The group of students that filed into the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management (Rotman Full-Time MBA Profile) to resume classes this week after 12 glorious days of freedom were barely recognizable as the same group that had exited those doors less than two weeks earlier. Gone were the pallid, drawn faces, sweat pants, unbrushed hair, and wearied expressions. The standard reply to inquiries into one's well-being just two weeks ago—a dramatic, melancholy sigh followed by "hangin' in there," or something to that effect—had been replaced with far merrier responses. Classmates regaled one another with tales of their holiday exploits, the doom and gloom of December now a distant memory. Several peers remarked that I looked "fresh," which I gratefully interpreted as a sign that I no longer resembled Gollum's lesser-known, equally scraggly sister. Overall, 2011 was off to a brilliant start.
In my last entry, I alluded to the fact that the second quarter of first year was rumored to be tougher than the first. Well, the case is closed on that rumor as I can now unequivocally affirm it. So what has made Q2 so trying? Well, it didn't help that there were merely two days off between Q1 exams and the start of Q2, which meant that most of us were already functioning at a state well below optimal capacity when classes began. Furthermore, the course mix itself was inherently challenging: strategy, marketing, and the dreaded trifecta of finance, accounting, and statistics. To top it off, the quarter ended with five exams in five days. After the last exam ended, many of us felt that we'd expended our last ounce of productive brainpower and wanted nothing more than to retreat into a month-long hibernation. Unfortunately (or so it seemed at the time), Q2 had one last trial in store for our class: the heavily hyped and widely feared Strategy Case Competition, a major component of our strategy grade, which began early the next morning.
As we emerged—triumphantly or otherwise—from our last Q2 exam on Friday afternoon, we were promptly reminded that it was too early to celebrate. Each of us received an e-mail alerting us to our case competition team number. The entire full-time class of 2012 was placed into groups of four or five, many of whom had never been in the same class, let alone met. The following morning we all managed to drag our exam-weary, sleep-deprived selves to school to meet our new groups and pick up our case materials. From that time, we essentially had 48 hours to learn everything we possibly could about the case company and the industry in which it operates, generate innovative ideas for the company's profitable growth, and formulate them into a cohesive 15-minute presentation of actionable recommendations to be judged by a panel of high-profile executives. The seven highest-scoring teams would present a second time, in front of the case company's very own chief executive officer, who had been flown in from the U.S. for the occasion. At the time, the general sentiment among students was that it was the ultimate cruelty to conduct a case competition right after an intense week of exams; looking back on it with a rested and far more lucid mind, it was a fascinating experience and an extremely valuable learning opportunity that I would not have given up.
A Fitting, Stressful Conclusion
Under ordinary circumstances it would have been a difficult assignment. Given the severely diminished vitality of the student body, it was much more than simply an evaluation of our ability to apply the concepts and tools we'd grappled with in strategy class. It was effectively a test of our resolve and endurance, of our ability to perform in a high-pressure situation despite various internal and external obstacles. In just a couple of days, it put all the fundamental skills we had been expected to cultivate over the previous three months to the test, including time and stress management, effective organization of a diverse team, and careful analysis of a complex issue and ability to distil it into its most salient parts. Above all, it measured our ability to successfully integrate many disparate models from various disciplines to arrive at an optimal creative solution to a multi-faceted, real-world problem—in other words, it challenged us to effectively apply the foundational Integrative Thinking framework that is the hallmark of the Rotman program. It was a rather fitting end to the first half of the first year, in fact, as it more-or-less created a microcosm of the MBA experience as a whole, played out over the course of a weekend, with all its unique challenges and rewards amplified.
Of the many difficulties the case competition presented, the general consensus among students was that successful management of the team's human resources was the most critical catalyst of a group's ultimate failure or triumph. This underscores what I've come to consider one of the most challenging—and potentially most rewarding—elements of the MBA program: the team-based focus. Sure, most of us have worked in teams over the years, but I've never been in a situation where my academic fate was so heavily dependent on the successful management of complex team dynamics. Luckily for me, the team to which I was assigned for the first two quarters worked well. Our biggest issue might have been that we got along too well; the first few minutes of our meetings were usually spent chatting and laughing until one of us managed to establish order. Not all teams were so fortunate. Rumors of late-night shouting matches abounded.
Now that we've been introduced to our new teams for the upcoming quarter (and assessed the likelihood of late-night shouting matches), the class of 2012's collective focus has shifted from teams to more individualistic pursuits—the saga of the summer internship search. Along with this shift has come a renewed sense of urgency, anticipation, and optimism in Rotman's halls as students zealously prepare for mock interviews and information sessions. The very concept of recruitment is a foreign and rather remarkable one from the perspective of this liberal arts undergraduate. We were faced with the hard, cold reality that the skills we'd worked diligently to hone over four long years were not particularly sought after in the professional world. I'm under no illusion that finding a summer internship will be easy, especially given the current economic climate, but I'm looking forward to immersing myself in the process and exploring what new doors are open to me. Perhaps the words "MBA Candidate" that now follow my name are most directly responsible for the wider array of opportunities now within reach; ultimately it's the educational experience represented by that collection of letters that will set me apart. If the first two quarters at Rotman are any indication, I'm in for the learning experience of a lifetime.