My three learnings from IESE MBA, Lanan Zhang MBA 21

Lanan Zhang and Silvia Cong Wu, MBA Class of 2021 from China pursued their MBA together at IESE as a couple. How did they navigate their MBA life and post MBA careers? Lanan shares his learnings in this post.

One afternoon in March 2021, it was still a bit chilly in Barcelona. My partner and fellow IESE classmate, Silvia and I just arrived home from the supermarket. When I was about to open the fridge, I suddenly felt the vibration of my phone in my pocket. It was a Belgian number. “Pick it up! It must be Louise”, Silvia said. Yes, it was Louise, the HR in charge of my interview process. On the other side of the line, Louise said: “After discussing with the other interviewers, we would like to welcome you to our team. I’ll send you an email with the offer details soon.” Hanging up the call, I gave Silvia a bearhug: yep, we will be colleagues soon!

The call brought me back to another call: it was an afternoon in March 2019 in Wuhan. After suddenly getting warmer, the weather has turned cold again. On my way home from the gym, I received a message from Dr Dongmei Song, the IESE Admissions Associate Director based in China. She congratulated me first for my offer from IESE that I received the day before, then she turned to another topic: “I heard that you are hesitating to accept the offer because you are not sure if it’s the right option to you. Well, studying at IESE will be a good opportunity for self-improvement; furthermore, the culture of IESE is very family-oriented, and it will be a wonderful experience if you have two years at IESE with your loved one.”

An amazing feeling to be graduating together!

Two years later, I finally felt like I understood what Dr Song shared with me. I have read many stories of my classmates, where everyone says that MBA is a transformation process because there are countless opportunities for you to step out of your comfort zone to challenge and improve yourself. These words almost sound cliche. But after I myself went through the journey, I understood that we did go through a transformation process though we all did it differently. For me, pursuing an MBA degree with my partner at IESE brought me a transformation composed of three parts.

Part One: Conflict and Communication

When starting the MBA at IESE, I had to deal with the academic workload, preparation for a career switch and cultural integration. And the stress harmed the relationship with my partner. We both were stressed, but we didn’t share our feelings with each other. I used to think that it was lame to get stressed out for choices that I had made myself.

One night, a quarrel broke out between Silvia and me. Prior to that, I usually avoided conflict by keeping silent and shutting myself off from the world. But that day, suddenly, I thought of feedback from the team-building class the week before: my tendency to avoid conflict makes the conflicts worse in most cases. I calmed down and started sharing my thoughts about the issue, and then we had a deep conversation about our feelings and the stress over the past few months. After that, we were open to sharing our negative emotions. I came to realize that showing my vulnerability via open communication doesn’t tarnish my image. Instead, it’s a power source.

The communication learning was beneficial for my family relationship, and it also helps me in my current work in a new geography: I had no issues adapting to a new culture in Belgium. IESE offered me an excellent opportunity to practice communication skills in a diverse environment. At IESE, I had to work closely with my teammates from different cultures and backgrounds. It wasn’t always easy to align with everyone: no one had any formal authority, and we aligned ourselves through communication. Now, coming back to the professional world, the communication in my company seems less challenging for me, even if Belgium is a country that I never visited before!

Part Two: Getting to know yourself

Another important takeaway from the MBA journey is that Silvia and I got to know ourselves and each other better. The learning came from every day at IESE, where I had to ask myself two questions when pursuing various goals: Who am I? What matters to me?

In addition to that, I learned a lot from a course called PERSOI or “Personality, Self-leadership, and Happiness,” taught by Professor Alberto Ribera, academic director of the IESE Coaching Unit. At the beginning of the course, I did a personality assessment to understand myself better. Then I had a one-on-one coaching session with the professor to set goals for personal improvement and learned about the tools for self-management and self-improvement.

One of the tools is peer coaching: with my buddy, we met weekly to discuss our learning and reflection during the week and gave each other feedback. Silvia and I had our own buddies, but we had informal coaching sessions with each other too. In the coaching session, we were somehow detached from our close relationship; instead, we became two individuals observing each other. With one step back, we didn’t offer a solution to each other but focused on listening and leading the other part to explore their ideas. The coaching gave us a new perspective about the give-and-take in our relationship.

Part Three: Life Goals

Another lesson from MBA is the importance of defining life goals. I questioned myself a thousand times what my pursuit of the MBA journey is.

In the two years of our MBA, our small family had an important decision to make: where to live and what career to pursue – and it’s not easy to align the family goal of staying in the same city with the career opportunities available. Initially when searching for a full-time job, Silvia and I interviewed for roles in South Africa, Middle East, China and Europe. However, we realized it was too hard to manage a cross-continental relationship, especially during COVID times. So, we decided that once one of us found a job in one city, the other would follow. But not every geography offers good job opportunities for two people.

At the beginning of the second year, I felt multidimensional pressure: finding a job during COVID times and coordinating the careers of two people. I got the guidelines from our Career Development Centre: recruitment is an exploration process – in addition to learning about different industries, functions and geographies, it is also about learning which factors most matter to you – family, geography, career prospects, or something else?

I don’t have a clear answer even now, but I’m very happy that my current company offered Silvia and me our jobs, allowing us to settle down in the same city. But the question above is never out of date: we’re still searching for our answer to it.

Starting the new journey

Exploring our new home of Brussels, this photo is taken in front of the European Commission building.

After the graduation ceremony in May, I started my new job in Brussels. In a new city and a new work environment, it seems that my MBA life dated to the last century.

One day, I received an email from Mike from our Career Development Centre – it was an email for the whole MBA Class of 2021. I related so much to that email, Mike shared the challenges he faced when he graduated from IESE in 2017. He reminded us to be ready for “normal life”, where it is frustrating to ‘solve the world’s grey problems with a black-and-white MBA framework.’ Also, I liked the part where he mentioned ‘don’t just fall back to your old ways of life’ – a good reminder for me, who has little spare time and energy after long hours of work.

Looking back to my journey, the MBA is like a map which has shown me a bigger world. After 19 months of exploration in the wild, I feel like I have returned to a small and homogeneous ‘planet’. It seems that the homogeneity of my current lifestyle doesn’t offer me as many challenges as before. But I won’t forget the guidance from the ‘map’: Someday in the future, when I get lost, it will guide me forward again.


Written by Lanan Zhang and edited by Silvia Cong Wu. Thank you both for sharing your story here, wishing you all the best in their next adventure!

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