What Successful People Learn at Business School

What Successful People Learn at Business School

Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors

Mary Barra has served as CEO of General Motors Company since 2014 when she became the first female CEO of a major global automaker. What you may not know is that she earned her MBA degree at Stanford University Graduate School of Business (US) in 1990. Today, she remains actively engaged with the institution as she is part of the Advisory Council and the Board of Trustees at Stanford University.

After having occupied the role of CEO for one year, Mary Barra published a LinkedIn article citing the most important lessons she learned during her first 90 days in the position. One of them is to always try to put the customer at the center of everything you do. She said:

Whether you work in accounting, engineering, or sales, whether you’re straight out of school […], remember that by focusing on the customer you will drive better performance. Their needs should inform every decision you make. If the voice of the customer isn’t already reflected in your new position, find ways in your first 90 days – and every day after that – to ensure that it is.

Ms. Barra also emphasized how important it is for leaders to be able to adapt in a constantly changing environment:

At the end of the day, your success will largely be determined not just by how good your plan is, but how well you adapt to meet the changing needs of the customer. Adaptation really comes down to one thing: leadership. And a big part of leadership is being able to look over the horizon and anticipate changes to come.

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Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.

Next on our list of successful people with MBA degrees is the chief executive officer of Apple, one of the largest tech companies in the world. Not long before his death in 2011, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs named Tim Cook as his successor as CEO. While he has acquired years of management experience, Tim Cook’s first job was humble and relatable. According to Mashable, he used to deliver newspapers as a teenager in his home state of Alabama in the US.

As well as his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Auburn University, Tim Cook graduated with an MBA degree from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business (US) in 1988. He has previously stressed the degree’s potential in teaching students how to embrace different perspectives:

What this place teaches you so well is how to learn and how to collaborate; and how to think about something; and how to approach something; and how to work with people who come from a very different point of view and have a different perspective than you do.

In 2018, exactly 20 years after his graduation, he delivered the commencement speech at Duke University in which he urged graduates to be “fearless” and to fight against injustice and inequality. Today, Mr. Cook is also part of the Duke University Board of Trustees.

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Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

Indian-born business executive Satya Nadella joined Microsoft all the way back in 1992. Having studied electrical engineering, he strengthened his technical profile with an MBA degree from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (US). He graduated in 1997 and today, he attributes his confidence and ability to juggle between business and technology to his time at university.

Satya Nadella even cites Steven Kaplan’s entrepreneurial finance class as particularly influential on his capacity to “evaluate new business opportunities at Microsoft.” Mr. Kaplan also spoke highly of his student. Here is what he said in a piece published on the official Chicago Booth website:

[Satya Nadella] can take a situation and analyze and articulate the issues involved. That is a useful skill in a CEO. He can both write well and understand the case quantitatively. In my experience, the people who have that set of skills are successful.

In 2018, Mr. Nadella spoke with Madhav Rajan, Dean of Chicago Booth, at a gathering of the school’s MBA students. Microsoft’s CEO discussed the essential characteristics that make a good leader:

The most important attribute that any leader needs to have – and it is often underestimated – is the need to create clarity when none exists. You don’t need a leader when everything is well defined and it’s easy, and all you have got to do is follow a well-written plan. […] Your ability to come into an uncertain time and an uncertain future and bring about clarity is key.

Indra Nooyi, Board of Directors at Amazon and former CEO of PepsiCo

The success story of Indra Nooyi proves that the MBA degree is not tied to the US. Thanks to her determination, hard work, and educational path, Ms. Nooyi is among the most successful female business executives today. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics, she went on to study for an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta (India). Today, the institution ranks #49 in the prestigious Global MBA Ranking 2019 published by the Financial Times.

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Before joining PepsiCo and revolutionizing not only the company from within, but the entire industry, Indra Nooyi was able to apply her MBA expertise to managerial positions at top brands such as Johnson & Johnson and BCG.

Later on, she earned another Master’s degree, specializing in Public and Private Management at Yale School of Management (US). At the time, the school required all first-year students to take a course in effective communications, which “was invaluable for someone who came from a culture where communication wasn’t perhaps the most important aspect of business at least in my time,” she recalled in a Financial Times interview.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who is a senior associate dean for Leadership Studies at Yale, says of her:

She also demonstrates how leaders can be tough and persuasive without being abusive. Nooyi does not allow others to make a gender caricature of her leadership style, and through diplomacy, she has won over predecessors, colleagues and even once hostile activist investors.

If you feel inspired by the learning journeys of these successful people, use the momentum to work on your own professional and personal goals. Their stories prove that a business degree can take you a long way!



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