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The most important lessons for graduating MBAs

June 9, 2015, 1:30 PM UTC
Photograph by Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

(Poets&Quants) — What a difference two years can make.

That’s how most MBAs feel after graduation. Just ask them about their first day at school. The consensus: It was pretty intimidating. For starters, cranking out 70-hour work weeks didn’t prep them for the workload. Running at the speed of business was a gear short of B-school pace, apparently. As first years, they were deluged with choices, where every club and event was a chance to make an impact – or miss out.

But the biggest lesson? Often, it was the humbling realization that they weren’t the most gifted or accomplished member of their class. Their peers were also valedictorians who had been showered with accolades and promotions, many prevailing over heartbreaking hardships in the process. In the end, the MBAs who excelled were the ones who quickly embraced their peers. “Everyone’s experience gives them something incredibly valuable to offer in the discussion of virtually any topic,” says Ali Huberlie, a 2015 graduate from Harvard Business School. “And every single person listening can learn something from each and every other person.”

This spring, Poets&Quants honored 50 of the most distinguished MBAs from the Class of 2015. As part of the nomination process, we asked students to share the key lessons they gained during business school. Learning how to lead was among the most transformational experiences for these MBAs. “Being a true leader isn’t about being a person with the loudest voice or holding power for yourself,” wrote London Business School’s Anne-Marie Kruk. “Being a great leader involves patience, delegation, and a great amount of teamwork.”

At the same time, these MBAs discovered that mastering various principles and processes was teaching them something deeper. “Hard skills are important and useful, but perishable,” observes Jenny Dare Paulin from University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “The most important skills you can acquire in business school are the abilities to adapt, interpret, and learn.” Even more, many discovered the simple recipe for learning, which was succinctly summed up by MIT Sloan’s Liat Kaver: “Don’t be shy to ask for help!”

Here is more advice from some of the best of the Class of 2015:

Data drives decisions

“I’ve learned that decision-making as a leader is both an art and a science. While it’s critical to gather hard data and input from those around you whenever possible, there’s never a perfect answer. Knowing when to make a call, and when to bring more people and data into the discussion, is an art. My biggest area of growth as a leader was becoming comfortable with this balance between the art and science.” — Nikita Mitchell, University of California-Berkeley, Haas School of Business

“The biggest lesson I gained was reaching a new level of confidence in my ability to make a decision with limited information. Prior to business school, I had a lot of experience with analyzing situations, weighing the pros and cons of each option, and even making the ultimate decisions. However, business school took my skills to the next level and taught me how to take all of the data available, make calculated assumptions, weigh the potential outcomes and consequences, then execute, pivot if need be, and live with (and learn from) the results. These decision-making skills will be very important when major high stakes situations present themselves in the business world, and a misstep could easily result in multi-million dollar consequences.” — George Wilson, Columbia Business School

Take risks

“The biggest lesson I learned from business school is that different is great. For me, this story began when I chose to [pursue] the Johnson Cornell Tech MBA in lieu of a traditional business program. While my friends and family saw the new program as a risk, I saw it as an opportunity. And by deciding to do something different, I got to build new companies, create change in community engagement and knowledge sharing, and shape how academic curriculum should change. I got to learn from David Tisch, Greg Pass, and Jonah Berger on how to manage products and ideas. I got to meet lifelong friends, who will be the next Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. I got to do great things, because I decided to do something different. I learned that there is always something we can learn from the people around us, so ask questions and be open to challenge. Know that there is no black or white.” — Miwa Takaki, Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School of Management

“I learned that I am more capable than I ever thought possible. While at Ross, I took multiple risks and learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I tried new classes, traveled to new places, worked in different cultures, and actively pursued leadership opportunities outside of my comfort zone. Each experience helped me gain confidence in my abilities and encouraged me to pursue new challenges.” — Audrey Horn, University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

Execution matters

“The difference between great ideas and great change is execution, and being the person who executes is just as important and fulfilling as the being the ideator. In everything I got involved in at Haas, I realized that I am a great executor. Though on the surface, being an executor isn’t as sexy as being an ideator, my time at Haas has taught me that change won’t happen unless there’s someone pushing things along. I learned to be proud of the fact that I can execute well and that creativity isn’t just about how many new ideas you have, but also about how many new ways you can make them happen.” — Katie Benintende, University of California-Berkeley, Haas School of Business

Learn from your mistakes

“Projects may succeed or fail, however the greatest value is in what you learn and can apply to the next one.” — Ellen Gartner Phillips, Indiana University, Kelley School of Business

Leadership comes in many forms

“As a student leader, I was confronted with many unexpected challenges, some of which were personally sensitive to my peers and me. Throughout my business school experience, I worked on becoming the most … supportive leader I could be. I recognized that in order to be effective I needed to listen, understand, and appreciate the concerns that were brought to my attention. Everyone interprets life events and conflict differently. What may personally move me may have little or no impact on the next person. As a leader, how I perceived the importance of an issue is somewhat irrelevant in making sure that the person I am interacting with is heard and assisted in the fairest way possible. I learned that objectivity and acceptance are incredibly important. Everyone has the right to enjoy their experience equally and no one has the right to diminish another’s experience. My experience showed me that I don’t need to compromise on my values to be effective.” — Alexander Brown, Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business

Don’t underestimate networking

“The biggest lesson I gained from my time at Mays is what that overused, ambiguous phrase “Your network is your net worth” really means and how to use it. The Aggie Network is over 300,000 strong and, although that can seem intimidating, leveraging the right contacts appropriately can make a significant difference in outcomes—a job interview, a critical data point, etc. Also, I’ve learned not to reach out to my network only when I need something but to foster those relationships on a personal level as well.” — Robyn Peters, Texas A&M University, Mays Business School

Soft skills often trump hard skills

“It’s all about empathy. The best teachers, innovators, leaders, negotiators, marketers, managers, facilitators, sellers, they all excel at deeply understanding other people’s needs and motivations. I truly believe that empathy is the most underestimated and overlooked leadership skill.” — Elena Mendez Escobar, MIT Sloan School of Management

“Core skill building aside, the biggest lesson from business school has been realizing the importance of emotional intelligence to becoming a leader. This concept was emphasized [in] class after class and through speaker series and many esteemed campus guests. Some of the most critical skills of a good business leader are [the] ability to self-motivate, self-manage, and be empathetic. Other skills … will make someone a good risk officer or brand manager. But the truly exceptional leaders are those who are able to inspire and drive teams and organizations to success.” — Nadine Payne, University of Maryland, Smith School of Business

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There’s more to business than the bottom line

“Business is about generating value, which can come in many forms—economic growth, infrastructure improvement, employment opportunity, engineering innovation, or greater community interaction, to name a few. It can serve as an incubator for community development and, for post-conflict societies in particular, business can expedite the transition to stability.” — Elizabeth Owens, University of Notre Dame, Mendoza College of Business

Take nothing for granted

“Two words, in bright block letters, on my laptop wallpaper: ‘Hustle harder.’ For me, pursuing a niche path in healthcare management meant that I had to be a part of the community, networking with alumni and other professionals, and diving into academic and practical learning opportunities. With no healthcare experience prior to business school, I pursued two independent studies in palliative care and home health and secured an internship at one of the nation’s leading hospitals. I drank a lot of coffee, meeting health care professionals early in the morning as often as I could. I knew that I would have to work hard academically, but I learned that the hustle extended far beyond the classroom. You have to stay hungry.” — Gina Bruno, Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management

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