Tuesday, September 16, 2008

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

This famous Shakespearean line was delivered excellently by one of the Langone Program Directors on Day 1 of Langone’s Pre-Term Orientation. His pithy presentation allowed him to leave early in order to attend his son’s ball game. When I looked up the origins of the phrase on the never-failing Wikipedia, I found out that Shakespeare’s character, Lord Polonius, actually uttered the phrase while droning on endlessly and erroneously priding himself on being concise and witty. Admittedly, I have the same problem!

Wit is cool. One-liners are the best. Name one person who didn’t laugh during Dean Cooley’s Welcome Speech when he said of those who are bearing the fruits of their irresponsibility in the current financial crisis: “When the water drains out, you find out who was swimming naked!” Maybe it was just the shock value of the Dean saying naked – but hopefully we laughed because we truly appreciated the analogy. The Dean went on to discuss the awesome responsibility we have in being ethical in financial professions, the socially transformative power of business, and other topics that greatly inspired me. But at the end of his speech, I still could not forget that line. I wonder what that says about me? Am I the typical product of the sound byte generation, or just a lover of wit?

The Dean also scolded politicians who would rather talk about “Bridges to Nowhere” than face the true challenges of our time. But, after all, isn’t “Bridge to Nowhere” a great sound byte?

Someone else’s wit also awed me during my Core Group ice-breaking session on Day 1, when I gathered with members of my industry to discuss our outlook for the year. A team-member, as a true consultant only could, took the first few moments of our discussion time to construct this beauty, and I paraphrase:

If any of you other industry groups out there want to know your annual outlook, please hire us to analyze it, and we’ll tell you – all with killer PowerPoint slides and, of course, for large sums of money. If you do that, then the Consulting Industry’s outlook will definitely be good.

We all pretty much agreed that his remarks were right on the money. He was wittier than we were in that instance, and it was a great idea.

The situation completely changed, however, during Day 2 of Orientation, when our study groups (totaling five people each) were forced to merge with other groups advocating different Stern global branding ideas. With fifteen people in each group, and three fighting ideas per group, it was a lot more difficult for “clarity” and “wit” to emerge – and a lot easier for “chaos” and “argument” to ensue. In one of the enlarged groups, one previously smaller group successfully won over the two others with their brilliant idea. That did not happen in my group. We fought over our ideas to the bitter end and came to a forced resolution during the final moments of our discussion time. Then, amazingly, the presentation itself went flawlessly. I wouldn’t say we were witty, but our presenters discussed our ideas very coherently and thoroughly, and we won the challenge!

How did this happen? Hindsight is 20/20, and with Professor Irv Schenkler’s help, I realized some of the forces at play during our heated discussion. Among the fifteen of us, we embodied all of the behaviors and functions of a successful team. Yes, we did have people coming up with ideas. Yes, we did have people making decisions – shooting down ideas that they disagreed with, often with passionate rhetoric. We had mediators who tried to keep the team on track, and we had the “fierce urgency of time” from our “punctual deadline-oriented culture,” As Professor Schenkler pointed out, that forced us to actually come up with an end product in the last few minutes. Was our presentation the wittiest and liveliest? No, that honor went to the other team with the brilliant idea. But ours was well discussed and we covered all our bases. The judges said that our idea was “highly feasible” – they would not have said that if they heard what we came up with at the beginning of our discussion!

I learned a lot during Pre-Term. I learned that I am not as funny or as witty as most people on this campus! Wow, that guy in my Core Group really got me guffawing when he said that he only has to celebrate his wedding anniversary every four years because he got married on February 29th! My interesting fact about myself was that I read “The Alchemist” recently in my eagerness to follow my dreams in business school…cheesy, and decidedly unfunny. I may not get wittier unless I take “The Performing Manager” class later as an elective, but I’m sure my Leadership in Organizations class, among other classes that deal with team dynamics, will help me derive further insight into that still-elusive “something” that enables a business team to succeed.

Good luck to other Langone students and you full-timers as well. It’s going to be an exciting next couple of years.