Jan 19 2015
10 Things I Learned During My First Semester at Johnson
With the first semester now behind us, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks sleeping until 10 a.m., decompressing, and answering questions from family and friends about how things at Cornell are going. There has been a common question from some, which is, “Are you learning anything?” I start by explaining that I definitely feel different, though during my first few responses it was hard to pin down exactly why or how. I know I’m better equipped to solve complicated problems, examine financial statements, and a whole host of other critical business functions. But this question had me thinking, what exactly have I learned? For all said family and friends, and for those considering business school (and by this I mean Johnson!), here are 10 things I learned during my first semester.
- Critical and strategic thinking. This semester was the first time Johnson integrated a Critical and Strategic Thinking course as a mandatory component of the Core curriculum. It wasn’t until devouring the entire first season of Serial, the popular investigative NPR podcast that I realized what an impact the course had on me. Breaking the case down into a detailed timeline, checking biases, considering a variety of plausible alternatives, defending both sides and arriving at the most logical option, and repeating the cycle for each new stage or evidence introduced – I realized this exercise is now a familiar rhythm.
- Peer leadership and feedback. I came to Johnson with constructive feedback from previous managers that I could improve upon my diplomacy and influence skills. Those who know me are likely laughing at this. I worked at a small firm where my tendency was to roll up my sleeves and plow ahead to get things done, so that my initiatives did not go wherever aspirational ideas go to die at small companies. I wasn’t always successful at consensus building. After a few Core group projects of royally butchering these skills, I received helpful feedback from peers and learned when the time is right to make my case, when to let ideas die, and how to get others on-board. I also learned how to share feedback, a required exercise for all projects that I admit to being less than thrilled about. Looking at it now, I see this as a valuable skill when it comes time to influence behavior while remaining objective and inoffensive. This is easier for some than others!
- Working in diverse teams. Prior to Johnson, I studied finance at a small liberal arts university in the South, interned at an investment bank, and worked at a financial services consulting firm. As you can imagine, these are not exactly the exemplars of diversity; my Core team on the other hand, was incredibly so. Here’s my team breakdown: Polish, Indian by way of South Africa, Chinese, Southern Californian and Midwestern ex-military. I’m from Boston. I feel fortunate to have had a remarkably functional and enjoyable team from across the globe. I’ve learned an immense amount about different cultural norms and work styles, and have gained valuable perspective on looking at problems in different ways – all expanding my global business perspective.
- Getting things done. In the first couple weeks, we have a mandatory Core course called Leading Teams. This course was instrumental in making my last two points success stories. It also had a module on motivation – for you and for others. The takeaways from these sessions were fairly tactical but incredibly effective: setting stretch goals, aligning your network for accountability, creating initiation triggers, and building self-efficacy. My team jokes that I have 48 hours in a day; I credit much of my productivity improvements to this course. Business school is an incredible lesson in time management and prioritization. Executing like a maniac against lists, keeping a detailed calendar and finding ways to squeeze productivity out of tiny or inconvenient windows of time has helped me get things done and expand my belief of what is humanly capable in one day. It has been almost impossible to reduce this pace during the holidays, much to my family’s dismay!
- Focusing on the big picture and not sweating the small stuff. As a direct result of balancing multiple priorities and projects, letting some things go is a necessity. I arrived at Johnson as a perfectionist. I probably still am to some degree but I’ve developed perfectionist management skills. My Core team helped me to realize that I had a tendency to focus too much on the mechanics and details of how to implement solution strategies, when really what was important was nailing the message and big picture of why these strategies work, and how to make them pop with great presentations or research papers.
- Networking and career development skills. I’ve recommended Steve Dalton’s The 2-Hour Job Search, part of Johnson’s pre-orientation required reading, to several people already. This book changed the way I think about pursuing great jobs, and outlines key tactics and strategies on how to be more effective in that chase. Through Johnson’s Career Work Groups, the Consulting Club’s mock interview session in New York, and NovAspire’s on-campus mock interview session, I’m much less of a stumbling fool when somebody asks me to talk about myself – not an inconsequential interview skill.
- Executive presence and public speaking. Through a number of group project presentations, club elections, and case competitions, I am well on my way to achieving one of my top objectives for business school – becoming a stronger public speaker. While I have a ways to go before achieving “executive presence,” many Johnson initiatives have me actively thinking about how I can improve in this area. Professor Angela Noble-Grange’s module in the Critical and Strategic Thinking course has already helped me to make significant strides for correcting bad speech habits such as hedge words such as “sort of” and making more assertive, direct asks.
- Valuation analysis and accounting building blocks. I studied finance as an undergrad and worked at a financial services consulting firm. Yet, if you asked me to build a Discounted Cash Flow model to assign a valuation to a project or explain a bad debt expense, I would have been lost. As a future manager, employers may look to me to handle these problems. I feel much better prepared for these tasks.
- Case analysis and problem solving frameworks. Johnson has a strong Consulting Club and numerous resources for preparation in this field. Working closely with the club and its advisors, completing Professor Randy Allen’s Ace the Case course, and the number of case prep sessions held on-campus by leading firmshave helped me to become a distinctly more organized problem solver. Much like my issues with “letting things go,” I’m now able to remain focused on the big picture, identify key sub problems in a more organized manner, look for the right data, and provide structured solutions. I assure you it’s not as clean as described above, but when my family had a dilemma over the holidays, I responded with the Minto Pyramid Principle, fully MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) thought process; so, I know I am at least making progress!
- Dealing with being surrounded by excellence. When I first became part of the Johnson family, I was intimidated. Everybody I met had impressive work and academic backgrounds, major accolades, spoke multiple languages, started their own company, etc. I spent six weeks of the first semester fighting to earn my place. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving that I really started to “run my own race.” I continue to have many moments where I find myself immensely impressed by my classmates, but rather than retreat or compete, I more often acknowledge the opportunity to learn from them. Being in the company of greatness has forced me to admit my weaknesses, look for peer guidance, and double down on my strengths.