Wednesday, May 16, 2012

To MBA or Not

Based on some recent chatter on the subject, I am going to chime in on why pursuing and earning an MBA degree was one of the best decisions I ever made for my career. I realize there are lots of opinions, theories, and even some studies on this subject, and its clear that an MBA is not for everyone. One of my favorite articles about this topic, along with the debate of pursuing college education vs. entrepreneurial opportunities, was written by @_AlexLawrence and it is worth your consideration: Should I stay or should I go.

I will write this post similarly slanted toward entrepreneurial career paths. I do not intend this post to be any more than my anecdotal experience and opinion. The MBA degree was right for me, and here's why.

You Get What You Put in
The amount of value extracted from the MBA education is directly proportional to how much each individual student puts into it. The best part of my education was when I allowed it to push me the furthest from my comfort zone and inspire me to change and grow.

I attended the University of Georgia, well-known for its entrepreneurship program. I signed up for as many entrepreneurship classes as possible, and I was not disappointed. Within the first three weeks we had to form into teams and come up with a business idea to pitch to real-world investors and entrepreneurs. Every three weeks thereafter, on a Friday, we had to pitch to a new set of investors and entrepreneurs, and our professor expected significant improvement between each 3-week period.

After the second of these presentations, I was feeling pretty good about my team, our business idea, and the plan we were building...until I returned to school the following Monday morning. In my student box was our draft of a business plan with notes covering the margins and every available white space on each page. These notes were not pointing out our amazing skill and insight...rather they constructively ripped our plan and model apart. On top of the plan was an audio cassette tape sporting our team name. When the tape ended 45-minutes after I started listening to it, I felt as if I had been cut to the very core. Our professor pointed out every major and minor flaw and problem with our plan and presentation, and most of it was directed at me. But I only had time to mope for a few moments until the other side of the audio cassette began to play!

I had two choices. I could be angry and coast through the rest of the class, or I could take every piece of constructive criticism, analyze it, and figure out how to make myself, our presentation, and our plan better. Those who know me can likely guess which option I took, which was the latter. I went to work and felt like we made significant progress when we went in front of the next group of "judges" just three weeks later. But the following Monday morning I found a similarly marked plan and audio cassette tape in my box. But this time our professor's voice only filled the tape halfway through the second side. Now that's progress!

After an entire semester of this rigorous improvement process, I was a changed person. But it was only because I made the choice to fully engage. What I got from this class and the rest of my MBA experience was directly proportional to what I put into it. We went on to win several business plan competitions and a slot in the grand-daddy of them all, Moot Corp. My attitude toward my MBA education probably had something to do with why I was voted by my fellow classmates as student of the year. The speech I gave at graduation teaches some of these principles...feel free to read it here: Ken Kaufman Speech at MBA Graduation - Servant Leadership.

MBA Education Without the Degree
I am convinced that you can learn most of the MBA curriculum from books and other programs that boast the ability to teach the MBA material in 90 days, a month, or I think one of them even promises the timeline of 5 days. There are plenty of executive series and lectures that can fill the need to learn. Not to mention that the school of hard knocks has taught a lot of first and second-time entrepreneurs more than most newly minted MBAs can hope to learn from their entire corporate or consulting careers.

MBA Degree is About Opportunity
You see, in my opinion, an advanced degree's greatest value is in the opportunities it creates (notice I said degree and not education). I felt that the MBA degree would open up more opportunities to do the things I wanted to do with my career than if I didn't have one. Anyone considering an MBA needs to weigh that question in their minds, and realize that an MBA from some schools does not create as many opportunities as an MBA from other schools.

If you always plan to own your own business and your customers don't care if you have an advanced education, then the MBA degree itself will likely not add much value to you. But if you invest yourself into the education, I have no doubt you'll gain great value. And that's the key...the education can be gained from many different venues, but the degree cannot.

MBA Degree and Education are Meaningless Unless You Can Perform
Early in my career I was hired by an entrepreneur who started his company twenty years earlier after dropping out of high school. His company had grown to over 500 employees, an amazing success story. On my first day he asked me: "So what do you think you and your advanced education can teach a high-school dropout about running a business?"

That was the moment my MBA education and degree came full circle. I realized right then and there that everything I learned and the fancy degree on the wall helped me get the job but would be worthless if I didn't help this company grow and improve. My reply was simple: "Well, it seems like I have a lot to learn from you and your success." And I did.

Conclusion - Investment in Yourself
Early in my studies and career in finance I heard many people talk about the greatest investment most people make is in their home. I could not disagree more. The greatest investment people can make is into themselves...their education, experience, etc. And I'm not talking about the fancy ROI calculation where you figure out how much more money you can make a year because you earned an MBA. I'm talking about the person the MBA experience helps influence you to become. Is your perspective broader? Are you more able to make a positive difference in your relationships? Are you more empowered to add value wherever you decide to commit your professional time?

That's the real "ROI" of the MBA.