01 Jun 2008
What’s on the minds of the School’s newest alumni? We passed the mike to six members of the Class of 2008 to get their thoughts on collaborative learning and what life is really like at HBS.by Julia HannaTopics:
For this year’s feature on the School’s newest alumni, we selected a learning team, a more formalized version of the study groups that have been part of HBS for years. The teams, which meet only during the first year, are assigned across sections and with an eye to mixing students from a variety of backgrounds. They also encourage in-depth case analysis and foster interaction among diverse class members while giving students firsthand experience with team dynamics.
“Learning teams are becoming part of the culture at HBS,” says Professor Jeff Polzer, faculty chair of the MBA Learning Teams Initiative. “They give students the opportunity to work with people from different sections and backgrounds, complementing the section experience and helping to prepare students for the interpersonal dynamics of the workplace.”
In their final months as students, we asked one learning team to reunite over dinner to talk about their time at the School. What we got was a candid look at life at HBS and a clear sense of the bonds this group formed through their daily 8 a.m. meetings in an alcove of Aldrich Hall, conveniently located near the coffee and muffin stand.
What was your first official meeting like?
Peter Stone: We talked about each case for about an hour and a half.
Andrew Saunders: Way too long.
Peter Stone: Very, very detailed. I remember Andy got out a whiteboard, and we were going through revenue recognition in his living room. And we were all very intent, very serious about it.
Tyler Koop: I remember thinking, if this is an example of the workload, it’s going to be a painful two years. We got better at figuring out preparation that was necessary versus what was overkill. Eventually, our meetings became more sustainable and efficient. I think evolving the learning team helped to keep the group together throughout the year.
Andrew Saunders: Early on, we had a discussion about how best to structure our time as a learning team. Do we do summary write-ups? If so, how long should they be? How much time do we want to spend discussing each case? In the beginning, you’re trying to figure out the case method and how the section learning experience works. In our group, the balance of strengths, weaknesses, and interests worked out pretty well. I had some experience in strategy before HBS but not so much in finance, so I benefited from sharing in Amyn’s experiences at Goldman Sachs. This was really useful for the summer internship search. Sonia and I were both looking for investment banking internships, so Amyn was a great resource for us during that time.
Sonia Sahney: When I went to my summer internship at Goldman after our first year I had already seen how they did modeling because Amyn had shown me the way he built models, the way that he thought and structured things.
That’s a nice benefit. What else was valuable about the learning team experience?
Courtney Hughes: The learning team model enabled us to gain a broader view of what was going on around us. It was also helpful when you felt a bit lost because you could bounce an e-mail out to the team and ask what went on in other sections. Beyond academics, I think it forced us to get to know people from different backgrounds we probably wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise. So much of what we do is section-oriented that there’s the potential to limit yourself.
Peter Stone: When you start business school, no day is the same. Everything is really busy. So it’s nice to have a constant like the learning team in your daily routine. It almost takes on a family-like role.
Courtney Hughes: If someone on the team was stressed out or overtired, by the time we were done meeting someone had usually said something funny or was able to explain something that the team member had been worried about. It was a good feeling to go into the day that way.
Tyler Koop: One of the primary stressors of the HBS model is speaking in class. The learning team gave me a sounding board to try out a comment before bringing it to class. I was always more confident in discussing a topic in section that had been fleshed out by the team.
Peter Stone: I don’t know that the same dynamic would have existed had we been able to set up our own learning teams. We may have self-selected people with similar backgrounds.
What aspects of the learning team experience will be useful after you leave HBS?
Amyn Pesnani: At our meetings, we would discuss three cases in a half hour, which clearly isn’t enough time — you could easily spend an hour or more on each one. So I trained myself to hit the important points with only ten minutes per case. In the future, when we are in more senior positions, we might have fifty agenda items to discuss in a brief meeting. Being able to convey the message simply is a key takeaway.
Andrew Saunders: Whenever you’re in a small group, I think it’s important to recognize the context of what you need to do, and that your goals and objectives will change over time. Sometimes you need to have those difficult process conversations and ask whether you feel you’re still being effective. Is this still fun? Is this still adding value? Having those conversations, understanding the group dynamic, and managing people’s expectations have been important lessons for me.
Courtney Hughes: Also, balancing learning with taking risks. At one point we had a discussion about whether we should limit the write-ups to our various areas of expertise or just rotate through the different subjects. So even though some of the team, for example, did not have as strong a background in finance, everyone did some of the write-ups in finance. I think we learned more than we would have if someone more comfortable in the area had merely spoon-fed us.
Peter Stone: Getting feedback from the same group of people is also a great way to become more self-aware. I think at the beginning of the year some of us talked a lot, while others, for whatever reason, weren’t talking as much. We discussed that dynamic, and it’s helped me become more selective about what I contribute to a conversation.
Andrew Saunders: You come here to discover yourself, and the group dynamic is an important part of that discovery process.
Expanding on that, what did you think HBS was going to be like?
Amyn Pesnani: One thing that surprised me was I thought I would hardly learn anything. It was just meant to be a vacation. Laughter It was a vacation from the work world, but I still learned quite a bit, particularly in strategy and marketing.
Tyler Koop: HBS comes with certain connotations, both positive and negative. I thought I was jumping into a tank full of sharks. I was prepared for overly aggressive, type A people. I am happy to say that I was totally surprised by the collaborative spirit here and the lack of massive egos. I think the section experience and the learning team model create the foundation for building positive relationships between students.
Peter Stone: I thought my HBS experience would be a lot more about learning content in classes. In the end, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which the most valuable takeaways have been around management processes — learning about relationships with other people and how those are often paramount in business situations. Also, learning about myself . . . the things I’m good at, and what I need to work on some more. I’m not there yet, but HBS teaches you how to figure it out.
I was also surprised by the herd effect during recruiting. In the HBS environment where your peers are reading the same cases and attending the same events every day, it can seem like you are supposed to fall in line for recruiting as well: applying for the same types of jobs at the same point in the year. As a result, I definitely felt different as I sought opportunities in a less traditional space — entertainment and media — with a later recruiting time frame.
How about you, Sonia?
Sonia Sahney: I feel like I’ve taken advantage of the extracurricular activities and made a lot of good friends. On the academic side, I probably could have done more, but I wouldn’t change my balance if I had to do it over again. You learn a lot by looking through a spreadsheet and talking to classmates about the work they actually did when they were working in private equity or at a hedge fund.
Courtney Hughes: From a classroom perspective, I’ve retained more content and material that I can apply later on than I thought I would. I think a lot of that speaks to the case method and the way you learn how to apply a concept across different industries and companies. Also, the students — with every case, there was someone who could speak to a particular process in more detail than even a case could. To Sonia’s point, getting that contextual knowledge firsthand from my peers has been awesome. The people here are a different kind of smart, where they pick apart things and put them back together in ways that I never would think of.
What’s the general mood on campus as you head out into the real world?
Andrew Saunders: I think our year is still positive, but I know there are many first-year students who are struggling with their summer internship search.
Amyn Pesnani: When I was with a group of friends last night, the question was, how many of us will have jobs one year from now? I think hedge funds and private equity might be a bit more immune to the economy because they have their assets on which they charge a fee. But I think investment banking might be more vulnerable.
Andrew Saunders: All in all, I think HBS teaches you to be flexible and to recognize where the opportunities are; HBS is a long-term school, not a short-term school. The skills we’ve learned here will be valuable for the rest of our lives, not just in our next job.
Tyler Koop: I agree. If there’s one school where you’d want to be during an economic slowdown, it would be HBS.
What will you miss about this place?
Sonia Sahney: Personal time. We have the opportunity to do so many things. Life is good here.
Amyn Pesnani: I definitely won’t miss not being paid. Laughter
Andrew Saunders: I remember when I visited as a prospective student, I sat in on a course with Josh Lerner. I remember the buzz in the room and thinking, “Wow! That’s really different from my current work environment.” After school I will remember what life was like here and how I learned to prioritize my time as far as what’s important to me.
Tyler Koop: I’ll miss the opportunity and the access I’ve had as a student here. The speakers who come to campus are just outstanding in terms of the credentials they have and the experiences they can share. Interacting with people straight out of HBS cases or the business headlines is amazing. One of my favorites was hearing a lecture by Dr. Judah Folkman, the father of a field of cancer therapy, before he unfortunately passed away early this year. Recently, our field study team was looking to interview cardiologists. After a few e-mails, we found ourselves at Brigham and Women’s Hospital yesterday, talking to the director of the interventional cardiology lab. That kind of access is unique.
Courtney Hughes: I’ll miss the people, but I do think they’ll still be part of my life. I’ve made friends I’ll be comfortable calling, say, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years out, and asking, “I don’t know what to do in this situation. What do you think? I know you were in a similar bind ten years ago.” The way people think here is still very impressive to me. Everyone is extremely analytical and really explores options in a far more creative way than “smart” people who just memorize and regurgitate.
Peter Stone: I’m already starting to get nostalgic about the classroom experience. Sometimes, I stop listening to what’s being said and start realizing what’s happening. I look around, and there are ninety of my peers engaged in conversation, no laptop screens up. Paying attention to each other, respecting each other, pushing back. I’m not sure that will happen again to the same degree. I’m amazed at the level to which the classroom dynamic has evolved, and I will really miss it.