Thursday, October 18, 2007

The first 100 days of an MBA grad

I was recently asked to write an article for my alumni newspaper. The article had to be cut down quite a bit due to space constraints. Here is the article in its entirety.

"First off, a big hello from the other side to my second year friends and to those first years whom I had the pleasure to meet during Darden Days and various other “please come join our community” events where we tried our best to woo you into accepting at Darden. I’m glad you’re there, and in many ways I am very sorry I am not there with you. Darden is one of the most incredible places I have ever had the privilege to call home.

Can it really be 100 days since I graduated? How did the days get by me so quickly? I have done my best blocking and tackling job, and still time is slipping by at a dizzying pace. Such is the life of a retailer (me).

I graduated without a job – so if you are still in the hunt, don’t despair. I moved to NYC with no job, no money, and a desire to be in an industry that has zero interest in MBAs, or so I was told. And now I live in my favorite area of Manhattan on Riverside Park, work for the best boss I’ve ever had (he’s so brilliant, insightful, and unfailingly supportive and kind that I’m considering asking him, and his equally wonderful wife, to adopt me), and got a dream job at a toy company. I’m not kidding – sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.

If you want the details of my job hunt, I’m glad to share them. (The story is a bit too long for the purposes of this article so if you want the full details or you need someone’s success story to keep you motivated, please email me. Seriously – I check my email obsessively.) You can also ask Kellogg Leliveld – without her, I wouldn’t have gotten to my current company. In short, I can tell you I squeezed every last drop of learning out of Darden that I could get, I researched and contacted companies like a mad woman, I kept smiling, even when I felt like crying (which was often), I refused to take a job that wasn’t perfect for me, and I had an absolutely miserable summer between my first and second years – the worst summer on record. And now I am so grateful for that miserable summer because it forced me to stop compromising in every area of my life, personal and professional. In these first 100 days, I have learned that comprising your happiness for what you think you should do and what others think you should do is a road that can only lead to a very unhappy life and a job that ultimately you will hate.

Joël graciously provided me with some talking points, which I am very appreciative of, so I am going to answer those now:

I had a lot of fears when going through Darden, when graduating, and when taking a job. I was really afraid that I wasn’t up to the challenge. Darden asked more from me than I ever asked from myself, and as a harsh self-critic, that is saying a lot. And what I learned through my interview process with my now boss is that we have to commit. It is incredible what developing a strong, true, deep sense of commitment will do – it will eradicate fear. I am someone completely obsessed with worry and fear. I know what you’re going through. And what I was missing all along was commitment to asking for and getting exactly what I wanted. Don’t do that. Take out a piece of paper, right now, and write out your perfect job, your perfect boss, your perfect whatever-you-want, and refuse to take anything less. Make a sealed promise to yourself to get exactly what is on that paper.

Fun at work:
I work for a retailer as the Senior Analyst Manager of Trend and Innovation, which is to say I am a nerdy version of Tom Hanks in Big. I have fun about 10 hours a day (and my boss is horrified by how much I work! Can you believe that?) We are charged with infusing the company with creativity, and then daily making the business case for innovation and re-invention. We are actively helping to turn the ship around. I run to work every morning, and have made shopping a scientific experiment and a sport (which is the only way I can stand to be in a store longer than 5 minutes. Secretly, I hate shopping, which I’m learning makes me a good retailer.)

Why Darden mattered:
I got a do-over by going to Darden. I was a job switcher in every sense of the word. I was so non-traditional that some people wondered what in the world I was doing at Darden and what in the world I would ever do after. That’s okay. And when I turned down a very lucrative job in a top-rate training program with one of the largest companies in the world, some people told me I was crazy. Absolutely nuts. And that’s okay, too. I knew me better than they did. There’s a great video on You Tube that gets me through criticism like this; it’s the 60-second ad that Apple ran in their “Think Different” campaign. It’s their salute to the Crazy Ones – have a look at This little clip keeps me going. Crazy ones are the ones who make a difference. “The right answer” is not always essential, and many times is counter-productive. Darden showed me that humility, creativity, and diligence will get you everywhere.

And finally a word about toy recalls:
My boss was recently put in charge of managing and communicating safety initiatives across the enterprise. Right now, he is up in Toronto walking our Canadian stores with the CEO and President, and preparing to address the Board tomorrow morning on the issue of toy safety. Because we are privately held, the Board is made up entirely of private equity investors. When they did their investment analysis, I can guarantee that they did not account for tens of millions of toys being recalled by the world’s largest toy manufacturer right before the Christmas shopping season. My boss and I have agonized over the presentation deck for weeks, and now it’s show time.

We will be a better company for going through this, even as every analyst on Wall Street speculates about what this will do to the holiday shopping season. We will have better relationships throughout our supply chain as a result. We will hold ourselves to higher standards of responsibility and accountability. I have had a front-row seat to the end of an era in this industry – the days of cheap product without consequences are over. Manufacturers can no longer squeeze overseas production facilities – there is nothing left for them to give. We thought we were in the toy business; we’re not. Fundamentally, we are in the trust business, and it will take some work to regain that trust and to use it to define who we are and what we mean to our guests. It’s about re-invention and re-purposing, and it is the most critical work a company can ever do. And we’re doing it.

Not bad for the first 100 days. We do 80% of our revenue between October 1st and December 31st so I am sure the next 100 will be just as eventful! Stay tuned – this is going to be exciting.

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