Action (Un)Learning

As we’re reaching the end of winter break, IAP, and the Action Learning journey, I’m prepared for the conversation that will plague me for the first two weeks of the spring semester and looks something like this:

[Erica and Sloan Friend make eye contact in E62, E51, or the newly-renovated E52. Smile, exchange hellos, stop to embrace. Converse]
Sloan Friend: Hi!!! How was your break?
Erica: Hello! So good to see you! Good. Good! How was yours?
Sloan Friend: It was great. Where did you go?
Erica: Israel for ten days and then New York for L-Lab.
Sloan Friend: Oh, cool! What were you doing for L-Lab?
Erica: You know how H&M lets you drop off your old clothes in stores and then gives you a discount? The furniture company, west elm is looking to do something similar with old rugs and bedding. We investigated what it would take, logistically speaking, for west elm to start a product recycling program and then the implications for marketing the program to customers online and in stores. Where were you for the past six weeks?
Sloan Friend: (Answer is some combination of travel, time at home, course work, job hunting, or all of the above)
[Conversation ends or turns to “What classes are you taking?” sequence]

When I signed up for L-Lab, I was “killing two birds with one stone” on my Sloan “Bucket List”:
[Numbers 1-5]
Number 6: “Do an Action Learning Class!” Check.
[Numbers 7-14]
Number 15: Have a substantial ‘One Sloan’ experience.” Check.
[Numbers 16-20]

Beyond checking these boxes, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I attended the first session of L-Lab in September 2015. I knew it was an Action Learning class focused on helping large companies implement sustainability initiatives and that it attracted a lot of MSMS, Sloan Fellow, and SDM students. I didn’t know—and wouldn’t know until mid-October—who would be on my team, what client we’d be working for, and what strategic project would be absorbing our brainpower until January.

As the stars would have it, Silvana Lopez, Jarbas Pinheiro, Shuichi Maeda and I would be spending IAP at the west elm headquarters in Brooklyn and a handful of recycling facilities and retail stores around the tri-state area.

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The beginning of the end (of our on-site final presentation)

I could go on and explain the final recommendations we presented to our client, but the more interesting part of the L-Lab experience comes from the time off the clock. It’s a little like the beginning of a stand up segment or a riddle:
“What do you get when you take a Colombian lawyer, a Japanese beer brewer, a Brazilian dad, and an American writer and have them spend 3 weeks together in New York winter with most of their waking hours confined in an ubermodern office that looks like a furniture catalog?”

  • Face-numbingly cold morning commutes to the office
  • Really well-executed choices of Japanese restaurants for team dinners
  • Plenty of frustration with not being able to completely solve our client’s problems, offset by…
  • Plenty of humor and the occasional episode of Shark Tank
  • And so on.

Evidence of team culture: the writing on the wall from favorite team quotes to L-lab “awards”

Returning to the beginning of this post, the questions of where I was over break and what I was doing for L-Lab are the easy questions to answer. The harder one, but the more valuable and interesting one, is “What did I learn?”—aside from the logistical complexities of shipping and recycling furniture.

In a line, I don’t think I spent Action Learning “learning” so much as “un-learning.” Everything I know and believed about leadership, teamwork, and myself was questioned during the L-Lab course and then completely thrown out the window over the past three weeks:

I learned how the best leaders aren’t always the ones who move things forward, and that being a good follower can be a form of leadership in itself.

I learned what it was like to feel balance on a team in terms of how and when work gets done, and that I could really take a lunch break as a break.

I learned that even when I’m not the most experienced person in the room, I can still contribute value to a team—even if it’s just being the resource of embarrassing dating stories.

Coming into January, I had three personal goals:

  1. Attempt to make lasting, sustainability-oriented change on an organization with deeply entrenched ways of thinking about and doing business.
  2. Remain open-minded to client changes in scope.
  3. Work productively, peaceably, and patiently in a team with absolutely no overlap in age, background, culture, or general experience.

Concluding this experience, where I stand on these goals:

  1. Hard to say.
  2. Did my best
  3. Didn’t kill anyone!

But in all seriousness on the third one: completely and totally achieved.

The (Nearly-Frozen) Fantastic Foursome

Erica Zendell

Erica Zendell is a MBA Candidate in the MIT Sloan Class of 2016. A former HBS case writer and researcher of contemporary China, she aspires to work as a Product Manager at the crossroads of the real and digital worlds of retail. When not hitting the books, she hosts a podcast with a classmate called "The Business of Being Awesome" focused on inspiring MBAs to find work they love after business school, even if it means going off the beaten path (

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