MBA Journal: B-School Update

My MBA Runway

Whoever said that the second year of an MBA program is a piece of cake clearly didn't go to the McDonough School of Business (McDonough Full-Time MBA Profile) at Georgetown. I've been struggling with trying to explain to others how I am both incredibly overwhelmed by my schoolwork and enjoying the experience at the same time. When people ask me how I'm doing, I simply say I'm getting exactly what I expected. After watching the season finale of Project Runway, I realized the reality show is a good metaphor for describing my current state of mind.

It's as if every week, Heidi Klum comes out to instruct me that I have 12 hours to make a dress out of newspapers or plants, and I have to defend my design on the runway. Instead of Klum, I get a not-so-fashionably dressed, but equally demanding MBA professor. The unusual fabrics I have to work with are concepts that the professor explains only after we've turned in our deliverable, while my dresses are PowerPoint presentations that need to be visually appealing, tell a story, and deliver recommendations to the client in the case.

You may be considering schools where the power of your network carries you through to graduation and job search, without a lot of academic expectations. I chose Georgetown partly because I knew my education wouldn't be watered down and would include professors who expect only the highest standards academically and would push us to go deeper, question our assumptions, and think creatively. I'm currently taking a marketing class that requires about 20 hours of work each week, as every class has a major deliverable that any other professor would treat as a final project. I'm also leveraging Georgetown's incredible wealth of knowledge by taking a law class, in which I read 1,000 additional pages of material just to get up to speed on my paper topic. As overwhelmed as I am, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Overwhelmed With Challenges

So I completely relate to the contestants on Project Runway. I understand how badly they want to be on the show and exhibit their art at Fashion Week. I can feel their exhaustion as one challenge after another has them stretching themselves to deliver new creations. People keep telling me I'm almost done, but with two full modules of classes, plus a global residency consulting engagement in Vietnam, still ahead of me, the end doesn't feel that close. To quote Gretchen, a contestant from the most recent Runway season: "I'm just so sick of the challenges."

One of the best features of Project Runway is the incredible mentorship of Tim Gunn, the silver-haired, impeccably dressed fashion guru who dispenses poignant critiques and motivational speeches. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by looming deadlines, I think of Gunn, shaking his fist in the air, telling the designers, "Make it happen." And somehow I do.

The quality of work I have been able to produce this semester, under such tight deadlines, has indeed been astounding. In my previous post, I spoke about business school being a boot camp that teaches the stamina to produce even under tight deadlines. Since most of the work is done in small teams, I continue to be nothing short of blessed with teammates, who support each other and are not afraid of hard work. It's a small miracle to be locked up in a room with three other people for five hours, working on a financial model, and still emerge as friends who genuinely want to hang out with each other. I credit this to Georgetown's incredibly collaborative academic environment, which continues to attract students interested in everyone's welfare, not just their own.

Dressing the Model

On the TV show, every now and then a designer gets too ambitious and attempts to execute an outfit that would require quite a lot of additional time. I've been in a similar situation many times this fall: I have a strong vision, I know what I want to say and how I could say it, but I just don't have the time to do the research or spin the idea in a presentable manner. For a perfectionist like me, it is absolutely maddening to turn in a deliverable that could have been better.

In these moments, Runway designers rely on two tactics. First, they remember that the most important thing is actually clothing the model. If pressed for time, choose a practical but finished dress over a dazzling, unfinished one. Second, they trust their instincts and create something true to their aesthetic point of view. I have always focused on learning, not on grades. I'd rather, on a team, spend more time on the example and its assumptions, running the risk of a slimmer presentation, than outsourcing pieces of the deliverable to team members with the fastest execution. I truly believe team learning helps us see deeper into the example, inspiring more creative solutions in the end.

Putting a dress on the model is but a first step in the Runway process, as the model still needs hair, make-up, and accessories. My own accessories have been the leadership positions I've taken on at school. Running through the list of positions I hold in a club, student government, and advisory committees is tiring even to me. In a different world, I would have chosen one, maybe two, and devoted more focused attention to executing my ideas. There are two problems with that notion: I am incredibly passionate about every single leadership role I've taken on, and I have a hard time saying no when an opportunity presents itself. O.K., and maybe I'm just a little bit of a control freak and often think I'm simply the best person for the job.

Learning to Delegate

Now that I'm about to hand over the leadership reins to the first-year class, I'm trying to be more of a mentor. Until now, I've been coming up with big ideas and utilizing my connections and knowledge of school operations to get the first years to implement simpler tasks. The process has made me reexamine my leadership style and improve as a manager and leader. I've learned I cannot do everything on my own, so I've tried to delegate in ways that create ownership and accountability around a specific task. Delegating to friends, however, who volunteer their time amid the craziness of their own school projects, has required incorporating a lot of motivation, fitting their small pieces into a larger picture of where I'm trying to make the club go. We have such a short time in business school to leave our marks, and I'm curious to see what will happen as the new class continues the momentum.

At the end of an episode, Klum approaches the contestant who has just lost the challenge, gives him or her two kisses, and utters her "Auf Wiedersehen" farewell. As graduation looms, I am terrified I will be, as Runway fans call it, Auf'd. I not only have to get a job, which in itself can be a difficult accomplishment, but I also have to get a visa, which means persuading an employer to engage in the hassle of now almost arcane U.S. immigration law.

As an immigrant, sometimes I feel as if I am diseased. Before business school, I had jobs pulled away from me because I did not have a visa. It is incredibly draining to be told, "We really want to hire you," followed three days later by, "HR says we don't sponsor immigrants." My entire life I have believed that working harder will yield results. But here I am, being judged on something that I have no control over—and that is my fault only because I wasn't born within certain borders.

Sometimes I give in to the exhaustion and turn pessimistic, but mostly I try to look at the challenges as opportunities. I start by patiently explaining to my American colleagues, who are blissfully ignorant of their country's immigration policy, that I can't just get citizenship by declaring I want one or because my 15 years in the States mean I deserve one. Instead, the direction of my life is in the hands of some nameless HR person willing to be in my corner and go through the process.

Then I target multinational companies and international organizations, such as the World Bank, and furiously network, making sure as many people as possible know how flexible I am. I'll go just about anywhere in the world on graduation. Amid the fear is also an incredible excitement. I simply have no idea what's around the corner.

I'm doing what I can to build my collection, studying hard, networking, giving back. I can only hope the judges like my creations. One thing I'm certain, though: I will be proud of every piece that goes down the MBA runway.

Rusmir Musić is enrolled at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and is expected to graduate in 2011. A war refugee, Musić and his family fled their home in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. Coming to the U.S. on his own at 17, he earned a bachelor of arts in chemistry in 2001 from the College of Holy Cross and a master of arts in humanities and social thought in 2003 from New York University's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Before enrolling in business school, he was the assistant director of experiential programs at the Hiatt Career Center at Brandeis University.

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