20 Lessons You Learn In Business School

You have to be tough…aggressive…merciless. It’s no holds barred and take no prisoners. You need to dominate. Break their wills. Always remember: There’s only room for one.

That’s how some view business. It’s high stakes and big egos, sharks vs. suckers, winner-take-all. Customers…partners…community? They’re just a means to an end, right? Think again, say the Class of 2020. For them, business is a noble purpose. It is an outlet for their creativity, an expression of their values, and a means to serve the greater good. It is this lesson that is being increasingly hammered home in America’s top business schools.


University of Richmond’s Hanna Lankler

“When people think about what it takes to be successful in business, they think of an aggressive mentality— doing whatever it takes to survive in a cutthroat environment or industry,” writes Hanna Lankler, a University of Richmond marketing major who joined Bloomingdale’s this summer. “One of my biggest lessons from studying business is that that is not the direction the discipline is going. Ambition should be collective, efforts should be collaborative, it should always be more important to serve the stakeholders than to serve one’s self.”

The stakeholder in the center of it all, says Brian Harrington, is the customer. For Harrington, the customer’s value extends far beyond the purchase. “The business world is a two-way street that involves a careful balancing act between a company and its customers,” notes the Boston University grad and Ernst & Young hire. “Both sides of a transaction hold some form of power and one side cannot succeed without listening to the vision and ideas of the other.”

The keyword there, says Santa Clara University’s Sarah Tatley, is “listening.” Like Harrington, she’ll be joining Ernst & Young after graduation. Entering business school, Tatley too bought into the myth of the hard-nosed, single-minded businessperson. As she delved more deeply into the field, she learned the value of skillsets not traditionally associated with business.


“When I think of business skills, I think of being tenacious, detail-oriented, having a strong sense of leadership, communicating effectively, and being able to solve problems and think under pressure. But, as important as those skills are, being able to listen, be introspective, think creatively, and develop a high level of emotional intelligence are just as important, if not more so.  Without having the skills and abilities to engage with people, the chances of profits are slim.”

Over the past four years, business graduates have absorbed plenty of powerful lessons. Some could even fit on a motivational poster. Take Emory University’s Catherine Xu: “There is no single path and any path you choose will not be linear.” From the University of Michigan, Liza Hochberg shares a more counterintuitive lesson: “Being a problem-solver is important to succeed in business, but being a problem-finder is vital.” At the same time, Michigan State’s Jack Vaglia hard-won wisdom could be construed as a warning: “You either have a plan or you are a part of someone else’s.”

What are some other lessons that business majors have absorbed? Each year, Poets&Quants honors 100 of the Best & Brightest Majors across the United States. As part of the selection process, we asked each nominee to share the most important lesson they learned from studying business. From working as a team to embracing failure, here are 20 of the critical lessons that the Class of 2020 will be applying to their careers.

Bucknell University’s Jackson Spear McCune

1) Business Involves Making People Happy: “Oftentimes, the most overlooked asset in any form of business is people. Students typically focus on finance, mathematical economics or marketing, but the most successful business people are the individuals who stand out in a crowd. If you can make someone smile, trust you, or simply remember you once you’ve walked away, you have what it takes to succeed.”
Jackson Spear McCune, Bucknell University (Freeman)

2) You Learn How to Think: “Surprisingly, one of the greatest lessons I gained has to do more with education than business. Nonetheless, one of my favorite professors, Dr. Richard Dietrich, told us on the first day of class that he would not be teaching us to do accounting — that was not his job. Rather, he would teach us how to think, and we would teach ourselves accounting. It has stuck with me over the past three years because I realized the value of these analytical skills that he taught us. Rather than looking to mentors, role models, and experts for information and instruction, I found that the greatest lesson they have to offer is how to think intellectually and critically.”
Jaret Waters, Ohio State (Fisher)

University of Virginia’s Marwan Elbattouty

3) Everyone is an Entrepreneur: “One of the best lessons is from Jere Doyle, Director of Boston College’s Shea Center for Entrepreneurship: “We are all entrepreneurs!” Entrepreneurship is not only a business model, it is a mindset and a lifestyle that those of us who want to embody it do. The idea that you do not have to start your own company to be an entrepreneur has opened my eyes to the entrepreneurial choices I make each day such as innovating and creating, asking questions out of curiosity and taking risks.”
Allison Ferreira, Boston College (Carroll)

4) You Succeed as a Team: “I had heard this many times but don’t think I fully understood it until coming to McIntire: Teams produce better work. In McIntire’s fall Integrated Core Experience (ICE), my group and I worked on semester-long projects with each other. Coming out of it, I’ve become much more cognizant of the challenges that teams face when working together. However, I also became more self-aware of my own strengths and weaknesses and learned how to overcome some of these team conflicts. Ultimately, the diversity of opinion, workstyle, and experience that working in teams brings is invaluable and was definitely both personally and professionally enriching.”
Marwan Elbattouty, University of Virginia (McIntire)

“The biggest lesson I gained from studying business is the importance of working effectively in a team. When we are young, academics tend to focus on the success of the individual, which fosters a competitive spirit among peers. While individual success is important and competition is not inherently bad, the reality is that as professionals, most (if not all) of the work we do will be done with others. Therefore, it is important for students to gain practice working in a group of people with diverse personalities and backgrounds and ultimately collaborate to put forth a strong product. Fortunately, the Gabelli School of Business takes seriously the importance of teamwork and integrates this lesson into much of its coursework. As a result, Gabelli students begin their careers ready to contribute meaningfully to whatever teams they find themselves working on.”
Alexandra Gallagher, Fordham University (Gabelli)

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