KNOW YOURSELF BEFORE YOU MAKE DECISIONS
At the University of Chicago, Todd Hellman’s big “Ah-ha” came in “Macroeconomics” of all places. Technically, the course’s review of public policy and economic behavior had little application to his work as a managing director for a nonprofit. However, his thinking changed as he began to examine how a small and complex network of interconnections can drive larger movements. “I admired the “simplexity” in how theory distills many complex —seemingly unrelated — domains, into simpler models of markets and interactions that are descriptive of how the world works in ways I had not considered (and counter to my prior intuition many times),” he notes.
Similarly, “Decision Analysis” trained Michael G. Fox, a practicing physician, to assess his motivations and fears. Even more, it motivated him to take extra time to evaluate a situation from all times before making a choice. “The biggest insight that I gained was to always spend a little time verifying the assumptions and the accuracy of a problem or situation and to use a risk profile when considering various options,” the University of Virginia grad elaborates. “This concept has allowed me to quickly determine my “affordable risk” and has resulted in me being more open to taking risks, including accepting the offer to become the MSK Division Chair at Mayo Clinic Arizona.”
Ironically, these courses did more than enlighten students about best practices and broader trends. At Notre Dame, “Evaluating Financial Performance” became a way for Killjan Anderson to make up for lost time and prove himself. “I was the guy who literally changed undergraduate majors to avoid accounting—I dreaded taking this course, but wound up loving it.”
DON’T STRAY TOO FAR FROM WHAT YOU’RE BEST AT DOING
At MIT, Sharon Pien Chan claimed that “Systems Dynamics” reminded her of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, “a micro-world models where space and time can be compressed, slowed and even stopped to see the long-term effects of decisions.” In fact, Pien Chan turned it into a hobby and even co-wrote an article in Medium on fake news that applied the concepts she learned in class. “Seriously, my classmate Andre Alfred and I got so excited about system dynamics that we started using it to analyze social issues in our spare time,” she jokes.
In business school, spare time is generally family and work. With the latter, the best classes often supplied a road map for avoiding common (yet fatal) mistakes. That was the case for Columbia Business School’s Fahad Ahmed, who cited “Economics of Strategic Behavior” as his favorite course. Here, he absorbed enough cautionary tales to never forget one key point: Don’t stray too far from where you are the best.
“Success can make leaders and strategists do funny things,” he warns. “After finding success in their niche area, too many times organizations are led (through ego) into adjacent fields where there is already a dominant competitor. Rather than accepting what the organization is really good at and constantly working to have a strong competitive advantage in that particular space, business leaders are enticed by greed to be something they are not. By doing this, they hurt the organization as a whole.”
NEGOTIATION IS MORE THAN A WING AND A PRAYER
In fact, several executives recognized some of the mistakes they were regularly making during their MBA courses. Washington University’s Brian Estes, for one, noticed how his impatience was costing him money at the bargaining table through a negotiations class. “I realized that in the past, I had been willing to take a bad or mediocre deal, just because I was in a hurry to move on,” explains the venture capital partner. “In class, I learned that it makes more sense to spread the hours committed to negotiating over a multi-year period and not over a day or two.”
Like Estes, IESE’s James Bartlett lists “Negotiation” as his favorite EMBA course. Before taking the course, Bartlett was blissfully unaware of the science behind negotiation. Despite running a museum, he was basically winging the give-and-take process, dismissing negotiation as “something you learned on the job, and you were either naturally good at it or you weren’t.” However, the strategies he learned quickly paid dividends.
“While I was taking the course I was involved in a complex sales negotiation,” he reminisces. “I methodically used what I learned in the class, and over the course of a three month negotiation, I got the buyer to pay 200% more than I otherwise would have accepted if I had never taken the course!”
THREE QUESTIONS TO NEVER FORGET
While many executives enter business schools to master balance sheets and refine their leadership style, they quickly learn that the MBA is really a guide to decision-making. At New York University, for example, Renee Vieira, executive director of Time Warner’s global leadership development program, considers “Professional Responsibility” to be the most valuable course that she took. Here, Dr. Bruce Buchanan introduced her to a provocative framework where she was asked if she would make the same decision if the following were true:
1) She owned the firm outright?
2) Her name was on the firm?
3) She planned to run the firm for your entire life?
For Buchanan, the “Ah-ha” wasn’t whether a student answered yes or no. Instead, as Vieira points out, it was the “why not” that naturally comes when any of the responses are different.
“Being a successful leader is not only about having financial, strategic, marketing, and operational acumen,” she adds, “it is truly about who you are as a person and how you lead and inspire those around you.”