Where to from here, and why?

Attending an MBA, or an intensive management development programme, has become a rite of passage for many modern managers. On a quest for increased business skills, access to an international network and a high-profile career, thousands of expectant candidates flock to the classrooms of leading international business schools each year. Often, they get much more than they bargained for.

by Gianpiero Petriglieri and Jennifer Hurd
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The programme often precipitates changes involving much more than one's professional domain, and affecting personal relationships, family stability and the course of one's whole life.

In the 'Katelyn Neilson, MBA' case, Gianpiero Petriglieri, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, and co-author Jennifer Hurd, follow the personal and professional development journey of a young "high potential" manager as she negotiates her MBA year.

Katelyn's life before the MBA is a success story characterised by excellent acedemic results and a varied career which saw her race up the corporate ladder. Her personal life is filled with exciting pursuits and a busy social schedule. Her family is stable and supportive, and she has faced very little hardship in life.

She enters a world class MBA program amidst the admiration of her family and friends, with the aim of getting ahead in her career and introducing some extra challenge to her life. Upon meeting her classmates, familiar feelings resonate within her: 'Can I cut the grade?' 'Everyone else seems much smarter than me…' 'How will I ever learn all that finance?'

However, the excitement of the first week takes over, and soon she is immersed in a whirlwind of intense study, tiresome group work, wild parties and countless social activities.

In her usual style, Kate embraces them all with enthusiasm, does well academically and begins to build a network of friends. As the first term advances, work load builds and the novelty starts fading, she starts reflecting upon how she really did end up in an elite business school and what it means for her. Life seems great, but is it what she really wants?

The job search looms closer, and Kate becomes increasingly absorbed with questions about her own future and direction in life. Compelling questions, constant restlessness and profound uncertainty come to the foreground. Where will this journey take her and what will she discover along the way?

The 'Katelyn Neilson, MBA' case provides the opportunity to explore and discuss the nature and dynamics of life transitions that push us to face fundamental questions about our career trajectory and personal life. Fascinating excerpts from Kate's personal diary and drawings provide vivid illustrations of her experience throughout the year, and of her unfolding feelings, dreams, and relationships.

Her story portrays dilemmas and experiences that resonate with many MBA students, casting a light on the less glamorous, and more sensitive, human aspects of attending an MBA programme. However, the discussions and insights that the case generates are not only relevant for MBAs.

Managers attending intense professional development programmes, or attempting to make sense of a personal and/or professional transition, will find the events and experiences reported in this case just as familiar, and their analysis just as helpful. The case can also be used in the training of coaches and consultants working with clients in transition-or with their own.

Whatever the audience, the case is most useful at times when students are considering changes in career or personal direction, since it provides the opportunity to introduce reflective activities on the students' own situation, on the trajectory of their life, and on the dilemmas they may be encountering, or expect the encounter on their path. Work life balance, coaching, and gender differences in life transitions can also be addressed.


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