The Key to Success that MBAs Don’t Learn in B-School

Over lunch with a friend who works at a large company that is going through tough times, it struck me that most MBAs are lacking in the most elementary factor for success in today’s businesses.

Having been both a hiring (and firing) manager and a professor for MBAs, I realized that our business schools don’t prepare MBAs for long-term career success.

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School Daze

We put MBA students through a dizzying gauntlet of academic exercises. We reward students for aggressively pursuing their individual goals since grades are given to individuals. We create competition (and its ugly unintended consequences) with competitive grading. We encourage students to use the latest techniques, models, frameworks, and buzzwords. But we don’t prepare them to succeed in a real-world business. We don’t test for results.

At graduation, we throw them out into the corporate world all full of promise (and, often, full of themselves.) A hiring manager at the other end of that toss receives a very green colleague with raw promise and an inflated sense of self along with far more confidence than ability.

Casebooks Collide with Reality

The manager’s job is to begin the real education of the MBA and turn them into a productive member of the team. S/he helps them deal with situations that have no clear right answer like the cases from Harvard. There is no “What Happened After the Case”, just messy problems, incomplete information, and facts that point to many disparate possible solutions with no one clear direction. There is no framework that spits out the answer, and “more research” is not an option when it’s decision time.

This is the first test for newly minted MBAs:

How do they deal with uncertainty, incomplete data, and imperfect circumstances?
Can they make decisions, develop plans, adjust to the unforeseen, and execute in the face of adversity?
Do they make excuses or do they achieve success in spite of obstacles?

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on The Titanic

I once worked for a very charismatic CEO who was well known; he was even profiled in prominent business publications. It was interesting to watch his people (most MBAs) try to imitate him – not his results or his accomplishments but the way he dressed and his presentation mannerisms. Fail. Predictably, the company spiraled down, and he was fired, as were many of his people.

Key to Success in Four Words

So here it is in four boring, eye-roll-producing, should-have-been-obvious, forehead-slapping, you-mean-it’s-not-who you know words. The key to success is:

Work hard. Produce results.

Make money the old-fashioned way

That’s right, earn it. Instead of my friend’s co-workers spending mental energy calculating whose office is closer to the window or who got the prime parking space or who has more face time with key executives, they should think about how to turn the company around and make money.


How can you produce long-term growth for the business?
What are the biggest opportunities for enhanced profitability?
Of all the new projects that you could pursue, which ones have the most promise, in terms of both profit and the probability of coming to fruition within the projected timeframe?
What is the most productive thing you can do with the next hour or day to make the biggest impact for the business, even if it is undefined and difficult?

It Pays to Produce

At bonus time, I was once handed two envelopes. One had options, and the other had a nice check. I was told to keep it quiet because most people were getting only options. The difference? I met my sales and profit goals. I performed.

Work harder AND smarter

This idea is not new. From an article with tips from Mark Cuban: “Work harder and smarter than most people in the businesses,” says Cuban. It sounds obvious, but so many people want to take short cuts. If you do more, you get more. It’s actually a pretty simple equation.

Achieve personal success by creating success for the business. Simple, indeed.

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