Roaming and constraining

TGV France 2

As the TGV from Paris to Lausanne blasts through the French countryside, green patches of forests and yellow fields of rapeseed zipping behind the window, sounds of French, Swiss German and English colliding in this wagon number 6, I catch myself gazing into the distance, mentally going through the last twelve weeks at IMD before diving back into it after a short 4-day break over Easter.

Having put both mind and body through the MBA grinder over the past few months, I know more or less what’s coming now; the rhythm of the program has been internalised. Regarding how I approached the challenges of the past three months, my personal assessment remains – however – slightly tainted with mixed feelings.

Spending a tremendous amount of time and energy on group works, to the detriment of individual exam preparations, might have been a costly choice (I will find out about that once the marks fly in). On the other hand, as pointed out in a reassuring manner by a wise soul, coming here to focus on acquiring knowledge through readings and individual studies wasn’t the objective from the get-go. There are multiple other ways of doing just that at lesser costs than those of an MBA.

I also gravitated – naturally – towards tasks that suited my interests more than others, thereby missing some valuable opportunities to extend beyond the reaches of my comfort zone. I have to remind myself that strengths are not lost because they stop being used for a few weeks or months, but that not taking chances when opportunities to enlarge myself manifest ultimately prevents me from building up new ones.

As someone who usually requires a lot of space to roam and changes of scenery to thrive, spending so much time inside the IMD bubble sometimes felt like going against my very own nature. I must concede that – although I continue to believe that being here and experiencing all this is a real privilege – I did have moments when the routine of certain parts of the program felt constraining. After some initial resistance and just like during my previous studies, I arrived at the conclusion that the captivity and immobility of the body is sometimes necessary for the mind to unleash.

“…the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; it needs trouble and difficulty to hollow out various mysterious and hidden mines of human intelligence.

Pressure is required, you know, to ignite powder: captivity has collected into one single focus all the floating faculties of my mind; they have come into close contact in the narrow space in which they have been wedged. You know that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced and from electricity comes the lightning from whose flash we have light amid our greatest darkness.” (Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo)

The coming transition from a purely class-driven setting to a broader environment, encompassing Company Engagement and – later on – International Consulting Projects around the globe, hints at the importance of making the most out of this remaining period with the entire class before we all scatter like sand in the wind. Some of us are thinking of going into Venture Capital in Japan for the one-month break in July, others are keen to explore the healthcare sector in Switzerland, others again mention Hyperloop One in Dubai; the range is mind-boggling.

I personally find myself moving back and forth between the possibility of going for something completely out of the ordinary that will remain with me as a unique experience (think NGOs in Emerging Economies) or opt for a more strategic approach and select an industry I have a knack for in order to gain some precious on-the-job experience before graduating at the end of the year. The debate is still raging inside of me at this stage, fuelled by the desire for social conformity and a more risk-averse approach on one hand, while at the same time, I can’t deny the opposing desire to completely discard all those external factors and hope for the fire inside me to eventually burn brighter than the one around me. Rage on.



Shadows, apologies and learnings

“Go meet your shadow” is what the former biologist turned Jungian psychoanalyst tells me on the way out.

I reply with a short “Again, thank you for your time. Au revoir Margareta.” before shaking the lady’s hand and exiting the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center on IMD’s campus.

Every IMD MBA student can – for a good part of the program – benefit from a personal coach and analyst to gain insights into what it is that makes him or her tick. This offering is part of the Personal Development Elective and plays a central role in the leadership stream.

I like the idea of the shadow – an image of everything a subject refuses to acknowledge about him- or herself, containing self-denied qualities and impulses – and the belief that the less it is embodied in an individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.

However, the very process of opening to an analyst and going through the layers of my inner workings is something that I am still not very fond of. Maybe that does say something about me, or maybe it simply says something about the culture and environment I grew up in and was shaped by. Either way, I am willing to take that red pill and go down the rabbit hole for a little longer (the cinematic reference in that sentence will most likely have been spotted by millennial readers).  

Those introspective journeys remain a rarity though. The amount of time that went into reading, writing, analysing, preparing and presenting during the entire month of February and the fact that we will continue to be swamped with work all the way to Easter makes any attempt at procrastination futile. Time for self-reflection is a luxury these days, which I think is a pity. As a matter of fact, this post is actually overdue and the only reason I have opted to carve out some time for it now is because I have decided to choose this battle instead of the other ones revolving around Finance, the start-up project and their likes. I won’t even mention the countless books I brought with me from Zurich and was looking forward to delving into, but will most likely not even look at over the coming weeks. The false feeling of having entered a “rat-race” can sometimes resurge and although I believe that it is often much easier to lie about the state of one’s heart than we imagine, I find it relatively easy to dispel those feelings.

It is true that due to their previous studies and professional experiences, some of us are familiar with certain contents of the program. In fact, that is one of the benefits of studying here since a lot of knowledge can be gained through those participants. But so far, what I found out for myself is that I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand certain things without coming here and that this knowledge alone will hopefully serve me well beyond the program.

I have realised that growing up between two cultures and having worked in various places around the globe is not a vaccine against cultural blunders and I have apologised twice during the past two weeks for causing pain to people I consider myself very fortunate to study with.

I have come to understand how important it is to let go of wanting to control it all, since there is only so much one can accomplish over an entire day packed with personal and team deliverables. I must concede: the German in me finds this one very hard to implement.

I believe I have grown slightly better at putting more distance between myself and all the stuff that’s flying around us during the program, somehow insulating myself a bit better than I was able to during the previous years.

Despite the shortage of time, I have found ways and means to maintain regular contact with parents, siblings and close friends; something I wasn’t able to accomplish that well while working.

And although all this feels pretty new to me, I am also aware that some of the previous MBA batches most likely went through similar experiences. If that is indeed the case, I will hereby put the blame on my relative youth and finish by quoting one of my favourite authors:

“Young people get the foolish idea that what is new for them must be new for everybody else too. No matter how unconventional they get, they’re just repeating what others before them have done.” – Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses


Narrating the journey

As one of the four official bloggers who will share their MBA experiences at IMD, using this space to highlight both highs and lows (after all, experiencing setbacks and learning how to navigate through murky waters is also an integral part of a transformative journey) over the next 12 months, I think it only makes sense to use this first post of mine to explain why I decided to come here, describe what I hope to achieve through this blog and briefly introduce my background in the process, before Priyanka, Sathappan and Mohammed do the same over the next few days.

I was an avid reader of the IMD blog in the months prior to applying to the program in the summer of 2016 and often found myself wondering about what it is exactly that drives people to come here for a year before diving again into corporate arenas or entrepreneurial endeavours. Scrolling through CVs and LinkedIn profiles will only tell you so much since these descriptions can often be characterized as “masks” people wear and prefer to reveal to others. What I was specifically interested in while doing my research on the program was not so much the possibility to shake up one, two or all three variables (industry, function, country) and completely redefine one’s professional trajectory, or the possibility to more quickly advance within a specific sector through the acquisition of that coveted credential, but the transformative side of it.

How does the program affect someone’s understanding of doing business?

What will a candidate do differently in terms of management and how will his or her business acumen have changed/evolved after 12 months of such an intensive bootcamp?

What kind of new perspectives can someone gain while studying here?

In short: I was looking for acquired skills – soft and hard – as well as newly gained vantage points.

And because I couldn’t find the information I was looking for on various forums or blogs that seem to curate sheer endless amounts of positive and flattering posts about different MBA programs around the world, clearly making a blatant use of superlatives, I decided to meet and talk to former MBA students. Some of their answers did help to convince me and get on with applying to a program (IMD is the only MBA program I ended up applying for), but it also became obvious that different people have very different reasons for doing an MBA on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Some candidates are here because of IMD’s strong focus on leadership and teachings on how to maneuver through dilemmas, others are primarily interested in diversifying their career prospects. The start-up competition was also mentioned as a major reason by two of my classmates, while others look forward to the International Consulting Projects. Switzerland, a politically and economically stable country in a world governed by uncertainties, is also one of the many reasons why students decide to come here.

In my case, after spending 6+ years in financial services in Zurich, I also realised that – from here on – things would only go faster and faster and that taking a step back to look at the big picture would likely become more and more difficult. As a former participant in a very rapidly changing industry – driven by continuously increasing regulatory pressure and the emergence of new technologies, particularly appealing to the needs of digital-savvy consumers – and constantly having to think about the next chapter while being busy writing the current one, catching some degree of routine-blindness (the Germans have a great word for that: “Betriebsblindheit” – literally, “blinded by the process of doing”) was easy. Taking a step back is – at times – absolutely vital in order to avoid getting wrapped up in the intricacies of the machinery.

And although I did consider various other options for taking that step back (a sabbatical was one option for example), I concluded that doing an MBA at IMD would be a unique challenge that could potentially alterate my understanding of doing business, but also highlight new areas of personal development. It’s hard to say no to that.

I must add though: yes, an MBA is a very costly investment and it took me some time to let go of the guilt that I used to associate with investing that much money into my own personal development. I also admit that various readings, such as Mark Albion’s “More Than Money”, triggered some doubts and made me question the idea of pursuing an MBA for weeks in a row. I am also fully aware that going for this MBA can be interpreted as a sign of conformism and that – now that the program has started and my investment is made – it is to be expected that I can no longer retain a healthy distance to the events of the next 12 months and will likely feel inclined to rave about my experiences here and paint them in the best possible light. Mariana Zanetti perfectly describes this logic in her book “Is the MBA a profitable investment?”. 

Revealing struggles and difficulties exposes vulnerabilities and we may thus appear less desirable. In the case of this blog, I think it is safe to assume that potential employers will – at some point – stumble upon it and possibly feel less interested in students who do not easily jump through all the hoops and explain what it is in particular that challenges them. Yes, that may be the case.

But on the other hand, Switzerland continues to distinguish itself because of its relentless focus on quality and transparency, not just when it comes to manufactured goods, but also education. The country prides itself on bringing up well-rounded professionals that have been tested and challenged, fully believing in something that was remarkably summed up by Frederick Douglass:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Albeit from very different corners of the world, the people I have met so far at IMD all seem to share similar values and I am looking forward to struggle with them, while making it easier for future applicants to understand and relate to what goes on in the mind of a candidate.

I will therefore aim at trying my best to retain a balanced stance regarding the events of the coming months and use this blog to provide a rounded picture of what doing an MBA at IMD is like.