Monthly Archives: August 2013

Surprise MBA Lessons Part II

This post and the previous one are about the biggest surprise lessons of my MBA program now that I look back on its value and application. Last week I discussed a timeless model for analyzing business challenges, typically from an operations perspective. This week’s big MBA lesson involves organizational leadership and speaking truth to power.


As we studied group behavior, management and organizational leadership – a common foundation was drilled into our heads – speaking truth to power. The most effective business cultures are those that are open and accepting of blunt truth from peers or lower levels within the organization. This is a fancy way of saying they don’t hide from the truth; they don’t sugarcoat; their management meetings are not a bunch of ‘yes men.’ Someone can walk into the president’s office and say, ‘hey, our new product line sucks and costs us money for all the mistakes and hand holding with clients. We need to scrap it and stop the bleeding.’ And after the truth has been told to the powers that be – the person in power doesn’t drop a bomb and gossip to the guy who built it, he doesn’t sweep truth under the rug, he doesn’t tell the messenger to mind his own business. Instead, the leader whole heartedly listens to his front line employee, takes the truth to make the place better, and nobody’s feelings get hurt.

Easier said than done. I’ve heard it said that ‘the higher you climb in leadership, the less coworkers are willing to be honest with you.’ We’ve all been in the meeting where we bite our tongue, or have the ‘meeting-after-the-meeting’ where we gripe to one person. Or we’ve been the messenger that gets shot. Or we’ve even been the person that did speak truth to power that wasn’t heard and three months later there comes a huge, ‘I told you so’ moment when the wound suddenly becomes infected and now we have to amputate.


In my MBA program I brushed past this as the world’s most obvious organizational leadership principal. Tell ’em the truth, duh. But a few years in a startup and working with hundreds of businesses has shown me just how rare it is to see cultures where one can actually speak truth to power. I’ve had amazing coworkers quit or seen top performers submit themselves to just getting by because there was one instance where they tried to speak truth to power and were told to shut up and get in line.

Part of the issue is our own get-along-goggles. In school we learned to get along with everyone. Mom told us not to say anything that wasn’t nice. Coach made us run sprints for voicing opinions. We’ve seen the Yes Men rise the ranks by kissing enough ass. Even our lizard brain tells us that its best for our long term survival to follow the herd. On the whole it is uncomfortable and uncommon to actually speak truth to power, let alone have it heard and digested.

So as smart as the leader may be and as big as his ego – he will never be greater than the sum of his team members. Nor will he know his clients and product better than the front line employees who touch it every day.

The good news is the lesson can be applied even if you’re not at the tip top of the company food chain. Speaking truth to power applies within the smallest teams and can have a transformative effect throughout an organization. But first we must appreciate the benefits that speaking truth to power can have on employee engagement and accountability. From there – we must have open forums, make sure genuine feedback occurs and actually follow up on recommendations. Otherwise, groupthink and complacency will set in before we know it.




Thoughts? Have you been part of a culture where one could speak truth to power? Or have you seen the opposite effect? What’s the best format for speaking truth to power?

Surprise MBA Lessons

I guess hindsight really is 20/20. This blog post and the following are about the biggest surprise lessons of my MBA program at University of Denver. Although I paid a pretty penny, I’ve been very happy with the timing and lasting value of the program.

MBA meme

Now a few years after graduation, I can look back and fully appreciate one of the frameworks that was drilled into us throughout the curriculum – systems thinking. At the time, I didn’t fully understand why our core curriculum centered around the topic. Nearly every class referred, reinforced and revisited this model of analysis.

These days I work in online marketing with small to medium sized businesses. And every day I see the ability to use this framework as a key differentiator between the best employees, business owners, and marketing plans. Someone who effectively uses systems thinking has the advantage of seeing the big picture and making decisions with greater insight. These are the teammembers who rise above the noise to solve big problems versus the frustrated ones who do the same thing over and over expecting different results; or the business owner who creates an opportunity by seeing a gap in the marketplace and creating a profitable solution; or the account manager who thinks about the entire customer engagement versus simply the marketing piece. Overall, I would define systems thinking as the ability to see the big picture and evaluate entire situations versus focusing on one factor or variable.

Systems Model

(visual example of systems thinking model applied)

Part of the reason it’s so important to know how to apply an analytical model outside the classroom has to do with today’s workplace – it’s ever changing. Our parents may have done the same job for 20 years or earned a decent salary with a college degree and a technical skillset. Those days are gone. Now businesses or entire industries change in the blink of an eye, and the people who are the most valued are the ones who can adapt and connect the dots to create opportunity. In fact, Thomas Friedman, NY Times write and best selling author, actually wrote an article recently about today’s education system and it’s need to adapt to instruct creative thinking.

Looking back I’m grateful that our curriculum ingrained a method for analysis that is so timeless and universal. We studied accounting methods that have since been changed and many of our case studies revolved around now extinct companies like Circuit City. The degree may collect dust and I’ll forget most the buzzwords, but the usefulness of a few lessons gets stronger every day.



Thoughts? Looking back, what are the lessons or classes that you find most applicable from undergrad or masters work? Tune in next week when I discuss part two and another classic lesson.