bottlenecks, capacity issues, long set up times with longer wait times and slacking workers etc. We knew instantly that we were being pushed to think like managers. Understanding the operations of a plant or a factory, drawing insights from the elements calculated, and making the right decisions as a manager will finally lead to higher margins. Little did we know that Legos and little’s law could lead to us becoming sound managers!

Which got me thinking about an MBA and education in general. No matter how old you get, you are always learning, and often playing with the toys you played with when you were toddlers, in the process learning how to “operate” like a manager! 

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It was “Fall”ing and its all fallen!

Amber, beige, bister, chestnut, khaki, tan, fawn, sepia, ocher, ginger, rust, puce, chocolate, hazel…

Before you think I am rattling off a list from the paints section of a home improvement store, think twice. Words fail me when I try to define all the color I see around me. There are colors I see now a days, words for which are not yet created I feel. 

When you are living in a place that looks like it’s right out of a picture post card (or a windows desktop screen), it’s hard not to get poetic. Every day you stop in the middle of it all to take a few seconds and take in the sweet air that surrounds you. Some days are mad and you don’t notice a thing around you. But other days, when you have a lot on your mind, you get philosophical about life and wonder why you made the decision to put yourself through this ordeal, you stop in your tracks and look around you and try to take it all in.

Despite the madness of 8 am classes, seemingly endless recruiting, mounting case load, learning team meetings, dropping temperatures, and the recovery from the Term 2 exams, there was something that had been slowly changing…the color of the leaves. And before you could appreciate that, they suddenly started falling.

As I walk back and forth every day from the apartment to the grounds, walk back sometimes because I would forget the folder which has all my day’s cases stacked in, or walk back again to get my nametag because there is a company briefing that I don’t want to be nameless for, or walk back because I forgot my laptop charger, I realized that I had lived two seasons here already! Each day more and more of the Darden edifice is visible from my apartment. More and more leaves are strewn on the ground.

I didn’t realize how time flew by. With every minute so precious here at Darden, you want to be as productive as you can. Saving a few minutes everywhere by eating while walking, talking while reading, listening while thinking, doubting while answering, solving while complicating.

But once in a while I stop in my track to do nothing. Just stand there with my backpack loaded with cases crying out to be solved, emails emerging out to be answered and endless phone calls waiting to be returned. All I do is stay still with everything that is changing around me. And before I realize it, it starts sleeting.

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