While I was in college, many classmates were interested in becoming corporate executives. Those who weren't related to the controlling shareholders or the CEO of a major company usually wanted an MBA degree to help them access the fast-track executive-training programs offered by larger companies.
As soon as most of my friends started their MBA studies, they began analyzing how choices of courses and summer jobs could affect the job offers they wanted to receive just before graduation. By the second year in business school, few wanted to enter a fast-track executive-training program.
Instead, they wanted to become strategy consultants or investment bankers because they felt that both types of work would provide more oomph for their careers. If for some reason they didn't make it to the top in those professions, they felt that they could always fall back on becoming a corporate executive.
When asked about their classes, the conversations soon turned to whether the professor could help them get a good job at a high-paying, prestigious strategy consulting firm or investment bank. If I forced my friends to talk about the academic work, they confessed it was a dull grind . . . but they didn't mind because the effort would soon be over.
In the process, I don't remember meeting any MBA student who became fascinated by the academic work and chose to focus on the opportunity to learn rather than improving career opportunities.
Why was that? In part, no doubt, it's because business school is supposed to be practical training. You work hard for two years to earn an MBA degree, and at the end you've packed in the equivalent of many more years of work experience.
Because not everyone has an MBA degree, you also have a credential that impresses people. You also master the language that senior executives use so they can communicate easily with one another.
Since I became a business school professor a few years ago, my observations about students have been quite different. I normally find that students begin by being very career oriented, much like my college classmates.
But within a year, I see them becoming interested in mastering areas of business they never knew about before. In the second year, they choose to take tougher and tougher assignments and challenge themselves to keep pushing past their personal best, much like disciplined athletes do.
What accounts for the differences in focus after the first year?
1. Age is one factor. My friends were mostly 22 years old when they started business school and had been going to school all their lives. My students by contrast, are rarely less than 35 and many are in their 50s. Most haven't been in school in a long time.
2. The learning environments are different. The 22 year-olds went to business school full time on campus and didn't work except in the summer. My students work full-time in businesses and study late into the night and on weekends while corresponding with me by the Internet.
3. Experience is another influence. My friends had usually worked at nothing more closely related to business than laboring on a construction site. My students have been toiling in businesses in a variety of responsible positions for at least ten years, successfully working their ways up the corporate ladder.
4. Expectations also provide some of the differences in approach. My friends didn't know enough to be able to set appropriate expectations and simply dreamed about the most that business could offer them. My students know what's available and what they need to do to get it.
The opportunities in the world looked to be open-ended in the 1960s. Now, the business environment looks like it will be challenging for some time to come.
5. Business schools take a different approach now, providing much more practical learning. It starts with the curriculum. In those days, there were few electives. Today, my students are allowed to pick the subjects they want to study, and the books and other resources they want to use.
Students then studied abstract cases. My students are encouraged to apply what they learn to what they do in their day jobs. Rather than preparing to get ahead after they earn an MBA, these experienced adult learners are advancing their careers by becoming higher performers while in their current jobs.
To explain more about what I mean, let me describe the experiences of Mr. Tim Vancamp, a native of Belgium, who earned an MBA degree under the supervision of Rushmore University's dean, Alan Guinn.
Like many young men, Mr. Vancamp loved playing sports as a youngster. While many teens enjoy playing the most popular team sports, Mr. Vancamp gained the most satisfaction from one of the world's most difficult individual sports, the triathlon, which requires great stamina and development as a swimmer, runner, and bicyclist. He was very successful, becoming one of Belgium's top 20 triathletes.
Mr. Vancamp appreciated the way that training for and competing in triathlons improved his character. He noted, "Often you have to accept that not everything can be taken for granted and that you have to work hard to reach your objectives. Sometimes you fall down and have to crawl back up again, and this takes stamina, courage and searches for better ways to arrive at the next finish line."
Next, he became an even more successful trainer and coach. Within two years, all of his young triathletes were performing among the top ten in Belgium.
After earning an undergraduate degree in physical therapy and a post graduate degree in sports physical therapy cum laude, Mr. Vancamp joined his brother in owning and running a gym.
Leaving college caused him to realize that "it takes more in life than just graduating and starting to work. One has to keep on studying and looking for more and new information, just to follow the advancements in life." As a result, he began to spend a lot of time learning subjects he cared about.
Mr. Vancamp missed working in the medical environment he had experienced in college and chose next to work as a medical device specialist for a new distribution company.
He was immediately impressed by how difficult it was to gain the trust of experienced doctors who needed to learn how to use the cutting-edge devices. Despite the difficulties, he succeeded and was given additional responsibility for developing the pain therapy business unit in the Benelux.
Within two years, he advanced to become a product manager at the distribution company. His sales experience proved helpful for training and encouraging those who sold the products to physicians.
In addition, he had a major success in obtaining government reimbursement for the use of a new line of pain-management devices. Without such reimbursement, few in Belgium would have used these neurostimulator products. Although it took a lot of work to keep up with the latest scientific developments, Mr. Vancamp found the reading to be fun and interesting.
He hoped that MBA studies would enable him to do his current job better, provide an opportunity to participate in scientific research projects aimed at developing new medical devices, and prepare him for an eventual executive position. As a result of his MBA courses, he reports being better able to:
--understand all aspects of what makes a business successful
--avoid missing important issues
--gain understanding through conducting research
--identify high-quality choices
--be creative in finding solutions
--appreciate the flaws in his thinking and correct them
--communicate ideas and avoid valueless disputes
--gain interest in and support for his proposals
Mr. Vancamp also developed a greater interest in continuing self-education:
"I never read so many books in such a short period, but it definitely was worthwhile. I'll continue reading more as it has become a useful habit that brings so much light in the darkness. It's also a way to discover and come closer to best practices.
"What I first saw as a necessity to improve my odds of climbing up the corporate ladder became an interesting educational journey into the world of business.
"I know my education won't stop here. I'm eager to learn and wish to earn a doctoral degree. Hopefully I can start my doctoral program soon.
"Who knows what may lie ahead after that? For the moment my mind is also playing with the idea of writing a book. Maybe I'll do both of them."
Since graduating, Mr. Vancamp has been promoted to become the product manager for the Neuromodulation Division in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Canada. His expanded competence has also boosted his confidence.
Furthermore, he was appointed as a consultant at The Brain Research center Antwerp for Innovative and Interdisciplinary Neuromodulation at the University Hospital of Antwerp. As a result, I believe we can expect many great accomplishments to come from Mr. Vancamp.
How might your career improve if you learned new skills and knowledge in areas that fascinate and excite you?