Don’t Let Your MBA Work Against You

Moving Walkways and Secret Weapons…

I remember a particular lunch I had with a colleague in the early 2000’s. We’ll call him Henry. He was an MBA graduate from Kellogg and was explaining in a matter-of-fact tone that he was entitled to a Director promotion because he found out recently that 2 of his classmates from business school had recently become Directors. He believed his graduating class was on the same timeline (as if they were all standing together on a moving walkway you’d ride at major airports) and should all be advancing in parallel, even though they were in many different industries and roles.

As background, I was working at Siebel Systems at that time as the result of the acquisition of Onlink Technologies. Onlink’s Product Management team was folded into Siebel Product Marketing, which was staffed with roughly 80% recent MBA graduates from top programs. It was a very talented (and competitive!) employee pool.

At the time of this conversation, Siebel had been struggling for a few quarters in a row and quarterly layoffs had been the norm for more than a year. The economic slowdown, 9/11, ERP players like PeopleSoft and SAP grabbing market share, and the emergence of’s disruptive SaaS offering were all contributing factors to disappointing results. The company’s “We’ll just succeed by being more ‘Siebel’ than we’ve ever been” mentality wasn’t turning things around. It was making them worse.

We were faced with yet another wave of layoffs, and some of the people being laid off this time were recent MBA grads who had been hired in just the previous 3-4 months! Managers had to make the tough call to let some promising new recruits go simply to save proven A-players who had 2-3 years of experience at the company. I felt very bad for the employees who were being let go and asked Henry the question “Why do you suppose our organization still hired a large class of new MBA grads when there was obvious risk that many could be cut only a quarter later?”

He answered immediately, with a tone of absolutely certainty. “To keep them from falling into the hands of the competition!” Seriously?, I thought. As if every single new grad was capable of radically tipping the scales in our competitive market? I asked him why, if our market was so competitive, and new MBA grads were the “secret weapon” that would shift the balance of power, those same competitors wouldn’t instead come after MBAs on our team who also had 2-3 years’ experience at Siebel, the CRM leader. His puzzled look and inability to answer betrayed the fact that he had a deeply-internalized belief that new MBA grads (which he had been a couple of years earlier) were the single most high-value asset in the high-tech marketplace.

Enlightenment or Entitlement?

The potential problem with getting an MBA from a top school is the attitude that many new graduates develop. For numerous reasons, the system itself and the expectations it creates actually work againstmany graduates’ initial professional success. Business school staff, alumni, colleagues, and media can create a “Chosen One” aura for a new MBA graduate.

On-boarding into a new organization with an entitlement mentality, or confidence that borders arrogance will fail more often than it succeeds. And don’t forget that in high-tech laden Silicon Valley, many of your peers don’t have MBAs, but do have advanced Engineering degrees, or have successfully launched $100M product lines, or have otherwise proven that they can deliver results. You’re not likely to be working with a lot of “second-stringers,” in this neighborhood, and if you are, you chose the wrong company.

Many MBA graduates are incredibly talented and successful. But I believe that in most cases, those people are successful for their own talents, not for the prestige or even the education of their MBA. It’s a question of correlation versus causation. Do incredibly talented people who are highly likely to be successful get MBAs? Yes. Do MBAs make that same person far more likely to be successful than if they had not gotten an MBA? That’s unclear.

Making it Work for You

If you are a new MBA entering the high-tech workforce, here are some keys to help you get traction quickly, sustain it, and reap the benefits that you deserve as you make a huge contribution over time.

  •  Stay hungry - In almost all cases, when you’re a new, non-executive employee, people will respect and respond to an attitude of “I’m here to learn and contribute (and by the way, I’ll learn fast because I’m talented)” far more positively than an attitude of “I’m here to teach” or worse, “I’m here to get what I deserve.” You even see this in professional sports. A star athlete moves to a new team. Their new teammates, coaches, and fans embrace them when they project an attitude of “I want to learn the system here, see how I can make a contribution, and prove that I can deliver a lot for this team.” When they project an attitude of “I’m a proven star. Now watch and learn and try to keep up,” they lose support and suddenly a bad game, bad practice, or even a bad play can generate significant criticism because some observers want to see the “star” fail just because of his arrogant attitude. Stay hungry, and you will reap the rewards of your education far more quickly.
  • Show it off without “showing off” - There isn’t much value in spending the time and money to get an MBA if you can’t use that knowledge to enhance your contribution to your employer. The issue is how you demonstrate that knowledge. Recently, another colleague of mine who’s a Director at a $1B+ software company described a direct report of hers by saying “In between constantly reminding us that he has a Business degree from Haas, he actually brings some great ideas to the table.”  Of course, talking directly about business school is probably the clumsiest way to try to showcase your knowledge in the workplace, but using obvious “B-school vocabulary” or citing a case study will often invoke the same eye-rolling reaction from your peers. Imagine the example without the “In between constantly reminding us” qualifier. Her direct report would get the recognition and respect for her great ideas from her manager and peers without the distraction or annoyance. That’s the way to demonstrate that you got a great education from a great school.
  • “Pick your spots” - Choose the right opportunities to demonstrate strategic thinking. One of the most useful things I’ve noticed in many of my MBA colleagues is that it becomes quite natural for them to approach challenges and opportunities in high-tech with a more strategic view. But it’s important to consider at what time and what level to raise strategic issues because it doesn’t always help you to come off as the “strategic thinker.” When a critical, mid-stream project that’s behind schedule needs to be completed and you’re in a meeting discussing ways to get it back on track, talking about how the company needs to re-think its market segmentation is inappropriate. You’ll likely be seen as an academic who lacks either the sense of urgency or the work ethic to jump in and help out. It’s also wise to keep your strategy recommendations at your manager’s level unless you’re specifically asked to participate in a higher level strategy project. For example, if you suggest how a certain major acquisition should have been made and wasn’t, without having been involved in the due diligence, you’ll make it look like you think you should be running the company, not that you’re thinking strategically.

Avoid an attitude of entitlement like the plague. Focus on how to effectively bring your new skills to bear in your workplace and you will earn the respect and support of your coworkers and reap the rewards you deserve over time.

For more information on leadership development, visit ExecCatalyst.

We appreciate your thoughts, so please weigh in with your comments.

Written by

The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

Comments are closed.