Let me start by saying I have incredible respect for not only countless business professionals with MBA degrees, but also many of the programs themselves. And if I could go back in time, I probably would have been more serious about pursuing an MBA for myself.

That said, I think they’re wildly overrated.

If you want to work for a Top Five consulting firm or immediately make middle six-figures on Wall Street or get hired into the standard career path at Procter & Gamble, then you probably need an MBA.

But if you want to start a business, if you want a long and successful career in sales or marketing, or if you want any of the majority of business opportunities for yourself in your early or late-stage career – save your time and money.

Twenty years ago, an MBA was the gateway. It was your ticket. It was table stakes to a wide variety of jobs, opportunities and career paths.

Not anymore. Lots of things have changed. Hiring managers, venture capitalists and more are looking as much if not more for street smarts than book smarts. They know some of the smartest and most successful business leaders today and over the past 50 years don’t have Ivy League college degrees, let alone elite MBAs under their belt.

This isn’t a ticket to skip your college degree. But it’s a recognition that the pedigree of successful business leaders isn’t defined by that degree.

I wasn’t at Microsoft terribly long. But some of the smartest people I had the opportunity to work with and learn from were Ecology majors from public universities. A current client, a world-renown enterprise CRM expert and founder of several successful businesses, studied pharmacy for her undergrad. She does have a Masters degree – in teaching (reading specifically). She’s now one of the most recognized Oracle experts on the planet.

When the iPhone 2 first came out, and it had those awful antennae problems, Steve Jobs brought his son with him to China for a series of intense meetings to identify the problem and determine the right solution. He told his son at the time that the following 7-10 days would be worth far more than two years in an MBA program.

All that said, no matter what your instincts or natural business and “street” smarts you have, replacing the foundation and discipline of a traditional MBA requires a lot of hard work.

Show me a successful business leader without an MBA, and I’ll show you someone who is a lifelong student, devours reading on a regular basis, peppers others with questions to learn what they already know.

Those who succeed (with or without an MBA) make a daily habit of learning, a regular discipline of testing and validating their ideas. They still read case studies, then they go create them.

Succeeding without an MBA might actually be more work, harder work. But my point is that it’s more than possible.

  • Nice post!

    As someone WITH an MBA, I can tell you that it is not WHAT you learn that makes the difference.  It is how you learn to THINK.  The biggest thing I learned in MY MBA classes is how to engage a TEAM to solve problems.   I thank Dr. Abigail Hubbard (another story).

    What holds many MBA’s back is actaully what holds back many Entrepreneurs, interestingly enough: the idea that their education (MBA) or experience (Entrepreneur) makes them “smarter” than those around them.

    On the other hand, the CEO of YUM! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell) was a Journalism major who learned how to engage people to solve problems. 

    And the top Sales Trainer I admire (Tom Hopkins) never finished college. 

    • The “how you think” part is really important, and I’ve heard that from several people with MBAs I also greatly admire.  Definitely a focus area of a good MBA program, but can that be learned outside of the classroom too?  Any good book or resource recommendations along those lines (in addition to Dr. Hubbard)?

  • Larry McKeogh

    Very true. 
    I was raised with the mantra that there were two schools 1) book learning 2) school of hard knocks.  I followed the first through college. It did provide some value and is a foundation.  However, I continue to use <10% of what I paid to learn.

    Since then, I've been following the second. The lessons are more personal, longer lasting, and have a near immediate return. The pace of technology today is such that new material are obsolete in 3 – 5 years. That newly minted MBA knowledge is going to fade almost at the same pace as the student loans used to get it.

    Thanks for the perspective.

    • good points, Larry.  No matter where you started, you have to keep learning and keep innovating or you’ll be left behind.

  • Michel Torelli

    “In the pure Darwinian world we live in, pedigrees mean nothing,” says
    Peter D. Crist, chairman of Crist Associates, a Hinsdale (Ill.)
    executive search firm. “It’s instinct, it’s hard work, and it’s raw