Lessons From An INSEAD MBA

When I walked off the plane five months ago in Singapore and headed straight for our launch day at INSEAD, I had no idea what was in store for me. I had been living in South Africa working as a Product Manager for Tencent.

My happy life living on the beach in Cape Town felt undoubtedly disrupted by this high-energy, high-performing crowd of strangers sitting in the auditorium at INSEAD's Asia Campus patiently waiting to find out what this business school thing was all about.

I would soon find out that I was sitting in an auditorium filled with people from 90+ different countries speaking collectively dozens of languages. These were global citizens, much like myself, with multiple passports and friendships spanning the globe. I had so much to learn about these classmates of mine, each with their unique story to tell.

Since that first day of INSEAD five months ago, I have learned some lessons about working with others that I wanted to share with you. We all work in and interact with an increasingly global world with people of many cultural amalgamations surrounding us. Each of the lessons I want to share has a larger story behind it that I will try to summarise in a nutshell.

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Presumptions based on a person’s extrinsic identity tend to be wrong. 

Our brains play a trick on us. We see someone different from us and our neurons start firing, trying to categorise who they are based on our experiences and notions of their extrinsic attributes: ethnicity, language, accent, nationality, gender, etc. We make quick associations in our brains based on our previous interactions with people who look or act like they do.

At INSEAD, every day is a reminder that people’s extrinsic attributes only represent a fraction of who people are. 

We have classmates whose ethnicity is Indian but culture is Australian; or whose native language is Spanish but they speak English with a perfect British accent; or who were born and raised on a small tropical island off the coast of Madagascar even though they look and sound like a purely French person. Culture can be made up of your educational, social, familial, and living experiences - including but not limited to experiences with language, music, food, art, social norms, and environmental factors.  

This could mean that one person embodies many different cultures - some that they chose and some that were passed down to them.  I, personally, spent equal parts of my life living in India, Kenya, China, Taiwan, the USA, and South Africa. Judging me by my extrinsic identity - Caucasian redhead with an American accent - would not give you the full story. 

For my exceptionally international classmates, this has been the case. I consciously turn off the tricks my brain plays on me and try to understand what makes up the person beyond their outward extrinsic identity.

Working on diverse teams can be rewarding if you actively listen and seek to understand, and frustrating when you do not.

Going into an environment of change, it is easy to be attracted to people who look and act and speak like us. They make us feel comfortable and we assume they can understand us better. At INSEAD, we are assigned a study group to rely on for our core classwork. 

I was assigned a study group made up of five people of five different nationalities: Italian, Spanish, Thai, Chinese, and myself an American. During the first four months (two periods) of our core curriculum, we shared responsibility for all class assignments, split the preparation for some exams, attended group coaching sessions, and sat together for every class. 

Similar to coworkers, we ended up spending many hours of each day with each other and often more than with other people.

When you begin working in a diverse study group, like the one we had, your assumptions and biases are under the surface. 

Then someone says or does something that contradicts them and you realise they were there all along. For example, our Chinese groupmate can rap Eminem songs better than most cover artists and has a couple of videos online doing so. 

My bias was to assume he was studious and followed the rules based on the way he methodically approached coursework, but his interest in rap and in Eminem broke that assumption. There are many more moments in diverse groups where underlying assumptions can get you in trouble or cause misunderstandings, but when you take a few minutes to try to clarify and communicate openly with both parties listening, things can clear up quickly.

Our group took time to discuss ethics in depth, debate politics, and disagree over the best way to solve problems in assignments. This collaboration and effort to work together produced positive results both in our classes and in our personal lives.

Nobody has it figured out and learning is a life-long endeavour. 

When you arrive in an environment like INSEAD, you are suddenly surrounded by hundreds of impressive, highly motivated, highly social classmates who have gone to the best universities and worked at the best companies. Honestly, it can seem like they have it all figured out. The truth is, as you get to know people, even the most put-together people are a work in progress.

Everyone comes back to school to figure something out to some extent. 

During our MBA there are some people that make complete career changes, decide to move to a different country for a new job, or fall in love with someone new. No matter which age or stage in life, it seems that this stage of learning in classrooms again reflects a larger outlook of life. 

We are all works in progress. If we are willing to embrace and chase growth, we can become our better selves. Each day we make small choices that can lead to big life changes down the road.

I remember this as I watch the buttoned-up consultants who love their Powerpoint decks discover the excitement of thinking creatively to build a new product in New Business Ventures class, or the Singaporean city kid discover snow for the first time in the French Alps, or the luxury traveller try deliciously fried street food in Thailand on a trip. I can’t help but think how much we all have left to learn.

Going to get my MBA at INSEAD has, thus far, been an amazing way to connect with people from all over the world who become friends

We each have so much to learn from one another in and out of the classroom. As the political climate of some nations becomes isolationist or anti-immigration or anti-free trade, I have grown to tremendously value this learning environment with classmates for 90+ different nationalities each speaking at least three languages. As it turns out, we are all so alike in our humanity.

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