B-School vs. C-School

Does an MBA necessarily translate into success behind the desk in the corporate world?

By Margery Weinstein

When you see on a resume that an applicant graduated at the top of his or her business school class, does that necessarily translate into guaranteed success behind the desk at your company? A business school background can’t hurt, but most organizations know it is far from enough. With more individuals touting business school degrees on their resumes, companies are recognizing the need to help these new employees apply what they learned in the classroom to the real world of tight budgets and stretched financial goals.

Difference in Details

At DaVita, Inc., business school provides a big picture of the business world. It is up to the company’s current leaders and DaVita University faculty to put those lessons into context. “Business school learning often provides a wide variety of case studies and examples to use, so concepts are learned and leaders have a foundation of what to expect as they expand in their leadership roles, whereas our corporate learning often is geared more toward deeper dives into who our leaders are as human beings,” says DaVita Vice President of Wisdom Dave Hoerman. “Leadership is a human skill, it’s about relationships, and it’s about heart. We help leaders deal with actual leadership and management situations within our world, and our specific industry and business nuances. At DaVita University, we get into the specifics, the details and guts of our internal metrics and management models, as well as being role models for the culture we are striving to create.”

The company recognizes the benefits of a business school background and yet also realizes that what is learned in business school is raw knowledge, and usually more “head based.” “We find business school is often more broad and conceptual,” Hoerman says. “Both have their advantages. For example, a trait in our top leaders at DaVita is that they build strong teams. In business school, a leader can learn strategy to develop strong teams, what works and what doesn’t, and even get to practice that by leading teams in school. In our corporate university setting, it’s all about application and balancing head, heart, and hands in real scenarios,” he explains. “Teammates receive coaching for their specific situation and immediately put that coaching into action. They often have to look inward and adjust their approach to address the inevitable unplanned or unexpected nuances that arise, which can only be learned by experiencing these real and sometimes deep interpersonal situations. At DaVita, feedback is critical in the learning process, so our established leaders engage in one-on-one coaching to help a new leader process outcomes and course correct where needed.”

DaVita takes the help it gives recent business school graduates a step further with specialized programming. For example, the company offers a leadership development program that focuses specifically on recruiting and training MBAs to be leaders. “This program, called the Redwoods Program, is designed to take high achievers who have graduated from top business schools and get them the experiences they need to succeed at higher levels in DaVita,” says Redwoods Program Manager Lindsey Alt. “These experiences include classroom learning, hands-on shadowing, experiential learning, and mentoring. Redwoods participants begin with 10 months of intensive training, including formalized mentorship and coaching by executives in addition to more than 175 hours of classroom and experiential learning. More than 300 hours of task-focused shadowing and a leadership practicum are included.” The program gives those with a business school degree a set of tools to help them navigate the corporate world. “We focus much of our attention in this program on a couple of things: giving these new teammates access to top leaders to learn and receive mentorship from; giving them an increased level of responsibility quickly; providing support and time to be successful; and helping them create the relationships all across the organization that will enable them to succeed in their current and future roles.”

The leadership practicum portion of the Redwoods program is especially helpful, says Alt. “We ask our teammates in this program to spend four months as the facility administrator of one of our dialysis clinics, and we make them fully responsible for the operations of the clinic,” she explains. “This is when their leadership skills and business skills are truly put to the test and refined.”

Adds Hoerman, “We also then provide them with specific management and leadership courses in our university that help them understand what is expected of them as leaders at our organization. We dive deeply into who they are as human beings, and then help them authentically lead from that place. They learn to not only apply their business skills, but what it means to lead The DaVita Way, and how to drive our
mission, values, culture, and vision.”

Blueprint to Build

Business school is great at giving prospective employees a general framework of what to expect, but it is not necessarily enough preparation on its own for the reality of doing business. Intel Corp. tries to give recent MBA graduates an understanding of where the day-to-day difficulties may arise. “Business school learning tends to provide tools, analytics, and theoretical models to address ‘real-world’ business problems. None of the tools or models actually fit perfectly the reality of the business issues,” says Jim Kellso, Intel’s Accelerated Leadership Program manager. “Corporate learning tends to provide the experiences in which these employees can temper their scholastic learning with how to apply those tools in the business world. If I am building a house, I might have learned how to read blueprints and the directions for a power saw and nail driver, but it is not until I try to cut the timbers and assemble them the way the blueprints indicate that I realize everything in the working world needs a bit of site adaptation, and nothing goes together quite the way the directions indicate.”

As such, the tools given to MBAs in school often require tinkering to be useful. “The tools and approaches students learn in school are great tools, but they must be applied with common sense, experience, and judgment,” says Kellso. “Almost every tool needs a creative approach when you try to use it on an actual business problem.”

Intel finds the realities of the commercial world often are an eye-opener for new business school graduates. “The biggest learning required and most difficult to internalize is that the answers and approaches defined in business school do not perfectly fit the realities of the commercial world,” says Kellso. “A great example would be that MBAs are taught a series of tools for project justification. However, a pure ROI or ROIC analysis would tend to lead a company to outsource all high-investment activities and ‘hollow out’ its manufacturing engines. This leads to loss of technology and market position and never shows up in an ROIC analysis. We often use various rotation programs in which the new employee works closely with a manager/mentor for a series of six- or eight-month rotations to gain business understanding in a high coaching relationship to better understand the realities of business in general and our business specifically.”

Kellso says the best training programs are a combination of just-in-time training and practical application. “We utilize our rotation program to place our new hires into actual meaningful working conditions with coaches, provide assignment-appropriate training, and surround these learners with managers and other rotations so they have an opportunity and support to work their way through the actual business problems,” he notes. “Rotation one curriculum would include items such as how to address difficult conversations and conflict resolution, how to build trust with those you work with, influencing through networking, and other similar practical application training that focuses on being a highly successful individual contributor.”

Set the Stage with B-School Partnerships

Behind the work Intel does with the MBAs it hires is the groundwork laid by long-term relationships with business schools. “We have long and deep relationships with specific schools that offer curriculum that is tailored to the needs of our business. This includes business schools with a strong manufacturing emphasis (there are several of these). We have worked with some of our key contact schools for several decades,” says Kellso. “This long-term relationship allows us to sit on curriculum boards and advisory boards and exert influence on the content of the material the students are taught, so we get better business, supply chain, and technical understanding and real-world business acumen folded into the core curriculum. We actively recruit from a list of more than 10 key business schools with which we have long and deep relationships. We aggressively recruit both interns and graduates with an eye toward our permanent positions.”

The company carefully evaluates each MBA applicant and, once hired, helps them create a pathway to achievement. “We evaluate new business school graduates against a series of criteria that include passion for technology, proven leadership experiences, creative approaches to problem-solving, and ability to communicate crisply,” says Kellso. “Once hired, we expose them to one of our rotation programs and use that rotation time to deliver training and experiences that are real-time relevant to their rotation. At the end of the rotation period, we evaluate them as to whether they now are ready to move successfully into the business.”

ABCs of Business Simulations for MBAs

One effective way to give MBAs hands-on skills in a safe environment is with a business simulation, says Chris Musselwhite, founder and president of Discovery Learning.

A business simulation in which participants organized into teams compete to solve a hypothetical or real business challenge is a good introduction to real-world business, says Musselwhite. “Unlike the traditional training experience, a simulation models natural systems and human interactions. This makes simulations the most effective intervention when learning objectives include a change in behavior. In a simulation, individuals get to see how they behave, make decisions, and collaborate with others under realistic circumstances,” he says. “Simulations provide fast, sustained learning that can be translated directly to the workplace without the risk to the organization of putting a new employee in a situation he or she may not yet be ready for.”

Simulations are important because what MBA graduates know in theory may get thrown out the door under stress. “A key reason simulations result in significant learning and real behavior change may stem from the theories of organizational and experiential learning theorist Chris Argyris,” Musselwhite explains. “He suggests that what we know (our espoused theories) does not always translate into what we do (our theories in use). This is especially true when situations are ambiguous, stressful, or emotionally charged, as they often are in today’s fast-paced, high-stakes business environment.”

Musselwhite says simulations, when facilitated effectively, help to bridge the knowledge-application gap by compressing the “learning horizon.” “The learning horizon, as described by organizational learning thought leader Peter Senge, is the time required to experience and then understand the consequences of our actions and behaviors. When we are dealing with complex problems in an environment with a lot of noise, the learning horizon may be extended so far that the connection between action and consequence can be lost. This can be remedied with simulated learning,” Musselwhite points out. “By compressing the learning horizon in a simulated learning experience, we accelerate the time from action to consequence to learning. Simulations provide opportunities for reflection on behaviors and the chance to experiment with new ones, in a compressed, safe, and non-judgmental environment. In a simulation, individuals can step outside comfort zones, try out new ideas and behaviors, and make mistakes—all without risk to careers or the organization.”

A business simulation forces learners to pull together all the separate lessons they learned in business school. “In a simulation, attitudes, knowledge, and skills are called into action as adults actively participate in situations involving the whole person,” says Musselwhite. “The best simulations challenge the heart, as well as the head. This is not often the case in the traditional classroom training experience.”

Quick Tips

  • Develop programs for business school grads that outline the specifics of your business, including your internal metrics, management models, and culture.
  • Have managers offer frequent performance feedback during one-on-one meetings with recent MBA graduates.
  • The specialized programs you create for MBAs should include classroom learning, hands-on shadowing, experiential learning, and mentoring.
  • Have business school graduates spend at least several months in a job rotation that requires them to confront the day-to-day realities of your business.
  • Encourage managers to work closely with MBAs as they put their first project proposals together. Project justification is a topic they are schooled in as MBAs, but commercial realities often make this process far different from what they expected.
  • Provide instruction in difficult conversations and conflict resolution. Among the things business schools can’t completely prepare a person for are the conflicts among departments and individuals that inevitably arise in the real business world.
  • Assign each new MBA a management mentor who can help them bridge the gap between what they learned and what they need to do on a daily basis to make your company a success.
  • Develop long-term relationships with business schools so the crop of MBAs you get each year are sure to grow into winners for your organization and the clients or customers you serve.
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.