What Post-MBA Life Is Like, During COVID and Beyond
Applying the lessons of MBA school to the reality of COVID-19 [Show summary]
Al Dea, a tech product manager who earned his MBA from UNC, dives deep into what life is like after business school, including how the pandemic has impacted the post-MBA experience.
What steps can businesses take to help employees thrive during COVID? How can MBA programs help students thrive during this time? [Show notes]
Our guest today is a tech product manager, member of the UNC MBA class of 2015, host of the MBASchooled podcast, and author of the book MBA Insider: How to Make the Most of Your MBA Experience. Al Dea earned his bachelor’s in marketing and theology from Boston College in 2010. He then became a Deloitte analyst and consultant until starting his MBA at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. He earned his MBA from Kenan-Flagler in 2015 and returned to Deloitte for a couple of years, then started in product management for a leading high tech firm in 2017, and today is a senior manager in product marketing at that company. On the side, he launched his website, MBASchooled, in 2015. A year ago, he published his first book, MBA Insider: How to Make The Most of Your MBA Experience, and started the MBASchooled podcast.
It’s been about a year since he was last on Admissions Straight Talk, and we discussed in that interview his application experience and MBA experience at UNC. We’re not going to cover those topics again, but if you would like to hear Al’s perspective on the topics I typically discuss, check out the original interview, MBA Insider Shares His Secrets in New Book.
How did you adjust to remote work both personally and as a manager working in tech? [2:46]
I’m someone who works as a knowledge worker and for a tech company. Relatively speaking, we’ve all experienced challenges, but my experience making the transition was rather seamless. Many of the people on my team have worked remotely for varying degrees of time, and in some cases, many are only remote based off of where they are, geographically speaking. It wasn’t so much that we hadn’t done this before; we just all hadn’t done it permanently before. It was really about refining and getting used to this being an everyday thing. That said, even though we did have incredible resources to make the transition, even though we had some kind of norms for knowing how to collaborate over Google Hangouts and Google Meet and the like, it definitely was still challenging. Anytime you get a shock to the system, or you have to make an adjustment, it takes the body a little bit of time to adapt and evolve.
For me, a couple of things stood out. Number one, the fundamentals in the ways of working. Fundamentals: these are the things that are critical to helping you be at your best and do your job effectively. If you think about a professional athlete, if I think about someone like LeBron James, LeBron James is amazing on the court because of all the things he does off the court in order for him to be at his best. That was something that I took to heart as I made the transition to working more remote and thought about for the folks on my team. What are those fundamentals that, in this new environment, we need to make sure we focus on so that we can do the best we possibly can each and every day? It was going to be different because the environment was different.
The second thing was thinking about the ways of working. These are the kinds of the things that you sometimes take for granted when you’re working in an office every day, the ability to pop over to someone’s desk and say, “Hey, what about that thing in that meeting that we talked about? Can you follow up real quick?” Or being able to go to the coffee bar to catch up with someone and have that chat about what’s going on. We paid attention to those as well and thought about how we reenacted those. All of us as humans are social beings, and those are really critical and important. Those were the things that I paid attention to and that I asked my team to pay attention to, to try to do the best we could. Though we’re very fortunate, it still is hard to make a change like that no matter how many resources or how much you have at your disposal.
As a remote team, it’s challenging to have the kind of casual encounters that make for a good team experience. How did you encourage that? [5:35]
We are fortunate in that we have a lot of technology resources at our disposal. (Maybe too many at times; you can make the argument for that.) But it can be little things such as having a channel or a thread on whatever collaboration tool of choice just to talk about what everyone’s watching right now. Or, what’s a book recommendation, or a Netflix recommendation? A couple times on our team, our leader reached out and said, “Hey, everyone, take care of yourself today. Go expense a delivery meal of some sort and tell everyone what you ordered.” It can be things like proactively scheduling time just to check in with someone, with no agenda, but just to ask, how are you doing? How are you feeling?
I’m always someone who asks, “How are you doing?” but during the first couple months of the pandemic, I always made it very clear before I started any meetings to ask someone, “How are you doing?” Those are little things that may seem trivial, but, I found from my experience, people appreciate them. Also, they give you a little bit of boost. They give you a little bit of that feeling like you are on a team with other people who want to work hard but also care about you and are trying to help you do your best work.
Certainly, we had our virtual happy hours. Our broader organization, at one point, had a virtual Olympics of sorts where we had virtual competitions and a virtual scavenger hunt and things like that. Part of it for me, at least, is just getting people to come together to do something that makes them feel like they’re a valued member of the team. And it could be just something small, like a thread or a chat, or it could be something like a virtual Olympics. Recreating that team environment is hard to do, but when you can do it, it’s better than nothing.
When you’re in a meeting, sometimes there’s a persona that you have to put on to speak articulately, to make points, or to project confidence. But who you are at work and who you are as a person is going to show up in your work life. I’m fortunate that I was able to do that before. I’m on a team that is very inclusive, that is very accepting of others and really encourages people to be their full selves. But there really wasn’t any other way to not do that, given the fact that, as everyone has kind of documented, your work life and your personal life were wedged together. We’re literally working from home and have little ones wandering around, or little creatures running around, or other things happening. I hope that this gave everyone a little bit of a chance to recognize the humanity that exists in all of us, hopefully. I too appreciate the photos of the dogs and the grandkids and anything else. It always brightens up my day.
Do you think your MBA education assisted you in adapting to this new environment? And if so, how? [9:36]
Working in a large company like I do, and also working in a role like mine, which is incredibly cross-functional, means when I work on a project, I’m usually never doing it alone. I’m working with a lot of people. It is critical to have good communication and the ability to work well with others and drive towards an outcome. That’s critical when you’re in person. That becomes even more critical when you’re all virtual and all remote. The running joke is that business school is one big cross functional group project because you’re constantly having to do that, whether that’s in a study team, working on an initiative for a club or organization, engaging with other folks at your schools or community. All of those experiences in business school definitely were critical to how I showed up and did that before COVID, but they’re even more critical in COVID, because it was all virtual.
Another thing that was really important was dealing with uncertainty. When you think about the MBA education, you think of something like the case method, or case studies in general. For those who aren’t familiar, Harvard Business School and Darden are generally the two schools that really rely solely on the case method. Most MBA programs use cases in their classes. Usually in the case, there’s a summary of the situation, and at the end of it, you’re given the task of making a decision of what should happen. In a lot of cases, you’re given some information, but it’s incomplete, and there’s some uncertainty. There isn’t always a clear answer. I think we’ve all had to deal with more uncertainty over the last six to nine months. In business school when you’re taking a stretch project, or when you’re doing something outside your comfort zone, all of those things matter to how you show up. In this COVID world, where we’ve all had to do a lot of things that we probably never thought we would ever have to do before, I think that was really key.
The last thing is empathy. I’ve always had a keen sense of empathy, but you get a greater sense in an MBA environment, I think, when you’re exposed to people of different backgrounds, of diverse walks of life. If you do business school right, it really gets you to be much more thoughtful and curious about where people are coming from and who they are. That notion of empathy, I think, has been really critical and really important, particularly in these times when you can’t always be face to face with someone to see their body language or to know exactly what’s going on, or if you’re working cross-function with people you’ve never met before and you have to try to build relationships. I think those are the couple things that really stand out from my time at UNC and getting an MBA that have been valuable to navigating this past year.
How could your MBA education have better prepared you to deal with and adapt to a crisis, to the unexpected and unanticipated? Maybe a class, or a series of lectures on crisis management? [12:38]
I’ll take this from the lens of curriculum, and I’ll take this from the lens of me personally. I’m going to start with the latter first because it’s top of mind. For me personally, I think something I could have done, something I’ve always said and I know other people feel this way too who have gone to business school, is that it is probably one of the safest places you can be to take risks and to put yourself out there and to do things that are either risky, antithetical to what you would normally do, or just completely outside of your comfort zone, which are all real feelings that many of us have felt over the past nine months. For me, something that could have prepared me a little bit more is really pushing myself to take on more of those experiences.
I definitely took on some. I had a great experience. I don’t think I would trade it for the world, but if you had said to me, “Al, could you have made your experience 10 or 15% better?” I’d really force myself to be in those uncomfortable or difficult or uncertain kinds of experiences, like taking harder classes that are clearly outside of my comfort zone. I think that’s an easy, low-hanging fruit. It could be raising your hand to lead the project when you don’t necessarily feel empowered to do so, or fully empowered to do so. It could be, honestly, being in class and pushing back on someone else’s opinion in a respectful way, versus letting it slide. It could be pursuing an initiative or idea on your own. I think I did quite a few, so I don’t know what else I could have added just from a pure time perspective. But I do think I could have maybe pushed myself a little bit more. Now, I can certainly still do those things, but the cost is a little bit more than it is when you’re in an environment of higher education.
From a curriculum perspective, I think about some of the challenges that my classmates or friends are having or have had to face and solve over the past couple months. I think about my friends who are working at ride-hailing platforms or delivery services who have had to think about, “How do we provide our employees or contractors with a safe and empowering employee experience during these kinds of times?” I think about my friends who have had to make decisions that have potential negative externalities to certain populations of people that they’ve never had to make before. I wonder how much better equipped they could have been had they gotten a curriculum that exposed them to businesses or industries or companies that are focused on solving these problems or challenges, or focused on serving these customer segments or populations. If you think of anything we’ve seen over the past year, unfortunately, the divide between the haves and the have nots is continuing to rise. Like I said, we’ve all been affected by COVID, but there’s been certain groups clearly that have been affected significantly more than others. I wonder what a better curriculum could be that is more inclusive, that is more representative of addressing issues and challenges that businesses should be thinking about if they’re not, so that if this were to come up again, they would be much more prepared to tackle it because of what they learned in business school.
This is the time of year that I do goal-setting for the next year, but also, I’m doing my own performance evaluation at work. Speaking candidly, one of the pieces of feedback that I have gotten several times in my career that definitely came up this year was, “You don’t always speak with confidence, or you don’t always raise your hand when we know you know what to say or what to do, but you’re afraid to say it.” It’s something that I’m still working on and thinking about. But again, as I reflect back on the question that you asked and I think about business school and what is unique about it, it is the fact that you can try and you can fail, and it’s okay. If anything, it’s an incredibly supportive community to fail in because they’ll pick you back up, and they’ll also give you feedback on how you can do it better. It’s not that I don’t have that at work; I certainly do, and I’m very grateful for it. But I can’t think of a much better place where you can have that than in your MBA.
For your MBASchooled podcast, you interview many MBA grads. What are some of the common threads you see in those interviews, specifically relating to the overall value of their education? As they look back on the MBA experience, are they glad they earned the MBA? [18:02]
I think they are. You could probably say that there might be a little bias in that. I acknowledge that there might be a little bias in that, considering they made a pretty significant investment and want to make sure they make good on it. But I believe when they talk to me that what they’re saying is real. I think one of the most commonly used words when I talk to students and alum is this word “transformative.” You can use that in so many different ways. But I do think it is transformative for many of them, particularly for where they are in their careers. If you’re thoughtful and hardworking and smart enough to get into a top MBA program, you’ve clearly had some level of success in your career today. But for many of them, what they got from the MBA enabled them to make a change, or to accelerate, or to zig or zag to a different path. And without that experience and the skills or experiences they gained from it, they would not have been able to do it.
There’s also this acknowledgement that when they earn the MBA and they go off into the real world, yes, there’s the hope that you remember how to do a pro forma from your accounting class or you remember the four Ps of Marketing and whatnot, but what they also are glad for about and thankful for is the ability to be able to learn how to learn. When you’re in business school, particularly in that first semester, you’re constantly getting thrown into situations where you have to quickly absorb some content or material or some concepts and then apply them in a rapid manner. That really can be challenging. But if you can get through that, that can be a very valuable skill to have. Sure, the hope is that they remember the four Ps or how to do a pro forma or whatever other concept. But the other thing that comes up is just this thankfulness. If they get something that they don’t know how to do, they know how to size it up, how to think through it and break it down, and then how to go and figure it out.
The last thing that I often hear is that they get a toolbox that goes with them for the rest of their career. Everyone always starts their career with a toolbox. But what an MBA does is sharpen some of the tools that you already have in that toolbox and expands the toolbox, giving you more tools that maybe you didn’t have before. That’s another thing that often goes with them for the rest of their career. And then the obvious one, too, is the network and the relationships. That’s well documented and kind of speaks for itself.
What’s the most difficult part of the application process for most of them? [21:29]
I’d be curious to know what you think because you live and breathe this each and every day, but the two that come up the most: one is tactical and one is strategic. The strategic one is “why.” Why an MBA? It’s kind of like the concept of “simple but not easy.” It’s a simple question. It’s not always easy to come up with the answer. Why Stanford, or why any other school? Because if it’s not coming up in the essay, it’s coming up in the interview with some variation. It’s hard to craft a good story and application without it because it is so critical to making the case to go to business school, but also to justify the cost of it. Right?
Then there’s the tactical one. Maybe this is just a bias from myself, but even as there are more testing options out there now, if you were to ask me, “Hey, could you find me 10 people who say they love taking standardized tests?”, it would take me a while to find those people. And it’s not to say that they can’t do it. If you’re getting into a top business school, most people figure out a way to do it. But I have heard more people say to me, “The application or answering the essays was hard, but you know what? It was also a good reflection process.” I have heard far less people say to me, “You know what? I’m really glad that someone forced me to take a standardized test on top of working all these hours.”
Another thing I have witnessed is that there’s a little bit lost in translation and a little bit of mixed messaging around that question of short- and long-term goals, or, “What is your post-MBA goal?” Say you’re an applicant and you’re talking to students, or you’re going to a prospective students weekend and you go and talk to a student, and they say with the best of intentions, “Oh, you have time to explore. Use this time as a time of exploration.” I think many of those insights are real and well intentioned, but I think sometimes, candidates kind of get in their head. They say, “Oh, okay. Well, they didn’t have it figured out, so I don’t have to figure it out,” or, “Oh, they used it as a two-year chance to explore, and so I can do that too.” I’m not saying that’s not true, but say you were to ask any admissions officer, “Would you rather have a candidate who, for the sake of the application and where they are right now, knowing that the MBA is a transformative experience, has a confident sense in terms of where they are and where would they like to go, versus a candidate who is coming to your school, is really smart, who wants to explore?” It’s clear what the admissions director is going to want.
That said, as you well know, once you get to school, the whole point of it being a transformative experience is that sometimes things can happen. And that’s okay, but that still doesn’t mean you can’t have that weather vane to at least get you going in a direction, giving you some kind of way to navigate without being entirely lost. But there’s nuance in that, or there’s mixed messaging that, sometimes, applicants lose sight of.
Do any of the MBAs you interview tell you what they did to make the most of their experience? Is there any kind of common thread that you hear in your interviews? [28:07]
I have not only examples of these, but I’ll also give a shout-out to a couple schools to make it more real. The first one is this idea of applied learning. One of the things that’s great about business school is that you’re in the classroom, but then you also have other avenues, whether it’s extracurricular activities, consulting projects, working with startups, doing research with a professor, or all these other things where you can take what you’re learning and be able to apply it in real time. One example that kind of comes to mind is the MBA Plus program at the University of Texas Austin McCombs MBA Program, which is a great program. A lot of these schools have these consulting projects for real companies that are out there, where you get to put on a team and you learn real world skills. It’s a chance to take what you’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world. That makes it stick, and it gives you a real example of what this work could be like. But oftentimes, when I talk to students, and I ask them what helped them in their summer internship, a lot of them will talk about programs like the MBA Plus program and others because a lot of the skills you build there are very real.
Another thing that is also kind of unique and special is that for programs like the MBA Plus or MAP at Ross, a lot of these projects they’re getting right now, these are real challenges that these companies are facing in this COVID world. They’re getting real experience trying to navigate some of these challenges that are literally just popping up. That ability to take what you’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to solving a real and relevant problem with a business, I think, is really valuable.
Another one is the surroundings: the resources and experts. I’m going to give a little shout-out to my alma mater, UNC Kenan-Flagler. They have a program called the Adams Apprenticeship program. This is for folks who are either wanting to be entrepreneurs or wanting to be early stage investors. It’s a full program where, if you get accepted into it, not only is there a whole curriculum to work on projects that are related to the path that you want to go down, but then you get access to a network of experts who are already doing the thing that you want to do. Not only are you pairing real world experience with something, but you’re also getting access to people who are already doing that thing and can provide that expert guidance and coaching and network to help you grow in that way.
The last one is the leadership opportunities that come with it. If you’re going to a top MBA program, I think the assumption is that you want to be a leader of some sorts, whether it’s within an organization, whether it’s your own organization and the like. There’s a lot of great schools out there that have both formal leadership opportunities as well as ones that just kind of emerge. One example comes from a student I just spoke to who’s a second year. Willie is the managing director of the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition, which just launched this year. Willie had this idea of, “Why can’t we create a case competition that addresses the intersection of racial justice in businesses?” He took it to his professors, took it to the administrators, and they said, “This looks like a great idea. Run with it, build it, and bring it to life.” And working with a team, that’s what he’s done.
When I was talking to him, one of the things he talked about was this being an idea that he didn’t even realize would come to fruition. Through it, the biggest challenge for him has been stepping up to the plate and leading his peers. That experience is so incredibly valuable to what he’s probably going to have to do when he goes into the real world and goes back into the working world. So there’s applied learning, those resources and programs with experts, and then the leadership opportunities. I think those are the things that people value most. And then inherent to that are the relationships you build, the alums you meet, the classmates (in normal times) you get to travel with and all those other things. Those are the things that stand out.
This may be a record year for MBA application volume. Do you think MBA applicants should refrain from applying because of the intense competition this year? [32:43]
I treat this question how, I think, a lot of successful companies think about themselves in the market and the competition. Those successful companies, they pay attention to the market, and they pay attention to what their competition is doing. But what they’re mostly focused on is who they are as a company and, ultimately, their customer. It’s not that those other things don’t matter, but when you start dictating, or you start marching to the beat of what the market says or what your competitors say, you lose sight of your own north star, your own vision, your own strategy. It’s important to understand the implications of, as you’ve talked about, as we’ve talked about on my podcast, this banner year for applicants. It probably will be a little bit more competitive. But if you have a reason for getting an MBA, if an MBA right now aligns to what your career goals are, that’s the most important question that you need to answer and think about.
Yes, pay attention to what the admission statistics report says. That’s a reality that you need to think about. But I really do think it starts with yourself and really focusing on yourself and your own goals. That would be the advice that I would give to others as well: Pay attention to what’s going on in the market, but think first and foremost about what’s going on internally with yourself, because that’s what matters the most. The other point, which is inherent to focusing on yourself, is that there’s going to be things in life that you can control and there’s going to be things in life that you can’t control. How many applicants that decide to apply to HBS is something that you cannot control. You can worry about it if you want, but it’s not going to do you any good.
Do you have any suggestions for how applicants can respond to or adapt to the increased competition concretely? [34:51]
Drawing on the analogy of a successful company, the successful companies out there know themselves, but they also stay in touch with their customers. They’re very clear about who their customer is, what their challenges and pain points are, and how their service or product can solve them. An applicant can think about that in the same way: knowing themselves incredibly well, who you are, what you bring to the table, why you want to get an MBA, and how an MBA from that school is going to help in your career. But on the flip side of that, double down and know your customer. In this case, the customer is the school you’re applying to. Know what they look for in applicants. Be very specific about how that school or how that community, by you being there, is going to be better because that you’re there, what you really bring to the table and what you have to offer them, just as a good product or service would do the same for their customer.
Concretely, and this will be digital given the environment we’re in, take the time to really get to know those schools and those programs. Do your research. Ask the right questions, the thoughtful questions that are going to yield insights and help you refine and hone in on, internally and externally, how you are a fit for that school. I think everyone knows, “Yes, I should read the Accepted blog or listen to podcasts and hear about what’s going on.” Or they know that they need to look at the rankings and all those things. They know they need to reach out to the admissions team or whatnot. But I think the gap is really making sure you’re asking the right questions that give you those insights that can help you tailor and refine how you position yourself in your application. If people can focus on that, and then take what they’ve learned from that to refine their overall package, that’s going to make them unique and differentiated, just like a good company will be unique and differentiated from their competitors by doing the exact same thing.
Do you have any tips for MBA applicants looking ahead to apply in the 2021/22 cycle, or even later? What do some of your interviewees wish they would have done before they matriculated? What do you wish you would have done? [37:11]
If you’re curious about an MBA, it’s never been easier to find something on the internet. Go to MBASchooled, or go to Accepted.com. It’s a great starting point, very tactical. But one of the things that I often hear from MBA students and even alumni is, “I didn’t know that was even a career,” or, “I didn’t even know that was a thing.” Certainly, that makes sense. You don’t know what you don’t know, particularly given where most folks are when they apply to business school for full time programs, right? You’ve done a couple things, but there’s a whole world out there that you don’t know yet. How do you discover the world that you don’t know?
Well, it’s through research. It’s through exploration, going out and looking at the resources, talking to people when you can, and learning about some of these paths and fields. If there’s something that is curious to you, find some folks who do that thing and learn more about what it is, why they show up to work and really enjoy doing that every day, and how they got to where they got to. Those are still things that really apply. If there’s even a kernel of thought, start now because it will take time.
The tactical thing that I would urge people to do is (and I just learned this, so I’m still practicing it, but I’m going to share it in case it’s helpful) find a question and ask yourself that same question every single day for a period of time, and write down your answer. Perhaps if you are thinking about applying next year, every day for the next two weeks, write down the question, why do I want an MBA? And write down your answer. Do it every single day and see what happens. I think a lot of times, what happens is that you think, “Oh, I just need to ask it once.” But the first time you do it, it’s going to be kind of vague. The second time you do it, it’s going to be a little bit more specific. The third time you do it, the fourth time you do it, and so on and so on, you get closer to it.
If you have a thought about applying next year, hopefully, this is part of the preparation plan. Or even if you’re earlier in the stage in the cycle, start with, “What does success look like in my career in five years?” Or, “What do I want to do next?” Pick the question, ask yourself the question and write down the answer, and see what comes of it. I think it could be a really valuable exercise to help you think about, “Okay, what’s next?” And then once you get a good answer (and assuming that you’re thinking about the application process), hopefully that feeds your “why an MBA?” Because if you are going to apply, you will definitely have to answer that at some point. There’s research, actually, that with writing notes versus typing notes, people remember more when they write. I would encourage folks to write it down. It makes it more real.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [40:49]
It would have been interesting if you’d asked, “What is business school like in 2020 or 2021?” Because of COVID and because business schools are located in different states or in different countries, a product that is usually somewhat consistent is different, because it has to be, right? There are some places that were hybrid; there are a lot of places that were mostly virtual; there are some places where you literally get tested once a week to be able to go to campus; there are some places where you can sort of still meet up with your classmates outside in the park, and other places where you can’t. What’s been interesting to me is that talking to folks from different programs, there are some components that are somewhat similar, and virtual is very much an element of pretty much every program, but to what degree is different.
There are definitely some schools out there like Berkeley where, because they did have a robust digital education delivery mechanism, the classroom experience is a little bit more differentiated than simply just Zoom. That is not the same at every school, though. That is a difference that we probably would not have been talking about at all if COVID didn’t exist, right? Harvard also has that. Some more schools have done this other thing now (I think Stanford’s done it, and a couple others) where they’ve also invested in proctors or teacher support to help moderate the class. That was something that’s different and unique.
The way in which schools are doing city tracks are different. It’s very common for a lot of folks in the fall or the spring to go and do a trek to the San Francisco Bay area to go meet all the tech companies and all the VC firms, and certainly that can’t happen. So there’s been some interesting ways in which schools have tried to do that digitally. Another thing that’s very different this year is conferences. Most schools put on conferences. On the downside, they can’t meet in person, but on the upside, they can drive up registration and attendance because anyone can go.
At Kellogg, they did a really good job from what I’ve been able to understand of really involving students in the process for how they were going to deliver this experience for the year. That is another unique differentiator. I think it speaks to something that we talked about earlier: None of us really wanted this, but there’s things that you can control and there’s things that you can’t control. Once the cards are dealt, you have two choices: sulk or make the best of what you have. Despite all the challenges that this brought on, there were opportunities to be had. There are some really great stories of students, faculty members, and administrators really stepping up and finding unique and innovative ways and really embracing the constraints to innovate and to find ways to get the most out of the experience. It’s not ideal, and none of us wanted it, but there are still some positive outcomes that have come from it.
Where can listeners find you online? [45:25]
People can find me at mbaschooled.com. They can check out the blog there, or they can check me out on the MBA Insider podcast, wherever you get your podcasts. Either of those two places are a great place to start.