5 Lessons You May Not Expect From An MBA

It was September 2007 and I sat in the middle of the auditorium for the first session of my first term back at University.

A year or so earlier I’d made the decision to enroll on a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA). I’d made the decision in part because I couldn’t remember anything from my undergraduate degree (Medical Biochemistry) and in part because, well, I just really wanted to go and learn more about business.

But now that it was here, it was uncertainty and trepidation which I felt. That,  ‘do I really belong here’ feeling and ‘am I bright enough to be here’ feeling.

Most of the people I’d spoken to as we’d chatted over coffee before the first lecture were older than me, in more senior positions than me and had done undergraduate degrees of far greater relevance.

There were accountants, corporate lawyers, investment bankers, and corporate vice-presidents – people who seemed to have pretty flash titles and the knowledge and vocabulary to go with it.

A guy a few rows in front of me fell into this category and had his hand up every five minutes or so during the first session. He appeared to be some kind of ‘textbook on legs’, bestowing his views on the relative merits of globalisation and it’s impact on business, international politics and economics.

I wasn’t entirely sure what the relative merits of globalisation were, my international politics spanned the breadth of the previous week’s Question Time debate and I hadn’t studied economics. So I just kept my head down and thought about all the stuff I didn’t know.

During the first break-out, I ended up in a group with the ‘textbook on legs’ and it turned out that he was a Senior Director in a global consulting business. I asked him why he’d chosen to go back to University and study and he said, ‘I’m just here to pick up my MBA and the sooner I can finish, the better.’


Now I certainly wasn’t an expert – far from it – but I’d taken a look through the course outline, the required reading and mountain of textbooks and wondered how on earth he’d just be able to ‘pick it up’. Perhaps he knew something I didn’t. Or perhaps he was a genius. Or perhaps I was out of my depth.

Or perhaps it was all of those things.

Fast forward three years to graduation and this guy (the textbook on legs) wasn’t there. He’d dropped out along then way. Apparently part-time study whilst doing a full time job wasn’t quite the breeze he thought it would be. And as I looked around the room, I thought back to that first day and something that our tutor had said.

‘Don’t wish away your time. Although you’re all here in the hope of graduating with an MBA, it’s not the certificate which is really going to make the difference, but the journey you experience along the way. So enjoy the journey first and the rest will follow.’

And he was so true.

In actual fact, it wasn’t the certificate or the graduation or content itself which really made the difference to me. But more the journey – the experience – which had the biggest impact.

So here are the five things I took from that degree course which weren’t outlined in the prospectus and I didn’t expect at the start.

1.     Don’t get caught up in the result but enjoy the journey

How easy is it – especially when it’s a challenge or tough or over a prolonged period – to just get so focused on the final outcome that everything else can fall by the wayside? Consider training for an endurance event, or degree or development centre or life itself! How easy is it to say, ‘When I get to the final outcome, that’s when I’ll be happy’? But, allow the words of that MBA lecturer to wash around your mind for just a second:

‘Don’t wish away your time. Although you’re all here in the hope of graduating with an MBA, it’s not the certificate which is really going to make the difference, but the journey you experience along the way. So enjoy the journey first and the rest will follow.’

Because in any of these pursuits, it’s not the end result which really makes the difference but the richness of the experience along the way.

 2.     Allow yourself to see the world from a different perspective

Probably the next biggest thing I took away from my time was that over the course of the programme, it allowed me to see the world in a way I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

And that’s not to say that everyone should go on to do a degree of any particular sort, because ultimately that’s a very personal choice. It’s just that the environment I was in at the time provided the opportunity to be immersed and encouraged to actively seek out different opinions and perspectives and challenge the expected norm.

But of course you don’t need a lecture hall or classroom or University in order to do those things. It’s more a choice and one you can actively choose to make. The key is to encourage yourself to seek out different opinions and perspectives and don’t just settle for the expected norm.

3.     If you’re going to commit to something, make sure it’s personal

If I’d heard it once, I’d heard a hundred times over the three years I studied, both from others on the course and those I met through work. Variations included, ‘I’ll have to go and pick my MBA up at some point’ to ‘If I could pay to just have the degree now I would’ to, “Yeah, my company really want’s me to get an MBA so they’ve sent me along’.

Sorry, but it’s the same with anything which requires a commitment or a significant investment of time. If you’re doing it for reasons which aren’t personal, which don’t really mater to you and which don’t provide you with a strong enough ‘reason why’, then when push comes to shove, when you’ve got to sacrifice or honour a commitment, it’s just not going to happen.

If the thing you’re doing requires significant commitment or sacrifice and it’s not personally important to you, then I would seriously consider just forgetting it as chances are you won’t make it or do so in the best way possible.

4.     Don’t worry about whether you’re smarter than the guy beside you

Despite conventional wisdom, the race you’re running isn’t against the person beside you or the guy in front of you with their hand up every five minutes. Not really anyway. The only person who you’re really in a challenge with is you. Which is why you need a strong ‘reason why’ and should make sure it’s personal.

The ‘textbook on legs’ – the guy in front of me – went on to do great. Even though he didn’t make it to the end of the course, he went on to set up his own business and flourished. It’s just that he wasn’t in the right place, for the right reasons.

It’s not the other person who sets the benchmark to which you need to achieve. Only you can do that.

5. There are many other ways to achieve the same outcome

An MBA is one way to reach a certain outcome and to create a particular set of experiences. But it’s not the only one.

When I’m asked the question, ‘Would you recommend doing an MBA’, the answer is always a question: ‘For what reasons are you considering studying an MBA?’

And what I look for in the answer is that a) They want the experience an MBA will provide – being in an intense, stimulating environment that will deepen and broaden their understanding of business; b) That they’ve explored other options (in my case I thought about doing another undergraduate degree, a Chartered Institute of Marketing Course and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants qualification and getting a different job!) and decided that an MBA is right for them, and c) that they’re doing it for them.

I look for all three components and encourage people to consider all three components before making a final decision.

And, if after that they come to me and say, ‘yes’ that they’ve explored the options and it’s the right thing for them, I remind them of what my tutor said that first day:

‘Don’t wish away your time. Although you will go in the hope of graduating with an MBA, it’s not the certificate which is really going to make the difference, but the journey you experience along the way. So enjoying the journey first and the rest will follow.’

Pretty sound advice.



Comments powered by Disqus
Press Enter to Search