Managing MBAs and other professionals

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The most unrealistic thing about TV soap operas is that the characters never mention the soap opera in conversation. The most surprising omission from an MBA is that it does not teach you how to manage MBA types. Managing MBAs is different from managing other colleagues; the more prestigious the MBA, the more distinctive the challenge becomes.

Top MBA graduates can be very high maintenance but very high performance. The trick is to maximise the performance and minimise the maintenance. If there is such a thing as a typical top MBA graduate then he or she will:

  • Have very high expectations and ambition
  • Have a big but fragile ego
  • Be a natural over achiever
  • Be naive about handling people, at least early in their career

So how do you handle such a person?

  • Stretch them. They are natural over achievers, so let them over achieve. Set stretching goals and timings and they will work all hours to over deliver. If they are not stretched they become like the very bright kid at school who is bored by the lessons and becomes disruptive before going into a self-defeating spiral of doom.
  • Give them autonomy: they will resist being micro managed because it is against their dignity and they probably do not have great respect for you or any of their bosses. They think they are smarter and better than anyone else, including you.
  • Never demean them. They find it hard to take criticism, even in private. So keep your difficult conversations positive: focus on what needs to happen next and drive them forwards that way.
  • Set clear expectations and boundaries. They will want it all and want it now: be clear about bonus and promotion expectations and stay very firm and very consistent.
  • Make them feel they are doing an important and worthwhile job.  Even mundane work can be sold as important: if they have to read 5,000 pages of routine documentation for an M&A deal, then clearly the success or failure of the deal may rely on them picking up a problem in the paperwork. Dull work, worth billions.
  • Be their pooper scooper in chief. They will mess up dealing with other people and you will need to clear up.  They will always believe that it is the fault of the other person who is not so smart, hard working etc. Coach them in private to help them understand that it does not matter whose fault it is: they have to get the result. Slowly, they will learn to adapt their style to those of other people so that they can get their way.

All of these rules apply to managing all professionals and perhaps all staff. The risks and rewards associated with MBAs simply raise the stakes.


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