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The 10 Things I Really Learned In Business School And The 1 Thing I Didn’t, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:44am

I graduated from Columbia Graduate School of Business in 1983. Ever since, the decision’s been a bit of an outlier in my life. After all, in those days and maybe even now, those who aimed high went to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, or Chicago. Yale, maybe, for non-profit and the arts.

I always aimed high.

But I was young, and without useful mentors, and I made up ideas about my future out of whole cloth. Whole cloth and constructs, that is. What do I mean? I had always wanted to write, but all I knew was that  it couldn’t be fiction. On the other hand, I had once been tempted by conversations of corporate power and finance, overheard during a vacation cocktail hour.

So I darned the two threads together, clumsily, with knots, and decided I wanted to write about business. Made conceptual but not actual sense. The only schools with joint business and journalism degrees were Northwestern and Columbia. I applied to both, and flew off to India for three months. As one does, faced with large life changes.

On my return, I found out I’d been accepted to Northwestern, in full, and Columbia, but only at the business school. The man I had met recently and hoped to marry (who became my first husband), would be attending his graduate program on the East Coast. And so I chose to stay close, as one does, when faced with large life changes and no guidance.

Bye bye journalism.

This decision, so casually made, oh, I have a boyfriend and I want to marry that boyfriend, and therefore I’d better not move too far away, has profoundly affected the course of my life. In ways I could never have foreseen. Do I regret it? No. No, I don’t. Even though I’ve realized that my temperament does not align terribly well with corporate structures, I benefited from that fire, a little charred but still breathing.

And I did learn a few things in business school. And, as in any case when one lands on a far planet, sometimes stuff I didn’t expect. As requested:

The 10 Things I Really Learned In Business School

  1. From Finance. There is a curve called Risk and Return. On average, for a higher return you’re going to have to take a higher risk. Get ready.
  2. From Management of Organizations. Any group of more than 25 people will develop factions. You are going to have to posit a super-ordinate goal, something that everyone cares about and can work towards together.
  3. Value propositions, from Marketing.  Never go too far into new product development without understanding who is going to want it and why. Figure out how to articulate that, early on. (Business school didn’t teach us how easily people forget they have customers. That we learn later.)
  4. People in power sometimes reward attitude over performance. Off-curriculum. I took a strategy class that I ate for breakfast, conceptually. The professor gave me a B and when I asked him why he said, “You always acted as though you already knew the ideas and were bored.” He had a point.
  5. If you’re on a team and the team fails you can’t succeed by doing your part quietly. I took a course in Managing Innovation. The professor liked my work enough that he nominated me as a fellow in the National Something Or Other and sent me to a bigwig conference. I found the agenda the other day, in a box. But come time for the small group final project, my team members dropped the proverbial ball. I did my bit and no more. Again, a B. I didn’t like Bs. I should at least have gone to the professor and told him what was happening.
  6. Accounting is not English and it’s not math, which makes it easy for those who understand it to fool the rest of us. In other words, large-scale financial chicanery is a given as long as humans are greedy. Expect it. Forever, I think.
  7. Make your ideas known. That’s how talented people find you. For example, I talked a lot in Management of Organizations. It was about people, after all. At the start of a subsequent class on Competitive Strategy, one of the best in the school, 3 guys I didn’t know approached me and said, “Be on our team. We like how you thought in MO.” But I lacked the necessary course background. Those 3 guys, familiar with the professor, got him to waive the requirements. Best day ever.
  8. The concept of heuristic solutions. Operations Research revealed that even those good with numbers often guess, and iterating towards an imperfect but improving solution is a legitimate approach. Although data science has advanced since 1983, the lesson that it’s OK to guess at numbers, as long as you detail your assumptions, made all sorts of things possible.
  9. From Statistics. Numbers draw pictures, and can therefore be understood. Oh the joys of a probability curve.
  10. All economic systems are made up of very large numbers and very complex interactions. We weren’t close, then, to predicting the stock market or the global economy. I don’t know if we are even now.

What’s the one important thing I didn’t learn in business school?

  1. You have to learn to fight without bleeding all over the place.

When you first start, all high performance and belief in authority, you’ll do great. You’ll get promoted, fast. Lots of praise and bonuses. But one day you’ll rise high enough in the organization to become a target for someone. Might be an insecure boss, might be an ambitious and unscrupulous subordinate, might be a raging bully of a coworker. But it’s going to happen. They’re coming.

If you bow down and take it, you lose. If you wheedle and placate, you lose. If you speak out too passionately against the injustice, you lose. Learn to fight without spilling blood. At least your own.

It’s a funny thing, really, a thin-skinned ragingly analytical aesthete with an MBA. But oxymorons are us, we humans, and I have found that invention happens at the margins of what you know and what you don’t. Not everyone needs to go so far as to attend graduate school and a forge entire career in alien territory, but I don’t know that sticking firmly in the familiar is better, in the end.

Have a wonderful weekend. No fight required.


52 Responses

  1. The key things I learned in B school:

    1. The only way to beat the stock market is to cheat. (Not that the prof was advocating cheating. He was just cautioning us not to trust those who show spectacular returns. I’m looking at you, Bernie Madoff.)

    2. People do what they are paid to do, not what they are told to do. Make sure that your incentives align with your goals.

    3. Being smart does not guarantee success. You still have to work hard.

  2. I launched out into the world with my CPA in 1983. I, too, had little guidance. So I earned a second Bachelors instead of a Masters. Stupid in the long run, but my decision was based on my personal safety. Classes for a masters were all at night on a campus in a dangerous part of town.

    My big takeaway from Accounting:
    Sunk costs have no bearing on future costs. Just because you spent a lot of money on a project doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go forward.

    Also, I was surprised how clever and creative the crooks were.

  3. I didn’t go to business school, and although there are many jobs I think I could have done well, none of them exist in the corporate world. My graduate degree is in social work. Later I worked in retail. They are closer than you might think. Neither are what I would have chosen if I had known then what I know now, but there on the cusp of the feminist revolution, the edge of the baby boom, we had no idea what possibilities we would win.
    Anyway: there it is in the 2nd to last paragraph:”Learn to fight without spilling blood”. So important to understand, so hard to put into practice. But I might add: if you decide that blood must be spilled, be really, really sure that you understand what the fight is about.

    1. Understanding is key. I have to agree, it’s almost impossible to fight without spilling blood. I have rarely done it well myself, I know it’s possible only from observation of those more senior than I.

  4. I didn’t go to business school, although I did consider it. I instead ended up working on political campaigns and in nonprofits! Even though I’m only 30, my biggest work lessons thus far would be:

    1. Don’t set things on fire accidentally. It’s rarely worth it to burn a bridge, and if you’re going to do it, make sure that fire will light your way.

    2. Jobs are still jobs. No matter how much you like the people, the work, the company, whatever — it’s still a job. And you can still be fired.

    Only two so far, but I’ve got a few years working left, hopefully :)

    1. Those things are both true. And it’s good to take stock, and be explicit with yourself about what you believe you’ve learned.

  5. As a young woman, entering the workforce in her first professional job, I want to ask- how do you fight back without drawing blood?

    1. @Azumi, It’s a really good question. As I said above, I rarely, rarely managed it. So what I know comes from observation. I’d say, a) keep your own counsel – no blurting allowed b) figure out who is really in power c) form deep alliances with people who know they owe you d) foster loyalty among your direct reports e) take the long, long view and practice patience f) acknowledge that some people are just not good g) clean up your own house first, and make sure you always have your facts straight h) do a good job and manage the perception of what a good job you are doing.

      Finally, be prepared to spill blood but never, never do it in anger, or a provoked reaction. Only in choice.

      None of which is easy.

    2. @Azumi, Lisa made some brilliant points (I would like a whole post on this one) but one I’d add is:

      * don’t ever dig yourself in so strongly that you can’t lose graciously (or at least appear to be gracious until you find a new job and leave on good terms).

      I’ve seen people get hung up on issues (mostly where they’ve put their egos on the line) and either lose face when they lose the battle or get so upset they ‘throw their toys out of the pram’ and end up being forced to leave on bad terms.

  6. All excellent points, as are those in the comments. I went to law school, not B school, so learned those lessons on the job. The other lesson I learned: the person who makes it highest in the ranks is not necessarily the smartest or the best, but is the most ambitious. The key question is, what are your priorities?

    1. @MJ, Yes. And you can only have one top priority at any given time, and you might have to jettison all the others.

  7. “learn to fight without spilling blood”.

    I am exactly in the place you describe right now. Targeted and no real way to fight back. More ‘splaining, please!

  8. You are so right about fighting without bleeding all over the place. This does require some skill such as knowing how to take the emotion out of it, becoming extremely focused – defining the fight, defining your desired outcome, and determining the best way for you to get there. Just remember that cream always rises to the top. Be cream.

    1. @Candace, Except that there are those who want to drop some lemon juice into the cream, and you’ve got to understand that possibility clearly;).

  9. Wow. well said. I knew early on I had no place in the business world, mainly because I simply didn’t understand it. I put my Anthro degree to work in law enforcement for 7 years and eventually unearthed my calling as a teacher. But every industry, even education, has a business side. I learned your lessons through experience rather than the classroom. And you know what they say about the stakes being so low in academia …well, let’s just say I witnessed more than one bloody battlefield. I managed to avoid direct engagement in most of the frays and, in hindsight, now see how very little ever became of any of those royal battles.

    1. @M, Kudos for having been able to stay mostly out of the fray. And most battles like these are Pyrrhic victories for the eventual winner.

  10. Please add me to the list of people who would like to know how to fight without spilling blood. As a young professional woman who hasn’t yet gotten there yet. Thanks!! :)

  11. Thank you. Again. I echo the request regarding expansion on not spilling blood. But mainly thank you.

  12. Such useful information, even for this retired woman. I’m interested in hearing about what you and others may have learned about mentoring, since not having guidance was mentioned in your post and the comments.

    I’m in the position of helping some young folks through college and want to provide guidance as well as financial assistance. Since I never attended college myself, any help would be greatly appreciate.

    1. @Lynda, Oh help in decision-making! And perspective on the job market, on the implications of career choices, and just an ear. How wonderful that you are helping some young people through college. You must have done a lot right, and still are!

  13. I attreibute the following actions to success:
    – quietly but visibly out performing everyone
    – build alliances with those in power – top execs
    – always show confidence (even when you are not)
    – when a peer or subordinate makes you a target, pull the rug out from under them
    – demonstrate strong leadership
    – never agree to work for someone insecure
    – when a superior tries to make you take a fall make this visible to everyone and the superior quickly looks like a fool
    – most important have fun and play the game
    – always remember if your current position is not meeting your needs use the position as a sprintboard to something better
    – have goals and know where you want to go

    1. Your points show a real readiness for the realities of the fight. I would add only, it’s worth trying very hard to retain one’s humanity. So leadership can include compassion, mentoring, support, a sense of humor, as well as the toughness under fire that we can’t do without. I think the hardest part is to have fun, some of us can never see this as a game. Those who can have a distinct advantage.

  14. Although it was never a consideration at the time, this post reinforces what I already knew – that I’d never make it in the corporate world. Just reading the post made me anxious. I did work as an interior and architectural designer for many years, but had a partner who took care of the “business” end.
    I guess I like working alone?

  15. “Never go too far into new product development without understanding who is going to want it and why. Figure out how to articulate that, early on.”

    Awesome! If you can’t readily explain it (articulate it) then you don’t really understand it. I’m going to print this out and put it on the wall of my studio.

    I should put Accounting Is Not Math on the wall of my office ;) SO true!

  16. This is great, Lisa. Thanks. I’m in business school now, and we still learn lots of these things, except that last one. Although in Organizational Behavior we do learn about power and its uses. Perhaps not in such personal detail though.

    Thank you once again for sharing.

  17. Eleanor Jane – if you contact me with the situation you face, I will certainly tell you what I would do.(Contact me at

    Lisa – definitely humanity is important BUT if someone crosses the line, I will take appropriate action. In every case strong leadership skills are essential. These skills motivate and inspire others. Teamwork is also essential and the outstanding leader insists on it. A strong leader establishes a group culture and ideally everyone knows how to play.

    I view the corporate world as a game of chess.

  18. Law school didn’t teach me how to fight without spilling my blood all over either. I learned it on the job, the hard way. Didn’t regret it one single bit.

    Damn good article! I shall bookmark this and keep it for my son to read when he graduates high school. XX

  19. Hmm, I didn’t go to business school. Sometimes I think of lost opportunities, but don’t really regret the choices I made. I did learn some of the same lessons in business though. I was good at the gaming aspect of business but also bad, because human interactions always trumped everything else. Seeing it all as a game helped me separate myself from it but also allowed me to walk away. Perhaps those choices were good ones.

  20. THIS. Perfect. Although I take issue with your 25 people needed to form factions. I think 25 may be a bit on the high side. I’m thinking that 3 is about the right number maybe 4. There’s an old joke about two Englishmen sitting in a room, devising a private club to keep a third guy out….

  21. Re #You have to learn to fight without bleeding all over the place.# which is probably the most important skill, should you decide to have a career … maybe watch “House of Cards” –lots of tips on strategy ….

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