Fortune 100 CEOs: When They Were MBA Students

Last Updated Jun 15, 2011 5:41 PM EDT

Reprinted from PoetsandQuants.com
They may be Masters of the Universe now, leaders of Fortune 100 companies, commanding tens of thousands of employees and pulling down multi-million-dollar pay packages every year. But when these Fortune chief executives were mere MBA students, they felt as overwhelmed, as intimidated, as dumb, and, in some cases, as completely broke as many of today's MBA candidates.

Most of them earned their degrees before the big boom in MBA education, when business schools pumped out fewer numbers of MBAs, and it was, frankly, easier to get into even a Harvard or a Stanford than it is today. Did the degree make a difference? Several Fortune 100 chieftains say that it was the MBA that opened the door to opportunities that otherwise may have been closed to them. But it was no cake walk.

GE's Immelt: "Overwhelmed at Times"
"Business school," recalled GE's Jeffrey Immelt in a recent CNBC interview, "Is one of the most intense times of your life. There are times you do feel overwhelmed from the standpoint that it's midnight, I have another case to read, I don't really understand the subject material, and you say, 'Gosh, what am I going to do?'

"And then, sometimes you are sitting there in the middle of a discussion and someone says something so smart that you hadn't thought of and you think, 'I am a dummy. I'm an idiot. This guy is so much smarter than I am.' So you do feel inferior at times. You do feel overwhelmed at times."

J.P. Morgan's Dimon: Always Prepared for Class
One of Immelt's classmates in Harvard's Class of 1982, Jamie Dimon, now CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, said he never came to class unprepared. Recalled Dimon: "The professor would call on someone and it was completely obvious to everyone that the person hadn't read the case at all. They were trying to weave a whole story from that first page." When the CNBC interviewer told Dimon "that must be a little uncomfortable," the J.P. Morgan chief made clear it was never him who had come to class unprepared.

"I think since my time the focus has been more on teamwork, which makes sense," he added. "Effective leaders are people who work with others and through others to make others better. I visited an engineering school the other day and was most impressed with the students who had completed a field project, who had built something as a team. It was more of a leadership exercise. Any way you can foster that kind of teamwork is important, particularly in business."

Boeing's McNerney: "Not a Kumbaya Exercise"
Another Harvard MBA (who was a George W. Bush classmate), Jim McNerney, CEO of Boeing, remembers the sense of competition in class. "There was a competitive spirit in the classroom that simulates the way business is," he recently told an interviewer from Harvard's alumni magazine. "The WAC [Written Analysis of Cases] was not a kumbaya exercise, it was about getting it done by Friday at midnight. You do come away feeling prepared for a business environment, which is often more about optimization than coming up with the right answer."

Many CEOs Call the MBA a Door Opener
For Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, his 1974 MBA degree from Berkeley's Haas School was critical. "I graduated in a recession and my MBA was my initial foot in the door," he said in an interview with Berkeley's alumni magazine. "You learn a very thorough, analytical methodology at Haas. We did not have many cases in those days. Instead, we relied heavily on a highly quantitative, data-driven approach to problem solving. That has worked extremely well for me in the high-tech industry."

Or consider Target Corp. Chief Executive Greg Steinhafel, who graduated with a Kellogg MBA in 1979. "Kellogg was a life-shaping experience for me," he told the school's alumni magazine a few years ago. "The school was way out in front as an innovator in the team concept. The importance Kellogg placed on working collaboratively has been extremely valuable to me as a leader."

John Watson, who has spent his career at Chevron and was named to lead the Fortune 3 company in January 2010, said the fundamental economic principles he learned as an MBA student at the University of Chicago continue to guide the way he analyzes problems, approaches issues, and leads his business. "I recall wondering just how much of what is taught here would have any relevance to the business world. And I've come back with the answer: a great deal."

PepsiCO's Noovi: Worth the Sacrifice
For some, going to business school was a major sacrifice. In an interview last year at Yale with dean Sharon Oster, PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi, a 1980 graduate of Yale's School of Management, recalled how she was virtually broke in her first year as an MBA student. "Those were very tough times," she said. "At the end of the month, if I saved $5. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was totally and complete broke. I had no money to buy clothes. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I worked the front desk of Hadley Hall from midnight to 5 a.m. at $3.35 an hour, the minimum wage. That money was the grocery money for the week."

With fewer international students and fewer women at SOM, Nooyi found the school "a pretty lonely place. But there were three women in the admissions office who decided they would take me under their wing. It was just unbelievable. Every day in the morning I would go to them and they would be my three moms and take good care of me. The cutest thing is how they went around New Haven to find that Indian family who could feed me because I was a vegetarian. They found families that would send me care packages. This is the kind of help that I got."

When Nooyi first interviewed for summer jobs, she had no business suit, instead wearing a sari. It didn't keep her from getting an MBA internship that allowed her to afford two suits by the time she returned to SOM for her second year. After graduating with the MBA, Nooyi first went to work for Boston Consulting Group for six years. She joined PepsiCo in 1994 as chief strategist, becoming chief executive in 2006.

The Limits of the MBA Degree
Even though these MBAs have climbed the corporate ladder to the very top rung, they acknowledge that the degree can only take you so far. Miles White, who earned his MBA from Stanford in 1980, learned that within soon after his arrival at Abbott Laboratories in 1984.

"When I joined Abbott," he said in a recent interview with U.S.A. Today, "I was there about two days when the president of the division I had joined asked me if I had an MBA, and I said yes. And he asked me what school, and I told him. And he said, 'Well, that's terrific, but I got to tell you, it's not going to matter here. You're going to get ahead based on what you do, not where you're from.' And it was true. That's going to be true for you every day, everywhere you go."

James Mulva, CEO of ConocoPhilips and a 1969 MBA grad of the University of Texas' B-school, apparently agrees. "The first piece of advice I received upon getting hired for Philips has stuck with me throughout my career," Mulva told an interviewer not long ago. "Work hard, work damn hardâ€"or get out of here."

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    John Byrne is the editor-in-chief of PoetsandQuants.com and PoetsandQuantsforExecs.com. A former editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com and Fast Company magazine, Byrne also is the author or co-author of eight books on business, including two national bestsellers. Follow him on Twitter.