If you decide to return to school to gain an MBA, it seems like a declaration of ambition to grow. But Penelope Trunk views it differently: An admission you are failing at your work.

With admission deadlines for many schools coming up, she urges you to withdraw your application or stop working on it.

“Because you should not go to business school. If you want to start a company, you should start a company. And if you want to climb the corporate ladder you should do that. An MBA does not help you with either of those goals,” the provocative careers blogger insists.

For many people, the MBA is a path to middle management. But she argues if you’re a strong performer you’ll get into middle management faster by working than taking two years off for studies. And if you think you need to go to MBA school to become an entrepreneur, she says you’re clearly not cut out to be one.

She sketches out various types of performers who take MBAs, including:

  • People who work with morons: After all, if you were working with talented people they would want you to stay alongside them. “If you are due for a promotion and your boss says you need an MBA to move up, your first thought should be ‘My company sucks.’ Because an MBA doesn’t teach you anything you can’t learn on the job or teach yourself as needed. If you absolutely have to get an MBA to move up at your company then get a mail-order MBA from a terrible school that requires very little effort,” she writes.
  • People who can’t close in the job chase: They hate job hunting, so they hope the MBA will land them a new job, almost automatically. But life and work is about learning to sell yourself and your wares. So get on with that directly. “The school won’t sell you – you’ll still have to sell yourself. Nothing changes except that you are older and you have more school loans,” she says.
  • People who are uncoachable: People who can’t take advice from top performers may need an MBA school to compensate. Coachable people get great advice from top-performing colleagues and don’t need to waste time at MBA classes.

Getting to the top is a race. And in this one, the tortoise who takes a break at MBA school loses in her estimation.

The five factors for high potential success

If you choose to skip the MBA path but catapult to success in your organization, five factors can be critical, according to Claremont McKenna College professor Jay Conger and PepsiCo Inc. senior vice-president Allan Church in their new book The High Potential’s Advantage:

  • Situation sensing: The capacity to sense rapidly your boss’s unique stylistic demands and priorities. The person most likely to assess you potential is your boss, so you want to shine in your dealings with him or her.
  • Talent accelerating: Over your career, as you move up from just being an individual contributor, you will be leading teams. You need to be a quick study of the talent around you and adept at developing that talent.
  • Career piloting: More challenging assignments will come with career growth. They will require greater versatility, adapting your mindset and behaviour to new situations. “You’ll discover the critical importance of being highly perceptive along with being comfortable with ambiguity, and the necessity of calm, perceptive and relational demeanour,” they write.
  • Complexity translating: Initially in a career we are asked to gather lots of data and deeply understand an issue. But as you move up you need to integrate and simplify the divergent information you receive, translating it into a compelling narrative for others to absorb.
  • Catalytic learning: You need to learn and keep learning. This thirst for learning drives everything else.

It starts with the first factor, sensing what your boss needs. On that score, the authors suggest four approaches:

  • Determine what tasks will help propel your boss’s success.
  • Tackle every assignment as if you are already at the level of your boss or boss’s boss.
  • Demonstrate initiative beyond expectations.
  • Take work off your boss’s plate.

Carry this out successfully and they believe you will be groomed for success by the organization as a high-potential star.

Saying no – with class and vigour

Business coach Deborah Grayson Riegel offers these responses in Psychology Today for requests you want to decline:

  • Oh, I will be so disappointed to miss this! Thank you for asking me.
  • I am so flattered that you asked but unfortunately I cannot do that. Can I help you brainstorm someone who might be able to help?
  • Normally, I would say yes, but I have already committed to ________.
  • Right now, I am saying no to all invitations. Here’s why …
  • I need to decline, but I do hope you’ll keep me in mind for the future. Would you please reach out again?
  • I try very hard not to make commitments I will likely need to cancel, and because of the timing here, I can imagine needing to cancel at the last minute, leaving you in a last-minute scramble to find someone else. Because of that, I need to say no.
  • That sounds like a fantastic event/opportunity/cause, and I know that I will be sorry to miss it.
  • I cannot attend in person, but I wonder how I can help in some other way. Can we brainstorm ideas?
  • Not this time, but thank you for thinking of me.
  • I sit down with my calendar on Sundays. Would you please send me all of the information I need, and I’ll let you know on Monday if it works with my whole schedule?
  • Not this time, but when’s the next opportunity available for something like this?
  • When do you need to know by? I ask because if it’s in the next [week/month/quarter], I will need to say no.
  • I’m not available, but I know someone who would love to be a part of it. May I connect you?

Quick hits

  • Schedule worry time. Write your worries down. Both techniques allow you to identify and deal with worrisome thoughts better.
  • Explore ideas you disagree with, says consultant Anthony Iannarino. Instead of looking at what is wrong with what someone else does or what they believe, see if you can understand the value in their ideas, beliefs or actions.
  • Why can you focus in a coffee shop, despite the background noise, but can’t do it as well in an open office? Reviewing recent studies, Oral Roberts University professor David Burkus says it may not be the sound itself that distracts us but who is making it. Ambient noise can help us to think creatively. But in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus. In a coffee shop, the ambient noise provides freedom from interruptions.
  • When you have low morale at work, talk about the elephants in the room – and then kick them out, advises the Lighthouse blog.
  • Scanning photos and text online is more efficient when everything is aligned, pictures in one row above the picture in the next row and text above each other. The newly popular zigzag layout – which alternates the placement of image and text on each horizontal row – is less effective, says design researcher Kim Flaherty.

Editor’s note. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Penelope Trunk as Penelope Trump.

Harvey Schachter
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 11, 2018