On MBAs and Design

Today, while hearing Kristen Lynch, CMO for Quaker Foods, talk about her experiences as an MBA Student, I remarked on Twitter "I've been saying for years that MBA students need to learn how to partner with designers. A valuable skill for running a biz." (By the way, I have actually been saying this for years, I believe it quite strongly.)

A good friend, and former [graphic design] business partner, and current MBA student replied, asking me to elaborate. I continued, in slightly more than 140 characters:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I am of the impression that all MBA classes are taught through the lens of "when you are running a business ...", delving deeper than simply working, but planning, managing, and decision-making.

So while you'll take classes in law, finance, human resources, etc., there's very little to do with the qualitative side of business, and virtually nothing to do with design.

Marketing and advertising are well-established tools for any business, but designers are still viewed as aliens —these strange creatures who wear black and use Macs.

I feel that by taking a few weeks, or even a few hours, to discuss the role of design business, it will help generate empathy among managers and other "suits". This will help avoid the old "make the logo bigger" syndrome, where brands and agencies often get at odds.

Designers are no better, they need to suck up the fact that we too are business people, not artists. Our work, much like that of a lawyer, accountant, or even a plumber, is a professional service, and we have to be professionals.

The example given here was one where the now-CMO for Quaker Foods as an MBA student was made to partner with the MFA Design students to simulate the future client-agency relationship. In her testimony, it was a tremendous experience, and one I think is too rare.

You, specifically, shouldn't have this problem. Obviously you have design experience, but many of your future colleagues will not even be able to comprehend the need for design, let alone the continuing relationship requirements (and associated fees.)

It comes down to open-mindedness. Do we want to train future business leaders to be empathetic and creative thinkers, or just another generation of "suits", carrying out the same rituals of middle-class hazing for their future employees and vendors?

Onwards and upwards.
He replied in short order:
First, I really enjoy knowing I can type one word and get so many from you. This represents my power as an MBA student over you as a designer. I kid.

Every MBA program has a management concentration. Harvard Business ONLY has management. Because in any business, managing the function is easy, and managing the people is the hard part. What I can tell you is that there is a decent enough amount in these programs on how to be a leader, how to motivate, how to inspire, and all that. It just doesnt make people good at it and that is just sad.

Management is completely qualitative. I sit in these classes learning all about relationships and organizational behavior and I think to myself, "This is touchy-feely bullshit, where are the graphs, where are the formulae, what am I learning?!?". Im sure Im not the only one in my classes who feel this way. The problem is that when you are learning and you dont have a math-based test at the end of the term, you dont "feel" like you are learning, but you are. This goes along with the Quantitative vs. Qualitative argument. So it is important to self-reflect as an MBA student along the way.

I had an awesome experience similar to the one you discussed earlier; the Org Behavior class I took not only had MBA students, but Arts Management students in the class. Gasp! Artsy BFA's sat with rigid, robotic MBA's. We had to work together and it turned out to be an awesome class because we got to see it from both sides. It was the ultimate clash of the Dominant Type A's with that of the easy-going starving artist-types. Aliens as you say. It was the only class where after it was all said and done, I went out with drinks with my mates. A great experience where the professor who is an MBA and works in the fashion industry played us all like her little fools. She knew how to get in our heads and get us to perform to the best of our abilities.

Your people are your most important asset in a business. You can copy efficient materials managment practices, you can copy or backwards engineer (steal) technology, you can follow best practices, but at the end of the day, you cannot replace human capital (brains, smarts, talents, creativity, innovation) that comes from your people. You need them and they need you. And, to keep them happy and motivated is to keep them efficient and effective: every manager's goal. This goes for your internal people and external vendors (or suppliers) because you want to have a complimentary, equally beneficial relationship, because otherwise whats the point in working together.

So, what am I saying? Some people are good managers and some are not. In my opinion, MBAs are the Jedi of the business world. Its just unfortunate that when there are Jedi, there are also Sith, and thus, you have people in these programs who do not self-reflect and are only interested in their own self promotion. These are the jerks who dont "get" you. They dont want to get you. If you are an MBA it is your job to understand your resources and restrictions and then optimize. And, this goes for everything from widgets to people. Dell is awesome at this. But then again, Dell is one of the three answers to all questions in an MBA program. The others? Walmart and "It depends"
And I continued the conversation:
Spoken like a true man of the 21st century. And I think it's clear that you and I are both bloody eager to be the sort of businessmen who does things differently, and therefore, correctly. Careers powered by idealistic defiance against the status quo.

That class with the art students sound cool. I wish I had more opportunities like that as an undergrad and in grad school as well.

But until you and I are running the show, it's an uphill battle against old thinking. I just heard a panel discussion where in-house designers lamented the fact they can't convince bosses of anything without hard data, which design doesn't often yield, especially at the start of a project.

But I agree with your main thesis that people must be taken care of. Everything matters — the brand of coffee in the kitchen, the durability of the chairs, whether or not you are invited to meetings, how you recruit entry-level talent, whether you say "thank you" and on and on and on...

So in conclusion, I look forward to you hiring me many times in the future. Design is good business.

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