It was 30 years ago today

It is hard to believe that it was thirty years ago – almost to the day – that I sat in Convocation Hall to receive my MBA degree. Imagine, if you can, completing finance and accounting courses without Excel or preparing a 50 page strategy paper without a word processor. That’s how we did it back in the 1980s and somehow against all odds we did manage to do it successfully.

Most of us had no idea what we were getting into, especially people like me with only a passing acquaintance with business subjects and a dubious relationship with numbers. But I am not one to let a total lack of qualifications stand in my way.

My class was rather unusual at the time because most of us had work experience, and not just in banks or the places you would think most MBA candidates would hail from. There was a prison guard (imagine spinning that resume, but on second thought not too much of a reach to herding cats on Bay Street), an architect (apparently not a hot commodity in the 1983 recession), a lawyer or two (also a little surplus at the time), an army officer (during a particularly dull period for international conflict), and a downsized 50 year old (see 1983 recession).

One quarter of us were women, which was also unusual as the female ratio was typically more like one in ten. But don’t go thinking this was a fuzzy, group hug, cohort of women. It was more like a school of female barracudas, which in the words of Wikipedia are “snake-like in appearance, with prominent, sharp-edged, fang-like teeth much like piranhas”. They are also ferocious, opportunistic predators relying on surprise to overtake their prey. The modus operandi of the barracudas was to acquire critical yet obscure information about how best to suck up to a particular professor or what minutiae was likely to be on the accounting exam and use it to make sure they always ended up on the correct side of the bell curve. Because it wasn’t enough just to meet the knowledge requirements, it was essential to ‘win’ the MBA game.

But was the game anyhow? What the barracudas failed to realize is it was less to do with the actual content and more about the process, or more correctly, about surviving the process and coming out the other side with a new set of perspectives and cautionary tales. The prison guard learned that in business, rules are the things you work around instead of follow. The lawyers learned that ‘it depends’ is a reasonable answer. The architect learned that just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should. The barracudas learned that everyone who made it through ended up with the same degree, regardless of being on the Dean’s list or not. Or maybe I lied – they didn’t actually learn anything and if any of them ended up as your boss you will be my witness. And I learned it is completely possible to get through life without a firm grasp on statistics.

Of course everything is different now, and not just because of the electronic helpers. Now anyone can get an MBA if they are breathing and have about $80,000. My era was when we actually had to work for it and therefore, when it actually had some cache. So to the next person (and there have been many) I interview who tells me they have just finished their ‘executive’ MBA and have to make at least $150K a year: don’t even think about trying to tell me what you have accomplished. You have no idea. But I certainly do.


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