MBA Journal: B-School Update

Competition and Cooperation


Teamwork and collaboration are cornerstones of the Kellogg experience. We do practically everything in teams here: we study in groups, plan events in committees, attend class in "sections," and run for offices in "slates." In the fall, packs of about 30 incoming students travel all over the world as part of pre-term orientation. In the winter, over 700 of us take a huge ski trip. Not surprisingly, I came here in large part because I would rather collaborate in a team than compete as an individual.

In many respects, Kellogg is exactly what I expected. But, make no mistake: If you want something here, you'd better be ready to compete for it. Top grades, choice interviews, hot internships, leadership positions, popular professors, a winning flag football record, even a romantic interest. As friendly, helpful, and team-focused as we are, Kellogg students are thrust into competition with each other every day over nearly every aspect of our education.

Tempering future business leaders through competition makes a lot of sense. If you're going to lead, you have to be prepared to fight for what you want. But because its team-oriented approach makes Kellogg such a special place, the school must constantly mind the delicate balance between its collaborative and competitive personalities. It takes a healthy blend of both to succeed in business. However, as the job market deteriorates and the pressure to land a summer internship intensifies, that balance could quickly unravel into a dog-eat-dog race for employment.

A Smaller Pie

In the recent past, the post-graduation opportunities for Kellogg students (what our marketing professors would call the employment "pie") were big enough for everyone to get an adequate slice. "While some people had to settle for their second or third choice job," one recent graduate told me, "everyone did fine in the end." Particularly in the frothy years between 2004 and 2007, the question wasn't whether a Kellogg student would get the job he or she wanted but, rather, how they would choose among so many compelling offers. My classmates and I face a very different job market. When words like "meltdown" and "deep recession" litter the headlines, the pie seems a lot smaller.

Not surprisingly, Kellogg's collegiality faces greater challenges in a bad economy. For example, my class supposedly frets more about grades than prior classes. A slower economy reduces the number of internships and allows employers to tighten their hiring criteria. Since many firms routinely review first-quarter GPAs during second-quarter interviews, we have good reason to hit the books a little harder. Kellogg compounds the competition for grades by enforcing a strict curve (meaning that only a certain percentage of each class gets an A). As students fight harder and harder to stand out, the intensified stress is bound to cause friction.

The economy hasn't just amped up the pressure to do well in the classroom. Recruiting can be a battle on its own. Fewer finance jobs have led to overcrowding everywhere else. Many company presentations are standing room only. Firms often send a half-dozen or more representatives to meet with students but supply seems to constantly fall short of demand. As a result, fighting for face time can be frustrating and, occasionally, downright obnoxious.

Bringing a Mantra from West Point

Yet, as hard as we compete with each other, the poise, sincerity, and generosity of my peers has continually impressed me. For example, as I prepared for finals, I received an unsolicited e-mail from a classmate. She had organized a jumbled nest of statistics notes into three easy-to-read pages and sent them to her classmates. When grades are curved, one student's success means those with lesser marks fall further behind. By helping us, she actually increased the odds that her own grade would suffer.

Amazingly, I can cite several examples just like this one. A fellow consulting recruit sent me a list of internship application deadlines. A friend tipped me off to a leadership opportunity for which he was also applying. Someone in my section introduced me to a recruiter at the firm where she was hoping to get hired.

One of my close friends came to Kellogg with a mantra that he learned at West Point: Cooperate and graduate. It certainly shows. We spent literally dozens of hours helping each other prepare for our tests this quarter. Even though we were "aiding the competition," together I believe we were stronger students than we would've been as individuals.

Goodwill is the Greatest Asset

Long after we've graduated, I'll remember those hours and appreciate his contributions to my success. I'll also remember the student who sent me her statistics notes and all the other friends who unselfishly helped me this quarter. On the other hand, I seriously doubt I'll think back on my grades with regret, wishing that I had kept my studying secrets to myself. People here seem to know that the goodwill of our peers is a far greater asset than the advantages we might gain by hoarding information.

Business is fundamentally about competition, so it's fitting that business school revolves around the same principle. But after weathering my first quarter, I've seen Kellogg students demonstrate time and again that success is a function of our willingness to cooperate, learn from each other, and grow together. That, I believe, is what makes most Kellogg students such great teammates. On the whole and despite the scary economy, Kellogg students strike an admirable balance between collegiality and competition because we focus on building more than rÉsumÉ highlights. Many of us understand that, by lifting each other up, we all succeed.

Cornuke is a B-school member of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management MBA Class of 2010.


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