At the end of 2018, the Weekend MBA cohort handed in our final project, a finale that pulled together 18 months of learning and a report that will allow us to present our new and better selves to the professional world. We spent most of Christmas and New Year (and January) celebrating.
But finishing your MBA isn’t all about popping champagne corks and having all weekend to do a whole lot of nothing. As we wait for our results, I’ve also found myself reflecting; attempting to piece together what I know now that I didn’t know then.
The reason I did my MBA was to propel me from being good at a discipline to being good at business. And the components of my programme, along with specialist electives and a Global Experience Week, delivered on this. But it’s not the hard skills I picked up that will stay with me, but instead, the softer skills that I believe will endure. So aside from the academic merits, here are the seven most valuable lessons that made the joyful suffering of an MBA worth it.
1. Learn how to listen
The majority of people don’t listen most of the time. When someone talks to me, I’m thinking of a fantastic response to take down their argument. But leaders don’t do that; they ask questions and extract information rather than retaliate. This matters in business because the truth is often only your perspective. There’s rarely a right answer and most people build their version of the truth around assumptions, selected data or their experience. To understand those around you it pays to talk less, inquire more and really listen.
2. Ask for what you want
If you meet someone for five minutes you need to be clear what you’re looking for and what you expect from your networking relationship. Of course, you’re not going to ask everyone you meet for a new job in a trendy VC firm. But you might say you currently work in finance and you’re interested in meeting people who work in investment management to get a better understanding of what the role entails. It’s absolutely OK and necessary to be that direct. If you want something, you need to put it out into the world.
3. You’re at your best when you work with people who are different to you
Doing an MBA is like having your eyes dragged sideways. You see more. When you have a corporate finance whiz kid, a Doctor, a marketer, a treasurer, a family business owner and a private equity investor working together, from five countries, with completely different schooling and life experience – good things happen. Yes it takes longer, yes you have to be more patient, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that your output will be more nuanced. This is by far my biggest learning when building teams in the real world.
4. You really can do anything if you want it/if you put the work in
If you’re thinking about doing an MBA, you’re the type of person who has the ability to learn anything to a decent standard. The limiting factor tends to be how much time you’re willing to put in. Most people did well at their worst subject because they tried harder. Marketers aced data analytics and accountants showed up the marketers when it came to creating new products and campaigns. Prioritise your weapons and put the time in.
5. Be brave in communicating your imperfections
On the first day, the person who turned out to be one of the smartest people in class stood up and talked about what he wasn’t good at – I liked that guy! Here we were a room full of competitive MBA candidates and he was humble enough to identify his weakness. He stood out, it humanised him, and everyone knew why he was here. If you don’t know what you’re not good at, ask your friends, your team, your parents. I’m sure they won’t hold back.
6. Everyone doubts themselves
Once I’d gotten my head around my doubts, I found it was easier to put it to one side and get on with my life. The imposter syndrome is not a female attribute, it’s an everyone attribute. The lecturer is scared, the person who’s interviewing you is also worried about how they’ll come off, the CEO feels inadequately disconnected from their workforce. Naming this and accepting it has helped me to move on.
7. Just start
A new business idea, training for a marathon, eating well, getting up at 6am. There’s never going to be a good time to start. You will always be more equipped next week, next month or next year. But life moves fast and whatever you want to do obviously gives you meaning, so you just need to start or you’ll miss the moment. Doing an MBA and working is hectic. But when you do and then stop and look back, you’ll be surprised at the quality of your output. Be gutsy, don’t be precious and re-steer yourself as you go. Movement is the opposite of feeling stagnated.