The biggest lessons in life are often simple and profound, requiring humility to accept and courage to act upon. Just ask the most recent business school graduates in the Class of 2016.
Ali Mehlsak, a 2016 University of Virginia MBA, was drawn to Darden for its focus on academics, particularly the case method. “There’s a common story among Darden students,” she explains to Poets&Quants. “We come to school hoping to improve our hard skills in finance, data analysis, and accounting. We think of our leadership cases as the ones that lighten our load during learning team, the ones we can spend less time on because they seem easier.”
Eventually, Mehlsak experienced the same rude awakening as her predecessors: What seems trivial in an MBA program often carries the most weight in the real world. “We start recruiting and asking alumni about the most important classes they took,” Mehlsak adds. “Nearly every time those alumni will say, Leading Organizations. You don’t realize it in school, but your biggest challenges in your jobs will be in managing people, and you’ll wish you had paid closer attention to those cases.”
SELF-AWARE LEADERS ‘WALK THE TALK’
Mehlsak wasn’t alone among Poets&Quants’ 2016 Best & Brightest MBAs to cite the value of interpersonal relationships as their biggest takeaway from business school. Generally, these graduates viewed relationships as the foundation for leadership. At the same time, they treated their MBA experience like a laboratory, where they could test what felt comfortable — and what worked with their peers.
Every lab exercise begins with a statement of purpose. At Stanford, that purpose takes the form of a question: “Why would someone follow you?” For GSB grad Sarah Wang, answering this question enabled her to develop confidence, along with “a keen awareness of both my strengths and flaws as a leader.” For INSEAD’s Pedro Filipe Tavares Ramos, business school was his first opportunity to lead teams. Like Wang, he started his leadership journey by being self-aware. “One needs to lead by example,” he writes. “Only when you “walk the talk” will you get the full effort and commitment of your team. Be humble, be bold and gain their trust early so that you can leverage their talent and experience and achieve the best possible results.”
After recognizing the significance of “LO” cases, Mehlsak herself decided to “break the cycle” and focus more on the big lesson. “Businesses are run by humans — individuals — and few leaders can be successful if they do not know how to manage people just as well as they know to manage products, services, processes, and balance sheets,” Mehlsak adds. “Even if I forget everything else I’ve learned these past two years, this is the one thing that will never be erased from my mind.”
BUSINESS IS ABOUT PEOPLE FIRST AND FOREMOST
The “human element” of business was interpreted by the Class of 2016 in different ways. UC-Berkeley’s Dan Fishman added several postulates to Mehlsak’s people-centric methodology. “People are everything, in every business; institutions are only as good as their people; and the right talent at the right time is hard to find and hard to keep,” Fishman explains. This credo has forever changed how he looks at others. “If I ever find myself saying ‘this is a terrific idea’ or ‘what a stellar organization,’ I peel a few layers deeper to discover the people who make that thing great, and why. If I’m to be successful in anything I do from here on out, it is because I’m able to work with, and learn from, excellent people.”
Duke University’s Paul Jacobs, an engineer who rivals Elon Musk with his dream of building a space elevator, takes Fishman’s philosophy a step further. He plans to use empathy as a business tool. “Understanding how to see the world through your user’s eyes not only provides market opportunities but it also allows you to shape your strategy to be the most efficient for the customer.”
Just as important, some members of the Best & Brightest — whose success prior to B-school was sometimes rooted in being Type-A empire builders — learned to step back and let go. That was the case for Texas A&M’s Tyler Lorenz. He described himself as a “recovering control freak” early in the program, which impeded his effectiveness in a team setting. “You have to be able to trust people around you to work,” he explains. “I took on too much work for myself. Once I was comfortable trusting my teammates, our final deliverables improved dramatically.”