15 Biggest Lessons From Business School

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“You ask too many questions.”

Consider that a compliment…in business, at least.

In fact, leaders can be measured by how they respond to questions. To some, questions are a threat. In a world that prizes certainty and agreement, questions expose gaps and complications. They are a reminder that comfortable systems and established hierarchies are subject to change. That’s why assuming and following are easier than probing and learning. In any organization, the biggest threat is always a failure of imagination. Over time, the biggest risk becomes the question that isn’t posed.

In business, questions are an extension of curiosity — the kind that spurs deeper reflection and reveal great possibilities. Take Amazon. A quarter-century ago, Jeff Bezos wondered how he could make books more readily available. He chose an online platform, eventually adapting it to fit the retail spectrum. At New York University’s Stern School, Dimitri Pun is following in Bezos’ footsteps. A former student council president and winner of NYU’s Design Thinking Competition, Pun recently joined Twitter as an associate product manager. For him, the biggest lesson he carries into the tech sector is the importance of asking questions.

Dimitri Pun, New York University (Stern)

HOW CAN I RETURN VALUE?

“Business school has taught me to always seek to understand things further, look at underlying motivations, and ask questions,” Pun writes. “These may include why are companies structured a certain way; why did company X make this decision; and what do consumers really want? Oftentimes, I found that the answers to these questions provide clarity on how the world works and a great insight into the psychology of people. Other times, they generated even more questions to explore!”

In contrast, Spencer Russell Call, who graduated from Brigham Young University’s Marriott School this spring, believes business comes with just one question. And it is the one that guides every decision he makes. “The end goal of all business is to create, sustain, and return value for others,” he tells P&Q. “I approach each situation I find myself in—be it school, work, home, church, or community —with this question: “How can I add value?” When done in accordance with my beliefs, I can lead an abundant life that is enhanced by the experiences I’ve had with others.”

The value of questions wasn’t the only big lesson learned by business majors over the past four years. As part of P&Q’s Best & Brightest nomination process, we asked top students from the top business programs to share the biggest lessons they’ll take into their careers. From embracing failure to deepening your network, here were the 15 biggest takeaways for the Class of 2021.

Veronica Escobar-Mesa, Boston University (Questrom)

1) Embrace Failure and Learn From It: “I took a course in which each student worked on a project in which failure was very likely. This course helped me understand that failure is inevitable and that the most important thing is learning from it. Throughout my four years, I also had many classes that used business cases as the primary method of teaching. Case studies usually talk about mistakes or things gone wrong. Therefore, I constantly learned from failure. I now know that embracing failure is key to achieving success.”
Veronica Escobar-Mesa, Boston University (Questrom)

“Ideas are easy. Execution is the variable that separates people.”
Micah Olsen, University of Houston (Bauer)

2) Anyone Can Be Helpful: “Every day, I learned something new from a new person, and I learned just as much, if not more, from my classmates as I did from my professors. The biggest lesson I learned from studying business was the wide array of possible lessons and teachers.  Socrates reportedly said that true wisdom is knowing you know nothing, and I completely agree. You often don’t even know where or when you’re going to learn something new until you do, and business taught me to always be on the lookout for new lessons.”
Samuel R. Lisner, University of Virginia (McIntire)

3) Provide Unique Value: “The biggest lesson I have gained from studying business is that individuals should always provide unique value to everything they do. All business is centered around value creation, and I try to incorporate this principle in my professional, personal, and extracurricular commitments. As my professional mentor Dina Gerson (Director of Olympic Partnerships at The Coca-Cola Company) would say, “If you don’t provide value, someone else will!”
Brennen Feder, University of Arizona (Eller)

4) Incorporate Multiple Perspectives: “McIntire does a phenomenal job of stressing this, whether it’s through Organizational Behavior cases that reveal the pitfalls of groupthink or group projects where students from different disciplines combine their strengths, and generate solutions that address the needs of all stakeholders. Ironically, I know I’ll be going into the work world confident in my own ability to make decisions, but fully aware that I can make the decision-making process exponentially stronger by asking “What am I not seeing here?” and joining with others to fill in those visibility gaps.”
Jeannie Patrice Hirsch, University of Virginia (McIntire)

“There are a minimum of 324 ways to complete a task. I came up with this number by doing simple algebra: 4 x 9 x 9 = 324. In an effort to reflect true career life, business schools constantly shove students in groups for classes and extracurricular activities. Even if your task is solo, you’re on a team of some sort and the team is on average 4 people. Each of those 4 people has at least 9 factors that affect their perspective: family structure, socioeconomic status, geographical childhood, gender, political leaning, race, ethnicity, personality type, and nationality. And depending on the day and problem, one or more of those factors may be at the forefront of their mind during group work. These perspectives and factors affect the way every single person views and responds to a task. So, if each person (4) has minimum 9 different perspectives that are arranged differently every day then 4 x 9 x 9 = 324.

As soon as I began to remind myself of this daily — 324 ways to complete a task — I truly think I became a better team member and problem solver in my communications and financial analysis courses and operations management groups. Because if after I presented my idea and the team wasn’t 100 percent behind it even after my urging, I knew there were over 300 hundred more ways that we could combine our perspectives, ideologies and backgrounds to come up with an answer so unique and powerful that everyone else couldn’t resist in supporting it. I think this is a main reason why my case groups placed if not won in every competition we entered.”
Sydney Dixon, Indiana University (Kelley)

Zakiyya Ellington, University of Georgia (Terry)

5) Pay Your Blessings Forward: “My biggest lesson was the impact of mentorship. I have had so many mentors who have shaped my interests, exposed me to opportunities, and advocated for me to help me reach where I am today. I therefore know the ability of mentorship to shape someone’s trajectory and achievement of their goals. For this exact reason, I care deeply about serving as a mentor to others and have dedicated much of my college career to doing so, particularly to first-semester Honors students and to underrepresented business students.”
Zakiyya Ellington, University of Georgia (Terry)

6) Business Is People-Powered: “Everything that has been done, is being done, or will be done is a result of people working together towards a common goal that creates benefit for the betterment of the whole. It is this ability for humans to communicate and organize around a shared vision for the future that underlies all the numbers, jargon, and technicalities of the business world. With that being said, it is important for all leaders to remember that it is our relationship with those around us that makes life worth living.”
Blake Nolan Bradley, Indiana University (Kelley)

“The biggest lesson I gained from studying business is the power of teams and collaboration. At Tepper, I constantly worked with teams composed of individuals with different interests and expertise than I had. I have worked with teams to create a presentation on recommendations for organizational change, build financial models to value a company, and write a paper on market reactions to IPOs. My senior capstone was to run an entirely simulated company – finance, marketing, operations, strategy – with a team! Each time, teamwork and collaboration emanated a synergy that led to the creation of final products and achievement of results far superior to what I could have accomplished individually. These experiences helped me understand that, at its core, a business is a team that can only succeed through the collaboration of multiple disciplines. A well-organized, differentiated, diverse, and motivated team is the most powerful force in the world.”
Shiwani Pathak, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

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