What makes Thunderbirds special

By Mansour Javidan, Ph.D.
Adapted from a speech delivered Jan. 13, 2014, to incoming Thunderbird students

The whole point of my talk today is to welcome you home. By the end of my talk, you will know what I mean. Many people ask, “What is special about Thunderbird, this place in Arizona?” The quick answer is that what makes Thunderbird special is the students. The students are a unique bunch.

Any respectable business school wants to make its incoming class feel special. So you probably would hear the same thing during the welcome remarks at any orientation at any business school. Except if this were any other business school, the presenter would be refering to your test scores, your GPAs and your work experience. I do not know any of that stuff about you guys. Recruiting and Admissions has to worry about those things. But that is not what I am talking about. When I say you are special, I am talking about something different.

Multiple perspectives

Here is one thing. When you give a problem to a student, if that student happens to be American, his or her approach to solving the problem tends to be American. If you give the same problem to a German or Chinese student, the reaction tends to reflect the typical way of thinking in those countries.

The reaction is different with Thunderbird students. The fascinating thing is, if you give the same problem to a T-bird, that student is able to think about the problem as an American or as a German or as a Chinese. In other words, there is something special about the way you think. The natural thing — the normal thing for people to do — is to take a unicultural approach to the problem. That’s how they grow up. Except T-birds.

The brain of a T-bird has this ability to adjust and to see problems, interpret problems and analyze problems from different perspectives. That is very unusual. We have tried to figure out why, and where this ability comes from. Although this is not an academic presentation, it is based on a lot of serious work. We have asked many global managers why and how they are able to have multiple perspectives.

Unfortunately, different people give us different answers. We recently published a handbook at the Najafi Global Mindset Institute that outlines a variety of strategies based on our research, but there is not one simple way to develop this ability. What we do know is the way T-birds think is different. That is one thing I mean when I say that you are special. But that is not all.

Passion for diversity

We know that for a normal person, it is more comfortable for them to spend time with people who are like them. This is not true for T-birds. What excites T-birds is the opportunity to spend time with people from different parts of the world — people who are different from them. That’s amazing! That is very unusual.

Over the years, I have interviewed several hundred of our alumni in different parts of the world. A couple of years ago I was in Madrid, Spain, having dinner with a group of our alumni, and I asked them why they decided to attend Thunderbird. One member of the group was a young American woman working in Madrid. She said, “I used to live in a beautiful city in California, engaged to a nice guy from California. We lived in a nice neighborhood, had good friends, and everything was perfect.” But a couple of months before the wedding, she sat down with her fiancé and broke off the engagement. She said, “If we get married, I will make your life miserable, and you will make my life miserable.”

The poor guy had no idea what she was talking about. She said, “I told him, look, you are so happy. Everything is all the same. We are dealing with friends and neighbors who are exactly like us. But something in me is pulling me away. I can’t explain why, but I have to go and experience different people, different cultures and different parts of the world.” So she broke off her engagement and started at Thunderbird.

Now, let me be clear for those of you who may have concerns. Thunderbird is not in the business of breaking up people’s engagements or marriages. But we do hear stories like this.

Focus on people

Another thing that makes you special is your ability to connect with people. In my interviews with alumni, I always ask them about their favorite memories at Thunderbird. Almost without exception, the first answer they give is the chance they had to work with other students from different parts of the world.

I know of groups of our alumni who graduated 20 or more years ago. Every year they get together. Of course, typical of Thunderbird, every year they meet in different parts of the world. Those relationships are strong, but Thunderbird is not a travel agency or dating agency. We are a business school. So I prod alumni for additional answers. “What about your courses?” I ask. “Did you have any favorite courses?”

“Sure,” they say. “The courses were great.”

“What did you like about your courses?” I ask.

“They had group projects,” the students respond. “So we got to work with other students from different parts of the world.”

Thunderbirds simply get excited about meeting new people and learning from them. That is another reason you are special. As Thunderbirds, you build social capital everywhere you go. Your build social networks that span languages, cultures and continents.

Indiana Jones lifestyle

Here is another reason you are special. To a normal person, moving into an environment of complexity, ambiguity and unfamiliarity is hard. It is stressful and creates anxiety. For T-birds it just creates excitement. If you call the typical graduate of a typical business school into your office and tell him he has been transferred to Nigeria or some other place, his typical response is: “What did I do wrong? Why me? What’s going to happen to my family? What school will my kids attend?”

If you call the typical Thunderbird graduate into your office and give him the same news, he says: “Where’s my ticket?” It’s all about how much Indiana Jones you have in you. Normal people like to watch Indiana Jones on the screen. T-birds want to be with Indiana Jones on the field. There’s a big difference. That is what’s special about T-birds.

Global explorers

The bad news is that all of you in this room missed your ideal timing by about 500 years. If you had been born 500 years ago, you probably would have joined the crew on a ship sailing to some unknown part of the world. You would have gone to places where maps did not exist yet. And all the normal people would have stood on the shore, looking at you saying, “What is wrong with these people?”

To the normal person, the idea that you would just jump on a ship and go and explore does not make sense. And that is what’s special about T-birds. The good news is that you are now starting on the modern version of the ship. It’s called Thunderbird. It has many more modern features than the ships from 500 years ago. But it does the same thing. Thunderbird takes you to places physically and virtually, through connections with people from all over the world. The faculty, the staff, the students, the cases and the courses all contribute to the experience.

At Thunderbird you are surrounded by people with quest for adventure, passion for diversity and self-confidence in unfamiliar environments. At Thunderbird you do not have to explain yourself. We understand. You belong here. This is why I say “Welcome home.”

Mansour Javidan, Ph.D., is the Garvin Distinguished Professor and Founding Director of the Najafi Global Mindset Institute at Thunderbird.

View an extended excerpt (32:12) or the following clips from Mansour Javidan’s presentation on Jan. 13, 2014:

First Cross-Cultural Lesson (4:04)

Thunderbird Explorers (1:58)

How to Stifle Global Talent (2:38)

Magazine Department: