Friday, March 18, 2011

Is getting an MBA a wise business decision?

Josh Kaufman explains the reasons he chose not to pursue his MBA, and why he finds the degree totally unnecessary.

By Richard Pachter

The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business 

The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business. Josh Kaufman. Portfolio/Penguin. 416 pages.

No disrespect intended to any person or institution, but is an MBA really necessary? Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak never got theirs and many, many other successful business people (and book reviewers) lack that degree and seem none the worse for it.

In his new book, author and consultant Josh Kaufman not only explains the reasons he chose not to pursue his MBA, but does a rather masterful job of eviscerating the program in general and, more specifically, the reasons people seek it and why they needn’t and shouldn’t; in his not-so-humble opinion: Money.

Spending around $250,000 or more, says Kaufman, to get an MBA from a top business school is a lousy investment and completely unnecessary. In fact, the whole biz school deal is essentially a money-making enterprise for educational institutions who profit mightily from teaching mostly ancient, arcane, academic approaches to business that track very little with the actual world and the ways it really operates. Further, says Kaufman, there’s no assurance that the instructors are qualified beyond possessing the skills required to teach (if that) and are usually bereft of the experience and achievements that would confirm the efficacy of their instruction.

Young Kaufman had an undergrad degree and a great job at Procter & Gamble when he was urged to continue his education, which meant going after the inevitable MBA. Instead, he did a quick cost-benefit analysis and decided to read and study on his own. He blogged about his decision and posted a preliminary reading list, which was subsequently picked up by inveterate anti-MBA advocate and über-blogger Seth Godin. From there, it spread. This book continues Kaufman’s mission.

He’s canny enough to know that just reading this book in a linear fashion — one chapter after another — is not necessarily the best way to go, so he encourages browsing, skimming and skipping around. I’d add, in fact, that reading it sequentially is downright boring, so after about 125 pages, I abandoned the effort and skipped around, as suggested. Kaufman isn’t a horrible writer, so that wasn’t the problem. I’d decided that the abrupt shift after a couple of pages on each subject might have been intended to accommodate our increasingly short attention spans, but it wasn’t working for me. True, each little chapter had an online component, but when I’m reading a book I don’t necessarily want to bounce on and off the Net to enlarge the experience or whatever the intended effect was supposed to be. Sometimes, a little concentrated depth is where it’s at.

Still, I think Kaufman is a very smart guy and maybe his collective nuggets would resonate more with other audiences though it didn’t quite make it with me. A few years back, I read and reviewed a thick tome called MBA In A Box and liked that quite a bit. Its more expansive approach worked for me. Still, in all fairness, I think I’ll hold onto Josh Kaufman’s book and keep it handy as a reference, since he really covers just about every aspect of business in an intelligent and no-nonsense way.

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Friday, March 4, 2011

Craig Ferguson's autobiography

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot 

Acknowledged that this may seem to be a left-field choice for a biz book review but upon closer examination, maybe not. Two reasons: first, some of the best business advice comes from life itself, not just unambiguously mercantile situations. Second, in many ways, this really is a business book: Craig Fergusons' story is an archetypal tale of the pursuit of the American dream . . . and not just in terms of achieving success by owning a house with a wife and 2.6 kids.

Unlike most memoirs of CEOs and other biz whizzes, Ferguson isn't quite the faultless hero of his own story. In fact, he lopsidedly portrays himself in a pretty poor light, mostly due to his alcoholism, which took hold at an early age. He's also currently on his third marriage, so he made a number of bad choices that may not have been solely attributable to substance abuse. Regardless, his bracing, self-effacing autobiography is replete with examples of product development, innovation, networking, human resources and other business practices.

Ferguson grew up in Scotland and describes, with humor and love, his parents, their community, its poverty and their determination to improve themselves and support their children. His father started as the equivalent of a telegram delivery boy and steadily rose through the ranks to run the Glasgow city post office. Mother became a teacher and rode herd over two daughters and two sons.

When young Craig and his father visited relatives in the U.S., he was smitten with our open society and boundless possibilities, vowing to return. And so he did, but first, he drummed for several punk bands in Scotland, dropped out of school, tried stand-up comedy and became a raging alcoholic. When he married, the young couple moved to America.

In the early eighties, New York's burgeoning punk and alternative art scene captivated Ferguson, and he succumbed to many of its temptations while working construction by day and attempting a stint on the off-off-Broadway stage at night. Unsuccessful and broke, he returned to the U.K., the marriage failed, and he started a new career as a comedian with the unfortunate name, "Bing Hitler.''

Despite his ferocious alcoholism, he enjoyed modest success but fell into debt and depression. In despair, he planned suicide, but was distracted by an offer of a glass of sherry — a very large glass of sherry. After finally committing to rehab and embracing recovery, he moved to Los Angeles on a whim, hooked up with an agent he'd met during the Bing Hitler days and wound up with a recurring role on The Drew Carey Show.

Along the way, Ferguson honed his craft, wrote screenplays (and filmed a couple), became a novelist and replaced Craig Kilborn as host of The Late, Late Show on CBS following David Letterman, whom he may eventually succeed. He became a U.S. citizen last year.

Craig Ferguson was attracted to this country's openness, which can still be a function of race, class and socioeconomic status. But it's far less stratified than where he came from, and it afforded him, as others, the opportunity to begin again, which is probably the real American Dream.

Originally published in The Miami Herald