My past two years getting my MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford GSB) have been the most transformative of my life thus far. (I’m not being hyperbolic, I assure you.)
The educational experience expands far beyond the classroom. It’s all-encompassing. Some of my most important lessons were learned at 3am while traveling with classmates on the other side of the world. It’s nearly impossible to consolidate what I learned into a list of eight lessons, but here’s my best shot.
I showed up at the Stanford GSB already enthralled with the power of diversity. In undergrad at UC Berkeley I wrote my thesis on “Making diversity in the workplace a strategic advantage.” I facilitated the “Unconscious Bias” class at Google as a side project. But truth be told, there wasn’t that much diversity at Google. Not like there was amongst by Stanford classmates. I still had a lot to learn.
When you show up to the first day of “Welcome Week” at the Stanford GSB, you’re divided into one of six “sections” with whom you take the bulk of your core classes the first year (shout out to Section 3). Rumor has it that these sections are meticulously curated starting the moment we’re admitted. As the legendary former Director of Admissions, Derrick Bolton, once told me, “each class is like an orchestra, and you don’t want to have too many tubas.”
I looked around on my first day of class and was in complete awe of my classmates. There were former Navy SEALs, professional athletes, Wall Street hot shots, even the guy that created Google Alerts. I was humbled to call myself part of this group.
I wondered if I should even be there. I was a former saleswoman at Google. Did my classmates think salespeople were stupid? I designed my own major in college. Would I be able to keep up in my accounting and finance classes? My Imposter Syndrome ran deep.
But Bolton told us that when it comes who Stanford admits into the business school program, “we don’t make mistakes.”
He was right. Every single person in our diverse section had a unique background, expertise, and experience that the rest of us could learn from. What I lacked, others had, and vice versa. By the end of the quarter, my section was like a fine-tuned orchestra, harmonizing and playing off one another. We each took turns being conductor.
My classmates helped me grow immensely as a person and expanded my worldview. My hope is I was able to do the same for them.
I’ve gotten more feedback in the past two years than I have in my entire life. Giving personal and professional feedback is deeply ingrained in the Stanford GSB culture. It’s part of every group project, every presentation, and every night out at The Patio, our local dive bar. We’ve grown so accustomed to giving and receiving feedback that we worry our candor will ruffle some feathers in the “real world.”
We played it safe at first. During my first quarter, “constructive” feedback typically took the form of a disguised compliment. As we built up trust with our classmates, we learned to take more and greater risks. We gave feedback that was immensely uncomfortable to give.
Giving constructive feedback is risky. There are possible repercussions – you could hurt the other person or worse, ruin your relationship. That’s why people often conclude that it’s easier to not give the feedback at all.
How could Joe not know everyone thinks his tone is abrasive? Well, because no one’s ever told him. Taking the personal risk of giving constructive feedback is a gift for the other person because it helps them see their blind spot.
We learned to be immensely grateful receivers of feedback, and to take the personal risk of giving it whenever possible in order to help our fellow classmates.
We’re taught to avoid making ourselves vulnerable from a young age. Turns out most people don’t like feeling emotionally exposed, uncertain, or at risk. We abhor asking for help or admitting weakness. But there’s enormous power in vulnerability.
Our vulnerabilities are what make us beautiful, interesting, human, ourselves. Being vulnerable with someone is how you form a true bond. It makes you feel connected to other people. It’s a cornerstone to falling in love.
The people I most respect, the strongest people and leaders I know, admit that they’re imperfect. It makes me respect them even more. When leaders take a risk and share their vulnerabilities, it shows they trust us. It shows they’re human. They’re relatable; they remind us of us.
Taking risks and sharing your vulnerabilities is a prerequisite for being trusted, respected, and known (both personally and professionally).
The most personal growth happens when you feel a little uncomfortable.
At the Stanford GSB, we were encouraged to get out of our comfort zone every day. We role played firing our classmates. Engaging in conflict was celebrated. We gave public speeches we felt unprepared for. We filmed ourselves doing it. And rewatched it over, and over. While getting feedback from our peers.
We were taught to embrace a growth mindset. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset, which suggests that our competencies are innate. Instead, we believed our talents could be developed through hard work, practice, and feedback from others. We embody the growth mindset even in the way we talk to ourselves. Rather than saying “I can’t do financial analysis,” we would say, “I can’t do financial analysis yet.”
Challenge your assumptions about yourself, the world, how things work. Things that may have been true about you in the past might not be true now. Constantly checking in and challenging your beliefs is a crucial part of personal development. You’ll surprise yourself at what you learn and what you can do.
One of the reasons I was drawn (re: obsessed) with the Stanford GSB over other top business schools was the emphasis on pursuing your passion.
A lot of pressure is put on this word “passion,” so it’s important to note that your passions can evolve over time, and discovering your own is a process.
I wrote my infamous “What matters most to you and why?” Stanford GSB admissions essay on having an open heart. I came to Stanford knowing I was passionate about making a positive impact on the quality of people’s lives. Before Stanford, I had worked as the Lead Google Wellness Champion as a side project. I organized fitness challenges and health testing, and fell in love with helping people grow and feel better about themselves physically and mentally. I assumed I would start a company in the health and wellness space after graduating.
Leaving the workforce, investing in myself, and reflecting while at the GSB, allowed me to see that, yes, I was immensely passionate about having a positive impact on people’s lives. More specifically though, I felt I had a calling to inspire and empower fellow women. Once I discovered my passion, it was so strong that nothing could stop me from pursuing it. I frequently pulled all nighters working on my lifestyle business, Brains over Blonde, and it didn’t feel like work. I took a massive career leap and gave up steady, sizable corporate salaries to pursue my dream.
The Stanford GSB’s motto, “Change lives. Change Organizations. Change the world.” truly is a cornerstone of the community and culture. Discovering my passion helped me see that this is how I was going to change the world, and that nothing was going to stop me.
If you already know what your passion is, go with it. You’re one of the lucky ones. Not everyone figures out their passion in business school. Many people learn more about what they don’t want to do than what they do, and that’s just as important. Discovering your passion is a process.
You spend so much of your life working; it pays to be purposeful with what you do with your life. Do something that is meaningful to you. Stand for something. Know your values. Figure out what makes you happy. It will help you discover your passion, which will give you more energy and life than ever before.
In two years of classes at Stanford, we had the privilege of some of the top leaders in the world speak to us and answer our questions. Sheryl Sandberg, Tyra Banks, James Mattis, John Donahoe, Joel Peterson, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Schmidt, you name it.
There were plenty of similarities between them. But what stood out was that they each had their own unique leadership style.
In business school, you learn the qualities of what can make you a good leader. You read about them in cases. You role play, film yourself, practice over and over again. All of the leadership skills you learn are great tools to have in your toolbelt, but some will feel more authentic to who you are as a person than others.
I learned you can’t imitate someone else’s unique leadership style. You can identify what you don’t like and avoid it. You can admire what you do like, emulate it and make it your own. But that’s the key, you have to find your own.
To find your own leadership style, you really have to know yourself. Truly looking at yourself, flaws and all, is a difficult thing to do. But doing so allows you to identify your weaknesses, improve upon them, and find others with those strengths to support you. It also allows you to identify your strengths, practice them, and make them stronger.
Not a single corporate leader stepped foot in my classroom and said, “I wish I’d spent less time with my family.”
The idea of “work/life balance” is elusive and may not even exist. But it’s imperative that you find a way to harmonize the two in a way that works for you. At any given time, something may be out of whack. Maybe it’s quality time with your spouse, not taking time to travel, or skipping out on workouts or sleep. That’s why it’s essential to continually check in with yourself and your loved ones, and constantly be willing to adapt and adjust to what your current situation calls for. A supportive spouse is essential, and I learned one of the most important career decisions you make is who you marry.
I also learned how important professional freedom is to me. I realize that not everyone has this luxury and it’s easier in some careers than others, but it was something I wanted to optimize for.
There are always going to be a million different demands on you. Learn to work smarter, not harder. How you allocate your time is entirely up to you. You have to set boundaries. Prioritize. No one is going to be looking out for your work/life harmony like you are. Know what your priorities and your non-negotiables are.
There’s no doubt that hard work and grit pay off. But the type of person you are really matters.
Regardless of who you want to be, I suggest you be a kind one. There’s never a good reason not be respectful and responsible with other people. To give back. To take the high road. To share. To listen.
What type of person do I want to be? What type of leader? I want to be someone who leads with warmth. Someone that learns from everyone, at every level. I want to be someone who empowers and trusts my team. I want to be true to myself. I want to be optimistic (that’s core to who I am), but challenging and discerning. I want to ask a lot of questions. I want to change the world.
Part of changing the world, part of being successful, includes service. I’m so fortunate to have had the career and education I’ve had this far. I didn’t do it on my own. A countless number of people helped me along the way. I want to be someone who pays it forward. I want to share the success I’ve had.
In the words of Stanford GSB Professor Irv Grousbeck, “don’t look back on life and see a failure of kindness.”
My two years at the Stanford Graduate School of Business came to an end in June, and there’s an undeniable sadness and feeling of loss that comes with that. Will my friendships remain in tact? Will I remember what I learned? Will I achieve what I set out to? I’ve never been good at goodbyes. In my past, I may have avoided or refused to acknowledge the end of this experience for as long as possible.
One of my favorite professors at the Stanford GSB, the infamous Carole Robin, emphasized the importance of marking beginnings and ends. Only once you mark an ending and have full closure can you reach a neutral zone, where you’re ready to start a new beginning.
She also taught me to mine every experience for all the learning there is to be had from it. Whatever happens, good or bad, take your time to take it all in. So here I sit, marking the end of my Stanford GSB experience by writing my lessons and mining all the learnings I can.
Our final week of school, Professor Robin remarked how the word “commencement,” which signified the end of our days as Stanford MBA students, actually meant “beginning.” I don’t have it all figured out. I know much of what I will learn from my Stanford MBA is still to come. But I’m throwing myself into this new beginning.
Originally published at brainsoverblonde.com