Samantha Cochrane is enrolled in the one-year, full-time MBA program at Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston. She is a recipient of the Forté Foundation Fellowship for women in leadership. Originally from Toronto, she managed a community investment program for the Canadian Women's Foundation. This is her first submission to MBA Diary.
"We have a challenge for the class and it will be like nothing you have ever done," we were told. "You will cry. You will face your greatest fears. It will be one of the hardest weekends of your life."
Sitting in a classroom in Kingston at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, cloaked in layers of winter clothes and surrounded by 34 of my classmates, I questioned why on earth I'd signed up for this challenge. Within an hour, we were led into the snowy night and onto a bus, with no sense of where we were going. This was the beginning of one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life – and an experience I would never have expected within the first month of my MBA.
In business school, we are taught about ambiguity – that we need to be resilient and that teamwork is the quintessential foundation for good leadership. We are also taught to be tough, to adapt, to solve problems and to be nimble. But these concepts are learned within the confines of the classroom walls and the pages of business cases and textbooks. How can you truly test these critical leadership skills outside the classroom?
Well, Queen's found a way. Thirty-five students embarked on this adventure with just two pieces of information: the dates of the challenge and a list of outdoor clothing required. And through this we were taught our first lesson – how to operate effectively with limited information. For the first time, I actually understood what the buzzword "ambiguity" meant.
The military boot camp-style challenge, which we later learned was called the Smith-Reticle Resiliency Challenge, lasted 40 hours in nearby Brockville. Since it started on a Friday night, that meant we went nearly 48 hours without sleep until we were rewarded with a glorious two hours of rest at 4 a.m. on the second night. This was complemented by our fuel for the weekend, one of the strangest food substitutes I have ever seen – prepackaged military MREs (meal, ready to eat), which included pureed hash browns and bacon, and rubber sausage patties among other delicacies. Perhaps most noteworthy was that we somehow navigated the entire challenge without a drop of coffee, typically one of the greatest tools MBA students have at their disposal.
After in-processing and team assignments, we began 22 consecutive hours of challenge after challenge under the command of security consultancy Reticle Ventures Canada and its staff of former Canadian Special Operations Forces at Reticle's Zero4-NORTH training complex. Each team was put to the test physically, mentally and emotionally, continuously solving problems in -15 C weather.
We tackled engineering tasks that required the meeting of minds. We navigated at night to locate hidden information. We fled the crusade of search dogs trained to locate our scent. We struggled to find the answers to complex and ambiguous mental puzzles. We rappelled walls at 2 a.m. We learned to trust each other and to draw upon one another's strengths, to push past the exhaustion and the hunger and the cold. And through this we tested our limits to learn just how resilient we are. And while this was trying for Canadians, I had the utmost admiration for my international classmates from warmer climates who braved this with complete perseverance.
Individually, we all grew. Every student who participated now knows that we are capable of far more than we ever anticipated, and we've been using this as a reference point as we carry on through the program. One recent weekend, I worked 40 of the 48 hours, and every time I started feeling sorry for myself I was reminded that I've been in more challenging conditions. In fact, 40 hours of work in a warm boardroom on campus is not so bad. I came out of the weekend satisfied and more resilient, knowing that when I am faced with those moments that test you, I will take whatever learning I can and continue to grow.
Collectively, we left the challenge a stronger, more united class. And this was one of the greatest highlights. After being tested in the most unfamiliar kinds of ways – no sleep, little food, no coffee, and lots of cold weather – you would think we would be eager to get home, crawl into bed and slip into oblivion until school the next day. But, we weren't ready to part ways. And so when the class stepped off the bus in Kingston at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, we headed to a local pub for celebratory beer and breakfast. Another few hours without sleep was an easy trade-off for being able to celebrate our shared achievement together.