The first eight weeks will be a trial by fire.
Prior to this though, there was O-Week, MBA style.
*For American readers, the legal drinking age in Australia is 18, coinciding nicely with the first year of university. Incidentally, my 18th birthday was on the second day of O-Week. Over 200 people came, we had a pub crawl, and I didn’t have to organise a thing. It was great.
The O-Week rundown, Day 0: Sunday
This day was probably the easiest of the lot, if only because we were only required for the evening. In fact, Jack (my housemate) and I went and caught a showing of Verdi’s “Aida” from Milan’s Teatro alla Scala at the local cinema beforehand. I am always caught unawares by how musically brilliant the ending is. Verdi really knew how to score an opera.
Nevertheless, our first orientation event wasn’t going to be a simple meet and greet with fellow students. It was game on from the get go, a sponsored dinner where we were expected to network with the sponsors. Networking was a theme that would be constant through the week; in a post-GFC world, the need for MBAs to proactively pursue employment opportunities is greater than ever. As our Careers Center head put it: “You bring your ‘A’ game”.
That being said, as a MAMBA student our internships have to be in the arts sector, so networking with representatives from the private sector was more about making connections than angling for internships. I’m sure some of them found it refreshing.
It was home after that, to organise everything for the week ahead.
Day 1: Monday
The first 0530 start of the week, to get some exercise in ahead of the official photograph for the student directory. By some random chance (or staff conspiracy, take your pick) my name was at the top of the list of students, meaning I had to be there for the first photo at 0715. The advantage of waking at 0530 is that by 0715 you are actually awake and functional and presentable for a headshot that will inevitably become your LinkedIn picture.
To sweeten the deal, they served up a cooked breakfast for us. And coffee. That definitely helped perk us all up.
Not that we needed perking up, as our first guest speaker of the day was the energetic and inspirational Elaine Agather, a woman wearing many hats in both the banking, not-for-profit and horseriding worlds. Her straightforward, no-nonsense approach to speaking and life in general certainly won me over.
After that it was teambuilding exercises and tours, followed by a lunch with university dignitaries, including Edwin Cox, after whom the Cox School of Business is named. His speech was short, but powerful – “The best is yet to come”.
After lunch, more sessions, then our first real chance to meet with our study groups. These were assigned pseudorandomly (to ensure balanced distributions by gender, course and skill set). The whole aim was to ensure that you didn’t pick friends and instead work with a more realistic scenario for many project teams, namely a group of random people brought together to attain a common goal (in our case, academic success and/or retained sanity). So far my study group seems good, there’s a reasonably even mix of backgrounds and perspectives. More importantly, they are all extremely intelligent and motivated people, and want to work hard to do well in the program.
It was then time for another sponsor talk and networking event, this time off-site at an Italian restaurant. It was a good chance to mingle with my fellow students and get to know my study group a bit better over a beer. Then back home for coffee and late-night preparation for the next day.
Day 2 – Tuesday
This could easily be summed up as “Fear Day”. The bulk of the sessions were designed to reinforce the importance of academic performance, of proactive job hunting, and of how much work was required outside of lectures to keep up with courses. We also got our pre-lecture readings and assignments, which looked tough on paper but proved even tougher in reality.
Admittedly, if you turn up to an MBA program expecting it to be a cruise, you frankly deserve to fail. But having the requirements writ plain by the professors really put it into sharp focus.
After that, another company presentation, then off to tour the George W Bush Presidential Library, which is on the SMU campus. Regardless of your views on his administration, the library itself is a beautiful place. The concept of a “Presidential Library” is unknown to Australians, not least because of our lack of presidents, but also because of our tendency to let past political leaders fade into history with little accolades or memorials, beyond the occasional newspaper editorial or memoir (both of which are oft derided as too much exposure).
By contrast, Presidential Libraries serve as a monument to the accomplishments of the administration, and paint a picture of history through the eyes of that administration. This library was no different, with a strong emphasis on the response to terrorism (and a piece of the World Trade Center). The actions of the administration (including the debate over Iraq, and the response to events such as Katrina) are painted in a consistently positive light, which is hardly unexpected for such an institution. I would expect the same for other such libraries, regardless of political leaning.
I did learn something interesting though – George W Bush was the first president to have an MBA. There was also a recreation of the Oval Office, and I got to sit in the presidential chair. And press the “red button” (yes, there is one)!
After that, it was another networking social event, at the library “café”, which is actually a fully fledged restaurant (this seems to be a Dallas thing). This time the MAMBAs pretty much kept to themselves in the corner, but it was a good chance to chat about our expectations and desires in the course. We even started brainstorming ways to engage our fellow MBA students with the arts over the next two years.
Speaking of storming, at this point, we were all caught up in a series of rainstorms that were rolling through Dallas. Ever resourceful, the MBA students pulled together a bunch of cars to shuttle us all back to the parking lot rather than let us walk in the rain. Kudos to all of the drivers for making that happen.
Then back home for more coffee and preparation for the next day.
Day 3 – Wednesday
By this point I was hitting the wall of exhaustion. The consecutive days of events were starting to take a toll on my ability to function cognitively, and all the morning sessions were blurring into each other.
Lunch was an “etiquette” session hosted by the lovely Kim Zoller from Image Dynamics, which went through each stage of the business lunch in meticulous detail. It was actually fascinating to note some of the key differences between Australian and American etiquette, most notably the use of forks and knives (Australians use the fork in the left hand at ALL times, the so-called European method).
I also noted that for napkins (or serviettes) the approach was drastically different, with the napkin laid horizontally across the lap. It may sound pedantic, but I was entirely out of place with my “diagonal” napkin arrangement, which I consider both appropriate and functionally superior. It allows you to wipe your mouth with the corner of the napkin without depositing residue on your pants. That’s kind of important in my view.
After lunch was the “elevator pitch” session, a form of speed networking in which we had a minute to “pitch” our MBA intentions to a professional in the hope of making a connection. It’s designed to prepare us for the networking events that take place over the next six months, in which we have about a minute to capture the attention of recruiters. Again, the MAMBA students were in a different boat due to the differences between the private sector and the arts. But we turned up…
…and owned it.
A pitch is basically a chance for us arts folk to take center stage and engage with an audience. Fundamentally, it's no different to a performance. So even if we were technically barking up the wrong tree selling the future of arts management to real estate investors, we at least strove to make it interesting.
At the end of the event, some of us (myself included) were called to the front of the room to deliver our pitches to the whole audience of students and professionals. My MAMBA colleague Adam Wallman performed exceptionally, his theatre background coming to the fore and infusing his pitch with drama and energy.
Then it was my turn. Matching Adam’s performance was going to be tough, so I played my trump card. The good thing about being an opera singer is that microphones are redundant. Our “inside voice” beats any microphone. So I put the microphone down and silenced a room of 150 people the only way I knew how. It worked well enough.
After that it was another company session and networking (getting the pattern here?), this time at a bowling alley (which incidentally served a decent martini). This activity only served to demonstrate that out of my study group I am by far the least competent bowler. Hopefully we are not graded on that.
Day 4 – Thursday
This day was the hardest. I woke up feeling unwell and dead tired from all the events. But in the absence of any good excuses for not turning up, I soldiered on.
The Thursday sessions provided our first exposure to the case method approach to lectures, in which you have to read and analyse a case study ahead of the class, and then spend the class discussing your analyses in considerable depth. It’s a useful method, as the cases are usually drawn from the real world, but if you’re not used to heavy class participation it can be confronting.
It was then followed by another session of team building exercises, in which we discovered that getting a team of thirty people to work as a team it as tricky as you’d expect. Nevertheless, we made it work. But by this point we were all starting to feel the fatigue of the constant days of activity; tired faces littered the room.
The evening made a break from the job networking pattern, with a social event held by the second year students for us at a local bar. There was plenty of work to do afterwards though, so the beer had to be limited, and the coffee at the ready.
This was the last day of the formal MBA orientation events, and saw us head off campus to do community service for local branches of the Salvation Army. This was a great way to spend the last day, giving something back to those who need it most. We were the army that day, a phalanx of students busily working to clean buildings, corridors and buses (and in my case, dismantle an old wooden portable theatre stage that had reached its use-by date). Our official Cox Business School shirts were soon covered in water and grime, which was a great look.
The people at the local branch were overwhelmingly grateful for all our help, and yet to me they were the ones that put in the hard work day in day out to keep operations running. Hopefully a few of us use our MBAs to support charitable organisations and make the hard work they put in worth it.
We finally got the luxury of an afternoon to ourselves, and then it was time to get dressed in our finest cocktail wear and attend the Dean’s Social, at a venue overlooking the city. The view was stunning to say the least, and it was a great opportunity to celebrate the end of a long week…
Day 6 – Saturday
…but the week didn’t end there. Not for us. Saturday was study day, and that’s where it dawned that we were back in school. From dawn to well after dusk I was reading and studying, my brain liquefying in front of a computer monitor. I stumbled dazed into the half-light of the hallway, brain addled by hours of course readings. By the afternoon I had become convinced that each new bit of knowledge was pushing old knowledge out of my brain, and that by Monday I would have forgotten how to tie shoelaces.
It really hit home that day that the next two years will not be easy. But then again nobody said it would be.
Day 7 – Sunday
The whole purpose of "Study Saturday" (which may become a ritual in future) was to ensure that everything was out of the way for Sunday, and our final O-Week event, put together especially for the MAMBAs.
All the networking sessions earlier in the week were preparation for our own special networking session, a brunch in suburban Dallas with leaders from arts organisations all over the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Great fun, but at the same time very intense. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch should have extended it to the other meals as well.
And then it was over, and with it O-Week.
Today classes started in earnest, and with it a new chapter for me. In terms of where this will take me and where I want to take it, there are so many opportunities and options, and O-Week created even more of them. I also realised that I still have so much to learn and understand before I know where I can best apply myself in supporting the arts, whether it’s in consulting, leadership, analytics or somewhere else entirely.
But I’m ready to learn and to understand, and that’s the important part.