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May 20, 2014

What my Harvard MBA did NOT teach me

It is graduation season at colleges and universities around the world.  This time of year brings stirring commencement speeches from famous (and sometimes controversial) leaders and thoughtful reflections from students on the considerable time and money they spent in academia.

Two of our students at Harvard Business School wrote a beautiful blog post, with some great visual data, about what they did NOT learn at Harvard that I thought was worth sharing.  The post was written by Ben Faw (a West Point and Ranger School Graduate who worked at Tesla and LinkedIn) and Momchil Filev (a Stanford graduate who worked at Google and was a student in my class at HBS).

While there are many things that we learned during our two years at Harvard Business School, here are a few that we did NOT learn.

The only way to make an impact is to go to Wall Street.

As you can see from the interactive chart below, more HBS MBA graduates are heading out to the West Coast, taking positions in product management, marketing, sales, and general management.  In a dramatic shift versus a decade ago, technology jobs are just as sought as roles in finance.  MBA’s are proving that they can make a difference as leaders in many different industries and fields.  Classes, such as Launching Technology Ventures and Product Management 101, are encouraging this trend - preparing students for these jobs.

US map

Money matters more than people.

Prior to attending business school, we were warned that HBS was filled with people willing to do anything to make inordinate amounts of money and that it is not the place to meet or build true friendships.  Having kept an open mind, we will graduate from Harvard Business School in a few days with many authentic relationships that have already been incredibly rewarding and made us a better version of ourselves.  These amazing bonds are priceless and define our experience here, helping us learn that people matter far more than money.

Experiences are expendable.

The MBA critic will say that most of what you learn in the class can be obtained more cheaply and more effectively by buying the books, studying on your own, and watching classes online.  In reality, no case study, framework, or amazing guest speaker can match the experience of learning from your peers, both inside and outside of the classroom. You can learn material many ways, but the most meaningful learning opportunities require in-person experiences and shared time together. The full-time in-class HBS MBA experience provides both.

More is better. 

HBS teaches us that we can’t have everything.  From day one, we are inundated with endless mixers, social gatherings, and recruiting events.  We are also exposed to hundreds of classmates who each have an incredible story to tell and would be incredible additions to our network.  However, we can’t pretend to really get to know them all, just like we can’t prepare well for every single interview.  We have to make tough decisions.  We have to invest - fully and deeply - in the few people and things that make us the happiest.  Only then can we make a truly meaningful impact as future business leaders. 

Seeking out and receiving feedback is a waste.

No one is perfect, regardless of how impressive their resume.  Everyone can improve if they put effort in and use their friends and peers in the process. After a semester of cases and guest lectures one theme became clear: success post business school depends less on your IQ and more on your ability to work with others. Can you motivate a team and accomplish a common task that is impossible to achieve alone? We would say no if you cannot accept and give the honest feedback that allows a team to function at an optimal level.  As uncomfortable as it is to give and receive feedback, the MBA class contains people who have a vested interest in your success and want to see you “Be all that you can be”.  Seeking out these people and letting them play a direct role in your development creates the potential for amazing growth.

Learning stops when class ends.

While the classroom was incredibly valuable to my development and education (both here and as an undergrad), we found our experience outside the classroom to be equally, if not more, valuable. Ranging from debates over equity investments, deep conversations on business models, or discussions around how to create a sustainable competitive advantage, outside the classroom learning never stopped. Our interactions with professors, peers, and mentors beyond the teaching halls contributed the most to our personal and professional growth.

Try everything.

Focus on your strategy, on your goals, and on what you are uniquely good at and love. The rest is noise. If you are terrible at modeling financials or hate using Excel, learn the basic competency, and then follow your passions. There will be something that makes your eyes sparkle and your face light up. Find out what that is - you have two years to do just that - and then run after it without looking back.

Class photo

A special thanks to Harvard Business School for making entrepreneurship and technology a key focus for the school in the last few years.  Classes such as Launching Technology Ventures and the incredible resources of the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and the Harvard Innovation Lab have made the MBA experience incredibly fulfilling, and we are incredibly grateful for having the opportunity to take advantage of them during our time here.

To Ajmal Sheikh, Heidi Kim, Julia Yoo and Walter Haas: You have each been wonderful co-authors and co-editors in this writing process and more importantly dear friends, thanks for making an idea become reality. To the Professors, staff, and faculty of Harvard Business School, thanks for making this an experience unlike any other – one chapter ends, the pages turn, and another begins! 

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