Earning the MBA, at any point in your life, requires a substantial commitment in time. As a young student fresh from college, time is a considerably more abundant resource; however, as a seasoned professional with numerous responsibilities, such as those accompanying a full-time job, family, or both, you must focus on an efficient utilization of many resources to achieve the maximum effectiveness in your professional and academic development. Too often we become so involved in just completing the tasks necessary to earn the degree that we fail to truly prepare ourselves for life with the degree.
The MBA, as we are told, is designed to have a huge impact on our lives. To reap these rewards, we stress ourselves out for two years trying to balance the school work, family commitments and job responsibilities. Once it’s all over, our expectations are that the accolades will pour in all by themselves. If we’re looking to change jobs, we update our LinkedIn profile so recruiters can find us. If we want to move up in our current company, we simply wait for management to hear the news of our graduation before coming to our desk to offer us a new opportunity to support them or maybe even join their ranks. This is the MBA dream, but unfortunately, it’s very far from the truth. The reality is that success is surrounded by an enormous layer of competitiveness. The MBA can tear into this layer and bring you closer to your dreams but it can’t do that by itself. Earning an MBA is a great feat but it is no guarantee of any level of success that is simply derived from its possession. Achieving success requires a strategy and some real planning. The following steps will help you do just that.
- Determine your goals before you begin your program. Write it down.
Writing your goals down triggers a response in the brain called “reticular activating system” that can create a sense of awareness of opportunities that can help you get closer to your goals. The unconscious mind will continue to focus on the direction you set in your written goals even when you aren’t consciously thinking about it. The reticular activating system will filter out those things that aren’t important. It will keep you in tune with events around you that may help you achieve your goals and will keep pushing you until the image that you have in your head of what your real success looks like is equivalent to what is physically present in your surroundings. Have you ever had an epiphany or have a salvo go off in your head? That’s your brain telling you that the situation you are currently in holds an opportunity that will help you get closer to a goal. Writing your goals down even has benefits when you aren’t even conscious. As an engineering student, I would often awaken during the night with the solution to class assignments. But how could that be if I was asleep? It’s because your subconscious does the real brain work. Here’s how you can tap into that.
Determine what you want from your MBA and write it down. Try to be very specific in defining these goals. Keep them challenging but achievable. Perhaps you want a raise, promotion or job change. List what they are, how long it may take to get there, what resources you need, who can help provide those resources, etc. Put specific dates for completion of these goals. Then, create a plan on how you will go about achieving each goal. Review these every day so that your mind stays focused on what you need to do. Celebrate completion of tasks and especially major goals. Mark them off the list when done. Each little success provides additional motivation as they cause the brain to release chemicals that make you happier, healthier and more driven to reach your goals. If you don’t have detailed plans for your career with your MBA, you should realize that it most likely won’t do anything for you.
- Seek guidance from other MBAs.
Take the time to get to know other MBAs. You should be engaging MBAs long before you begin your MBA program. Working MBA professionals can help you identify trends in industry. Top tier universities provide data to show you how their graduates are placed in industry but most don’t give you a clear picture of how successful you can be with their MBA. Most MBA graduates want to get a management position or change careers entirely. Therefore, the best way to understand the challenges that are specific to your Alma Mater is to consult with the alumni. If the university doesn’t have an alumni group, find graduates by using social media, such as LinkedIn. Then, tell them your story and ask for advice. MBA professionals can also help you understand the finer details in utilizing your MBA to create the success you expect. The most important information they can share will actually help you establish the proper expectations. The MBA isn’t capable of giving you that meteoric rise to the top of your company because many other factors come into play when you get to those first levels of the senior management ranks (e.g. Director, VP) that have nothing to do with your credentials. Working MBAs can tell you what factors are important in their industry or specific company. Getting the most out of these new connections requires a thorough understanding of what you want from your degree. Once you complete the first action listed above, writing your goals down, you’ll know exactly what questions to ask from those MBAs who have gone before you. One last note, to get the best information, choose graduates who are just a few years ahead of you as their lessons are still fresh in their mind. Consulting an MBA graduate from over 20 years ago will be helpful but it isn’t likely to be advice you will use immediately.
- Share your thoughts and ideas.
As you go through your MBA and transition into a long working career, you’ll develop a broad network of knowledge professionals. The most important thing you can ever do to improve your career is to become active in this network. Before you begin your program, talk with MBA professionals to find out what issues managers are facing. Then, when you begin, share these ideas with professors and develop your own opportunity to find solutions for these problems. Investigate opportunities to perform research in these areas, which helps you develop expertise and recognition for such knowledge. Research quite often affords opportunities to publish the results of your efforts in professional journals, conferences, the university magazine, white papers and more. If research isn’t available, work with your professors to find specific companies that have issues they have communicated to the university and that you can address. If that fails, reach out to professional organizations (even student versions) to see where you can build new knowledge, skills and abilities. It’s important to note that while the MBA teaches you to solve business problems, this doesn’t add value to what you have to offer. The real value you offer comes from actually solving problems. Collaborating with professors, alumni groups, and student and professional organizations are great avenues for collecting ideas on what you can do to build your value. Today’s level of competition requires graduates to have already demonstrated their value before graduation. If you wait until you graduate to begin this development or base your value on the idea that you have the skills to solve problems, you’ll find yourself struggling to compete.
- Create opportunities to increase your knowledge in areas in your plan.
As previously mentioned, building your value is done by providing tangible proof of your skills. It’s also possible to build value by demonstrating your knowledge base. Companies have problems and they want help resolving them. Reading articles from industry journals and other periodicals are a good way to boost your understanding of the problems that are currently plaguing businesses. Joining professional organizations is another great strategy. Most local branches of professional organizations provide access to industry professionals through conferences, presentations and meetings. A good approach is to join one of these organizations and seek an active role. This will put you closer to those already working in the field that can provide you a much better understanding of the field than articles can. Use these interactions to not only gather as much information as possible, but setup opportunities to help specific companies solve some of their problems. Companies like to hire to fill a specific need so find out what some are and fill them. Don’t forget to find ways to document your achievements so that you have stories to tell and documentation to prove it (e.g. published articles).
- Update your goals and progress often.
As you go through your goals, make notes on areas that are a natural strength or a weakness for you. This information, along with other pertinent information from professors and business professionals, should help you steer your career in the right direction. If your performance isn’t the best in your chosen area of focus, it becomes critical that you collaborate with other professionals in that field to determine if you need to improve your abilities in that area or you may be just fine with what you already know. This is even more critical if you plan to use your MBA in a different field than you are currently working in. You should develop a list of skills and experiences required to excel in your new field and then work on checking each one off until you have tangible proof that you have what it takes (all before graduating). Companies don’t want to hire professionals that are looking to make a transition, as this is a little risky. But, if you can provide sufficient evidence that you already have been demonstrating the skills, knowledge and abilities required for some time, then you can show you aren’t making a transition and you are a seasoned professional.
The MBA degree is just a credential. You’ll soon realize this once you’ve been in business for a year or two. It doesn’t really make you stand out. Why? It moves you into a group of professionals who already have a graduate degree. How do you stand out from them? As you move up in organizations the competition grows evermore fierce. Those who avoid the steps identified above and lean on the fact that they just have an MBA will experience stagnation and a loss of career mobility. No one is watching out for your career but you. If you put no effort into it, you’ll get nothing out of it. If you have an MBA or are working on it, you’ve obviously got a little fire in you. Use this fire to plan and implement your next steps after graduation. Create a habit of setting goals and reaching them. This will establish a history of tangible successes which will make you happy. After all, when it comes to your career, this is the person you should focus on.