3 Things I Had to Unlearn After Harvard Business School

You would think that for what I paid, I would have learned the keys to business success while at Harvard Business School. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved my years at HBS …. rigorous academic training, great lifelong friends, excitement of global finance, and time with world-class business leaders. I wouldn’t trade my years at HBS for anything.

But it sure was expensive, and when you pay a lot for something, you kinda sorta expect a guarantee. I know, of course, that life has no guarantees, and once you step into the business world, about your only guarantee is that what you learn in the field is a lot more valuable than what you learn in a classroom.

Reflecting on years brokering and managing many business deals, I can pinpoint three things I had to un-learn after leaving Harvard Business School.

#1 Financial analysis is the final basis for making a decision.

One of the many positive disciplines you learn at HBS is how to clinically evaluate opportunity. If I heard the question “what do the numbers say? once, I heard it a million times. And indeed, it’s a great skill to be able to back away from the emotion of the moment and look at a business issue from just a financial standpoint. But in my 30 years post-HBS business career, I’ve realized the numbers are usually not the final point in a decision. When a company retains me to help them buy a business, their defining concern is usually strategic fit, not just the “right” financial deal.

 #2 The world is waiting for you.

Here’s a major understatement for you: Harvard Business School is sort of a bubble. While you are there, you feel like you are the center of the business universe. While no one tells you the world is your oyster, there’s a vibe in the air that your preeminence will continue into post-HBS life. But as I look back over my career, and the careers of many friends I made at Harvard, I realize that opportunities we had weren’t given to us because of where we’d been educated, we had to go make them, craft them and massage them. It sounds so evident as I write this, I want to say to myself “well dummy, did you really expect opportunities to fall in your lap?” Unfortunately, for the first few years after HBS, before I figured this out, I did sort of assume opportunities would come my way just because of where I went to school. I was recently retained by a business owner to sell her very successful business and I asked her how she’d managed to do so well in spite of some personal trauma several years earlier, and she smiled and said “I made it happen, I had no choice.”

#3 Get the smartest guys in the room together and you’ll find the right answer.

If you get 50-60 HBS students in a classroom, about the only thing that exceeds the brainpower is the confidence level. We’d take a case study, rip it apart, debate it, synthesize the issues, and recommend a solution. Doubt was no where to be found. We were, after all, the smartest guys (and gals) around. Fast forward 30 years, I can see scores of decisions made by the “smart ones” that have turned out to be complete debacles, the most obvious example being the financial wreckage of Enron. Intelligence alone is the not the sole basis for good decision making. I recently met with the owner of an agricultural business in western Tennessee. This guy’s behavior was a bit rough and he didn’t always have exactly the right terminology, but I was blown-away impressed as he described his business model and his strategy for growth. Warren Buffet couldn’t have done a better job. This guy reminded me of my Dad who never went to college yet had a sterling business career built on a strong work ethic, good judgment and careful attention to detail.

I am a big supporter of an MBA education, but no matter what you learn in even the best academic environment, you have still have to rely on the basics of hard work, common sense and focus. There, I just saved you $60,000.

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Tennessee Valley Group

Jim Cumbee established Tennessee Valley Group to help business owners fulfill their dreams for life after business ownership. It’s a mission that his 30+ year career history had prepared him well for—in addition to being an attorney, transition mediator and business broker, Jim has been a buyer, seller, and entrepreneur. His broad range of experience gives him unique insight into how business buyers and sellers can achieve their goals.

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