10 Things I Wish I Knew at the Start of my MBA

Studying an MBA is a long journey. Juggling a career, family and study can be tough going.

There’s a joke that MBA stands for ‘married but absent’ and at times it certainly feels that way. Like many journeys there are a few things I wish I knew at the start, and that’s what this post is about.

Here are the five things I wish I knew when starting my MBA study:

1. Don’t hand in safe assignments

I previously approached my assignments as something I was going to present to my employer. As one of my MBA lecturers pointed out (thanks Sam Wells), it is a nice approach but it restricts your thinking, and in turn your learning. Your ideas will be inhibited – consciously or subconsciously, to ensure they’re acceptable for management to read. Sure, you will think and write in a more empowered way but you’ll pull up shorter on radical ideas, because of concern that it may be rejected by your peers.

Imagine that you were in complete control at your workplace. Be opinionated, passionate and powerful. Think – what would someone like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or even Kerry Packer have said if they were in your shoes? They would not be making safe recommendations. Push your limits, be a little crazy.

Disclaimer – if you go down this path, don’t forget an MBA is a post-graduate course, and requires a certain academic rigour. Be prepared that you will occasionally get it wrong- take it on the chin, learn and keep pushing, you’ll be better for it.

2. Group Assignments – allocate someone just to do the editing

When doing group work, I’ve found that it works best if you allocate someone just to the task of editing. Give them the power to revise and re-do any of the group’s work. At first, it doesn’t feel fair, as everyone will be writing their section whilst the editor is waiting for content, but it works really well, and they end up working just as hard.

Asking someone to contribute equally to the content, as well as editing can be unfair and can limit the team’s success.

The editing of an assignment, making it sound ‘of one voice’, and ensuring it meets the assignment criteria usually takes longer than one of the sections. Often, the editor is required to rewrite large portions of one or two group member’s submissions. Being the editor can be hard work, and should be left to the person who cares the most about high grades.

3. Worry less about definitions and more about applying them

Lecturers generally don’t want to see definitions. If you are just repeating what is in the textbook you are probably approaching the question from the wrong angle. Use the term or concept a little more like assumed knowledge, and then demonstrate understanding of it by its application. It sounds obvious, but the trick is getting the balance right for each subject and lecturer.

4. Group Assignments – don’t be afraid to use your company

Using your company for group projects may seem a little limiting – you already know your company, right? In practice works really well though. A group project on your company will give surprising insights and will result in a deeper understanding of your company’s dynamics and issues. It will give you an opportunity to talk to internal managers about work issues outside of your regular role or department in the company. Also, from a networking perspective, these managers will see you being pro-active about your career and personal development.  All good things.

If you’re taking my advice from point 1, you may need to audit your assignment before letting fellow employees see the results!

5. Read a wide range of business books and biographies

Read more. Read business books and biographies of famous people. Lecturers love it when you reference outside material as it shows you are making connections that they haven’t spoon fed you. It will be helpful in your assignments, and on your journey to be a better manager. A good book can supply knowledge and inspiration.

Don’t just read business books that are fresh off the press either, there is a lot value in the previous generation’s reading list.

6. Attend events, make sure people know who you are and that you know who they are

The University runs a number of events, such as the networking breakfasts, end of trimester celebrations and guest speaker seminars. Attend as many as you can, meet people, try to understand who they are and what they are about. Try to make it easy for them to understand what you are about too.

The other side of this networking is being able to debate issues and get advice from managers outside your organisation who may have seen or experienced similar management challenges before.

7. Make notes in your books

Traditionally I have always disliked making notes or marks in my books. I like to keep them in good condition. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my mum being a librarian and her troubles with kids drawing in books. Either way, a book in unmarked condition is not helpful. Make notes all over your books. As you read, underline any important quotes, draw vertical lines next to important paragraphs and don’t be afraid to write your own thoughts or enquiries in the margins. Then later when you refer back to the book, you will be able to immediately jump to what is important. If you use electronic books, make use of the highlighting and notes features.

8. Get an ultra-portable laptop or tablet for comprehensive notes

A few subjects back, I started using my iPad and wireless keyboard for lecture notes. I wish I had this system from the start. My lecture notes are now awesome, searchable, printable, spell-checked and even have drawings in them. The biggest benefit of this approach is that I can type much faster than I can write, which gives me more time to pay attention to what is being said. A solid note taking system will help your assignments and exam revision. Typed up notes pay dividends in open book exams.

Note of caution – if you take this advice on, then make sure you know how to paste drawings, charts etc into your lecture notes before trying to do it in class. It can have its challenges.

9. Really, truly understand the commitment you’ve made. Make sure your loved ones understand it and support you too

Doing an MBA is a big commitment. It requires much more work than I thought it would. I heard a joke once that MBA stands for Married-But-Absent and it certainly feels this way at times. To do well and absorb the most from the course, try to make sure that those around you are supportive of your efforts. You’ll need to sustain motivation for a few years, – the more support and encouragement you have the better.

10. Start a blog or a journal to record your journey

One of the unfortunate facts of learning is that it can be hard to remember course material once a subject is finished. There is too much quality in an MBA to let that happen. Make lots of notes, start a blog or journal, or just have a management folder that you put interesting things into. I can’t recommend starting a blog enough. It becomes a useful resource for you and is a great way to network and market yourself, both inside your company and outside. However you do it, find a way to not lose what you have learnt.

So there you have it, that’s my top ten things I wish I knew at the start of my MBA journey.

Tagged in News, Alumni, Management, MBA, Student experience

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