As I close the book on my business school career (thanks NYU Stern) I find myself strangely confronted with misconceptions about MBAs. I often hear comments like: “they don’t teach you anything, it’s really all about the networking” or “isn’t it all just partying?” Or even worse that “MBAs all think alike and have no creativity” and “business schools are the reason why corporations are greedy.” But at business school we spend our time “just partying” the same way that law students “just go to fancy dinners” and medical students “just memorize textbooks.”
I spent the past three years pursuing my MBA degree on nights and weekends because I couldn’t afford to do it any other way. But the cost goes well beyond financial: time away from the family, stretched social obligations, cognitive burnout, and emotional drain. Given the chance though, I’d do it all over again. I gained skills, made deep connections, and learned invaluable lessons that have made my educational, financial and emotional investment well worth the cost. And it was so much more than “just partying.” So as I prepare to don my cap and gown for graduation, I wanted to share with you three of the most important lessons I learned throughout my time in business school.
1) To succeed, play nice
What do you want to be known for? A nice person, a smart person, or a good business partner? While not mutually exclusive, business school teaches you that the former two determine the latter. And more so, the reputation of being a good business partner is just as important. In the business world, your reputation is currency.
Whether you’re competing in individual pitch presentations or problem-solving in a group, your actions are always forging and reinforcing your reputation. As an individual, practice and preparation are competitive advantages, and a surefire way to become known for being “on the ball.” Whether the nature of the competition is solo or collaborative, you can put your best foot forward by doing your homework.
But beyond knowledge, empathy is key to building meaningful connections that, in term, ensure productive partnerships. Unless you want to be known as difficult, or worse incompetent, you should try your best to play nice in all situations, even when others are breaking the golden rule. You can’t grow your reputation with a zero-sum attitude: see the world through the eyes of your stakeholders and consider their needs in order to create better working relationships. Even in fierce negotiations, a collaborative approach to problem solving always creates more value than hard tactics and aggressive bargaining.
Reports are finite, but reputations are forever. For long term individual success, that means a functioning team relationship is the most important aspect of work, even more than efficiency or the quality of the one-time outcome.
2) Live in the future and resist complacency
The root of value (as in economic growth and wealth) comes from taking a chance on the unknown, placing bets on an uncertain future. We do this in our everyday lives, whether it’s picking a lunch place or a 401k account. We don’t know the outcome, but we make our best guess based on the evidence at hand and hope for the best. The risk is fairly low for our most banal decisions, but the stakes are raised within organizations with the complexity of multiple stakeholders and financial ramifications at scale.
At its core, the analytical skills honed during business school are all about decision making and risk assessment. A skilled planner will have a course of possible scenarios and mitigation strategies, and the truly enlightened may even be able to benefit from real-time learning and pivot when needed (this is sometimes called AGILE). The MBA education provides a diverse toolkit for making these future-looking assessments and decisions.
Complacency is the pinnacle of strategic risk. “That’s the way it has always been done” might as well be painted on a giant white flag. Success yesterday, or even today, does not mean success tomorrow, and complacent businesses are the most vulnerable to competition and disruption. You can avoid this risk by embracing the practice innovation, even if it does not bear tangible changes in the short term. It is the process of questioning assumptions and finding new arrangements of knowledge, not the outcomes, that sustains forward-looking strategy.
3) Personal growth is a path to creativity
Pop culture often decries “useless English degrees,” but there is virtue in all types of learning. There is tremendous value in a generalist education, practicing diverse modes of critical thinking and points of view. Connecting the dots between practice areas, searching for analogies across industries, and learning from different perspectives is the foundation of creativity in business.
In my field of marketing, creativity is more than just arts and crafts. It’s about envisioning the future, empathizing with consumers, and figuring out new and competitive ways of realizing the company vision. MBAs often have a reputation for being uncreative, but this is sorely undeserved. Through the case-study method, examining every type of business under the sun, it becomes easier to see the big picture, think strategically, and apply learnings in novel ways.
The value of an MBA is realized in interpersonal, analytical, and creative generalist practice. Sure, you can read these lessons and say, “yeah I can do that.” But like any other skill, you can’t truly master them without practice, repetition, and failure. And that’s what I learned in business school.