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How My Acton MBA Helped Me Be Entrepreneurial in a Big Organization

Acton taught me how to be an entrepreneur: in the classroom I learned to make the critical decisions required to lead my own company.

But then, I went to work for a 15-person affiliate of a 300-person non-profit. Did my Acton MBA help? I think it did: being entrepreneurial primed me for success in a big organization.

Here's how Acton primed me for success. Critical thinking (data, not opinion, driving decisions), “rat like cunning”, and always starting with the customer are three of the core lessons I learned. Each helped me succeed in a large organization.

Critical Thinking

When my organization needed to make a decision, the first thing I looked for was relevant data. I managed online efforts and when we had to choose between two equally attractive options, I ran an A/B test. While internal politics can drive decision-making in any large organization, focusing on facts helped me to correct that tendency.

I often thought of one of my Acton classmate’s frequent interjection, "but the case fact says..." It kept us grounded in the data, and that’s how decisions should be made.

Rat Like Cunning

Some of the best action plans from our case discussions were the most simple. One of my classmates frequently said “we just need to call these three people, hear them out, and do what they need.” Some of us ran the most complicated financial analysis possible, but often a quick operations change solved the real problem in the case. These plans were grounded in the real world, where winners are hackers.

Working quickly and cheaply isn't often the hallmark of big companies, but it should be. They typically rely on expensive outside vendors, but those firms are frequently slow and can produce projects that don’t align with the original goal. In managing our online efforts, I realized that assembling a team of freelancers and industry outsiders would lead to more innovation, faster production, and cheaper prices. Those contractors  delivered more success for less money. Even if you’re in a large organization with big budgets, that kind of success gets noticed.

Where is the Customer?

The biggest problem in most large organizations is the number of layers between the customer and decision-makers. This is even more complicated in a non-profit setting.

But here my Acton MBA really helped. As a large and complex organization, we didn't have one customer, but every project has a set of customers, either internal or external. Finding the target audience was the key first step for success. Listening to them and putting myself in their shoes was the second. For me, that meant thinking about who our donors are and what they were looking for or who our activists and advocates were and what they needed. That has been my critical insight. Acton taught me to think about customers first.

My big lessons learned from Acton drove me to be entrepreneurial in a big organization, even though I was far from the world of startups and entrepreneurs.