Advice For New MBA Students

Prepare for obstacles on the road to an MBA

Shortly after completing my Fast-Track MBA at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Management in 1992 (now Rotman School of Management), I was invited to address the new incoming Fast-Track class to share my experiences and observations.

The Fast-Track MBA allowed students working full-time to take two-courses per semester, three semesters per year. Those sticking to this regimen would complete their degree in three-and-one-third years, versus two years in the full-time program.

Here is what I said 25 years ago. I’m sure this advice is just as pertinent to today’s students as it was then.


Thank you.

Leelah Dawson has asked me to say a few words about the fast-track experience.

About four years ago today I was sitting where you are sitting now – getting ready to enter the MBA program and wondering whether I had made a mistake.

I arrived on Saturday morning, as you did yesterday, not knowing what to expect. I wondered how having an undergraduate degree arts degree in sociology and a graduate degree in philosophy would help me compete against what I was certain would be a class of BBAs, accountants, and financial analysts.

It didn’t help to diminish my anxiety when the director of the program provided some statistics about the fast-track class of ’89.

The average age was 35. I was 28.

The average working experience was 7 years. I had 2 years experience.

The average GMAT score was somewhat higher than was mine.

And then late Saturday afternoon we were given an assignment requiring us to prepare a three-minute presentation for 8 a.m. the following morning. My public speaking experience was almost nil.

What had I gotten myself into? After all, the audience was going to be my fellow classmates – all consummate business experts – you know, those MBA types.

In retrospect, there are three reasons why I shouldn’t have been worried.

First, the class wasn’t full of accountants, financial analysts, and business experts. If any category was over-represented it was health care and social service professionals.

Second, I didn’t have to worry about my ability to compete because it isn’t a competition. Cooperation is the key to success in the program. You will come to realize that the powers that be want you to succeed.

Third, my relative lack of corporate work experience didn’t prove to be a disadvantage. Having spent five of the previous eight years in university provided me with a considerable advantage with regards to studying skills and techniques, and academic discipline.

Those of you who have been away from scholastics for any length of time and are currently involved in a different sort of routine may have a difficult adjustment to make.

But by about the fourth term, you’ll all be experts at time management and figuring out the marginal benefit of additional study hours.

What you will be taught will be challenging but not overly difficult. The difficult part is maintaining the discipline required to read the abundance of assigned material, analyze the cases, and participate in group assignments – which often means getting together on weekends.

To do this will require a realignment of your current priorities, and may require some degree of neglect of your job, spouse, and children.

In my own case I had an understanding an flexible employer. Therefore, my first avenue of adjustment was my commitment to my job. I worked a little less overtime, and wasn’t so quick to volunteer to participate of task forces and steering committees. I learned to become more efficient on the job, squeezing the minimum amount of work required into a shorter time frame.

You will need to take advantage of every opportunity, often spending working hours preparing spreadsheets, and printing charts and graphs for assignments.

For some of you, this type of flexibility may not be an option. My perception is that the lawyers were the first people to opt out of the fast-track, reducing their work load to a manageable one class per semester.

Once you have squeezed as much time as you can get away with from your employer, next in line for neglect is your family. But you’ll be set straight on that pretty quickly. Still, some compromise will be necessary.

The adjustment for spouses can be extremely difficult. They will perceive that in terms of your priorities, they come third after studying and study groups. We often joked about the need for a new academic designation: the spousal MBA. Family commitments caused many people to reduce their course load down to one per semester. Keep that option firmly in mind.

The final variable you can control in realigning your priorities is the amount of time you spend on class assignments. But you’ll quickly learn that the minimum is pretty high and that you neglect this at your peril.

Let me state again that in few instances is the work difficult, but it is work, and it is time consuming. The secret is to develop effective study habits. To that end I highly recommend a book by Stanley Frank titled “The Evelyn Wood 7-day Speed Reading and Learning Program.”

There were two ways that fellow students found to relieve the pressures imposed by the fast-track MBA program. The first was to opt-out of the fast-track, – this was the preferred option of about 75% of our class. The second option was to quit work at the half-way point of the program and complete the program as a full-time student. About 10% of our class chose this option. The funny thing is, after they experienced the full-time program, they couldn’t understand how they had managed to survive the fast-track in the first place.

Let me switch now to another topic pertaining to the fast-track experience.

The MBA curriculum will provide you with a base of knowledge upon which to build a lifetime of learning. This is valuable, but when you think about it, it is nothing that motivated people like you couldn’t do without the help of the university if you really wanted to.

What some people don’t realize until the program is complete is that what is enduring about this program is not the academic content, but the people. The stranger next to you my, in three years, be a lifelong friend.

You would do well to recognize this now and start building these relationships. And try not to exclude spouses and children in the activities you choose to do together. Some of my experiences included a week’s vacation in Mexico with seven classmates. There were Christmas parties, Halloween parties, birthday parties, cottage parties, and desert parties. A considerable number of us would go for a quick beer after class on Thursday nights.

These activities are more than a process of networking. For many of us it has become a network of friends with diverse experiences. This network has begun to expand across the continent and around the globe as career opportunities have arisen.

Let me move to the final topic I want to address, which pertains to the value and meaning of and MBA in today’s changing economy.

I know that each of you has your own reason for choosing to pursue an MBA, but it is likely that it falls into one of three categories:

  1. It is seen to be required for career advancement in your current place of employment;
  2. You feel the need for a career change, but don’t currently have the knowledge and business acumen to make an informed decision as to what that new career might be;
  3. You hope that an MBA will make you marketable, as an insurance policy against unemployment, and will provide career flexibility in a rapidly changing economy.

Common to these three motives is a concern for economic security and the ability to master one’s own destiny. But an MBA won’t necessarily provide you with any of these things. In the past, people joined labour unions with exactly the same motives, i.e., economic security.

Few people have the ambition to make it to the point where they can sit in this classroom today. It requires discipline, dedication, tenacity, and integrity. You have used the sum of these virtues to create an opportunity.

An opportunity is nothing more than an occasion on which successful action is possible. It is a situation that an individual can take advantage of to his or her gain.

There are two very important things that can be said about opportunities.

First, they are not scarce. They arrive over and over again; and second, they are created by individuals. They are the product of human thought and action.

You are not here today because you are the lucky ones. Each of you has created the opportunity to be here. Now, if you choose merely to complete 20 courses you will get and MBA and will have wasted an opportunity.

If any of the three motives I cited earlier applies to you, then your goal should not be to receive a Master of Business Administration degree, although that may be topmost on your mind.

Rather, it should be to become a Master of business administration. It you doubt this, this cover of the January 20, 1992 edition of Forbes magazine says it loud and clear: The MBA Glut.

There is a quote on the cover by a senior investment company official. It reads: “Three years ago MBAs were everything here. Now we’re not sure that what we’re getting for the money is much better than hiring a spunky young BA and training him.”

The challenge you face, and the goal that you should strive to attain, is to discover the principles of business in the new economy, and to integrate them into a coherent whole.

If you can’t discover the business principles underlying each of your courses, and understand how each relates to the other – how they are all interconnected – then the value of your MBA in terms of your career goals will be negligible, and may be negative.

The senior investment official is right – there may be little reason not to replace you with a spunky BA – if you let it happen. There is no magic quality about hose three letters – M – B – A – they don’t assure value-added to any corporation.

If you want to earn that insurance policy, if you want to become an influential player in the business community, if you want to add value to your degree, then your goal is to discover the principles of business and to apply them.

Nobody can do this intellectual work for you. You have to do it.

You have to learn the concrete facts.

You have to discover and extract the commonalities and formulate the principles.

You have to validate the principles by applying them and integrating them with all your other knowledge about the world and how it works.

That is the challenge and the opportunity you have before you. That should be your goal.

If you can do that then you will have earned your MBA.

If you are just putting in the time to get the degree, then you’re just spinning the wheel of fortune for two consonants and buying a vowel. Your future opportunities in the emerging new economy will be a result of the actions you choose now.

Choose to make your next three years a positive experience that will have a positive impact throughout your career and your lifetime. Make it an experience of a lifetime.

Thank you.

Barry Linetsky is a Partner with The Strategic Planning Group, specializing in value-driven strategic management, and author of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017), which is available in print and Kindle editions from amazon. Visit Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

© 2017, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.




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