With a Nod to the Graduate: What They Don’t Teach You in Business School

“The business schools reward difficult complex behavior more than simple behavior, but simple behavior is more effective.” — Warren Buffett, American businessman and billionaire.

With a Nod to the Graduate: What They Don't Teach You in Business School by Laura Stack #productivityI received my MBA in 1991 and can safely say I didn’t learn most of what I needed to know today. As valuable as a business degree is—and it had better be, at a cost of $100,000+ for a top-notch MBA—much of the business theory doesn’t apply to my world today.

Business school is like classroom training: it provides you with the frameworks, ideas, research, awareness, and tools to ideally deal with the situations you encounter in the business arena. But it can’t prepare you for “the real world” and the practical application of doing it behaviorally. In fact, you’re meant to figure out quite a bit on your own. The rubber meets the road on the job. To me, a business degree (or any degree for that matter) is about an individual’s level of commitment, discipline, fortitude, and tenacity. However, B-school didn’t prepare me for reality.

Hard-Knocks Basics

Here are a few things you’ll have to learn on your own, sink-or-swim style, outside of business school.

1. Forget about long-term plans and financial models. Most schools still teach 3-5 year planning cycles, but in an era when business changes at a breakneck pace, short-term strategic planning has become more common, because in most cases, any plan older than a year is stale. Mine tends to change each quarter. Flexibility rules here; your team needs to be able to stop and turn on a dime and grab for new market opportunities, or they will pass you by. Office Depot uses a yearly plan that’s reviewed and adjusted every few months, which has helped them immensely.

2. Take care of your most valuable asset. Take care of yourself, so you can continue to provide a high ROI to your organization for the foreseeable future. I know if I don’t take care of myself, my ability to take care of others (family, clients, spouse, and friends) will decline. Vanessa Loder, founder of Akoya Power, calls it “self-compassion.” Take your breaks; rest; sleep as much as you need to; eat right; exercise—the works. If you don’t, the stress will eventually get to you, and you’ll break down…or just break. Nothing kills productivity like poor health. Take care of your mental health, too; the happier, less stressed, and more fulfilled you are, the better you’ll perform.

3. Visualize your best future self. I always visualize the platforms I want to be on. I bet neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates didn’t visualize themselves as a corporate grunt or software engineer 10 years down the road, even from the beginning. Together, their drive to rise to the top literally changed the world. Like Olympic athletes, they saw themselves already wearing the gold and worked toward achieving that self-image. Let your vision exceed your grasp.

4. Be patient. I tend to want things now but realize my sense of urgency doesn’t always match reality. Your company may not hit $1M in sales in five years, or you might not achieve CEO status before age 30, but it doesn’t hurt to have a slightly audacious vision of where you want to be. Even if you slightly miss the mark, you’ll probably end up higher than you might otherwise. But you’ll still have to pay your dues and work your way up. As country music singer Alan Jackson once remarked, it took him 20 years to become an overnight success.

5. Hone your people skills. Sometimes, the language and examples used in business school leave you with the impression that business just happens. But it involves relationships with people, first and always. You’ll have to learn to relate to them at all levels, from employee to customer to shareholder and C-Suite exec. So polish your people skills. Be charming. Be nice. Be charismatic. Listen to people. Care. Be a giver. Spend time coaching your team members to success; when they are happy, they’ll produce for you like never before.

6. Never stop learning. Read the business journals, newsletters, magazines, and books that impact your work. Pay attention to the stock market and learn all the details. Study up on your own organization’s history, so you can benefit from the past instead of dooming yourself to repeat it. This leads to my final point:

7. Learn from your mistakes. It’s been said “there’s no such thing as failure.” Of course there is. I’ve bombed on stage before, either with the wrong message or taking an engagement for the wrong audience. However, I’ve learned a LOT from things that don’t work. I’ve learned where I excel and what I like, and my failures have allowed me to move more assuredly toward success. It’s a cliché because it’s true—failure occurs only when you give up or repeat it.

Hope, Springing Eternal

It doesn’t matter whether you attend business school at Harvard or the University of Colorado as I did, you won’t learn everything you need to know there. Regardless of the quality of your education, ultimately it all depends on how you apply it. Think of your MBA as a shiny new box of tools. After graduation, you’ll go out there and put them to work, knowing enough to use a screwdriver or hex wrench to deal with a screw, a drill to make holes, a hammer to drive in a nail—or to bust things apart when they need busting apart. Sometimes you’ll discover the tools they issued you don’t quite fit, forcing you to modify or add to them. The only common denominator in your personal business equation is you—so be prepared to bend rather than break, and otherwise strengthen yourself to get the job done, no matter what…and no matter where the tools you use came from.



  1. Love the reminders. We get so caught up in what looks good on paper but as my grandma always says , “the proof is in the pudding “…. Application is key. It’s important that we mentor those graduates as we ourselves have been mentored .