Originally posted by Scott A.E. Smith.
For this week’s blog, we sit down for a Q&A with Michelle Ernest—a Corporate Residency MBA graduate from the Class of 2011 who’s now working in her dream job at lululemon—and let her tell her own amazing story. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is the Michelle Ernest story?
Ahh, the Michelle Ernest story. How much time do you have? A cup of coffee or a bottle of wine?
It was a glorious and sunny summer day in 1987 when…
Not that kind of story? OK, here’s the summarized version of the past few years: I completed my undergraduate degree at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS. I majored in Business with a focus in Marketing and a secondary focus in Music and Spanish. I spent an invigorating summer working for one of Halifax’s top advertising agencies and fell further in love with the wild and wonderful advertising world. I had plans to return to said agency after I graduated from Acadia. Unfortunately, 2009 wasn’t the greatest year to jump into the business world and, as my agency was downsizing, my job became no more. I decided that it was an opportune time to return to the classroom.
I always knew I would get my MBA one day; what I hadn’t expected was that that day had arrived! I loved Halifax and wanted to spend more time in the city, and had formerly worked on the advertising campaign of Dalhousie’s (then-new) Corporate Residency MBA so I already knew the program intimately. I quickly turned around my application and GMAT and was on my way to starting school, again. I knew early on from my experience with and knowledge of lululemon that my dream job would be to ultimately end up in their head office. However, I also knew that I had a long way to go before that could happen! I had finished my Corporate Residency with Aon and was just about to commit to returning upon graduation! I was excited about starting my career with Aon, knew that it was an excellent company and felt confident with my choice. I looked forward to becoming a strong business leader within Aon, hoping that the role would position me well for a possible opportunity with lululemon later in my professional life. And the stars must have been aligned that week because before I had officially accepted a position with Aon, I received an offer from lululemon athletica (the result of making my goals known, a powerful conversation, and being in a pipeline transparent to lululemon’s leadership team). It was my dream that came true, and the rest will be history.
What are you doing now? Where do you work and what do you do there?
I work for one of the best companies in the world.
I was the first to be hired into lululemon’s new Advanced Management Program, whereby high-potential individuals are brought into the company in a type of an accelerated work environment. This group of peeps has since grown to almost a dozen, and we are still and always looking for greatness (wink wink)!
I work on the Operational Solutions team as a project manager where I get to create, develop and execute special projects to make the stores more efficient and awesome, and thusly to better the company as a whole. Ops Solutions is essentially the funnel between every department at the head office, and our 191 North American stores and showrooms. I get to work one-on-one with the stores’ leadership teams—training them on new projects and initiatives, coaching them on best practices and how to utilize these initiatives, troubleshooting any operational issues that might arise, and establishing rapports and relationships. To complement this, I also get to work with many of our cross-functional departments to bridge the gap between the retail floor and what goes on “behind the scenes”.
So in a nutshell, I get to play and be creative and strategic and work with a ton of outstanding, fun, smart people. Everyday. Hellooo dream job!
Where did you work during your corporate residency? Tell us about it.
I worked for Aon Risk Services. I was a Strategic Business Advisor for Eastern Canada but worked in a unique position as I was based in Halifax, working for a group of individuals in Toronto, traveling all over Eastern Canada! I worked on two projects for Aon—one to help identify new market opportunities and another to further strengthen and enhance Aon’s existing client-relationships and accounts. It was a tremendous opportunity and I thoroughly enjoyed working with our teams across Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Although we were working specifically on projects pertaining to Aon, the skills I developed through establishing rapports with individuals, mostly via phone or email, are transferrable into any role where cross-functional relationship-building is an asset and an advantage.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during your corporate residency?
My biggest challenge actually doubled as the greatest advantage! The nature of my projects at Aon (and the geography between me and the other offices) meant that I would be in a type of a self-managing role. I knew this coming into the position, and was excited about it. I appreciate and thrive in an independent work environment, and this was great for me, but also challenging at times. There was a high level of accountability that came with many of the decisions I made, so I had to be 100% confident and make sure that each choice and decision was calculated, worthwhile and appropriately supported.
Your job at lululemon is a dream job to many people. How did you make it a reality?
And MY dream job, as well!
I’ve never been a big fan of leaving things to chance or taking the proverbial back seat. I wholly believe in myself to accomplish great things, but nothing is going to fall into my lap. I learned a long time ago that I have to make my own good fortune happen. However, despite a commitment to always being in action, I can’t take all the credit for bringing my dream into reality. As I mentioned before, the timing was perfect—a week or two later and we might not be having this conversation. I also had a great mentor who not only knew me well enough to know in which department my skills and personality would be a perfect fit, but who also took a stand for what I am capable of and what I can deliver and change in this world.
Where do you see yourself in one year? Five years?
By this time next year I hope to have become a Operations Manager in my department, in the process of preparing for a 6-month position with the Ops team at the head office in Melbourne to help train and leverage their department to support the growing Australian market.
Five years? Still with lululemon, though not necessarily in Vancouver. You might catch me back on the East Coast, south of the border with our US operations, or maybe even opening our first showroom in the Caribbean!
If you were to reflect on your experience in the Corporate Residency MBA program, how have you changed? What do you think sets this program apart? Why would you tell someone to apply?
I remember Dr. Scott Comber said once: “an MBA is about volume and production”. Regardless of what project you’re working on or what spreadsheet you’re analyzing or case study you’re picking apart, it’s not necessarily about the type of work you are doing but the way you are doing the work. My MBA was, in two words, fast and fun. My job at lululemon is, in two words, fast and fun. Because of the way I learned to work and suceed in my MBA, I am fully prepared to thrive in this role. It’s important to work hard and have fun, but each of those is only most rewarding when complemented by the other. If you’re just looking for a three-letter acronym behind your name, go to the cheapest and easiest business school you can find. If you’re looking for an MBA that focuses on both the professional and personal side of business, open your eyes to Dalhousie’s program. Integrity isn’t a core value, but rather the foundation upon which your values should be built. Dal’s MBA—built on integrity—masters the combination of soft skills and hard skills, creates valuable opportunities to expand your network and work on real-world business cases, and does an exceptional job preparing you for what you will encounter entering the work force.