Was an MBA worth it?
By Aaron Yeak
There is so much hype about MBAs. Equally there is so much hype about why not to do them. Is it worth the investment of time, energy, focus, and finance? We live in a complex landscape, it is a minefield to navigate and decide whether an MBA is worth it. I am not here to dispute the claims of those who have made it without an MBA. In fact, quite the opposite. I admire and follow many self-made entrepreneurs for their tenacity and ability to execute. I’m not going to give you a list of “Five things to consider if an MBA is for you!” or “A step-by-step road map for MBA success”. Rather, I hope that by sharing my experience with you I might shed some light on what you might expect if you are considering the journey, or what you could gain from it. Alternatively, perhaps you’ll decide it’s not for you – that’s fine too.
Between the lines
I refer a lot to “the journey”. That’s because for me, the ride to get to graduation was just as much fun and valuable as the end outcome. For me, the journey was all about the “between the lines”. I have grown and developed both personally and professionally, learning a lot about myself, my limits and the world around me.
Did it make an impact on my life? Absolutely.
Race tracks to Boardrooms
At the start of my MBA journey my uniform was a radio set, ear plugs, and cargo pants, standing track side of Formula 1 races. I worked in motor sport, for the most part in the Operations and Logistics side of races. More specifically, anything that was on the race track that was not a race car was a focus of mine. How to get it to the track, around the track or off the track so that no one noticed and the show would go on was part of my puzzle.
During my MBA, my uniform switched to a suit, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. I had made the move to Management Consulting focused on strategy execution for large enterprise and government agencies. The pieces in my jigsaw were now procurement and supplier optimisation, change management, target operating models and enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations.
Post MBA, my career is a mix of academia, consulting, business and interest projects like podcasting, writing and public speaking.
It is fair to say that I had some amazing experiences over the journey. I am grateful for the opportunities, though getting there definitely took some reflection.
You KNOW how the world works, right? – challenging your perspectives
My class mates’ views were valid and at times very challenging of my own. This brought lively debate, learning and growth.
You “know” how the world “works”, you just “know”, right?
You’ve always known your perspective on the world and the way you think it should tick. It can be confronting then, to have that challenged by an equally valid yet opposing view. What’s my view on employee relations; immigration; human rights in supply chains; border control; poverty; terrorism; data privacy; the role of business in these issues and the world; ethical marketing; the role of government in business; does the end justify the means…?
What did I do in those situations? I sat calmly and took it all in… did I really? Of course, not! We all like to think we do. It’s not until we are actually in that situation do we know how we will react. At times, the opposing view would literally stop me while I considered how I felt. I was afforded the opportunity to reflect upon my own experiences and views on the world, have them challenged, and engage in stimulating conversations.
Networks and ping pong balls – switching careers
I was shown the power of networking when I was introduced to Jason by one of my lecturers. Jason, is an alumnus of my school and at the time, a Management Consultant. The initial introduction was to bounce business ideas and concepts off each other and nothing to do with job hunting. I was contemplating a start-up idea (that’s a whole other story in itself!). Over dinner we mused business models, ways to test my ideas and assumptions, and Jason gave an insight into the consulting industry. At the end of our conversation we shook hands and parted ways.
Many months later, a job advertisement from Jason’s firm popped up on my LinkedIn feed. As I read, I remembered how positively Jason had spoken of the people and the projects he worked on. I reached out to Jason again, and again he was very giving of his time, explaining the role, his company and the downsides. I think this is one of the great things about having a trusted network – the ability to hear the raw behind the scenes. Every organisation and role has drawbacks, which can sometimes be “sugar coated” or glossed over in recruitment campaigns or company websites.
For me, reaching out to learn about the day to day in the company was so valuable. The attributes are different role to role, company to company, industry to industry, and country to country. Often the technical skills that we focus on are only part of the story. Do I need the ability to manage stakeholders? Be a visionary? Travel? No travel? Lots of change? No change? Be on the forefront of new thinking? What is the work, life and family balance like?
It’s great to be able to reach out and get the ‘real dirt’ from someone you trust, and equally them trust you enough to be candid
Whilst I was not looking for a career switch, armed with this information I felt convinced I should have a go. So, I did. Fast forward many rounds of case interview practice, learning how to ‘estimate how many ping pong balls fit into a red car’ and ‘the potential global market size for hotel shampoo’ and a go to market strategy, I landed the job and left the racetracks and radio-sets behind to embark on my career as a Management Consultant.
Lean on me – mentoring
Leverage is not just for finance. Finding good mentors was critical for me over my journey, and even more so since graduating and no doubt for the years to come.
Drawing on the experience of those who had already completed subjects I was interested in, or just “understood the system”, was incredibly valuable. Being able to pay it forward and provide insight to those who were earlier in their journey was also great to not only help others but to also force self-reflection on where I had reached. Self-reflection was a constant and there was no better way to draw that out than to have a conversation with someone else about my own experiences and what I had gotten out of the ride so far. I think this mentoring approach is also a great principle to apply to my career – have mentors who are far ahead in their career journey and provide a big picture; and mentors who are a little closer and can provide guidance in the nuts and bolts to me.
Are you a team player?
The MBA provided a safe surrounding to test myself. We could “lose” $10M virtually or create an outrageous marketing campaign and test it in an environment that did not burn shareholders or relationships at work. Through this process, I learnt a lot about my own working style; the working styles of others; and my strengths and weaknesses within a team context.
Just like the situations themselves, my own style and the style of others had to adapt. For example, some teams would focus on the end outcome, a high grade at all costs. Tasks might be divided up based on strengths and each person worked to their strength. In other teams the experience was more of a focus, and team members would take on tasks they wanted to develop skills in. Each team and assignment would have different objectives and pressures. Sometimes there would be conflicting motivations and goals within the team. Especially regarding individual time available to commit – not unlike team tasks in the workplace. Through the experience, I believe we learnt to form, storm and norm much quicker! A skill that is very transferable and important outside of the classroom.
Was it worth it?
Toward the end of my program some of the comments that could be heard included: “what now?”; “was it worth it?”; “I can’t remember what I used to do with my spare time”; “I’m going to the cinema, don’t call me”; “I’m going to spend time with my kids, don’t call me”; and “I’m renovating my house, I might need to call you”. A common theme was self-reflection and re-prioritising time. Sound familiar?
Many of my friends typify what I believe is one of the great outcomes of our experience and perhaps just an Aussie attitude in general, “have a go”. When I think about what some of my friends have gone on to do I am inspired and so happy. From corporate to education, medical and pharmaceuticals, online, sport and everything in between. Some have taken on more studies. Some have gone onto start their own ventures. Others have built on their industry or organisation experience to be promoted or to make moves within their industry that challenge the status quo.
For me personally, the MBA has given me a strong platform for continued learning, and ways to challenge my thinking, and view the world through new perspectives.
It was tough, but yes it was worth it.
Aaron is a Ducere academic; author of the book ‘From Racetracks to Boardrooms… was an MBA worth it?’; Director of AY Sports Consulting; is curious about peoples’ stories; and knows that 56,778 ping pong balls fit into a red Ford Escape.
You can follow Aaron here:
From Racetracks to Boardrooms… was an MBA worth it?
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Ducere has partnered with the University of Canberra and a range of leading Australian organisations to deliver the University of Canberra MBA (Innovation and Leadership) that puts industry experience first.