When it comes to an MBA, there is a perceived value, and there is the reality. How do they compare?
When I announced last year that I would move to Tokyo and start my MBA studies at GLOBIS University, the reactions of friends and family were rather mixed. I heard it all, from an incredulous “At your age?!” (I was 38 at the time) to ”What on earth would you learn there that you haven’t already experienced as a business owner?” to “Congratulations and God speed!”
I listened to all the critics and tried my best to answer their concerns. But really, I had no evidence, only a gut feeling that this decision was right for me.
Now, looking back with my degree in hand, I can reflect on my experiences as an MBA student. It was worth it, but there are some unexpected lessons that I can impart to guide the decision of others thinking about stepping away from work (and life) for a year or two to get an MBA.
You’re never too old to learn (if you mentally prepare).
For me, a full-time MBA literally meant going from life as a 24/7 entrepreneur to sitting in a classroom four days a week. I won’t lie, it was hard.
MBAs are a lot of work.
There are stacks of case studies (I was reading at least twelve a week), endless new knowledge, lots of class preparation, and tough reports. And on top of all that, I was competing with mostly younger people for credits. I was mentally and physically exhausted.
Although long working hours were nothing new to me, I was called on to use my brain with a new intensity. Something you might not know: MBA course material requires a lot of analysis and reflection to learn.
Diversity pays off.
Learn I did, no doubt about it. But the best thing was that I didn’t have to do it on my own. I had twenty-seven classmates from sixteen different countries. They came from widely varying industries and backgrounds. They specialized in everything from accounting and finance to engineering, IT, and education.
That diversity came in handy.
Being a newbie in the numbers department, I was struggling uphill until two classmates (both auditors) volunteered to start teaching “remedial accounting classes.” We had study groups on subjects like finance, marketing, and quantitative analysis, during which we applied the skills we were taught in class to the cases presented to us.
Despite competing on a bell-curve system, help was always offered to those who asked for it and it was often only a text message away.
You’re never too wise to learn (if you remain humble).
So what, exactly, did I learn from an MBA that I didn’t know already from my experience as an entrepreneur?
MBAs offer perspective on frameworks vs. instinct.
To start, there were a lot of frameworks. But I didn’t just learn how to use them. I also learned when to use them and when to rely on gut instinct.
MBAs offer a linguistic reality check, but also build confidence.
I learned that your competency in English as a foreign language can drop spectacularly when you’re studying things in a field you know nothing about. And things get even worse when you’re trying to defend your point of view to an audience. But I learned to stand my ground when I was sure I was right, accept positive criticism, and bow to better, even opposite arguments.
MBAs teach you about people.
Surprisingly, my MBA experience taught me to be more attuned to other people’s sensitivities, whether that means race or gender or religion. It’s impossible to do everything well and by yourself. You need to carefully think about what you should be focusing on, when to get into a business, and when to get out. Other people and perspectives provide critical input on that.
For me, getting an MBA helped me evaluate my experience as an entrepreneur and clearly see things I did right, as well as things I could have done better. Thanks to that, there are some mistakes I will not make a second time.
The True Value of an MBA
I’m from Belgium, and I could have gone to a Belgian business school for my MBA. So why go all the way to Japan?
Admittedly, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with Japan. I wanted to experience living in Tokyo, so what better place to learn about doing business the Japanese way?
But I was also at a crossroads in my career. The kokorozashi (personal mission) focus at GLOBIS University was definitely a big draw, as well.
After a year studying full time for my MBA in Tokyo, I find myself much more business savvy. But I’m also a better human being.
Taking time off for a full-time MBA brought me new business knowledge, as well as a chance to evaluate my past and think about my future. I had all the time I needed to reflect on myself as an entrepreneur and what I can give back to society. All the studying, analysis, and networking with future leaders prepared me well for a new life and career in my favorite place in the world.
So to anyone doubting whether an MBA has real value, I can now truly say that it can be a life-changing experience. Don’t doubt, just go for it!