Student Experience: Better Together

Friday, September 2, 2016

“Eat your children before someone else does.”

On our first day of Corporate Strategy, Professor Ed Ivey used that particularly evocative metaphor to help describe Apple’s strategic choice in 2014 to cannibalize their own products with larger iPhones. They were losing market share to larger phones from rivals like Samsung, so they chose instead to lose market share to themselves. It led to record iPhone sales in 2014, while Samsung’s sales flagged.

I learned how to look for high-level choices like that in Corporate Strategy. It was the second class on the road to my MBA, and it was a much different experience than my first, Operations Management. If you’d like to read Strategy’s course description, go here, but I can describe it in four words: How to create value.

Operations focused on how to create value in a granular way; if you can shave a few minutes or a few dollars here or move your distribution centers there, how does that affect your bottom line? Strategy looks at value creation from 30,000 feet. How does your company create profit? Do you follow a differentiation (like Apple) or a discount (like Walmart) model? If your competitors want to zig, how can you zag to beat them?

For me, this was all fascinating. Strategy allowed me to use the more creative side of my brain and think about how companies can maneuver to do everything that they’re doing better or how to dodge the pitfalls that may be waiting for them around the next corner. It also taught my teammates and I how to think through how we attacked our group projects in a more efficient way.

That team structure of the MBA was one of the things that I was concerned about as I entered the program, and knowing that Strategy focuses heavily on teams, that concern was renewed. Group projects always frustrated me, from elementary school through my undergraduate experience, for two reasons. First, dividing up work was always a struggle. Second, even if we divided it up, I always ended up doing the lion’s share of work anyway, because I simply cared more.

This has not been my experience so far in my graduate work.

First, by the time you get to the graduate level, people want to do the work. They’re there to learn, not to get out. If there’s a portion of homework that’s particularly labor intensive, it’s unusual that someone doesn’t immediately jump on it. We had two big group projects this term: a 15-page paper and a 15-minute presentation. The projects were research and labor intensive, requiring us to show how different firms are leveraging their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses to create value for their customers and shareholders. The work was quickly and efficiently divided among my teammates, and when one of us had a particularly difficult section, the others were always right there to volunteer to help if it was needed.

Second, this is a program that’s designed to carry with you outside of the classroom (more on that in a moment), and out there, everything’s a team effort. Whether you’re coming up with the best marketing strategy or picking office lunch for the day, teamwork is important. Working within teams in the program isn’t just a way to get more work done in the classroom; it’s an integral piece of the educational experience.

I’m leading a project now at work where my team and I are effectively rebranding a program that saw a down year last year. I’m using what I learned in Strategy to ask the right questions, mostly variations on “why,” and set the right framework. It’s too soon to tell if it will work long term, but it’s off to an excellent start. Brand awareness and engagement is already measurably higher than it was a year ago.

I’ll leave you with one of Professor Ivey’s pet phrases, because it sums up what I’ve learned in the last few months so succinctly. “To be successful on a team or in business, you must be able to write well, speak well, and learn well.”

Jack O’Connell

Midland MBA, Class of 2017

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