Laurie Picard on getting the business education you need: An interview by Bob Morris

When some of the most prestigious business schools in the world began providing free versions of their courses online, Laurie Pickard saw an opportunity to get the business education she had long desired, at a fraction of the typical MBA price tag. The blog site she launched to document her journey, NoPayMBA.com, quickly became an international phenomenon, hosting visitors from nearly every country in the world. News about the “No-Pay MBA” has appeared in Poets & Quants, Fortune, Bloomberg Business, Entrepreneur, and CNN/Money. From these beginnings, Laurie has grown into the role of MBA adviser to independent students from around the globe. She has written articles for the Financial Times and BizEd, the magazine of the business school accreditation organization AACSB, and was invited to produce a course for The Economist Group’s online learning platform, Learning.ly. Her career advice has appeared in The Daily Muse. Her first book, Don’t Pay for Your MBA: The Faster, Cheaper, Better Way to Get the Business Education You Need, was published by AMACOM (November 2017 ).

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Before discussing Don’t Pay for Your MBA, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

My first instinct with this question was to identify professors, mentors, authors and other formal educators who have had an impact on my development. But the more I thought about it, I realized that my personal relationships have had the greatest impact on both my personal growth and my professional development. My parents have been incredible supporters of my education and growth for my entire life. My college roommate, who has remained one of my closest friends, has also had a tremendous influence on my personal growth. We’ve taken very different paths – she is a musician – but we continue to enjoy discussing “the big questions” with one another. As for my professional development, my husband has probably had the biggest impact on me professionally. We were colleagues for several years, and it was invaluable to have someone who could be completely honest with me about how I come across professionally. We would often ask each other, “How was I in that meeting? Anything I could do better?” Getting instantaneous, honest feedback really helped me to grow.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

I attended a rather fancy private school for high school. I got a wonderful education, but I was turned off by the elitism and exclusivity that was part of the culture. Since then, I have sought education at institutions and through avenues that are somewhat less exclusive but no less committed to providing quality education. I carry a strong belief that a good student can get an incredible education almost anywhere. That belief has shaped my pursuit of continued learning opportunities.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

My high school education and my undergraduate education at Oberlin College gave me an important grounding in how to be a student. Which questions to ask, how to find the answers, how to think for myself, how to engage with the world, and perhaps most importantly, how to write. That grounding underlies pretty much everything I do.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

I wish I had seen some sort of schematic of the major career paths that exist in the world of work. Having only ever been a student, I didn’t have any understanding of how college majors corresponded (or didn’t) to the jobs that were out there. I wish I had been able to take a class called Jobs 101, or something like that. In fact, I would still like to take that course.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

These are all great quotations that distill important lessons about learning and leadership. The first one from Lao-tse applies just as well to teaching as it does to leadership. And in fact, the best, most beloved leaders are also teachers.   

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

I like this quote because it really gets to the heart of a dilemma that all of us face. If you are a curious, engaged person, you undoubtedly have more interests than you are capable of pursuing. Deciding what not to focus on is just as important (if not more so) as deciding what to spend your time doing.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

This is a great quote too, and it speaks to the way things evolve and change, often without people even noticing. Certainly that is true in education. Formal education in some ways looks just like it did hundred of years ago, but if you dig into how people are actually learning, you realize that people are taking advantage of so many new resources and modes of learning. For example, my dad practically taught himself to be a plumber using YouTube videos.  That kind of practical, just-in-time education, on any topic imaginable, is reshaping how we learn throughout our lives.

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

I believe so strongly in the value of lifelong learning. Discoveries, whether scientific discoveries or discoveries about ourselves and the world we live in, come from a place of curiosity and openness. We tend to value what “experts” have to offer, but often beginners or people who are new to a particular field bring wonderful insights and fresh energy.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

I think the most important thing is for the workplace to have a culture in which it is okay to try things that might not succeed. Failure has to be an acceptable outcome. If failure isn’t accepted as normal and an opportunity for growth, then learning can’t really occur.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

I’m very taken with the research by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on the concept of “flow.” That is, the idea that if we are challenged to a level just beyond our current capabilities, we can become highly engaged, to the point that hours just drift by. Unfortunately, too many people are doing jobs that never provide any opportunities to be challenged in this way.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

In addition to providing opportunities to take on new challenges, I think creating an environment of trust with accountability. For example, letting people choose when and how to get their work done, perhaps during hours that aren’t standard. Many workplaces are doing this, but it could go even further. Most jobs today can be done from anywhere. The less you monitor how someone works, focusing instead on high-quality outcomes, the better. We are moving toward a work world in which everyone needs to behave like a consultant. I think that’s a good thing, and that it will make most workers more engaged and productive.

Now please shift your attention to Don’t Pay for Your MBA. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

I had been blogging for several years at NoPayMBA.com. My project was to replicate a traditional MBA course for course, using free and low-cost online courses. The No-Pay MBA blog was a chronicle of that journey. By the time I finished my own education, I had so many people asking me how to create their own No-Pay MBAs that I thought it was time to put everything I had learned into a book.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Most of the big revelations occurred while I was studying. After having spent 3 plus years researching and replicating traditional business education, the book practically wrote itself. One of the big surprises to me while studying was to learn how much time and energy traditional business students devote to job searching and how much support their get from the school. Unlike most undergraduate education, the job search is a very explicit part of the graduate business education, pretty much from day one.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?

What are the defining characteristics of the person who will derive the greatest value from an M.B.A. earned by following the traditional path, completing degree requirements at a graduate of business such as those at Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford?

Pickard: Some people can get good value from a traditional MBA program. For example, a person with relatively little work experience, who knows pretty much exactly what he or she wants to do, and who is following a career path in which an MBA is highly valued (and highly compensated). Also, people whose companies are paying for their degree.

What are the defining characteristics of the person will derive the greatest value from obtaining the business education on which you focus in your book?

I describe the ideal candidate for this kind of education in the book. Basically, I have seen that people who are entrepreneurial, who enjoy learning, and who have a high degree of professional integrity can do very well with self-directed business education. I outline various types that can really benefit from not going into debt for a business education. These include entrepreneurs, people who are looking to accelerate within the industry they are already in, people who have already made the move into management, and people who aren’t sure where they want to go career-wise.

For those who have not as yet read your book (Especially Chapter 2), what are the most significant pluses and minuses of taking MOOC (massive open online courses)?

I think everyone should try at least one MOOC. I am continually amazed by how many people haven’t heard the news that universities are giving away their courses for free online. It’s incredible! The biggest pluses of these courses are that they are very high quality, taught by some of the best professors in the world; they are accessible all the time; they are affordable, often free; and they cover almost any topic that interests you. The minuses are that you aren’t in the same physical space with the professor and other students, so it can get a bit lonely. Also, it takes motivation and self-discipline to complete these courses.

How can those who read your book best determine what their business education needs are and the best way by which to serve them?

What I provide in the book is a framework for designing one’s own business curriculum. I give guidance on how to cover all the general topics that are part of graduate level business education, while also showing where and how to customize that education. I also give advice on how to use design thinking and hypothesis testing to match your education to your career aspirations. What emerges is not a prescriptive model, but a method for pursuing customized business education that meets your needs as they evolve.

What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when establishing a foundation “to speak the language of business”?

There are certain terms and concepts that everyone who is in the business world ought to know. If you want to become “business literate”, there are a few core topics (e.g. finance, marketing, strategy) that everyone can benefit from studying. Having a background in those core topics builds confidence at work and even makes you a better reader of business news.

In your opinion, what are the essential tools to have in one’s “toolkit”? Please explain.

I describe five essential tools, which are really a set of skills and ways of thinking about business problems. It’s all about how you can use what you study to address real challenges that come up in the world of business. The tools I consider essential are basic financial analysis, negotiation, project management, day-to-day management for efficiency, and analysis of entrepreneurial ideas.

Which of these tools seem to be the most difficult to master? Why?

 think the hardest thing to master is actually day-to-day management. Managing people is something that you can’t just study and become good at. It takes years of practice, reflection, and study to become a truly good manager. It is a craft that is honed throughout a career.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Don’t Pay for Your MBA will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

I think one of the most valuable sections of the book is the one on crafting a career.  Relatively few people know exactly what they want to do from a very young age. Most of us shape our careers through trial and error. If you can look at this process as a grand experiment, rather than getting hung up on whether you have figured out “what you want to be when you grow up,” you can enjoy the twists and turns and focus not on arriving at a final destination but on just taking that next important step.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Many people who have moved from a technical to a management role and who don’t have prior management training feel self-conscious about what they don’t know. The book can help uncover what is taught in an MBA program and help you cherry pick which parts of that education are relevant to you in your new role.

To C-level executives? To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

For people who are responsible for hiring, training, managing, and ensuring the efficient operation of a business of any size, the book describes a cost-effective way of providing business education. That could be useful for training current employees or for identifying great hires who have shown the ability to learn independently.

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Laurie cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

www.NoPayMBA.com

www.Class-Central.com

 

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