education vs. experience: balancing your toolkit

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences, and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hey there, and welcome to episode 21 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week's episode, Education Vs. Experience: Balancing Your Toolkit.

Formal and informal education plays a critical role in any leader's development. Having said that, we need to be realistic about the role that education plays in our career paths and ensure that our experience and achievements are commensurate with our qualifications. Not all education is equal.

When I talk about education, I'm going to completely ignore the realm of specific competency certifications. So that's things like undergraduate disciplines (law, architecture, commerce, etc.). It covers professional certifications, like the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certifications, or tickets required by tradespeople to certify their competency to work at heights or in confined spaces.

What I'm going to concentrate on in this episode is the stuff that I think's most relevant to the No Bullsh!t Leadership audience, and it's education for business managers and leaders.

We'll kick off by talking about why education is so important. I'll cover off on the 70-20-10 principle of education. We'll talk about the role that education plays in your career. And I'll give you an analogy that'll help you to think through the relative value of your experience in education to work at where you need to go from here.

Finally, for those of you who are interested, I'll finish off by sharing an overview of the educational choices that I've made throughout my career, and why I made them, and what I think the result was. So let's get into it.

As my good friend and mentor, Danny Hovey, reminds me from time to time, leaders are learners. One of the most common questions I'm asked about leadership education is, should I do an MBA? The answer, like the answer to any question posed during an MBA program is, it depends. The trick is to know what it depends upon.

Since I know that for many of you, this is going to be on your minds, I'll weave some stuff throughout this episode that might help you to work out for you what it depends upon.

Now, education for our context includes formal education, so that's stuff that both delivers qualifications and doesn't deliver qualifications, learning on the job, coaching and mentoring from your boss and others, reading, listening to podcasts and audio books that relate to key performance areas, and then just staying abreast of the world, international trade and business, country and industry specific developments, what your competitors are doing, and the benchmarks being set by best-in-class businesses.

Nothing is more important than having an awareness and a curiosity for everything around you, to constantly be looking to acquire new knowledge and capabilities that you can put into the context of your career and your life to make you better.

Let's talk about the 70-20-10 principle. If you haven't heard of this, research into learning and career development is very clear. You should ideally seek to implement the 70-20-10 principle, which is to say, 70% of your learning and development comes from on the job experience. 20% comes from coaching and mentoring. And 10%, just 10%, comes from formal training.

When we talk about the 10%, just bear in mind, this is not to say that 10% of your time should be in formal training. It's referring to 10% of all the activities that contribute to your learning and career development.

I always like to talk about the use it or lose it principle when we talk about formal training. To make it effective, it has to be relevant, it has to be timely, and it has to be able to be integrated into your current repertoire of capabilities. This is why I'm not a huge fan of the sheep dip training programmes that a lot of organisations undertake, where they put a whole class of employees, let's say, mid-level managers, and they put them through an identical training programme at a point in time without paying any heed to the individual needs for this stage capability and experience.

Let's talk about what role education plays in your career. Your formal qualifications are a ticket to the dance. So you can't practise as a lawyer, a doctor, or an electrician unless you've passed certain exams that tell those who will potentially be subject to your brilliance that you are deemed capable of offering your services.

In the context of leadership education, however, formal management and leadership education is valued very differently in different parts of the world. So in Australia, an MBA for a leader is entirely optional, sometimes ridiculed, and sometimes dismissed as not being of any value.

I remember when I started my MBA journey, I proudly announced to one of my colleagues that I was going to kick off. And she said, quite offhandedly, "Marty, MBAs are a dime a dozen." I thought for a second and then just shot back, "Sure, Lauren, but only if you have one, right?"

It's a very different story, though, in the USA. You really need one if you were going to progress to the heights of corporate America. Not only is it expected that you have an MBA, but the school you attended is really important. Is your MBA from Darden or Stanford or MIT? Or is it an MBA from the Backwater Community College? Because it makes a difference. And people care.

So before making any big decisions about committing to long-term or high-intensity postgraduate studies, so you get some guidance and counsel from people who've already walked the path, who can help you decide what's best in your specific case.

It's important, though, that you understand one crucial point. Education in all its forms is there to support your development so that you can perform better. That's the bottom line, period. Let me just say that again. Education in all its forms is there to support your development so that you can perform better.

If you don't remember anything else about this episode, remember that line. If it isn't additive to the knowledge, capability, and skill that builds your performance, then it won't ultimately help. So when you qualify with an MBA, for example, the sense of achievement is awesome. The post nominals make you feel proud and important. But it's all just conversation, unless it helps you to be materially better at what you do. No one has ever asked me whether I have an MBA, let alone what my grade point average was.

Let me give you a kick-ass analogy. I want to challenge you to look at the context of your education and your experience to see what your balance is like. When all else fails, try to focus on this analogy. Your education is the icing on the cake. But your experience is the cake. No one over the age of 12 eats icing by itself. The icing is nice. It makes a difference. It adds colour, but it's not the main game. The cake is the main game. And that's the thing that's going to get you your next promotion, your next pay rise, or it's going to lead to the next successfully delivered project. Bottom line is, your education will never, by itself, secure you a promotion, a pay rise, or a better job.

So that covers the key learning points. But I want to finish the podcast by talking about my educational journey and strategy. In case you haven't caught up on this yet, I dropped out of my undergraduate degrees, which were arts law at the University of Sydney, back in the early '80s.

Well, I guess I'm in pretty good company there. So the next time you get a spare 10 or 15 minutes, just for shits and giggles, google successful college dropouts. Now, whereas I'm clearly not in the same league as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, I still try to live by the wisdom of Mark Twain, who said, "I have never let school interfere with my education."

I started my career in the IT industry as a software developer. And I was pretty good at the technical work. But I realised pretty early on that my preferred roles were in the management of people. I found it much more stimulating and challenging. So I started working as a project manager, running large software development projects.

Now, I had some success in an industry which is notorious for failed projects. One day I woke up and realised that what I was doing was fun, but it wasn't where the action is. I decided I wanted to have a career in business. And to do that I had to somehow map a path out of IT, which historically, not many people have managed to do.

So in 2001, I decided to undertake an MBA. Part of it was me saying to myself, "Look, I need to prove to myself and to everyone else that I can do this formal education thingy." But most of it was me knowing that there was too much in the business world that I simply had no idea about, economics, business law, finance and accounting, marketing, organisational development strategy.

For me, the MBA was just in time learning. And as a bonus, I met some great people in my cohort, some of whom I'm still close to today. But it made a massive difference in my capability and performance as a business leader.

I'm thinking about gaining the experience that demonstrated I could perform in a corporate non-IT environment, but with a track record of achievements that helped me to progress through my career. Let me be clear here. Once again, no one cared that I had an MBA. But equally, I probably couldn't have done what I did and achieved what I achieved without the learnings that I acquired during my MBA.

On top of this, the process also gave me an incredible amount of resilience. At the time, I was working a new executive role, 65 to 70 hours a week. I was commuting to and from work, three hours a day. I was studying my MBA at night and on the weekends. And I was going through a divorce.

I've got to tell you, any number of times I thought of dropping my studies and picking them up later on. But I always managed to arrive back at one simple fact. If I couldn't handle and live with stress and the pressure that I was under at that point in my life, then there was no way I'd be able to handle the rigours and demands of a large chief executive role. Obviously, coming out the back end of that, I managed to answer that question and build up a hell of a lot of resilience during the process.

So for the next major chapter, fast-forward four or five years to 2007. I went to Harvard Business School to do the Advanced Management Program, or AMP as it's called. And that program is two months, highly intensive, living on campus at HBS with about 160 other executives from around the world.

Now when I attended the AMP, I was a total lightweight when compared to most of the others in the cohort. But I somehow managed to keep pace with them. And I learned so much from the people around me, not technical business stuff, but more transcendent things, which I know sounds super wanky. But I learned how to think, how to make decisions under pressure, absorbing highly complex information quickly, and making my decisions on their basis.

For two months, I got to mix it with the best, living together, studying together, working together, drinking together, one of the best experiences of my life. Now to be perfectly honest, whereas the timing on my MBA was virtually perfect, I was probably three to five years too early when I had the business school experience, purely in terms of my classroom readiness.

And as with most things in life, the timing was exactly as it should have been, for whatever reason. And I got an incredible amount from my HBS experience. Did it make me a better leader? Undoubtedly, if for no other reason that it gave me extreme confidence. And as leaders, that's something we all struggle with from time to time.

Now since then, in 2012, I graduated from the Australian Institute of Company Directors as a Chartered Company Director, not because I intended to take on director roles, but because, as a senior executive, I knew to better understand business from the board's perspective in order to manage the board relationship to the best of my ability.

So that really covers off the formal education landmarks in my leadership and business career. But the most important thing is not that. The most important thing for me is, in the last 15 to 20 years, I've learned the extraordinary value of being a continuous learner. So I just want to share with you what's in my current routine for making sure I stay on top of things as a continuous learner.

Every day, I read The Australian Financial Review to keep on top of what's happening in the world of business. Every week, I read The Economist Magazine to keep abreast of world events, business, and politics. Now, as I've said before, I have no affiliations with any publications or brands that I mention on this podcast. The only reason I mention them is if I actually believe in them, and they work for me.

So the reason I love The Economist, and think it's one of the very best investments you can make, is because it's actually one of the last bastions of quality journalism. Whereas it has a preference and a predilection for free market economics, it's also socially liberal. So it's quite in line with my view of the world. And most importantly, it's just really well-written. It also manages to explain some extraordinarily complex concepts in a very concise and entertaining way.

And when you're reading well-written stuff all the time it actually helps you to improve your writing. In the past, I've had executives who've really struggled with their written communication. And for many of them, I've actually bought them a subscription to The Economist as part of their career development plan.

If you want to learn how to write better, start reading really well-written stuff. And if none of that grabs you ... If you read The Economist every week, you are guaranteed to be the most informed and fun person at any dinner party.

Also, each month, I read the company director magazine from The Australian Institute of Company Directors. And I'll read the McKinsey Quarterly, because McKinsey, in my view, is the preeminent management consulting firm on the planet.

Having said all of that, it's not my education, per se, that has fuelled my career. It's the way I've been able to perform and deliver using my experience and education wrapped in together. It's taken a bunch of hard work, a shit load of luck and timing, some risk, having some incredibly generous and supportive bosses in my corner, a little bit of sacrifice, and a steady flow of setbacks.

The most powerful thing I've ever at my disposal though, is the great people I've had around me who've delivered extraordinary results under my leadership. And if you're wondering where the biggest bang for buck comes from in business, it's not from your individual brilliance. It's from your ability to lead the people around you to bring out their best performance in any circumstances, because that stuff multiplies itself exponentially.

Just before I finish, I can't help myself. Let me come back to my earlier question. If you're still asking yourself, should I do an MBA? I have an answer for you. And the answer is, absolutely. But only if you're comfortable with the fact that it won't, in and of itself, land you a better job. Do it because you know you have stuff to learn, not because you see it as a golden ticket.

All right. That brings us to the end of the episode. Now this week, instead of a downloadable, for those of you who are interested, we've got a little online quiz to help you work through which career development option will be best for you in 2019. You can find this at www.yourceomentor.com/quiz.

Thanks so much for joining us. And remember, at Your CEO Mentor our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So if you liked this episode, please help us by sharing it with your leadership network.

I look forward to next week's episode, Feedback Made Easy.

So until then, I know you'll do everything you can to be a no bullsh!t leader.