After two years in Chapel Hill, Alex Dea (MBA ’15) headed west. We asked Alex – a consultant and founder of MBASchooled based in the San Francisco Bay area – to share his insights about post-grad life.
What was the transition back into full-time employment like?
Business school was an incredible experience, which made transitioning out of it and back into work very challenging. It’s just an incredibly tough act to follow, and as such the first few weeks back in the working world were challenging. I travel a lot for work, so getting back into that was tough. So was not being entirely in charge of how you spend your day. And then there are the little things, like moving to a new city, finding your friend group, etc.
We’re human, and we adapt – I certainly did. But honestly, what helped was talking to my classmates and friends who were all feeling something similar. Hearing they were struggling with the same kinds of issues made me realize it’s only natural to feel this way, and seeing people conquer it meant that I would, too. I definitely still miss school, but I’m much better adjusted than I was when I started.
What elective class has been most helpful to you in your post-grad career?
My classes with the “two Daves” – Dave Hofmann and Dave Roberts – have been the most helpful to me in the early part of my post-grad career.
In sales class, we talked a lot about power and influence in organizations, and how to go about gaining these things in order to achieve results – especially in the context of a large organization. I am in a unique role where I’m still very low in the organization, but because of my experience I do have the ability to influence in certain situations. I spend a lot of time thinking about what we talked about in class so I can make an impact and be an influencer in a large organization regardless of my title or level.
In our Leading in the Middle class, we spent time talking about the challenge of having to manage both ways – up and down – which is a spot where a lot of MBAs find themselves in when they re-join the workforce. I’m in that spot right now, and am I’m constantly thinking about how I can manage up and how I can add value and make an impact in positive way for my manager and my manager’s manager. At the same time, I also need to manage down and be responsible for the analysts that work for me in terms of helping and guiding them towards getting things done and mentoring and coaching them so they learn and develop. In that respect, I’m constantly thinking about making sure that I’m being the manager that I’d want for myself. That class – what we learned and some of the discussions we had on that topic – are very relevant to what I am experiencing right now.
What advice do you have for MBAs on how to start out strong in their new role?
There’s going to be a learning curve that you’re going to have to master, and that’s going to take time – no matter what. However, if you can find ways to add value and contribute, you’ll be able to jump in much quicker.
Here are four steps to help you start out strong in a new role:
- Go in with a good understanding of your skillset and the strengths that you bring to the table. These are your calling cards and are things that you can utilize right away to contribute to the team.
- Look for ways you can apply these skills and strengths so that you can contribute right away. You may not know the entirety of what’s going on, but at least you can start becoming a contributing team member.
- Learn the organization as much as you can. Talk to people about how things get done and learn the tricks of the trade – the culture, the vocabulary and all of the things that, once you learn them, will make you seem like an old pro.
- Last but not least, do things that are really simple (but don’t cost much). Smile, say hello and be polite to others. Offer to get the coffee, say thanks, hold doors for other people – these are small things that may seem insignificant, but people will genuinely appreciate your effort and it can help you cement your reputation early on.
How has your approach to work and your career changed post-MBA?
I’ve been a part of high-performing organizations and in high-performing environments for my entire life – and UNC Kenan-Flagler was no different. As a result, I definitely developed a sense of insecurity at times that what I was doing was never enough and it didn’t stack up compared to those around me. I certainly felt that in business school, but because everyone – and I mean everyone – goes through their own highs and lows, everyone gets humbled and kind of bonds over that fact.
In those moments, you lend a hand to someone else and someone else lends a hand to you, and you start to see the collective diversity of strengths and skillsets that everyone brings to the table. You start to see that it’s not that you are better or worse than others – you’re just different. It was in these moments that I began to understand that I really had nothing to be insecure about and really didn’t need to be comparing myself to others. The only thing I needed to compare myself to was my own measure of success.
Now that I’m back in the working world, I’m much more focused on defining and executing against my own path, as opposed to being insecure that I don’t measure up to those around me.
When you work in high-performance cultures your entire life, it gets really easy to fixate on success and performing well, which is usually dictated by some sort of metric and level of prestige. While metrics and ratings are important, I’ve realized that if you only chase the metrics – which are usually set by someone else – you’ll end up tailoring your career and your life to someone else’s measure of success, which is not necessarily your own. Before business school, I would have told you that failing was not achieving the defined metric of success. But now, I’d say that failure is not defining your own metric – or trying to chase someone else’s. Now, I’m more focused on defining and pursuing my own metrics for success – and ignoring the rest.
One of the reasons why I went to business school was because I wanted to spend time thinking and ideating on what I wanted my career path to be. Because of my diverse interests and skillsets, I’ve always thought of myself as a square peg in a round hole. I never quite felt like I fit into a particular industry or function. I confirmed that notion by exploring these functions and industries in business school – and I also realized that perhaps I just wasn’t meant to fit a particular path.
As a result, I’m more focused on figuring out my own path and having the courage to work towards that every day. Sometimes it’s hard and scary – especially when you see your colleagues doing things that seem like things you should want. But ultimately, I think I’ll be much more fulfilled with my life and career choices if I work towards finding my own path, even if it’s a little less traveled.
How do you balance work-life commitments?
Business school is a huge prioritization exercise. There are never enough hours in the day, and there are so many things that you can do that you need to always be prioritizing and making choices that really align with your goals.
Work is no different. I still put into practice the same rules and focus on my priorities. One of the most important lessons though that I learned in business school is that time really is your most valuable asset – and if it’s a valuable asset, it needs to be treated as such. I’m much more thoughtful and intentional about what I say yes to and give my time to in order to make sure that I’m making the best use of a finite resource. Working at a consulting firm gives me so many opportunities – honestly, too many opportunities – to do so many different things. I’m fortunate to have this problem, but I’ve had to learn to say no and to really evaluate if something is really aligned with my core priorities.
In terms of work-life balance, I made a conscious effort to think about what things I need to do in order to be happy and perform at a high level. For me, these are things like seeing my friends, talking to my family on the phone, going to the gym and finding time to read and write. Once I defined these things, I thought about all the ways I could incorporate them into my work week. I felt that if I could do these things every week, it would help set me up for feeling great and performing well.
I also did the inverse and wrote out the things that made me stressed or prevented me from performing at a high level. I make a conscious effort to avoid these things when possible. Some weeks I do a good job of this, while others I don’t – but the intentional effort has helped me understand when and why I’m feeling great or feeling off and what I need to do to correct things as needed. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely something that helps me.
If you could do it all again, what would you do differently during your time in the MBA program?
Now that I have the gift of hindsight, I wish I would have pushed myself towards even more opportunities that made me uncomfortable or challenged me so that I could have developed even further. If you always succeed and feel comfortable, chances are you probably aren’t maxing out your full potential. I absolutely challenged myself while I was at UNC Kenan-Flagler, but if I could do it again, I would have pushed myself even further than I did.
What do you miss most about UNC Kenan-Flagler (and Chapel Hill)?
- The people. I miss my classmates, professors and administrators that I got to know over the two years. Business school is unique in that everyone who you spend a lot of time with is in incredibly close proximity to you. This makes it easy to see them regularly, which strengthens relationships. It’s much harder to do that after you graduate. I’m fortunate that there are some great Tar Heels out here in the San Francisco Bay Area and I enjoy staying in touch with classmates, professors and administrators – but it’s still not the same.
- The cost of living. San Francisco is a tad bit more expensive than Chapel Hill. 🙁
- The food. If someone could send me a Merritt’s sandwich, it would be greatly appreciated!