This growth, adds CEIBS’ Pablo Che León Sarmiento, can only come from learning alongside MBA peers. “You could argue that this could have been achieved through a series of psychological tests,” he admits. “I would add, it’s the same argument as learning business from just reading books. However, the point is that it was not until I joined CEIBS, despite previously having received feedback from friends and reading business books, that I was able to put into active practice these changes in my life. Business school has been a transformative experience because it allowed me to not only become a better business manager but also a better person.”
GAINING PERSPECTIVE AND FLEXIBILITY
It also exposed the Best & Brightest to a wide range of personalities and backgrounds – something that only enriched the class’ learning experience. At Duke Fuqua, Ashley Brown took classes with students from across the globe. Their unique stories and differing viewpoints, she says, reinforced how she needed to approach each person and situation with “a more open and curious mindset.” Michal Benedykcinski deepened his leadership skills during team projects – a process of “trial-and-error” that sometimes laid bare his limitations. In the process, he learned when he needed to step up – and when it was best to yield the floor and contribute.
“The Wharton experience of working across multi-cultural teams instilled in me the firm belief that lasting success is not achieved through individual drive alone, but through active collaboration,” he observes.
Benedykcinski wasn’t the only Best & Brightest who learned to appreciate differences as an MBA student. For 11 years, Larissa Reinprecht worked for the same company as a project manager. While this situation enabled her to shoulder some critical responsibilities, it came with a drawback: “One learns to navigate ambiguity and egos in a way that is very specific to that corporate culture and its demographic profile.” At ESMT Berlin, Reinprecht became immersed in a different cultural model, one that valued merit over incumbency.
“The flat hierarchies in school study groups are a very interesting element that makes leadership take a stronger facilitation and service aspect. You lead not because you’re an expert, elder, or the boss, but because you’re legitimately seen as most helpful to the whole group in that position.”
WANT THE RIGHT ANSWER? ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION
That doesn’t mean the Class of 2019 has turned into selfless do-gooders who spend their study sessions harmonizing to “Kumbaya.” Take the University of Chicago Booth’s Anish Bhatnagar. He isn’t afraid to call himself “stubborn,” a politically incorrect term in many human resources offices. Why should he be afraid? That stubbornness – that uncompromising inability to accept mediocrity in himself – enabled Bhatnagar to become the youngest person ever selected to Citigroup’s TIGER program for high-performing employees…and graduate first in his class too. For Bhatnagar, the biggest transformation involved knowing when an ego could be a positive – and knowing when it could undermine him.
“Presenting in front of 50+ people? A little bit of ego is probably a good thing so that you appear confident and articulate to your audience. Deciding your new company’s strategy when there are other companies out there that might squash you? Ego can hurt you because if you’re overconfident and don’t take into account potential competitors, your business could fail rapidly. Business school forces you to put yourself and your ideas out there in a way that I never experienced before, helping me become better at figuring out when to take my “ego” hat off.”
Bhatnagar’s classmate, Alexander Daifotis, internalized a similar lesson. A former investment manager at Bridgewater Associates, Daifotis describes himself as a “quant-turned-poet.” In this role, he says, he became good at using research to find “good answers to hard questions.” At Booth, he learned that he could get the best answers by reversing that order.
“Through my MBA, I like to think that I’ve gotten better at asking the right hard questions or more colloquially, “being at the right place at the right time.” In Professor Schrager’s New Venture Strategy class, he encourages us to think of business as a race against time where eventually everyone gets the right answer, but there is never enough time to answer every possible question. Thus, those who ask the right questions first, win.”
LEARNING TO PRIORITIZE AND LET GO
This instinct to scale back – to prioritize – also inexorably shaped the experience of Rahul Goyal. During his consulting career, Goyal worked to be the guy who would “do everything and be everywhere.” At Columbia Business School, he recognized the value of letting go, focusing his time and energy instead on what would ultimately yield the biggest return.
“There will always be so much happening that you cannot participate in each and every activity at school and it is possible to get massive FOMO,” he explains. “Trying to be physically present everywhere at once makes it difficult to be mentally present anywhere at once, so focus on what is truly important to you so that you can prioritize and maximize your experience.”
For NYU Stern’s Lia Winograd, that priority was building her clothing startup, Pepper. To do that, she focused on heavily on networking – with business school offering a platform that enabled her to tap into a wide range of expertise and funding sources. “I used to hear people say, “Your network is your net worth,” she says. “It sounded intuitive, but I didn’t fully grasp what it meant until I had a network worth being described as such. Prior to my MBA, I was a founder in New York City who could count the people upon whom I could reliably depend on with my own two hands. As I prepare to graduate, I not only know a huge range of founders, investors, and other really smart people, but I’ve already used those connections to further Pepper’s success.
A TRUE EMPHASIS ON LEARNING
Perhaps the biggest transformation was the role of school itself. As undergrads, the Best & Brightest often studied to the test to notch the highest grades. As they entered the workplace, they realized that the Dean’s List didn’t always correlate with the C-Suite. As a result, the Class of 2019 focused on things that truly mattered – practical applications, networking, and soft skills – during their second go-round in academia.
“Prior to business school, I aimed to be the expert in my field, to be the most knowledgeable in my chosen specialty,” admits Stephanie Gomez, a University of Maryland MBA who started her career as a Biochemist. “During business school, I was able to take a step back from this mantra and value not being the smartest person in the room – as influencing multiple experts can be a benefit of all those within a team. In addition, I have become confident in my capability to resolve more complex situations and know when to leverage my own personal board of advisors for their wisdom. These are skills that have transformed who I am as a team member, a leader, and as an individual.”
Now, the 2019 Best & Brightest MBAs are leaving campus steeped in technical intricacies and best practices. Like MBA graduates before them, it was the transformation – the savvy, mettle, vision, and relationships they gained – that made business school the most defining time of their lives.
“I have a greater understanding and awareness of myself, my ability to lead, work in teams, and solve complex problems,” says Neethi Johnson of Ohio State’s Fisher College. “It is through dreaming bigger, working hard, and growing confidence – and being both patient and resilient in the face of challenges – that have helped me get where I am…I have witnessed in Fisher what is in me – the spirit to change the world, to create something that challenges conventional thinking, and the desire to benefit society.”