There is nary a week that passes where I don’t receive at least one inquiry asking for my opinion as to the value of an MBA in the business world. Now if you’ve been in business for any length of time I’m sure you have heard more than a few humorous stories recounting the trials of young MBAs attempting to prove their value and failing miserably in their effort to do so. However, the stereotypes about MBAs chronicled in these tales of corporate folklore don’t give justice to the majority of MBAs who make frequent and truly significant contributions to everything they touch. In today’s post, I have the privilege of interviewing Sydney Finkelstein who without question is better positioned to provide expert commentary on the value of an MBA than anyone I know…

For those of you not familiar with Sydney Finkelstein you’re in for a real treat. Aside from being one of the most highly regarded business minds in America, Sydney is a Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.  He has written two must-read books, “Why Smart Executives Fail” and “Breakout Strategy” and is also the author of numerous published papers and studies on the topics of business and management. Dr. Finkelstein received his BComm from Concordia University, his MSc from the London School of Economics and his PhD from Columbia University Now that you’ve had a brief introduction on with the interview

Mike Myatt: All business schools are not created equal…Having employed a few Tuck graduates over the years I have a particularly high regard for Dartmouth MBAs as they have been some of the best and brightest employees I’ve worked with. What makes Tuck so special?

Sydney Finkelstein: Tuck focuses on three things that make a difference – Individual responsibility for making things happen, teamwork, and trying to make a big difference in life. Our tight-knit community, high degree of interaction between faculty and students, and rigorous program help students develop these capabilities.

Mike Myatt: You have spent a great portion of your career studying why executives fail…In your observation what is the biggest reason executives fail to achieve their objectives?

Sydney Finkelstein: There are many, but near the top of the list is the inability and unwillingness to learn anything new. Failing executives continue to rely on the same formulas and ideas that brought them success, even when there is clear evidence that the world has changed.

Mike Myatt: What do you believe is the most necessary skill set for an executive to possess in order to succeed in the business world today?

Sydney Finkelstein: I really think that a combination of intense curiosity and managerial discipline is essential for success. Executives must be open to new ideas and opportunities, while at the same time being grounded in tight financial and managerial controls.

Mike Myatt: Who do you respect most in the world of business?

Sydney Finkelstein: AJ Lafley at P&G has been a terrific leader for a number of years. This company has changed dramatically under his tenure, and for the better in a number of ways that are not easy to attain. I have been particularly impressed with how Lafley has helped transform the P&G culture to be more outward looking.

Mike Myatt: While most people see business school as a place to educate up and coming talent, I’m fairly certain many executives don’t know about the programs and opportunities that are available for continuing education or corporate partnerships. Could you provide your thoughts on this subject?

Sydney Finkelstein: Most business schools like Tuck spend considerable time developing world-class programs for executives. We do both customized and general management programs that bring our best faculty to a company’s executives. It is not unusual for participants to describe life-changing experiences, especially in the Tuck Executive Program, our flagship program that I direct. We focus on knowledge, but also leadership, personal development as a manager, and wellness. It is a powerful combination.

Mike Myatt: If you listen to the media they would lead you to believe there is a talent shortage in the workplace. What is your opinion of the talent level you currently see in business school, and is it getting better or worse?

Sydney Finkelstein: There is no question that the level of talent in top business schools has been increasing steadily over time. Tuck, for example, now draws from countries all around the world, which was not as common 20 years ago. The number of seats in top business schools has not increased nearly as quickly as the number of applicants, leading naturally to an upgrade in talent.

Mike Myatt: What’s next for Sydney Finkelstein?

Sydney Finkelstein: I am writing a new book on leadership, focused on decision making and why executives sometimes make remarkably poor decisions. A big part of the answer relates to recent research on how our brains work, and how this may be limiting our ability to breakthrough. In this book, we help executives identify the red flags in any key decision making situation, and what they should do to reduce their odds of failure.   

Mike Myatt: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Sydney Finkelstein: One of the primary lessons I’ve learned from my research and consulting activities is how often it is the case that executives leave themselves vulnerable to failure by ineffectively tracking the warning signs that provide clues to impending trouble. I now spend a great deal of time helping companies develop early warning systems that give executives an opportunity to track, and address, potential problems before they become life-threatening. The results to date suggest that it is possible to put a warning system in place at a very reasonable cost, and potentially huge savings.

Conclusion: After reflecting on Sydney’s comments for a while my conclusion to this interview became obvious It has been said that a back to basics focus on fundamentals with a forward looking perspective on innovation and change is the key to success. So I’ll leave you with the following three questions as food for thought:

  1. Are you paying attention to the basics or have you become lulled into a sense of complacency?
  2. Do you value knowledge and learning and are you continuing to refine your existing skills while acquiring new ones?
  3. Are you playing offense by aggressively seeking out innovative solutions to everyday challenges and staying ahead of the change curve or are you playing defense by mistakenly relying on yesterday’s practices to protect your interests?