If you asked me two months ago whether I learned anything during my first year at Harvard Business School, my response would have been a resounding "Yes!" But, if you followed up by asking me for an example of how I applied the lessons I learned into practice, my response would have been a hesitant "Umm..."
The FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) curriculum provided me an incredible opportunity to learn leadership skills not only in the classroom, but also through practical experience in Ghana and in Boston. However, at the end of the day, FIELD remains an exercise constrained within an academic environment. The question I asked myself was "How do I actually put what I learned to the test?"
As I was starting my summer internship in Zambia over seven weeks ago, I pondered "What am I bringing to the table that I would not have been able to had I not gone to HBS?" At that moment, the answer was not quite clear. However, as the days passed and the summer (technically, it's winter here) progressed, it became clear that what HBS equipped me with was not the hundreds of cases I read and analyzed, as I will be the first to admit I will be the last to recall any of the case facts. Rather, it was the persistent pushing and prodding by my professors, section-mates, and discussion group members that I remember the most.
As I dove deeper into the managerial and operational issues of working in Zambia, I found myself asking whether the problems were really as simple and clear as they appeared at first glance. The many times I was pushed to justify my stance -- from the morality and ethicality of pharmaceutical patents in the developing world to the negotiation tactics I would use with Steve Jobs -- became constant reminders for me to go deeper than just the first layer of the metaphorical onion.
What I learned at HBS and what I have applied in Zambia was more than just root cause analysis or the typical "Five Whys" questioning. It requires combining a dose of empathy with an equal dose of traditional problem solving. Just as I had to put myself in the case protagonist's shoes, trying to understand the motivations, pressures, and stakeholders influencing his/her decision making, I found myself standing in the shoes of our sales captains, sellers, and buyers. I forced myself to distinguish what the problems appeared to be and what they really are, as well as what the solutions should be and what they really could be given the real and practical constraints we face. This "method" of thinking has become my de facto mindset whenever I'm in the field with our sales team or in a meeting room with a multinational telecom.
There isn't a simple list of "Things I've Learned at HBS and How You Can Apply Them Too," because the skills I learned, and am constantly honing, are those that can only be learnt through the experience of having been forced repeatedly to defend my logic despite knowing it was not perfect.
To end this post on a lighter note, my HBS experience also never lets me forget that having fun is just as important of a success metric as any other. Here are a couple snapshots to explain why I may never leave Zambia (more photos on Google +).