The Secrets Learned from Not Doing an MBA from Harvard

Some of the greatest business men and women didn’t go to university, let alone study for an MBA. So in the modern digital age, is it still worth going to Harvard? Are real-life lessons in business worth more than the high tuition fees associated with going somewhere like Harvard? Do the costs associated with an MBA still represent good value for money in the pursuit of business success? Can we learn from the teachings of experienced business people and still be at an advantage compared to our MBA colleagues?

Type of Flare: Business

Owner of Flare: Based on American
lawyer, sports agent and writer, Mark McCormack

Source: Various including Mark’s book “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School” (Link)

“Taking the edge is winning through intuition and preparation. It means learning what people want and finding a profitably way to deliver it. Take the initiative.”

This week we’re taking a look at Business Schools and the links to success in the business world, more specifically the MBA. The Master of Business Administration (MBA), an “internationally recognised degree designed to develop the skills required for careers in business and management” according to, has become synonymous with success and was once the desire of a great number of young employees, embarking on their careers.

At first, it was not uncommon for an employer to fund the studies, thus providing both on-the-job learning and the support to put the teachings in practice. This was advantageous to the pupil too; a quick search on Google states the fees range from £16k up to £73k in the UK. However, in recent times, organisations have become more reluctant to invest such large sums (on top of existing in-house learnings) in an employee. This has been driven by the practice of obtaining the degree and then leveraging the new qualification for a promotion, either internally or externally. Thereby, leaving the sponsoring organisation both out of pocket and without the IP (intellectual property).

The Financial Times stated that in 2014, UK business schools were among the most international in the world for MBA students, accounting for almost 90% of all MBA students (approx. 1,400 at the time). The qualification was being used as a mobility tool, to access not only new companies but also widen a students remit in terms of countries. As a result, It was not surprising to learn that organisations had reduced the number of MBA’s being funded internally. Why invest in someone who will just up and leave once the education has finished? It is a fair assumption, but one that conflicts with the ‘investors in people’ mantra of many top firms.

I have seen this first hand in my career; friends and colleagues (including myself) have broached the subject of studying for an MBA with our employers, only to be told that it is no longer an option or restricted only for top performers. Whilst I fully accept not everyone can be sponsored to study further, it has seemed a touch unfair at times. Rather than become bitter and resentful, I decided to ask myself the question; “is it worth it?”

Having researched the subject, and noted other authors have pondered the same question (Adele Barlow’s ‘8 Ways to Escape the MBA Debate’ is an excellent read: Read Here), I decide to focus on the behaviours rather than the outcome. What this meant in reality was, I would research the businessmen and women who (I believe to) have been successful, and see what they said. This reading led me to squarely to the front door of a man named Mark McCormack and his book “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School”.

Tiger Woods GolfMark is widely regarded as the man who singled handedly kick-started the sports agent industry and brought the appeal of sports men and women to the world. With incredible foresight or unbelieve luck, the first 3 clients he signed in 1960, were Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. These 3 individuals would go on to dominate the world of golf for decades and massively boost the sports global appeal. Through his company IMG (International Marketing Group) McCormack began to negotiate on their behalves and bring in previously impossible fortunes and exposure. Nowadays, IMG has been responsible for some of the biggest names in the sports, including Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Cam Newton and Ian Thorpe (some may have moved on recently).

In 1990, Sports Illustrated proclaimed McCormark to be “the most powerful man in sport”. His legacy lives on through IMG even though he passed away May 2003. Taking all the success into account, it could be easy to think that McCormack was in a privileged position to start with or was given a helping hand. There were no easy steps back in the ‘60’s and you certainly couldn’t ‘Google’ the information or secrets to negotiating. They were all learned the hard way!

Bringing the discussion back to Harvard Business School, McCormack wrote the ‘Harvard’ book as a way of articulating all the things he had learnt and that you didn’t need to attend a prestigious university or college to succeed. As the man himself put it “a business school can’t teach you to be street-smart”.

McCormack sets the book out as a series of short stories, each one representing a specific point or tip he wants to emphasize. It is not written in business jargon or complicated language; rather a manner in which he could quite easily be sat opposite you having a conversation.

The book is split into 3 distinct parts: 1. People, 2. Sales & Negotiation and 3. Running a Business. If you have an interest in one or more of these areas, it lends itself well to dipping in and out when you like. I’ve read it cover to cover and used it as a resource, each time providing a little nugget of information which I have felt the benefits.

There are too many key takeaways to list them all here and I would certainly not do them justice. Suffice it to say, I would really encourage you to have a read of the book, even more so if you are exploring the possibilities of studying for an MBA.

As summarised by a LinkedIn SlideShare paragraph:

‘business is a competition. At any level, but especially at the higher levels, sophisticated competition is played more in the head than it is in the office. By keeping your eyes open to experiences happening all around you, and by thinking clearly about your own career and company, you can learn the effective techniques of salesmanship, negotiating skills, starting, building and running a business, managing people and getting things done.’

So if you asked, what have I taken away from this book? The answer would be following::

  1. You will not learn to run a business from Harvard

The lessons Mark teaches were learned in real-life and are associated to an example and outcome. Understanding the real impact of ‘people’, sales and ‘negotiation’ and ‘running a business’ (the 3 sections of the book) will give you a greater insight into business than the teachings of an MBA (which is heavily focused towards finance and investment banking). Henry Mintzberg even went as far to say “the MBA trains the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences”.

  1. Sometimes it pays to say nothing

Silence is golden as the Tremeloes once said. And nothing could be more true in the art of sales and negotiation. McCormack advocates using silence to force a decision. Silence will keep a seller from saying to much and makes a buyer say more than they intended to. Using your own experience, have you ever been in a meeting where an uncomfortable silence descends and you feel the urge to say something to fill the void? It is likely you will give away more than you intended to by doing this!

  1. The power of persuasion

If you think of any person you perceive to be successful, it is highly unlikely they have achieved this without honing their powers of persuasion. McCormack claims it is almost impossible to each the upper echelons of any company without mastering the art of persuasion. These techniques can’t be learned in a Business School where situations are manufactured; they are learned through real sales situations.

  1. It’s the little things you do

They say, ‘you never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression’. Conversely, McCormack believes that your business impression is created by the little things you do and say. This could be from remembering details about a client’s family or going over and above the call of duty in providing a solution. In business as with life, it is the little things that people remember about you.

  1. The art of G.S.D

As someone who loves the GSD approach (“Get Sh*t Done”), It is always a toss up between time and activity. You’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘I don’t have time’, or ‘I wish there were more hours in the day’. McCormack can identify with this having built his business from scratch. That said, he maintained that the ‘trick was to fit activities into your time, not find time to accommodate activities’. In reality, that means you should do the things you planned for as long as they were planned & not longer. By creating boundaries, you will become more efficient with timings and focus on getting things done (think: is it urgent or important?).

If you want to read an article about why not to do an MBA, Inc. have put a compelling argument forward in 7 bullet points (Google it). I’ve tried not to bash the MBA as have not been on that side the fence. Conversely, as someone who wants to keep learning but can’t afford to spend £1,000’s on a 2nd degree, books like this really resonate. Hearing the “secrets” of success from those who have been there, done that, have greater impact than a hypothetical syllabus.

The Knowledge Flare Comment:

So why is this important to me?

  • Getting Ahead – we would all like a little bit of competitive advantage; that little something which puts us ahead of the rest. It could be on the sports field, it might be in the boardroom. Either way, the ability to combine capabilities with know-how, people-sense and an understanding of the game, means you will go a long way in putting your nose in front of the competition.
  • School of Hard Knocks – for all the reading and learning we can do, none of it will prepare us for the day that reality strikes. Some of the greatest performers in the world practice long and hard to ensure high performance on game day, just think of the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks. The business world is just the same. You have to go out and get experiences for yourself to start developing the ability to make the most of your business (& non-business) strengths.

I have read this book on several occasions and each time learned something new. My copy is full of folded page corners, highlighting marks, and scribbled notes to remember. My opinion is there is something for everyone in the book. McCormack explains each element really well, in bite sized chunks and with a real-life example. If you are a sportsfan, you may recognise some of the stories or references he makes. Alternatively, each anecdote will make his insight come to life. I believe each and every one of you will take away a little nugget from this book which will help you in your day-to-day business life.

And just remember, the real-life learnings from a hugely successful, self-made man, didn’t have the price tag of an MBA!

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About Me

About Me

Hi, I'm Brendan. Businessman, sportsman and dreamer. I write about information hidden deep within the darkness of the internet superhighways.