May 5, 2014
10 Things I Learnt From My MBA
In the time that’s passed since I completed my MBA, I’ve been asked two questions quite frequently:
1) Was it worth it?
2) What’s the number one thing you learnt?
The first question is easy; absolutely. The connections, discussions, and critical thinking you get from undertaking an MBA in the world’s top 15 makes the result well worth the investment.
The second question is harder to answer because as many people will know from undertaking any sort of formal education, it’s very rarely “one thing” you take away that changes everything. That’s why I’ve decided to answer that question by putting together my top ten things I learnt from my MBA.
As a caveat to the points below, it’s worth pointing out that many of these takeaways are not necessarily “direct” lessons. You won’t find a slide on many of these points that happened to be buried somewhere in a PowerPoint deck, nor do they necessarily relate to one specific subject. And, as in many cases with formal education, many of these learnings were formed whilst doing the MBA but were only realised because of what was happening in my own work and consulting experience outside of the classroom over those three years as well.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the list.
1. There is never only one answer
This one seems obvious but it’s uncanny how often I hear business owners talk about a problem or issue as though there is a “fix” or “solution” that will make the problem go away.
Any given problem could have a million ways of responding, all with various positives and negatives and varying resource commitment requirements. Weighing up all the alternatives, as well as the flow-on effect of those changes to other areas of the business is key to arriving at the best course of action, but it is in no way the only course of action. Likewise, sometimes the best course of action isn’t the one that “fixes” the problem but lessens its impact without negatively affecting other areas. Sometimes the “fix” actually makes the whole situation worse.
My Tip: Come up with at least 3 different alternative responses to a problem before deciding on a course of action.
2. Think Multi-Discipline
Continuing on the last point, we have a tendency in business to diagnose issues based on what we know. For example, an accountant may look at a struggling business and see a cash flow issue, an HR professional may see the problem to be a lack of staff training and a marketer may see the problem as a lack of sales volume or market demand.
In reality, everything is connected. Very few problems can be solved in isolation. Good business thinkers are able to synthesise all these differing viewpoints, identify where there are overlapping themes and understand that it’s likely to be a combination of varying issues. The course of action they set is therefore likely to address each of the issues identified as branches of one overarching plan.
My Tip: Draw a business decision flowchart, where the outcomes of various decisions are mapped out. Eg: If we choose option A, customer Y might get upset. If we choose option B, customer Y is happy but our staff might not be.
3. Approach problems from multiple angles
Taking this line of thinking one step further, successful managers are able to analyse business challenges from multiple angles. They don’t fall into the trap of diagnosing from their professional viewpoint but can approach a problem from many angles.
For instance, the HR professional who can spot a marketing issue or the marketer who can identify a cash flow issue is infinitely more valuable to their organisation than the one-dimensional thinker. This isn’t necessarily about being an expert in all these fields, but having enough knowledge to notice when something is awry and follow up on that with someone else who can help rectify it.
My Tip: Practice responding to business problems as though you are someone else. Ask yourself, “what might Jim from accounting do to solve this problem?”
4. Learn to ask the right questions
These first four points are quite clearly linked, and the final point that ties them together is the ability to ask the right questions. What that question is varies depending on the scenario but the underlying theme is that it gets those around you thinking differently.
For example, if a company’s product engineers are debating which way to approach a new product feature, and the rhetoric is going back and forth about varying design standards and best practice, a key question may be along the lines of “what do our customers think of both options?”
This forces others to think about a problem from a whole new angle. Likewise, if someone’s asked to rate the success of a new initiative and gives it a 2 out of 10, the astute question may not be “why so low?” but “why not a one out of ten?” This allows you to identify what was good about the initiative and expand on those areas rather than beating the idea to death. (H/t to Daniel Pink for this particular line of questioning)
Learning to ask the right question is, in my opinion, the final outcome of succeeding at the first three points above.
My Tip: Build a list of “challenging” questions you can ask people in certain situations and start using them in business discussions.
5. Attitude still trumps ability
Moving onto the people-side of the business, one of the things that stood out even in an MBA classroom was that the seemingly biggest determinant of success for those in business is still attitude, not ability.
For example, watching career engineers approach HR and marketing subjects, and whether or not they dismissed those subjects as “soft” or “not important to their industry” was an interesting exercise. Those who allowed their preconceived notions about certain topics to be challenged fared much better in those subjects than those who took a defensive stance.
This translates massively to the workplace, where those who “buy in” to an organisation and have an attitude of “what else can I do, even if it’s outside my normal role or area of specialty” are the ones who succeed, get promoted and make more of their careers.
I always believed in attitude over ability, but the three years of MBA has made me cement it as my number one hiring criteria.
My Tip: Next time you find yourself responding cynically (eg: “well that just won’t work”), stop yourself and try to work out what’s driving that response.
6. Business is still all about people
Continuing the theme of the previous point, it can be easy to make the mistake of thinking that with technological advances (in areas such as robotics and automation) and the emergence of mediums such as the Internet that the reliance on “people” in business may be lessened.
Whilst there’s no doubt these advances have benefited businesses in a number of ways, what they haven’t done is reduce the importance of people. Regardless of industry, it is still ultimately a person that purchases your company’s final product, people who work for it and people who supply the various raw inputs required. People buy from other people, and that market fundamental hasn’t changed.
Over the course of the MBA, this was constantly reinforced in examples of failed technology roll-outs (where employees weren’t engaged in the process), struggling International venture establishment (where face-to-face time wasn’t prioritised) and supplier mismanagement (where suppliers were treated so poorly that they stopped caring about certain customers) highlighted how no matter what sort of business you’re in, burning or just not caring enough about the people involved is a recipe for disaster down the track.
My Tip: The next time you’re talking with a client, customer, coworker or supplier, ask them how their work is going, and whether there’s anything you can do to improve it.
7. EQ over IQ
Naturally, this focus on people means that the skills required by managers and businesspeople also reflect this. In my opinion, therefore, Emotional Intelligence (or EQ) is subsequently more important that Intellectual Intelligence (IQ).
How often do we hear of people who have been promoted on the back of technical proficiency (particularly in fields like law, accounting and engineering), only to find that within a few months of being handed team leadership responsibilities, half the team has resigned or the performance of previously effective team members has severely diminished?
The issue nearly always lies with the inability of the manager to understand their own behaviours and motivations, as well as how they differ from those they’re managing. If “attitude over ability” is my general hiring mandate, then “EQ over IQ” is definitely my management hiring philosophy.
My Tip: Undertake personality testing on yourself, understand your own motivations and reasons for behaving a certain way. This will help you interact with others.
8. Watch out for business cliche traps
This is a bit of a “catch-all” for those pieces of business “advice” you get from blogs, popular business books and some business coaches that sound great on paper but actually provide no use in making business decisions.
The types of statements I’m talking about are things like:
- People are our most important asset
- The customer is always right
- We have to value-add
- We need to be innovative
Now there’s nothing inherently incorrect about these statements, so let me explain why I have a problem with them. The reason is that these sorts of statements are truisms, and are therefore typically used to justify poor decisions elsewhere.
For example, customer feedback might indicate that they’d like to see the widget in a range of new colours. This may be a good business decision, it may not be, but justifying the decision to offer it using a business cliche such as “well, the customer is always right” is taking the easy route. It’s a bypass to a real analysis of market demand for colour options, as well as the logistical issues and profitability of actually delivering such a range.
Likewise, no-one sets out to not add value for their customers, and no-one sets out to be the least innovative. So using these sorts of truisms as a justification for business decisions and investment is a dangerous path.
My Tip: Stop yourself every time you justify a business decision with a cliche. Go back to the facts of why a course of action is the right one.
9. One size does not fit all
This one is an extension of the previous point. For every case study, you can find on a successfully implemented initiative, I can find one where the exact same initiative was an unmitigated disaster.
A policy or initiative such as an “open plan office” may work brilliantly well for one company in an industry, but cause all sorts of chaos in a competing firm. The reason is that no matter how alike two businesses may look, every organisation is a product of its history, customers, office, structure, owners, management team, processes and employees. Every organisation has its own unique “culture” that has built up over time, meaning an idea that works remarkably effectively in one company will backfire in another.
My Tip: When looking at case studies, interviews or testimonials from other businesses, don’t just look for the similarities as to why the idea might work for you. Spend more time understanding the differences between the two and what might derail the idea.
10. Never stop learning and challenge yourself repeatedly
My final lesson was one that was rammed home almost immediately after commencing the degree. After undergraduate study, I fell into the trap of relaxing my pursuit of “extra” knowledge and skills that were outside of what I required to do my job.
With a very sudden jolt, I was required once again to read up on business frameworks, theories and industries that had no direct bearing on my position. But, as you discover the longer you’re in business, often times you “don’t know what you don’t know” and the only way to discover that is by continually pushing the boundaries of your knowledge.
This doesn’t have to be informal education and can be as simple as maintaining magazine subscriptions, reading blogs, watching TED talks or following thought leaders on social media. Regardless of the methodology, the day you stop pursuing more knowledge is the day business will start to leave you behind.
The easiest way to illustrate this is with the rise of the Internet. Those who remained stagnant when email, video conferencing, collaborative documents and online marketing started to become mainstream found themselves well and truly out of their depth in the business world.
Nowadays, a skill like the proficient use of an email program is considered a given, but just 20 years ago this may have been the difference between getting a job and missing out. Today, that skill might be in “big data” or in “social media management.” Regardless, those who stop pursuing this sort of learning will find themselves behind.
My Tip: Find 5 blogs or social channels right now that talk about issues or topics that are complementary to what you or your business does, but aren’t required, and follow them.
So that’s it. Three years of hard work, with many late nights and weekends spent reading academic journals and writing essays and it all boils down to one piece of paper and a “10 point” blog post.
The ten points above are a sample of what I took from my MBA, and the learnings obviously go much deeper than can be outlined in a simple blog post, but hopefully, it gives a taste into the type of thinking it encourages.
Completed an MBA yourself? Got other lessons you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.