Key Knowledge and Tools to a Successful MBA

This is the second in a series of articles written by Alejandro and Matt

Making changes. Simply put, that is what an MBA program is about.

Some people join because they want to change career paths while others want to change roles and take on bigger ones. It is all about learning the skills and developing a toolkit that will allow you to make positive changes to have the biggest impact on your professional and personal environment.

A great component of that process is strategic thinking and planning, but in my opinion, the biggest component is taking action. Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, or what type of career you want to have. Most people are in that same boat. It is very rare to talk to someone who has the exact detailed plan of what they want to do career-wise, and if they do, then in 10 years the actual results will likely be very different to what they had planned.

Abraham Lincoln said that if he was given 6 hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first 4 sharpening the axe. I totally agree with that and I’m sure Matt thinks the same way: planning is key to being efficient. I know it because somehow Matt has 30-hour days, I’m still trying to find out if he has a clone or can actually stop time. Some people take the planning to the extreme and spend 4 hours thinking about how to best sharpen the axe and then the last 2 sharpening it with no actual chopping is done. Sometimes you just have to pick up the axe and start swinging, start hitting that tree with all you’ve got.

We want to share with you things we’ve learned so that if you are starting your MBA program this fall you can have a good combination of planning and doing.

The Importance of Networking

Alejandro: It’s not what you know, but who you know. After a year at Bauer and 100+ networking events (career fairs, panel discussions, informational interviews, conferences, summits and any type of event there exists), I think I have started to understand what that quote means.

Since day one of an MBA program, in fact, since orientation, you will hear that you have to network. But nobody tells you exactly what that entails, the specific steps you need to follow. After reading several books on the topic, and doing deliberate practice in those 100+ events, I’ve been able to understand the steps that we have to take to make meaningful connections and how to maintain them. Perhaps it is something that we could talk about in more detail in another post. But in simple terms your goal when networking is actually trying to find out as much as you can about another person to understand them, find interests that you have in common, and identify how you could be able to help them (this could be as simple as sharing a great article with them or as complex as tackling a corporate project or joining a board in an organization that they belong to). Once you identify those commonalities and value adding opportunities then maintaining the relationships will be as easy as the way you have been doing all your life, because those types of relationships are called friendships.

Matt: You know by now that you must network while in school, in fact even if you are out of school, and you should focus on some key ideas.  

Consciously realize that networking is not a selfish practice, instead it is the tool we use to build relationships to meet other professionals.  The beauty of this idea is that opportunity will arrive when you are not chasing it selfishly.  When you really connect with people they will see authenticity and help you just as much as you will help them.

Identify your networking style.  Sit and really think about this as it is critical to know because you do not want to spend an entire first semester being miserable by trying to network against your personality.  Do you prefer large groups, one-on-one meetings, morning coffee with an alumni, or something different?  

I learned that I did not like large events, yet did great with one-on-one coffees.  When I knew my networking style I then went to my career center and asked if they could introduce me to alumni working in consulting and marketing.  I was put in touch with numerous contacts and then set up the time to have coffee.  It was really that easy and many of the contacts I made are now good friends.

Set a clear goal that matches your networking style.  I went to many events; however, my goal was a minimum of one individual meeting a week.  Tell a trusted friend, family member, or faculty adviser your goal to keep you accountable.

How to pick Elective Courses

Alejandro: Looking back, there are two specific things I would do in order to pick the elective courses that will have the biggest impact on my career and will allow me to build the skills needed to be successful as a professional in business.

  1. I would identify my talents and passions and would pick the courses that would allow me to further develop those talents. To be as good as I can be in those specific activities. Those skills would be transferable to a lot of industries and jobs so you don’t have to worry about picking something too specific and related to a particular career.
  2. I would pick the courses that are taught by the professors that fit into my personal definition of success (which will be different for every student). That way I will be able to learn from the people I can closely relate to and could give me accurate advice. To be able to do this you will have to connect with as many second year students as you can, so that you can get their opinion and make an informed decision. Another suggestion is to contact those professors and ask for a meeting to get more information about the course from the source.

Matt:  I focused on a two step strategy for picking courses.  The first was to take courses that would build my skill set in marketing and consulting since that is where my career was headed, and I wanted to leave with as much industry knowledge as possible.  

Second I took courses where I was weak, specifically Excel-based statistics to push myself.  I struggled while I was in those classes, yet they were some of the most valuable as my knowledge jumped beyond what I knew I could do.  

Make sure to blend your course selections between classes that will add to your career choice and those that will solidify your weaknesses as you never know when your new skills will come in handy.

How to join and add value to student organizations

Alejandro: I have to admit that as an international student I really didn’t understand the whole concept of student clubs and professional organizations. But thanks to the words of our Assistant Dean, Steven Koch, I was able to understand. In a luncheon we had he said that those type of activities are the ones that will send the message that you are “all in” for whatever you do, that you are not just punching the clock.

Extracurricular activities show that you are willing to run that extra mile, to take it up a notch. The key things I would have in mind are:

  • Don’t take too long to figure out which organization you want to join. You should be part of student club and the MBA society of your school before orientation ends.
  • Join an organization where you can have an impact, where you will be able to achieve specific results that will add value to your business acumen.
  • Actually attend the events of your organization, all of them if possible.

Matt:  Extracurricular activities are one of the best aspects of business school!  You make connections with classmates, host amazing events, network with executives, grow as a leader, and help build your program.  Even with your busy schedule take the time to do the following:

  • Commit to joining an organization your first semester and look for a leadership role.  Establishing yourself as a leader early is vital to your development.
  • Decide if you want to be part of an organization where you have a background or one where you want to learn more.  For example, do you have a finance background?  If so, you could join a finance student organization or stretch yourself to something else like supply chain, marketing, or real estate.
  • Start with a smaller organization in your first semester as the time commitment will be manageable, then in your second try to become a leader in a larger organization.  Most programs have an Advisory Board, chapter of National Association of Women MBAs (NAWMBA), etc.  They generally require more responsibility, yet will allow you to widen your network and leadership capabilities.

Summary

These are just three of the main items you should be thinking about if you are starting your MBA in the fall, if it is your second semester, or if you are developing as a professional.  

Take the time to really focus and strategize as your time in an MBA program will be intense, full of opportunities, and over before you can imagine.  I (Matt) can not believe I already graduated and Alejandro is more than halfway done.  We have been fortunate to be connected with amazing mentors, faculty, staff, alumni, and classmates who have built us up and provided important insights.  

Now it is our turn to pass on those lessons to you!

  1. Set a clear strategy for networking and embrace your chance to meet hundreds of new professionals.
  2. Don’t just choose courses randomly, make sure to pick classes that are challenging, taught by esteemed professors, and will add to your career foundation.
  3. Join a student organization and leap at the opportunity to be a leader

For more insights on how to succeed in your MBA, contact Alejandro and myself, we enjoy helping others reach their MBA goals.