Park Perspectives: Building Trust at the Start of the MBA
by Frank Hager, MBA ’24
The best pre-term advice
While the whirlwind of “pre-term” feels like a lifetime ago, one piece of advice from my first day at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management echoed in my mind throughout my first year as a business school student.
Rewind back to last August. On the first day that we all met as a Park Leadership Fellows cohort (cue, nervous jitters and butterflies), Laura Georgianna, executive director of Leadership Programs, dropped some wisdom. “When meeting your fellow classmates over the next week, you have two choices: you can try to impress your classmates, or you can try to build trust with them.”
Applying it to relationships
Meeting hundreds of new people in a week can be a daunting experience. As a freshly minted Johnson MBA student, I was surrounded by incredibly talented and accomplished individuals. The classic introductory MBA conversation usually involves three topics of conversation with my answers:
1. Where you are from? New Jersey
2. Your last job? College baseball coach
3. Post-MBA career? Investment banking
A usual response involved something of the sort, “Woah, investment banking after coaching baseball? Do you think you can handle the hours? Are you prepared for the technical interviews?”
My gut response was to remove any doubt about my capabilities. Initial instincts urged me to impress my new classmate by mentioning my first job in sales and trading or my progress to the CFA charter. But then Laura’s advice kicked in. Two choices: impress or build trust.
Rather than citing previous accomplishments, I shared my genuine thoughts and reservations about the upcoming transition. I opened up about the in-depth conversations I had with my wife about the long hours; I sought my classmates’ advice about technical preparation for interviews and the job. I made a concerted effort to build trust rather than impress.
Applying it in the classroom
Johnson brings in incredible alumni to speak to our students. In my first year, we’ve been in the classroom with the CEO of Procter & Gamble, the CFO of Dominos, the Deputy Commissioner of the NBA, and the cofounder of Wayfair, to name a few.
When a guest speaker opens the floor for Q&A, my hand often shoots up. While structuring a question, I remind myself of Laura’s advice: impress or build trust. I avoid starting my questions with, “I read a paper or article about…” or “I know that…” which attempt to impress my knowledge about the subject. Instead, I attempt to engage this subject matter expert to share his or her knowledge.
I tried to frame questions starting with “I don’t know much about XYZ, how do you think about it?” or “I was confused about your comments on ABC, can you share more?” I cut down on lengthy questions that showed my knowledge and replaced them with shorter, open-ended questions. I believe questions framed with “I didn’t follow…” or “can you elaborate on…” show both vulnerability and curiosity which build trust instead of impress.
Applying it in recruiting
I’d argue that an interview is the opportunity to both build trust and impress; importantly, it should be in that order. My interviewers had all done the jobs I sought, and I wasn’t going to teach them anything new about their job. At the same time, to earn a summer internship, one must prove a certain amount of competence in the subject.
During a final round interview this fall, I was completely stumped on a difficult technical question. After a deep breath, I acknowledged that I did not know the answer, but walked my interviewer through my thought process. After demonstrating sound logic, albeit an imperfect answer, my interviewer walked me through the correct answer.
I definitely didn’t impress my interviewer with my knowledge; but by creating space for my interviewer to teach me, I was able to build trust between us, even in our short time together.
The benefits of building trust instead of attempting to impress
Applying this simple reminder—build trust, don’t try to impress—has been far more beneficial learning than discounting cash flows or assembling a pretty PowerPoint deck.
In opening up to my classmates about my career transition, I received candid advice from a second-year about balancing family commitments with a banking career. I gained insights from C-level executives and laid the groundwork for a growing professional network.
And equally important, that tough interviewer gave me the job!
About Frank Hager, MBA ’24
Frank Hager is a second-year MBA candidate in the Two-Year MBA program at the Johnson School. Prior to joining the MBA class of 2024, Hager was an assistant baseball coach at Cornell University. Prior to coaching, he worked at Deutsche Bank in institutional fixed income sales. He holds a BA in economics and MPS in management from Cornell University and is a CFA charter holder. After graduation, Hager, his wife Caitlin, daughter Ellie, and son Frankie will move to New York City, where Hager will work for Morgan Stanley’s investment banking division.