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Wrestling with Angels… and Steamrollers

July 1, 2012

Transformation of self implies a great inner struggle. I find myself dwelling upon this theme regularly, as we pass the halfway point in the EMBA program.

If you know your Scripture, then you will recall the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, found in the latter portion of Genesis and again in the Book of Hosea. In brief, Jacob is on his journey back to Canaan where he hopes to reconcile with his brother Esau, who was somewhat displeased with Jacob for having tricked their elderly, visually impaired father, Isaac, into bestowing Esau’s birthright upon him. As Jacob approaches Canaan, he sends messengers forth to announce his return to Esau. Esau responds by gathering an army of 400 men, well outnumbering Jacob who is traveling with his wives, children, servants and flocks… clearly, Esau is still holding a grudge.

Jacob transports his flocks and family across the river Jabbok that night and then recrosses, being now left alone and in communion with God. A mysterious being appears, who is variously described in Scripture as a man, an angel, or God. They engage in a wrestling match throughout the night. By dawn, Jacob emerges victorious and demands from this being a blessing… He receives a new name, and is henceforth known in Holy Writ as the more familiar Israel, which is generally interpreted as, “one who struggled with the divine angel”…

My own struggles with the EMBA program have resembled far more a wrestling match with a steamroller than with any being, divine or otherwise. Classes, projects, assignments and readings continually encroach upon me as a single, insentient, mechanical flow. A great heavy roller pushing ever forward in time. This is no angel. This is a steamroller. How does one grapple with a steamroller without ultimately becoming entangled and crushed? There is nothing to grab, nothing to leverage, and no real way for it to give up… Only a cylinder, smooth and of great weight… turning. The EMBA is a steamroller.

In his struggle with the angel, Jacob transforms into the Patriarch Israel. The causality is implied, if not outright taught in Scripture. Jacob the man becomes something far more than a man. He becomes a symbol, and an idea, and an ideal for his people in all the days and generations that followed to the present day. In this very moment, Jacob’s transformation has just become a part of you, as you think a little more deeply about your own struggle to transform.

Steamrollers can be just as transformative as angels, though they transform through the presentation of a coldly rational, almost Hobsian choice… move ahead with your life or be crushed into the asphalt. Being crushed is transformative… so much so that the very fear of being overwhelmed by the steamroller forces you to transform yourself: to make yourself capable of keeping pace, moving forward, building your stamina and resolve… if only to avoid becoming part of the asphalt.

-R.

Behold! The Grad Rat!

June 12, 2012

The Grad Rat arrived today!

For the benefit of the uninitiated reader, the undergraduate MIT class ring is called the Brass Rat. Brass for the brassy gold hue, rat for the MIT beaver mascot prominently displayed upon its bezel. The graduate version is called the Grad Rat.

The Rat is not merely a class ring. The Rat is the stuff of legends. Iron Man (Tony Stark) wears the Rat. You cannot do better than wearing the same class ring as Iron Man…

I ordered my Grad Rat in April while I was on campus for a weekend session. I had to deal with some serious loyalty issues, as I have worn my Carnegie Mellon class ring daily since my senior year of college, over 23 years now. With four Carnegie Mellon degrees, including my PhD, it just didn’t seem right to cast off CMU for MIT, so I opted for a small pinkie ring instead. The small pinkie ring, Rat-style, turned out to be the same  size as my Carnegie Mellon signet ring. Say what you like, but MIT ain’t shy.

One of my classmates told me that the Grad Rat brings with it a whole other level of confidence. She’s right. Putting that brass ring on your finger, with the all powerful MIT prominently stamped on the shank, imbues the wearer with feelings of mysterious, untold powers. It is as though the entirety of  the MIT brand had been compressed into a living, critical mass of omnipotent metal, pulsing with the desire to carry out my not so evil bidding.

Later this evening, after the kids go to bed, I’ll stand upon a great hill and free The Rat to cast lightning down upon fearful, disbelieving villagers, aka Wharton grads. I think Iron Man would approve.

-R.

Second Year EMBA

June 5, 2012

With the solemnity of a papal nuncio, Jonathan Lehrich pronounced our cohort Second Year EMBA’s. I think that he threw in a blessing for good measure. Certainly, many of us could use one, if only to multiply our faith for the months to come.

This seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect upon the impact of the EMBA program thus far. This blog has concentrated on providing prospective students with a carefully descriptive look at the EMBA experience, but I have written only sparingly about the impact that the EMBA has had on me as a manager. Given the significant financial, temporal and occasionally emotional cost of participation, it is entirely fair to ask how has MIT changed my performance as a manager.

For me, the change has not been subtle. I’ll stop short of metaphor and be direct. MIT has, thus far:

1. Provided me with a new set of skills in accounting, economics, strategy, finance, and data analysis. I am now able to build and analyze more robust models of what I’ll collectively call the “dynamics of business”.  It is important to note that these skills are taught from an integrative perspective. I specifically believe that my capacity for business analysis and synthesis is particularly strengthened because I have been taught to consider the economic impacts of strategy, data analysis techniques to support finance calculations, and countless other linkages between core subjects.

2. Transformed me into an integrative manager. Given an integrative education, it should not be surprising that I no longer manage by function. I have long been a general manager, but I tended to manage my direct reports within functional units. I find that I have been knocking holes in the barriers between functional areas of my own company,  creating cross-functional process and encouraging my managers to take on project scopes that exceed the span of responsibility that their title normally implies.

3. Provided me with an incredibly thorough and powerful new model of entrepreneurial management. IDEA Week was truly a fantastic experience, as I’ve previously written. But, I have found that the body of additional recommended readings, the connections into the MIT Ecosystem, and the general MIT philosophy that entrepreneurial management is an entirely different profession than the management of an established company has solidified and reinforced my own theories on entrepreneurship, providing me with an enormous new confidence in carrying out policies and decisions. MIT in this sense has provided me with validation that converts faith and belief into a new confidence to act.

4. Created a new peer group of truly outstanding people. I include as peers both the faculty and fellow EMBA’s, a well as other MBA students within the Sloan School. MIT claims that EMBA students learn as much from each other as they do from the faculty. I think that that is true specifically because MIT recruits such high quality EMBA students. Peers in this class are senior executives in their 30’s and 40’s with 10 or more years of professional experience and a significant business network. This is not the profile of a traditional MBA class.

And finally, I think that John Van Maanen’s Leadership courses deserve special attention. MIT likes to claim that they are hard-nosed about the soft stuff. I believe that the Leadership courses are the real sleepers in this program, by which I mean that they are quite likely to create enormous long term value in the EMBA students, but that that value will be difficult to immediately recognize.

It’s very easy to recognize new learning in well-framed courses like accounting and finance. I knew very little about accounting when I started the EMBA program. Now, I can read and analyze financial statements in my own company and harvest valuable information by reading the annual reports and financial statements of other companies. The value is objectively identified and and readily measured.

This is not the case with less-framed courses like Leadership and Organizational Behavior. It’s harder to know whether you actually have a new skill until you can apply that skill to a real organization and begin to lead change. In my particular case, I am leading a new start-up, where I am the CEO managing a small team of trusted partners with whom I have worked in previous start-up organizations. When I applied to MIT, the whole group supported the initiative, specifically so that we could avoid many of the problems that arose when so-called professional managers were brought in to grow our last company.

Dr. Van Maanen’s courses have enabled me to begin to properly manage the general problem of, “Why aren’t people simply executing the plan?”… At the end of the day, business plans have to be carried out by people, with all of their fallibilities, failings, and personality clashes. John puts a bit of science around this soft stuff that makes it much easier to create an organization (of people) that just flat out performs. It’s a very rubber-hits-the-road course in a topic area that has always seemed a little too touchy-feely to me.

At the beginning of the second year, there is no question that the EMBA is time and money very well spent. My goal in attending this program was to transform myself into a leader capable of building and managing a global robotics organization. My first year’s experience has significantly increased my confidence that the EMBA program will deliver on that goal.

-R.

IDEA Week

May 13, 2012

MIT is more than an Institute. It is a self-described ecosystem of new high-technology start-ups that sprout up all along the perimeter of the campus like a carefully unkempt English garden. The boundaries between the Institute proper and its technology start-ups are rigidly porous, with research and researchers flowing back and forth in a continually changing tide of reinforcing ideas.

If you are a prospective EMBA with an inclination toward entrepreneurship, MIT may have far more in store for you than you bargained for. Among the M7 schools, MIT is the unrivaled quantiholic. But you may not have considered that attending Sloan integrates you directly into a powerful entrepreneurial environment, providing you with an instant connection to entrepreneurial peers, investors, startups and growth companies seeking MBA’s, and technologists seeking founding partners. Capitalistic pollen.

The idea behind IDEA week is to ensure that that connection is anything but accidental. IDEA week  purposefully collide EMBA’s with the wider MIT ecosystem through a five day consulting gig with a local startup with a real business problem,while a series of lectures and panels with investors, IP experts, entrepreneurs, government officials, and other key stakeholders build an explore a theoretical framework for entrepreneurship.

IDEA week teaches entrepreneurship by asking students to carry out one of the key functions of an entrepreneur: assessing the current status of a startup company and formulating a strategic partnership. The week long project draws heavily on the Competitive Strategy course, which students complete just two weeks prior to IDEA week, and further educates students through the IDEA(Innovation Driven Entrepreneurial Advantage) framework. The framework provides students with a clear roadmap of entrepreneurial activities, from (i) identifying new opportunities, through (ii) opportunity evaluation, (iii) iteration to grow the opportunity, and finally (iv) integration, implying either an integration into a larger company or the purposeful decision to build a fully integrated, stand-alone entity.

The IDEA framework matched well with my own experiences as an entrepreneur. I found that even after 2 or 3 startup experiences, participating in a weeklong exercise gave me a new opportunity to stand back from the thousand daily challenges of starting a new venture to consider the full venture cycle from an entirely new point of view.

Entrepreneurship is my life long vocation. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time working, learning, struggling to do better. I watched my first company crater eight months after handing it over to a professional CEO. I have watched my second company wither, struggle and gasp for over seven years after handing it over to yet another professional CEO. I’ve made a personal commitment never to hand another company over. I’ll run my own ventures from now on, thank you very much. I care much more and I can scarcely do worse. So, you may imagine the intensity with which I set out to absorb everything that I could from IDEA week.

I was not disappointed.

The Langer Lab gave me a new model for ensuring that Disruptive Robotics excels at both science and entrepreneurship. My experiences listening to venture capitalists and angel investors reinforced many of our ideas of how to find, qualify, and partner with the right investors for us. The consulting gig gave me a first opportunity to look at an early stage company from an outsider’s point of view. This, in and of itself, was enormously illuminating.

As I sit here, write and reflect, it has just now dawned on me that for a serial entrepreneur, IDEA week teaches distance and objectivity. It provides a new set of tools that permit both process and analytical substance to creep into an arena that is still enormously driven by charisma and ego. IDEA week offered me a reason to maintain my faith as an entrepreneur, while enabling me for perhaps the first time in my career to think dispassionately about my passion.

It has been over six weeks since IDEA week and I am still engaging, exploring, and learning from the experience. I ordered a new set of books, based on particular start-up methods taught in the lectures. I am following up to meet with faculty in entrepreneurship. And I am taking my time to deliberately plant my own seeds in the MIT ecosystem.

Something will sprout.

-R.

The Integrative Perspective: Competitive Strategy

May 6, 2012

MIT makes much of its integrative approach to management education. You may recall that the first Intensive, LIM Week (Leadership and Integrative Management), engaged students in a 9 day long deep dive into a global firm, in our case WalMart. This deep dive teaches students that general managers must be able to simultaneously view a firm from several different analytical vantage points (finance, strategy, operations, etc.), and then integrate those points of view into a single plan. MIT seeks to educate general managers who have a particular skill in this integrative approach to management.

While the first semester’s foundation courses in accounting and economics are somewhat self-contained, Competitive Strategy  begins to pick up the Integrative theme and put it to work in the second semester.

I have to begin this story with a disclosure. Prior to taking the course, my intellectual position was perhaps best described by the well-worn Clausewitzian-sounding maxim, “Amateurs talk strategy, dilettantes talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.”

At this point in my career, I was quite tired of talking strategy.  More talk of strategy did not excite me. I had burned away far too many hours and far too much cash in my prior companies participating in finely dissected arguments over whether a “first to market” or a “fast follower”  strategy was ultimately superior. Where does our competitive advantage lie? What will make it sustainable? Such meetings made for fine debate, but ultimately proved of little value as the management team, the Board, and the investors were all far too caught up in their dreams of what this little start-up company could one day be… and insufficiently focused on getting there – or anywhere, for that matter.

Such were my frustrations that I preferred a well-executed, half-baked plan over the spending time and resources to perfect a plan against which we did little to execute. My view was that the world moved at such a pace and with such uncertainty that the best laid plans of entrepreneurs gang aft agley…

Like Burns’ mouse, I had seen too many entrepreneurial teams lying “cozie here… till crash! the cruel coulter past, out thro’ thy cell.” For those of you who have never farmed, a coulter is the sharp disk that cuts the ground immediately in front of the plough. Evidently one of my ancestors invented it, as the family name comes from a loch, near Stirling, in Scotland. I hear the trout fishing is particularly good, but I’ve never been.

What is really the point of talking about strategy if your young company can barely execute? Why spend so much precious time choosing a strategy, when the cruel and volatile world is likely to suddenly change, leaving countless hours of discourse a wasted shambles?

There’s a certain intellectual honesty at MIT that I particularly like. The EMBA program continually pulls down false notions born of prejudicial experience by forcing a confrontation between past failures and rigorous theory.  It isn’t good enough to say that something worked or didn’t work in the past. There must be an analytical framework within which to consider the source of the success or failure. MIT continually returns to the science of management and, in this case, even a topic as ephemeral as strategy is subject to a data-driven, scientific method.

I was impressed.

The course begins with the observation that some companies, and some industries, regularly generate significantly higher returns than others and poses the question, why? Strategy from this point of view is about understanding and exploiting the structure that exists in an industry.

Competitive strategy begins with Porter’s well-respected industry analysis techniques. Five force models, together with the strategic frontier provide a familiar basis for structural description. And here the integrative approach begins. Economic theory is layered onto these structural descriptors to provide the executive with a firm understanding of the economic source of the competitive structure of the industry. Pierre Azoulay, one of the course instructors, continually enforces rigorous economic analaysis. Strategy at MIT must be accompanied by a spreadsheet clearly demonstrating its financial underpinnings. He constantly presses students to rethink their assumptions, their approach and especially their conclusion. Professor Azoulay’s use of the Socratic method reminded me of the fictional Professor Kingsfield, from the Paper Chase, and that character’s famous monologue,

“We use the Socratic Method here. I call on you, ask you a question, and you answer it. Why don’t I just give you a lecture? Because through my questions, you learn to teach yourselves. Through this method of questioning, answering, questioning, answering, we seek to develop in you the ability to analyze that vast complex of facts that constitute the relationships of members within a given society. 

“Questioning and answering… At times you may feel that you have found the correct answer. I assure you that this is a total delusion on your part. You will never find the correct, absolute, and final answer. In my classroom there is always another question, another question to follow your answer.”

I have enormous respect for Pierre. He constantly duels with a classroom full of seasoned executives, manages to keep the upper hand, and forces us to think more broadly and deeply that we probably had before. For someone like me who had lost interest in the study of strategy, this sort of constant confrontation proved to be entirely effective. I have seen Pierre a couple of times on campus since the class ended, but I’ve found that it’s rather difficult to express thanks for shaking me up. Thank you, Professor Azoulay.

Allocentric thinking is continually stressed, especially within the context of game theory. Scott Stern, the other course instructor, is diligent in forcing executives to think less about their strategy from their own company’s point of view, and much more about their strategy from their competitors point of view. Scott constantly admonishes executives to find a strategic position that is attractive for your own company AND unattractive for competitors. He develops a theoretic framework called PARTS, which teaches executives how to engineer strategy. He builds the PARTS framework on allocentrism, and links it to game theory, Nash equilibrium, and a theory of commitments.

Scott does a particularly brilliant job of explaining his theories through memes like the Princess Bride.He moves with a frenetic energy that I swear creates a magnetic field in his wake. I was taught how to apply game theory to competitive strategy by watching the Princess Bride. One reaches an entirely new plane of geekdom when one watches the Princess Bride and can explain the plot in terms of a dominant strategy. An immunity to Iocane powder. Brilliant!

This course re-engaged me in thinking about how to shape both my business and the competitive segment within which it operators. Competitive Strategy have me a new set of integrated analytical tools and an entirely pragmatic view of the span of control that I, as a senior executive, can have in both building my own company’s strategy and shaping the general competitive landscape within which we operate.

At MIT, Clausewitz might come full circle with a new, Zen-like realization that perhaps strategy is tactics, tactics is logistics, logistics is strategy in the mind of a fully integrated executive.

-R.

Great Expectations

February 19, 2012

MIT is the flash-bang grenade of social conversation. Although non-lethal, uttering those three letters causes disorientation, confusion, and loss of coordination and balance in exposed subjects within a five foot radius. MIT? Hmm…. yes, oohhh. Hmm.

I’m still learning to wield the mighty MIT without harming myself or others. It’s a somewhat blunt instrument, difficult to introduce subtly, and it leaves marks. Be careful. Don’t hurt anyone. Remember to always use your new superpowers for good, not evil. And, oh yeah! Don’t be an asshole! MIT doesn’t like assholes.

I have to admit that I didn’t realize the emotional response that the MIT brand elicits. One of our companies is in the middle of raising a financing round, which means that I am spending a lot of time speaking to prospective investors. A few days ago, at the beginning of an introductory call, I asked the prospect what he already knew about our company, its history, mission, and so forth. He was pretty enthusiastic, saying, “Well, I read all about you. CMU PhD, MIT MBA. You’re a rock star!”

I have never been a rock star. VC don’t generally throw their panties on my stage. But evidently, I’m now cool-by-association. Nice.

Returning now to unsubtle explosive devices, the MIT-made-me-a-rock-star moment carries all of the surprise of walking briskly out of the bank after a perfect robbery, sunny skies, cool breeze, WHAM… damn… dye pack exploded… Stained with bright indelible MIT brand all over me. No where to hide.

The MIT Rock Star moment is an explosion of Great Expectations.

There is no other brand that screams “Smartest People in the World” like MIT. And that, in turns, creates enormous expectations in the minds of your audience. Quick! Say something smart! Do some really hard math! And try to be a little more socially awkward in the process, after all, there’s a tradition to be upheld here.

As usual, I’m not the only member of my class facing this experience. Some of my classmates are hiding the fact that they’re going to MIT from their friends, out of fear that they will be perceived differently. It’s evidently possible to be in-the-closet about MIT, to be embarrassed or fear embarrassment from one’s association with the Institute. It’s an odd kind of embarrassment, in the sense that there really shouldn’t be anything to be embarrassed about. Admission to and attendance at MIT is a worthy and sought-after goal. But it does have the potential to separate one from one’s peers, not because you yourself are truly any different than you were before you were admitted, but because you’ll be perceived differently.

The embarrassment of MIT is an Embarrassment of Riches, a struggle to create congruence between this new association and the person that you’ve always been. It’s a struggle to stretch the dimensions of your well-worn and comfortable identity to now include the expectations of a graduate of a fabled institution. It’s a pretty cool problem to have.

-R.

Bad Santa

February 3, 2012

Blessed is the one who perseveres…

The restful break that I expected came and went in a flurry of finals, flu, electives, and family events, all jumbled one upon the other in such a furious sequence that any sense of cohesion rapidly bent to chaos. Vacation was over long before it began. If there is a break in the EMBA program, it may begin in mid-February, though this too may simply be a mirage born of wishful thinking and cumulative fatigue. Business schools are still somewhat defensive about EMBA programs, flinching at the prospect that prospective students may think that the E stands for “Easy”. It does not. It stands for “Exhausting”…

This year, I was a Bad Santa. Not quite Billy Bob Thornton bad, but bad nonetheless. I sat in my chair in the living room on Christmas Eve studying Economics in preparation for my final, while my wife and oldest son wrapped the younger childrens’ presents and piled them under the tree. Game theory, rather than games.

I took my Economics final on December 28th. I flew back to Boston seven days later on January 4th to take my elective course, Business Analysis using Financial Statements.

At MIT, the Winter Semester does not begin until the end of January. The in-between is called the Independent Activities Period (IAP), during which time students have the opportunity to take short elective courses. The EMBA program follows the MIT tradition by hosting two weekend sessions, each of which offers three different elective courses. EMBA students are required to attend at least one weekend. Only one course can be taken per weekend, as all courses run concurrently and you actually can’t be in two different rooms at the same time… damn you, Heisenberg!

The seven days between my last final and travel back to Boston really weren’t much of a break. There were readings to do for the elective course, family events to attend, and guests to entertain. To be quite honest, I was still exhausted from being sick in December.  I flew back to Boston on January 4th, worked at Mass General on January 5th, and woke up to find myself quite ill with another round of the stomach virus on January 6th – the first day of the elective course. I did manage to pull it together and attend class both days, but it was not my finest moment. I made it, but it was ugly. The tempo of the program continued through January 17th as we had both a final and a financial analysis team project to complete for the elective course.

I was one of a few students who wanted to take two electives in January. I was scheduled to fly back to Boston on January 18th, but cancelled at the last minute when  my wife and the twins caught the stomach flu. I stayed home to help care for the children until Cynthia recovered. In retrospect, I am not sure that I would recommend that students try to take two electives unless you happen to live in Boston. I would have been incredibly exhausted (as opposed to just plain old exhausted) if I had gone back for the second elective weekend, flown back to Pittsburgh on the 22nd, and then had to return three days later for the start of the Winter Semester.

 I found that many of my classmates had similar experiences with their schedules over the holidays, a point that is quite important to prospective or new students. It’s quite unlikely that you will have much time to rest over break, specifically because you will have two take home finals from the Fall Semester. Preparing for these finals was not trivial, except for students who might have deep accounting experience and therefore be well prepared to take the accounting final. For most of us, that was not the case. Family expectations and preparations for January electives will take up far more time than you might reasonably anticipate.

Managing your family’s expectations will be critical. I heard many stories about family members irritated by an EMBA student spending so much time studying, especially for those students who traveled significant distances to visit with family that they don’t often see. Managing your own expectations will be equally important. I kept imagining that I was going to have a chance to rest, but when I would reach that expected point in the schedule it would suddenly dawn on me that I didn’t have as much free time as I thought. It takes considerable mental strength to just keep going when you are fatigued.

I am now preparing to return to MIT for the second weekend session of the Winter Semester. I am hopeful, if only because the time interval between weekend sessions will now grow from 10 days to 17 days. Somehow, I rather expect this will be another scheduling illusion!

-R.