The Biggest Lessons Learned By Executive MBAs

They come to business school for a reason: different job, higher pay, new industry, or greater credibility. Going in, they expect certain takeaways, be it understanding a financial statement or Porter’s Five Forces. Over time, they place greater value on the intangible returns from business school…like networking.

You’ve probably heard the bumper sticker wisdom around networking: “Your network is your net worth” or “It’s not what you know but who you know.” For some, that means tapping into industry or functional expertise when the unexpected hits. For others, a business school network provides a sense of goodwill that opens doors to larger possibilities. Among peers, the classroom exposes executive MBAs to a wide range of potential pitfalls and proven strategies to address them. Over time, as classmates move into roles with broader responsibilities, that network grows all the more valuable.


Sean Vasquez, USC (Marshall)

Of course, the Return On Networking (RON) is often immediate, as weekend meetings and drinks often veer to their-day-to-day issues. At USC’s Marshall School, Sean Vasquez quickly sized up the importance of his Trojan Network – or “Trojan Family” as the school likes to say. For him, the network was a difference-maker during his time at Marshall.

“I discovered that intelligence and will power doesn’t always lead to success,” he admits, “but knowing the right people can make all the difference. So, I made it a priority to attend a lot of industry events and conferences, and to connect with people on LinkedIn. This effort has really paid off for me, as I’ve been able to make some valuable connections that have helped me in my career. For example, I was able to land a big project for my company because I knew someone who worked at the client company. Additionally, when I was working on a presentation strategy for work, someone I met at a tailgate was able to meet me for a coffee and stress tested it.

What are other takeaways that made an impression on Executive MBA graduates? As part of the Best & Brightest EMBA nomination process, P&Q asked the Class of 2023 to share the biggest lessons they learned in business school. From allotting resources to thinking strategically, here are 10 lessons that the graduating class will never forget.

1) Focus on Understanding Others: “In our global leadership course, we discussed values-based leadership as a means for increasing our leadership effectiveness. Professor Sitkin passed out card decks with 52 different values that employees might hold (e.g., fairness, making a difference, seeking new challenges, respect, financial gain, respect for tradition, calculated risk, etc.). While the cards provided a visual way to sort and hone our own top priorities as leaders, I found them to be particularly meaningful in understanding and clarifying the values of the people we work alongside. This proved especially useful for me as I assumed greater responsibility for training and mentoring an analyst on our team. Based on my knowledge of this person, I started by identifying what I thought their top five priorities might be. I then asked them to run through the card deck over the next several days and sort their top five values. The exercise illuminated misperceptions I had, revealed gaps in my understanding regarding their work motivations, and introduced ways that I can be a more effective leader.”
Sam Spencer, Duke University (Fuqua)

“This experience has reinforced the lesson that every person has different inherent strengths and weaknesses, and everyone processes, interprets, and presents information in their own way. At work, rather than trying to ensure consistency across the board, I’ve focused on ensuring that everyone is aligned on what we’re trying to accomplish and why. It’s important to leave space for your team to work through “how”.”
Caleb Messer, Southern Methodist University (Cox)

Carly Connell, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

3) Can Do It All…But Not At Once: “The program opened my eyes to so many new opportunities. Every month, I found myself wanting to take on a new elective, leadership position, club, or networking event. However, during the program, I had to juggle moving to a new state, making friends, getting married, starting a new job, family obligations in Virginia, and passing my classes. I learned that when you try to do everything at once and be everything to everyone, you do nothing well. Learning to prioritize what is important was the best lesson. At work, there is always more to do. Realizing that you can’t do anything well if you try to do it all allows me to be present and thoughtful with the task and people in front of me – while giving myself grace that the rest will get done in time.”
Carly Connell, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

4) Embrace Your Role In A Team: “As part of our orientation, our cohort spent a day on the Potomac with a team of professional rowing instructors learning how to row in eight-man teams. We weren’t all great at it, or even good. By the end of the day, we had more-or-less mastered the art of pulling together. In my mind, there’s no better metaphor for business school. I’ve learned plenty of new concepts and techniques, but the biggest gift business school has given me is the ability to take a group of highly driven people, each with their own concerns and interests, and help them work together toward a common goal. Sometimes that means being the stroke oar and stepping up to set the agenda for the group. Other times, it means sitting toward the back of the boat and supporting those who lead. Either way, it’s a lesson I’ve already put to good use in my work.”
Adam Lair, Georgetown University (McDonough)

Will Giordano-Perez, IE-Brown

4) Recognize The Difference Between Management and Leadership: “I learned what leaders actually do… Management is more about coping with complexity by bringing order and predictability to a situation while leadership is more about adapting to change and coping with rapid change – thereby lacking any sense of predictability. With this information in hand, I went back to my health centers and redesigned our leadership and management teams, redefining the roles of many, elevating all, and promoting some. This led us to, in less than one year, double our clinical staff, expand access to patients and develop new programs during a time when most health centers were struggling to do the same.”
Wilfredo Giordano-Perez, IE-Brown

5) Create Safety: “In my MBA program, I learned that creating a psychologically safe environment in the workplace is crucial. This lesson was emphasized in various classes, such as Strategic Decision Making, Organizational Behavior, and Human Resources. A collaborative work environment allows individuals to feel comfortable and supported, enabling them to take risks and share their ideas freely. This type of environment fosters innovation and creativity, as people are not afraid to make mistakes and are encouraged to present new ideas. In successful organizations, unique and diverse ideas are welcomed and celebrated, without fear of reprimand or criticism. In my opinion, this is what separates the good from the great!”
Prenella Semma, Michigan State (Broad)

6) Spend Money Where It Matters: “This sounds basic, but I am the type of person who thrives off of clean data, and using that to make well-informed decisions. The temptation is to overspend in areas that may make me feel good about our data integrity, but have no impact on adding value to the business or its customers. This lesson became incredibly relevant at work when managing a large deployment of a field service management tool. Here, I was tasked with managing the scope of a project that was already over budget. I had to manage demands from the stakeholders and identify where the current design was good enough, so we could have resources left over to improve the areas of critical functionality that would have a meaningful impact on our employees and customers.“
Alec DeLange, Michigan State (Broad)

7) Got Talents You Don’t Know: “The biggest lesson I gained during my MBA program was that I was stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally than I thought, and I can do anything I put my mind to. With feedback from my cohort and professors, I also learned that I was a natural leader with executive presence. At the beginning of the program, I was nominated and elected as a class president. When I was nominated, I was worried about how I was going to be able to add this responsibility to my already full plate of work, kids, and school, but I thought I could learn while in the position to be a better leader. I took on the challenge and it has brought out leadership skills I didn’t even know I had. Another lesson I learned while facing difficult subjects was that when faced with a challenge, rather than being overwhelmed, I needed to take one day at a time and to utilize all the support around me. I am applying the lessons I gained by being a role model to anyone that may doubt their abilities, and I am practicing being a compassionate leader who invests in my team and empowers them to deliver more than they ever thought they were capable of doing.”
Lara Adesokan, Rice University (Jones)

Emiko Fitzgerald, University of Texas (McCombs)

Emiko Fitzgerald, University of Texas (McCombs)

“The first semester of the MBA is a shock to the system in general, even more for me as someone who was not as familiar with finance, accounting, and statistics. At first, I noticed myself dismissing difficult problems in homework assignments — how on Earth could I solve that? But over the course of the semester, I would pause, dissect the problem into chunks, and realize I had the tools to figure it out. By taking this approach at work of pausing, dissecting, then tackling in chunks has resulted in greater strategic thinking, more creative problem-solving, and coaching team members to think strategically to solve problems as well.”
Emiko FitzGerald, University of Texas (McCombs)

8) Developed Strategic Thinking Skills: “Over the past two years, I have been a part many rich and diverse discussions that have forced me to question my assumptions about how I approach simple and complex problems. In the military, there is a manual or regulation for everything, and this can lead to a conventional way of thinking and problem-solving. Since I have been in the program, I have begun questioning everything at work, often to the annoyance of my commanding officer. I have worked to rewrite instructions, improve the quality of life of the students, and expand our culinary operation beyond what was thought possible. Where I might have been reticent in meetings before, I now have increased confidence to speak my opinions succinctly to influence decisions and decision makers.”
Jarred Mack, University of Virginia (Darden)

9) Discovered More Questions Than Answers: “So many of us hope to have all our questions answered while getting our MBAs, so that we can drive results and make a better impact, advance our careers, and become better leaders. However, the biggest lesson I learned is that you’ll actually end up with more questions than answers, and it is absolutely okay to not have all the answers! But that’s precisely what an MBA is for. It provides you with the foundation, tools, and intellectual stimulus to ask bigger and better questions, pressure test assumptions, and challenge the status quo. At work, I may not have all the answers, but I now know how to ask the right questions, even the tough ones and provocative ones, so that my team and I can collectively get to the right answers for our business and company.”
Devika Varsani, Wharton School

10) I Can Do Hard Things: “I remember this when I’m tired and struggling to complete my homework, when I walk into an executive presentation at work, and when my children are challenging my patience.”
Brittany Davies, Brigham Young University (Marriott)







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