Advice to First Year MBAs: Focus On Leadership Development

As all first year MBAs probably know by now, there are a lot of ways to develop as a leader in the first year. There's the first year teams (C-LEAD teams at Duke Fuqua), first year club leadership positions, admissions coordinators, and the list goes on. However, leadership development can be de-prioritized given how overwhelming the first year is.

I'll be the first to admit that when I was a first year MBA, I didn't spend much time on leadership development. It just felt so distant. I had immediate fires to put out - cases to read, exams to study for, group projects to do, recruiting, etc. I'm sure many of you may already feel the same way.

Not focusing on leadership development was a big mistake I made in my first year. After working as an MBA intern in the summer, I realized that leadership skill is really the single most important driver that moves people up in organizations.

The business skills gained during the MBA, from finance to marketing to Monte Carlo simulation are what will get you in the door to the companies that recruit at your MBA program, but leadership is the most important long term investment for continued success.

When Fuqua Professor Joe LeBoeuf talks about a transactional MBA experience, that's the business skills. You leverage the strong MBA brand at your school, learn from the awesome professors you have, get coached on your interview skills and land a nice post-MBA job.

What's better is Joe's example of a transformational MBA experience - where you develop as an authentic leader, whatever that term may mean for you. You're able to find the guiding principles and motivators in your life and start down the path to achieving your vision of success.

All this may sound vague and even a slightly agitating, since you are sleep deprived (from Campout) and have a case write-up due in 3 hours with back-to-back team meetings tomorrow. However, I recommend that at the bare minimum you use your first year MBA to accomplish the following two things:

1) Engage with as many leaders as you can.

In the first year of the MBA, you're going to interact with a ton of leaders. From the recruiters that companies bring in to the Distinguished Speakers Series at Duke Fuqua, there are almost always seasoned leaders on campus.

Make the time to go to as many of these events as possible, and observe and engage with these leaders. Listen to how they think and try to identify traits that you find helpful to their success. Ask them questions about why they did the things they did to get to where they were today.

I advise this because as a second year I'm running out of time. After the MBA, this opportunity to engage with so many leaders will disappear. During the internship, I picked up on this and asked a ton of questions about leadership during my one-on-ones and grew a lot as a leader.

The mistake I made was not doing this in my first year. Now that I'm in my second year, I realize that the clock is ticking and I only have one year left where I can ask any stupid question and not worry about the consequences.

Therefore, my advice is to engage with as many leaders as you can and take advantage of your status as a student. People are always glad to make time for students and are extra patient with you. Once you leave the MBA, it's a whole different world.

2) Seek development feedback and course correct.

It's easy to ignore the developmental feedback during your management communication classes and first year leadership team. I actually found the development feedback I received to be useful, it's just that I didn't spend the time to work towards correcting them.

Fast forward to the end of my summer internship. What I realized was I kept getting the same developmental feedback in the summer as I did during the first year of my MBA. Now as a second year, I'm going to need to spend a lot of time working on these developmental goals.

What I wish I had done was to begin working on them my first year. This way, I would've been able to work on the next level of development during my summer, and perhaps even improved my performance during the internship. Instead, in my second year I'll still be working on the feedback I got in my first year. This is not the most efficient use of your second year.

So please, start taking action on your developmental feedback in the first year. This way, you'll be able to experiment further in the summer and your second year, and not having to repeat the same mistakes over again.

If you can do these two things, you will have learned from my dumb mistakes and can start making the mistakes that will lead you to greater success.

This blog post is part of a 6-piece series called "Advice to First Year MBAs". You can find a list of all the post in the series here.

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