While in college, I had the good fortune to visit the sponsors of my scholarship, executives at the Santa Fe Railway. On that day, my hosts asked if I would mind going with them to a business lunch. I wasn’t quite sure what they had in mind, but I quickly agreed. I was curious about what business people do when they get together. Arriving at one of the largest hotels in Chicago, I was astonished to see that thousands of executives were overflowing a ballroom to hear a guest speaker. I felt like a fly on the wall as the people at my table discussed everything under the sun that had anything to do with business. As a French history major, I mostly smiled and nodded politely. Boy, was I in over my head! I had the same daunted feeling about a year later when I returned to Chicago to interview for a summer job in customer relations for Inland Steel.

I wasn’t quite sure how steel was made, what customer relations were, and why they might be able to use someone who knew a little about French history and not much else. After accepting the job, that feeling continued for some time until I accidentally helped solve a problem for a customer and made my mark. After college, I headed off to law school where visions of torts and briefs continually danced in my head like the sugar plum fairies in The Nutcracker. I took a detour when a friend encouraged me to enroll in some marketing courses at Harvard Business School. I looked into the classes and decided to go ahead. But everything was a mystery. Wherever I went, I had to ask the most basic questions . I was a law student who wanted to learn about marketing. Once in class, I was buried in buzz words. What were they talking about? After a few weeks, I understood most of the buzz words and started to relax.

I even smiled once in awhile. But I never said a word in class, even though that was a major part of my grade. I was intrigued by what I heard and became very interested in learning more. I began to ask classmates about how to gain more knowledge, short of taking a whole MBA degree. They told me that there were some jobs that were a lot like earning an MBA degree, and you could get paid while learning. They encouraged me to become a strategy consultant at The Boston Consulting Group. Classmates also told me about a marketing course I could take that was a lot like being a strategy consultant. Trusting them, I enrolled. Five of us were put together as a team to do an assignment for a real business, one run by a Harvard MBA graduate. Naturally, I wanted to defer to the other people on the team.

They expected that, too. But it soon became clear that I knew some things that they didn’t. I began to offer suggestions, and the team gave me assignments. Before long I was pulling my weight. Boy, did I ever feel a lot better at that point! With that success under my belt (it was the toughest course required before graduating with an MBA), I felt like I could hold my own in a strategy consulting environment. I applied for such a job and got one. The effect was like magic. My confidence grew, and I found the work to be a lot more satisfying than what novice lawyers do. Gaining an MBA-equivalent work experience gave me a fast start in a very fine business career, one that has greatly exceeded my expectations. If I hadn’t studied with MBAs to find out what they do and how well I could do the same tasks, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to start a business career. I might instead be off in a corner today doing research and writing long memos at some very large law firm.

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