He said he “was amazing”. I enrolled in an EMBA program.
I was President of a $90M Women’s clothing brand, which was owned by a larger corporation. The corporation also owned 30+ other brands, most much bigger in revenue. At the time I was one of only 3 female Presidents across the portfolio.
On this day in 2015, I was flying back to the Bay Area after my quarterly business review with the Operating Committee. It was my first quarterly review, and despite receiving very positive feedback from the CEO, I was doing the thing I always do after a high stakes presentation:
I was thinking about all of the things that I could have done better, differently, where I could have been smarter, stronger.
I was even obsessing about all of the moments in the meeting that went very well and considering all of the ways they could have gone wrong.
Why do this?
As I was deep in thought my peer, the President of one of the other brands asked me how my presentation had gone. I proceeded to tell him all the ways I could have done better, and would be sharper the next time.
When I asked him how his presentation had gone….I leaned back a little, admittedly eager to hear someone else join me in stewing on their self-manufactured mistakes.
Instead, he said: “I WAS AMAZING.”
He could tell by the look on my face that I was dumbstruck…so he then amended his statement by saying in a flustered way “I mean it was good, not great”….. “ah, it was okay.”
I had heard his review had not gone very well. That was the kicker. The feedback he had received wasn’t even good, and yet, here he was sipping a cocktail, as the small plane bumped into the night through a snowstorm, boldly proclaiming his amazingness, without a care in the world!
I couldn’t help thinking: a woman would never say this. Even if it were unanimously and obviously true to others. Even if she were Beyonce, Amelia Earhart, Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Marissa Mayer. None of these women would say “I was amazing” out loud. Okay- Marissa Mayer would say that. We know she would. And, everyone would unfairly hate her for it!
I realized a few things on that flight home. First off- this reluctance women have to publicly own their amazingness is both the most beautiful and maddening thing about women. Every man I know wishes women would learn to accept compliments and know when we have achieved something truly extraordinary.
I wish we would too.
Secondly, I realized the business I was hired to turn around would not only survive. It would be very successful if given a chance.
But I realized on that flight home I wanted more.
It wasn’t that I needed to say out loud “I was amazing” as my colleague had. That was the easy part, the banner ad across the web site. I wanted something more substantial, more meaningful.
I wanted to feel my work was significant, that it had a higher purpose, that it was a calling. I wanted to be about doing something, not just about being someone. The way I define significant is by changing the landscape in some never before seen way. I realized I wanted- to either burn the world down (thank you author James Frey) or change it for the better, likely both.
But, I saw that I needed a framework and new tools for this focused form of self-improvement. I needed an outlet for learning new skills and cultivating new knowledge in an environment of higher learning and constructive challenge. I realized this would not occur on the job.
My career and life like most grown-ups have been both dazzling and dull, full of stops and starts and often hard to decipher in a whirl of activity. I am a mother, a business leader, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister and I often prioritize everyone and everything ahead of myself.
Applying to business school later in my career wasn’t about the prestige, status, money or approval. I was doing it because I wanted to create a life of significance and surrounding myself in a world-class learning environment provided the architecture, canvas and intellectual challenge I missed.
As with most lasting love affairs, there’s the moment when it becomes clear the shift from wanting to need has occurred. My love affair with the UC Berkeley Haas school of business began when I read the defining principles and considered how seamlessly they intertwined with my own values.
Not only did I have no urge to roll my eyes…they actually brought tears to my eyes telling me I had found a possible home for my quest to learn, grow, challenge myself, evolve and reach new intellectual, professional and personal heights.
Question the Status Quo
Confidence without Attitude
I found this last principle remarkable for how much it said about Haas.
Maybe it’s because I have spent too much time in too many meetings filled with egomaniacs and their inferiority complexes- but I admit to being skeptical about the Admissions team’s ability to filter out jerks.
Is it genuinely possible to only accept Type A, driven and accomplished people into an EMBA program that have confidence but without attitude?
In my class of 72, there was not one jerk. Not one. To this day I can’t say this about any other group of people I have ever been a part of. Which made the experience all the more enriching and surprising.
Self-sufficiency has always been extremely important to me and going to business school while working meant I would need to rely on everyone in my life more and differently. My husband, my son and my work colleagues.
Through this, I learned everyone around me was much more capable and generous than I had assumed. My son and I discussed the role of fiat currency in China as I completed my macroeconomics paper and he wrote a research report on the Federal Reserve for his 8th-grade history class. My leadership team at work and my family accepted there would be days every few weeks that I would not be returning email or calls unless someone was bleeding. A lot.
Once I was there, I immediately saw ways to apply class learnings to my job. I learned I was a closet statistics nerd. I formed friendships and created a network with remarkable people in a wide range of fields. I converted my love of reading to textbooks and lecture notes and used my organizational skills in keeping my study group on task. More than anything, I focused on myself — expanding my mind, elevating my foundation of knowledge, learning new frameworks and mental models from many of the best minds in the world.
While I was in the EMBA program my team and I successfully completed the brand and business turnaround, significantly reversing the 10-year inherited decline I had taken 3 1/2 years prior. However, when a brewing corporate restructuring presented a change for me, I saw an opportunity in leaving. I make it sound so smooth and perfect. Like, a Jennifer Lawrence or Reese Witherspoon movie.
But, it wasn’t. You see, the corporation decided to shift their strategic focus toward the more substantial brands in the portfolio. So, on my December birthday, I was told the female-focused brand I had led and loved, would be merged into one of the male dominant brands. My boss shared this news with a look of calm as though this was just another thing to tick off his to-do list before heading into his Christmas holiday.
Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz fame says in his book the Hard Things About Hard Things that the two most essential characteristics of good CEO’s are intelligence and courage, and that of the two courage is the most critical.
Courage eeks out confidence in drips and drops. We find the courage to have the confidence we need when essential to our cause. I dared to change my path from corporate warrior to entrepreneur because of my increasing belief in new areas of knowledge and from my emerging network of people- classmates, Professors, and the career resources team at Haas all of which I called on for advice during this transition.
Of course, it’s not necessary to go to business school to achieve your professional dreams. If you desire the structure, faculty expertise, curriculum and collective experience that may not be found within a start-up, at a Fortune 500 company, on your own, or on an app, as I did- I encourage you to invest in yourself, in this way.
While people in your life may be giving you advice on what to do in your professional life as you enter the more experienced stage, I encourage you to consider an EMBA an investment with lifelong returns. When another 22-year-old silicon valley CEO tells you it’s not worth it, don’t be afraid to be an idealist (in the words of the ever-prolific Maria Popova). The world needs you to be one.
Yes, you are the idealist in this scenario- not the already CEO — because by going to business school you are undoubtedly curious about many ideas. Both uproarious and never before seen concepts as well as foundational ideas and their first principles. You are proclaiming that you aren’t ready to commit to just one plan. One of them may be the next big unicorn. Why stop there? Idealism is not limited to college dropouts and 22-year-old silicon valley CEO’s. We all need each other to figure this future out and make it what it can and must be. Amazing.