Advice to First Years: Take Lots of Risks to Expose Your Weaknesses

One reason for doing the MBA is to have the freedom to try things that you would be too risk-averse or time-limited to do working full time. It's like buying time - you can pay $50,000 a year for the freedom to learn and explore things about the world that would not be possible with a day job. It would be a waste to not fully utilize this opportunity to genuinely improve yourself during the two year degree.

I see the MBA first year as the time to make mistakes. In other words, to try a lot of things and fail. It's the best time to get out of your comfort zone and expose your weaknesses. Ideally, your classmates and professors will see this and help you grow. During the summer internship, your manager and other mentors can also help provide you with this feedback, as interns are evaluated differently than full time employees.

The second year of the MBA, then, is an opportune time to address the things you don't like about yourself and are holding you back in your career and personal life. Many schools have second year leadership positions in student clubs and school administration, and it's a great way to stretch and address some of your leadership deficiencies.

This is my advice to other first year MBAs. Do things you've never tried before, or things you assume you'll never get used to. Challenge yourself and make yourself uncomfortable. These don't need to be grandiose or audacious. Instead, they should be intimate and help you discover your most important weaknesses and give you an actionable plan to address them.

My example

Here are the things I realized I needed to work on after my first year and internship. They're pretty common, I think.

1) General verbal communication in teams and during presentations.
2) Effectively motivating team mates to complete deliverables
3) Executional leadership skills during meetings

These don't seem too significant yet it can be difficult to address them on the job. Most folks spend a significant portion of their time working on getting things done. It's hard to break away and reflect and improve. For example, I doubt I would have the luxury to test different ways to motivate my team for an important project at work that absolutely needed to get done. During the MBA, team projects are a safe environment for testing various leadership styles. The MBA affords the luxury to take risks and experiment.

Getting feedback from classmates completes the cycle

Nobody is comfortable when they discover a weakness. It's hard to even get feedback, let alone actively seek it from everyone. But that is step two of this process. For example, after trying different leadership styles during meetings, you can get feedback from my classmates. How did this make them feel? Was it effective in keeping meetings on task? Did they appreciate the reminder that they were going off topic? How are ways I can align the team in a less disruptive way?

Imagine trying to find time on people's calendar at work to get this type of feedback. It's just not going to be as thorough as what you'll get from the MBA. At work, people just don't have the time to offer this level of detail in their feedback. However, during the MBA this is welcome and expected. A tremendous portion of the tuition you pay for the education is to engage with your classmates and tap into their skillsets and experiences.

This cycle of taking risks and obtaining feedback is thus an important exercise to extract the maximum value from your MBA investment. I'm currently trying to take advantage of this in my second year, but would've benefited significantly had I started this in my first year. I advise current and future first year MBA students to start this process early on.

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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