5 Unexpected Lessons of B-School

The path to an MBA, whether you pursue it full time for a year or two, or part-time in evenings and weekends, will guide you through many common curriculum items—finance, marketing, and operations management. Even accounting for the vagaries in different programs, most MBAs will learn similar aspects of business management. But along the way, there are many unexpected lessons in business school, some pleasant, some not, but all of them illuminating.

1. Management vs. leadership

You won’t just learn management, you’ll learn about leadership. Management, or the actual process of controlling and ordering items (or people) can in practice be much more science than art. There is a way to manage processes to make them more efficient, and you’ll learn plenty of that in business school. But leadership, how to command and guide a group of people, and how to galvanize teammates, classmates, and colleagues, is a skill you’ll hone by doing, and by failing. You’ll learn which aspects of your personality resonate with others, and which leadership traits you may need to rework. And, whereas “leadership” used to be a nice-to-have in business school, it’s becoming part of mandatory curriculum at many top business programs. You’ll learn that having a perfectly reasoned plan of action and the authority to implement it doesn’t translate into action from others.

2. The global business world and the people in it

No matter the diversity of your business school cohort, you will learn a whole lot about international relations, international markets, and the role of the geopolitical landscape in business decisions. Ideally, you are also fortunate to study alongside students from outside your home country, or have the opportunity to do a semester or internship abroad, but regardless, you will have to keep abreast of global developments.

3. The give and take of all decisions

Opportunity cost isn’t confined to finance. It applies to your time and your relationships, too. Business school classes will teach you plenty about arbitrage and fair values, but you will learn about opportunity cost—or that you can’t be in two places at once—inside the classroom and out. Will the time away from the workplace or your family be worth it? Will the connections you make in school outweigh the business experience you’ll have gained continuing to work? You’ll be making tough decisions on where and how to spend your time, which employers to interview with, and which internships to pursue, and you won’t be able to do everything you want to do.

4. The right kind of communication

The finer points of communication, not only public speaking, but how to communicate different messages and when, will play a key role in your not-on-the-syllabus, but certainly important, MBA curriculum. You’ll learn when you need slides and when you should stand and deliver. You’ll learn how to elevator pitch yourself, your career goals, and your idea for garlic gelato. You’ll also learn when to take a step back and let others do the talking. Much like leadership, business communication, especially in a global business environment, is a skill to perfect.

5. That person in the mirror

Lastly, you’ll learn about yourself. Unlike your undergraduate years, where you may not have been quite ready for deep self-reflection, you’re older, more experienced and, dare we say, wiser now. Through your projects and coursework, you’ll find strengths that will surprise you and you’ll discover interests you didn’t have prior. You’ll also have time to reflect on what your weaknesses are and when they reveal themselves. This is the time to be selfish, to make your experience truly about you and your future. What other time in your life will you have to almost-solely focus on your goals? Take advantage of this relative freedom.

What are you hoping to learn in business school that isn’t taught in the classroom?