This post describes the all-too-common workplace experiences that ultimately teach you more than you could possibly learn in any classroom.
1. Bringing a product to market.
It doesn't matter whether you do it in a one-person startup or inside a Fortune 100 company, there is simply no business experience more valuable than actually turning an idea into something that customers actually buy.
To do this, you must sell the idea to investors, create a prototype, cultivate early adopters, refine the design, create marketing materials, set up manufacturing, build distribution channels, train salespeople, establish customer support and then start all over again.
Throughout the process, you learn how managers, accountants, engineers, marketers, salespeople and customers all think differently. More important, you learn how to align all of them to work towards a common goal.
Business schools use case studies, most of which are about companies that innovated and succeeded or companies that tried to innovate and failed. But case studies are just talk.
The only way to really understand innovation is to get your hands dirty.
2. Surviving a layoff.
Being a leader means understanding human nature and there's no better place and time to (safely) study human nature than when a company is downsizing.
From the moment top management denies a layoff is imminent (the sure sign it's coming), a downsizing puts corporate politics into overdrive, complete with backstabbing and double-dealing so blatant it would make a Borgia blush.
Hard times reveal true friends, so one of the first things you'll learn is that, despite past camaraderie, your coworkers aren't your friends and that most of them will throw you under the bus in a heartbeat if it means keeping their own job.
As the top talent jumps ship before the pink slips fly, you'll learn that networking outside your company is crucial. As you watch your managers lie between their teeth ("our group won't be affected"), you learn a healthy sense of skepticism.
Most important, you'll learn if you're tough enough to take the heat, confident enough to reposition yourself, and whether you can remain calm in a crisis. No classroom or professor can possibly teach you any of that.
3. Enduring management fads.
I have a friend who works in a company that's implemented reengineering, quality circles, Six Sigma, TQM, management by objective, ISO9000, team empowerment, disruptive innovation teams, mission statements, and half a dozen more.
As an outside observer, it's pretty clear to me that my friend's company remains successful not because of these fads but in spite of them. Meanwhile, my friend has acquired the ability to smell management bullsh*t a mile away... and then ignore it.
For example, here's an excerpt from a course description lifted the Harvard Business School MBA catalog, circa 2005:
"This course teaches about cannibalization, network externalities, and globalization in order to generate superior value for customers by designing the optimum configuration of the product mix and functional activities."
Which do you think is more valuable: the ability to take that kind of gobbledygook seriously or what my friend has cultivated over the years-the ability to shrug off the biz-blab and concentrate on getting your job done?
4. Selling big ticket B2B.
Some B2B selling is all about price and delivery times. While challenging in its own way, that's pretty straightforward stuff, very much like selling cars or houses. There are other B2B sales situations, however, that aren't so simple.
Selling long-term projects, "mission-critical" services and major capital equipment can take weeks, months and even years. Like bringing a product to market, these long-term campaigns expose you to every element of business.
Inside the modern corporation, decisions to spend big money on anything involves building consensus among a variety of decision-makers, stakeholders and naysayers. Each party sees both their problem and your solution from a different perspective.
Even while you're working through the customer's various issues, big ticket B2B selling also requires you to work your own corporate issues, from enlisting resources to support your sales effort to taking care of the customer once they've purchased.
Anyone who's successfully shepherded one of these big ticket deals from first contact to ongoing support has already gone far, far beyond what can be learned in a business school.
5. Working in customer support.
Finally, there's no job more demanding than customer support and those who've worked there get an education about people and business that simply can't be purchased at any cost or learned anywhere except in the trenches.
Organizationally, customer support is Marketing's bastard stepchild, so it gets no respect from the rest of the company. If engineers build crap, marketers promise too much or salespeople sell the wrong product, it's customer support who takes the guff.
Customer support people are monitored, measured and paid based on how quickly they can cycle through calls. Despite this, they're expected to transform irate, frustrated, and frequently profane customers into happy campers. And then up-sell another product.
Because of the way most companies treat customer support, a stint on the phone banks reveals exactly how stupid companies can be and how mean customers can get. Survive that and nothing elsethe business world throws at you will even make you blink.