Engaging with the next generation of leaders

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In 2015, I had the pleasure of guest speaking at a panel of prospective INSEAD applicants in Zurich. It had been some time since I participated actively in the school’s outreach and alumni activities.

As I walked along the Limmat on a crisp fall early evening, I felt slightly nervous. I remembered clearly being in that potential student chair and thinking “why would they choose me?” over the other thousands of applicants. Yet, a full ten years after attending INSEAD, I found myself equally nervous wondering “what do I really have to tell them” and “why would they listen to me”? At the same time, I felt strangely happy and excited. I reflected on the why. I met some of my best friends during that very special year at INSEAD. In my mind a significant percentage of the people in that room would be attuned, in ambition and background, to those friends. For me, being in that room would bring back the happy moments I associated with the school experience, a fast paced learning environment and strong friendship bonds. I had a strong sense of passion and purpose accompanying me and this gave me a lot of energy.

So I used the remainder of the walk to review a few points about my experience. During these moments I kept repeating to myself, “how would you behave if you were not afraid”? It sounds odd, but when you are in front of hundred people or more the feeling that people might judge you a bad speaker, that you will forget how to answer a question and all sorts of nonsense runs through my mind. This “fear” can lead to stilted and calculated answers at best and a painful experience for both speaker and audience at worst. But if I choose to focus instead on where the energy is coming from, then clarity and authenticity set the tone of my mental notes.

What I learned during the MBA/Executive MBA prospective applicant panel discussion:

  1. keep it “real” – I learned that many prospective MBA students today are still worried about many of the same things I worried about in 2004/5, financing the year and whether their career ambitions will be delivered upon. I didn’t sugar coat my experience. I took a massive loan at an outrageous interest rate before graduate school and had no idea what I would really be doing next. It is ok to feel like this, many students don’t really have a “calling” and it is part of the journey to try and find it out. You might also not be successful in finding it immediately (or ever). I knew I wanted to expand my experience beyond Finance and be closer to the customer and a creative field, given my passion for the arts. I also shared that contrary to many a myth, you will not be given people leadership experience in the classical sense of direct reports if you are changing fields, nor should you take this for granted upon graduation. This depends on your experience, but if you didn’t have it clearly before, people might want to “test” your ability to lead others in other ways before that transition is done. The MBA is like a very nice business card, but only “proving” it in practice will truly get you there.
  2. keep it “close” – I learned that having a great moderator is critical to be able to adjust on the fly to your audience. I was very fortunate that ours was extremely engaging and “drew” a few facts out of the audience before the discussion started. I used these facts to adjust my points and address specific people in the audience during my answers. Especially for the women, I confirmed that the fact INSEAD was a one-year program mattered a lot to me. I was not so confident about spending two years away from the job market. I didn’t know what my personal life would bring and some of them might be considering having children or have them already. I knew for sure I would have a pile of debt at the very end and it would be almost twice as high after a two year program. For the Finance professionals in the room (a few in Zurich) I confessed I did calculate my personal net present value (NPV) when choosing which MBA to apply for. It got me a few laughs from the audience.
  3. everyone has something “unique” – I learned that my experience in its nuances is unique and that the majority of MBA applicants is still looking for a significant career change after graduation. I learned I should be grateful more often for my own personal situation. I managed to transition function, industry and country straight out of INSEAD. Ten years after I was fortunate to be a woman leading a team of global marketing professionals in a multi-billion dollar division of a leading healthcare company.  I had no idea where the journey after INSEAD would take me when it started. I answered questions about what this transition meant and how I achieved it. I admitted I was skeptical about the “the world is your oyster” motto I kept hearing at the school. But 15 months after graduating I broke even on my investment. And what an amazing decade I have had since, when I compare myself to the “me” in the year when I was putting that application together.

I was approached by several people afterwards telling me that when I stepped physically closer to them and used open gestures had given them a sense of being approachable. I did not do this consciously, but I made a mental note to continue this on future occasions. Spontaneous positive immediate feedback feels great, although I wondered what I could have done better. I made another mental note afterwards to be the one to prompt this specifically. I think it is more unlikely I will hear constructive feedback otherwise.

A lot of women approached me after the event with a similar question: how did I get “as a woman” specifically “from here to there”? I felt in some still the hesitation about whether a business education was right for them. They were not sure of whether the same pathway is possible, whether they will be accepted in the school and what does it really take to be a “leader”. No man approached me with similar questions, maybe they reserved those questions to the male alumni. Maybe they never asked, something else to double check on a next opportunity.

I told each that being in that room was a first step in recognising the ambition, and  to be truthful to yourself about some of the things you really want to try. If you’re already leading people, and just feel you need to broaden business and leadership skills, go for an Executive MBA or the right Executive education instead. If you have a few years’ experience and looking for more radical changes, consider the MBA. If financing is your issue, today there is prodigy finance (apologies for the blunt promotion). If you are unsure of whether you get accepted, you can keep the application to yourself until you get a formal message confirming this. As for being a good leader… well, I don’t think I knew how to answer that question on the day. In this post I will say that personally the self-questioning of my abilities as a leader has not left me. And I think this is a good thing. Some days you are a better leader than others, and I never ever feel perfect. For any women readers considering further education, I would say – think about it in another way, what is your worst case scenario? That you find you enjoyed your previous job better? That you will never have a job again? Think about it. If you have two people willing to put in the effort of writing a personal letter of recommendation vouching for your leadership potential in a MBA application, you have a fallback plan already. Trust me on this.

Finally, I also learned that it is this feeling that I carry with me – that I share my personal achievement with people like those in the audience, the amazing professors at INSEAD, the people who granted me a much needed scholarship –  that makes me want to engage with the school and “give back” my time whenever I can. Some years more, others less, but whenever it is possible. I would also like to recognise that the ability to share some of the concepts and feelings I expressed above, like passion or purpose, I have learned from a great coach. Here I am, starting my own writings as an adventure. A personal thank you for your flexible support, the journey of self-growth is ever ongoing.