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What I Had to Unlearn From Harvard Business School

A few weeks ago I was visiting the campus of Harvard Business School. I was there to participate in the second-year MBA class, Entrepreneurship through Acquisition. I had written the case study being discussed that day. Incidentally, the case study was about an actual client of mine, and he was even brave enough to come to the class with me.

Though I graduated from HBS over three decades ago, I still feel at home there. The school afforded me so much opportunity and remains near and dear to my heart today. You might 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, the 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. Of course, life has few guarantees. Once you step out of the classroom into the business world, about your only guarantee is that what you learn in the field is more valuable than what you learn in a classroom.

In fact, there were actually a few things I had to unlearn after leaving 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 a decision and look at a business issue from just a financial standpoint. But in my 35-year, post-HBS business career, I’ve realized the numbers are usually not the final point in a decision. For example, when a company retains me to help them buy a business, their defining concern is usually strategic fit, not just the best 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 I’ve seen weren’t given to me because of where I’d been educated. I have had to find opportunities, craft them and massage them. It sounds so evident as I write this, I say to myself “well dummy, did you really expect opportunities to just 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 people in the room together and they’ll come up with the right answer.
If you get a classroom full of students at HBS, about the only thing that exceeds the brainpower is the confidence level. Every class was around a real case study. We would read it carefully before class, then once in class, we would debate it, synthesize the issues, and recommend a solution. Doubt was nowhere to be found. We were, after all, the smartest guys (and gals) around. Fast forward 35 years, I have seen scores of decisions made by the “smart ones” that turned out to be complete debacles, the most obvious being the financial wreckage at Enron. Suffice it to say, intelligence alone is 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 impressed as he described his business model and strategy for growth. Warren Buffet couldn’t have done a better job. That 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 still have to rely on the basics of hard work, common sense and focus.

There, I just saved you $125,000. You’re welcome.

JIM CUMBEE is President of Tennessee Valley Group, Inc. a retainer-based business brokerage and transition mediation firm in Franklin, TN. Cumbee is an attorney and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Jim is the author of Home Run, A Pro’s Guide to Selling a Business. . He has a wide range of corporate and entrepreneurial experiences that make him one of the most sought-after business transition advisors in the state of Tennessee. The story above is true, but the names and fact patterns above have been changed to preserve the parties’ identities.

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Tennessee Valley Group

Jim is an attorney (non-resident status with the Missouri Bar) and though he no longer practices law, he has read and negotiated enough legal documents to fill a cargo tanker. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and knows how Wall Street and private equity operates. Jim is a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 listed general civil mediator with tons of experience helping business owners (large and small) work through sensitive problems to achieve winning results. He is the author of "Home Run, A Pro's Guide to Selling Your Business, Seven Principles to Make Your Company Irresistible."

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