By Gwyn Gaubatz, Full-time Class of 2013. Gwyn graduated from Smith College with a double-major in Computer Science and American Studies. After teaching two years in rural Mississippi with Teach for America, she spent five years in the educational testing industry before her interest in organizational behavior and development drew her to business school.
Like many people, I don’t like being wrong. And I hate being told that I have done something wrong. For most of my professional life, being told that I have made an error, inadvertently caused a problem, or chosen the wrong course of action has been almost physically uncomfortable, a small spike of adrenaline that twists in my gut as I experience a sinking feeling of, oh no, oh no, how bad was it and can it be fixed ohnoitwasmyfault!
I can’t say this has made me a perfectionist, but I do think it’s a driving force behind some of my detail-oriented behaviors – checking, checking again; verifying authorization; planning in advance; asking question after question – as well as my penchant for trying to guess what people will need from me before needing to be told.
Of all the things I thought I would learn at business school (marketing, stats, networking, etc.), I actually did not expect to master this. I mean, sure: I thought that an MBA would give me the tools to avoid making mistakes even more adroitly and give me the confidence that I would make the correct choices, again and again. So, I didn’t exactly think an MBA would make me ‘perfect’, professionally, but I think that there was definitely, in the back of my mind, the hope that it would bring me closer to some kind of magically business-savvy infallibility.
Over the course of my first year at business school, I have learned that I cannot hope to be perfect-ish or anywhere near infallible. This became very clear during my first quarter – not just that I would be wrong, sometimes, missing questions on homework assignments and quizzes and midterms – but also that I could really screw up: handling the financials of a case study on behalf of my team and missing a key step, or forgetting to produce exhibits for a deliverable, or pushing others to accept a marketing strategy and completely missing the 2 key drivers that could make that strategy successful. Given the amount of new information MBA students are expected to digest and apply (“drinking from a fire hose” is an apt cliché) over the course of each 10-week term, especially for those (like me!) with no practical or academic experience in the subject matter, it is simply impossible to be avoid doing something – sometimes many things! – wrong.
The point is not that business school has caused me to make mistakes; the point is that business school has taught me how to make mistakes gracefully and responsibly, and to recover from them nimbly, looking forward. No more squirmy guilty stomach-aches of how could I have done something wrong? Because there is simply no time for that. There is only: what is the scope, how can we fix what needs to be fixed, what do we do next, what can we learn from what happened?
I still care dreadfully about devoting my best efforts to my teams, planning proactively, and trying to get it right the first time. But I know that if I don’t get it right, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not worth feeling sick over. In fact, one month ago I was required to give a presentation on the research project I had been working on for the first 6 weeks of my internship. As the first MBA intern to be hired by the company, there was no template in place for defining project deliverables or building out presentations and reports – I basically made that up as I went along, to the best of my ability, with some (but not a lot of) oversight. And now I had to tell everybody what I did and how I did it! The audience included the team I had been embedded in, the marketing team, senior managers from both sales and development, and, oh yeah: most of the c-suite, too; all in all, over a dozen people, with more calling in remotely. The presentation was scheduled for 90 minutes.
Of course I was a little nervous – who wouldn’t be? But I wasn’t really worried about getting something wrong. I had been told before hand by multiple parties that the executives would likely break into the presentation at many junctures to comment, question, perhaps refute things they disagreed with. I was told to expect lots of audience participation; to be prepared to have my arguments picked apart – it was par for the course. Normally this would have been the worst part for me, but oddly, going into the meeting I wasn’t especially nervous about potentially being told I was wrong. I was confident in the work that I had done, sure, but it wasn’t just that. I was also comfortable with the knowledge that the presentation – much like the entire internship – was a learning experience, and that I could handle whatever was thrown at me with equanimity. This frame of mind allowed me to respond thoughtfully and confidently to questions, and to absorb different interpretations eagerly, integrating them into later dialogues. And let me tell you: there were a LOT of questions, and a lot of discussions. I’m not going to lie, I was certainly sweatier leaving than I was going in. But the comments and perspectives of the executives also helped to stretch my thinking and inform my approach to further projects. In the end, the presentation was a great success. But it could have turned out differently – and I think that knowing that and being comfortable with it was what allowed me to be decisive in my conclusions and poised in my speech.
So: if you are considering business school or about to enter as a first-year student, let me gently disabuse you of the notion that earning an MBA will allow you to win at business by being right all the time and by always making the best choice, the correct choice. But it will teach you how to make a wrong decision and recover, and being confident in your ability to manage good, unexpected or disappointing outcomes will most certainly enable you to assume responsibilities for big decisions. You won’t be right all the time, but you will definitely be right for whichever job or leadership position you choose to pursue.