What can you do before starting business school to set yourself up for a valuable MBA experience? [Show summary]
Bob Manfreda discusses his experience in the Stanford GSB program and shares wisdom from his co-authored blog, MBA Coffee Chats, and book, Coffee Chats: Thoughtful advice on how to get the most out of your MBA.
How coffee chats can help you clarify your career goals, prioritize activities and more [Show notes]
Welcome to the 437th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. Before I introduce our guest, I have a question for you: are you ready to apply to your dream MBA programs? Are you competitive at your target programs? Accepted’s MBA Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to accepted.com/mba-quiz, complete the quiz and you’ll not only get an assessment but tips on how to improve your qualifications. Plus it’s all free!
I’d like to welcome to Admission Straight Talk Bob Manfreda, Stanford MBA and co-author of Coffee Chats: Thoughtful advice on how to get the most out of your MBA. Bob earned his Bachelor’s in Applied Physics and Chinese at Notre Dame, worked at Deloitte as a consultant, earned his MBA at Stanford as an Arjay Miller Scholar and is now a manager at Deloitte. He is also the Chief Booth Officer for PhotoFox Photo Booth.
My first burning question is, do you like coffee? [1:53]
I do. I made myself an iced coffee for the occasion.
You were at Deloitte before you went to Stanford GSB and you’re now again at Deloitte. Did you intend to return to Deloitte after your MBA as you’ve done? [2:04]
“Intend” might be too strong of a word. I knew it was a strong option, and it was one that I was excited to have. I was sponsored to go to school. I cared to come back, but I also wanted to explore some other careers just because I’d been at Deloitte for four years already. And there was a lot out there. I think I had a little bit of a wanderlust career-wise. So I did some poking around in venture capital, in mid-stage startup and then entrepreneurialism which was a list of three things that I came up with that I thought would allow me to maybe be financially equivalent but still explore something new.
I started working my way through that list. For whatever reason, I never really got a lot of momentum on starting my own thing. I realized after a couple of coffee chats actually that venture capital probably wouldn’t be something for me. And I interned at a mid-stage, tech startup and had a great time, but it didn’t really work out for my career perspective. There wasn’t necessarily a path there. When I got to my second year, Deloitte made the official offer to return, and it felt like the best thing at the time for me.
Has it worked out for you? [3:20]
It has. Deloitte is a good company. They’ve got great benefits. I’m currently actually on paternity leave. We had our first son, Jackson, who is six months old. My wife works for a company called Snowflake, and they updated their policy to six months so she had a bunch of time off. Anyways, long story short, now I get months 6-10 off with Jackson which I’m really excited about.
Going back to consulting, for me, I think there was the professional benefit of getting to manage people soon and to continue developing some of the core skills. But I think there was also the personal element of it that I knew I’d have that benefit available to me of good paternity leave, and I’d be able to go to where I want to in the country so it was more than just a professional decision.
Let’s turn to your Stanford experience. What did you enjoy most while you were a student at Stanford GSB? [4:19]
I think it was the freedom to choose every single day. As I went into school and reflected on life growing up through school, the goal was always me getting better and pursuing an interest. That’s the mandate of educational institutions. When I went to the professional world, that was certainly a goal, but it wasn’t always goal 1A. It’s usually profits or something related to that. And going back to school, I could go play pickup basketball or read a book, and on the quarter system at Stanford choose a different class every three quarters. My classmates were all incredibly passionate about things so I just felt like every day I got to wake up and explore something new and whatever it was, that gave me the most energy that day. That was a lot of fun.
Looking back on the MBA program, the education, the extracurricular opportunities, whatever it was – what class experience or extracurricular activities were most valuable to you or really stand out in your mind? [5:11]
I think there’s two in particular. Everyone’s got different goals. So I think that will drive a lot of the outcome to this question. For me, the social element of business school was not a priority. My own relationships and my personal health were. Neither were some of the career pivot options that were out there so I didn’t end up doing many clubs or those things, which also could be really good experiences for other people. I got a lot of value out of classes actually. At Stanford in particular, there’s the whole soft skills curriculum that Stanford’s built its brand around like Touchy Feely. But it’s so much more than Touchy Feely. It’s the whole environment at Stanford that’s built in that ethos of emotions as the basis of connection, and that made me very uncomfortable. I grew up with a tax lawyer dad. Emotion was bad – it’s the enemy of reason. Don’t be emotional. Stanford challenged all of that for me but in a way that was, I think, really helpful and pushed me to become a better version of myself. I can relate to people more frequently and on easier terms. I have less arguments with my wife. My personal relationships have never been stronger. And professionally, the summer between year one and year two, I remember getting frustrated with my manager at the time at my internship. I think old Bob might’ve argued why something else was done incorrectly and why my position was right. And new Touchy Feely Bob said something like, “I’m a little frustrated right now, or I feel frustrated. Can we take a step back?” And that was totally new to me and not something I ever would have done, but that a week and a half into my internship was the total pivot point for what ended up being an awesome relationship with my manager that summer because instead of us fighting over what was right or wrong, we took a step back, related on how we were feeling about things, what drove that, what we needed to do to correct how we were working together and then got back to the core of it. To me Touchy Feely, the Arbuckle Leadership Fellows, and a lot of the similar classes are all centered around that idea and those types of experiences for getting to know people.
That’s wonderful. It wasn’t the answer I expected particularly because your book seems to talk so much about the value of everything but the classes. [7:46]
Well, that’s a tricky one because I think that’s a common element for the MBA in general. It’s like people feel that way. There are so many resources available to you at school. I think that can be true that for a lot of people class isn’t the core part of the program. For me, I was excited about the academics of it and so I got a lot out of that. To be clear, if it was just Touchy Feely, it wouldn’t have been as powerful if not for the community and the people and the experiences around it, but everyone’s goals and experiences with the MBA are different. And it just so happened that for me, I think class had a pretty awesome part of it.
There are so many things coming at you and setting a couple of things aside helped me make the most of what I decided to prioritize. I think people so often talk about prioritizing as a big theme for business school. I think it’s possible to over-prioritize. I think more often people don’t prioritize enough, but I do think that is one of the central themes to having an effective MBA experience. I think that’s great advice that you tell people.
What could have been improved? Even though Stanford GSB is a fantastic institution and experience, what could have been improved for you, or what do you wish you would’ve done differently? [9:32]
That’s actually a great segue to one of the comments I just made about over-prioritizing, which I think is the mistake that I made. I mentioned going into it that I decided that I’d focus on either a startup VC or a growth stage or starting my own thing. Looking back, I feel like those are three things of a very similar flavor to what I was already doing. Like consulting, it’s very bizarre. Obviously it’s a business strategy, and I don’t think I did enough to open the aperture going into school, because I kept hearing from people it’s so important to prioritize. That way you know which lunches to go to, which classes to take, what to work on. But there are so many amazing resources at these schools that you don’t have before you show up that can be helpful in finding new things to do.
Everyone has different goals for their MBA like we were saying, but a very common one is to get into a certain career, whether an elevated position or a different one in some professional degree. I think to the extent that you over-prioritize prior to school, you can sub-optimize your professional outcomes because you’re not seeing everything that’s out there. Specifically for me, I realized during my second year of school that search funds and sales careers, both were actually really interesting and played into the things that I might enjoy but they were just much different than the experience I’d had previously. I wasn’t familiar with them and because I over-prioritized, I didn’t start exploring them until too late in my two years there.
I’m wondering how one could balance that need not to try everything and at the same time focus maybe with more exploration before you get there [11:16]
I think that’s one of the places coffee chats come in because at the end of the day, the best way to balance this is to have a test and fail method which is so common with startups now. How quickly can you have a thesis, test it, and either set it aside or decide to invest further in it? One of the things we talk about in the book is why a pre-school internship could be valuable. I think one of the quickest, lowest time investment opportunities to explore things is the coffee chat. You’re so focused on curating a diverse class of students that if you reach out to people at your school, there’s a very good chance that someone will have done what you might be interested in and during a 30-minute conversation with them, you’ll learn a ton about whether it may or may not be a good fit.
That’s what happened for me with venture capital. The way it was described to me is it’s a hugely extroverted job where you’re meeting new people, you’re out there, you’re exploring new companies and you’re creating these deals in a large part on your own. For me that felt tiring, not energizing and coming from a very team-based consulting environment, I was a little unsure if I liked the single environment. Instead of spending a whole semester and hours investing in VC recruiting, I was able to rule that out after a couple of coffee chats. I think that’s the whole essence of this book, having conversations early before you show up. Then again once you’re at school, you can start broad but then try to prioritize quickly down to what you do want to spend your time on.
Are you glad you earned your MBA? [13:07]
I am glad. I think so often, that question is evaluated on extrinsic terms. How much did I pay for the MBA? And is it worth it? I’m not sure about that yet to be perfectly honest. I think it’ll depend on the long-term. If I was trying to be a middle manager for my long-term career goal, I’m not sure it would be, to be honest. The MBA is really expensive, but I’m hoping it creates lots of upside for me. And I think between the network, the sticker on the resume, there’s a few ways it could do that. But intrinsically, I learned a lot. I feel like I’m a better person from some of the soft skill things. I made some good friends, and I really enjoyed those couple of years. It was a luxury. Fortunately I had a partner who was working full time, I had a company that was willing to sponsor it. It was a luxury that I felt like we could afford, and I really enjoyed it.
What advice do you have for applicants who want to get a Stanford MBA? [14:20]
Good luck. The application process is a slog. It’s hard. It’s introspective. I’m still not sure why I got in to be frank. But I’ll share the three pieces of advice that I picked up from some of my classmates that I thought did a good job.
One, don’t overthink what matters most to you and why. For most people, it was a simple concept with a bunch of stories behind it that shows why it was very important.
Two, the whole application should be related. What matters most to you and why should be largely personal. So why Stanford should build on that. Those aren’t two separate questions.
And then three, Stanford’s whole motto with an emphasis on driving change, I think is really important. They like people who are willing to think through the implications of their actions and how their goals will affect others. So if you want to start a nonprofit that will feed the world, obviously there’s an easier link there, but you also might be someone who wants to be a consultant partner or a private equity leader. The goals are varied but don’t just want to be that for its sake itself. Maybe it’ll create jobs. How will it affect the world? I think telling that story is really important for the GSB application.
What are coffee chats? [15:46]
Coffee chats are what we’re doing right now. It’s a conversation. Questions, answers, back and forth. It’s something that people do a lot at their MBA program and in life in general. I felt like they were very frequent when I showed up at school where people would say, “Hey, you seem interesting. Let’s grab coffee and chat.” It’s a good way to get to know people. Typically one-on-one. Sometimes it’s a beer. Sometimes you don’t get anything to drink, but coffee for whatever reason is typically how it’s referred to.
How did you and Adam Putterman, your co-author who’s a Kellogg MBA and also your pre-MBA colleague from Deloitte, come to write the book called Coffee Chats? [16:19]
Adam and I both found ourselves enjoying and having lots of coffee chats every year. Working at a big company like Deloitte and then at these schools, you get put in touch with friends, siblings, friends of friends saying, “Hey, I’m interested in going and we’d love to pick your brain about it.” We found ourselves having often similar conversations with people and sometimes if we were higher energy and better fed and well slept, our answers might be better, and other times they wouldn’t be as good. Adam and I realized that while talking every couple of months during school. We had become good friends while we were colleagues and, as a bit of an aside, one of the things that we talk about in the book is the importance of finding ways to remember everything getting thrown at you during school. One of the things that Adam and I found ourselves doing was just chatting once a month, once every two months. It happened organically at first where we were comparing notes like, “You’re doing a lot of team projects. I haven’t had any yet. How’s that driving you? What’s happening? What are you learning from that?” And so as we were having those conversations, we came across or we realized that we were having a similar experience with coffee chats.
At the same time we realized, “Hey. We’d like working together sometime. What’s a good way to test that?” and all of these things dovetailed together to, “Hey. It’d be really cool to write about this and to put some of our better answers together to help people that we were having conversations with.” And then those seemed to be received well. So then we thought, “Hey. Why don’t we put it out on Reddit?” We both are on that website a fair amount. We can hit up r/MBA and see what happens. That also got some good traction. And it just was a path of serendipity from there.
During that we got in touch with a writer of recommendable books who’s also now a publisher. He ended up being an advisor to us and as our book was finished and we were sharing it with friends more informally, he then suggested publishing it so we started working with him on that. Then we went through the whole publishing process and now I’m here sitting and talking with you. It’s amazing how the journey has unfolded over time.
Did you and Adam ever compare the cultures at Kellogg and Stanford and discuss some of the similarities and differences? [19:02]
All the time. In one of our interesting theses, I think – anyways to pat myself on the back, is that these schools are more similar than different. People get really hung up on the culture and the differences between them. But all of these schools have wonderful professors and resources and academic institutions, an intense social scene with a lot of A-types who want to get out there and be active, very good job opportunities, interesting clubs, lots of travel. A lot of times if you ask people a question like, “What do you love about your school?” we hear the same answers repeatedly.
So we compare our cultures and in that sense, there are a lot of similarities. But the differences I think are often what are more interesting and what drive difference. The differences we noted about our two schools, again after all of those similarities and positive things, is that Kellogg has obviously a very intentional team-based culture. And Adam’s like, “I can’t imagine not doing a project with a team.” Stanford, I think, creates a very choose-your-own-adventure academic environment. I hadn’t done any projects with teams, because I would often opt to do them on my own because then I could squeeze it in at 11:30 and be home to be with my partner at the end of her workday. I had flexibility by doing it my own way. So the result was very different attitudes around working together versus Stanford, I think, everyone was exploring their own thing. And there was certainly plenty of team culture and teamwork as well. But I think the emphases were different.
In the book you identified several key questions for admits. The biggest question you have is, “How can I make the most of my MBA experience?” How would you answer that question? [21:11]
Linda, I think you already did in a way – it’s the goal. The goals are so often front and center as an applicant and during your time there, I think it’s about finding a way to stay true to them. There’s an incredible speed and the pace and the level of interesting things that are made available in the first few months and then throughout the time there. You have an incredibly smart group of people who I think are still very prone to herd mentality, where they will swarm to whatever the “it” thing is because everything is interesting and exciting, and it can make it hard to stick to those goals. I think having the goals upfront and then finding the time for intentionality to step back, whether that be talking with my buddy Adam at Kellogg or writing if you’re a writer, finding a way to revisit those goals regularly. I think coffee chats are a great way to do that because it forces you to say it out loud, to bounce ideas off people and to re-evaluate them as needed. Having goals doesn’t mean they can’t change. They will change throughout your time, and it should happen.
One topic you address in your book is preserving your relationship with your partner, and you’ve noted that both you and Adam were able to do so. Could you review the suggestions you gave on that topic? [23:03]
Adam is a great person for this. He’s actually starting a relationship wellness company. He helped form a lot of our thoughts around this. I think the big thing is just intentionality around your time and, again, your goals. I think for most partners, there’s two ends to the extreme. One is we are going to do everything together, and my significant other, my partner, the non-student, is going to be involved in everything socially. And the other end is they’re not going to be involved at all. Obviously there’s a lot of space in the middle. Ironically, Adam and I took somewhat different paths, where my partner was from the Bay Area where I was in school, had her own job and decided early on, “Hey. I don’t think the Stanford MBA crew is for me. And I’ve got a lot of other things I’ve got to do with my own life right now.” So that was fine as long as it wasn’t a surprise and it meant occasionally I missed the happy hour to go home and cook dinner together. I think for Adam, the two of them would go to things together frequently and enjoy their time in that way. Adam especially helped us put a whole bunch more tactical things in the book. And one included carving out specific time, whether it be a Sunday morning or a Tuesday evening, whatever works for you. But I’ll leave that as a teaser to read the book actually.
The other point you made by the way was setting expectations both ways, the student’s expectations and the partner’s expectations. [25:42]
Part of what’s so hard, and I’m sure people listening to this can relate to how different their college undergraduate experience schedule was to their working schedule and that’s exactly what happens now. One person is on an undergraduate school schedule, and the other person is working in the real world with air quotes. So setting expectations when two people are occupying such different mental mind frames and mindsets and schedules is incredibly important because otherwise you’re just ships passing in the night all the time.
What are your plans going forward? Any more books, more coffee chats? What do you think you’re going to do? [26:26]
Definitely more coffee chats. I really enjoy them, it’s a lot of fun connecting with people, sharing experiences. I’ve learned a lot from it, like how people are thinking about their goals, what they’ve worked on. So I think coffee chats will always, at this point, be a front and center tool for me in my career, for work, personal life, as a way of staying in touch with people. More books is an interesting question. It was a really rewarding experience. I got to do a whole bunch of things I had not done before, including recording a podcast. Thank you for this opportunity. I don’t know if we’ll write more books on the MBA topic. One of the things we were always very cautious of, and I mentioned this when we were talking beforehand, was we don’t want to be seen as having all the answers on the MBA experience. It’s something that is so personal for a lot of people with different goals and different ways to go about it. I think we’ve said our piece and as you noted, the book is short in part because we realized there’s a small number of tribal factoids or knowledge sets that I think are widely shareable, but for most people you still need to have the coffee chats to figure out what matters or what’s most relevant to you personally. I’d love to write a book about a different topic at some point in the future. It was a lot of fun to re-engage with the poet in me, whereas I’ve always been more of a quant.
It’s a little bit off topic but why Chinese as an undergrad? Just curious. Physics and Chinese, that’s an interesting combo. [27:55]
Maybe it wasn’t overly well thought-out. For me, it was a pursuit of interest. Physics was hard. It was interesting. And it explored the world around me. I wanted to be an engineer but I was in such a rush that when the school told me Engineering and Chinese would take me five years, I said, “Never mind. I want to be gone in four years.” Then I switched to Physics. And that was the whole reason for Physics and Chinese. Ironically, my dad, who’s one of my greatest mentors and role models, I think when I was a sophomore in high school, he was like, “Hey. You should really learn Chinese. There’s a lot happening in that part of the world.” And then I did it. I got pretty good at it and unfortunately managed to forget all of it, just about. So I studied it for six or seven years. It’s amazing how when you just don’t practice something differently than what you do everyday, you lose it.
Is there anything that you would have liked me to ask you or anything you want to share at this point? [29:15]
One of the things we touched on a little bit that I’ll come back to because it’s my personal drum that I’ve banged a fair amount is that these schools are most different based off the academic experience and location. I think they’re very similar, but that’s my opinion because I think the time you spend in school is significant and just like work doesn’t define your day-to-day experiences as a professional today, but it does affect your happiness because you spend 40, 50, for some people up to a hundred hours doing it. The classroom environment, whether you need to prepare for a cold calling case environment or not, whether you have required classes or not, whether classes are mandatory or not, all has a big impact on how your time is available to you.
I think as an applicant, that’s usually important to suss out and understand about where you apply. On the other side of school, I think it’s really interesting when people apply to both the GSB and HBS. I understand why, but it’s two phenomenally different experiences. Obviously location is different and can affect some of the career outcomes. Like we were talking about earlier, I think too often people underestimate the importance of academics with the MBA. Even if it’s not your goal, if you have to prepare for class every day, it will affect how much time you have to work on your startup, for example.
When you talk about location, are you talking more about something like region of the country or world or small city vs big city? [30:43]
When I said it, I meant region. The Stanford class of 2019 GSB’s WhatsApp for the Bay Area is 250 people. It is a full WhatsApp thread and there are a ton of people here. It’s more than half the class. I’m sure some of them have moved in and out, but there are nodes of a much more saturated environments, I think, after school. It also can affect career. Berkeley and Stanford have incredible access to tech startups right now. I think you see that in outcomes. Columbia with finance, Wharton with finance in general and PE as well. I think those locations can affect your career outcome, but also just where you want to be in the world afterwards.
Where can listeners find the blog and learn more about Coffee Chats: Thoughtful advice on how to get the most out of your MBA, the book? [31:59]
We are at mbacoffeechats.com.
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