Times are changing so fast. Business is changing even more quickly. The pandemic accelerated the digitization of industry six years in a matter of six months. That is correct. What would have happened over the next six years is here now. How does anyone keep pace with this change and adapt quickly?
I earned my MBA in 1999. Think about that for a moment. What was marketing like twenty-two years ago? It is safe to say that what I learned back then is obsolete or fundamentally theoretical at best. The entire business world has changed in the last twenty years, and we have adapted to these changes slowly over time. Many of the business concepts I learned are still present and essential. I don't consider it a waste of my time.
I did not learn about a digital marketing strategy, bots to perform finance tasks, DocuSign, or hosting zoom meetings. I did not discover how to lead remote employees in my MBA program. However, we are all learning how to manage a remote workforce now. We have changed how we recruit, hire, retain, and motivate a younger workforce with different work expectations. Our customers have changed also changed how they buy our products and services.
[Naturally, as a business, you go where your customers go – and they have probably changed tack dramatically recently, with 86% of consumers have admitted to changing their behavior due directly to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by The Drum.]
If I had the chance for a do-over, would I do the same thing today? If I were considering an MBA program in 2021, what other option might I consider to master the game of business? First, I am not, nor will I ever, negate the significance of what I learned in business school. I love to learn, and it has benefitted me tremendously. However, what if there is a cheaper and more effective way to master these essential business skills?
In 2016, I experienced something quite peculiar. I accepted an invitation to attend a Vistage CEO Group meeting. I had no clue what I was going to observe and listened with an open mind to learn. For a full day, I watched CEOs work on challenging, real-world business issues and opportunities. They were vulnerable and honest about the challenges they are facing with complete transparency. I had never observed non-competing CEOs and business owners working on their businesses together. It was not theoretical or hypothetical. I became hooked. In 2017, I too became a group chairman and started my local peer group in our community.
Fast forward three years, and Covid-19 strikes our businesses. I cannot imagine experiencing 2020 without our group. To make matters more challenging, several group members are in the energy sector and saw sub-zero oil prices for the first time in history. You could get paid to take oil in 2020 – no joke. Each month (virtually at first), we reported the status of our businesses. Some member companies experienced zero sales for the first time. What do we do?
I watched this group come together to survive, share emotional devastation, and commiserate about the business climate. And then it happened. Slowly, these business leaders turned toward the future and how they would build, rebuild, or pivot together to survive and eventually thrive in the future. There is nothing like a crisis to get people's attention.
We started examining how the business might operate in the future. A group of intelligent, hard-working individuals refused to allow each other to make excuses about the pandemic. How long are you going to let this virus be an excuse for your business performance? Get off your @$$ and get better and more profitable. Wow!
I think about Tim Ferris. I read somewhere that instead of paying $200,000 for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, he opted to use that money to become an angel investor in small businesses. He postulated that he would benefit from the business skills learned attempting to help these small businesses even if he lost all the money. At worst, he would gain business skills. At best, he would discover how to grow the value of his investments.
If I were considering an MBA as a business owner or CEO today, I would make a different choice. Instead of opting for a higher education's cleanliness, I would opt for getting my hands dirty in a business peer group. Like Ferris, I would use the money to surround myself with other people living in the business world and solve real (not theoretical) business issues. Comparing a business school to a peer group is like comparing military training to actual combat. No matter how effective a simulation might be, there is nothing like experiencing it directly. It is impossible to simulate the emotion and stress that accompanies the real thing.
I have no negativity toward higher-education and fully endorse the merit of formal learning. I love it! However, there is nothing in academia that compares to a monthly grind of solving business problems and attacking opportunities with a group of committed peers supporting you each step of the way. It is like having a group of consultants focused on the issues you face as a business owner.
According to Forbes, the idea for peer groups took off in the 1930s with the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. His book introduced the concept of mastermind alliances. Business owner roundtables, executive forums, and peer groups have been growing ever since. The power of the process is undeniable.
MBAs, on the other hand, can grow stale and outdated. General business principles endure for the most part, but the business language is changing rapidly. If you want to learn the language of business today, MBA programs are an effective method to consider. If you want to learn how to play the business game more effectively (or get the most from your investment), join a peer group focused on growth, performance, and accountability. Be warned. The most effective peer groups are not about networking. They are high-octane, business laboratories with straight-talk and difficult conversations. If you are thin-skinned, consider this choice carefully.