Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Consortium OP 2011: Alumni Are Welcome

Consortium alumni, you are invited, too.

The Consortium's annual Orientation Program is not merely a five-day celebration of the Consortium's first-year MBA students. Alumni are welcome and can get involved in various ways. If they attend, they take advantage of the program's varied offerings--from career-strategy sessions to leadership and development seminars. And of course, the always-popular career fair.

Granted, the OP (including the Consortium's 45th this year in Minneapolis) is intended to be a memorable, festive welcoming event for over 300 first-year MBA students. First-year students get a head start on business school; 17 top business schools get acquainted with students formerly known to them for their GMAT scores, glowing recommendations and pertinent work experience. Corporate sponsors, by the hundreds, get access to diverse talent and get an early start on recruiting for summer internships.

Alumni can join the festivities, too. Consortium MBA alumni often say they want an opportunity to relive the OP experience of  their first years. But  now as experienced professionals, they look for reasons to attend and for programs geared to their interests and spots on the long career path. More and more, the Consortium has responded.

This year's OP will include ample programming for alumni--whether they are first-year associates at Morgan Stanley or team vice presidents at New York Life, whether they are in transition or they seek guidance on how to get the coveted promotion.   Throughout the orientation, alumni will be able to reconnect with their schools, with classmates or with others with similar interests.  Several school meetings and sessions are planned. 

A few workshops tailored for alumni and experienced professionals are scheduled. Alumni may also want to attend other sessions--including career panels and or seminars on innovation, leadership and strategy.  Alumni will flock, too, to various networking receptions and dinners.

Most sessions are intended for first-year students, especially career panels, which provide an in-depth introduction to, for example, corporate finance, investment banking, investment management and energy.  Alumni, however, in the past have appeared at such panels, especially to catch up on industry trends, to provide their own candid viewpoints, or to give feedback and guidance to first-year students. Career panels also attract alumni in transition, who, say, might have experience in marketing, but are pursuing roles in finance sales & trading.

Alumni in the past and certainly those in 2011 treasure the widespread corporate presence at the OP.  First, sponsoring corporations help make the event possible. Second, corporate representatives, officials and recruiters are visible and active throughout the several days. Accessible and approachable, they are eager to start relationships and recruiting dialogue with students and alumni.

This year, as usual, several companies will sponsor corporate receptions. Year in and year out the Consortium's major sponsors, such companies as 3M, Bank of America, Kraft, Colgate-Palmolive, Mattel, Nestle', Pepsico and Walmart will host gatherings.

The culmination of the OP's vast networking experience is the career fair, often held in a large hall with hundreds of company representatives present and willing to discuss careers, opportunities and specific job openings at their respective organizations.  Alumni are welcome, and many in past years have flown in just for this event.

Alumni need not attend the OP just for job search, career switching or transition soul-searching. They may come to help and be involved. The Consortium this year is welcoming alumni who want to volunteer to help in the dozens of program events, receptions, and panels. They may assist in advising or encouraging first-year Consortium students, who brace for the overwhelming tasks ahead of them in business school.

As in the past two years, the Consortium Finance Network (CFN) will have an OP presence (along with other Consortium special-interest groups). CFN will be at the career fair, will invite finance students to join, and will distribute (electronically) its guide for MBA students interested in finance careers.  Alumni in finance can invite students to join CFN and help steer them toward summer-internship offers.

For Consortium alumni, the OP need not be a one-year wonder or a fond first-year memory. There is a spot or role or purpose for all MBAs in Minneapolis.

For more information about the OP's schedule and registration this year, see

For MBA alumni interested in volunteering, contact D-Lori Newsome-Pitts at

Tracy Williams

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Firm Culture: Could You Work Here?

Dalio of Bridgewater Associates
 Bridgewater Associates is a successful, $90 billion hedge fund, located along the Connecticut corridor where other successful, gargantuan hedge funds have a home base. Ray Dalio, a Harvard Business School graduate, is its founder and leader. The fund's investors include pension funds and university endowments.

Over 1,000 people are employed in a variety of roles.  It recruits those who are tough-skinned, highly motivated and interested in a long-term career at the fund. MBAs in finance would no doubt be attracted to an opportunity there.

Would you want to work there?

Would it be a place where you can find a niche, thrive and be successful? Would you be able to endure hardships and demands to perform well? Would you be able to stomach equity volatility, risks of losses, and virulent market turmoil? And would you be able to perform under pulsating pressure and high expectations?

Bridgewater is also known as a fund that operates based on a set of cult-like principles, written and often updated and revised by founder Dalio.  "The principles" had been rumored and talked about for a long time. Before they were public, former employees, managers and investors mentioned them. They told tales of employees (traders, analysts, and researchers) being subjected to tough, unrelenting, bruising criticism--as required by the principles.

Dalio, perhaps tired of speculation about whether the principles exist or not, eventually decided to post them (all 122 pages) on the firm's website for all to see. (See  BRIDGEWATER-PRINCIPLES) There they are, to be seen and studied by competing funds, prospective employees, and academic experts in business strategy and corporate organizations.

In the world of hedge-fund blogs and chatter, some say Bridgewater is not a culture, but a cult. Others say if the firm is successful (having attracted talent and experience and having survived the financial crisis), then it's not a cult, but an organization whose culture might be replicated by other funds, institutions and organizations. Others who have worked there speak (anonymously) of having had demoralizing experiences or or having endured debilitating asssessments of their work.

Dalio is unapologetic. "We maintain an environment of radical openness," the Bridgewater site states. "(That) honesty can be difficult and uncomfortable."  Sharp criticism and open discussion, he explains, help people improve, which helps the firm be consistently profitable. There is pain, but there is ultimate gain for all.

Are there, however, costs to such success and consistent performance?  Bridgewater, as a private fund, does not report results and doesn't have to (except to investors and, even then, occasionally and in the manner it chooses).  As a reputable hedge fund with billions under management, fund managers, traders, analysts, researchers, and new MBA recruits are well-compensated. Yet at what costs?

How would a Bridgewater culture differ from the vaunted, well-examined cultures of such firms as GE and Goldman Sachs? If it works at Bridgewater, can it work in other industries? For new MBAs, how important is culture in evaluating a prospective employer?

Some outsiders say employee retention is low at Bridgewater. It's not unusual for 30-40% of those hired to  leave within the first few years. Some ex-employees say the smothering criticism starts during interviews, where interviewers crush prospects with analyses of weaknesses and deficiencies.

Dalio contends it works and suggests that employees who understand and absorb the principles thrive and benefit in the long term.

Bridgewater's principles, as they appear for all to see and examine, aren't corporate-polished. They are bluntly presented. They are ruminations from Dalio--imperative statements based on experiences in the past and based on what has worked for him the past three decades. They boil down to understanding reality, not hiding from it, identifying mistakes, learning from them, and using them to get better. Identifying, exposing and calling out mistakes boldly, brashly, and purposefully. That's where it gets uncomfortable.

Bridgewater is susceptible to being called a cult, because the principles are presented as a one-way stream of thoughts from its founder. The principles never address the details of Bridgewater's fund business. They expound on goals, planning, and behavior. Nothing about capital, risk management and asset allocation; nothing about arbitrage, currencies, technicals, trading momentum and value-investing.

Some of its principles make sense--at least for this type of organization, a large hedge fund required to make trading and investment decisions in swift-moving markets. They may work for a fund, but not for a manufacturer, an industrial complex or a conglomerate.

The principles address decision-making--a critical element in hedge-fund trading and investing fund capital. What are the goals in making decisions? How should decisions be made? How can the fund ensure that people will make the best decisions on behalf of the fund?

The principles discuss goals. Reaching goals requires identifying and solving problems. And solving problems requires harsh, candid assessment of employees. "Once you identify your problems, you must not tolerate them," Dalio writes. Diagnose the problem, he says, and solve them--even if it requires upsetting employees. After goals and problem-solving, the principles address planning and execution.

Some of the principles are reasonable and well-rationalized.  For example, Dalio says managers should obsess in putting people in the right roles, increasing the probability they can succeed.  He says in evaluating employees, pay for the person and not the job; weigh an employees' values and abilities more than skills.

Dalio says, "In our culture, there’s nothing embarrassing about making mistakes and having weaknesses....At Bridgewater people have to value getting at truth so badly that they are willing to humiliate themselves to get it." Elsewhere, he says, "(E)valuate (employees) accurately, not kindly."

As an MBA in finance (with or without experience), could you work and thrive in this environment? Would potential compensation and experience offset possible personal humiliation?

He values communication, even excess communication to ensure everybody throughout the organization understands goals, issues, and corrective action. He values managers, employees, and colleagues maintaining healthy, tight relationships with each other, making it easier to evaluate the performance of each other.

In 122 pages, almost all aspects of management and organization behavior are covered--from performance metrics to firing employees (when they exhibit no potential to improve). Some topics are not addressed, possibly because Dalio has not gotten around to writing them down. He dismisses job-related stress, leaving it to employees to internalize egos or handle the frustration of being humbled by a jarring critique of a recently completed project.

The principles don't address the value and importance of diversity in organizations--except when Dalio explains the value of permitting all voices within an organization to speak up and share their views or criticism of others.

For the most part, the Bridgewater approach is "take it or leave it." But Dalio heartily believes you might be better off "taking it."

Would you be willing to do so?

Tracy Williams

Friday, April 1, 2011

On Campus: Admission Season

On campus at Virginia's Darden School in Charlottesville
Around the country, applicants to the Consortium are being notified of their admissions. The special ones selected to become Consortium members are planning their June trips to the Orientation Program in Minneapolis.  This, of course, includes dozens of admitted students who will indicate an interest in financial services.

If this year is like those in recent years, between 80-125 prospective students will report they are interested in finance in some form. With improvements in markets and performance among major financial institutions, that number could exceed 125 this year. Prospective students won't likely fear being interested in banking or investment management or trading in 2011, as they were in 2009.

While the Consortium process has wound down, admission season continues at most Consortium schools, which tend to have "rounds" of admission. They review hundreds of applications in batches for each round and make admission decisions shortly thereafter. The deadline for the final round for many schools was this past week.

As business schools adapt,  change, update, reinvent themselves or conduct upheavals in the curriculum and core courses, admission to full-time programs at Consortium schools still tends to be selective. It's still not easy to get into Tuck, Stern, Ross, Tepper, Darden and most other Consortium schools.

Applications at Consortium schools (to the school, not merely the Consortium program) are still holding up, proving there is still a keen interest among young professionals to pursue the MBA--despite uncertainty in job paths, despite pockets of critics who say the degree needs to reorient itself toward different skills, or despite the continuing increases in costs.

Many Consortum schools (including Michigan, Yale, Cornell, NYU, UCLA, and Virginia) still must read through over 2,500 applications each year at each school and select less than 20% applicants for admission. Take NYU, for example.  In recent years, it hasn't been unusal for it to have over 4,500 applications, where only 13-15% are invited for admission to its full-time program. Dartmouth and Yale typically have around 3,000 applications (each), and about 14-16% are admitted.

Michigan, Virginia, Cornell, and UCLA are other Consortium schools have applications numbering close to or far in excess of 3,000. Just about all Consortium schools have average GMAT scores among first-year, full-time students at least above 635. (Average GMAT scores, in fact, at such schools as Michigan, UCLA and Dartmouth exceed 700.)

Consortium schools continue to have the luxury of being selective. It's not just high scores and solid GPAs; they expect years of quality work experience, evidence of leadership potential and passion for people and organizations. So getting into Consortium schools is still a challenge, but an exciting, not too daunting one for many who pursue the degree.

Most Consortium schools, from the mere fact they chose to be partners with the Consortium, are in the lead when it comes to diversity or assembling classes from all backgrounds and from many countries. Consortium schools, however, know they can't rest on laurels and must maintain an unrelenting effort to ensure they recruit adequate numbers every year. 

Sometimes it's not easy, as from year to year the number of, say, African-Americans at one school may surge one year, but decline sharply the next year. The percentage of women at top MBA schools is far less than 50%, although demographics and statistics show women are highly qualified to attend. At USC, for example, in a recent year, the school reports an admirable 30% of its first-year class as Asians, African-Americans, and Hispanics, but only 27% are women. Such a breakdown is not unsual at many top programs.

Even with the leverage of being selective in choosing applicants, Consortium schools still compete for top students by making themselves special, attractive and perpetually relevant.  Yale is making it a priority to build a new state-of-the-art (by 2011 standards) business-school campus--thanks to a $50 million donation. The new buildings are expected to open within the next two years.

Virginia's Darden school happily reports, as it does now, that it ranks no. 1 (at least by Bloomberg-Businessweek) in student satisfaction.  MBA students can and will be demanding. That's not a surprise, given most are paying full tuition at extraordinary ticker prices and are extracting two years out of the precious years of the early stages of a career to return to campus.  They want and expect updated technology, new facilities, access to top professors, facility comfort and business legends and leaders to come to campus. According to Businessweek, Darden is meeting many of those demands.

This past week, DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL's players association, gave a lecture on campus presenting the graphic and gory financial argument of the players' case in the current lock-out. The room was packed with interested students, who were enticed by his numbers-oriented presentation.

Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School will have a new dean next month:  Financial economics professor Robert Damon, who specializes in anaytical decision-making and wants to introduce such methods and techniques to the process of leading a top business school. (He also happens to have an MBA from Consortium school Wisconsin.)

With admission season winding down, next comes the countdown to the first days of fall session, 2011.

Tracy Williams