Dear Lucy

May 12, 2013 10:25 pm

Lucy Kellaway answers students’ questions

People say grades don’t matter in business school. How little work can I do and still be a “success” at B school?

In theory you can do almost no work at business school, assuming that you are reasonably bright and have acquired the vital skill of winging it. Most employers don’t even look at your grades, and others – like the investment banks – consider academic achievement alongside other things. But in practice, loafing your way through your MBA is a bad idea for three reasons. For a start, if you are the sort of person who hankers after success, a string of bad grades will be painful to you. Second, part of the point of going to business school is the networking and future contacts – you don’t want your classmates to have you down as a lazy, dumb wastrel. And third, isn’t it just possible that some of what you are paying so much money to learn might actually be useful? In which case, trying hard might be a good investment in itself.

. . .

My classes have an open laptops policy during lectures, but it seems we are losing a lot of input from people who seem more interested in Facebook and personal emails than contributing to class discussion. How can I bring this up as a problem without drawing the ire of my classmates?

This is happening in all universities everywhere: it is a problem far too big to be solved by one extra-keen MBA student. If you try to talk to your classmates – or to your professors – you will not only fail, but you will become a pariah, which is the opposite of what one goes to business school to become. I suggest that you try to turn the situation to your advantage. If the rest of your class is using Facebook, you get almost one-to-one contact with the teaching staff. You also will get better grades, which will be good for your morale, even if employers aren’t terribly impressed (see above).

. . .

Business school includes a lot of social time, but my wife doesn’t want to attend these events. How do I balance family time with the need to network?

First of all, congratulate yourself on your choice of wife. A woman who doesn’t think it’s fun spending all her time with her husband’s tiresome classmates sounds like an intelligent and discerning person. Next, you must forget the idea of “balance”. If you are trying to have a fulfilling personal life and a thrusting job, you can’t have balance. I suggest you try various patterns of staying in/going out to see what works best. The answer will depend on how much you value the relative charms of time with your wife and networking, but assuming I am right about your wife, I’d give her five nights a week, with the remaining two for your classmates.

. . .

We are put into working groups for each piece of coursework. This is fine, except that half of my team live on the other side of the world and there are language barriers and power struggles. Any ideas on effective collaboration techniques?

My sympathies. If you crack this problem you will be ready to run a global business. If there is one thing worse than conference calls when everyone is in the same timezone and speaks the same language, it is when they are scattered round the world and can barely understand what people are saying. No good can ever come of this. So scrap the calls – do it by email instead. It is not a great way of working together, but at least it is not actively painful. I presume from the wording of your message that you are a native English speaker. However bad it is for you, it is worse for those who aren’t.

. . .

If all the most eligible ladies/students are married, how do I meet someone through the programme?

You have three options. You can go for the married ones, hoping they will ditch their starter husbands. But prising them away may be hard work and not morally agreeable to you. Or you lower your standards and go for the ones that now strike you as less eligible, hoping they will improve on better acquaintance. Or do something that is better than both: date someone without an MBA.

. . .

Is going for an expensive MBA or executive MBA at a top business school a good decision and a wise investment in the current times of unending turmoil?

If you are trying to choose between an expensive MBA and an extortionately expensive one, go for the latter. Although the earning power of all MBAs is not what it once was, the earnings of alumni from the best and most expensive business schools are holding up better than most. But if you are wondering whether to go to business school at all, it depends on how you are faring in the never-ending turmoil of the moment. If you are already in a reasonable job with some prospects, hang on to it.

. . .

Is it possible to get to the top without being a nasty piece of work like most bosses?

Yes, you can get to the top without being an out-and-out nasty piece of work, even though the NPW remains the leadership gold standard. The best thing is to have a nice and reasonable outside layer, with a steely core underneath that will act ruthlessly when called for. If you are a sweet soul, go into a caring profession instead. But if, on the other hand, you are a sociopath, that is no good either. They don’t fare quite as well as they used to.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT associate editor and management columnist and writes the Dear Lucy feature

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