MBAs in the Valley

A Kellogg student recently emailed me the following question: “I subscribe to Quora’s weekly digest and came across the question: “Are top MBAs looked down upon in Silicon Valley? If so, why?” Most responses said  they were. What are your thoughts, Professor?”

Here is the response I gave:

On the question you posed on how MBAs are viewed in the Valley, I think some of the responses on Quora were quite insightful. I would say, when I was in the Bay Area scene anyway (mid-90’s through 2007), there may have been the perception that fancy MBA’s (i.e. top five or so schools) will:

  • Be really expensive (“Hey, maybe I hire two associates from Cal undergrad instead!”)
  • Be hard to manage — they’ll posture that they know it already, they won’t take feedback well, etc.
  • Bother you within 9 mo. in the new job about getting promoted
  • Will not offer a pointed perspective—instead will try to cover all the bases, hiding behind jargon, decks and frameworks. (“And another way of looking at this is…” Meanwhile, Rome is burning…)

Did I encounter any of the above while in the Valley, working with MBAs?” Yes I did, BUT, getting an MBA from a top school says a lot – about motivation, smarts, etc. – and I definitely hired a lot of sharp MBAs over the years (and hired plenty of Kellogg MBAs because of their well-earned reputation for having a broad-based skill set and working well in teams). Nonetheless, I must admit that I was on a watch-out for these tendencies.

My advice to you fancy MBA types (and remember, I too was one back in the late 40’s) is to counter this perception by:

  • Showing humility. Don’t act like you know it all. You don’t. I certainly don’t—I’m still trying to figure out the questions. Bo don’t. Jack Welch don’t. Even Buddha don’t—well maybe Buddha do…So don’t brag and self-promote. People will realize you’re good quite quickly. Every kid in high school knows who the smart kids are…the same goes in business.
  • Listening well. This goes hand-in-hand with humility. Don’t act like you’re listening when in fact you’re just re-loading. Don’t do the “yeah-but” on people when they’re talking. Just listen openly and actively, asking clarifying questions along the way. Try not to strive for congruence too soon– just listen and mull over what you’re hearing without responding with a declarative statement. Good listening is so rare! Those who do it well enter some sort of kingdom of goodness.
  • Placing an emphasis on learning. You do this by reaching out to others, listening and asking questions. (Use lunch as a time to ask people out from other departments to understand their perspectives and learn about their priorities.) You also do this by digging into the guts of the business. Learn how to do data pulls in the BI Tool. Comb over the 10K, the balance sheet and the P&L and know the latter at a line item level. Dig into the secondary data — Comscore/Forrester/Nielsen, etc. Examine the conversion funnel in Omniture. Listen in on analyst calls. Very few will do these things. You will.
  • Leading by example. Be of service to the business. Put your head down and do stuff that needs doing–don’t say stuff. Always move toward action. I love the word “Activate!” I think of “Wonder twin powers, activate!” (Sorry—old person cartoon reference.) Your good work will speak for itself. Every once in a while your personal brand may need a little nudge in terms of brand visibility, but not as often as you’d think…
  • Having a point of view that’s measured and considered, express it succinctly, then stop talking.

With that, I’ll stop talking.




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