Those Who Can’t, Teach . . . MBA Class

Business schools train people to sit in their offices and look for case studies. The more Harvard succeeds, the more business fails.   -Henry Mintzberg

The other afternoon my doorbell rang and outside were five well-groomed young people (I know it sounds like a dream, but read on).  After several “Ums and Ahs” and general milling around trying to make a decision, one of them finally spoke up.  Not very forcefully nor with conviction, but at least they started to explain why they were at my door.

They are students in an MBA class (I live a block from one of the top London universities) and their class is divided up into groups of five and they are supposed to go out and acquire items through bartering with strangers.  Each group was given an item of equal value (in this case a wool scarf), and at the end of the day they had to significantly increase the value of the item they bring back through bartering.  It was a class in entrepreneurship and negotiation.  The group with the most valuable item wins!

So, here we have an opportunity to learn about negotiation out in the real world.  Excuse me, but a posh London neighbourhood is not necessarily the real world of bartering and negotiation.  This is not reality, not the real world of business, not the real world at all.  First of all, these are fairly wealthy young people, 4 out of the 5 from Southeast Asia and China.  They paid (their parents paid) a very large sum to attend one of the top London universities to get an MBA degree.  You tell me, what are they actually going to learn, really, from this exercise?

Here’s their reality.  After a few hours they will go back to their plush dormitory rooms, open their laptops and tap into the internet, some to study, some to watch videos. Then they will go to dinner with friends, again on their parent’s cash allowance.  If they are the winning team they will get a good grade and have more to talk about.

I have a better suggestion than this teacher’s lame idea of an “experiential” learning exercise in negotiation and entrepreneurship.  Let’s take away all their cash, send them onto the streets of London (or better yet, Mumbai) for 48 hours to practice negotiation and entrepreneurship.  Will they be able to eat through barter or negotiation?  Willthey talk their way into a paying job?  Here’s another suggestion. Follow a gypsy beggar around if you want to learn negotiation.  Play the shell game with a “street shark” if you want to understand how to sell your ideas. Try bartering with the Nigerians selling fake Gucci handbags on the streets of New York City. Go to the souk in Beirut and see if you can negotiate a good deal on a wool carpet.

Business is about survival and sustainability and real entrepreneurs take incredible risks to build a business or bring their idea to market.  A large percentage of entrepreneurs mortgage their houses, raise money from friends and family, go into debt, because they believe in the value of their product or idea.  They skip meals, they save so they can pay their staff.  The pull all-nighters frequently.  They travel 7 days a week seeing potential customers.  They don’t take a vacation for 3 years. Business is a contact sport.

What I saw milling around outside my front door was not passion, not belief, not commitment.  It was “getting by” to get a grade!

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

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About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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2 Responses to Those Who Can’t, Teach . . . MBA Class

  1. Hello John; good hard hitting post. Let me add my perspective. First, I applaud the school’s use of experiential learning. Most professors like to profess, hence the name, but great teachers use experiential methods to get their students involved. They remember the Chinese saying, “tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” So, kudos for the intention… Now they may learn something of value even in their surreal existence. Number one, they need to get outside of themselves and beyond their comfort zones to be successful. This is another step in the right direction. OK and your ideas of where to do this are better, but risk management and the accounting department may veto the idea… Now to build on your post…

    Business schools in the US were built to effectively educate for running large complex organizations that were forming in the Industrial Revolution. What has occurred is unintentional. The Harvards and Stanfords are putting out bright young entrepreneurs who have no intention of joining a large bureaucratic organization. They want to start their own business or join a start up where all the excitement is… I have found these students to be bright and mature beyond their years. Now to the dark side…

    Affluence has it’s price. While in China this past summer, I met several Chinese that have successfully migrated from the farms and into the cities; they were wealthy and were concerned about their children not growing up with the values they had learned on the farm. This is the dilemma that we all face. How do we raise children (or a society) with the right values? The good news is it can be done and business school elites and middle class Chinese and Americans will learn the key lessons of life sooner or later… Because life is relentless in throwing lessons at us until we get it.

    Our education should accelerate that learning and that is what we can all agree on…

    Keep the lines tight; FISH ON!


  2. John, I am in total agreement here. I think that there is way too much pressure on professors to publish. As a result, I think MBA classes are becoming way too theoretical and barely practical at all. I got value out of my MBA program, but it did not teach me anything I would need to know to lead people. I have read a lot of articles of late by academics that are against companies using performance reviews. That is a great position to take if you work at a university and do not have anyone reporting to you, but it would be a very dangerous position for someone in the real world. I think there is a huge disconnect between academia and the “real world” and I think that your post exemplifies it nicely. Good post.


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