5 Weekends, 5 Months… 5 Lessons

by Kate Ranson-Walsh:
For the past five months, 26 of us have attempted the slightly insane: tackling the curriculum of the new Design Strategy MBA at the California College of the Arts while maintaining our current jobs, not to mention our personal lives. The dMBA program is designed so that working professionals can participate, but it is by no means “part-time.” A orientation it was suggested to 8 budget at least 32 hours a week for schoolwork. We all wondered how we were going to make it work.
After five residency weekends, spanning five months, studying four subjects, all while working 50+ hours a week at my “day job”… I don’t think I have it all figured out, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons to remember for next semester.

a. there are opportunities in the juggling act

I can tick off a laundry list of to-dos that get ignored (including, most often, the literal laundry) but the positives still outweigh the sacrifices. It has been particularly useful to use my work as a pseudo “management lab” where I can experiment with implementing theories from class. For example, after reading “Difficult Conversations” for our communications-focused LiveExchange class, I had new perspective for the daily little conflicts that arise. Now I had a framework and some perspective for how to navigate the occasional professional minefield.
My workplace is also a wealth of information that unfortunately I neglected to draw from until late in the semester. After weeks of struggling with some accounting concepts I decided to turn a coworker. It was incredibly helpful to hear the book theories explained with examples from our company. Having the bigger picture made the textbook analysis more relatable.
Next semester: Remember to capitalize on the resources available at work to amplify and extend the coursework.
b. it is critical to have outside support

Attempting this balance becomes nearly impossible without solid support. Thankfully our professor recognized this necessity and peer coaching was built into our LiveExchange class. My peer coach and I met weekly throughout the semester. At first the conversations felt artificial and a bit forced, but over the semester we dug deeper and supported each other not just on our academic assignments, but also through the emotional conflicts that arise within teams and the challenges of continuing our professional careers.
Next semester: Identify a classmate outside of in-class projects to serve as a peer coach.
c. try not to do everything

In addition to having outside support, keeping up work and school demands internal organization and clarity. With my time at high demand, I realized quickly than I needed to learn how to delegate. Unfortunately I do not come naturally to this. All too often my personality drives me to take on too much, but when there are not enough hours in the day I end up disappointing my teams and myself. In the end, teams work more efficiently and more effectively when each member is honest about what they can accomplish, delegating and seeking support for what is out of reach.
Next semester: Be realistic about what it’s possible to accomplish and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
d. be passionate

A week after presenting our semester’s worth of work I realized that somewhere along the way I had lost my passion for our project. When I found myself totally fired up about an unrelated design problem, I realized that it was the most excited I had been all semester. It is true that in the real world you don’t always get the luxury to always work on something you deeply love, but why not in grad school? This is a time to pursue ambitious dreams and to consume oneself with wild ideas.
Next semester: Self-check early and often to ensure passionate interest in chosen projects.
e. i think fast, and that is not always best

A key component of our LiveExchange curriculum focused on gaining perspective ourselves. I realized through self-analysis (and experiences with our team) that I am a fast communicator. I generally tap into my emotions quickly and like to move through process rapidly, but this pace is not always optimal for everyone else. Nor is it always effective for the whole project. More than once this past semester I moved so fast that I inadvertently steered my group down a path that we ended up abandoning. It has become clear to me that in order to built consensus amongst a team I need to have more patience, to let all members come together, so that we can all be on board with the final result.
Next semester: Slow down, listen to your teammates and keep an open mind.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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