Business Lessons

25 Lessons Business School Won't Ever Teach You

The school of hard knocks is where the unforgettable lessons are learned.
25 Lessons Business School Won't Ever Teach You
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Author of A Paperboy's Fable: The 11 Principles of Success
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There are a lot of great lessons you can learn in business school. It emphasizes planning and strategic decision-making. Ideally, it shows you how to take academic theories and apply them to real-world problems. But no matter how brilliant the professors or how well designed the curriculum, no school can teach you everything you need to know.

There’s a lot you’re going to have to figure out on your own, through trial and error. Some of the most important lessons you’ll ever learn about how to be successful in business (and in life, for that matter) comes from getting out there and doing it.

So, if you’re hoping that MBA will be your golden ticket to kickstarting a successful career in business, consider these all-important 25 lessons that you’ll have to learn outside the classroom.

1. How to be a better leader.

Leaders who have MBAs are no more effective and perform no better than those who don’t. According to a Harvard Business Review study of the 100 best-performing CEOs in the world, only 24 percent had MBAs.

Successful leaders must be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They have to convey positivity and motivate those around them. These aren’t things you can discover in a classroom setting.

2. There is no single path to success.

There’s no single formula you can follow to be successful. You have to follow your own path to achieve your dreams. No one -- not a teacher, a mentor or even a billionaire business leader -- can tell you how to create your best future. You have to figure that out for yourself. One person’s vision can’t be duplicated and remade by someone else.

Related: Investing in Your Happiness Is the Path to Success

3. How to build relationships that help move you forward.

The saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is very true in business. Every successful business is built on good relationships. If you want to be successful you’ll need to master so-called soft skills like how to network and form bonds with people. That’s how you get invited to the right places and meet the right people.

4. How to be an effective communicator.

How effective you are at getting your point across can make the difference between sealing a deal and missing out on a potential opportunity. Communication fosters good working relationships and is important to a team’s morale and efficiency. Some people are just gifted communicators, while others need to work to improve their communication skills. However, this is a topic rarely covered in business school.

5. Every interaction is a negotiation.

You may learn negotiation strategies in business school, but the act of doing it in real time, in real life, is entirely different. Whenever you interact with someone in business, you’re either formally or informally negotiating something. When negotiation is done well, both parties leave satisfied and ready to do business with each other again.

Related: 8 Negotiating Tactics Every Successful Entrepreneur Has Mastered

6. How to establish a new business.

Business school will teach you the steps you should follow when forming a business: how to do research, come up with a plan, make a budget, choose a business structure and so on. But there’s so much else that goes into a new business that classes can’t cover. How to find capital, get people to invest in your ideas and make that all-important first sale -- all of that is up to you.

7. The importance of courtesy and manners.

Most of us learned good manners from our parents as children, but how often do professors emphasize the importance of using common courtesies and etiquette when dealing with customers? Simple things like using customers’ names, being on time, delivering on promises and saying thank you will make a huge difference to your business’s success.

Related: The Key to Success? Relationships.

8. How to hire the best people.

Every entrepreneur struggles with recruiting and hiring an excellent team of people. Human resource managers have worked to refine the process, but deciding who is really going to be a good fit comes down to nuances that can’t be put into a formula.

9. How to learn from your mistakes.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in entrepreneurship is that failure is inevitable. Sometimes deals fall through. Things change, the market fluctuates, or perhaps your idea simply didn’t pan out. You still have to find a way to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. Entrepreneurs must learn to frame their failures, learn from their mistakes and improve for next time.

10. Marketing in a high-tech world.

In our highly connected digital world, technology is changing at breakneck speed, impacting the way businesses market themselves. This ever-changing scene makes it practically impossible for business schools to keep up with digital marketing trends. Entrepreneurs need to work at finding ways to stay in the loop.

11. How to relate to your customers.

Your sales approach matters just as much as what you’re selling. Academics often miss the all-important step of relating to customers. That personal connection comes from really listening to your customers.

12. Emotional intelligence is just as important as IQ.

Emotional intelligence (also known as “emotional quotient,” or EQ) was ranked sixth in the World Economic Forum’s list of the top 10 skills that employees need to thrive in the workplace. EQ refers to someone’s ability to perceive, understand and manage their own feelings and emotions. In the business world, this is often more valuable than book smarts.

Related: The Importance of Emotional Intelligence at Work

13. How to be humble.

Humility keeps you grounded, even as you reach for higher and higher goals. Being humble doesn’t mean you think less of yourself; it means you’re more focused on others. This helps you become aware of your flaws. When you’re humble, you stay focused on the needs of customers and really listen to feedback and criticism. 

14. You’ll have to figure some things out on the fly.

There’s no doubt that business models are important. But sometimes you just have to wing it. There will be times when you come up against an unexpected issue or problem, or a one-off opportunity. You’re going to have to figure out some things as you go. This is why the ability to think on one’s feet will always be essential to entrepreneurs.

15. How to be creative.

Coming up with original ideas and finding ways to innovate will give you a big competitive advantage. But creativity is often a process of self-discovery. It takes practice and persistence to generate creative ideas and make something great out of them. Entrepreneurs must make a continuous and conscious effort to look at the world with a curious and open mind.

16. The importance of risk taking.

An MBA can’t teach you to feel more comfortable with taking risks. Weighing opportunity versus potential failure is often personal -- you must take into account so many factors beyond the business formulas you learn in school. And an MBA certainly can’t teach you what to do when you take a risk and it flops.

17. You can’t avoid office politics.

No matter how much you may hate office politics, you must pay attention to the internal workings of your business. Office politics will always be a part of business. Knowing how to deal with people effectively is a must. How we handle each other, and how we communicate with and treat one another, can either make work fun and interesting or create a never-ending cycle of problems and challenges.

Related: Your Startup Is Not Exempt From Dirty Office Politics

18. How to outmaneuver larger competitors.

You don’t have to be a giant to win. Being a small and nimble business has its advantages. But it’s up to each entrepreneur to see the strengths and specific advantages their business can utilize to outmaneuver larger competitors. Look for ways you can offer something the bigger guys can’t without going to a head-to-head competition.

19. How to resolve conflicts.

In business, as in life, conflicts are inevitable. You’re going to have to embrace that fact and learn to deal with it. No lesson plan will cover how to forgive others, smooth over hurt feelings and find resolution you can all live with, but being able to do so is crucial to navigating the business world.

20. When to trust your instincts.

Mega-successful entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates would often prioritize their own intuition over the advice of others, or even customer feedback. Intuition is the result of your body processing the data around you. You may not be able to explain why you know something; you just sense it. That’s not to say you should always ignore what other people have to say, but sometimes you need to turn inward and trust your gut.

21. How to set goals.

So often in business, we know what we want to do but have no idea how get there. We have a business model and a mission statement, but don’t really understand what our specific goals are. Goal setting is crucial to holding yourself accountable and making sure everyone on your team is aligned and on the same page.

22. Generating ideas that will disrupt.

All entrepreneurs dream of disrupting their industry, but few ever do because it’s rare to come up with ideas that will cause sweeping change. Business school may teach you that disruption begins with defining a solution to a problem and then finding a way to add value to customers’ experience. Sounds simple, but finding a way to break with the status quo never is.

23. You’re going to need to delegate.

You can’t possibly handle every single detail of your business. In order to be successful over the long haul, you’re going to need help. You’re going to need to delegate, outsource or subcontract work when necessary. You’re going to need to learn when to seek help.

24. How to set realistic expectations.

If you promise the world to customers or clients, and then can’t fulfill those obligations, you’re going to end up with some frustrated people on your hands. To be successful, you’ll need to establish parameters, realistic timelines and deliverables. Your roadmap to success begins by creating clear, achievable expectations and then following through.

25. Real-life experience.

You can study all you want, and you can hang multiple degrees on your wall, but nothing will ever take the place of real-life experience. The only way to acquire that is by getting out there and actually doing it. Real life is full of wins and losses, failures and successes. Learning to navigate the harsh business world will teach you more than you can ever learn in a classroom.

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