November 8th, 2010 by CASUDI (Caroline Di Diego)

I have to confess that my personal MBA is the “Real Life” Managing the Basics of Actuality variety.

What’s significant to me is that I have mentored MBA students; most often in aligning a course assignment to resemble something in “Real Life”. I have mentored and consulted for many early stage companies, entrepreneurs and small businesses, and a couple of times I have actually looked at the curriculum of a college MBA course……each time thinking; I really should get the MBA credential, considering what I do. Each time though, it seems many of the courses I would probably be taking are what I already teach in “Real Life”.

Managing the Basics of Actuality is the “real life” MBA. In my on-going pursuit of more information, I asked for answers from five MBA-savvy individuals, all with first hand experience, and with very different perspectives and valuable lessons learned:

What was not taught as part of an MBA course, but needs to be learned as part of the “MBA of Life?”



Mark Schaefer is a college educator (teaches MBA courses), entrepreneur, and business consultant. His blog {grow} can be found at:

While my MBA courses focused on the internal workings of finance, accounting and marketing, it did little to address the external workings of real people, specifically the art of business networking.

I’ve worked in Fortune 100 companies and start-ups and the ultimate key to success in most business situations is who you know — and then, who THEY know!

I learned this the hard way when two of my most important business mentors died unexpectedly within one year.  Slowly but surely I watched as well-sponsored colleagues were placed in important jobs and high-visibility committees, by their executive champions.  It was as if an experiment in business networking was unfolding before my eyes!

Today, the importance of network is amplified by the social web. For the first time in history we have the opportunity to connect with thought leaders around the world through free, real-time global communication channels.  Those with the ability to tap into this resource will open an unprecedented world of opportunity.  In today’s real world MBA, the first class I would teach is Twitter 101!



Alexander Conrad is on the board of advisers of Albers school of business and was my co-founder at emaidaASIA (a failed startup). I met Alex networking on twitter.

I recently read this bit below from Brad Feld … strikes a chord with me and leads me to some thoughts on failure and the ‘MBA of life.’

Choose people over ideas: I have never regretted making new friends through an angel investment that failed.  I have always hated working with people I didn’t like, or didn’t think were A+.  It’s an easy filter – use it.”

I believe people who have a history of taking significant business risks with their own resources are often the best partners for entrepreneurial endeavors. This is not solely driven by the successes they’ve had, but also by the inevitable failures they’ve had along the way. There’s nothing quite like failing on your own resources as a learning catalyst to success. Learning from failures incurred when operating on OPM can be valuable too, but there is no better success criteria than learning from failures where your own resources are at risk.



Lisa Petrilli is an executive marketing consultant who received her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management.  She blogs at

There are opportunities that arise when you’re immersed in an MBA program that simply cannot be replicated in the “real world,” and vice-versa.

In my case, my Leadership Class at Kellogg couldn’t prepare me – didn’t prepare me – for one of the most significant leadership challenges: talent management.  Early on in my career I recognized a talent in one of my employees that was not being fully tapped in her current role.  So I expanded her role – to her great delight – and gave her the opportunity to shine with more responsibility.

Unfortunately, the talent itself wasn’t enough to make her successful handling the added responsibility, and I ultimately had to be honest with her. I had to look in her eyes and tell her she wasn’t meeting expectations, reassign her, and then I had to find ways to motivate her to want to remain as an important part of our team’s vision.

It was a lesson I’ll never forget and one I never could have learned in my MBA program.  The real test of ourselves as leaders comes when we look others in the eyes, and ourselves in the mirror.



Brian Driggs is an artistic global community developer, and is the creator of Gearbox Magazine

I remember sitting in a dimly lit classroom one evening, a couple months into my MBA program. A gentleman in a suit was reading PowerPoint slides covering U.S. Code to a captive audience, many of whom were checking email on their laptops. A snowball of dissonance began rolling.

How might this information benefit my business?

OMG. I have so much I need to get done for my business.

Learning about running a business is keeping me from running my business.

The tiny snowball was now a massive, white boulder, hurtling down a sub-conscious, synaptic hill. I turned and faced it, arms outstretched as if greeting an old friend, and as the chilling tingle of revelation ran over me, I smiled, becoming one with it.

Some people like to know a thing or two about swimming before they get in the pool. I can dig it, but, to me, getting an MBA without running your own business is reading the instructions and leaving the Ikea furniture in the box.

I dropped out. No intentions of going back, either. The Real Life MBA is a product of action. To me, everything else seems like a roadmap to places everyone else has already gone. I’ve got a compass and a sense of direction. I’m looking to the future.




Blake Holland  was a JD/MBA candidate at the UC Berkeley School of Law and Haas School of Business, when I interviewed him. A child of Silicon Valley, he is focused on Digital Media and Technology in the U.S. and Asia.

The classic refrain of “under-promise, over-deliver” falls on deaf ears in most MBA programs.  In fact, students learn quite the opposite.  We are encouraged to maximize our experience by getting involved in as much as possible, often at the expense of the quality of work we bring to each activity.  This instinct to over-commit can get young professionals into real trouble.

In entry level positions, poor execution can be more damaging to one’s reputation than almost anything.  Having a history of poor execution severely limits one’s ability to move up in a given organization.  After all, if you can’t execute on the tasks you’re being assigned now, how can you be expected to perform at the next level?  Perhaps there is value in growing by pushing our limits in our MBA programs, but that lesson must be tempered with the reminder that, once we step outside the safety of business school, we may need to force ourselves to focus and deliver perfection.

AND some more interesting reading:

Go Earn Your Silicon Valley MBA

A CEO Role Model for Smart Failing

No Responses to “THE REAL LIFE MBA”

  1. Brian Driggs Says:

    Thank you for allowing me the privilege of a voice in this post, Casudi. There seems to be one thing missing, though. What’s your take on these topics? How would you tie your experiences into a real life MBA?

  2. CASUDI (Caroline Di Diego) Says:

    My short answer is ” Asking the right question” ~ If you ask the right question you are headed in the direction of solutions. When I mentor, consult or participate in a new company or start up I guide or inspire whomever to ask the right question, in order to resolve a problem, rather than simply offering a solution. From my limited experience with actual MBA courses, this is an area without adequate focus and something I spend a great deal of time focusing on in “Real Life”. So, thanks for asking the right question Brian, I have the feeling it’s probably something you are good at!

  3. RJ Stribley Says:

    Okay, I admit it… I am one of ‘those’… an MBA… but I don’t overplay that card, so this piece really resonates with me. Some Yak-Yak follows.

    To play off of Marks comments, B-school didn’t prepare me to manage ‘jumpy’ employees; oddly, the result of my connections. Most MBA curriculums prepare students to get business results, be tough, compete… not the softest of agenda’s. Ask a top flight MBA if he/she ever took over a group project or case study to avert disaster and I almost guarantee each one will admit to being a Napoleon every now and again (and again). It’s all part of getting results for the team. Fast-forward.

    Over the years I worked for numerous multi-billion $ orgs, and in some cases I was ‘connected’ …CFOs, President’s, Board members. On several occasions I found myself leading multidisciplinary strategic teams with top corporate sponsorship. It took me some time to realize that many employee’s were not comfortable around me because of my connections. If I was unhappy who might hear about it? For safety, some people won’t be themselves, and it can negatively impact performance of a team. Combine that fact with being trained as an MBA to get good results (really no matter what) and it should have been no surprise to me when I was identified as a Napoleonic-Weenie … big time… on an early career 360 evaluation.

    What I learned Real World:

    1) anticipate the likely reactions to ‘connections’ and address unrest as early as possible 2) be authentic…do what you have to do to get results, but don’t expect a ‘lovefest’. You can’t compromise enough to make some people comfortable 3) don’t expect people to think like you (MBA or not) so you always have to listen better, and more, than you speak 4) have reasonable expectations… you won’t always get the best results, and sometimes you have to live with it (you don’t always win?…really? did I miss a class somewhere?).

    I still marvel at the complexity of the ‘people’ element in business. I still laugh when I think of a favorite saying of a down-to-earth board member; referring to the frequent lack of people skills engineers exhibit

    ” You ain’t gonna solve that one with the Pythagorean theorem!”


  4. Anna Barcelos Says:

    Beautifully written Caroline and such amazing contributors. You definitely nail the point that while a “classroom” MBA is an excellent way to structure a human being, real-world experiences are critical to make it mean anything. How many MBA’s and PhD’s have we met with absolutely zero ability to leverage those talents and execute among people and their jobs. I’m so happy something said during an #IMCChat inspired you to write this. Write some more! :-)

  5. CASUDI (Caroline Di Diego) Says:

    Thank you RJ, for finding Designing Success and commenting. Good point: “dont expect people to think like you”, MBA or not. I think most of us have had “Real Life” learning experiences related to this! Sometimes though it can be used in a positive way; as some of you know I recently started a company with Alex, who frequently looks at things differently from me. I think that’s good advice when selecting a co-founder. Early on, when defining what our business really does/is; and here I mean the real “root of the matter”, the conversations iterated something like this; “We enable commerce. We innovate commerce. We are a mobile finance company. We build robust Networks. We help the unbanked. We have a mobile payments platform. We are the 21st Century Silk Road. We provide a platform for transactions. We provide a transactional infrastructure”. With our goal of increasing traffic on the network for our partners, the transactional infrastructure really got to the pure essence of what we do/are/have. So, with an understanding that your core team thinks and looks at things differently, it can be used to your advantage.

    Anna, it is always a real treat to learn Real Life ~ Integrated Marketing Communication solutions~ on #IMCchat. You are a group that practices what you preach, and where we can all learn what works and what doesn’t. As you know, one of my favorite chats. Thanks!

  6. Ken Rosen Says:

    Hi Caroline.
    Thanks for sending a heads up to this post. You and your contributors do a nice job avoiding strident either/or comparisons. I do believe a traditional MBA offers a nice foundation, but it is certainly neither required nor inclusive of all the skills we all use every day.

    In the spirit of your post, my addition is: How to help people understand that what you want them to do is in their own best interest. To get most anything significant done, we need others. And those “others” have lots of choices about what they do with their time. Seeing the world through their eyes makes all the difference.

    The funny part is how easy this really WOULD be to teach! As Marketers, we toss out WIIFM (what’s in it for me) like gospel. And building a message around the WIIFM of your audience would be a very straight-forward b-school lesson or case study. But most of us had to turn this into a second nature after graduating.

    Nice to connect with you with more than 140 characters!

    Performance Works,

  7. Brian Driggs Says:

    While we’re on the subject of the MBA, inspiring teams, and asking the right questions, and listening, I wonder if this might be a good forum in which to discuss a shift from MBA to MFA (or a possible transition to a hybrid degree).

    My way of seeing this is, MBAs teach cold, analytical business acumen, but in our rapidly shrinking world, there are no islands. Anyone can offer a similar (enough) product or service, resulting in a greater focus on cost-cutting, the bottom line, and flipping thin, commoditized value within the market. To me, this seems to be where the MBA mentality goes as a rule.

    MFAs, on the other hand, deal with the creative, emotional (MBA translation: “fluffy”) side of the business. Given our understanding of why customers buy, the logical need (MBA) is seldom as powerful as the emotional want (MFA). Thus the importance of designing the experience and building excitement into every step of the process.

    How should the MBA adapt to a more socially connected market? Where is the focus on building trust, teams, and transparency? Will big business ever be able to relinquish control and leverage empowerment? Or will low-margin/high-volume go kicking and screaming into obscurity?

    Seems to me a true master of business administration would be someone capable of communicating vision, empowering others to affect change, and inspiring them to achieve their best as part of a truly synergistic organization.

    The only thing a leader should control is his or herself.
    .-= Brian Driggs´s last blog ..Let’s Talk- Frankenmoddin’ =-.

  8. Elli St.George Godfrey Says:

    I suppose I’m a little late to this party!

    This is great addition to the conversation about the use of an MBA. While the business knowledge and skllls are important, it always comes back to people. RJ Stribley’s comments about the Napoleonic tendencies may bring a chuckle but one has to wonder if more attention to the softer skills might allow teams of troubled projects to get through the discomfort and get to the work of fixing the problems? There is a balancing act in being tough, just and fair when heading up a business or unit of a business.

  9. RJ Stribley Says:


    I think you got my point. MBA is high on the ‘hard side’ and low on the ‘soft’. The lead in was ‘What’s real world’ aka not being taught. You’re not late to the party…your’re on point

  10. CASUDI Says:

    Ken, I think what you mean is the vision thing ~ getting your team to buy into your vision as thought it were their own. Correct me please, if I am off track with my understanding of your comment? I would be interested how you think this could be taught as part of an MBA course in school? Thanks for commenting and joining the conversation, yes its good to CONVO in more then 140.

    Well Brian I think you said it better “…….. communicating vision, empowering others to affect change, and inspiring them to achieve their best as part of a truly synergistic organization” ….. and part of empowering others to affect change is having them make the vision their own……. in so doing it all becomes part of “in their best interest”, does it not?

    I agree with SJ, that you are right on point with the softer skills Elli, often being those that bring the best solutions and even save the day when the Napoleons or Bulldozers fail.

  11. Ken Roen Says:

    The particular WIIFM I’m talking about is actually tied to Brian’s MFA comments. While I suspect anyone who goes through an MBA focusing on only the “cold analytical” side without considering the “emotional wants” picked an extremely poor business school, Brian’s point remains important. My comment was my MBA program did not offer a rigorous focus on WIIFM–“what’s in it for me”–although this now famous acronym would probably more self-explanatory as “what’s in it for you.” If one thinks creatively about “what’s in it” for decision makers one wants to influence, more good things happen. The last part of my comment was this lack of focus seems ironic because teaching this particular skill is quite easy. For example, we did a large-scale labor negotiation role play at one point. Rather than diving into the role play and assuming MBA students will take into account that Labor may have different desires than Management regarding policies on non-monetary issues, a pre-exercise analyzing this would have been a simple addition.

    Cheers, Ken

  12. Inclined to Design Says:

    […] THE REAL LIFE MBA Did we prove that REAL LIFE has the upper edge…….? […]

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