Gates, the richest man in the world, is still ‘on leave’ from Harvard to run his billion-dollar company, Microsoft Corporation.
Branson didn’t finish high school but did manage to make Virgin one of the most valuable and bankable brands in the world. And before he was making Idol wannabes miserable, Cowell was just a humble mailroom boy.
Evidently, somebody forgot to tell these guys they need to score straight As first and then make a success of themselves!
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the value of good education as much as the next person. I would be the last person to condemn a great education as my university experiences have added immensely to my personal, social and professional development.
But I also am a firm believer that getting your hands dirty on the job is perhaps far more important than a good report card. Work experience always triumphs over the classroom because people learn better while they are doing.
The common myth is that our growth and learning is mainly attributable to course work or formal training. Most people believe that about 70% of what we learn comes from training and classroom sessions. Then networking, role modelling and mentorship (about 20% of our learning) comes next and finally job experience (10% of what we learn).
And so, there is an overemphasis on classroom learning because of the belief that training is the way to enhance learning. Most corporations structure their organisations and training teams based on this belief that more classroom training means better, more learned employees.
However, based on research conducted by a number of multinationals, including General Electric, and later validated by research firms, classroom style training, in fact, accounted for only a mere 10% of real learning and growth.
In a reversal, it is on-the-job experience that develops business acumen and long-term career growth. The harder the role, the tougher the environment, the more challenging the assignments, the more you learn and grow.
Consider GE’s Financial Management Programme (FMP) which I was a part of when I was in the US, and helped to set up and manage here in Malaysia.
We put out recruitment ads for young graduates from diverse backgrounds, universities and required Grade Point Average (GPA) scores. Granted, we had some very brilliant recruits but many were also average students in whom we saw drive, potential, and a desire to make a difference in the world. And this was evident in their non-academic experiences even if their report cards were decidedly ordinary.
We picked these over some super straight A students, even turning away a seemingly brilliant Ivy League student. Today, each FMP graduate is holding a senior level position in GE offices around the world – regardless of their grades when they joined us.
How did we do it? I believe a major part of our success in churning out global leaders – and not just in Malaysia, but everywhere around the world – lies at the intent of the FMP modules, which pushes each trainee into a new job every 6 months for 2 years. And this is where real learning and growth happens – at the job and on the job.
Learning that comes from the field is invaluable as it changes based on context and situation. Each new instance is a new learning experience and a new growth opportunity.
As we look back on the Bransons, Gates, and Jobs of this world, it’s not surprising why they succeeded. They learnt their trade in the field facing new situations and learning and growing through experiences. And the more experiences they accumulated, the greater their learning and growth.
I have had 9 jobs, and a number of roles, in the 13 years I was with GE. In that time, I’ve been exposed to different industries from Oil & Gas to TV/Media to Financial Services to Aviation and Healthcare. My job functions ranged from Finance to HR to Operations to various leadership roles.
Each experience helped build my personal learning and each experience contributed to my personal growth. So, although classroom and training has its benefits, my advice is if you really want to be a leader, go out there and get those experiences – even if it means working in a dingy start-up or a company that is struggling.
Those experiences will mould you and teach you much more than you would ever gain from attending a lecture from a professor.
Roshan Thiran spent 12 years working with General Electric in the US, Europe and Asia helping develop leaders. He is currently the director of Global Talent Management with Johnson & Johnson and has a passion for helping people fulfill their potential and purpose.
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