On the Job MBA

A Master of Business Administration degree is designed to give a broad set of skills needed in running a business. A good deal of what you would learn from an paid, formal MBA program can be gleaned from on-the-job experience if you are paying close analytical attention resulting in a free MBA level education. This article is going to explore some of the ways you can leverage your job experience to develop many of the skills you’d get going through an MBA program. In fact, if you apply yourself to this type of education, your free MBA skill set would put you well ahead of some state school MBA’s I’ve had to work with.

Business is not rocket science. A lot of what you need to know is just a matter of learning to pay attention, and learning how to apply others’ mistakes and successes to help you make better decisions.  The free MBA approach we discuss here takes advantage of what you are already doing and helps you focus on learning from your experiences. I don’t want to discourage anyone from getting a master’s degree, but before you spend the money on an MBA, make sure you are taking advantage of these opportunities to increase your skills without tuition payments.

Learn from good leaders and managers

Many MBA programs use case studies that describe a situation, the actions taken, and then discuss the outcome and other possible alternatives. As far as case studies go, it is hard to beat real experience. Your job can be one big case study if you are willing to invest the time in systematically analyzing events.

When you encounter a situation where you feel a manager did a good job, take the time to write down what happened and why that manager’s actions were good. Consider what you would have done in their situation and (given the benefit of hindsight) what the results of your actions would have been.

Writing it down is important because it helps you clarify exactly what happened and gives you a way to come back and examine it later. Repercussions from certain actions may not be apparent for some time. Your written record gives you a way to go back and examine causes and effects in much greater detail than just relying on your memory.

Analyze mistakes

When you see a manager do something bad, take the time to examine what happened. Think about why the manager made that decision and how things looked from his/her point of view. Give special thought to how his/her actions were perceived by others and how those perceptions influenced their behavior. Put yourself in the manager’s place and think about how you would have acted. It isn’t enough to just notice that they did something wrong. You might do the same thing in their situation. Spend time trying to understand at what point the failure occurred. Did the manager’s ego get in the way of making a better decision? Did they forget to consult with key people? Did they miscalculate staff buy-in for a particular change? Describe a course of action that would have had a better result and how you, given your style and strengths, would have behaved to achieve an ideal outcome.

Your goal is to teach yourself to avoid making the same mistake. This doesn’t happen on its own. Learning from others’ mistakes requires a significant amount of effort on your part. Writing is one of the best ways to go through this effort and put yourself in the best position to learn. It may not be wise to keep your records at work. A documented list of your manager’s failures isn’t exactly the type of thing you want to have someone find.

This type of real world experience is what can make your self taught free MBA even more valuable than some of the formal MBA programs. Your free MBA focuses on what is actually happening.

Hone your intuition

When a business decision is made by management, take the time to record the decision along with your prediction of what will happen and why. For example, if your company is going to open a new office on the other side of town, explain why you think it will or will not be successful.

This exercise will help you gauge your intuition without risking anything. Be very detailed in your predictions and the come back and see if you were right or wrong. Analyze the results of your predictions and make sure you understand where you were wrong. Write it all down. You should end up with a lot of statements like, “I thought X would happen, but it turned out Y occurred. It appears that I underestimated the value of Z in this situation.”

Accounting experience

Getting a good grasp on the basics of accounting is a very important part of your on-the-job free MBA, but if you don’t work in the accounting department, it can be a bit more difficult to get hands-on experience. Obviously you should take any opportunity to work on projects that involve accounting, but you may need to go outside to get a better range of experience.

There are few things that will help you better understand accounting than keeping track of the finances for a small business or non-profit using a double entry accounting system. You might be able to volunteer to help keep track of finances at your church or another organization. Most of the time, you’ll be using a piece of software to help you. However, you can do the necessary accounting using a pencil, calculator and ledger paper.

Look up “double entry accounting” and you will find lots of examples and tutorials to help give you a foundation. Taking an accounting class from your community college is another way to gain skills in this area. Often your company will pay for it as a business course.

Taxes and corporate structures

You need to be at least familiar with how corporations work. This can be tricky to get on the job, because your company probably has only one corporate structure. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn on this topic by spending several hours doing searches on Google. Picking up a book on “how to incorporate your business” can also be a good place to start.

Take what you learn in your research and use it to better understand how your company operates. What type of corporate structure does it use? Is it a C Corporation, an LLC or a partnership? Who are the shareholders or owners? Who are the directors? What types of taxes does the company pay? If your company is a publicly traded entity you may be able to find a lot of information in its public financial statements.

Business language

In any degree program, a very large portion of what you learn is a specialized vocabulary. If you have been at your job for a while, you’ve probably already picked up on the vocabulary necessary to describe your line of business. However, we want to develop a generic business vocabulary that isn’t tied to one particular company or market.

For this, I would recommend subscribing to the Wall Street Journal and setting aside significant time to read it each day. Make sure you don’t only read the articles you understand. You want exposure to topics that you might not just pick up to read on your own. In addition to developing your business vocabulary, the Wall Street Journal will help reinforce the other learning areas.

Other publications that can be good to read include: Harvard Business Review, the business section of your local paper, Forbes, Economist, etc.

Human Resources

Your guide to your company’s human resource policies is usually going to be in the employee handbook. One danger here is to assume that your company is doing everything the right way. Still, you can get a lot of good information about how human resources are managed by reading through an employee handbook. Look for ways that human resource policies follow from the other things you’ve learned. For example, different corporate structures have different types of deductions for employee benefits, and you can often see how those deductions come into play in how the benefits are worded in the employee manual. It is ideal if you have the employee handbooks from several different organizations to compare and contrast.

Get in front of people

I used to write presentations for my boss. After a while she decided I could probably give sections of the talk better than she could, so I started getting pulled into board meetings. There are few things as valuable to your career as the ability to talk in front of people gracefully. You are only going to get good at public speaking by doing it. Take advantage of any opportunity to stand up and talk in front of people.

Final thoughts

The purpose of this article isn’t to put down an MBA education. There are very fine schools that offer MBA’s, and many teach skills that are very useful.  However, many people overlook the free MBA level training that is available to them in their current job. I hope this article has given you some ideas on how to get the most out of where you are right now and prepare for where you want to be in the future.


  1. John says

    Some of the most inept people I have ever worked with have MBAs. I think this comes from two problems. First people with an MBA tend to rely on the fact that they have a piece of paper instead of common sense. They do stupid things and assume they are being smart just because they took some classes and got the degree.

    Second, upper management tends to ignore how incompetent they are because they have the degree. Getting an MBA might be a good career move because it keeps people from firing you when you are obviously an idiot.

    Maybe there are some people who are intelligent and an MBA helps them do a better job. As far as I’ve been able to see, anyone intelligent that wants to get a master degree ends up getting something other than an MBA. The people who get an MBA are the ones who are trying to make up for a lack of ability. And thats something the MBA doesn’t do a very good job of.

    • Scooter says

      I agree with your comment 200%. It has been my experience that on the job training beats any degree. I bought radio advertising for my business from an MBA student. He confided in me that most MBA Graduates couldn’t run a lemonade stand. So why the high paying salary for an MBA graduate? Beats Me !!

      I have no degree’s and have been very successful at my businesses.

      • canuckclint says

        I have an MBA and agree with your comment.
        There is no substitute for hard work. MBA makes your ego a little bigger
        and you want to manage everything. But economies need a lil bitch
        to do the work. Even being a manager you’re someone else subordinate.


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