Jen looked up at the large, gray building in front of her and tried to convince herself that she was doing the right thing.
Somehow it had seemed easier when it was just a matter of telling her mother she’d do the MBA. She’d had visions of herself spying on board meetings, eavesdropping on conversations as she walked down long corridors, compiling a dossier of information and bringing the perpetrators and their heinous crimes to justice. In her mind she’d been the heroine of her own little film in which she (pretty much single-handedly) saved the world and got a thank-you letter from the Queen. Even Angel’s protestations that she had finally lost the plot completely hadn’t deterred her. In many ways, they’d made her feel more of a rebel, made the whole idea more appealing.
And then she’d got the application form. She’d had to write essays, sit tests, and be interviewed by men in gray suits whom she’d had to convince that a career in business management was everything she’d ever dreamed of and more. But now she was actually about to walk right into the Bell Consulting offices and go to her first lecture. Somehow in her daydreams she’d missed out the bit where she actually had to do an MBA.
It can’t be that hard, she told herself. Just boring. Like being back in a physics lesson at school. Or a Durkheim lecture at university. Jen had taken sociology for a term, thinking that she’d get an insight into people’s motivations, thinking that she’d unlock the key to human happiness, but instead she’d spent weeks learning why people commit suicide less often in wartime. Apparently it had gotten more interesting later on; those who stuck with the course kept telling her how great it was. But Jen couldn’t wait that long; she’d switched to philosophy and never looked back. Well, not until she’d had to endure lectures on Hegel, but by then it was too late to switch again.
Anyway, she reminded herself, the point was that she just had to get into a role. Everyone here would think she was a perfectly normal MBA student; all she had to do was to go along with it. Pretend she found it interesting. She shuddered. She’d read the brochure cover to cover, and they were going to be learning about things like “business process reengineering” and “managing the bottom line.” It was too hideous to even bear.
Still, at least she was doing something worthwhile. The truth was that she’d been kind of wondering where her life was going recently. She had started to feel just a little that she was just killing time at a desk at Green Futures and had even started wondering whether she’d been right to split up with Gavin. It was as if she wasn’t entirely sure if her place in the world was the one back in London, wasn’t entirely sure who she was anymore. where her life was going.
She’d thought it would be different, somehow, working for Green Futures. When the firm had started up, her mother had been huge, talked about by everyone. Hers was the first consultancy firm to talk about corporate social responsibility, to suggest that businesses couldn’t just go around doing what the hell they wanted just to make bigger and bigger profits. When Jen had been at school and university, everyone thought she had the coolest mum and she’d thought so too. She’d been really proud, which had been quite nice really bearing in mind that her father was a total bastard who advised companies to do the absolute opposite, focusing on profits alone and not giving a shit about anything so inconsequential as people or global warming.
And the media had loved it, too. Harriet had worked at Bell Consulting before launching out on her own, after all. Her split from George Bell, and subsequent launch of her own rival firm, filled column inches for weeks. Back then Harriet had appeared regularly on the front covers of Newsweek, The Economist, and Time. She was big news and she loved it.
But actually, Jen had discovered that Green Futures was just like any other office. Lots of desks and people sitting at them, furiously tapping away at computers and talking about their children/pets/hobbies over the (organic) coffee machine. Maybe it used to be a revolutionary firm once upon a time, but now it all seemed a bit . . . tired. And in truth, they didn’t have anywhere near as many clients now as they used to have. Other firms had gotten in on the environmental act, and her mother didn’t seem to realize that she wasn’t the big name she used to be. In many ways it was a bit of a relief to be out of there.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Jen thought ruefully as she looked up again at the building in front of her. Bell Towers, built to intimidate and impress all those who crossed its threshold. Somehow she’d never seen herself working for either of her parents, and now it seemed she was going to end up working for both of them. But not for long, she told herself. This is the means to an end only.
Forcing a smile onto her face, Jen walked through the doors, and before she knew it, she was standing in the reception area, signing in.
“You in the MBA program?”
Jen looked up at the earnest-looking guy standing next to her in the lift.
“You’re going to the seventh floor,” he explained quickly. “I don’t think there are any offices on that floor—just, you know, lecture halls.”
She studied his face for a moment. Slightly chubby, face a bit rosy, glasses slightly steamed up. Your typical MBA student if ever there was one. He was appraising her too, she noticed, his eyebrows rising as he took in her jeans and Ugg boots. She’d meant to buy some smart clothes, had really and truly intended to dress the part, but she just hadn’t gotten round to it yet. And anyway, it had said in the information packet that dress was “smart casual.” She figured that fulfilling one of those descriptors was sufficient for now.
“Yes, I am,” she said dismissively, then remembered that she was meant to be a typical MBA student too.
“Me too!” he said unnecessarily. He was carrying four textbooks and a binder stuffed full of notes and labeled very clearly bell mba program, alan hinchliffe. “My name’s Alan, pleased to meet you. So have you done any of the
pre-reading? I started on Strategy in Motion but I’d covered most of it already in my business studies diploma, so I focused more on Strategic Business Management—this one . . .” He pointed to the larger of the four textbooks, and Jen looked at them incredulously, then checked herself. I am an MBA student, she repeated in her head. I must pretend to be interested in this crap.
“I . . . uh . . . you know, dipped in and out of them,” she said carefully, hoping that Alan wouldn’t ask her about any of them. “I’m Jen, by the way. Jennifer Bellman.” She cringed as she said it, but choosing a new name wasn’t as easy as it sounded. She’d left it until she filled in the application form and had spent a good half an hour looking around her flat for inspiration—Jennifer Television, Jennifer Lamp, Jennifer Wall. And then she’d turned to the telephone directory and tried some names in there, but she was terrified that she might choose one and then forget it. So in the end, she’d gone for Bellman, the most unimaginative adaptation of Bell as you could possibly imagine. But at least she could remember it.
Alan shifted his files carefully onto one arm and held out his hand. Jen stared at it for a moment, then realized that she was meant to be shaking it. She did so and smiled uncertainly at him.
“Shall we?” she suggested, looking into the lecture hall with trepidation.
“Oh, yes. Right ho.”
They walked into the lecture hall and found two seats next to each other. The room was full—there were about fifty people, all in their late twenties or early thirties, and all looking very serious.
Jen took out her course agenda. Introduction, followed by Strategy in Action, followed by lunch, followed by a meeting with your personal tutor, then an introduction to your team, followed by Strategy in Action recap, then close.
She looked around the room and waited.
“Is anyone sitting here?” Jen looked up to see a huge smiley face surrounded by blond hair. “You’re the only other person here in jeans and the only other person who looks vaguely human, so if you don’t mind . . .”
“I suppose,” Jen said uncertainly. She wasn’t sure she wanted to look human to an MBA student.
“I tell you,” her new companion continued as she sat down and pulled out pads, pens, books, and folders, “there’s a lot of reading in this course. Have you seen the list? Bloody nightmare.” She looked around the room, frowning. “Not many lookers, are there?”
Jen raised her eyebrows. “Lookers?”
“Men. God, that’s the only reason I’m here. I tell you, I’ve tried bars, I’ve tried Internet dating, I’ve tried buying a bloody dog, and nothing. There are no single men in London as far as I can tell. Not sane ones anyway, or ones that don’t look like they’re ax murderers in their spare time. Then I noticed that more and more people were putting ‘MBA’ as an attribute on dating Web sites. And I thought—why wait till they’ve done the course? Why not get in there at the beginning?”
Jen stared at her. “You’re doing an MBA to meet men?”
“Of course. Why are you doing it?”
Jen grinned, relieved to have found a fellow impostor. “Oh, I just had some time to kill. My name’s Jen, by the way. Jen . . . Bellman.”
She smiled. “Lara. I’m Lara. Pleased to meet you.”
A man walked into the lecture hall and stood at the front. Gradually everyone stopped talking and started to look at him instead. He had a very prominent jaw, Jen noticed, and white-blond hair.
“Good morning, folks,” he said with a New York accent. “My name is Jay Gregory, and I’m the director of the Bell Consulting MBA program. I’m delighted to welcome you all aboard—I know you’ve faced stiff competition to come this far, so we’ve got a pretty good bunch of people sitting in this room.”
There was a murmur around the room as everyone made little noises to both suggest modestly that they didn’t think they were so great, and to also suggest that, actually, if pushed, they would accent that they were pretty marvelous, actually.
“D’you think he dyes his hair?” hissed Lara. Jen wrinkled her nose.
“Would you actually dye your hair that color?” she hissed back.
“Andy Warhol did.”
Jen shrugged and grinned at Lara.
“But what you’ve done so far is peanuts compared with this program,” Jay continued. “This next year is going to be the toughest you’ve ever faced. You’ll be expected to show your commitment, add value, and provide insights at every stage of the way. And you’ll be working in teams so that you learn the value of teamwork, the need to work as one unit and not as individuals. You have till June, ladies and gentlemen—nine very exciting months—and I hope you will make the most of it.”
Jen cringed as a couple of people said “we will,” and Jay smiled appreciatively.
“And now,” he continued, “I’m delighted to introduce your tutor for Strategy in Action, Professor Richard Turner. Many of you will have heard of Richard—he is one of the leading strategists in Europe and has written more books than most of us have read. I’m sure you are going to learn an awful lot from this guy—so, over to you, Richard.”
A rather skinny gray-haired man stood up, and Jen noted appreciatively that he looked much more like an academic—he had those molelike features found on people who spent all their time reading books.
He surveyed the room for several minutes and everyone sat silently, waiting for him to begin.
“Coca-Cola,” he said eventually. “Imagine that sales are down for some reason. Should it produce generic cola for supermarkets to make up for the drop in brand value that it faces?”
Everyone looked at one another hesitantly, then Jen saw a guy at the front of the room put his hand up. The professor motioned for him to speak.
“No, because then why will people buy the Real Thing?” he said and a lot of people started nodding.
“Kellogg’s does it,” Richard said. “Doesn’t stop people buying Cornflakes, does it?”
“I think they should,” a girl near Jen said quickly. “People are becoming less brand focused, and more supermarkets are pushing their own brand merchandise.”
“But then Coca-Cola will lose their differentiator. What’s more, they are beholden to the supermarkets, who can at any time choose a different, cheaper cola provider and no one would know from the packaging. That’s not a situation I’d be comfortable with if I were on the Coca-Cola board.”
Silence descended on the room and the girl went bright red.
“Welcome to strategy,” said the professor with a little smile. “And if you take one thing, —and one thing only—away from this session, it should be this: You can analyze external factors, you can analyze internal factors, and you can forecast whatever you want. But you can still screw things up because the world out there isn’t interested in your strategy. It changes. Your customers change, your suppliers change. And unless you keep up, unless you are ready to change, to adapt and accept that strategy is a movable feast, then you will end up like the dodo. Do I make myself clear?”
“Personally,” the professor continued, “I think you’re right.” He was looking at the guy who said Coca-Cola shouldn’t make cola for anyone else. “But that doesn’t mean that tomorrow you couldn’t be wrong.”
The guy nodded earnestly, and Jen found herself tutting in irritation. Who cared whether Coca-Cola made cola for anyone else? It was a horrible, sugary drink that was bad for the teeth. And the fact that this lecture had made her want one really badly was, frankly, adding insult to injury.
Excerpted from Learning Curves by Gemma Townley. Copyright © 2006 by Gemma Townley. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.