The Surprising Things I Learned While Getting My MBA
by Elspeth Moffat, EMBA 2018
I don’t surprise easily. I don’t get caught off guard or startle much. I am not even ticklish, much to the disappointment of my daughters and every boyfriend I have ever had. So, when I say I was shocked by the way that I learned while attending business school and how much that experience changed me, I mean that sincerely and without exaggeration. I thought about writing all of this in a humorous and sarcastic way, because that is how I approach many things. But that is not what I feel as I start to put my thoughts down on paper. Bear with me, and I hope you will find my experience is relatable to something in your own life.
There are things you expect to learn when you go to school. A higher level of math, strategic marketing, functional team leadership, operational efficiency… we expect these topics to be covered. We expect to become more skilled. And I wholeheartedly acknowledge that these are valuable, if not at all surprising, takeaways from an Executive MBA program. I selected a good school, the best actually (Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management), because I wanted to develop in these and many other academic areas. And I absolutely got what I paid for. But I also got so much more. And it is in the “so much more” that my real education took place. This is where I learned things I never imagined. About myself. About my abilities. About what I want.
I am a judgmental person
I think we all have this in us, but I was either unaware or in denial of the extent of my own narrow and stereotypical views. When I made the decision to get my MBA, I knew exactly what to expect in business school. I knew what types of people I was going to meet. I knew how hard I would have to work to be accepted. I knew that it was probably every person for themselves. I was wrong. So incredibly wrong. Maybe there were some elements of my thinking that hit the mark, like how people in this type of setting are driven and competitive (myself included).
But my perspective was incomplete at best. I had the great fortune to be proven wrong in my expectations of people and the environment over and over and over again. I was surrounded by brilliant, critical, tough minded people. But they were also compassionate. And devoted. Supportive and encouraging. And willing to be vulnerable in a way that I never anticipated. I had walked in the door expecting everyone to judge me. But it turned out that I was the one who was judging. It was one of the greatest lessons I will ever learn. As a result, I have connected with the most extraordinary people and walked away with relationships that I will treasure for a lifetime.
I am an assertive person
I never would have described myself as assertive. Passive aggressive, sure. Competitive, usually. But confident, self-assured, or assertive… almost never. Especially not in a professional or academic setting. But as I gingerly dipped my toe into the waters of classroom participation and healthy debates, something woke up in me. It was the belief that I had something valuable to contribute. And my response to how much the contributions of others were energizing and intellectually stimulating. I wanted to be all in on discussions and influence the outcomes.
As an introvert and life-long first follower, this kind of desire to lead and disrupt felt uncomfortable. But as I mentioned, I was surrounded by people who made it easier by creating an environment that was both safe and challenging, both encouraging and provoking. And for the first time in my life, I began to wonder if I was being too assertive. Talking too much. And that was a really extraordinary feeling.
I belong in business school
This is more of a feeling I came to embrace than a statement of fact. With a degree in psychology and a background in systemic family therapy, I did not believe that I would belong in business school. I live in the world of human services and non-profits. I wasn’t supposed to be here. In fact, I was fairly certain that the Kellogg School of Management had made some sort of clerical error when they accepted me.
Two things happened when I met my classmates. First, I was awed by the diversity of the cohort I was joining. They were not all bankers, although some were (and it is important to note that those bankers are also much more, such as military veterans and master sommeliers). My classmates were pilots and surgeons and therapists and consultants and lawyers. More than that they were parents and spouses and sons and daughters and friends and aunts and brothers. But most importantly, almost every person I talked to felt the same way I did. We don’t belong here. How did we get here? Our cohort was rich in perspective and personality and experience. We learned more deeply because of our differences, and we raised each other up higher because we needed that from one another. What I learned in business school is that my education was better because of the diversity of our group. And my unique perspective and experience actually did belong there. I helped to bring a different kind of light to certain issues, in the same way that the neurosurgeon sitting behind me could unpack a case in a way that I never would have considered. None of us belonged, which is why we all did.
I want to do something important. Something meaningful.
There are some people that I meet, and a few minutes into our conversation I think, “Wow. This person is going to change the world.” And I don’t mean the whole entire world. But I know with certainty that this person is going to significantly impact a group or a pocket or a corner of the world. They will leave things better than they found them. And I have always been in awe of these people. I have admired them. But I never dreamed of becoming one. Until now. The two years I spent with exceptional people, pushing the boundaries or self-leadership and higher learning, has forever changed me. I want to change the world. A world. Maybe that is the world of 50 people or maybe the world of 50 million. But I know that I want to always be pushing myself forward to be stronger and better and looking for the next opportunity to do something meaningful. Do something great. That may not be the dream that brought me to Kellogg. But that is the dream in my heart as I leave.
My cohort graduates this weekend. Graduation is a point of reflection for all of us. What brought us to this moment and where do we go from here? I know that my path forward is not one that I will travel alone. I walk the stage Saturday with 67 other people with whom I am bonded forever. I celebrate our success and I reluctantly let go of this chapter in our lives. We are all changed. We all learned things we did not expect. We all discovered connections that we never imagined. And we are all stronger and more ready to lead than we have ever been. And we will make the world better, one small corner at a time.