What They Don’t Teach You at Business School

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By CraigNewby

In 1986, Mark McCormack released his best-selling book, “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School: Notes From a Street-Smart Executive”. McCormack was the founder, chairman and CEO of International Management Group (IMG), a powerful and extremely successful sports marketing company. His book was less a criticism of Harvard Business School per se, and more an offering of common sense, down-to-earth and practical advice based on managing business in the real world through the provision of what he dubbed “street smarts”. Over the years others have followed McCormack’s lead, most recently with Philip Delves Broughton’s book, “Ahead of the Curve/What they teach you at HBS”, brought to you from what Broughton terms the “cauldron of capitalism”. Broughton explains that it is hard not to succumb to the traditional expected model, the “Harvard standard mold”. The below explains why.

What the most successful business people know is that if you can’t sell something you can’t succeed in business. Business coach Victor Cheng argues that what they don’t teach you at business school is sales. Cheng demonstrates that sales are critical to the success of any business. Of course this is not a special revelation: most business people already know this. However, Cheng found that business schools simply don’t teach sales, this essential aspect of business for success. On researching 400 business school course catalogs, not one sales course appeared on the prospectus. In the end, if your business doesn’t sell its products or services, there will be no business. Amazingly, business school simply doesn’t prepare its students for this number one obvious reality.

Other business owners meanwhile, believe that while it is essential, sales can’t be taught (Cuffe, 2012). Cuffe’s number one business smart that can’t be taught is that “starting your own business requires vast sacrifice”. Follow this up with “success rarely comes fast” and a picture starts to be drawn. At business school you’re taught, albeit subconsciously, that your MBA will secure you a high-paying senior position in a Fortune 500 company. The words “vast sacrifice” are barely mentioned. Cuffe’s discussion of one vacation in seven years begins to put things into perspective. Once start-up companies are up and running of course, the tables turn and another important life skill that business school doesn’t teach is how to master the fine art of work-life balance so that you don’t burn out before you arrive at success.

Entrepreneurship is another question mark that educational institutions either doesn’t teach or doesn’t often teach well. The SBA explains that small firms make up 99.7 percent of all employer firms and generated 65 percent of the net new jobs in the past 17 years, yet it is argued that entrepreneurship can’t really be taught. This may be indicated by the fact that only a quarter of all new firms that start up actually stay in business up to 15 years or more (SBA). Survival rates are consistent across states and industries. Only half of new businesses last five years or more. Perhaps this should be taught in business schools, but with a long-time debate between nature and nurture of these skills, it is not likely to happen in an effective way any time soon.

More worryingly of late, one of the major criticisms of these institutions of higher learning has been a failure to teach ethics. With Wall Street full of fresh MBA graduates hot off the press from Harvard and other top business schools across the United States, a BusinessWeek debate in 2008 illustrated the challenges of this failing. It is argued that business school facilities don’t necessarily teach values that contribute “to the creation of a business culture that better services the American economy and society”. Indeed, many critics pointed their fingers straight at the top business schools following the economic crisis that rocked the world in 2007/2008. The suggestion of proponents was that if ethics had been taught in undergraduate and graduate school then we’d never be in this mess in the first place.

Business schools provide a snapshot of current in-vogue thinking that help their graduates to survive and flourish now. What they do less well is demonstrate how learning doesn’t end with the MBA certificate and completion of the last class. What it perhaps should teach is that those that are continually evolving and reinventing themselves are those that will succeed over the longer term.