An MBA in less than 400 pages?

In a wide-ranging interview, author Stanley Bing lays out his motivations for his latest book, where B-schools are missing the mark, and his advice for business students.

Stanley Bing

(Poets&Quants) — Can you really pack a two-year, $250,000-curriculum in a single book? Author and longtime Fortune columnist Stanley Bing sets out to do exactly that in The Curriculum: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master of Business Arts.

If the concept strikes you as preposterous, a peek inside will do little to dispel your doubts. From the accreditation body, the National Association for Serious Study (“dedicated to a number of serious studies”), to a core curriculum that includes “Not Appearing Stupid” and “Crazy People,” the book offers a satirical take on an overly staid subject. Think Stephen Colbert meets B-school — with info-graphics.

The humor, though pointed, is not what’s surprising. Rather, it’s the truth behind Bing’s approach. Just as “The Office” and “Dilbert” magnify the absurdities of the 9-to-5 grind, Bing uses humor to poke holes in accepted business pedagogy. The glossary, for instance, defines marketing as the “art of creating demand for a product or service nobody knows they need,” while mergers are compared with insect marriage: “one spouse, and all its bodily parts, will be eaten as soon as intercourse is done.”

For all its flippancy, the book includes valuable lessons: write short emails, don’t sound stupid, learn how to bullshit effectively, be respectful but not servile, and ditch the Bluetooth.

Without the strictures of academia, Bing throws political correctness to the wind and offers his readers a crash course on business boiled down to what it really is: interactions between humans for money and all the complications that invites. While the book is not likely to replace an MBA, it’s certainly a solid guide to navigating the nuances of the business world.

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Bing lays out his motivations for writing the book, where B-schools are missing the mark, and his advice for business students.

What prompted you to write the book?

I’ve written a lot of books that straddle the line between whimsy and advice. In What Would Machiavelli Do? I explored why mean people do so well in business and in Crazy Bosses I explored the idea that pathology, which would be liability in any other venue, can be an asset in business. So I’ve been thinking about these things and working in corporations for a long time, and I wanted to aggregate a lot of these ideas in a course of study that would explore the irrational like a classical MBA explores the rational.

I’ve always seen business as being more irrational, emotional, personality-driven, and humorous than how it’s portrayed in business writing. I looked at what people study when they get their MBAs. I reviewed the curricula of top business schools, including Kellogg, Harvard, Stanford, and Stern. Much of it didn’t speak to me or the skills that deliver success to people I’ve known. So I did an alternative curriculum.

The book is quite harsh on the MBA. Do you think it’s a dud degree?

I think business school is marketed as if it’s a panacea for everything. I stopped in Oakland, Calif., and saw three enormous billboards telling people they should go get their MBA. They can choose from Davis, Berkeley, or Stanford. But do all these people really need an MBA?

In most of my department, there are no MBAs. We do have a few in finance, but not in sales, and I don’t think you need an MBA to be successful in sales. It’s an innate quality, like musical talent. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t know one great sales representative who learned it in business school. Actually, I can think of one, but he’s a genius and his MBA led him to become a CEO.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as saying that the whole thing is a big fake, but it does have a very specific purpose, and it’s not for everyone.

In the foreword, you say that the book’s course “will not take anywhere near the two years and up to $250,000 involved in those offered by well-established, time-consuming and tedious ivy-covered institutions…” Do you think the book could be a substitute for an MBA?

For some people I think it would be, and for others it wouldn’t. For instance, it wouldn’t necessarily replace the MBA for someone going into finance. But not everyone going to business school is going to do that; they’re going to be entrepreneurs or just looking for a job. A lot of what’s in the book is common sense and a certain way of looking at things.

I firmly believe that it’s more important to not appear stupid than to have a deep understanding of finance. Unless I’m the comptroller, I don’t need to know everything about finance. I fully recognize that you need to know what EPS [earnings per share] is so you can understand how your company is doing from a shareholder’s perspective, and you’ve got to know certain jargon — these are things you need to function.

But I can also tell you that every senior officer I know is faking it about 30% of the time. A significant chunk of the time they’re going to look it up later, and they don’t want to appear ignorant. There is a time you can ask stupid questions, but that’s after you’ve established an aura of intelligence. I think that’s extremely valuable.

You use humor in the book. What’s the strategy behind your approach?   

The book is funny, but it’s not silly. This idea that truth and insight can’t be conveyed to someone if it’s funny or that it’s somehow less true is an interesting development in our society. There was a time when if someone was funny, that made it more true. Apparently now we’ve got to be dead serious and slightly boring to give people good advice.

What’s your best piece of advice for current or prospective MBA students?

I think that the chapter on perfecting your brand and your product, which is you, is really important when you’re young and going into the world. Young people come and see me, and I say to them, “Well, what do you want to do and what have you got?” And they say, “Well, I can do pretty much anything.” And I think, “Are you a floor wax or a breakfast cereal? What’s the thing that differentiates you from other people? Are you a good writer or a musician? Are you sturdy or courageous? What is the thing that makes you unique?”

I think the process of becoming successful in the world is finding the answers to those questions. You really have to know who you are and what you’re good at and be confident in presenting that and executing on it.

It sounds really naive and Pollyannaish, but I really think people should do what they love when they’ve got the chance and can live cheaply. Do the things that you want to do; don’t take jobs that are supposedly stepping stones and are really dead ends. Don’t go into being a broker if you really want to be guitar player — do what you want to do.

Very often people start out with a kooky idea of what they want to be and it mutates into an actual job. I began as an actor and writer and the acting has never let me down, and the writing, well, if there was one skill that makes you non-fungible in a business environment, it’s being able to write. There are literally thousands of people who can manipulate numbers, but in any organization there are literally three or four people who can actually write, who can convey complicated ideas.

What is the key takeaway from your book? 

There’s a lot of emotion, hope, friendship, and betrayal in life and business — how do you manage that? You have to have a strategy, even a bad one is better than none at all. A lot of people don’t have one; they may have a mission or value statement but those are extremely difficult to put into action. You have to try to get one, even if it’s for a haircut.

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