# 40: Saying “No” to the (MBA) Bubble
Story behind the Passage
What does it take to say “no” to something? It is just a word, you think? Why would it be difficult? Well, ask yourself right now when someone asked you to take a new job/role with more responsibility the last time — what did you say? “Yes, no, maybe?” If you did say “yes,” then you have an idea of how difficult it is to say “no.”
Oh, you really wanted that job? Why would you ever say “no”?
Well, good question.
But the more interesting question is what made you want that job in the first place.
I had several conversations today that made me remember how much value there is in saying “no.” That is particularly the case if you are already living and/or working in a bubble. Actually, we all live in some bubble because it is quite cozy there. You know the rules of the game and you know what to expect. The negative side effect of this is that others also think they know what to expect from you. And if you do not meet these expectations by saying “no” to something, that might endanger your cozy life in the bubble.
The book that I chose for today is about the MBA Bubble. I used it in my last book in which I analyzed the culture of Business Studies (among other things). And the MBA is obviously the most popular and lucrative product of business schools around the world. But I do not want to talk about all this today. I simply wanted to write about saying “no” today and this is how I remembered that the business school environment, as well as the corporate career that many people start after finishing the degree, is actually a pretty tough place for rejecting offers.
“What if you do not want to be manager?” In a world in which especially women are constantly being pushed to climb the ladder of management, such a question seems totally out of the question. As we know from all the studies about women in the work place and women’s leadership, it is especially difficult for women to say no, especially if they are being offered supposedly great and once-in-a-lifetime chances. This makes them feel as if they were letting down all womanhood if they follow their inner voice by saying:
“Hell, you know what, yes, I would be the first woman taking this and that position but I simply do not want it. I am happy where I am. Or I am not happy where I am but that position will not make me happier. I want to go somewhere else.”
Still, I think, all the talk about women having difficulties to say no is a bit too polarized. And yes, I know that by mentioning it, I am even drawing more attention to it. What I hear a lot more about from the people that I deal with is that saying “no” to a management position is especially easy and at the same time hard for IT and technical people. Well, one could extend that all people from R&D as well. What I want to get at is that all these people usually rise because they love their stuff, they love tech or physics or engineering or whatever. But they never started their career with the goal of becoming a manager.
Of course, people who then decide to actually do an MBA want a management position. But the more interesting case is again to look at those who never decide to go to business school and who do not accept a management position, even if they are offered one without any MBA requirements. Are they afraid of taking over responsibility? Do they simply dislike managers? Are they afraid of their own inability to get into business issues that require a very different expertise than a product-related role, including more people skills?
Most people I have talked to so far actually did say no. But I wonder if this is really a smart thing if we look at the bigger picture. I think, a lot of bullshit that happens in companies is due to the fact that the people managing have little to no idea about the products. And yes, I am a generalist too in many respects. I do believe that you can sell things that you cannot build yourself. There is a difference in passion, however. And especially for internal leadership, you need passion.
Hence, I think, investing in the management education of technology-oriented people does make a lot of sense, despite all the reservations people from the management side usually have concerning “techies” and “nerds.” I hope that the current Covid crisis is going to shift the definition of actual value creation a little bit and that also means that managers who ‘just’ manage have to recognize that added value is what sustains a company. And in most cases, management is indispensable and highly acclaimed when it comes to corporate hierarchies. But it might not meet peoples’ interests and personal goals — especially in the future of New Work.
“If you don’t, you risk making a lot of effort to climb a ladder that is standing against the wrong wall.” This is actually what impresses me so much about the people who manage to say “no” — sometimes even without thinking about it so much. “Climbing ladders” is still so self-evident in our society that it will take many decades to really change the hierarchical business culture that is behind this very image. If there are no strict levels of decision-making, climbing ladders will be obsolete.
In order to know which wall is the right one for you, it takes a lot of self-reflection and self-knowledge. It is a lot easier to always go with the flow and say “yes” to any ladder that just happens to be erected in front of you. And especially in a bubble such as the business school, many ladders, i.e., opportunities, come up. There is much social pressure to behave in conformity with every unwritten rule there might be and with any expectation from people close to you.
As far as I remember, Zanetti, the author of the book, completely left the corporate career. What is so interesting to me as a writer is that it usually takes people quite long to talk or even write about saying “no” moments. But there are some that always said no in a very straightforward way. I think this is truly remarkable. These people for some reason have such a clear inner compass that tells them exactly what the right wall is for them and they hardly ever have regrets.
The major benefit I see in saying “no” to staying or being caught in a bubble is the outside perspective that you uphold. That usually gives you freedom and the necessary distance you need for out of the box thinking. Although I think this is strong and I have chosen this path myself, I very much wonder if it is not a big fear causing you to always stay “out of bounds” and to never become an integrated part of anything. Maybe we are all pushed to enter a certain bubble if we are ready for it.
And even then, it will remain relevant to learn the art of saying “no.” Saying “no” means letting go of something that is thrown at you. Drawing a line is never a bad idea. It allows you to invest your energy in what is important to you. And if more people continue saying “no” to traditional career choices with a lot of ego in the room but little brain and value creation — our bubbles will look much more colorful in the future.
1) Did you ever say “no” to a job that was offered to you? In how far did this shape later career decisions?
2) Do you think there are gender differences when it comes to saying “no”?
3) Is there a ladder you are climbing right now? Does it feel like the right one?