Taking the right next step: 3 ways to grow professionally outside of an MBA

Taking the right next step: 3 ways to grow professionally outside of an MBA

Over the last four years I’ve had the chance to see our team quadruple in size. But despite new opportunities that have arisen, in turn I’ve had to deal with more challenging times, including when people leave. Seeing a valued team member head off into the sunset raises a lot of questions. Did we do the best job keeping them? Did they grow during their time here?

Recently, a talented team leader announced they were leaving the team. Their plan? To return to study a full-time MBA. While I always try to be as positive as possible about people’s next steps, this left me a bit stumped. While MBA programs were traditionally considered a requisite for management roles at leading companies, nowadays they are becoming less popular with both students and employers alike.

Employers are concentrating on securing talent with more technical and soft skills. And thanks to the prohibitively expensive MBA college fees, more and more people are choosing alternative paths to learn the leadership skills that make MBAs so valuable. Here are some of the alternative options I suggest to our team members:

Mixergy and distance learning courses

While many ambitious millennials might love to return to do another full-time degree, the prospect of effectively stepping off the career ladder for a couple of years to amass more debt is not as attractive. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in learning new skills.

The State of American Jobs by Pew Research Center highlights that in fact, 87 percent of American employees believe it’ll be essential for them to develop new job skills in order to keep up with changes in the workplace.

For entrepreneurs, one great place to start is Mixergy. The platform provides members a range of courses and interviews with mentors, which offers a look into their experiences in business. Mixergy features more than 1000 mentors, including the founders of Wikipedia, LinkedIn, and Pixar.

Mixergy Founder Andrew Warner

Institutions like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT roll out massive open online courses (MOOC) too. Online distance learning courses such as Platzi offer professionals the chance to learn essential skills, for a fraction of the price of full-time courses, and also offer a level of flexibility that facilitates continuing to work. 

“The flexibility an online MBA allows is very attractive for a generation where time is constantly being squeezed and the demands of work heightened — you can fit the distance-learning MBA around your life,” John Colley, associate dean in charge of the MBA program at the Warwick Business School told the Financial Times.

Thanks to digital learning platforms now offering live streamed classes, and the chance for students to partake in interactive sessions with other students, professors and mentors, students can now enjoy all of the benefits of a full-time courses, without needing to shoulder the large debts traditionally associated with returning to study.

However, not all courses are as valuable as others. I advise people to first look at how many hours per week of live interactive sessions are offered, whether each student is matched with a mentor, and the endorsements, recommendations and partnerships the school has. While flexibility is important, it is essential that there is an environment in which one can interact and build relationships with other students, mentors and professors albeit via conference call or Skype.

YEC and other online communities

One of the best perks to studying an MBA is having the ability to develop valuable connections with others in the business community. It also gives students access to qualified mentors with extensive experience in all aspects of building, scaling and managing a modern business.

A recent study by Endeavour shows startups backed by an experienced mentor are three times as likely to succeed than those that are not.  For those of us fortunate to live in more established startup hubs like New York City or the Bay Area, it’s easier to take advantage of accelerators and other startup organizations to learn from people who have excelled in their chosen industry.

However to level the playing field, entrepreneurs should consider joining online communities, too – these can provide access to the right networks, regardless of who you know or where you are located.

I’m a big fan of YEC Young Entrepreneur Council; they are the proclaimed world’s most exclusive group for young entrepreneurs. The members-only platform has a concierge team that works to connects members with partners or resources. It also features online support forums and member-led webinars that let peers share their expertise and solve business challenges, together.

Another example of an online community is Mogul. The forum based platform connects as many as 18 million women per week, and puts female entrepreneurs in touch with a vast network of highly qualified female mentors from all over the world. It also offers access to a wide range of educational materials.

“More often than not we find it is the human connections we make for our students that are the most valuable,” says Rob Kingyens, CEO of career discovery platform Qubed. “The ability to converse with, and learn from someone who is ten steps ahead of you in your chosen career is priceless. It shows people what they can do if they work hard. ”

For those searching for something super personalized, ZEQR is an emerging platform that offers live one-on-one sessions with mentors from a range of industries, and is endorsed by industry leaders like Guy Kawasaki. Going much further than a question and answer platform like Quora, it offers live video sessions online, in which users can build relationships with their mentors over time.

Forbes contributor and startup founder Chris Myers writes “Mentorship is something that requires strong commitment from both parties, and takes a lot of effort. The end results, however, are more than worth it. I can personally attest to the fact that the lessons, connections, and opportunities that mentors provide are invaluable.”

While finding a mentor is important, I also encourage more senior members to consider becoming a mentor themselves. Our teams feature senior and junior members, as well as a steady flow of interns. What better way to develop management and leadership skills than by actually getting involved in the growth and training of other people on the team.

Developing a workplace learning community

At our company, we aim to put resources behind the self-improvement of team members. We regularly invite industry leaders to partake in presentations, and encourage our more senior team members to be mentors for less experienced newcomers. For team members interested in learning more about other divisions of the company, there are on-boarding platforms we use.

We also have a specific Slack channel where team members can share interesting articles, and resources they find online, which could benefit other members of the team learn in their free time. Someone recently shared this Entrepreneur magazine article featuring ten free online video courses which can teach valuable lessons for anyone wanting to bulk out their professional skills from the comfort of their own home.

I have always been a big reader, and try to leave some of my favorite texts by authors such as David Kadavy around the office for people to enjoy. However, I realize that after a long day’s work, many people don’t find a business book a good accompaniment for their glass of wine. As such I often recommend podcasts, which people can enjoy on their commute, or put on in the background when exercising, cooking etc. Forbes has a great collection here.

One of the most important factors of doing an MBA is the inspiration that students receive from the professors, speakers and mentors on the course. I feel that it is important for everyone to find a way to learn from the wisdom of other entrepreneurs, which can prepare them for the rocky road that is a career in the startup world.

Whether it be via online courses, podcasts, TEDtalks, attending workshops or simply reading books, it is important for everyone to find the path of self-improvement which works for them. At our company we try to create an environment in which people are rewarded – be it with resources, or more free time – for their will to improve, not pushed out onto the sidelines.

I feel that it is important that employers support staff training as much as possible, and create environments where team members can integrate both work and study, allowing them to continue on their career path, continue earning, and still come out the other side a much stronger professional. After all, it is the future of your company you are investing in.

This article was Co-Written by Craig Corbett

This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.

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