MBA diary: Hard choices

Evgeni Tsenter, an MBA student at HEC Paris, explains how an ethics course in a medieval monastery opened his eyes to the dilemmas faced by managers

ACCORDING to the college films I used to watch, life begins after high school. You go to university and spend the next three or four years learning, partying and socialising. That was not the case for me. When I turned 18 I was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces-just like any other Israeli. For the next three years, I had the most intensive experience of real leadership I could have imagined. When I left the combat search and rescue unit, I wanted to see some of the world. I spent the next six months travelling across South America. It was when I was in the Amazon rainforest with a group of eight people from six continents that I realised how much we can learn from different cultures. 

When I came home I studied Industrial Engineering & Management in Tel Aviv. At the same time I began working at IBM as a Bid Manager, later reaching the role of SAP consultant. Yet I still felt that something was missing. I wanted to get back to that night in the jungle and relive the experience of learning from people from all over the world. I wanted to get the most international background possible and to take my career to a new level. An MBA seemed like the perfect way to do this. After being accepted to the three schools I applied to, I chose HEC. I had been enchanted by the thought of living in France, experiencing the culture and learning the language, but when I started researching more, it was HEC Paris’ extreme diversity that really drew me. In my class there are people from more than 50 countries, and around 100 on campus as a whole.

It is the diversity of experience from being around people of different backgrounds that I find most rewarding. One of my most memorable experiences is an ethics elective held in a medieval monastery 600km south of Paris. I was already aware of the importance of ethics in leadership from my time in the military. As part of this elective, the student group shared stories about ethical dilemmas in their professional lives. We talked about operating in countries that place a lower emphasis on human life. One student, who worked for five years in Africa’s mining industry, told us horrendous stories of the punishment for locals stealing from the company: to be shot in the leg. After he found this out, he stopped reporting stolen goods. Another prompted a discussion over a dilemma he had faced while considering a job in the pharmaceutical sector: whether you should test drugs in Africa just because the potential lawsuit fines would be negligible. The opinions ranged from suggesting that “drugs have to be tested somewhere” and "if you won’t do it someone else will". He did take the job, deciding that to make a difference you must understand the subject from within the system.

On our last day we met Philippe Wahl, CEO of La Poste, and spent the morning with him. How often do you get the chance to have a private conversation with a person who manages over 250,000 employees? We asked him about his moral and ethical challenges, the issues he faces leading such a large organisation, the strategy of a postal company in an instant-electronic-messaging society, his work-life balance, and much more. We learned that ethics isn’t a question of black or white, or even of legal vs. illegal—legal decisions can be almost as ethically and morally challenging as illegal ones and you must learn how to make tough decisions.

I came away feeling motivated. That was not just because we met a CEO, but also because of my experience with my fellow MBAs. My time at the monastery made me more aware that you didn’t need to work in human trafficking to be confronted by shocking situations. After hearing such a diverse range of experiences, I feel more able to tackle ethical challenges that might present themselves in the future. 

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