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Succeeding Without a Traditional Business Degree

Posted on 26 February 2009

You don’t need a Harvard MBA anymore, at least not for major career success. Many senior corporate stars have taken a very unorthodox academic route on their way to the top, experts say. Or they ditched the idea of getting a college degree entirely.

Don’t Fence Me In
Of course, a Harvard MBA (or equivalent credentials from the Wharton School or Stanford) can certainly perk up a resume. But one shouldn’t think that, without it, any chance of making the executive management team is sunk. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” says Jean Lalonde, president and CEO of I.C. Axon, a developer of multimedia medical education courseware. Lalonde should know; he pursued a liberal arts–not business–degree at Concordia University in Montreal.

His opinion is shared among business experts and best-selling authors. “Hungry people often are the most successful in life, and the hungriest people don’t usually go to the most elite business schools,” says Patrick Lencioni, an executive consultant and author of Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive. “Hard work and personal discipline counts far more than a pedigree or a high IQ. And while great schools certainly turn out their share of hard-working, disciplined people, they have no monopoly on them.”

Personal discipline counts far more than a pedigree or a high IQ.

A thriving business career, it seems, is possible without a top-shelf school MBA. Here are the stories behind two big successes that have done so. One spent years pursuing a doctorate in a non-business discipline, while the other has no college degree at all.

The New Business Man
As senior vice president and GM of CIT Franchise Finance, Robert Neagle is a major player at one of the nation’s largest consumer and commercial financial companies. But his academic interests recall a much more gentle era. He earned a doctorate in Restoration and 18th century English literature from Loyola University in Chicago.

Neagle believes that academia is more than a strictly nuts-and-bolts vocational training ground. Instead, he feels students should extend their interests during these years, and muscle up their gray cells in the process. Try majoring in ancient Asian linguistics, or the socio-economics of the Victorian era, or anything else that intrigues you. You will be conditioned for the kind of reasoning and intellectual processing that’s needed in the business world.

“First of all, most successful people don’t get an MBA from the top business schools,” Neagle claims. “Just look at the number of successful people and the number of total Harvard and Wharton graduates. I pursued what I was interested in without regard for a business career. I learned the finance business by reading books and making mistakes. And, early in my career, meeting the company CFO at the pancake house for breakfast and Q&A sessions.”

While the “best and brightest” of yesteryear never lived in today’s business world, Neagle says, they do have a lot to offer. “The best advice I have read on sales comes from Aristotle’s Rhetoric–a comprehensive discussion of the art of persuasion Most people I come into contact with professionally have undergraduate or graduate degrees in economics, finance, marketing, business administration, and the like. The best of the bunch, however, are people who are liberally educated, who continue to read and learn.”

Dare to Be Untraditional
Having started the New York-based Internet Financial Network, Cliff Boro is a fiscal information services entrepreneur without an institutional investor’s academic pedigree. In fact, he has no college degree. Oh, he gave Brandeis University a try. But he never made it beyond his freshman year. He preferred to go out into the real world and work for money management firms. He later founded IFN to feed SEC filing data to Wall Street pros via the Internet. He also developed Infogate, a free desktop tool that delivers real-time business and financial information via the Web.

Did the lack of college degree hinder his career? Boro doesn’t think so. In fact, he thinks it may have helped. “Entrepreneurs are usually iconoclasts who don’t care about pedigree or diplomas,” Boro says, “because they are totally obsessed by creating businesses from nothing. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting an MBA, I believe that some of the best entrepreneurs are blessed by not having an elite business education, because they don’t know what supposedly can’t be done.”

College classes were fine, but Boro was too antsy, had too much restless energy. “I just felt too far out of the loop of the world,” he says. “I wanted to be where the action is. When I first graduated from high school, I had the incredible opportunity to work [on Wall Street]. In the 1980s, hedge funds were the epicenter of the financial world. And when I tried to go back to college in the early 90s, the Internet came on the scene. I just couldn’t resist my urges to get in the game. Economic revolutions don’t come around too often, so how could I possibly sit in class and miss out?”

It’s All About You
Are college degrees losing their relevance? While not entirely dismissing higher education, Boro believes there are other qualities that a great business star can cultivate. While he wouldn’t recommend his risky approach for everyone–there were times, even for him, when the going got tough–he has no regrets.

“Things are changing so quickly that it’s impossible for textbooks and curriculums to keep up,” he says. “Meritocracy is flourishing. People care less about degrees and more about how smart you are, and your ability to turn visions into reality. An elite degree is still a mark of discipline, intelligence, and tenacity. Or it may be that they spent three hard years in the peace corps, solo sailboat racing, or walking barefoot around the world to raise money for diabetes. I just think it’s essential that the aspiring business person has been tested and has faced significant hurdles.”

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. online payday advance says:

    Having the drive and personal perseverance will definitely get you where you want to be in life. As far as a career, I cannot help but stress the importance of an education if you use and develop the tools that are taught.

  2. Gaurav Sharma says:

    This is really a great article. However I feel that Education really play an Imp role
    Gaurav Sharma

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