Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stanford GSB, Entry 5: The Second Week: Study Groups, Blue Angels, and Russians

We are now two weeks into classes (Two weeks and One Day since I’m posting this on Monday Night) – that means our “pre-term” is almost over (it’s actually only two and half weeks long), and after some wrap-up activities this week, we’ll move into the real “term” next week, when we’ll have grades and everything.

So here are some notes and observations about the second week. I’ve already given an overview of what we’ve learned in Strategy in my posting over the weekend – click on the link to entry 4 to the right if you’re interested in learning more about that class. I’ve promised to do the same for Microeconomics and Managerial Accounting, but I seem to keep getting distracted with reading assignments and study group meetings and what Professor Flanagan, our Economics professor, calls “merriment and diversions” - so will get to it eventually.

Read more!

#1: Our Study Group(s) Finally Seem to be Humming Along.

Each of the study groups seem to have settled into a pattern in the second week (this is good news, since there are only three weeks in the whole pre-term). During the first week, I heard many complaints about Study groups (no, I’m not telling who complained about whom, that’s confidential); By the second week most of the groups had gotten beyond the initial shock of having to negotiate with each other and started plowing through the large amount of reading and started working on the two group assignments we each had to present.

For example, my study group, after some negotiation, agreed to have some evening sessions in addition to the morning sessions, in order to balance the burden between the “night people” and the “morning people” (Yes, this took a little negotiation, and it’s still on-going!). We even ordered pizza in the GSB building at our first evening session – Round Table Pizza (a California chain with California-type prices - it cost us like $60 for two large pizzas – outrageous. It took me like 10 minutes to explain to the guy on the phone that GSB wasn’t an apartment building).

To counteract all the reading, we are assigning individual chapters to group members, who are responsible for creating summaries so that not all of us have to read every single chapter before every single class. (Oh wait-a-minute, our professors might be reading this blog, so what I really meant to say was that each of us is doing all of the readings assigned by our professors before every single class!)

We’ve also gotten to know each others strengths and weaknesses pretty quickly. For example: B. is great at presenting and PowerPoint, but not so experienced at accounting, L. is great at accounting and Excel but doesn’t like presenting so much, V. is really good with IRR and NPV, but likes to “discuss” strategy A LOT and thinks that 1 hour in the morning is not enough to discuss a single strategy case, while P. likes to keep our strategy discussions short and takes great notes on the whiteboard, but doesn’t like to create notes about the econ and accounting reading, J. is a good all around mediating force in the group, and, along with H., is pretty good at economics, and I’m, well, you’ll have to ask them! Though I certainly win the award for showing up late at most early morning study groups. [NOTE: names have been abbreviated to protect the innocent].

We’ve also gotten to know about each other’s personal circumstances - a few of us are married and have kids, while another needed to go out and buy his Porsche the morning of our case presentations (turns out the seller flaked out on him that day so we he was part of the presentation after all - this Porsche, if he buys it, might appear in the blog again this year I'm sure). Two of us (including yours truly) are still entrepreneurs with international businesses while at school (mine is in Pakistan, while the other is in Russia), so we often have to keep u with late night calls to our companies.

Despite all these differences, or perhaps because of them, we’ve all been willing to listen to each other and support each other [for the most part, except for the occasional yelling match like the one which broke out at one of our 7:45 am meetings one day last week – I’m sorry I can’t tell you any much more about that since I was still in bed asleep dreaming about the reading I had done late the night before ].

So the good news is: The Study Groups are finally working!

Now, for the bad news: Now that we’ve all gotten to know each other and have good habits forming in our study group, guess what? The pre-term is about over and we’ll have to form entirely new study groups and will have to go through this entire process again with the new groups starting next week. Doh!

#2: The Pressure is Off, For the Moment.

Each Study Group had to make two presentations based on “cases” – one for Managerial Accounting and one for Microeconomics. These presentations created the only “real” pressure during this pre-term (though there is lots of imagined pressure given all the readings and problems that were assigned to us, believe you me).

My study group did both presentations on Thursday, and since these were the only formal assignments we had to “hand in” during this pre-term, we’re effectively done. If you saw us on campus last weekend, or see us this week, and if we’re looking kind of relaxed, it’s not just the California weather…it’s cause we’ve already handed in our assignments and oh yeah, the pre-term isn’t graded anyways!

In general, the Sloan Fellows are a co-operative group, rather than a competitive one, at least from what we’ve seen so far. The program is designed to encourage a feeling of “we’re all in this together” from study group level up to the level of the entire class of Fellows, including the families and partners. We’ve had (at least) two alumni of the program speak to us thus far – one was a Sloan ’87 graduate who will be teaching the entrepreneur workshop later in the fall, and the other was John Foley ’97 (see the section below titled “I want to Fly Jet’s, Sir!”). They both told us how the class banded together and helped each other out. In John’s case, the class decided as a group that they would have an explicitly defined mission of “leaving no one behind”.

This is probably true of the two-year MBA’s as well, since they also are taught collaboratively to work in study groups (though we'll find out about them soon enough; they're just starting to arrive on campus this week).

But it seems that not all grad schools are like that. I heard a story from a friend of mine about one of the nation's top law schools. He said that many law school students are very competitive, because of their student rankings, and he offered up the following story: A law student that he knew, in his third year, he was ill and missed class one day.

I found this story unbelievable. So I asked him again to make sure I’d heard him right and if it was true. He insisted it was. This seems to me (to put it politely) just plain silly. I don't know if it's true or not, but if it is, then: NOTE FROM A GRADUATE BUSINES STUDENT TO GRADUATE LAW STUDENTS: Live a little.

#3: The Mind Meld has Started.

Those of you who watch Star Trek will recognize the term “Mind Meld” – but no I don’t mean that we are putting our hands on pressure points on each others faces and establishing telepathic links (though maybe there’s a little bit of that going on, I couldn’t really say) – what I mean is that the classes are starting to meld together in interesting ways.

This is one of the neat things about business school that wasn’t always present in undergrad – since the classes are all about different aspects of the same thing (business), there is definite area of overlap on the edge of each class.

In the second week of business school, we’ve started to see this already – in the Managerial Accounting Case our study group presented, we had to deal with issues of elasticity of demand, a concept from our Microeconomics class. In Econ, we have already started to deal with fixed costs and variable costs, concepts which we are heavily exploring in our accounting class. In Strategy, we started to deal with issues of Total Average Cost and Marginal Cost, which we learned about in Econ.

This is actually kind of neat, though having the curriculum so inter-related means that we can’t really blow off any of the existing subjects. In fact, our same professor from Microeconomics is going to be teaching us Macroecnomics soon enough, so I guess we have to pay attention.

#4: “I Want to Fly Jets, Sir!!”

So on Friday, at the end of our second week of class, we had a motivational talk from John Foley, who was a Stanford Sloan Fellow in 1997.

John is also an ex-member of the Blue Angels – yes that’s the Navy fighter group that does acrobatic air-shows around the country and the world. They fly F-18’s in very close formation, sometimes upside down, creating a dazzling display of technical and human prowess in their air-shows. John was there, along with some of his class members from the class of ’97, to talk to us about maximizing our experience in our year at Stanford.

After doing a stint doing VC work in Silicon Valley (he did graduate form the program back in 1997, during the dot com boom, after all) he is now a motivational speaker who shows video clips of the Blue Angels and uses lessons about how they achieve such high performance as part of his talks.

In fact it turns out that the Blue Angels fly these umpteen-ton, umpteen-million dollar jets within 3 feet of each other– yes that's 36 inches (for our international friends, that’s about a meter) apart. A direct quote: “I don’t think what the Blue Angels do is dangerous, it’s just unforgiving”. I’d say it is extremely dangerous but no doubt a very good example of high performance. I happen to be a student pilot and I wouldn’t feel comfortable if there was another plane within 300 feet of me, let alone 3 feet!

John’s speech was a mixture of inspirational stories, videos of the blue angels flying, and applying some of the principles he learned there and in his year as a Sloan Fellow. The Blue Angels, he explained, were the top one-tenth of the top one-tenth of one percent when it came to jet pilots (I believe it given some of the things they have to do). He drew the analogy that we (the Sloans at Stanford GSB) were like them in a way, the top one-tenth of 1 percent (I don’t know about this; Once you get into the real world and away from structured hierarchies like med school, law school, and the military, I don’t think you can rank people so easily). Regardless of where we fall on the map, his point was that for people that are already top performers, whether fighter jet pilots, top athletes, or in the business world, a 1% improvement can make a world of difference. That was a very interesting point I had never really thought about before.

Sometimes, though, high performance can only come with the right amount of teamwork. We saw video clips not only of the Blue Angels flying, but of how they prepare for their flights. They do an extensive briefing which includes a visualization of every part of the flight; it was pretty interesting. Being a student pilot myself, this made sense to me. They make sure that each part of their flights are coordinated, with what they call a center-point for each maneuver, and verbal and visual marks that they can look at to see if they and there colleagues are off – because at the speeds they go – over 1000 miles an hour, and the distances between them, even a few inches can be a very costly mistake.

How did he deal with all of the reading that the GSB students have assgned? His answer was: "Yes, It's a lot of reading". Then after a pause, with a knowing smile: "If you bother to do it."I thought I detected a wink and a nod there about the necessity of doing all the reading that's assigned to us.

Another element of his personal story that I found interesting was that he wanted to fly F-18’s ever since he was very young, but at each stage of his career, he seemed to get de-toured. They didn’t let him into the Air Force because of some technicality. Then later, in college, he joined the Marines. At first they didn't take his wanting to fly jets seriously, but then they sent him to flight training. After his flight training, they wouldn’t let him fly F-18’s because he was too young. He ended up going on what were considered not very great assignments. But each detour led to its own set of interesting experiences. In fact, one of those diversions, he happened to be on the USS Enterprise (no, not Star Trek, in this case the aircraft carrier) in the Indian Ocean when the movie Top Gun was filmed. He said that he’s actually one of the fighter pilots shown on the aircraft carrier at the very beginning of the movie. I found this to be very interesting because I believe that sometimes we get to where we want to go not by following the normal path, but by following what seem like diversions but turn out to be integral parts of our individual paths to success.

OK, OK, so for the Trivia Pursuit purists, I quoted the wrong 1980’s military movie in the title of this section (“I Want to Fly Jets, Sir” was actually spoken by Richard Gere in “An Officer and Gentleman”, and not Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”).

One thing I noticed is that John probably wasn’t as used to making presentations in front of international groups – he sometimes came across as, well, an American military guy who’s gone into business trying to “pump up” the troops. While this works great in a sales convention in the good old U.S. of A., that aspect of it might not have worked so well in a group that is more than one third international (don't get me wrong, the talk was quite successful overall).

In Example: In one of the videos he showed from his visit to Russia, a Russian pilot was tapping him in the chest, a bit aggressively, saying “Me Pilot, You Pilot”. He took this to mean that the guy was challenging him and when he took the Russian pilot up in his F-18, he did some intense maneuvers, intending to impress on him that our pilots have the “Right Stuff” too. This he proceeded to do by going into a 6-G climb (maybe it was 4-G or 9-G, I can’t really remember), in which the Russian went unconscious for a moment. This struck me as a little over the top and completely unnecessary, but he proceeded to tell us that after the flight he and the Russian pilot, who was a "hero of the Soviet Union", proceeded to be great friends. John spent a lot of time with the guy’s family and they even went to the ballet together during his time in Moscow. The piont of his story was that a relationship could change quickly.

#5: A Russian Perspective

We happen to have more than one Russian in our class and it’s interesting to get their perspective on Americans. When I asked one of our resident Russians about the pilot episode, he said: “that Russian guy probably only knew one or two words in English, so he was probably just trying to be friendly, that’s all.” Oops.

In another example, this weekend, a few of us went out to see the new movie, Righteous Kill, with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, about NYC cops investigating a serial murderer. In the movie, there is a tough Russian who, despite having been shot nine times, is still alive, though hovering near death. One of the Americans is tyring to revive the Russian, and starts yelling a Russian word, Svoboda, over and over again, alternating it with what we think is the English translation, "Wake Up! Wake Up!".

Of course, we had one of our Russian classmates, Valeriy with us, who started laughing. The word they were repeating in the movie, Svoboda, had nothing to do with “Wake Up”. He told us it means “Freedom” in Russian. *Sigh*, Hollywood gets it wrong, again.

But then again the Sloan program is pretty unique that way. We can get an international perspective from any major country simply by turning around and talking to someone from that country, since so many companies are represented in our class.

This really started to become apparent in the second week. When we did the case on Wal-mart, we were able to turn to our Korean and Japanese and Chilean friends to find out why Wal-mart’s strategy didn’t work so well in those countries.

That is one of the things I really like about being at Stanford GSB in general, and the Sloan Fellows program in particular.

In fact, I think that is “Kruto”, which Valeriy tells me is the correct Russian translation for very “Cool”!

SPECIAL DISCLAIMER: the opinions and experiences recounted in these blog entries about my year at Stanford Business School for the Sloan Program are my own personal observations and ranting. This blog is not endorsed by either the Stanford GSB or by any of my fellow Fellows.

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Anonymous rich said...

thanks for giving us a view "inside" a top business school program - your posts are hilarious!

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that one of your class assignments needs to be: Establish the micro AND macroeconomic benefits of "merriment and diversions."

4:15 PM  

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