Inside the Entrepreneur Mind: Could Your MBA Be Holding You Back?

Updated: June 17, 2009

Inside the Entrepreneur Mind: Could Your MBA Be Holding You Back?

People spend tens of thousands of dollars on an MBA to help advance their careers. But that textbook knowledge could be for naught if you end up working for an entrepreneur.

My first day on the job as a marketing director, I said to my boss -- a self-made man who started his $100 million business in his basement over a decade ago -- "I have my SWOT analysis and my marketing plan ready for action!"

Blank stare. Dead air. Oh no.

"I think I know what SWOT stands for, but I don't even think about my competitors, and couldn't tell you what goes into a marketing plan. Why do you need all that stuff?"

So began a career of wondering why I studied so hard, poring over textbooks and learning about operations management, when all I really wanted to do was create the next blockbuster ad campaign.

Not to be dejected, my CEO made it clear that he hired me BECAUSE I did not (and, quite frankly, COULD not) think like him. How could I? My only experience in starting a company was done with a group of fellow students on a computer game, last semester of my MBA (after finance, economics, org behavior, and only one cool class in advertising strategy).

The question remained: how can I get inside his mind, and think like him, so that any opportunity I bring to him, I have all the answers in place?

I can't; neither can you. But the healthy boundary between an MBA and an entrepreneur is real world experience.

According to some experts, the entrepreneur is happy to write the book as he goes along, because the only thing that makes sense is what works. He has little patience for conceptual and philosophical thinking; they are into the here and now. They want you to be brief, concise, direct and quick.

I have learned to do the following when dealing with my CEO, and I must give credit to Jeff Levy of Leadership Solutions for his insight during a recent conversation:

- Respect his "do it now" style; when you meet with him, be prepared to provide solutions and answers first, before any details. (The executive summary was invented for these types.)
- Do your homework and try to avoid asking the "why" questions. Instead, ask a question that begins with "what" - for example, "What opportunities do you see in doing it that way?" "What outcomes do you expect to see?"
- When presenting or offering ideas or solutions, make sure to offer options, rather than just one, although have a recommendation or preference ready.
- Entrepreneurs often must wear multiple hats in an organization, and their time is quite limited for each activity. This is especially true for people-related activities - because there is less of a direct bottom-line consequence. Although "leadership" comes naturally to some, most seem more comfortable managing. What this could mean for you is an opportunity to help the CEO by facilitating activities that recognize people's good work, get people involved in decision making, get the CEO to spend more face time with people and help keep the lines of communication open and flowing.
- Finally, take extra time to get clear on the CEOs expectations. Always be direct and never vague or beat around the bush. Ask, "What do you expect this to look like at the end?" or "What results do you expect to see in what period of time?"

In summary, if you can get the CEO to clarify expectations, he'll come to appreciate the value you contribute.

What does my CEO have to say about the disconnect? Not sure, but I'm still here. ;-)

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