Case Captains: the key to working smarter in discussion group

Captain.JPG

Until you get really good at preparing cases, each one takes 2-3 hours to read, analyze, and write-up. That means that you’ll need to prepare 6-9 hours in advance of a typical three-case-day.

A few people each year come to business school purely for the academic experience and gleefully invest this time in their classes. However most people don’t, and the thought of academic demands taking away all the time that someone might otherwise spend on productive activities such as networking and recruiting might make them reconsider going to business school.

So how do you fix this problem? Two words: Case Captains. Here’s how it works.

1. Divide work, assign responsibility.

On Friday, have your discussion group assign each case coming up in the next week to a different member. That person will serve as the “case captain” for that class on that day. Your discussion group can choose to rotate the assignment for each class, assign cases to members who have prior work experience that is relevant to the topic of that case, or even allow members who want to grow in certain areas (e.g. accounting and finance) to take the lead on those. Just make sure that every case has one person assigned to be in charge of it.

2. Write-up and read-ahead

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While the expectation is that everyone will still read the case and come to discussion group prepared to discuss it, the case captain will conduct special analysis on it. The case captain will send out a “read-ahead” quickly summarizing the case and their key findings ahead of the conversation. If there is an excel model, they will send that out too, taking special precaution to do a thorough job on it and to format it in a way that will be easily legible to others.

3. Captain the ship

On the day of the case, the Case Captain will lead that conversation in discussion group and answer as many questions as they can. Of course, other members of discussion group will come with their own analyses, which may challenge that of the Case Captain, but at least one person will take responsibility to become an expert in that subject.

The Benefits

Case Captains give you peace-of-mind to take advantage of all the important extracurricular offerings of business school without having to sacrifice sleep or exercise to do your school work. On nights when you’re not the case captain, you can go out safe in the knowledge that you will have a lifeline if the case turns out to be especially hard to crack. The Case Captain system is also flexible; if you know you’re going to spend a night out later in the week at a recruiting event, you can move around your Case Captaining responsibilities so that you’re not on-duty the morning after. Lastly, the Cast Captain system is fairer. In some discussion groups, one or two people might otherwise take the lead for analyzing every case. With this system, the duty is spread out and the problem of free riders is fixed.

How to read and prepare an HBS-style MBA Case

 HBS is among the most prolific producers of Business School case studies

HBS is among the most prolific producers of Business School case studies

MBA classrooms all over the world use cases to teach. Each case tells the story of a business problem from the point-of-view of a “case protagonist.” Cases ground a future conversation about what the protagonist should do, and the goal of that conversation is to arrive at some insight that students can use when facing similar business challenges in the future.

While many business schools write cases for use in their classrooms as well as others, all cases generally follow the same format: a page setting up the situation, followed by some pages of background historical information, a longer narrative of the problem, the decision to be made, and concluding with numerous pages of data and exhibits. The cases are short, but are meant to be comprehensive for the following case conversation. This makes the case conversation more realistic as business leaders often have to lead their firms through uncertainty and with limited information.

Sounds simple, right?

In fact, it’s deceptively simple. Cases end up being remarkably dense, making them much harder and slower to read than a Wall Street Journal article. Their stories open up a million doors, making it difficult to tell where the case conversation might actually go. Their data can be analyzed in a million different ways, each taking up valuable time that could be spent preparing for other classes or recruiting interviews. So how can you work smarter and prepare the case properly?

1. Know where the case fits into the curriculum

The first case in a class is a special introductory case meant to include and highlight all of the topics you’ll cover over the course. The last case is a capstone summarizing all of the concepts previously covered. Usually one or both of the two were previously used as the basis for a final exam. All the other cases in the sequence (except those meant to accommodate the personal schedules of visiting case protagonists) are meant to illustrate an incremental concept within a module. Look at the syllabus for clues as to what those concepts might be so that you can run the analysis before class. Examples might include calculating the appropriate WACC in finance or analyzing the 4 P’s in marketing.

2. Before you start reading, set a timer

Parkinson's Law states that work will expand to consume all the resources available to it. The same goes for cases. There is always another analysis to run; always more investopedia articles to read. Rather than allow the case to eat up your schedule, set a timer and “time box” your analysis. When the timer goes off, stop working on that case and move onto the next one.

Shoot to get your reading and analysis down to an hour or less per case by the end of first year. At the start, you’ll probably need to give yourself something closer to 90-120 minutes.

3. Get your bearings

Before you read the case cover to cover, skim it to get your bearings. First, read the entire first page, then the first line of each paragraph, and then all of the exhibits to orient yourself. Understand that cases are each meant to stand alone as a document, and so they include a lot of extra detail that anyone with Google can just look up for themselves. By skimming you can avoid the red herrings and focus on the details that matter. Ask: what is the decision that has to be made? What are the immediate causes of the central problem? And who are the stakeholders?

4. Skip historical background section

This is usually on pages 2-4. You can read it if you're personally interested, but it is almost never relevant.

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5. Develop a note taking system.

I’m a fan of 4-color pens. Here is my system: black is for all primary notes; blue is for organizing primary notes, taking secondary notes, and making revisions; red is for all names and contact information; green is for all to-dos and follow-ups.

As I read a case, I box all stakeholders and circle all numbers in red. I take notes to answer discussion questions in black. I note all questions I want to look-up or ask my discussion group in green. I save blue to write a summary of the case discussion and the major takeaways at the top of the first page of the case when there is only 5-10 min left in class.

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6. Apply any frameworks you have been given

Frameworks that get introduced in one class tend to make repeat appearances in the following classes. Most first-year classes spend the first half of each session drawing out these frameworks on the blackboard and then filling them in, fact by fact. If you’re just looking to make a quick "chip shot" comment in class, offering a piece of analysis to fill these frameworks can be a great way to do that. To calm your nerves and give yourself a lifeline in case of a cold call, fill in the full framework in advance so you won’t be caught off guard in the moment. If you’re gunning for a good grade and a next-level comment, don’t use the frameworks to answer "case fact questions" – instead use them to see further faster. Use them to see what the analytical conclusion will be and then be ready to make sense of it once it is revealed.

For example, in marketing class I just took the summary slides that the professor showed us with the frameworks on them, deleted the text, printed them out, and took notes on that sheet. Because I did that, I would often understand earlier than my peers which channels were most profitable for a company to use, which price points to target, or which product lines to discontinue.

7. Only conduct hypothesis-based analysis

Even a short case has too much data to run all the numbers. Plus “boiling the ocean” is not how business leaders make decisions anyway. Instead develop 1-2 theories as to why the the business is facing the problem that it is and then run the numbers to see if you’re right. Or, if you think you know what the key takeaway from the case will be -- such as calculating beta for comparable financial analysis (see #1 in this list) -- run just that analysis.

8. Ask if you have any relevant experience worth sharing

Those comments tend to be memorable, bring the section closer together, and yield better grades.

9. Limit your notes to 1-2 pages, print single sided

They’ll need to be short enough to reference in the heat of the moment. You won’t want to be flipping pages back and forth either.

10. Remember that preparation does not end when class starts

Keep taking notes as the class goes on, either in a notebook or in the case. I print out my case notes in black and take notes by hand in blue. By taking notes, I can often anticipate where the class is going to go and cut it off at the pass with a great comment.

11. When there are 5 minutes left, begin taking summary notes

In blue, if you're using my method. See #5 in this list. That way you won't forget the lesson, either for the final exam or for use beyond.

12. Evaluate yourself

Ask how well you did at (1) finding the “big question” of the case, (2) identifying the key data, (3) analyzing that data correctly, (4) using that data to arrive at the right decision, and (5) communicating that decision logically and persuasively in class.

How to make the most of your MBA discussion group

DiscussionGroup.jpg

Case method schools often assign students to discussion groups of about 6 people to analyze cases before class. A good discussion group can really make your MBA experience by helping you make better comments in class, figure out challenging concepts, and work smarter so you can spend more time on networking or recruiting. Members of a well-functioning discussion group often also become close friends, share useful perspectives from their previous work experience, and can help one another in their respective job searches. Conversely, a bad discussion group is terrible. Imagine having to sacrifice an hour or more of sleep every day to sit with people who you don’t like and who aren’t helping you.

So what habits separate good discussion groups from bad ones? How can you make the most out of your discussion group?

1. Launch your team at the bar.

You are going to spend an hour of quality time every day with the members of your discussion group every morning. That’s often more than you’ll spend talking with any other friend you’ll have at school! The most effective discussion groups recognize that above all else they are social groups and treat one another as friends – attending each other’s parties, grabbing lunch together, and supporting one another at their club events. Therefore, before you get down to business, get to know each other first. Take turns going over each other’s life stories – and not just the resume bullets. For maximum effect, do so over a pint.

2. Set norms.

What time are you going to meet each morning? Where are you going to meet? Will you expect that everyone has thoroughly read the case, or are you okay if people skim it during the discussion? Will you communicate over email, GroupMe, or Slack? Having different answers to these questions is a recipe for tension. So make everything explicit! As you launch your discussion group, agree upon and write down the norms your group will use to operate. Perhaps the easiest way to arrive at these norms is to go around and discuss the teams each of you have worked on and what made them work well or poorly. You can also have a frank conversation about what behaviors piss each of you off.

3. Enforce norms.

People are going to be late to discussion group. So what are you going to do about it when it happens? If your discussion group does nothing you’ll create a new norm that it’s okay to be late. Soon people will be arriving so late that it impacts your work as a discussion group while others might stop coming all together. While it may seem like the nice thing to do is to shrug off infractions, the respectful thing is to enforce them. As you get your group norms, set norms about how to enforce them. Maybe you could have a norm that late people get their name written on a white board or that they have to bring donuts next time. Whatever it is, make sure everyone knows that when others are relying upon you, it is not okay to drop the ball.

4. Be open about goals and weaknesses.

Your discussion group will likely be curated to have a diverse set of skills between the lot of you. Take inventory of what those skills are and manage your conversations to bring those diverse perspectives in. Groups that don’t do this often isolate their conversations to the area of shared experience (see picture below). Rather than assume that the finance guys will lead all of those case conversations, ask if someone else wants to learn this skill and try taking the lead.

5. Use “Case Captains”.

More on this in another post (stay tuned!), but in short, divide and conquer the work. With constant demands on your time from a million sources, you need to look for every way to work smarter, and not harder.

6. Facilitate to expose diverse perspectives.

 When you manage your group for diversity, you gain access to the group’s full knowledge, rather than that tiny piece you have in common.

When you manage your group for diversity, you gain access to the group’s full knowledge, rather than that tiny piece you have in common.

Pause every so often to note whose perspectives have been missing from the discussion. Did they see things in a different way? Constantly challenge what others are saying and look for weak points in your analysis. It is so easy to speak from common views and experiences, but when you do your analysis loses so much depth. Look at the graph at the right. When we speak about what we have in common, we only cover the tiny overlapping area. When you manage your discussion group to take advantage of its diversity, you get the insights from the entire footprint.

Will you make it to discussion group? Click here to get your Odds of Admission.

Advice for HBS from the graduating class

The HBS experience is brought to a close at the end of the second year with an event called “Bridges.” Students return to their original classroom to the seat where they sat on the first day, to reconvene as a section and reflect on the journey they all have just completed. The time leading up to bridges also affords second-year “ECs” to pass along wisdom to rising first-year “RCs.” Here is a collection of some of the best advice we came across:

Ditch imposter syndrome – many people at Harvard suffer from imposter syndrome; they worry that they were admissions mistakes. The truth is that life is too short for such self-doubt and that no one really “deserves” the benefits of the program. Instead of worrying about cosmic fairness in your admission, focus instead of living your life so that you are worthy of the gifts you are give.

Whiteboard your priorities – The currents at HBS are strong. Career events are geared to push you towards consulting and investment banking, the social hierarchy pushes you to rack up large bills drinking and traveling, and the curriculum implicitly pushes you to value higher paying jobs. If you don’t set your heading before you embark on your HBS journey, they will take you out to sea. To keep yourself on track, purchase a white board and stick somewhere in your apartment where you will see it every day. On the whiteboard, write down your 1-3 priorities for the coming year. As you consider whether to attend a lecture, social event, or weekend trip, check the opportunity against your criteria. If it doesn’t match, then decline with confidence.

Timebox your activities – If you plan on spending one hour on a case, pull out a stop watch and set it for 60 minutes. When it goes off, wherever you are in your reading or analysis, stop! There is always more work to do, more things to read. If you don’t put open-ended tasks into boxes they will eat up all the time you’re saving for other valuable activities.

Don’t put anything off – Your calendar next week may look more open now but it will become just as busy as your calendar this week. If you can avoid it, don’t push that coffee chat or phone call into the deceptively open future in order to buy time now. If it’s not worth doing now, instead ask if it is ever worth doing at all.

Roll over your IRA into a Roth – this is perhaps the most valuable advice you will get while you’re in graduate school!

Embrace unlearning – we all come with prejudices and misconceptions. Lean into experiences where you find your view challenged and when you find that they are wrong, change them!

Remember: companies exist for more than “shareholder value” – It's fashionable to advance Milton Friedman’s “property view” of corporations: that they exist solely for the enrichment of the owners, and that management should prioritize that objective above all others. Some of your classmates will believe that this opinion is accepted fact. This is not true! While management has a duty to maximize shareholder value in the event of a sale (in which case no “long term” interest can credibly exist), they have broad legal berth to exercise their own judgement in determining and attaining the objectives of a company. Furthermore, investors agree. On average, holding times for stocks are about two years, and the price tracks to earnings over 10 years, evidencing compelling market long-termism. In fact, if you analyze earning calls, short-term concerns are almost always brought up by the management, not the investors. Don’t let this myth perpetuate in class... or in the boardroom!

Hack your calendar in Year 2 – While you don’t get to choose any of your classes in Year 1, you have total flexibility in Year 2. The administration will say that it is not possible to get all your classes on either Monday/Tuesday (“X” Days) or Thursday/Friday (“Y” Days”) in the second year, but it is! Just look for International Field Courses between terms and Independent Projects.

Don’t let Harvard define you – You are so many more things. Harvard should just let you become more potent expressions of them. Plus, it’s always refreshing to read a speaker’s biography where HBS is mentioned only in passing at the very end.

Is the Case Method right for me?

HBS Cases.JPG

Business schools can be separated academically into two separate categories: majority case-method programs and non-case-method programs. In the former category are schools like Darden, INSEAD, Berkeley Haas, UNC Kenan-Flagler and, of course, Harvard Business School, which pioneered the case method of MBA instruction by borrowing the Socratic dialogues used to teach at Harvard Law School. Schools that are non-majority-case-method incorporate more traditional lectures, team-based projects, and experiential learning, in addition to case-method classes. The average MBA program teaches 30% of its classes in the case method.

Case method courses are very different than traditional lecture-based classes. To prepare for a case method class, students are given a bound document (a “case”) presenting a roughly 10-page overview of a business problem faced by a team, firm, or industry followed by a series of quantitative and qualitative exhibits that an MBA might need to analyze the problem and find a solution. The goal of the case is to simulate as accurately as possible what it would feel like for the student to experience the business problem themselves, by placing the student in the role of the “case protagonist” from whose vantage point the story is told. The day of the class discussion, students normally meet with discussion groups to go over the study questions and try to anticipate where they believe the case conversation will go.

The actual class is a real pressure-cooker. The professor usually leads off by “cold-calling” (i.e. involuntarily selecting without prior warning) one student, often one specifically chosen for their relevant prior professional experience, and grilling them on what they would do in that situation. Other students are brought in to reveal different facts, challenge different perspectives, offer analysis, and argue out the correct course of action. Students need to be ready at a moment’s notice to agree or disagree with the other voices, forcing everyone sit on their edge of their seats, paying close attention.

Sometimes professors will reveal incremental data on what intermediate steps the actual case protagonist took and what results they achieved. The professor will then ask individuals whether this new information changes their perspectives and how.

Very often the case protagonist him or herself will sit in on the class (they find the conversations useful too!) and use the last part of the session to describe what happened, respond to individual students, and take questions. The result is a thrilling class experience where students develop intuition for handling emerging business problems, practice communicating their ideas articulately, and get comfortable leading through uncertainty.

The question is, is a case method program right for you?

Test Yourself

Below I’ve posed a dozen statements. If you disagree with the statement, give yourself 1 point, if you’re neutral 2 points, and if you agree 3 points. At the end, tally your score.

  1. I want to develop my public speaking skills
  2. I think reasonably quickly on my feet
  3. I want to be a general manager or CEO one day
  4. I am confident that I can teach myself finance out of a text book
  5. I have a “big personality”
  6. I prefer short stories to long technical readings
  7. I came to business school to learn
  8. I want to really get to know my peers
  9. I think diverse perspectives lead to better answers
  10. I not that excited to hear about faculty research
  11. The best way to learn something is to do it
  12. I want my peers to take class seriously

12-18 Points: Avoid the case method. Apply to schools that are majority lecture based like Carnegie Mellon Tepper, USC Marshall, UCLA Anderson, Vanderbilt Owen, Michigan Ross, and Oxford Said.

19-23 Points: Choose a program with a mix of teaching styles, including team and experiential-based learning. Examples for this category include Northwestern Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Duke Fuqua, Georgia Tech, SMU Cox, NYU Stern, and Georgetown McDonough. If you're still curious about case method classes, you consider trying out HBX CORe, which does a decent job at simulating the section experience.

24-30 Points: Apply to programs with a moderate mix (but not a majority) of case-method classes. Examples include Dartmouth Tuck, Stanford GSB, Columbia Business School, UPenn Wharton, and Yale SOM. If you're worried about case-method classes, you can dip your toe into subjects like leadership, ethics, and marketing, where the case method is easier to grasp, while sticking to traditional methods for learning finance and accounting.  

30+ Points: Definitely apply to majority-case-method program. These include schools like HBS, UVA Darden, INSEAD, Berkeley Haas, IESE, University of Western Ontario Ivey, and UNC Kenan-Flagler. Here is where you will really thrive.

What Military Vets bring to the MBA classroom

Smoke

The former Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School Dee Leopold would famously tell interviewees that admitting a class of MBA students is similar to building a salad. Each student is meant to add a certain flavor to the overall mix. For investment bankers, it is economic intuition and modeling skills for the finance classes. For consultants, it is the marketing and strategy frameworks for those classes. But what is the flavor that we military veterans are meant to add?

As military veterans seek to achieve the benefits of an elite business school – higher paying jobs, vibrant personal networks, a world-class education – this is an important question to ask. Schools like Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, Chicago Booth, and Wharton, look for students who will bring voice to certain perspectives in the classroom. When you write your essay, it is important to convey a narrative that gives the admissions committee confidence in your ability to play the role that they have envisioned for you. So what do they look for in vets?

Salute

Leadership Experience

Unlike your peers, who at most have indirectly supervised a couple other consultants on a client site, military veterans have an incredible wealth of leadership experiences. Veterans lead many times more people, in diverse organizations, in some of the highest-stress environments in the world. As you write your application, your resume should shout your leadership experience from the rooftops.

Socio-Economic Diversity

Many students at elite schools like Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chicago Booth, and Wharton come from elite private universities and have generally spent their entire working careers working with those who have done the same. Very few will interact at length with anyone who has not gone to college. In contrast, the military is an incredible melting pot of class. Officers from Dartmouth, UVA, and Notre Dame work side by side with those who dream of completing a degree online from Central Texas University, University of Phoenix, or University of Maryland University College. This experience often gives Veterans higher Emotional Quotients and the “common touch” needed to interact with people who are very different from themselves. That’s a valuable part of diversity that would likely be nowhere else in evidence at prestigious MBA campuses.

Sailors

Large-Organization Outlook

 Start-ups are “in”, but the fact of the matter is that it is always easier to go from a big company to a smaller one. Ex-military service members excel at big companies like Exxon, General Electric, and Eli Lilly, because they how to navigate large organizations. After all, with 3.1 million service members, there is no bigger American employer than the US Military. The ability to navigate complex power dynamics, advance causes through bureaucracies, and motivate subordinates are all topics that will be central to your MBA leadership classes, giving Vets a lot to contribute in them. 

International Exposure

One of the key issues students grapple with in business school is how to lead global teams that cross different time zones, work styles, functions, and cultures. While pretty much everyone in business school has traveled to other countries, few have substantial work experience in more than one country. Here again, military members often have an advantage, and can speak to the practical complexities that come with such work.

Ship

Geopolitical Perspective

When it comes to classes that involve government or foreign policy, often the rest of the class will instinctively turn to hear the perspectives of its Veterans. In addition to having the credibility that comes from wearing the uniform of your country, military leaders are trained early to have a global perspective – to look for geopolitical crises may arise and train to meet those challenges. Many other classmates on the other hand have spent little time thinking about issues outside their teams, firms, or industries.

Top Podcasts for MBAs

How I Built This 

How I Built This is a podcast about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built. Each episode is a narrative journey marked by triumphs, failures, serendipity and insight — told by the founders of some of the world's best known companies and brands. If you've ever built something from nothing, something you really care about — or even just dream about it. (45 min per episode)

  • Good for: Entrepreneurs, Tech, VCs, General Managers
  • Interesting interviews with CEOs and Founders that help you "see sooner, faster" when reacting to challenges that any entrepreneur will encounter. Episodes are pretty inspiring. If you're an entrepreneurial person with a good idea but who has also been procrastinating, this will light a fire under your butt.
  • Very conversational and easy to listen to. Guy Raz is a great interviewer and the subjects are pretty compelling.

NPR News Now

NPR News Now is the latest news in five minutes. Updated hourly. (5 min per episode)

  • Good for: everyone. 
  • The fastest way to keep up to date on your way to and from class. New episodes are updated hourly (indexed on Washington DC time) and seldom repeat segments wholesale, so it is worth listening to whenever there is an update. Episodes are short so they won't burn your cell phone's data plan.
  • An excellent balance of US and world news with a consistently professional narration and neutral tone of voice. Much less prone to hysterics and hyperbole than CNN or Fox.

Revisionist History

Revisionist History is Malcolm Gladwell's journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time. From Panoply Media. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance. (~35 min per episode)

  • Good for: consultants, social enterprise, public sector
  • Basically, every episode of this podcast is a case study in how to get a good grade in a case-based classroom. You may not always agree with Gladwell's points, but they are always incredibly interesting, consequential, well-researched, and surprising. Gladwell points out how complicated systems such as government work and where they have broken down in surprising ways in the past. This is a great source of inspiration if you are interested in improving the world but are unsure which issues are most pressing.
  • If you've read any of his books (or better yet, listened to any of his audiobook readings) you know Gladwell is a master story teller and narrator. These are the kinds of podcasts you enjoy alone, like a rich dessert. 

Freakonomics Radio

Freakonomics Radio is an award-winning weekly podcast with 8 million downloads per month. It can also be heard on public radio stations across the country, on SiriusXM, on several major airlines, and elsewhere. Host Stephen J. Dubner has surprising conversations that explore the riddles of everyday life and the weird wrinkles of human nature — from cheating and crime to parenting and sports. Dubner talks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, social scientists and entrepreneurs — and his Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt. Freakonomics Radio is produced by Dubner Productions and WNYC Studios. (~40 min per episode)

  • Good for: Investors, Bankers, Consultants.
  • Conversational show that presents contrarian views meant to change your mind. Definitely has a libertarian anti-government lean and has been criticized for letting ideology get in the way or research.
  • Generally interesting ideas to bat around with friends. Might even lead to some interesting investing decisions. 

Planet Money

The economy, explained, with stories and surprises. Imagine you could call up a friend and say, "Meet me at the bar and tell me what's going on with the economy." Now imagine that's actually a fun evening. That's what we're going for at Planet Money.

  • Good for: Investors, Entrepreneurs, VCs
  • Each episode examines a person or dissects a big idea that had had a profound and previously hidden impact on the economy. Great at helping build an intuition for the cause and effect of business decisions and policy on the overall landscape of the economy.
  • Great presenters with a lot of enthusiasm for their ideas. Perfect balance of conversational and informative.

Recode Decode

One of tech's most prominent journalists, Kara Swisher is known for her insightful reporting and straight-shooting style. Listen in as she hosts hard-hitting interviews about the week in tech with influential business leaders and outspoken personalities from media, politics and more.

  • Good for: VCs, Tech,
  • Kara Swisher interviews the heros of VC, tech and other fields. It's as close as you would otherwise get to a lot of them. However, Swisher is no "gotcha journalist" and often the episodes turn into puff pieces for their subjects. Regardless, it is a front row seat into the mindset of Silicon Valley and the first edition of what leaders there are talking about. 
  • An easy podcast to come and go with. Good for listening to when you are doing something else.

How military service prepared me for my MBA

Sparkler

Military members are said to have an advantage in the MBA application process, given how valuable their leadership experience, international exposure, and communications skills are to business education. Some studies estimate that the acceptance rate for military vets is about double that of non-veterans in top MBA programs.

In spite of this however, military members are severely under-indexed in the MBA classroom. Just look at my alma mater, Harvard Business School. More than 180 students in the previous two classes have worked for McKinsey & Company, which boasts 11,000 employees worldwide. The United States Military is more than 10,000% larger, with over 1.3 million active duty personnel, and yet there are about 55% fewer U.S. Veterans than McKinsey Consultants – only about 80 school-wide.

Military Veterans enrich the MBA experience for others, and get a ton of value out of it themselves. Do why don’t more apply?

Some Vets may be reluctant to apply because they feel ill-suited for the rarefied air of an elite MBA classroom. Military service is, after all, a lot more rough and dirty than the office lives of entrepreneurs, financiers, and consultants. Others may feel that they are unprepared for the academic rigors. However, I felt that my military service was excellent preparation for my MBA. In the spirit of this Independence Day, I’d like share some lessons all MBAs can learn from military service.

Bootcamp

Integrity beyond reproach

One of my first memories of Officer Candidate School was our Senior Chief brutally punishing the class for failing to immediately fess up to a rule infraction. I remember his strained, veiny neck bellowing that our reputations were everything, and that as officers we would need to exemplify “integrity beyond reproach.”

To get the autonomy necessary to accomplish my mission, I needed my commander to have complete confidence in me to execute, whatever the hardships to be endured. To get my troops to follow my orders, I needed them to trust that my instructions were critical to the mission and already accounted for their well-being.

At business school, I also found myself under the microscope. As an MBA, every day you are interacting closely with the future business leaders of the world, each of whom is going to carry an impression of you based on what they see in and around the classroom. In this environment, you need to carry yourself with the highest integrity, from your academic coursework, to attributing ideas to their originators in discussion group, to prompt and complete Venmo payments after a group dinner. Military officers are used to doing the right thing whether someone is looking for not, which is good because in business school everyone will be.

Jet

Quantity has a quality

Sure some militaries have low-quality outdated missiles, but if they launch enough of them at a fighter jet or aircraft carrier, you will quickly realize how quantity has a quality all its own.

The same goes for a lot of business school. A single noisy dorm-room party might not yield the kind of high quality interactions you'd like, but if you’re the kind of person who always shows up, you’ll likely be invited to the more intimate gatherings. An individual networking event may not land you a job, but if you go to every single one hosted by a particular company, it will speak volumes to them about your commitment. Professors look for quality comments, but if you are always ready to jump in, they will appreciate your mental acuity and you will likely be able to ward off any cold-calls on days when you are not as prepared.

Bias for Action

MBA students are notoriously flakey. We talk a big game about organizing a trek or meeting up with an old colleague for brunch, but the fact of the matter is that our time is always double-booked and we’re forced to turn down fun events constantly. Vets are able to overcome these challenges because they are trained to have a bias for action. If someone asks to get brunch, they will know to put a few dates on the calendar to ensure that it happens. If there is a group project to do, Vets know to plan out the meetings, show up on time, and keep the group on track, even if it means leaning on others a little bit to ensure that their work gets done.

Gift

Think fast and adapt

Most of the time when I prepare a case before class, I’ll be struck by one or two comments that I think might change the trajectory of the case discussion. Then in class the perfect time for me to share my comment will come and pass before I can get into the conversation. These moments happen to every business school student, but I find that Veterans are better about letting them go, thinking fast, and adapting. Sticking with your original plan and shoehorning that comment into the discussion when called upon later would have disrupted the flow of the conversation and earned you a bad grade as well. Service members are trained to understand that no good plan survives first contact with the enemy, and are ready to adjust accordingly.