Let me start by saying that I have an MBA and am proud of my alma mater. Business schools provide a valuable education and professional network, but there are some skills they can’t always cultivate:
- Ethics. Teaching ethics as a course is difficult to begin with. As a result, business schools often focus on how ethical behavior can help companies improve their profits, which makes sense. But while honest business practices are definitely essential to the well-being of a company, real ethics require taking the profit motive out of the equation in order to be genuine. Outside of the MBA program, students themselves need to recognize that ethical behavior is its own reward instead of a cost-benefit equation.
- Humility. Business schools, especially those that turn out high-octane bankers and executives, can fail to balance the confidence that they inculcate in their graduates with humility. This breeds arrogance, which can harm businesses. Like ethics, humility is challenging to teach in a classroom, but the result of ambitious people exerting authority in organizations without recognizing their limitations can be disastrous. MBA programs could do more but companies themselves are better positioned to address this issue; they can engender humility by putting employees through the paces and emphasizing self-awareness before giving them more control.
- Diplomacy. The ability to navigate volatile situations or people at work, to negotiate with your peers or boss without creating an argument, and lead an organization without resorting to a draconian management style is an invaluable asset. In its simplest form diplomacy is tact, in a deeper form, true empathy with others. This can enable you to disagree with your co-workers or build consensus with minimum friction and maximum effect. But since this is more an art than a professional skill, business school students should make an effort to learn it outside. Today’s workplace, populated by millennials who demand more respect and empathy from companies than previous generations, requires diplomacy more than ever.
- Deconstructive thinking. Deconstructive thinking is about breaking a business situation into its component parts and reassembling it in an optimized fashion. For example, the CEO of a bakery chain looking to enter a new market might modify his company’s supply chain so that he can deliver bread to retailers from the closest distribution points, thereby minimizing transport costs and ensuring freshness of the product. Lengthy analysis can lead to the same result but the real skill is in being able to rapidly see the full picture with all its intricacies, and adapt. An MBA can help develop this faculty only partially; most of it comes from prolonged work experience.
- Judgement. The modern business world, with its heavy and fast-paced workload, requires constant prioritizing and the aptitude to differentiate between the important and the irrelevant. Yet many business school graduates enter the workforce seemingly without the judgment to do effective triage. The likely reason is an overemphasis on ‘productivity’ instead of ‘efficiency’. Think of it as working hard rather than working smart. MBA programs, probably responding to the rigorous demands of today’s job market, are more concerned with developing reliable workhorses than in cultivating thoughtfulness in how those people perform their jobs. But students can pick this up on their own by asking the simple question: ‘what’s really important?’
As business schools increasingly require prior work experience for new students, you may gain some of the above skills through interaction with your peers, and an MBA will still help you further your career. But recognizing the limits of a classroom education is also important for rounding out your professional skill set and setting you on the path to success.
Sanjay Sanghoee has an MBA from Columbia Business School. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, and at hedge fund Ramius Capital.
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