My “Personal” MBA

By Josh Kaufman, Founder of Personal MBA, Author and Business Teacher

Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is. —Isaac Asimov, Former Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University and Author of Over Five Hundred Books.

People often ask me if I have an MBA (Master of Business Administration). “No,” I reply, “but I did go to business school.”

As a student at the University of Cincinnati, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Carl H. Lindner Honors-PLUS program, which is essentially an MBA at the undergraduate level. The program was generously funded via scholarships, and as a result I had the remarkable opportunity to experience most of what business schools teach without the crippling burden of debt.

I’ve also been on the “fast track to corporate success”. Through the University of Cincinnati’s cooperative education program, I landed a management position at a Fortune 50 company—Procter & Gamble—during my second year of college. By the time I graduated in 2005, I had an offer to become an assistant brand manager in P&G’s Home Care division, a role typically reserved for graduates of top MBA programs.

As I began my last semester of college, I started focusing less on my coursework and more on the future. My new job would require a solid understanding of business, and almost all of my peers and managers would have MBAs from top-tier schools. I briefly considered enrolling in an MBA program, but it made no sense to pursue an expensive credential to get the kind of job I already had, and my responsibilities would be demanding enough without adding a load of coursework by enrolling in a part-time program.

While considering my options, I remembered a bit of career advice that Andy Walter, the first associate director I reported to at P&G, had given me: “If you put the same amount of time and energy you’d spend completing an MBA into doing good work and improving your skills, you’ll do just as well.” (Andy doesn’t have an MBA - he studied electrical engineering in college. He’s now one of the company’s top global IT managers, responsible for leading many of P&G’s largest projects.)

In the end, I decided to skip business school, but not business education.

Instead of enrolling in an MBA program, I skipped the classroom and hit the books, creating my own “Personal” MBA.

I’ve always been an avid reader, but before I decided to learn everything I could about business, most of what I read was fiction. I grew up in New London, a small farm town in northern Ohio where the major industries are agriculture and light manufacturing. My mother is a children’s librarian, and my father worked as a sixth grade science teacher, then as an elementary school principal. Books were a major part of my life, but business was not.

Before getting my first real job, I knew next to nothing about what businesses were or how they functioned, other than that they were places people went every day in order to draw a paycheck. I had no idea that companies like Procter & Gamble even existed until I applied for the job that swept me into the corporate world.

Working for P&G was an education in itself. The sheer size and scope of the business - and the complexity required to manage a business of that size - boggled my mind. During my first three years with the company, I participated in decisions across every part of the business process: creating new products, ramping up production, allocating millions of marketing dollars, and securing distribution with major retailers like Walmart, Target, Kroger, and Costco.

As an assistant brand manager, I was leading teams of thirty to forty P&G employees, contractors, and agency staff — all of whom had competing projects, plans, and priorities. The stakes were huge and the pressure was intense. To this day, I can’t help but marvel at the thousands of manhours, the millions of dollars, and the enormously complex processes necessary to make a simple bottle of dish soap appear on the shelf of the local supermarket. Everything from the shape of the bottle to the scent of the product is optimized —including the text on the cardboard boxes used to ship inventory to the store.

My work at P&G, however, wasn’t the only thing on my mind. My decision to skip business school in favor of educating myself developed from a side project into a minor obsession. Every day I would spend hour after hour reading and researching, searching for one more tidbit of knowledge that would help me to better understand how the business world worked.

Instead of using the summer after graduation to relax and go on vacation, I spent my days haunting the business stacks at the local bookstore, absorbing as much as I possibly could. By the time I officially started working full-time for P&G in September 2005, I had read hundreds of books across every discipline that business schools teach, as well as in disciplines that most business schools don’t cover, such as psychology, physical science, and systems theory. When my first day at P&G finally arrived, I felt prepared to strategize with the best of them.

As it turned out, my self-education served me well—I was doing valuable work, making things happen, and getting good reviews. As time went on, however, I realized three very important things:

1. Large companies move slowly. Good ideas often died on the vine simply because they had to be approved by too many people.

2. Climbing the corporate ladder is an obstacle to doing great work. I wanted to focus on getting things done and making things better, not constantly positioning myself for promotion. Politics and turf wars are an inescapable part of the daily experience of working for a large company.

3. Frustration leads to burnout. I wanted to enjoy the daily experience of work, but instead I felt like I was running a gauntlet each day. It began to affect my health, happiness, and relationships. The longer I stayed in the corporate world, the more I realized I wanted out. I desperately wanted to work on my own terms, as an entrepreneur.

This is an extract from The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman (Portfolio Penguin, 2011). To order now, view The Personal MBA: A World-Class Business Education in a Single Volume for the paperback, for the Kindle edition, view The Personal MBA: A World-Class Business Education in a Single Volume [Kindle Edition] and for the iPad edition, view The Personal MBA: A World-Class Business Education in a Single Volume [iPad Edition].

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