Executive MBAs Share Their Biggest Business School Lessons


Executive MBAs are often looking to take the “next step.” They may have mastered their jobs and emerged as industry experts. But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to run an organization.

That’s why the real value of business school usually isn’t the deep dives into managerial economics or data analytics. It is learning new angles to probe operational issues or alternative frameworks for measuring performance. That was the big takeaway for David Postill, a 2016 graduate of Duke’s Global Executive MBA program. The head of sales and marketing for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Postill places greater value on the critical-thinking processes he developed over functional class learning. “I might not always have the right answer myself,” he admits, “but for every problem I will now be able to create a path to the solution.”

Forget marketing’s 4 P’s. In decision-making, there are only two: process and proof. And that can be a difficult transition for EMBAs, who often owe their success to gut instinct. That was certainly true of Martin Carrier, a McGill-HEC Montréal EMBA and studio head of Warner Brothers Games Montreal. Despite building his studio into a 500-employee juggernaut, Carrier realized that his instincts could only take him so far. “As managers, our experience guides us,” he notes, “but it needs to be channeled, challenged, and formalized. The EMBA program has provided me with a new tool set to frame my decisions and guide my business instincts.”


Postill and Carrier are just two members of Poets&QuantsBest & Brightest EMBAs of the Class of 2016, which honors students who “epitomize excellence” in their programs. As part of the selection process, Poets&Quants surveyed nominees on the biggest lessons they gleaned from business school. Not surprisingly, many of the Best & Brightest touted how their respective MBA programs required them to become more flexible in their thinking.

Shannon Talbert

Shannon Talbert

For one, EMBAs seemingly adopted a mantra from the ’60s counterculture: Challenge everything. For Columbia Business School’s Shannon Talbert, that means making no assumptions and asking questions. And she recommends this for reasons beyond just coming to the right conclusion. “Even if you think you (or everyone around you) already know the answer, the process of questioning can expose so much more and generate new approaches and ideas,” Talbert argues. “A question can spark a conversation that is of vital importance, and may have been lurking just below the surface.”

Questioning the status quo goes beyond just individual decisions. It also applies to evaluating the larger structure and personality of organizations. Here, the University of Texas’ Mark Shen, president of the Dell Children’s Medical Center, encourages an open mind. “There is no one best model that is best for an organization. Many different lenses may apply or be used to analyze options, and evolution is continual.”


The same can be said for navigating a culturally diverse world, where people don’t buy into the same values, traditions, and communication styles. As a result, confusion sometimes arises, and resentment festers. To combat this, Duke’s Kirsten Castillo, CEO of a booming third-generation logistics firm, recognized that she had to adjust to her audience and the context.

“If you truly want to be a global leader, you will need to allow all of your boundaries and preconceived notions to be dropped and allow yourself to look at the world through someone else’s cultural values,” Castillo advises. “We often live in the context of our everyday lives, and don’t push ourselves out of our comfort zones. (My) travels of the world and studies of the cultural differences taught me that being a global leader is not surface-level. You have to go deep with your understanding, and change your leadership style to maximize your effectiveness when leading in a different culture.”

Gene Gard

Gene Gard

Doing so, of course, requires a healthy dose of self-awareness. At Notre Dame, Ruth Riley, a former WNBA player and Olympic gold medalist, points to the EMBA being a spiritual journey in which she got in touch with who she is so she could better convey her mission. “Leadership comes in different shapes and sizes,” Riley says. “I needed to be intentional about understanding my personality, purpose, and calling, and not feel obligated to conform to a style that was not my personality or in line with my values.”


For other Best & Brightest EMBAs, business school was an eye-opener, particularly on the complex systems and countless variables that are just out of view. At Wharton, Gene Gard quickly learned that execution, as much as brand wrinkles and promotions, differentiates companies.

“Amazon is not successful simply because they offer free shipping or thought to invent Kindles. Vanguard is not successful simply because they have low fees or are mutually owned. Southwest is not successful just because they have single-class service or hedge fuel,” Gard observes. “Unique companies are successful because they build an inimitable network of tens or hundreds of different factors leading to their success. Wharton has taught me to look at elements of business as part of a larger system rather than reducing everything to disjointed metrics on various scorecards.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.