Prep for Success
Administering Your Own Admissions Process
KRISTOF felt stuck. After graduating with his master's degree in economics, he started his career in banking with a sense of possibility and adventure. He loved the idea of applying the concepts he had spent the past five years studying. His first job as an international management trainee at Fortis Bank gave him that chance. Rotating through several departments, he soaked up new skills and knowledge like a sponge, but when he landed in the trading room, he felt he had finally found his home in the banking world. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Fortis fell into the hands of a much larger rival, BNP Paribas. Despite numerous layoffs, Kristof kept his job. However, the culture at work changed as people, worried about losing their jobs, worked feverishly to achieve higher and higher returns in a bleak market. Long hours and frequent weekend stints added to the strain and left little room for family time. While Kristof still loved economics and finance, many of the exciting possibilities he had envisioned were beginning to fade. All work and no play made for a very dull day. Something had to give.
Could an MBA reignite his passion and open up exciting new possibilities? He imagined it would probably, but he could not afford taking two years off with no income, nor was he eager to cough up $100,000 for another degree. Fortunately, he had already begun exploring an alternative to acquiring more business knowledge and skills. One evening, while clicking through business education opportunities on the Internet, he discovered MOOCs and a whole universe of people studying business on their own terms, without taking out a bank loan or leaving their jobs. Before joining that movement, he established his commitment by putting himself through the equivalent of a business school admissions process.
This chapter will help you figure out if a self-directed, MOOC-based business education will work for you. You begin by asking yourself some key questions: Can I set aside sufficient time to study? Have I determined a specific goal I wish to achieve through independent study? Will I remain motivated to work hard in my self-directed program?
Kristof and his wife spent many hours discussing his options. In the end, they agreed that Kristof would ask his boss to let him apply for an internal transfer. In a less stressful position, he could more easily find the time to study while remaining employed. While that would temporarily take him off the fast track to the top, he and his wife believed it would open up more possibilities in the future. His boss agreed to the transfer. After a few interviews, Kristof found a fit in the risk department, where the pace was much less frenetic. Best of all, he could almost walk to his new office.
Now, with a shorter commute and a more predictable schedule, he could dedicate a certain number of evenings and weekends to the effort. He did not know exactly what direction his online education would take, but he knew it would involve the world of economics and finance. As for motivation, Kristof had always been a self-starter who required little, if any, supervision when he set his sights on an ambitious goal.
Your own admissions test should mirror the admissions process of a traditional MBA program:
Step 1: Select yourself.
Step 2: Define your goals.
Step 3: Budget time and money.
Step 4: Hold yourself accountable.
As with everything in life, a successful outcome depends on careful preparation. Your self-administered admissions process will help prepare you for the adventure ahead. Imagine yourself as both a hopeful student, excited about the prospect of a career-launching business education, and as a hard-nosed admissions committee taking a clear-eyed look at a prospective student's ability to succeed. Put yourself behind the desk of an imaginary admissions officer and grill yourself about your suitability for self-directed study, the goals you wish to achieve, the budget of time and money you can afford, and your ability to keep working toward your goal, even when you're in a classroom of one, rather than a large lecture hall filled with other students.
Before you enroll in any class, you must answer the first question a university admissions officer would ask: "Is this student prepared to succeed in the program being offered?" The answer, as it pertains to your self-directed business education, requires that you ask yourself this crucial question: "Am I capable of learning on my own?" Through my work with self-directed business learners, I have identified some common traits that the most successful ones share. Regardless of age, background, nationality, gender, or field of interest, they all possess an entrepreneurial spirit, a love of learning, and a professional attitude. Let's take a closer look at each of these essential traits.
Entrepreneurial. If you're reading this book, then you're already thinking like an entrepreneur. You want to take responsibility for your career and your future. You may not imagine yourself running your own business, but even if you work your whole life for a corporation, you approach problems with passion and creativity. Today, more than ever, employers in all fields, from healthcare and education to government and nonprofit work, value "intrapreneurs," employees who come up with innovative solutions to business problems. An entrepreneurial spirit will not only help you get ahead in whatever endeavor you pursue, it will help you remain firmly committed to your studies without direct supervision. Think about your previous or current schooling or employment. Do you prefer relying on your own intelligence and decisions, or would you rather follow orders and fulfill assignments given to you by others? If you put yourself in the former group, you may be an ideal candidate for a self-directed MBA equivalent. If not, you might fare better going the more traditional route to a business education.
Learning-oriented. Universally, those who succeed in self-directed studies love to learn. They value education in many forms, whether taking classes in a formal school setting or gaining new skills from a master or mentor. Whether young dogs or old dogs, they love learning new tricks. The psychologist Carol Dweck calls this a "growth mindset." People with a growth mindset believe that they can always expand their talents, abilities, and intelligence. Call it self-confidence or optimism or curiosity or belief in a better future, but it all boils down to the same trait — faith in one's ability to grow throughout one's entire life. Do you envision a better, more productive, more rewarding future for yourself, in terms of both personal fulfillment and financial well-being, or do you feel fairly content with your current situation? If you foresee a brighter future, you qualify for a self-directed business education. If not, you might more happily spend your spare time on something other than MOOCs and online learning.
Professional. You do not need a professional degree in medicine or law or business to think of yourself as a professional. Whether you are a sales rep or a systems analyst for a major bank, you simply need to take your work seriously. You care about making a difference in the world, and you aim to amplify your ability to make that difference. And, yes, you want to make more money. I have met stay-at-home moms who are using a self-directed business education to launch a business or get back into the workforce. And I have met gainfully employed engineers who are using the same kind of education to move higher up the corporate ladder. Do you take work seriously? Do you want to make more of a contribution to society? Would you like to make more money doing what you love to do? Then you're likely to do well in a self-directed business learning program.
Do you see yourself in the description above? Welcome to our ranks! In the world of self-directed learning, you will meet a lot of kindred spirits, people like our friend Kristof. His natural curiosity, drive, and willingness to take on new challenges have helped him to succeed, no matter where he worked in his organization.
Self-directed learners abound in all walks of life. Take my Uncle Dave, for example. Dave has spent his life farming corn, soy, and wheat in Missouri. On a recent visit to my uncle's farm, I came to appreciate the incredible entrepreneurialism, learning, and professionalism required of a successful farmer.
As we toured the grounds, Uncle Dave spoke eloquently and passionately about everything from plant science and chemistry to auto mechanics and electricity. The man knows how to fix a tractor, convert DC to AC current, and hedge prices on the international commodities market. As we strolled his property, he told me he was planning to drive to Iowa the next day to pick up a new piece of machinery called a "gravity table," a device that would help him recoup losses on a portion of his wheat harvest that had been damaged by heavy rains. Although he had never used such a machine, he knew he would figure it out. After all, Uncle Dave had always taught himself whatever he needed to know to make his farm a productive and profitable business. Hearing him talk about his business, I was blown away by my uncle, who often refers to himself as "a dumb farmer." Nothing could be further from the truth!
Now that you have joined Kristof and my Uncle Dave as a bona fide self-directed learner, you can take the next step — determining the results you want to achieve with your business education.
Define Your Goals
Every business school application contains a variation on this question: "Why do you want an MBA?" Before you begin your MBA journey, it's important to have a sense of the destination. For Dorothy and her companions in The Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City and the all-powerful wizard provided a powerful incentive to keep moving forward. Of course, the power to achieve their goals lay inside them, not in the hands of a charlatan wizard. The same applies to your success in your business education; the keys to your success are inside you. As you travel down the path, you will need a strong incentive to stay the course, especially when your studies prove challenging.
For students in traditional business schools, the carrot of a degree, the stick of the grading system, and the fear of falling thousands of dollars into debt with nothing to show for it can supply powerful motivation. But you're on your own now. Only the power and pull of your goal can give you the courage you need to conquer the weariness and distractions that can and will pop up along your path.
Fortunately, whether or not you are currently able to articulate it, that goal is already inside of you. It's what inspired you to pick up this book in the first place. The purpose of this part of the admissions process is simply to define and document it, so that you can come back to it when you're bogged down in the details of balancing T-accounts or calculating the coefficient of variation for a supply chain forecast. Perhaps your big goal is already crystal clear in your mind. You may be able to say something as specific as, "My goal is to land a marketing job at a major book publisher," or, "My goal is to earn a promotion with my current company." If your big goal doesn't spring so easily to mind, consider these questions:
* What kind of work do you care about doing?
* What are the gaps in your training up to this point, and what do you hope will happen once you fill them?
* How do you plan or expect to use your business education?
* Is there a specific job you are hoping to get?
* Can a business education help you build the skills you need to start your own venture?
* What will your life look like after you complete your education?
Take Kristof, for example. He set a big goal, but he did not make it so minutely specific that it could hamper his quest. He knew he needed to stage a transition in his life, and he wanted to find a position that would draw on his expertise in economics, allow him to express his creative side, and provide enough work/life balance for him to spend time with his wife and daughters. That picture was clear and compelling enough to keep him motivated, even though he had not yet pinpointed a specific job title. You must be able to imagine yourself in the role and work environment that suit you best, even if you can't yet state it as specifically as "Vice President of Supply Chain Strategy for a major pharmaceutical company." It may also help to know that most independent business students begin their studies with a goal that falls into one of four major categories:
1. The Executive. You see yourself working as a manager. To do it well, you must acquire leadership and communication skills, at the very least. The Executive's goal involves becoming a stronger manager of individuals, teams, and processes. If you fall into this group, you may have already won a promotion from a technical role to one where you supervise the work of others. But a superior engineer does not necessarily make an excellent manager. The same holds true for entrepreneurs. It takes one set of skills to launch a successful enterprise and quite another to manage more and more people.
2. The Accelerator. You want to move ever higher up the ladder. You're happy with your job and the company, but you want to grow with it, rising to ever-higher levels of responsibility. Major promotions will depend on you adding to your repertoire of skills, perhaps learning the art of persuasion and negotiation or learning the ins and outs of accounting, budgeting, and forecasting.
3. The Entrepreneur. You envision yourself starting or growing your own business. To succeed, you will need to know about a whole host of topics, from finance, accounting, and budgeting to marketing and sales. The Entrepreneur is a jack-of-all-trades and often a master of many. As the business grows, so does the Entrepreneur's set of skills.
4. The Explorer. You imagine a radical professional transformation. Such a change will require skills in many different business disciplines. A smorgasbord of courses may help the Explorer figure out where he or she best belongs in the business world. A self-directed business education can give you a taste of the whole spectrum of business specialties. It can also allow you to "test drive" your future without jumping right onto the fast track.
I'd like to make an important point here. One size shoe does not fit all feet; and all feet grow. At this very moment you may see two, three, or even all of these types in yourself. Or you may start out on an Executive path and, after gaining a lot of experience as a manager, decide to strike out on your own and start a new business. Your big goal should be flexible, allowing for your personal growth and a new direction dictated by changing circumstances. A stay-at-home dad decides to moonlight or, after his kids have gone off to college, go to work for a major corporation or expand his home-based business. A dentist may build a chain of dental offices then decide to sell the practice and take up jewelry making. Always keep in mind that a self-directed business education is a never-ending process. When you reach one mountaintop, another one pops up behind it. But here's the beautiful thing about this method of education. If you enroll in a traditional MBA program, switching gears can leave you deep in debt with no clear payoff from your sizable investment. In a self-made MBA program, you can go in an entirely different direction while incurring little or no cost beyond your own time and effort.
Try to paint a clear, big picture of your own imagined future. That vision can help keep you on the path when you get mired in the daily grind of studying and reading and learning. Once you're clear on your big goal, that idea that will motivate you to come back to your computer day after day, write it down and tape it above your workspace as a constant reminder. Once you feel comfortable with your goal, you can turn your attention to what can be the scariest parts of any MBA program: time and money.