Is it worthwhile to get an MBA?

Many people seem to think so. Even though an MBA in one of the top business schools in the United States will set you back $128,000 (not including foregone salaries while attending school full-time, which averages another $120K), it has become the most popular postgraduate degree of all.

And why not? You do get to build a valuable network of successful entrepreneurs, including future executives of top companies. You get access to cool internships in Fortune 500 companies. And many of them recruit talent straight from MBA programs, which means you may get first dibs at plum jobs.

But you'll be surprised how little you'll learn from business school about succeeding in real-life business.

From my own experience, here are three marketing lessons you won't learn in business school.

1. Put the Audience First

Business schools teach you that, to market successfully, you must understand the marketplace. Know your customers' needs and wants. But this comes after you have a product you want to sell in the first place.

This approach has worked and continues to work, but it can take a lot of time and resources for the typical business to finally hit on a winner. First, you need the resources to create the product, even if it's just a prototype. Then it takes more resources to find out if there's a product-to-market fit. It's out of reach for many small businesses and it's the reason why many businesses fail.

What I've learned instead is to start with the audience first, and then build a product. Identify an audience you want to serve, find out what needs/problems they have and what solutions they're willing to pay for, and then create the solution for them.

The audience can be your own, or somebody else's. Get to know them, and let them tell you what solutions they're looking for.

2. Be Transparent

Business schools teach you how to become a CEO: how to manage resources, especially people, set a vision for the company, make decisions, and perform all the other roles a business leader needs to fulfill. You'll learn to be confident, decisive, and authoritative.

What I've learned is that you have to be human; you have to be yourself. A leader doesn't stay inside the boardroom or their executive office. Effective leaders interact directly with their prospects and customers, not just with their employees, investors, and board members. Being human and interacting with your stakeholders gives you better insight. Besides, with the advent of social media, CEOs can no longer hide behind their brand. The public demands to know the people behind the companies they support. Doing this became a big differentiator for me and my company.

Unfortunately, appearing vulnerable is the third biggest fear of CEOs. This is one fear you'll simply have to overcome.

"The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability... When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins," Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, says.

3. Give Without Expecting Anything in Return.

Business schools don't teach about giving, unless perhaps it's part of corporate social responsibility. Even then, it's within the context of public relations, which has its own expected returns in the form of exposure and a positive reputation.

I've learned that radical giving--giving generously without hope of reciprocation--is truly rewarding. But not in a quid pro quo way. The returns are subtle and indirect.

For example, in marketing, you can publish helpful bits of information to the public. Some of them will choose to follow your brand as a result of this, but others won't. Some of the people who find your content will become your customers, but others will not. Either way is okay with you, because you truly want to serve your audience.

This is different from a bank that publishes a white paper. The white paper has a clear purpose of attracting prospects and getting them interested in the bank's product. That's traditional marketing, not radical giving.

So am I saying MBAs are useless?

I sure hope not; I have one myself.

But if you do choose to invest your time and money in getting one, do so with your eyes open, knowing you won't learn everything you need to succeed in the real world.

Published on: Dec 20, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.