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The other night I was helping my son with his Spanish homework and was reminded of my own Spanish-language training – six full years in elementary school, followed by four in high school and a semester in college. I never had a chance to use my Spanish much, though, until I started traveling extensively during my career as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company.

While I had always thought of myself as nearly fluent in Spanish, these trips showed that I was really just faking it. The problem wasn’t vocabulary or grammar, both of which I learned well during countless classroom drills. No, the problem was that I had very limited ability to use that vocabulary and grammar to think and communicate in real time in the context of a real business situation. That sort of functional fluency requires extensive immersion and practice in a Spanish-speaking world, and the many simulations, drills, and conversations we had in the classroom just weren’t adequate substitutes for the real thing.

When I travel on international business today, I always make it a point to learn a few key words and phrases so that I might greet those I meet with respect in their native language. After these greetings, I invariably ask if we can continue the conversation in English, because chances are their English is much better than my Russian, Portuguese, or Mandarin! I know that if I try to continue the conversation in their language, we won’t be able to talk about anything important, and I will expose myself as a “faker” and undermine my credibility.

My experiences with foreign language training and application have shaped the way I think about MBA programs in general, and our D’Amore-McKim School of Business MBA programs, in particular. Unfortunately, far too many MBA graduates that I meet – even those from top schools working for the most prestigious organizations –are closer to “faking it” than “fluent” when it comes to their level of understanding and application of business principles. They may litter their conversations with business school vocabulary such as “synergy,” “value creation,” “segmentation,” and “strategy,” but when pushed to clarify what they really mean, they sound more like the pointy-headed boss in “Dilbert” than Warren Buffett. And while they think they are impressing those around them with their business-school-speak, the fact that they are obviously faking it may permanently undermine their credibility with bosses, co-workers, and clients.

As with my own language training, the problem isn’t one of vocabulary or even basic “grammar” (in the business school case, “grammar” may be thought of as the general rules and tools businesses use to manage themselves). Rather, it is the inability to use what you have learned to solve problems and identify new opportunities in real time in the context of a real business situation. Paraphrasing Henry Mintzberg, these MBAs may have a manager’s vocabulary but they certainly don’t have the successful manager’s context-specific skills and insights (see Henry Mintzberg: Managers not MBAs).

It is unrealistic to assume that an MBA program alone can make you a “fluent” business leader, just as it was naive for me to assume that several years of classes alone made me fluent in Spanish. MBA programs don’t do themselves and their students any favors when they focus exclusively on textbook models and how to develop elegant solutions to over-simplified, made-up problems. The successful manager must identify and implement practical solutions to complex, messy problems. These solutions come when managers combine the general lessons taught in the typical business curriculum with the specific lessons they have learned through their own trial-and-error experiences as well as their peers. As a result, these managers then use a deep understanding of the context to apply these lessons thoughtfully to the issue at hand.

Any decent MBA program will equip managers and future managers with these “general lessons,” but if they don’t also emphasize experiential learning and the ability to diagnose ever-changing business contexts, then their graduates will likely be “faking it” upon graduation. At D’Amore-McKim, we strive to develop fully “fluent” managers and future business leaders.

Consider our Full-Time MBA program. While other programs may market experiential learning opportunities, our program is unique in requiring a six-month, full-time corporate residency after the first year of study. More than just a place-holding summer internship position, these residencies are defined by real MBA-level jobs with real accountability. Our students apply all that they have learned in the first-year core curriculum and as they do so, develop a much deeper and context-specific understanding of business principles. They learn through the day-to-day successes and failures that are inevitable as they attempt to solve the messy, complex problems that our corporate residency partners assign them. And, importantly, when they return to campus to finish their degrees, they learn from the messy, complex problems that their classmates had to solve. As a result, they develop a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the business principles that are introduced in classes and graduate much further along the road to “business fluency” than typical MBA graduates.

Students in our Part-Time MBA and Online MBA programs may be even better positioned to develop “fluency” skills during their programs. People often focus on the challenges associated with completing such part-time programs, since they often require students to juggle full-time jobs, family, and community responsibilities at the same time that they are immersed in rigorous, time-intensive MBA programs. But the fact that such students are juggling work and school at the same time makes it much more likely they can develop business fluency. Moving back and forth from concept to practice in a rigorous, continuous process is the key to developing business fluency, and a working part-time student is doing this every day and so are his or her classmates. They take a concept discussed in class on Tuesday and try it out at work on Wednesday. By Wednesday night they may already be chatting with classmates and professors about their experiences and how they have reshaped their understanding of the concept. Despite the logistical, time-management, and focus challenges facing our part-time students, they are well positioned to develop business fluency when they make it a priority to integrate their classroom and on-the-job learning experiences.

Our goal is nothing less than putting our students on the path to business fluency. This is something that I, personally, continually strive for. As for my Spanish – well, that is a different story. Unless I retire in Madrid someday, I’m afraid that I’ll never get past “faking it.”

Hugh Courtney

Professor, International Business and Strategy; International Business and Strategy Group Chair