Friday, April 29, 2011

Networking and How to Start a Conversation

In Business School we are constantly reminded of the benefits of expanding our personal and professional networks. For some, this comes easy. For others, we need a little help as first time interactions with strangers can be daunting. Trent at The Simple Dollar, a personal finance blog I read, has 20 ways to start conversations and build connections with people.

A few tips that I found useful were to have a current event on the tip of your tongue and to make sure you listen more than you talk. A current event can be a good conversation starter because it's much more interesting than "So, how about the weather today" and most people enjoy some stimulating conversation and the chance to give their perspective on things. My advice would be to pick a topic that isn't too political, religious, or obscure and think of a few things you can say about it.

The other point about listening ties right into this. I find maintaining a conversation much easier than beginning one. Usually if you spend time listening to what the other person is saying you'll be able to play off their statements with some input or questions of your own. It's also important to remember not to talk more than 50% of the time. In fact, I'd shoot for far less than 50%. If you initiate the conversation and then dominate it people will feel that you are just talking at them and not interested in what they think or say. I call these people Talkaholics and most people avoid eye contact with these people when they walk into the room for fear of being trapped in a one sided, boring conversation. People quickly bore when they feel like they aren't really part of the conversation and instead feel like they are listening to a speech. Keep your part of the conversation to short statements or questions and you'll find an engaging back and forth conversation is pretty easy to maintain--unless your new acquaintance ends up being a Talkaholic!

For 20 great conversation tips check out the article on The Simple Dollar here: 20 Ways to Start a Conversation.

Monday, April 11, 2011

1st Year Almost Over!

It's hard to believe that my classmates and I are in the final stretch of our first year in the Jenkins MBA program at NC State. Four more weeks till exams are over! Then, a few short days of rest or travel before we begin our summer internships. Time has definitely flown by and it's hard to believe I'm halfway through my MBA already.

Looking back on my first year I have the benefit of hindsight and there are a few things I've realized. I see now that I shouldn't have been so stressed the first month of school. Yes it was hard. Yes, I wondered at times if I could handle the work load, but I realize now how quickly you adapt. It's so much easier to consume large amounts of knowledge each class period now and actually understand how to apply it. Note I said easier, definitely not easy!

Another thing I've realized is that I haven't taken full advantage of getting to know my professors. I am well aware of the benefit of building strong relations with classmates and how my network will be one of the most valuable things I gain in B-school. I'm only recently realizing the same could be said for my professors. They have a vast amount of academic knowledge and many have great industry experience as well. I plan on making it a priority next year to get to know my professors better and to seek out more interaction with them. They are always communicating a willingness to interact with us outside of class and I should take advantage of the offer.

For more ways to get the most out of your MBA experience, Poets and Quants has another good article you should check out here. 25 ideas to make the most of your MBA

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Do You Need to Scrub Your Facebook Profile?

Here's a good article from a website you should have on your MBA radar.

Here's an excerpt:

The social media antics of MBA applicants are fast becoming a new area of scrutiny for admissions officials at many top business schools. In fact, one prominent MBA admissions consulting firm has even begun to offer a “social media audit” to prepare for applicants for Google and Facebook searches by admissions teams.
The company, Chicago-based The MBA Exchange, combs the Internet for damaging information left on websites by applicants or their friends: from a Foursquare check-in at a strip club to a Flickr photo of drunken friends at an out-of-control house party.

This article is geared toward the MBA admissions process but is equally valid for those of us looking to get back into the workforce after graduation.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The MBA Show

Here's a link to a great video podcast that I follow. The MBA Show

Each week, MIT MBA students Tom Rose and Miro Kazakoff discuss MBA topics and relevant business stories in a funny and often insightful way. I love seeing these two guys exercising their creativity and I know how hard it must be to produce this each week with the demands on time for a full time MBA student. I think partaking in creative ideas like this while still in school are an excellent way for future MBAs to stand out from the crowd. Even though Tom and Miro have a lot of fun doing this, I think it's going to pay off handsomely when it comes time to evaluate job offers.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Business is People

A recurring theme we hear in the Jenkins MBA program at NC State is that businesses are looking for MBA graduates that have good people skills. This is echoed by the companies themselves when they come to campus for recruiting sessions. The days of the lone wolf MBA superstar are fading and companies now are looking for leaders that interact well with their team and the people they are charged with managing. It doesn't matter how effectively you accomplish a project if you burn a lot of bridges to get there.

This article at the Harvard Business Review drives this point home. It's a quick and interesting read about how getting fired by now Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz led to a revelation in the author's business life.

HBR online: Why I'm Glad I Got Fired

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Strengths and Weaknesses

If your response to the often used interview question, "name your weaknesses" is a variation of the cheesy "Gosh, sometimes I just work too hard", then you need to rethink your response. Hiring managers and HR personnel aren't stupid. They know that this is a left field question and they want to see how you handle it. What they are really looking for is insight into how self aware you are. The only way to screw this up is to give a canned response like the one above or be so completely clueless as to start listing your most oddball personality characteristics.

What you need is the middle ground. Something that seems like a real weakness that you have discovered through some actual self examination but at the same time, isn't going to be detrimental to the hiring process. The most important thing you need to do is actually examine yourself and career to identify these types of things--and then work to improve them. To be safe, you should discuss business skill development areas, not major personality issues.

Here are some types of responses that fit into this middle category of real issues that ultimately aren't going to torpedo your chances at the position.

"My presentation skills are ok but I realize to take my career to the next level I need to become the type of communicator that is highly effective in presentations to upper management and external customers. I've plan to improve this by....."

"I'm always working on patience. I like to get things done and can sometimes become frustrated when a project moves along slower than I anticipated. I'm learning that flexibility is a key trait in an effective manager and that some systems that slow a process down are there for good reasons."

And finally, something that can be pretty powerful is to highlight something you are aware of and currently working to improve.

"My Excel skills aren't as strong as I'd like them to be so I've recently enrolled in an advanced Excel class that is helping me bridge the gap between where I am and where I want to be."

Ultimately, work on responses that are right for you and your situation. Just make sure they aren't too canned or ingenious or too personal and you'll do fine. The most important thing most interviewers want to see is that you can think on your feet and actually give a good answer to this question.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Summer Internships

Most full-time MBA programs require a summer internship between your first and second year. These are not the low level internships you might have had in college but are pretty challenging jobs where you often get to interact with senior executives. Some of my fellow classmates are working with large Biopharma companies and Fortune 50 oil companies for example. My internship this summer is with a business technology development center. I'll have the opportunity to be a summer consultant for two small tech startups as they seek to manage their companies and growth their market. I debated whether to pursue the typical Fortune 500 internship or this opportunity. Ultimately, I decided that I would really enjoy getting to wear many different hats and function at a higher decision level with these small companies. I think the internship will be challenging and exciting and I'm looking forward to applying all the things I've been studying over the past 8 months.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Senate Bill to Stop Foreign Student Brain Drain

I came across an article that might be of interest to a lot of MBA students considering foreign students make up 40% of many programs. Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar are working on legislation that would allow more foreign graduates of U.S. universities to stick around and start their own businesses here in the United States.

From speaking to many of my international classmates I know how difficult it can be to live and work here a year or two after graduation. This proposed bill would allow foreign graduates of U.S universities to be sponsored by investors to continue to live here and create businesses. This makes a lot of sense to me and would result in job creation and knowledge worker retention here in the United States.

To read more check out the article: Stopping the Brain Drain: Senators Pitch Immigration Reform

Friday, March 18, 2011

Real MBA

One thing we emphasize here at North Carolina's Jenkins MBA program is the word Real. What is meant by the tagline "The Real MBA" is that we form key alliances with real companies to work on real projects. In my second semester I'm already working on an actual software sourcing project for a $2 Billion dollar health care company where we are tasked with saving at least $600,000 from their software procurement budget each year. At first I wondered how we could even accomplish this but the funny thing is, by applying what we are learning in our Supply Chain class we are developing a plan that should easily save much more than our target savings. We speak weekly with the Chief Procurement Officer and CIO who are working with our team and eventually our report will be sent on to the CEO of this organization where it will be implemented. The fact that we are getting experience as both external consultants and supply chain analysts if extremely valuable to us when we are only 1/3 of the way through our MBA degree.

There are dozens of other opportunities in the Jenkins MBA program to work for real companies, from initial start ups to Fortune 50 companies. Without this program I don't think I would have had this same opportunity and it's another benefit of getting an MBA at a nationally recognized school.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Getting There

Just a quick update on the Jenkins MBA full-time class of 2012.

We felt pretty overwhelmed our first semester but I think we all finally adjusted nicely towards the middle and end of the semester. It turns out, our second semester is nearly twice as demanding. That's probably an exaggeration but that's how it feels right now. We stay pretty busy with readings, case studies, projects, and career fairs. The surprising thing about it all though is that it's still pretty fun. I really do enjoy the classroom interaction with the professors and every day I learn so much more that will eventually help me when I get back into the workforce.

Today we all attended the Carolina MBA connection, a career fair that caters to MBA students in the top 4 MBA programs in North Carolina. Sometimes these feel like a cattle call but they do have their place and are of some benefit when that internship offer or job offer finally comes through.

I'm definitely putting in longer hours during my MBA than when I was working full time but the potential pay off in my career trajectory is worth it I think. My advice to you is if you are considering pursuing an MBA degree, be prepared to stay very busy but expect to enjoy the ride.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Harvard Changes Course

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article online about the curriculum changes going on at Harvard and other elite B-schools. These schools are starting to realize that a business education must focus on more than just making profit and social connections and instead must begin to focus on ethics and social responsibility. It's hard to tell if some of this may just be positioning by the schools as they seek cover from the fallout of the financial crisis or if it will be long lasting. Fair or not, many have blamed business schools for turning out grads who focused solely on profits, sometimes at the expense of ethics and responsible behavior, and to their credit, business schools appear to be listening. Since the elite B-schools tend to be the trend setters, I'd expect similar announcements to start coming from many other schools.

For current MBAs I think it's important to note that businesses are also much more focused on ethics and teamwork from their MBA hires than ever before. I know at the Jenkins MBA program here at NC State we are hearing this theme over and over from the companies that come to campus to recruit our grads. It appears that the days of the Lone Ranger MBA are dwindling and the most successful grads of the future won't be individual superstars but effective team players capable of leading people in the profitable pursuit of responsible business practices.

Check out the article online by clicking below for more details.
Wall Street Journal - Harvard Changes Course

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Laspeyres, CPI, and Bond Rates, Oh My!

I'm sure that catchy and fascinating title caught your eye. Before I lose all of you to the slow glazing over of eyes and ever increasing slack jaw, let me explain the title and why this could influence whether you retire in Venice Beach, CA or Vinnie's retirement village.

First, in brief, a Laspeyres index is what is used to develop the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which measures how much goods are increasing in price over time, otherwise known as inflation. The problem that Economists have with the Laspeyres index is that they think it overstates the actual effect of inflation by as much as 1% and that a 3% rise in inflation really doesn't leave us a full 3% less well off, income staying the same. We won't get into the details of why it might overstate the effects of inflation but we will focus on one benefit of this overstatement.

So, why is this of interest to you and me? There are two main types of U.S. Treasury backed securities that are tied to inflation and specifically to the CPI. These securities are I Bonds and TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities). In a nutshell, these Bonds provide a set yield or base rate and then adjust based on inflation. So for example, if the base rate is 1.5% and the CPI index states that inflation was 3%, the yield would be 1.5% + 3% for a 4.5% yield. Economists' problem with the Laspeyres index used for CPI would seem to indicate that the actual inflation effect was only 2% in this example therefor providing a 1% higher realized yield than intended. While a 4.5% yield isn't much, it is completely safe since it's backed by the US Government. Trust me, if the Government defaults on its obligations you will have much bigger problems than your yield rate.

Where you might benefit from this is by being able to reduce your exposure to riskier investments and moving into more secure options as you come closer to meeting your retirement goals. Practically speaking then, if your retirement goal is to make X percent over inflation you might actually be able to meet that goal with lower risk than you initially thought--as long as we don't develop another index that correlates better with the actual effects of inflation. Venice Beach is nice this time of year.

To further explore this topic in detail here's a much more academic read. Journal of Economic Perspectives: Getting Prices Right

Saturday, January 29, 2011

How to Tax the Rich

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, wrote a thought provoking yet humorous piece for the Wall Street Journal about the country's financial troubles and inevitable upcoming taxation proposals. I really liked his insight into how script writers use the "bad version" approach to get creative juices flowing on a solution to a difficult problem.

For an interesting and entertaining read check out the article.
How to Tax the Rich - Wall Street Journal Online

Monday, January 24, 2011

Time Value of Money: or, I'm a Millionaire! It's Just in Future Dollars.

Business schools teach some pretty simple but extremely practical skills that can be useful in everyday life. For example, the time value of money is a simple concept where a set amount of money is worth less in the future than it is today. If given the chance, we would all take $10,000 today rather than $10,000 in 3 years, and would do this without thinking. Beside the fact that humans like immediate gratification, there is also a purely mathematical reason for choosing the $10,000 today. The reason for this is what Economists refer to as opportunity costs. An opportunity cost is your next best option forgone, such as taking the money now to invest so you have more than $10,000 in 3 years. Simply explained, if you had the $10,000 today you could deposit it into a CD at 3% and in 3 years you would have $10,927. That additional $927 is an opportunity cost of turning down the money now for $10,000 in 3 years.

Since opportunity costs are your next best alternative, that 3% is just an example. Perhaps you've found a sure-fire business plan (act now, time is running out!) that will make you a millionaire in 3 years and you just need $10,000 to start today. Your opportunity cost of passing on the $10,000 now just got a lot higher.

That first choice was easy, now for a harder question. Would you rather have $10,000 today or $20,000 in 5 years? The first thing to do is determine what kind of yearly return would turn $10,000 into $20,000 in 5 years. The answer is fairly close to 15%, so your decision should be based on just one thing. Is 15% the best return you think you could reasonably and safely make or do you have a reliable, risk weighted option that will return more than 15% a year? If you can't make more than 15% yearly some other way then the $20,000 in 5 years is your best decision. Another way of saying the same thing is that at a 15% return a year, $20,000 in 5 years is only worth $10,000 today.

By knowing how to calculate time value of money and your opportunity cost (discount rate and risk premium) you can make educated financial decisions when faced with time value of money questions. My hope for all of you is that you win the lottery and need to use time value of money calculations to decide whether to take the yearly payments or the lump sum. Or just pay a business student to do it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Changing Almost Anything

Tony Schwartz has an interesting article at the Harvard Business Review online on making change last. He outlines 6 key steps for changing almost anything.

Ingenious research by Roy Baumeister and others has demonstrated that our self-control is a severely limited resource that gets progressively depleted by every act of conscious self-regulation....Put simply, the more behaviors are ritualized and routinized — in the form of a deliberate practice — the less energy they require to launch, and the more they recur automatically

What follows are our six key steps to making change that lasts:

How do you think this could apply to a corporate culture shift or switching business strategies?