Financial TimesHow MBA students have faced a year of uncertainty

January 11, 20210
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Two months after starting an MBA at Insead in France, Aubrey Keller found himself in lockdown at the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau. “I did not expect Covid,” he recalls of those first weeks of the pandemic, “but neither did the world.”

Around the same time, Hanna-Lil Malone, a former accounts director at PR company Lansons, was quarantining with her parents in Dublin. Sick of working on Zoom all day, she looked forward to September and the start of her MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK. 

But in May, the school gave her an ultimatum: defer, or recommit knowing the experience would be entirely different to what she expected when she was first admitted in October 2019. 

“We all knew what we were getting into coming here,” Ms Malone says, speaking before Christmas from the campus cafeteria, where she and other students were studying, at safe distance, for an economics final.

Meanwhile, in Zurich, Ken Shimizu, a 31-year-old student at Shanghai’s Ceibs, had to start his MBA in October in the Swiss city with about 170 other international students. The school provided accommodation as visa restrictions prevented the students from entering China. With professors and a majority of the cohort back in Shanghai, most of his experience has been online. “My overall satisfaction goes much lower than 70 per cent or 80 per cent,” he says, “there is so much uncertainty.”

Adaptability and creativity

While the MBA experience has changed in the pandemic, the uncertain circumstances have forced many one-year programme students to become more adaptable. “It’s like that cliched phrase ‘you got lemons, you make lemonade’,” Mr Keller says. “It is not what was expected, however, how do I make the most out of this? How do I make this work in my favour?” 

When it comes to networking, a critical element of the MBA experience, students quickly noticed they weren’t the only ones stuck in quarantine. An online world presented them with opportunities to connect with a global alumni network, a resource for future job opportunities.

In the US, Alyssa Posklensky, a one-year MBA student at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has found that business school alumni are “going out of their way to do what they can [for students] given it’s not a standard year.”

Mr Keller has also tapped into the unexpected availability of a vast alumni network. Within the first few weeks at Insead, he had had 10 or 15 calls with “people who I probably wouldn’t have been able to talk to without lockdown”.

The end of casual conversation

Not everyone is as excited by the prospect of online networking. For students such as Aparajith Raman, 28, the spontaneity of in-person conversation has been difficult to replicate online. “Networking has taken a bad beating,” he says. 

Mr Raman, who is at ESMT Berlin, was able to attend in-person events in 2019 after moving to Berlin to learn German for six months before his programme started. “Everyone came there with shared interests to widen their own network,” he recalls.

“This whole Zoom fatigue thing isn’t made up, I think it actually plays a big role,” he continues. Speaking to an alum at 6.30pm or 7pm means it can be Mr Raman’s first meeting of the day, but for the other person it might be their last meeting in a long day of Zoom calls. “It could very well not be the same as if we had gone to meet in person for a coffee.”

Ms Malone has seen similar issues arise during online career events. “You can’t talk to the speaker directly afterwards, you have to connect with them on LinkedIn and message to see if they’ll do a call. As with anything in the pandemic there are just more hurdles.”

But as the head of Judge’s Wo+Men’s Leadership group, Ms Malone says the pandemic has encouraged creative thinking and, in turn, communication not just among students in her programme but among MBA students all over the world. 

She has co-ordinated calls with women’s clubs at other institutions such as Harvard Business School and Oxford Said, in an effort to learn from each other’s experiences and plan interschool events — the plan is that these calls will continue on a monthly basis. Before the pandemic, she suspects, students from different masters programmes concentrated on their own projects and curriculum rather than collaborating with MBA students from different programmes.

While cautiously optimistic, Ms Malone acknowledges the situation has presented difficulties for many attempting to navigate a competitive degree.

A unique MBA class

That drive to make the most out of uncertainty is why Thomas Roulet, a senior lecturer in organisation theory at Cambridge Judge, sees this year’s MBA students as the most competitive in his experience. “They’re resilient in the fact that they are coming to take an MBA in a different setting, a difficult context,” he says. “They’re going to be ready to address future uncertainty and have the skillsets to be innovative for the future next steps of our society.”

While Mr Raman disagrees with a blanket label of “resilience” for his cohort, he does think the pandemic has shaped this year’s MBA students into a unique class: “It’s not a question of being resilient. I think it’s a question of being humble and understanding no one can predict the future,” he says. Mr Raman learnt this having watched consultancy experts make grand predictions on where they see the world. “I can assure you that the first prediction I got from a leading consultancy firm was nowhere close to translating into reality.”

Mr Shimizu, stuck in Switzerland missing his wife and two children, still acknowledges the unique opportunity of being an MBA in a year of unknowns: “If I was still working for Toyota, maybe life would be very stable. But to me, so much uncertainty and discussing the future with other students gives me more power to survive.”

Ms Posklensky agrees and believes the uncertainty of a global pandemic, “will serve us really well and mould us into more creative, adaptable leaders. If we can lead through this, a normal year is going to feel like a piece of cake.”

This year of uncertainty will produce, as Prof Roulet puts it, “a completely new type of lemonade”. 

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