Is The MBA Really As ‘Transformative’ As Schools Claim?

An MBA is often portrayed as the pathway to mobility and opportunity. Beyond impressive roles with famed firms, business school provided the Class of 2019 with something more profound. They described that ‘something’ with terms like awareness, courage, purpose, and renewal. It was a journey, they said, one that produced a permanent transformation in how they see themselves – and the world around them.

This transformation wasn’t easy by any stretch. Just ask Tom Kittredge, a 2019 Best & Brightest MBA from IESE. A lumberjack from Maine, Kittredge managed solar energy and study abroad programs before business school. Despite his successful track record, Kittredge remembers his time in business school as “tumultuous” – one filled with “hardships” and “setbacks.”

IESE’s Tom Kittredge

“The MBA can throw a lot in your face,” he admits. “First year, I remember struggling under an unforgiving course load, the weight of expectations (especially from myself), the adjustment of moving to a new city, challenges in personal relationships, and the uncertainty of the path forward. This is all compounded when you look around and see classmates with limitless potential and (seemingly) utter certainty about the direction of their life.”

FROM ADVERSITY TO ACHIEVEMENT

These factors didn’t crush Kittredge. Instead, they pushed him to elevate his game. He embraced the demands of organizing a 500-person conference and a startup weekend that attracted more than 100 leading entrepreneurs in Barcelona. He ran the Responsible Business Club and served as V.P. of the Startup and Entrepreneurship Club. Along the way, he ranked among the class’ top students academically, winning both the school’s Innovation Challenge and Capstone project. On top of that, Kittredge is launching an outdoor education startup after graduation.

How did he make this happen? Kittredge attributes his success to business school’s ability to foster resilience and inner clarity. “By resilience, I mean the figurative ability to be knocked down hard, shake it off, and move on. Some of the most difficult moments of my life have transpired in the past two years. Over time, I have learned to plow ahead. These experiences have caused me to reflect upon what I value, where I hope to go, and who I hope to be, and the clarity that I have gained from this has simplified many difficult decisions. From my conversations with classmates, I think this is a not uncommon journey.”

Not among the Best & Brightest MBAs, at least. This year, Poets&Quants asked Best & Brightest candidates how business school had been “transformative” for them. That’s a term that is thrown around frequently by business school officials from deans to admission directors. We wanted to test the notion that the MBA experience could truly transform people. And just about everyone we asked agreed that it had.

Some members can sum up this change in one word: confidence – a sense, in the words of McGill’s Tegan Boaler, that “I can do it.” For ESADE’s Frederick Gifford, transformative meant that nothing was “out of bounds” for him. In contrast, Ashley Brown, who’ll be joining PepsiCo after earning her MBA at Duke, felt emboldened by business school. It carved out a “safe place” for her to learn from failure and take on opportunities she’d normally shy away from pursuing.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUCCESS AND FAILURE: GRIT

It also changed how Steven Murchison, a self-described introvert, saw himself. “My experience in the MBA program has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to reconsider that self-imposed label,” the Georgia Tech MBA notes. “While I would not say my MBA has turned me into an extrovert, I am more outgoing and significantly more confident than I was prior to starting the program. Networking, discussion-based classes, practice interviews, taking prospective students on tours, presenting in classes, and taking on club leadership roles have all helped broaden my communications, comfort, and confidence.”

Stanford GSB’s Geoffrey Calder

At the same time, this transformative experience breathed new life into age-old truths. Such clichés truly hit home for Geoffrey Calder, who’ll be joining Bain Capital as a Vice President after graduating from Stanford GSB in June.

“Business school has taught me the importance of grit. It has become clear after attending seminars with dozens (maybe hundreds) of investors, entrepreneurs, and business leaders that what separates the “winners” from the “losers” isn’t intelligence. Rather, it’s passion and perseverance. It isn’t as romantic, but you’d rather be hard-working than smart. Set aggressive goals, seek feedback, practice, and push through adversity!”

KNOW THYSELF…BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

The transformative nature of MBA programs doesn’t just end with the confidence to seize opportunities. Instead, this spirit guides students in identifying them in the first place. Before joining Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, Sophia Cornew concedes that she would get “that slight panicky overwhelmed feeling you get in your stomach” when she would encounter new or complicated issues. Two years later, she simply breaks them down to their roots with ease. Similarly, U.C.-Irvine’s Joy Mina has adapted her approach to business problems. Rather than view them through a finance, project management or product development prism, she is far more inclusive and holistic, integrating areas like strategy, operations, competitive intelligence, and organizational behavior into her decision-making.

The same could be said for Rice University’s Swati Patel, an astrophysicist who worked on thermal control systems on the International Space Station during her Boeing internship. Like Mina, Patel also learned how to look at the larger processes and pinpoint potential issues before they potentially disrupt operations. “Before, I learned to solve problems by isolating the variables, finding the formula, and manipulating the equation,” she says. “Now, I have learned to look at the problem outside the specific details and analyze the overall problem for long-term sustainability.”

Of course, the Best & Brightest also recognize that the real issue may occasionally be themselves. That’s why self-reflection is a cornerstone of MBA programs, a time and space for students to gain self-awareness and develop strategies to work on their weaknesses. That was true for Indiana University’s Miguel Klee Roldan, a martial artist and Amazon hire. Here, he was regularly tested and given feedback, exposing his flaws so he could “become the best version of myself.” Such self-discoveries also became fundamental to Allie Fleder. She originally enrolled at the London Business School to build her quant skills so she could “leapfrog up a couple of rungs.” For her, the most transformative aspect of business school turned out to be learning the type of businessperson she wanted to become.

London Business School’s Allie Fleder

“That is no longer someone climbing up a ladder, but instead, a woman that has the courage to lead by example, empower the people around her, and serve communities outside her own,” she writes.

ANYONE CAN READ A BOOK

These epiphanies also informed the Class of 2019 on what kinds of leaders they should be. At Stanford GSB, MBAs are guided by what Valerie Shen calls a “quintessential” question: “Why should anyone follow you?” The lessons she absorbed from classroom research to extracurricular practice led her to a “soft” approach. At UCLA, Jorge Santana describes this as “leading through influence.” For him, this softer style was a major departure from the dictate-and-deliver models that he’d practiced earlier in his career as a managing director at Teach for America.

“In the past, I have managed teams and served as a formal manager to others, but I have never led adults solely through influence and motivation,” he shares. “My peers and I all take on roles where we serve as leaders and reports to one another – sometimes simultaneously! I have learned that embracing both roles and leading your peers, many who are your very close friends, is challenging. Yet, I appreciate that I have had to reflect on how to best lead my peers through influence and motivation and less through direct management. This growth has been transformative for me.”