How the Duke MBA Makes Leaders - Strategic Mindset

There was a post in Forbes that asserted the MBA is a waste of time (OK, I can't find it anymore since this post was written a few weeks ago). Sure, I can agree with some of its points. However, there was one that I strongly disagreed with. It said that MBAs were trained to think big picture and this hampered their executional skills. This is bogus.

A company will never pay big bucks to hire MBA talent because they can execute at the entry or middle management level. A company pays for MBA talent to fill future leadership roles – and for that, big picture, strategic thinking is a must. In fact, it’s important to always have this big picture in mind even early on, as without it, you wouldn’t understand how your work is impactful.

Now back to the Duke MBA – how is strategic thinking taught at Fuqua and how is this relevant to what the school is looking for? Well, for one, half the class recruits for consulting at one point or the other. Second, for corporate roles like finance or marketing, it’s also important to understand the impact the function is having on the overall business strategy and how they align. Sure we get really into the weeds in these courses, but there was not a single lecture I had where what we learned in accounting or finance or marketing was not tied back into business strategy.

This is important for two reasons. One – for career switchers – the school, and your future employer, will need to know you realize what you’re getting into and that you’re excited and motivated about it. Without knowing the big picture about what’s going on in an industry or function, it’s hard to convince people (including yourself) to make the change. Two, as people move up in an organization there is more of a focus on leadership and less on execution. It will be hard to lead people if you don’t understand the strategic vision and future direction of your company. I’d also argue that even early on in your career it’s hard to execute correctly as well without this understanding.

The Duke MBA’s general management focus trains strategic thinking

One thing I always tell prospective students who are worried about grades is that the goal of the classroom in any MBA program is to teach practical skills. Did my balance sheet balance on my final accounting exam? No. But do I know how to read financial statements and interpret them, and do I know what to look for when hiring an accountant or working with folks in the finance department? Yes.

That’s one of the biggest things I appreciated in virtually all of my classes in the Duke MBA program – the focus on tying everything at a functional level to strategy. I cannot remember a single class that didn’t do this. In particular to my post-MBA function of marketing, the class Marketing Strategy made a huge impact in my current role. In that class, I was trained to think about customers and my organization’s strategic goals in the marketplace in every tactic that I develop. This is definitely something that Fuqua’s general management focus is great for.

The Duke MBA concentrations and career tracks help build strategic thinking in new industries

The learning curve when you enter into a new industry is massive. Take health care – I consider myself to be from the health care industry, but I only knew about one piece of it prior to the MBA – R&D. At Fuqua, I learned about all the other aspects of the industry, such as health economics, health policy, and commercialization. For the health care industry, it’s particularly important to understand how the key stakeholders – manufacturers, insurers, doctors, and patients – influence and impact each other.

That’s why I disagree with the Forbes article on this point. To be in a general management role, having this strategic framework is critical. The Duke MBA offers immersive training on industry strategy through the various career tracks, which includes energy, finance, health care, high tech and so on.

It’ll feel like two layers – one is the classroom discussions which have a gradual learning curve and is very fundamental and structured. The other are the seminars and conferences where we bring in leading industry practitioners – these can be harder to digest, but well worth the effort.

In sum, the strategy training at Fuqua really is a practical and intensive experience. Going through it provides the foundation of leadership within a particular function and industry.

You are immersed in strategy during the Duke MBA

When I really think about it, being trained on thinking strategically and being able to analyze situations at a very high level is useful everywhere during an MBA. From networking with recruiters to choosing the right company to work for, knowing what’s going on in the industry and what your target company is doing to compete is paramount. Many recruiters are company executives and as an MBA you are expected to be able to talk about strategic moves in your target industry. 

Oftentimes you can compare the MBA admissions interview to your MBA internship or post-MBA full time interview. MBA admissions committee members (adcoms) and company recruiters are aligned on what they seek in candidates. For prospective students who are applying to Duke or other MBA programs, I’d definitely make it a point to understand the big industry trends that are driving your interest in that industry.

For example – for health care, saying you want to help people is not enough. You need to take it a step further and demonstrate you know what you’re getting into with more sophisticated knowledge of that industry and its marketplace.

That’s not to say you can’t admit you have gaps. Filling in those gaps is the whole point of going to school. However, you need to understand enough about an industry or function to make the decision about whether an MBA and also a future career in that industry is right for you. This needs to be clearly articulated in your essays and in your interviews.


  1. Hi Steven,
    You mentioned that one must have a clear understanding of the industry that he/she is interested in in order to go through successfully the admission or recruiting interview. My question is how did you do the homework of collecting the necessary information about one specific industry?

    Looking forward to hearing from you! Thank you!

    1. Hi Yangyang,

      Thanks for your comment. There are multiple ways to learn about your target industry, and all of them take time. I'd suggest starting 1-2 years before you plan to make the transition - that way you actually know what you're getting into.

      1) Read books/articles online. There's so much info out there I'd start with a plan. Start with a text book on a particular industry to learn the basics. It's probably pretty outdated, but it'll provide a good foundation. I read the Business of Biotechnology, which I reviewed on this site. Then start reading articles online - for biotech, you can check out my post for news sites and blogs to follow. This is definitely a marathon and not a sprint, I'd spend at least 30 min to 1 hour each day doing this. This will help build your literacy in the new industry.

      2) Attend or volunteer at conferences. This is important once you know a little about the industry. Conferences are a great way to meet people and learn from them, and volunteering is a great way to get access. People who run conferences typically have very large networks and can connect you with key people to talk to. I probably did this for 2 years before moving to business.

      3) Target specific people in your target industry to network with. You can be creative in finding a similar interest with people you don't know. Things such as being both from the same school, an article they wrote, or someone you were introduced to at a conference. See if you can have 30 minute conversations with these folks and learn about their career in the industry. They can also provide you with more people to talk to and give you really good insights.

      4) Join an MBA program. There's a lot of posts on my blog about networking tailored specifically to MBA students and it's really effective in learning about new industries.

      Hope this helps!