What’s Not Taught in b-Schools

Note: This essay was submitted by a professor who expressed a desire to be anonymous.

Let’s start out with a fundamental truth—you don’t need a management degree to be successful in business.  In fact, a number of  billionaires , the ones who have actually built a business from the ground up (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, David Geffin, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg)  never got a college degree.

I have an MBA and found it a really a helpful in teaching business classes in universities. However, it almost caused me  to fail as an entrepreneur. Why you might ask?

Well, the theory base for the MBA especially is targeted toward people who are going to work in large corporate bureaucracies. You might say a start-up is a leaky row boat, while a public corporation is an ocean liner.  The captain of one probably won’t be a good captain of the other.

But if you want to be an entrepreneur and build a business from scratch, a business degree, especially the MBA, may not make that much sense.  There are exceptions, of course. The venture capital guys all have MBA’s, and they like to see entrepreneurs with the same degree.

Paradoxically, we are seeing a mad scramble in the b-schools to add more Ph. D. entrepreneurship professors. You know the type. They have  never, ever run a business and now they are supposed to tell  students how it’s done. Reminds me of a blind man describing the nature of color. Or maybe a better analogy is that of a basketball coach who read the play book but never bothered playing the game. Unfortunately, most b-schools will not hire successful entrepreneurs who would be great teachers, mentors and coaches because they don’t have Ph. Ds.

Even the best business schools cannot cover in-depth or may not cover at all  critical business knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, along with my  MBA came a delusional belief that I had been exposed to everything needed to be successful in business. This lasted until I went my first day at work.

I remember it well. The chief engineer sat me down and said, “I see you have an MBA.” Of course I acknowledged this and at the same time felt a tinge of pride. This lasted until the next sentence when he said, “Well, we won’t hold that against you. Almost everything you learned, you cannot use here. But if you are ready, willing, and able, we will teach you.”

Despite my shock, I had enough presence of mind to nod. He then said, “Congratulations, you are now officially a project manger.” After recovering from the shock, I realized I had never been taught project management. Crap. But I did have to suffer through three classes in economics that I never have used.

Here is a partial list of vital business skills not likely to be covered in depth in most graduate or undergraduate business degree programs:

1. Leadership. Leadership is every bit as complex as management yet it typically is tucked away someplace in a basic management or organizational behavior course.

2. Motivation. The best theories, the ones that really work are in psychology.

3. How to Build Teams. Ah sure, many professors require group work in class. But they don’t teach how to evolve a group into a team and are generally  clueless about the myriad of group dynamic problems going on within class “teams.”

4. Problem Solving. For some odd reason, professors have mixed up problem solving and decision making. You tend to hear, “Mangers need to be good decision makers.” A better way to think about  this is, “Executives make decisions, managers solve problems.”

5. Persuasive and Sales Skills. Sales is a great place to start a career, but you don’t need a college degree (unless you are in technical sales and a company would not hire a business grad in any case.)

6. Creativity. A hot  conceptual skill but very b-schools teach it.

7. Quality Improvement Tools. There are seven basic ones if you are interested.

8. Customer Service Techniques. Can’t learn it by doing research in the library.

9. Verbal Communication Skills. Students get good at using scholar English in writing, a particularly abstract language form  useful only in academia. My first employer actually had a course that we took so we didn’t write like an academic. And I’m sorry,  student presentations tend to bore and snore just like their professors.

10. Self-Mastery. Probably not something on most people’s lists but one finds your mind is the most powerful under performing tool one possesses.

11. Personal Financial Management.  Corporate finance is required but personal finance is not. No wonder it’s hard to get out of debt.

12. Ethics. Many business students are surprised to find out that management is not a profession. Among other things, it lacks a code of conduct such as the Hippocratic Oath.

Generally speaking, it’s  “soft” skills that separate the most successful from the less successful. If you don’t believe me, check out the research.

Leadership Skill Development