One Degree of Separation

On my second day at work, Walter asked me to join him in the conference room. Also seated at the table were Hilda, his trusted controller for forty-two years, and his son, Joe, who hired me. “We are going to have to let you go,” said Walter.

“On my second morning? Was I that impressive?”

“No, you see, we like you a lot. That’s why we hired you. But there’s a problem.”

This was a surreal moment. I was hired to lead the marketing and sales function for a third-generation business. (Walter was the son and Joe the grandson). I only had one coffee break and I’m out?

“You see, Zev, I went through your paperwork and I did not realize that you had an MBA.”

“You’re right, Walter, we never really discussed it now that I think of it. But it says it right there in big bold letters next to my name.” Where is this going?

“That is the problem. I don’t like you MBA types. Pretty soon you’ll tell me how to run my business. But mind you, we’ve never missed a payroll since 1922.”

I took a deep breath and relaxed. This was the last thing I expected, but I figured that if I offered to publicly burn my degree I could keep the job. Not to worry, I had a laminated copy hidden in the basement.

“Walter, you really scared me for a minute. The reason I didn’t even talk about it was because it is an academic degree. It expanded my education and the depth of my knowledge. It teaches you to approach business in more than one way. It is about making smart decisions based on knowledge and data. But, it does not make me smarter than you or anyone else”.

Walter looked at Hilda, then at Joe, then Hilda and smiled. “I didn’t know that. I thought you were looking to run the company”.

So, I kept my job for fifteen years and then we were bought out. The company transformed from a family-owned business with limited views about our industry, to a leading company with reputation and performance that was unmatched. We grew in a straight line for over ten years.

My “advanced degree” almost got me separated from a job that turned out to be the most rewarding in my career. Transitioning a small family-owned business into “the mouse that roared” was a thrilling ride.

MBAs aren't smarter. They made a commitment to expand their education and gain a “competitive edge.” The edge stems from being able to view business from a variety of disciplines and learn to question everything, then make decisions that are based on real data and customer input.

MBAs are like scientists. Some over-use academic language and get lost in theory but practical MBAs live in the real world. They hypothesize then go out in the field to find data that either supports their hypothesis or not.

Did my MBA help me succeed and disprove Walter’s assumptions? To some extent. I was trained to think differently and always keep in mind that business success depends upon all parts of the business working together. It’s not just about sales or marketing. Every decision you make affects other people.

The ability to create a unifying environment where everyone checks their ego at the door and willingly works to satisfy clients was not a class or a final project. It’s something you learn by spending time in the field speaking with customers, suppliers and competitors. What you learn will either support your hypothesis or send you back out.

The reason Walter did not like MBAs was rooted in his belief that survival was enough (“we never missed payroll since 1922”). His son, Joe, set out to prove that he can do better. After all, this is what family business is all about. Joe’s Grandfather started in 1922 by making glass ampules. Walter moved to making needles. Joe was making precision components for medical devices that changed people’s lives.

For me, the Master part of my MBA is the uncompromising belief that we only serve one master - the customer. If you run your business based on this conviction, you have learned the only thing that matters when it comes to mastering the art of entrepreneurship.