Executive MBAs Share Their Biggest Business School Lessons

Jennifer Harms

Jennifer Harms

Students like Gard didn’t only learn to appreciate internal complexities. The MBA was also a crash course in the butterfly effect, where global economics and regulatory blowback can eventually make or break organizations. “An MBA has given me the knowledge to understand the way different countries’ economic decisions have impacts that can be felt around the world,” says Purdue’s Jennifer Harms, the systems integration laboratory manager at Northrop Grumman. “Understanding this — and planning for it — is critical to success in business growth, investment, and even high-level economic and political strategy.”


Another key lesson gained by EMBAs is summed up by the University of North Carolina’s Ryan Carfley: “There is strength in numbers and value in perspective.” Indeed, teamwork is the heart of the business school experience. It simulates the real world, where leaders often work in cross-functional teams that require active listening, mutual respect, and compromise. This way teams are able to explore issues from more angles and uncover more unexpected pitfalls and opportunities. “You truly can accomplish absolutely anything if you assemble the right team, establish the vision, and work together really hard,” says Southern Methodist University’s Brian Scott Cossiboom, who currently serves as vice president of operations for the George W. Bush Foundation.

But while it’s easy to pay homage to teamwork, it doesn’t happen by magic, explains the University of Minnesota’s Audrey Klein, who holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. “One thing the cohort model taught me is that you can have a group of really talented people all working toward the same goal. But determining how to best work together isn’t always straightforward or easy. Individual teammates bring different experiences and view the world through different lenses.”


Ellen Davis

Ellen Davis

For many of this year’s Best & Brightest EMBAs, harnessing this diversity was the biggest lesson from business school. Georgetown’s Ellen Davis, best known for coining the phrase “Cyber Monday,” believes part of the solution lies in the teammates you choose. “Surround yourself with smart people who make up for your biggest shortcomings, who will challenge you, and who will pick you up when you fall.”

Over their careers, however, most MBAs won’t be able to pick their teams. To compensate, students will need to pay close attention to other perspectives — while pushing themselves to up their game in the process. That was the tack taken by the University of Virginia’s Laure Katz. “I had come from an insular world in nonprofits, where I rarely felt challenged for my views. While at times personally challenging, working with my classmates from various professional backgrounds and mindsets not only helped me to much better understand viewpoints that are not my own, but also forced me to articulate mine in much more compelling, clear, and non-threatening ways.”


Katz checked her ego at the door — and that was perhaps the biggest lesson of all, and a principle that the Best & Brightest applied in different ways. At Michigan State, Joshua Sanborn decided to carefully pick his spots to contribute. “I embraced the fact that I absolutely would not be the smartest in the class, the best writer, (or) the most experienced,” Sanborn says. “But I still learned when to ask the right questions and interject my knowledge for the greater good of the whole class.” Similarly, Cornell’s April Salas assessed situations before deciding on the role she’d play. “Learning how to follow is just as important as learning how to lead,” Salas says.

Others simply decided to let go to get the most from business school. For IMD’s Zhanna Kryuchkova, that meant casting aside what had worked in the past and embracing new ideas. “In order to learn, we first need to unlearn,” Kryuchkova cautions with Jedi-like brevity. “Because they are supposed to be smart and confident, there is a tendency for leaders to stick with what they know. Doing this avoids situations or challenges where there is a chance to err, but also an opportunity to learn and grow.”

Instead of showing off his entrepreneurial prowess to classmates, the University of Toronto’s Miguel Jiménez chose a different path. He stepped back to focus on what really mattered: his education. “Being an observer and a learner at any facet of your life is probably the biggest asset you can have. It took me back to basics to overcome my experience biases and my own expertise.”

In the end, the Best & Brightest EMBAs came away with more than new ways of thinking or relating to others. They discovered that they had far more gifts and grit than they ever knew. “I have talents and abilities that I did not know I had nor could learn,” says Susan Moffatt-Bruce, a renowned surgeon, administrator, and professor at Ohio State. “Now I know that I can adapt to new situations, learn new skills, and relate to people that I would never have had the opportunity to work with.”


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