Nuts and Bolts

A Conversation with Professor Okun

Nuts and Bolts: A Conversation with Professor Okun

Udayan Tripathi, MBA1 Class of 2017

I ventured cautiously up to the the legend’s office. I have known other MBAs to disappear in these twisty hallways. It is not for the faint of heart to dare levitate above the safety of the 6th floor of the Kauffmann Management Center. And I risked it all. To drink from the eternal fount of wisdom that flows above. For once you ascend to the heights of the professors’ offices, the 7th floor and above, you are entering a land of great glory, but also one fraught with the risk of hearing hard truths.

He told me about the plumbing. I had no idea what he was talking about but hung on to every word. A sage of this stature must be respected, so I nodded attentively. I wondered if he knew I hadn’t quite fully read the third case from two semesters ago. I feared he did. He knows all.

So, the plumbing. I was beginning to understand. He was referring to the guts of firms. The bowels of great companies. The plumbing, as Glenn Okun, was explaining to me that mysterious afternoon, is what makes a company truly outstanding. It is everything from its people, its innovations, its machines, its brand, and that which makes the world go around: the flows of finance that keep it ticking over.

I was getting a reality check, but also a refocusing: an instruction to do what is somewhat taken for granted – learn the stuff; really learn the insides of what made a company excel. How do you incentivize great talent to outperform? How do you build an environment where tinkering and inventing turns twelve months later into a spectacular product that brings customers joy? And how do you make your brand, your name revered and loved? And stay in the green too.

The plumbing isn’t very glamorous nor is it the big thinking, but it is the core of what makes someone understand what’s going on in their company. It is, he explained, what you can get at school and not get in the global elite press, or the experiences you’ve had before. Nor will you necessarily get another chance to dip into the “101 level” of what makes firms work. Having the time to think through these ideas at a fundamental level, while checking them against your intuition and your expertise, is pretty remarkable, and as the bedrock of a great MBA, can go somewhat missed amidst the variety of other things to do at Stern.

It meant I dived back into the foundational courses, and read the newspaper checking what was going on against some brilliant first principles. And then I went off to my summer internship and brought that perspective to a very exciting firm – and was able to contribute positively to efficiency, and to financial performance, and to the product mix. It’s been a while since I’ve been in school and formally learnt new skills. It’s a delight to be back here, doing it.

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