The Virtual MBA
The roots of this project date back as early as 2006-07 with a mission to define and formalize the concept of the “Virtual MBA”. What that boils down to is, a comprehensive yet highly practical set of business skills that could be applied to any profession or industry. Some liken it to the phrase, the “stuff they didn’t teach you in college” but that’s a bit of an incomplete and antiquated notion.
Highly successful companies like Enterprise Rent A Car had, over several decades, honed a strategy for developing well-rounded, savvy and entrepreneurial professionals using formal and informal training methods. They drew together fundamental business skills that applied to any industry or organization and included; Customer Service Excellence, P&L Management, Sales (as in revenue management), Marketing/Market Share and a strong emphasis on Employee Development. They tempered these fundamentals within a culture of continuous improvement, competitive team play and a sense of fun & family atmosphere.
Originally, my goal was simply to aggregate almost 50 years of Enterprise’s success with other companies, as well as this “Virtual MBA” ideology into a single strategy. Then, mix in some eastern cultural concepts on the meaning of study and personal discipline. It was meant to be a road map that emerging, new professionals could use as a tool for guiding their career paths. The concept as a whole was originally referred to as Black Belt Business. I soon realized, however, that this project was destined to become more than just another ‘business best practice’ endeavor.
Then the world changed with the advent of the economic crisis beginning in 2008. By the end of 2009 entire industries, companies, divisions, positions and experienced professionals were all facing economic extinction. Additionally, the rise of new business models like Amazon was making everything from electronics to books and other brick and mortar retailers obsolete (Think Circuit City, Barnes & Noble, etc., all bankrupt). Huge companies that experienced nothing but growth throughout their history were making unprecedented changes; Enterprise Rent A Car, for example, laid off employees for the first time in 50 years, they closed a slew of locations. Like Starbucks and many others, the lands of opportunity became the wastelands of down sizing.
It also had become readily apparent that some organizations and professionals were not only adapting to the economic chaos, but also thriving in it! Much to the chagrin of many professionals I spoke with, I began to refer to this phenomenon as Economic Darwinism and shifted focus to the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of these events. The search for why some people and organizations thrive consistently over time or, “Sustain Excellence”, despite economic turmoil or lack of resources. Meanwhile, others become obsolete or extinct, despite often having tremendous resources at their disposal. The project soon expanded into a study of socio-economics in the 20th Century, its people and the influence of history on current conditions.
So in studying people throughout the last few centuries, from many walks of life and professions, from business to sports to academics, presidents and even ancient leaders across the globe, some common denominators have emerged. First are those who have been able to find, achieve and sustain excellence consistently throughout their lifetime. Granted the definition of excellence is a complicated one and will have to be explored later. Suffice to say for now that it does not necessarily mean fortune, fame or historical significance, although those can play a part in both cause and effect.
Next are those who have been able to achieve a measure of excellence but quickly lost it. Those who have risen to the top, so to speak, only to fall from grace and often never recover. Some even have tragic endings. The suicide death of Robin Williams serves as yet another unfortunate example of how this scenario has played out over the course of history.
Then there are those that simply never seem to find or embrace excellence, at any level. Some, despite having tremendous resources at their disposal, have become addicted to mediocrity, victim mentality or some other fatalistic ideology. Most do not even realize that they are only victims of their own fears and choices that they make. For some of them, this project itself may seem like philosophical nonsense or even a waste of time.
As of 2013, an interesting fourth category has begun to distinguish itself from the rest; those who have managed to find and sustain excellence, despite sometimes contradictory or destructive behavior. There seems to be a tipping point in the formula, the point where excellence has evolved into an institution, a cultural phenomenon with almost a life of its own. In studying the life of Steve Jobs and the history of Apple, for example, I realized that there were those who had a paradoxical relationship with excellence. They were anomalies, but not simply a matter of luck or time & circumstance. Steve Jobs, despite seemingly violating this formula for sustaining excellence repeatedly, managed to hold to it and leave a significant legacy in the 21st century.
Research turned next to the common denominators of those who consistently found excellence, despite their obstacles or lacking of resources. In searching for a metaphor, or more precisely a model, to express these common denominators, two curious observations were uncovered.
First, much of the 20th Century view on the concept of “success” has been shaped by what I now call the Pyramid Model. The idea being that any human endeavor towards success, excellence, etc., follows a linear hierarchy, much like the conveyor belt in a large factory, with pieces being adding along the way until the finished product drops off of the end. Viewed another way, stacking achievement upon achievement, like building blocks in layers, one on top of the other, until you reach a pinnacle. The net result is some form of pyramid structure.
Somewhere in the 1950’s, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was wed to the ancient Egyptian metaphor of a pyramid, as a vehicle of excellence and the resulting model has been wildly popular ever since. In the 80’s, famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden revived the fervor with his Pyramid of Success. Ironically, the ancient Egyptian’s viewed the pyramid as a vehicle to sustain excellence in the ‘after-life’, not in life (but that’s another part of the story, see section on “Models of Excellence in the 20th Century”).
The second epiphany was that the alternate model I was searching for had been staring me in the face all along in two unlikely sources; Science and an undervalued book that I’ve been carrying around for over thirty years. The result is a model that is not linear or fixed like a pyramid but circular, always in motion, with a shape that more closely resembles the solar system. Within that shape lie the common denominators of excellence, whether in business, sports, academics, politics or cultural development.
But the goal of the project remains the same, to give people a new way to view sustaining excellence in the 21st Century. To remind them of the fact that excellence is not a finished product, but a perpetual process. Additionally, that there is a specific formula to this process, but it can be applied to almost any human endeavor. Further to show that history has proven that when human beings stop the motion of the process, excellence often comes unwound. Lastly, to demonstrate that; societal, institutional or organizational excellence results from teams and groups of people allied around excellence. Teams, groups and alliances that excel are a result of individuals that can rally others around sustaining excellence. Individual excellence begins and perpetuates in the mirror.