My MBA Journey: Book Smarts, Street Smarts and the Journey of Growth

My MBA Journey: Book Smarts, Street Smarts and the Journey of Growth

Source: This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
Written by: Brad Ross, Director – Global Football Marketing at The Coca-Cola Company

In October 2015, I embarked on my JWMI MBA journey. The timing was perfect, or was it? I was expecting my first child that December and one month into the program I received a promotion at work and accepted the job of a lifetime! MBA + Baby + Epic new job… was this a recipe for success or a disaster in the making?

Fast Forward two years and two months, and I stand on the cusp of receiving my MBA, thriving in my career and savoring every moment of being a dad. Like so many of my fellow students and alumni, my situation was by no means unique regarding the balancing act so many of us follow when we inevitably mix life, studies, work and the proverbial pursuit of happiness all at once. I could not be prouder of how it turned out and what I was able to achieve in this delicate balancing act. As I look back, reflect and begin the new chapter in my life, I wanted to take the opportunity to list a few of the highlights and learnings I gleaned along the way.

Leadership is a Team Sport

I know that there are many books, articles, and lectures on how lonely leadership can be. At times it is a calling, at times it is thrust upon you, and at times you step up and take it with both hands. Regardless of how the leadership mantle arrived, once you step into that realm, it can indeed be lonely. Making the tough calls, taking the tackles, providing aircover, pushing an agenda, and working behind the scenes to build and promote your team can seem like it’s you against the world.


My learnings on this leadership journey are different. I could not have even come close to doing all I did firstly without the support and devotion of my wife. She has been with me every step of the way, holding down the home front, being an excellent mom (and dad!) and motivating and believing me. Leadership is a team sport!

Secondly, my circle of ‘dependables,’ as Bill Belichick coined, have been the foundation of my success at work over the course of the journey. This is the team that I knew I could count on through any challenge and any adversity. JWMI taught me about the importance of a team, and how people are genuinely your biggest asset. Using candor, dignity and giving everyone a voice in the game were vital mantras that helped me build this circle. This means empowerment, trust and feedback became the name of the game. Synchronicity is not something that happens by mistake, or in isolation. This is when the team fires on all cylinders and this level of trust and coordination are earned. Leadership is a team sport!

Thirdly, anything great that is accomplished, is rarely done in isolation. Leadership is not about Ivory Tower planning. It is not just about knowing what’s happening on the front lines, but rather spending some time there. It is about humility and service, not only a voice from above. You have to accept very quickly that your job is to have all the questions, not necessarily all the answers. This is a paradigm shift of note, and often one that is difficult to swallow. This lesson in humility, mixed with the realization that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room is quite liberating. Leadership is a team sport!

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, leadership is about building leadership. I firmly believe that JWMI lives this credo every day. Led by one of the great business leaders of our time, Jack Welch seems to have taken this on as a personal mission in life. I subscribe to the fact that your success as a leader is not only dependent on what you deliver and how you deliver it, but your ability to have grown another leader in the process. This is higher level thinking, and it changes your point of view as you work with your team and build your succession plan and pipeline of talent. This happens by what you say and does in front of the team, as well as how you represent them when no one is looking. Becoming a leader means building a leader too. Leadership is a team sport!


I have a far greater appreciation now of what leadership means than when I started this journey. The kicker here is that leadership cannot be learned in a textbook. It is a verb, and you earn your leadership stripes by doing. JWMI has a saying ‘learn it on a Monday, apply it on a Tuesday and teach it on a Wednesday.’ The value of this MBA is that the book smarts and street smarts come together so beautifully in taking it from the ethereal academic nomenclature to the practical, rigorous implementation on a daily basis.

Comfort Zones are Overrated

Let me start by saying I have never been a fan of finance simply because I was always scared of it. As a marketer, I thought I could get away without too much finance in my life. I was so wrong… As I have progressed into areas of greater responsibility, it became glaringly apparent that finance was such an essential component of marketing and business in general. I quickly learned that to be a holistic marketer; I needed to have more financial acumen than budgeting alone. Profit pools, growth lever analysis, cohort segmentation and consumer value, and ROI all crept up on me over the course of my marketing career. In some cases, I figured it out, in others, I had to wing it.

When I enrolled for the JWMI MBA, I was notably nervous to see that the curriculum had not only one, but two courses on finance. Two things stood out for me when I received my admission notice. Financial Management 1 and Financial Management 2 jumped off the page at me when looking at the overall curriculum. This even evoked cold sweats and a crisis of confidence. I looked at the pass marks needed for finance and set my sights on just getting through it.

As I look back, I believe that from a functional point of view as well as a self-confidence point of view, these were two of my highlight courses coming out of the program when it came to personal growth (That’s right, a marketer said that…). These two courses ultimately took me out of my comfort zone as we went through the wonders of the big three financial statements, the magic behind the financial ratios and the alchemy behind the NPV, IRR and more acronyms than I have ever seen in my life. Although I will never be CPA (another acronym in the language of finance), I have no issue now having informed discussions with my finance colleagues. I can accurately read the financials, understand the nuts and bolts of the company and can finally join an annual shareholders meeting and do more than just smile and wave.

Strategically Speaking, This is Above Your Pay Grade…

I have heard that a couple of times before. Strategy is far too complex, far too rigorous, and far too important to be left up to you. While my time at JWMI has validated the need for the vision and mission to be set at the top, it has also confirmed that strategy is not solely for the top echelons of the company.


The five-slide methodology that we worked through in the course, is so beautifully simple in its execution but so rigorous in its approach. The intention behind putting your best people on the right jobs to fulfill the strategy is again simple in execution but rigorous in approach. Making fundamental strategy decisions on what you will do, and more importantly what you won’t do, is also simple in its execution but rigorous in its approach. The common theme here is that strategy requires both thinking and doing, and this can come from anywhere.

In the past, I have abdicated some level of strategic decision making because I believed that it was indeed above my pay grade. JWMI opened my eyes to see that strategy is not a rare elixir that only the smartest individuals and consulting firms can pedal. I have personally been part of strategy sessions with individuals who elevate the complexity to levels that make no sense, but everyone agrees with because it sounds so good and is just so smart. If you truly want a seat at the table, get involved in strategy and own it. In the words of Jack, “Strategy is less pondering, more doing”.

Chicken Before the Egg

I am sure you have heard this story before…

  • We need to deliver quarterly results.
  • Year-end is close, and we are all systems go.
  • We need to deliver the numbers at all costs.
  • Let’s push transactions and promotions to meet the expectations for this earnings call.
  • …..But where did all the good people go?

Don’t get me wrong, the numbers are essential. The numbers are the bread and butter of the company, and we need to ensure we have this North Star in mind. But often, this is indirectly proportional to the people equation. We are so focused on results in today’s world; we usually ignore the reality of what enables those numbers – the people.

“One of my favorite quotes from Jack is “If you managed a baseball team, would you listen more closely to the team accountant or the director of player personnel?” in our recent capstone graduate call, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Jack a question and I drilled down on this by asking him the following: “ In today’s world where short term results are often the driving goal of so many organizations – it becomes a difficult discussion with leadership at times to prioritize people over bottom line metrics. Do you have any words of wisdom on how to elevate the discussions to ensure that the ‘people function’ is seen as a strategic function and not just transactional?”


In his typical, thoughtful, candid manner he said that this has to be a choice. Every business in the world has financial results it strives to meet and that when it comes to people management either you buy it or you don’t. Leaders need to decide how they embrace the power of the people equation. Jack lived and breathed this philosophy at GE and saw terrific company performance during his tenure. The quarterly and yearly financial pressures were there, but GE embraced the differentiation approach to people management, and it showed. My take out in his answer is that either this foundational facet is there, or it is not. It has to be a deliberate decision and one that gets implemented with rigor. People management should therefore not be an afterthought, but a fundamental belief in the organization.

Jack Welch call


Consistency, Consistency, Consistency and…. GRIT

As in many things in life, undertaking an MBA is a marathon and not a sprint. There will be times that you need to sprint, but the key here is consistent performance week in and week out. The JWMI MBA insists on this level of consistent performance as you have deliverables due every week. The approach to the work is so powerful when you apply this to real life. You can’t just show up now and again; you have a responsibility to step up and bring your A-game every single week. This is not always easy and sometimes feels insurmountable as the demands of work and personal life build up. Through this all, I learned how powerful the functional skills of effective planning and time management both are. Also, and perhaps more importantly, grit and resilience are key attributes that get further built and enhanced at JWMI. I think I speak on behalf of all alumni, that there are times when life and studying collide and become overwhelming. This is when your grit is tested, stretched and built and I am so grateful that I had had this experience to not only develop specific functional skills but also to understand what it takes to use these skills.

More Than a Grade 

The JWMI MBA will be far more than a grade or three letters on my resume. This was far more than an academic achievement that taught, and tested, my evolving functional skills across the key areas of business that was covered. While these functional skills sets are key, some of the soft skills required to be a better leader are far less obvious. JWMI helped me understand the duality of the responsibility and privilege that comes with being a leader. This paradigm shift can be best summarized in another quote from Jack that stands out for me “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others”. This sounds simple on paper, but requires a whole new lens to how you begin to prioritize what you do, and more importantly how you do it.


Thanks for the Microphone

In closing, this has been a fantastic journey, and I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to be part of the JWMI MBA program. Special thanks to Jack Welch, Suzy Welch, Michael Zeliff, Danielle Alder and the entire JWMI faculty & staff for this great program. I know that this school will continue to go from strength to strength with the leadership, and dedication of the team as well as the alumni that will carry the banner and live the brand for years to come.

I would also like to thank The Coca-Cola Company for selecting me for the opportunity to pursue this degree. I appreciate the trust and the platform you have provided me to become a better leader and an ambassador for the company.

With sincere thanks and appreciation. Brad

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