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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Summer Reading list for Non-traditional MBA's

I was a non-traditional MBA and I don't mean non-traditional in the sense of I just wasn't a consultant or banker. Nor a non-traditional MBA like someone who worked in an intense quantitative field like engineering or as an actuary. Six months before entering my MBA program, I decided to work in a commune for developmentally disabled adults. Prior to that I taught knitting to the homeless mentally ill. I was a non-traditional MBA in the sense that I thought Excel was a new anti-anxiety medication.

Despite the orientations for incoming MBA students around the corner, this is summer the reading list that I would recommend for the really non-traditional MBA. They are interesting enough to keep the attention of someone who would probably rather be reading a David Sedaris book and clear enough for someone who never read the Wall Street Journal. They are relevant enough for those whose careers will probably be non-traditional and have no desire to mimic the management style of Jack Welch or investing career of Warren Buffet (and think that both men are kind of strange. Welch due to his intensity and Buffet because you think anyone who lives in Nebraska is strange.)

Here are the 2 best books about Wall Street in the 80's for a good foundation of where good old fashioned greed all began.

Barbarians at the Gate: This described the frenzy around a corporate takeover of RJR Nabisco. It reads like a Grisham novel, introduces powerful firms like KKR, and shows how the movie Wall Street's Gordon Gecko is not an exaggeration. You'll learn about how exactly someone tries to take over and buys another company when that company is not the slighest bit interested in being bought. Kind of like the dynamics between men and women after last call at the club.

Den of Thieves: This will introduce the reader to Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky who were the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson of Wall Street in the 80's. I found that this book to be more informative of what investment banks do. This also describes the emergence of some of the financial products like junk bonds and mortgage backed securities that even the most non-traditional person has probably heard of.

Non-traditional MBA's may hear about hedge funds for the first time at business school and notice the quiver of excitement in classmate's voices when they talk about them. Hedge funds involve using a lot of math to make money. When Genius Failed tells the tale of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund that almost caused the financial system to fail in 1998. The book explains how hedge funds work and later spectacularly don't work. It's also a good reference point for near financial system collapse of Fall 2008.

All non-traditional MBA's will think about a career in consulting since there is no specific background that anyone needs to be a consultant. Consulting firms also promote projects with non-profits or have their own non-profit consulting arms since they learned it's a great employee retention tool. As a result, they seem like the perfect place for anyone from a math teacher to a yak herder to work. I know that I went throgh the consulting company recruitment process, got rejected everywhere, and thus really liked: Dangerous Company: Management Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin. It's a very detailed look at the history of consulting firms, how someone came up with the idea, and consulting projects gone badly. It's also intended as a guide for industry managers on how to properly work with a consulting firm so there is a balance of objectivity. It's a great book to take the sting off being rejected during an interview by the smug, glib, well-dressed consultant and much more productive than drinking a six pack. Some recommend House of Lies: How consultants steal your watch and tell you what time it is but I found that book to be more of a depressing tale of a really bad corporate job that just happened to be consulting.

For an understanding of today's economy and financial markets (or lack of financial markets), I recommend American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. The same author also wrote Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism which may seem like a more specific business book. Bad Money is really just a long drawn out version of last chapter of American Theocracy so you might as well read the Oil chapter for some Middle East and global history. I skipped the "Radical Religion" chapter because after a while it seemed like a repeat of "There are a lot of preachers in America. No, seriously, there are a lot. I mean really a lot. Take the number of preachers that you think there are in America and multiply it by 100."

Every MBA will eventually read a Michael Lewis book and usually that book is Liar's Poker about his transition from non-traditional London School of Economics grad to bond trader in the 80's. I really wanted to hate Michael Lewis since he seemed like the most stereotypical Princeton graduate. However, he's a really good writer. The content of Liar's Poker will be covered in Den of Thieves and When Genius Failed so I would recommend Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. It looks like a book about football and the reasons that players at one particular position that most have never heard of are now getting paid as much money as successful bond traders. However, it's really a book about society, low income African-Americans relationship with sports, transitions from black ghettos to white societies, and a main character Michael Oher, who you can't help but really like and want to meet. It talks about the "soft" side of business decisions like ethics, complex decisions, and what's really important in life rather than the "hard" quantitative side.

I just got Deep Economy out of the library based on a recommendation. It was another non-traditional MBA's favorite business book and it's about the importance of local economies. If I can put down my Henning Mankell Swedish detective novels, I'll find out if I want to add it to list.

Update: This post provides another addition to the blue ribbon standard of the non-traditional MBA reading list. This post was awarded the blue ribbon by competing in a category that includes no one else. How many non-traditional MBA reading lists have you seen and even if you do find one, I can always claim that mine is much less traditional.


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