Life as an alumn – one year out…


One year out - time to celebrate?

One year out – time to celebrate?

It was the high amount of pictures of people wearing graduation gowns that suddenly populated my facebook account that alerted me of the fact that I have been out of school for a year now. Indeed, it’s this time of the year again when students at HBS (and many other schools for that matter) graduate. And about a year ago, on Friday May 29th 2014, I was one of them. I figured that now, one year out, would be a good time to reflect on what happened in my life since receiving my HBS dipl0ma.

Changing places… and people…

I still remember my very last day in Cambridge very well. It was June 4th 2014, the eve of my 34th birthday. I remember waking up with a weird feeling that day. I was about to leave a city I had lived in for the last 2 years. The weather was nice and I decided to go for a last walk in the neighborhood I resided in. I stopped at my favorite local bakery for breakfast and remember taking lots of pictures of streets and buildings that had been part of my life but that I might not see again for a long time. Yes, I am the nostalgic kind of person… 🙂

Later on, I headed back to my Cambridge apartment for the last time. I was alone. My girlfriend that I had been living with throughout my HBS experience had left early that morning on a trip with friends. It was the last time I would ever see her. Just a couple of weeks earlier, we had decided to end our 5-year long relationship. We got engaged only 3 months earlier (in good HBS tradition) but had struggled very hard to keep our relationship alive ever since. I would not only leave a city or an apartment today. I would also leave a partner. All things taken together, I felt I was about to leave a whole life behind.

After my nostalgic neighborhood walk, I started packing my suitcases – all three of them. I was about to embark on a flight late at night back to Belgium. The rest of the day was mostly filled with cleaning up stuff and taking more pictures, this time from inside the apartment. When I pulled shut the door of the apartment behind me for the last time, I felt empty. The one thing that made me feel a bit better that day was that the cute check-in lady of the airline gave me a huge discount on the charges for my excess luggage. I told her it was my birthday, which she confirmed when looking at my passport – and with some additional smooth small talk from my side she checked in my bags at a third of the normal price. “I still got it,” I thought by myself. At least I seemed to have some characteristic traits I could start rebuilding a new life on… 🙂

Changing even more places…

My new 'campus'...

My new ‘campus’… Singapore!

I spent the first 90 days after HBS in Europe, spending a lot of time with friends and family. I did some local traveling, had some (HBS) friends visit me in Belgium and started writing the backbone of a book I want to publish one day on my HBS experiences. At the end of July, I would move to yet another place – I had accepted a position as a finance director in Singapore for a pharmaceuticals company – the same company I had been working for prior to HBS. Singapore is almost literally the opposite place of the world from Boston, and is also 12 time zones away from it and has temperatures that are at least 40 to 50 degrees Celsius higher than those in Boston in winter! 🙂 It would be my new home for the next 1 to 2 years.

Changing jobs…

Starting off as the finance director for a commercial entity of a multinational pharmaceuticals company in Singapore is not the typical job for a fresh HBS grad – most stay clear from finance jobs in corporations (that are not directly with prestigious investment banks) and go for either consulting jobs, finance/banking opportunities or more business oriented roles in big corporations. And then there are those following more entrepreneurial tracks.

The job is intense but has been a great learning experience so far. I choose this opportunity as it allowed me to get to know a part of the company I was not very familiar with, because it was a real leadership role within the local entity of Singapore, and because of the international scope of the job (something I had been actively looking for and that was complemented with a nice expat package :-)). But is this the job of my life? I don’t think so…

Tim Butler - director of career development at HBS - Should I have followed his advice?

Tim Butler – director of career development at HBS – should I have followed his advice?

At HBS, a lot of focus is put on helping students find that one thing they really enjoy doing. I have seen people make dramatic career shifts because of that – most of the time for good. Looking back at it, I have not fully optimized my time at HBS in finding my optimal job fit. I think this is due to several reasons. First of all, do I really know what I want? Will I ever? Second, I am a relatively risk-averse person – hence choosing a solid job in a multinational company above less certain adventures seemed like an easy solution. Third, I feel my current job was a compromise between quality of life, money and adventure. And while it might not be the best fit for me, it might be the best compromise. Close to being one year into the job, I also start reflecting on what’s next. And I believe the outcome might just be the result of a new compromise again…

Changing more people…

A handful. That would be the answer to the question: “How much of your fellow students have you met up with since leaving HBS?” This is probably not a common representation of most HBS students. My facebook is full of former students meeting up in the most random places around the world. Whenever they travel, they will reach out to fellow students living and working there. It is something I have not been good at doing. I blame my shyness, my introvert personality and also the workload that has come with my job.

I do believe that this attitude of mine makes me miss out on a lot of benefits of my HBS experience. The HBS network is one of the most valuable assets of my MBA – yet I have been neglecting it for the past year. I have barely reached out to local MBAs here in Singapore. I signed up for a locally organised Alumni event, but had to cancel last minute due to a crisis at work. I was thinking of going to the one year reunion organized by HBS in Boston in May, but quickly figured out that the hours of travel (opposite side of the world, remember?) and the number of days I would have to take off from work during a busy period of the year didn’t make sense.

Moreover, I quickly found out that the best place to meet former MBA colleagues are weddings anyway. With all the engagements going on during the 2-year HBS period, there are quite a lot of weddings going on post-HBS. These can be in India, the US, Europe or Singapore for that matter. Some are organized by millionaires, others are the more modest/normal kind. But they all have in common that they have a pool of MBAs attending.

Changing temporary places…

Getting crowded in here...

Getting crowded in here…

As the border security official at Melbourne international airport looks at my passport, I could tell he was annoyed by the poor state it was in. He looked at some of the small rips in one of the papers. He duly inspected some of the creases in my passport cover page. Then he started flipping the pages one by one in search for an empty space to put my first ever Australian stamp in there. I realized at that point that this passport, which I had received only months before starting my HBS experience, had lived quite the life already. I have always been a traveler of sorts, but HBS definitely left me with an increased taste for travel and discovery.

During my time at HBS, I travelled to 9 different countries – pretty low compared to the average HBS student but quite the average for me (and for most people for that matter)! In the one year I got out of school, I further increased the number of different stamps in my passport with another 12 – helped by the fact that I am living in Asia now (a lot of fresh terrain to cover) and the fact that I am making money again and thus feel much less bad spending money on plane tickets! I realized that HBS had definitely lowered my threshold for taking planes and planning (quick) trips. I guess this too is part of the transforming leadership experience at HBS… 🙂

Changing person?

I get reminded of being a HBS grad through feeds on facebook from former colleagues, through tons of HBS alumn emails and by the reaction of people when I introduce myself to them and tell them I hold an MBA from HBS (and their reaction following that announcement). But has the MBA impacted my life and my personality as part of the transformational experience they offer (that goes beyond carrying the HBS approval stamp)?

I think I did change, though maybe not in the way I expected to. I learned how to value a company (and have forgotten all about it already). I learned the insights of the energy business, but work in pharmaceuticals. I learned how to think about things in a different way, and try to apply this as much as possible in my current life.

I also learned to accept myself the way I am – with all my faults. I learned that I have to stop adapting myself to others – I have to do my own thing and follow my own thoughts. I learned that I have brilliant moments that I alternate with moments of stupidity. I learned to admire some people that are very different from me but have so much to offer. Finally, after spending 2 months there for my summer internship, I learned that I love Japan. 🙂

To me, life is all about learning, and HBS was a part of that. I believe it is too early to tell if it was a truly transformational experience. And maybe I am not the best person to refer to for this, as I might not have truly opened myself to the power of the HBS transformation. Would I recommend HBS to others? Definitely! We only live once, and HBS is a great experience to have in our one precious life. Is it for everyone? No, definitely not. It is intense, expensive and very business focused. It is a part of my life that I really enjoyed. And now, to use the words of one of my professors at HBS, I just need to make sure that HBS was not the peak in my life…

To be continued…

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