This past spring, a new batch of students graduated business school, eager to put their MBAs to use.
And despite having spent countless hours spent studying the intricacies of finance, accounting, marketing, and operations, many of these graduates will tell you that the most important thing they learned at business school wasn’t from a textbook or lecture.
Alex Dea, a senior consultant at Deloitte Digital and 2015 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, discovered this when he recently interviewed nine new grads from some of the top b-schools in the United States for his blog MBA Schooled, which he started two years ago.
We went through Dea’s interviews with these graduates, in which they reflect about their past two years, and highlighted what they consider to be the lesson that will stick with them longest. The common thread is that while you don’t need to go to business school to learn about economics and statistics, the school experience itself is what’s most valuable.
Jeff Ellington (Wharton ’17) learned the value of trust in business.
Ellington was part of Dorm Room Fund, New York venture capital firm First Round Capital’s college branch as a student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He was impressed with the way the First Round partners treated the Dorm Room Fund team with “tremendous trust and respect” despite their relative experience.
“This trust earned our respect and inspired the team to work quite diligently,” Ellington said. He found that this relationship building was especially effective in such an ambitious experiment — having college students spend the firm’s money on other college students. Over five years, Dorm Room Fund grew to more than 10 schools, 130 investments, and 400 partners and entrepreneurs.
“Treating people with respect and taking the initiative to experiment can have incredible compounding effects.”
Katie Ellington (Wharton ’17) learned that knowing oneself leads to better decision-making.
“I think I’ve emerged from business school a bigger feminist than I was before (which is saying something, because I already was a feminist!)” Ellington said.
Highlights of her time at Wharton include lectures from professor and bestselling author Adam Grant, “Feminist Fight Club” author Jessica Bennett, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that explored “how much further we still need to go as a society” when it comes to women in corporate leadership positions.
As she developed this passion, she also deepened her knowledge of heuristics and biases like “confirmation bias, anchoring, overconfidence, and similarity attraction.” She explained that working toward her goal of establishing “a more equitable workplace and country,” she learned how to better understand how the mind creates potentially problematic shortcuts.
“I hope that greater awareness about how these biases affect me will lead to better decision-making throughout the rest of my life and career,” she said.
Charlie Mangiardi (Stern ’17) learned to stop doubting himself.
With an undergraduate degree in history and a background in the nonprofit sector, Mangiardi found himself overwhelmed at New York University’s Stern School of Business when he compared his credentials to more typical b-school students.
But as he built relationships with classmates and pushed himself academically (he made the Dean’s list), he realized that effective teams comprise members with different experiences and skill sets that complement each other.
“Ultimately what I’ve learned is to stop questioning whether I belong somewhere once I’ve made it there, and instead focus on pushing myself to be better,” he said.
Holly Price (Ross ’17) learned that following someone else’s path can restrain your growth.
During her time at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Price said she learned how to “stay in her lane,” in the sense of staying true to herself.
She entered business school with the full intention of following a traditional path of “success” before realizing that this mindset was leading to self-sabotage.
“If you spend your time constantly measuring yourself against your peers or trying to chase fame and fortune, you may very well stay in the same place,” she said. “If you stay true to your values and pursue opportunities that give you energy, you are more likely to go further and feel more fulfilled than you would by chasing someone else’s dream.”
Kathryn Crimmins (Haas ’17) learned there is more power in being humble than arrogant.
Crimmins connected with one of the “defining principles” of the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business: “Confidence without attitude — We make decisions based on evidence and analysis, giving us the confidence to act without arrogance. We lead through trust and collaboration.”
Over the past two years, Crimmins has worked on speaking up and taking initiative, conscious of not veering into condescension.
“The confidence to share my opinion, take on leadership positions, and tackle challenging problems will be extremely important as I enter back into the workplace, and I am grateful for the space to find this additional confidence,” she said.
Max Zevin (Kenan-Flagler ’17) learned to focus on the process.
Zevin described himself as a perfectionist whose drive to succeed academically and athletically resulted in a fear of failure. But during his time at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, it quickly became apparent that a flawless journey through b-school was in no way possible.
“I think by being strategic about where I spent my time, and by being okay with failing, I freed myself up to be process focused,” he said. This honed practice of prioritizing and ignoring everything else vying for his attention allowed him to avoid crippling anxiety. It also allowed him to dismiss the threat of a worst case scenario.
“Even with my internship, I tried hard to go in with the mindset that if I had a tough summer, and consulting wasn’t for me, that would be okay,” he said. “I’d learn from it, pick myself back up and do something else.”
Maureen Keegan (Darden ’17) learned that good things come from outside of your comfort zone.
Heading into the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Keegan considered herself a “fairly quiet, shy person” who was dead set on a marketing career.
She found, however, that any academic experience that initially felt uncomfortable led to growth, so she needed to keep an open mind.
This affected the coursework she ended up selecting, but Keegan also benefitted from Darden professors’ habit of cold calling students. She learned that even though she had labeled herself quiet and shy, she didn’t have to be identify fully with those traits. She saw a transformation over two years.
Keegan said that “one of the most exciting moments for me was getting ‘cold called’ on the very first day of Optimization at the beginning of Q4 this year and instead of panicking, thinking ‘Okay, I’ve got this.’ After class, I had multiple classmates come up to me and comment that they thought I’d done a great job, which was a nice additional vote of confidence and helped me see how far I had come since Q1 in core.”
Melanee Swanson (Kenan-Flagler ’17) learned to only be concerned with what was within her control.
At UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Swanson’s schedule was relentless, between academics and extracurricular responsibilities, like running the Management Consulting Club. To further complicate her life, there was a period where she had to deal with some health issues.
She considers herself wiser for the experience.
“There are so many aspects about life in business school that you want to control but can’t: closed lists, job offers, airport delays, group projects, health, etc,” she said. “There are so many things that are pulling you in opposite directions in school that it forces you to focus only on the parts that you can control. If you worried about everything, you would drive yourself insane, and you would no longer enjoy school, work, or life.”
Scott Landay (Haas ’17) learned to prioritize passion.
Landay said that, like most people, he equated success with the largest paycheck and most esteemed company name possible. But his time at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business showed him that sacrificing one’s passion to pursue a bigger check or name on his résumé would leave him miserable.
He decided that any job he took would have to have a mission that he could personally connect with, and entered the fitness industry.
“Berkeley really challenges its students to think deeply about the impact they want to have on the world,” Landay said. “With this in mind, I was able to focus on CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies that I felt had a positive impact on people’s lives.”