Identity in the Business World

Over spring break, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to work on a short engagement with Danaher. Over the course of the week working with my Danish and Polish teammates, I noticed something peculiar about our conversations. After a few days of trying to put my finger on what it was, I realized that they were treating me as an American rather than as a Chinese American. When I told people I was from the US, there were no followup questions like “What about your parents?” or the more insidious “Where are you really from?” It was simply accepted that I was an American. When discussing Danish food at lunch, I was asked questions only about American cuisine, and not Chinese. Teammates were excited to tell me about the time they went to Pennsylvania or Ohio, not the time they went to Shanghai.

While the distinction is subtle, this came as quite a shock. In the years prior to business school, I worked a cumulative one year in China, often leveraging my Mandarin-speaking ability to attain new professional opportunities. Certainly there were instances where I would downplay my identity as a Chinese American, like when I was working with blue-collar workers in the South. Nonetheless, being a Chinese American has always been a large part of my identity in the workplace.

Over the last few years, I’ve had a number of professional identities, ranging from chemical engineer to project manager to negotiator. My racial identity is just one component of who I am as a professional. In this case, the lack of a racial identity allowed me to avoid some of the stereotypes associated with Chinese Americans, but also forced me to think actively about perceptions of Americans. As businesses become increasingly global and complex, professional identity will become increasingly multifaceted. Understanding how you are perceived is important to effective teamwork and management.

International Student Recruiting

As the international student representative for my section, I strive to maintain an understanding of how well our international students are integrating into the classroom as well as recruiting for internships and jobs. My understanding of the current pulse is that though international students are becoming more comfortable engaging in the classroom, recruiting has been a bit of a struggle. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve made a concerted effort to chat with as many international students as possible one-on-one to find out how they are doing in the recruiting process. I wanted to compile several issues I’ve noticed, and hopefully provide some actionable solutions to help students, both international and otherwise, to perform better in the process. Please note that I am writing specifically about the consulting recruiting process, but this advice should hold true for just about any recruiting.

  1. Get feedback. One of the most common answers I hear when I ask people how they are doing in the process is “I don’t know.” Failure to get an invite to a closed-list event should not be the first data point you get in regards to how your recruiting is going. Students succeeding in the process are constantly seeking feedback from their peers, second years, and even recruiters. After chatting with a recruiter in office hours, ask people who sat next to you how they think you did and what you could improve on. Talk to peers who are recruiting for the same positions to get a gauge on how many phone chats they’ve made. You can’t succeed in networking if you don’t know where you stand.
  2. Know yourself. One of the most basic questions a recruiter will ask you is “Why consulting?” You’d be surprised how many people cannot even answer this question. The key to answering this question is not to memorize the “About Us” page on their website. The key is to understanding yourself, what your strengths and goals are, and how those intersect with consulting. If you can’t answer this question on your own, recruiters are certainly not going to answer it for you.
  3. Don’t treat recruiting as an academic exercise. Some skills in life may be learned through careful study of textbooks and other material. Soft skills cannot be learned from any sort of guide. The way to become better at recruiting is to practice beforehand with others. You should be practicing your pitch, your “Why consulting?” answer, and everything else before you try it with recruiters. To quote Sun Tzu:

    “…the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won…”

    There are so many people around you who can help you prepare, whether it’s your second year coach, your peers, second years, or the CDC. You cannot learn how to network or perform a case interview by simply reading a book. Get out there and practice with others.

If you are struggling with recruiting please don’t wait for others to ask you how it’s going. I and many others are willing and available to help. Be proactive and reach out.

Lessons Learned from MBA Competitions

This past weekend I competed in two different competitions at Darden. The first competition was the Accenture Innovation Challenge, organized by members of the consulting club. In this competition, groups of four worked together to find a solution to a problem posed by Goodwill Industries. Over the course of five hours, we huddled together in a conference room, drew issue trees on chalkboards, and built a slide deck to present our strategic conclusions. This competition was designed in many ways to emulate the consulting process.

The second competition was the Darden Capital Management Stock Pitch competition, organized by Darden Capital Management. In this competition, individuals evaluated equities, performed valuation and analysis, and presented their ideas and thinking.  This competition was designed to emulate the process by which you sell your ideas in an investment management institution.

Though the two competitions were focused on different industries and functions, they shared two common themes. I believe that the skills developed by these competitions are fundamental skills necessary for being an effective leader in any organization.

  1. Story telling ability. In both competitions, understanding whom your audience was and how to communicate to them effectively was the key to success. For the Accenture Innovation Challenge, the judges identified the distinguishing factor for the winning three teams as their ability to connect with the Goodwill vision and really speak about the human element of the problem.For the DCM Stock Pitch competition, being able to tell a clear, cohesive story was key. While stock pitches often include multiple reasons to buy a stock and address different risks associated, making sure the thesis was clear was crucial to success. There were several pitches where multiple theses were presented, and this made it difficult for the judges to buy your story.Story telling ability is crucial leading any organization. Great leaders are able to effectively convey their vision and mission to their organizations. At the higher levels, you must tell these stories to shareholders in the market, your board of directors, and your company as well.
  2. Dealing with ambiguity. For both competitions, there was a tremendous amount of ambiguity due to the time constraints. For the Accenture competition, we had only five hours to evaluate the materials provided and come up with a solution. This meant that inherently our solution was not as developed as we would have liked it to be. As a result, the questions asked could be fairly tough. One of the toughest questions they asked was “Summarize your plan in one sentence.” Luckily, one of my team members came up with a succinct statement on the spot. If you had a solid plan but couldn’t come up with concise answers on the spot, it would be really tough for you to succeed in this competition.For the DCM Stock Pitch competition, the primary constraint was finding time to work on my pitch after allocating time for coursework and recruiting. One of the struggles for me was that the pitch I had was not the caliber of pitch did not have the rigor behind it that I would like to have. As a result, even though the questions asked were not really that rigorous, I had not had enough time to think about them beforehand.There is ambiguity in every organization. The ability to prevent ambiguity from affecting your performance is essential. Conveying your ideas confidently in the face of ambiguity is crucial to your ability to convince others to trust your judgment.

Although I still have a lot to learn about both the consulting and investing worlds, the skills and experience I developed through these competitions is applicable across many fields.