Six Things I Learned in an MBA Program.

In May of last year, I finished an MBA from Wichita State University. The MBA was far more difficult for me than the Master of Arts in English degree I finished a few years prior. I essentially spent the last six years in masters’ programs—one in a field for which I have a natural proclivity, the other in a field in which I had to work twice as hard for like-type grades. Maybe I’ll write a post later about what I learned, in general, over six years of graduate school. (I have 88 hours of graduate credit, by the way, which is a lot.)

I may be one of the last or close-to-last student cohorts to complete an MBA where students actually attended class. We talked about this a lot with our professors, who, like us, felt the in-class model was in danger. The numbers (profit) for online classes are high. Even if students don’t complete their courses online, universities still make more money from them than they would if the students attended class on campus. It’s a damned tragedy. I learned as much if not more from my fellow classmates as I did from my professors. I fear the future of online education will leave students woefully underprepared.

I worked as a corporate communications and public affairs manager earlier in my career for a publicly-traded company. At the time, I knew very little about how the overall businesses operated. I stuck to consumer marketing and strategic communicative messages. Oftentimes I was invited to meetings outside my wheelhouse (like creative and satellite operations), but I failed to grasp the larger picture behind the purpose of the meetings. I was there to offer my expertise, and I did so. I look back now, though, and I see how an MBA—the high-level generalized knowledge I’ve gathered—would have made the job far more interesting. I’d love to have that job (or a similar one) today with the knowledge I’ve built over the past six years.

Here are six things I learned in the MBA that I attribute directly to business school. (The reason I attribute these directly to business school is because we talked about them specifically in class. I may have known some of these intrinsically, but in class I was presented with data or experiences which verified those intuitive thoughts.)

(1.) Three things. Our professor for Organizational Behavior explained that research shows three traits traditionally help make successful leaders. The are:

a. Healthy eating.

b. Regular exercise.

c. Some type of spiritual life.

When I worked in my aforementioned job at a publicly-traded company, I practiced none of these. I ate poorly; rarely did I exercise; I had no spiritual connection. (English majors would tell the previous sentence has a paratactic structure.) Fast forward several years and I can say without question I have and cultivate all three regularly. Each has improved my quality of life.

(2.) Teamwork. Every class, sans hard-skill classes like the managerials (accounting, finance, economics), required group presentations. Professors divided us into teams, allowed the teams to select topics or case studies, and then required us to present to the class. (This method is similar to my MA in English, only we didn’t work in teams. Instead, each student was responsible for teaching one three-hour seminar class on a specific topic.)

You remember how much you hated group projects as an undergrad! Now imagine the same scenario, but with harder material and higher stakes. Also, now your team members are parents and work full-time. Effective communication through technology was the only way to pull together projects.

Like you, I’m one who tends to speak up in groups. Sometimes this has the added benefit (or cost) of becoming the team’s leader. Proceed cautiously when this happens. The only way to lead teams is with an open mind. Other people have experiences you lack, and those experiences may make all the difference. Don’t be afraid, though, after hearing your teammates, to rule out bad ideas. The more you work in and lead teams, the better you get at it.

In the end, though, managing a group presentation like project management is your best bet. That means starting the project by setting goals and assigning tasks to teammates. Typically, the 80-20 rule applies: 80% of the work gets done by 20% of the people. And confronting non-preforming teammates is a must. Do it politely and empathetically.

(3.) How to Brainstorm. Teaching English at university meant teaching students how to brainstorm. I would run an exercise where I would start by writing “Moby Dick” on the chalkboard, which inevitably led through a series of associative exercises to Starbucks coffee. But this was brainstorming independently for essays; work brainstorming doesn’t work like that anymore.

I’ve sat in meetings with incredibly bright people who were tasked with designing multimillion dollar advertising campaigns, or coming up with consumer electronics products marketed to the millions, and even designing general ideas about promotions for community banks.

We were doing it wrong.

And here’s what we did. We came to the brainstorming meeting, titled, creatively, “Brainstorming Meeting”, ready to throw ideas up on a board. They typically started out quietly before things heated up. Research today says this is wrong. Instead, each person should come up their own ideas—independently brainstorming—before the meeting. Then, bring these ideas to the meeting.

Here’s why (I took this from a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow): If there’s a jar full of marbles, and you ask a group of people to guess how many marbles are in the jar, it’s more likely than not that no one will guess the exact amount. In fact, if you look at each person’s guess as well as their standard deviation, the guess will probably look silly. But if you average everyone’s guesses together, the average will come incredibly close to the exact count. We’re better when we bring our individual ideas into a collective.

Brainstorm separately before communally.

(4.) Performance Improvement. This one blows my mind; but when you think about it, it makes wonderful sense. Identify your direct reports’ best skills, and then cultivate them. If, for example, I score in the 95th percentile in, say, writing; and, I score in the 3rd percentile in accounting, it makes very little sense to send me to workshops to improve my accounting skills. Let’s say that you do send me to accounting school, and I grow from the 3rd percentile to the 5th—I’m still pretty bad at accounting, right? Those two percentile shifts make very little difference in overall productivity.

On the other hand, if you send me to workshops about writing, and I leap from the 95th percentile to the 98th percentile, that three percentile shift transforms me from a good writer into a great writer, right? And the value those percentile shifts far surpasses the value of the accounting percentile shift.

Writing and accounting are bad examples, but they serve as placeholders to make my point. Be realistic about how you plan to train your team. Find ways to make them better at things they do well. Reassign tasks they do poorly to people better suited to execute them.

Again, you probably know this. I did not know this one, and when we discussed it in class, I was floored.

(5.) How To Read a Financial Statement. I’m not going to delve into how to read a financial statement here, but I will say that I didn’t know how to read one before I took Financial Accounting. Not only do I know how to read a Financial Statement, but I know how to populate one, too. I’ve written content for annual reports for large and small companies alike. Mostly, I interviewed the decision makers and used their language to write. It never felt natural. As a writer, you want a firm grasp of your material. To write from a position of knowledge makes your material stronger.

(This skill pays dividends in so many ways. If you’re researching competition, reading their financial reports gives you excellent data. And diving into forward-thinking companies to learn what areas of their business they’re concerned about makes lots of sense, too. Reading the MD&A directs you toward trends and uncertainties. And following Income Statements and Cash Flow statements offers invaluable data.)

(6.) Ethics. In class after class, our professors challenged us with questions about right and wrong. This led to fun and spirited discussion from my fellow classmates. Several times I found myself defending positions I normally would not have defended. I was up against a lot of aerospace guys—engineers—who see the world in black and white. What I found was that oftentimes I would respond to questions of morality with answers that I felt a certain action was unethical. When pressed as to why I felt they were unethical, I answered, “I don’t know. I just know it’s unethical.” I said, simply, that it was an action I couldn’t take, and I didn’t need to explain why; I just knew it was wrong. It’s good to have your positioned questioned. It’s equally good to stand your ground because something inside you tells you an action is unethical. We had a lot of fun with these discussions. Heated stuff.

That’s all for today. Maybe over time I’ll update this list. I’m certain I learned more than these six things, but I’ve been thinking about these six things over the past two weeks, so I thought I’d write them down. Perhaps something I’ll do is populate each point with data presented in class or from studies. I subscribe to JSTOR so I can freely access academic articles covering a wide variety of topics. Maybe I’ll throw some hard data behind these points. We’ll see.

Best,

Parker

Parker McConachieComment