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report on business education, spring 2012

Alanna Petroff completed her MBA at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford in Britain in 2011.

Alanna Petroff completed her MBA at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford in Britain in 2011. She is currently living and working in London, England.

Looking back on my MBA education, I learned about statistics, corporate valuation, marketing, accounting and takeover strategies. Aside from my classroom learning, the MBA experience taught me some unexpected lessons about how to live a better, happier life. These lessons have nothing to do with alpha returns or accounting principles; they are simple life lessons that have helped me cope with setbacks, foster new friendships and make meaningful connections with the people around me.

I did not go into my MBA expecting to learn these lessons, but I'm certainly glad I did.

Unexpected MBA Life Lesson #1: Knowing names is powerful

Dale Carnegie, author of the popular 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote "a person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language."

People like it when you remember their names. It makes them feel good about themselves. My MBA experience has shown me that remembering someone's name can be extremely powerful.

Case in point: before arriving at the Saïd Business School, I was concerned about being confronted with more than 200 new faces and not remembering any names. I began browsing through the "Oxford Saïd Business School Class of 2011" Facebook group. Nearly all of my future classmates were members of this group, and I started memorizing their names.

Before boarding the London-bound plane from Toronto, I had memorized roughly 150 names and faces.

Upon arriving in Oxford, I was able to focus more clearly on what my new classmates were saying instead of worrying about their names. This put me at ease and it put other people at ease as well. People seemed glad and relieved when I knew their names after our first meeting. There were no awkward "Hey … you!" proclamations. Knowing people's names allowed me to connect with people more effectively.

I kept my name memorization tactic a secret throughout the year, until I found out that I was not alone. I discovered that the school's new dean, Peter Tufano, uses the same name memorization techniques.

As a professor at the Harvard Business School, Dr. Tufano says he created flash cards from the student Web pages and spent hours before the beginning of each class memorizing names. According to Dr. Tufano, this is a common practice among Harvard professors. Harvard also has a computer application where students record themselves saying their names so that professors can learn name pronunciations ahead of class.

Will Kintish, a leading authority on business networking skills and founder of the networking firm Kintish, says that knowing people's names is extremely important. It's not about having a good memory, it's about having the right attitude, he says.

Mr. Kintish recommends that, when meeting new people, you should make a point to concentrate when a person says their name. Concentrate solely on their first name to make it easier to remember, he says. Repeat their name when you meet them and make name associations if possible.

"When you make an effort to remember names… that will make people feel important. This is the key to relationship building," he says.

Unexpected MBA Life Lesson #2: Don't disregard people because they are different

When we walk into a room and are confronted with a sea of new faces, we tend to gravitate toward people who are similar to us. Meeting someone who looks like you, has a similar background or a similar accent can put you at ease. As the saying goes, "birds of a feather flock together."

"When you find something in common with a stranger, you very quickly build rapport," Mr. Kintish says. For example, most Canadians can talk about a common love of hockey, and similarly, many Indians can bond over a love of cricket.

I have known this habit to create social divides. Groups naturally form, and it can be difficult to bridge the gaps between them.

As a Canadian who was clearly out of my comfort zone – among strangers in a new country – it would have been easy to befriend the Canadians and Americans in my class. But an MBA is meant to take you out of your comfort zone, introduce you to new ideas, new people and new cultural practices and norms. I wanted to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with as many different people in my class as possible.

For instance, I spent last year's New Year's Eve in Pamplona, Spain, with a classmate who was born and raised there. I ate a traditional Spanish meal with his entire family and then we all watched the clock strike midnight on TV, while eating 12 grapes each, as Spanish New Year's tradition dictates. It was quite possibly the best New Year of my life, and it was great to learn more about Spanish traditions and family values.

I never would have had that experience if I hadn't been willing to branch out a bit and make new friends.

My close circle of MBA friends is now comprised not only of Canadians but also of Spanish, Icelandic, Indian, Japanese, German, English, American, Belgian, Australian and Costa Rican classmates. These friends all come from very different backgrounds and hold divergent world views. This diversity has given all of us a richer perspective on global issues and cultural norms.

Actively seeking out and befriending different people can open your eyes to new, deep friendships and priceless experiences. This is a basic, valuable lesson that the MBA has reinforced for me.

Unexpected MBA Life Lesson #3: Just because you're no good at something doesn't mean you're no good

Everybody has their own personal strengths and weaknesses. In an MBA, one student may be a marketing genius but may nearly fail their accounting exam. Another might complete brilliant corporate valuation models but have trouble writing essays.

Personally, I struggled with spreadsheets and financial modelling during the MBA. In my former life as a radio announcer, I had never valued a company, nor had I used spreadsheets in my daily life. I found it profoundly frustrating that my friends with finance backgrounds could complete valuations without even breaking a sweat.

While corporate valuation was not my strong suit, I still made valuable contributions within a group setting. I often took care of strategy and marketing issues, as well as writing essays and compiling our final assignments.

Yet at the end of the day, I still felt as though I was not good enough because I was not good at everything. A refrain often played in my head: "I'm not doing enough. I'm not quite good enough." This is simply not a healthy way to live.

I lost sight of the fact that everybody contributes to projects in different ways. In a group environment, peoples' strengths, weaknesses and backgrounds make a team stronger as a whole.

The MBA has taught me that 'just because you're no good at something, doesn't mean you're no good.' Ultimately, it's okay to have these strengths and weaknesses. It's human. This lesson may seem very basic, but it is something that everyone struggles with from time to time.

Special to The Globe and Mail