One of the most commonly asked questions I get from students, colleagues and mentees is: “Should I pursue my MBA?” Like most questions in life that start with the phrase “should I…,” the answer I give is typically: “Well, that depends…” 🙂 Some people pursue an MBA to further their knowledge as a business-person while others seek a career shift while others look to break through a barrier in their career or company. Whatever the reason, an MBA is a serious commitment and a transformative experience that teaches you to think differently and to broaden your perspective.
I remember the biggest change during MBA was the expectation of “complete information.” As an undergraduate, we were typically given all the variables we needed to solve the problem. There was little margin for interpretation: you either knew the concept or you didn’t and your grade was determined based on your ability to apply a formula or concept to a complete set of facts. As an MBA, we learned how to infer and make assumptions based on cases, scenarios, research and self-constructed models. For some, this was an uncomfortable change in mind-set. For me, it was liberating! It reflected the reality of the problems we solve as business professionals every day, and I loved it.
One of my friends, Lucy Stratton, recently entered the part-time MBA program at Northwestern University. Lucy is a long-time friend and one of the most talented brand, marketing and event professionals I know. I thought her perspective as a working professional and part-time student would give us a great perspective on the practical insights imparted by an MBA program. Lucy and I discussed why she entered the program, what she has learned and what has changed since starting the program.
So, without further ado, I bring to you Lucy Stratton’s perspective on her MBA experience, so far.
Justin asked me to contribute to The Art of Advice with a post about my experience thus far in business school. I’m currently one-third of the way through the part-time MBA program at The Kellogg School of Management. I ended up here for a few different reasons:
- I had always thought about furthering my education and having studied business as an undergraduate, an MBA was the next logical next step.
- I wanted to gain a broader perspective. I’ve worked at an event-marketing agency for my whole career and I wanted to round out my experience with the theory and skills of an MBA program. For me, Kellogg was a no-brainer choice. For years, Kellogg has been the thought-leader in the field of marketing – establishing the function as a cornerstone of business operations versus a peripheral activity, broadening it past price and distribution, and lately delivering cutting-edge research in social media and innovation.
- I, like many others, am interested in building and accessing a strong network of like-minded professionals. No doubt you can achieve this through any program, but what I heard before entering and have found to be true, is Kellogg is careful to cultivate a community of teamwork and it turns out my cohorts are all great, nice, solid people! As my leadership professor says, “Kellogg teaches you to raise the room versus raise yourself.”
So far, my experience has been #great, #busy, #inspiring, #caffeinated, and #fun. Justin told me people frequently ask him what they will get out of an MBA program. I am by no means an authority having just scratched the surface, but nonetheless, I have a few takeaways to share that may give you some insight. I figured I’d pick one from each of my classes, which have been pretty varied. Here goes…
New Science of Leadership
I didn’t know what to expect out of the leadership classes and was prepared for “fluff,” but was pleasantly surprised and found a slew of practical applications. One key topic for us was “leadership by compliance versus commitment.” We explored how “leadership by compliance” requires one person to lead from the top relying on titles, formal authority and formal incentives. This old-school approach is hard to sustain, not only because these formal incentives may not be a true motivator of desired behavior, but also the days of the “one-man show” (e.g. dictatorial ‘do what I say’ manager) are over. A much better approach is “leadership by commitment.”
Our professor advised us to:
“…lead people like you are leading volunteers.”
Management is about tasks, processes and outcomes. Leadership is about motivating and enabling others to collaborate in order to make a shared aspiration a reality. Though I think the two go hand-in-hand for the best outcome, I thought this was an interesting chart that draws a poignant line between the two.
I took the basic business classes (Economics, Accounting, Finance, etc.) as an undergrad, but somehow missed out on Operations. I decided to knock it out my first quarter. What, at a glance, seem to be so intuitive and theoretical, the theorems you learn are insanely practical.
In our second class we discussed “Little’s Law,” which says that:
“…under steady-state conditions, the average number of items in a queuing system equals the average rate at which items arrive, multiplied by the average time that an item spends in the system.”
This is particularly applicable to the work my agency does for our clients. For example, we recently helped Under Armour develop a buzz-generating strategy to open their store on Michigan Avenue. After a few rounds of ideation, we decided to create a Chicago-themed gesture-based digital game that would measure users’ speed and agility. The plan was to place it in a high-traffic downtown location and naturally, our ROI-driven client wanted to know how many people we could get through the experience.
Using Little’s Law:
Inventory (2 people playing at 1 of 2 stations) = Rate x Time (2 minutes to play)
I can determine rate and then apply the findings to figure out the throughput, process capacity and station utilization for the experience based on different scenarios and using extrapolated data such as how many people are on Michigan Avenue over lunch on a weekday.
How’s that for applying what I’ve learned?
I was particularly taken with the cases on the Japanese auto manufacturers and how they employ the concept of Kaizen (continuous improvement). If you haven’t heard the This American Life podcast on Nummi, which tells the story of how Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system, check it out here.
I work in a service industry, which is very different from manufacturing, but I related to the ideas of increasing the visibility of waste, time for exploration and exploratory stress. To clarify, we get enough stress without having to explore it :), but nonetheless, it is important to go through periods of extreme stress to understand the weaknesses of the process. If we constantly had ample time and no deadlines, we would have no way to figure out how to increase our efficiencies and where we need to be tighter. Because our team needs to work collaboratively and with other departments at our agency, we implemented a “debrief phase” into every project and are constantly trying to improve our process. Plus, here is a super fun flow chart I made!
There is an entire class based on negotiating that I am planning to take, but I wanted to share a few insights from my introductory management class. My biggest “a-ha moment” was after we completed an exercise where we had to negotiate with a partner to create a contract for a director/movie studio. Each piece of the negotiation (location, writer, final edit, etc.) was a particular point value. It turned out that the negotiation points were different based on your role and the team who won drove the most points overall and had the best outcomes for both parties. I always viewed negotiating as a one-sided interaction. We learned the best negotiators will maximize value on both sides.
Secondly, negotiations should aim to build and preserve relationships. Our world is too networked to burn bridges. Since many business transactions are with repeat customers it should never be a “winner takes all” scenario.
Some other useful tactics?
- Don’t talk too much, let the other party talk through their needs (you can learn a lot).
- Anchor high or low (depending on situation) to set the level of expectation.
- Be prepared with an excellent alternative if you have to walk away (it will help your confidence).
- And finally, take the time to figure out exactly what is of value to the other party and work it into your proposal.
One concept my marketing classes keep going back to is: the importance of landing on that deep consumer insight when determining your strategy. Most often, brands present their products by highlighting their attributes or benefits. While this is important to establish what the product is or why it is better from the competition, some of the best marketing appeals to the higher level of an individual’s goals or needs.
Take for example:
- Milk. Mom’s ultimate goal is to provide healthy nutrition for her kids.
- Face Wash. Women want to look good, and as a result, boost their self-esteem.
A useful tool to work your way to the insight is to use “laddering” – starting with the first reason to use/buy the product and then asking “why, why, why,” until you have maxed out the answers. Brands, such as Nike, use insights very effectively by appealing to people’s desire for competence which can be achieved and measured in athletic performance. Or Apple’s “think different” campaigns that cater to a buyer’s need for individuality, independence and uniqueness.
I hope you enjoyed a few of my grab-bag of MBA takeaways. I think an MBA experience is different for everyone, so if you are considering it, talk to as many people as you can. I thought I would wrap-up with a few final tips on tackling and surviving an MBA program.
- Time management is a biggie. Yes, this is obvious, but get ready to fine-tune your daily routine. Not that the coursework is exceedingly challenging, but even if you are a quick study, you’re going to have a lot less free time.
- Work with people different than yourself. You’ll be surrounded by a level of diversity you likely won’t encounter again in your career (unless maybe you become an Ambassador to the UN?) You might feel more comfortable around familiar types, but it’s best to have teammates who have varied perspective and skills. I was catching up with a undergraduate professor and he told to me that during his time teaching strategy at Skidmore, in every class, a group emerged of like-minded people who self-selected to be on the same team. As part of this capstone class, we did a semester long strategy simulation program. Year after year, this group of homogenous students consistently had the lowest score in the class. For me, this was a particularly salient example underscoring of the importance of diversity in teams and organizations.
- Shed your “generalist” notions. You can’t do it all. Forget the well-rounded mantra. In today’s information-overload world, knowing a little bit about a lot doesn’t get you too far. I now realize my classmates and I excel in different areas, and we get the best outcome when we play to our strengths and come together as a team.
That’s all for now. Maybe I’ll be back for another installment after graduation… Until then…