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To bribe or not to bribe? Lessons from an international MBA

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Adam Janikowski left his job as vice-president of investment banking at BMO Capital Markets in Britain to pursue an MBA at INSEAD in France.

Many people question the value of an MBA, so it's ironic that throughout the program we are taught to question everything, including what we're learning and why. Given the financial cost associated with doing an MBA, it's imperative that we do this at every opportunity. With this in mind and the first of five periods behind us, it was time to sit down and reflect on what, if anything I had learned.

The first eight weeks consisted of mandatory core MBA courses; including statistics, corporate finance, accounting, economics, organisational behaviour and ethics. Having worked in finance for the past few years, it was the latter two, ethics and especially organisational behaviour in which I felt that I had learned the most valuable lessons since beginning the program.

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During our ethics classes we were confronted with a case study involving a difficult business decision. One example was whether you should send a fax with misleading (but not false) information to a client because you had been asked to and your job hung in the balance, another was whether an ex pat working in a country where corruption is commonplace should offer a bribe to facilitate business. Given my western upbringing and education, the answer to both situations is a resounding no. However, at INSEAD, surrounded by students from culturally diverse backgrounds, not everyone agrees. I personally found the debates on ethics both fascinating and eye-opening. It is through these discussions that we are forced to understand other people's points of view. Did it change my values and how I would do business? Not necessarily, but it did provide me with background and situational experiences that may help me react differently if I were ever faced with an ethical dilemma.

It is this exposure to and these conversations about morally ambiguous situations that will become invaluable as we pursue increasingly international careers. Most importantly, I believe that the true value of this course will not emerge when I am confronted with ethical decisions but will more likely help me understand why a colleague or employee makes certain choices that I might find ethically questionable.

As fascinating and useful as I found my ethics classes, the course I have enjoyed the most so far was organizational behaviour (OB). OB focused on leadership; specifically, the theories behind leadership and how they are applied. The course also taught us to think critically, both about ourselves and about the people and professionals that we want to become. Our professor, whom I consider one of the best teachers I have had in my academic career, had an amazing ability to force many of us out of our shells and to make us re-evaluate what we viewed as important, both in our working and personal lives. I believe that we are all not just better MBA students but better people for having taken this course.

One of the most interesting exercises we undertook occurred halfway through the course when we were asked over a period of two hours to provide candid feedback, both positive and negative to our team members. At the time, it was hard to understand the value of an exercise like this. We have all received constructive criticism in our previous roles and didn't really come here and pay tuition just to be criticized by fellow students. Upon reflection, what I took away from those two hours, both about myself and how others see me, will stay with me forever. I found the feedback more valuable than what I've received previously at work from a supervisor, or from an anonymous 360-degree review, because it came from my peers, and was delivered in a public, group setting. Learning such as this is priceless and helps remind me of why I gave up a year of my career to do my MBA.

Another very unique aspect of our organizational behaviour course was the OB final exam. Throughout the period, we had been forced to work with a pre-assigned group. When exam time came, for the first time in my life I was forced to write an exam en-masse. We were given three hours to deliver a 3,000-word essay written in English (not the native language for many in the group) with analyses and conclusions that everyone had to agree on - bearing in mind most of us have alpha personalities and will fight for our views. Not only were we evaluated on how well we learned the concepts of leadership, we found ourselves applying these concepts in order not to kill each other during the exam. Writing a group exam under pressure and with limited time is no picnic and there are rumours of other groups that cracked under the pressure. It is unverified, but I have heard that some other groups came to blows.

Students come to an MBA to learn technical skills, knowledge of management and to perhaps gain insight on how to succeed in business. Those of us who chose to come to INSEAD were drawn by the fact that we think that learning the technical skills in an international environment will help us become better global business leaders. I think the technical skills can be learned anywhere; math is universal and can easily be assimilated from a text book. Ethics and leadership, however, are things that must be learned through experience. These courses forced me out of my comfort zone and required me to re-evaluate beliefs that I have held for a long time. It is not crunching numbers or memorizing formulas, but being exposed to the experiences of my peers and learning from them, that will help me be a better leader and makes the cost of my MBA, both in time and in tuition, a good investment.

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