Twenty years ago, I was asked to present career advice to a group of MBA students from my business school alma mater. These future business leaders and aspiring CXOs were touring Silicon Valley companies, including my employer Oracle, to hear alumni speak on how our MBA experiences prepared us for our chosen professions. Following me on the agenda was fellow alumnus Jeff Henley, Oracle’s CFO at the time (and Vice Chairman today). I felt pressure to share career advice that was meaningful, and to not mess up the delivery!
I had recently joined Oracle as a software sales engineer, helping to position and demonstrate complex ERP software to global manufacturing companies. This was my first job in enterprise sales, after seven years as a supply chain practitioner. Admittedly I knew very little about sales and selling. In procurement I had worked with many suppliers’ sales representatives. I’ll admit that I secretly enjoyed negotiating against poorly-prepared account executives during sourcing contract renewals. Now I found myself on the other side of the buy/sell transaction.
As I contemplated how I would advise MBA students about a career in software sales, a shocking realization occurred to me: nothing about my own MBA experience prepared me for sales. Not once during my two years in a prestigious full time MBA program did I learn anything about the process of selling (or buying) a product or service. I’m not referring to a narrowly-defined set of skills and techniques practiced daily by successful sales professionals. (In hindsight those would have been more practical than many arcane topics I would never use but was required to study). My MBA program did not educate me to design, build, nor scale a sales team as an entrepreneurial founder. Nor did I learn how to manage the revenue-generating function as a general manager of a business unit with P&L responsibility. These were common career goals of most MBA students I knew.
The more I pondered this, the more it surprised me. Like all MBA programs, my university had entire academic departments dedicated to teaching and researching disciplines like finance, marketing, operations, entrepreneurial studies, and decision sciences. The core curriculum mandated that we study economics, statistics, accounting, strategy, and human capital management. Electives addressed industry-specific topics like entertainment, health care, non-profit management, etc. But arguably the most important discipline in business, generating revenue and managing go-to-market activity, was completely absent from any formal instruction. After nearly twenty years of casual research, and many discussions with friends and colleagues, I’ve confirmed that my own MBA experience is not unique. Sales, both as a critical part of a general business education, and as a potential career path, is simply ignored by the vast majority of business programs.
Unfortunately, very little has changed today. A detailed review of the websites and course catalogs of top business schools in North America confirms that sales and sales management are still not emphasized, or are ignored altogether, by most MBA programs. I don’t wish to imply that the business school experience has not evolved over time—it clearly has. MBA curricula now place greater emphasis on subjects like leadership, global business, quantitative analytics, and collaborative teamwork. But instruction remains focused on the same tenure-track disciplines of finance, marketing, operations, entrepreneurship, and strategy/leadership. Sales and sales management courses remain noticeably absent. For proof, look no further than the bible of university rankings in North America, the U.S. News Education Rankings website. Type “sales” in the search box, and three “hits” are returned, two of them irrelevant. For comparison, type “marketing” in the same search box and you’ll get nearly 50,000 “hits”, including page after page of meaningful results from leading business schools.
But don’t stop there. A simple internet search of the phrase “Why don’t business schools teach sales?” yields a long list of articles and posts raising this exact concern. (Amusingly, the search results are interspersed with paid ads for MBA programs which exemplify the problem–I verified by researching each advertised school’s websites and current course catalog!). Academic scholars, students, venture capitalists, government representatives, entrepreneurs, sales practitioners, and even companies have argued that aspiring business leaders must understand sales, and challenged university business schools to remedy the omission in their curricula.
Even the venerable Harvard Business Review has published two articles in the past decade critical of business programs’ lack of sales education. The first, a 2012 article entitled “Teaching Sales”, observes that “Sales may be vital to businesses, but of the 350,000 students a year who earn bachelor’s degrees in business from American universities, and the 170,000 who earn MBAs, only a tiny fraction have been taught anything about it.” Written by faculty at the Center for Sales Leadership at DePaul University, the article states definitively that “universities that have invested in setting up such programs…are seeing proof that they are serving an unmet need.” A subsequent HBR article from 2016, “More Universities Need to Teach Sales,” is more blunt. Co-authored by professors from Harvard and Northwestern/Kellogg, the article cold-opens with, “For decades, Sales and Academia remained worlds apart and the business world did fine. But Sales is changing, Academia is out of touch, and this is bad for business and the academy.”
Critics offer myriad explanations for why business schools ignore sales. However, several common themes emerge, which I will attempt to summarize here:
· Negative perceptions of sales and sales professionals. Many articles observe that the academic profession incorrectly views sales as purely relationship-driven, reliant on inherent personality traits, manipulative, and highly contextual/not repeatable.
· Insufficient academic rigor required for sales instruction. Authors suggest that business school faculty consider sales education to be more akin to vocational training than academic study. Especially at the graduate level, MBA programs deem the sales profession to be not strategy-driven, insufficiently analytical, and lacking in business processes.
· No demand from MBA students. Graduate business programs tend to define sales careers narrowly, limited to that of a quota-carrying sales rep only, and assume that few MBA students are motivated to pursue this type of job upon graduation. Similarly, business school instruction does not include sales management as a key responsibility of a general business career.
· Lack of familiarity with sales in academia. Because business schools are led and taught primarily by career academics, most are far removed from the “rubber meets the road” reality of buying/selling interactions. This lack of familiarity makes tenure-track faculty uncomfortable with sales, and not qualified to teach the combined “art and science” of enterprise selling.
Most business leaders, especially those with general management experience, will agree that these perceptions of sales are gravely mistaken, and easily refuted. Hopefully the deans and academics leading prominent business school programs agree with the business world view, and can be persuaded to rectify the omission of sales education.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented, existential threat to education systems. The impact is both immediate and long lasting, as universities worldwide have been forced to respond to mandatory social distancing and shelter-in-place edicts by shifting their existing education experience online. However, as business schools struggle in real-time to rethink every aspect of their existence, the majority of current efforts appear to focus only on re-tooling current course offerings (and instructors) for remote learning. A late April 2020 article entitled What Business Schools Will Look Like After The Pandemic includes interviews with the deans of several prestigious MBA programs about their strategic responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Only one academic leader even discusses innovation in new courses and content. Conspicuously absent from these deans’ visions is a rethinking of the business curriculum itself in a post-pandemic world. This clearly misses the mark. In a time when education innovation is imperative for many business programs to survive, schools cannot focus only on process improvements (remote delivery of current courses) at the expense of more meaningful substance (upgrading the content of their education offering).
Now is the time for universities to innovate WHAT they teach, not just HOW they teach. Adding Sales and Sales Management courses represents a huge opportunity to improve the MBA experience, especially as the uncertainty of the 2020-21 academic year looms large. Academic institutions are notoriously slow to change. Ironically, business schools teach the importance of speed, agility, and customer focus, yet their own byzantine process to add a new course literally takes years. Academic departments are siloed, tenured faculty are not incented to rapid innovation in the classroom, and curriculum additions require complex approvals by faculty senates. As a result, course catalogs remain static from term to term. This is not to say that progress never happens. In 2011 a graduate from a top Canadian business school lamented the lack of sales education in his Executive MBA experience. Since then The Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto has responded by offering multiple courses on sales, in both the Full Time and Executive Education MBA programs. Business schools can evolve in their approach to Sales education. Whether they do or not is a matter of leadership, institutional will, and urgency.
This leads us to the most important question: What needs to be done about this situation, and when?
The answer is clear. Every business school should view their urgent response to the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to improve the value of their offering, and begin to incorporate sales and sales management education into their general management curricula. In the near term, this means augmenting existing courses with relevant sales material (guest lectures with experienced sales practitioners, sales-focused case studies, independent work emphasizing go-to-market planning and execution, etc.). In the longer term, this requires developing compelling new sales-relevant courses, designed specifically for the “new normal” of distance learning, and employing adjunct faculty with sales expertise to instruct them.
As universities design sales courses and hire faculty to teach sales, it is important to recognize the three distinct student constituencies whose interests are served by a robust sales education:
- Undergraduate business majors. In the past decade, job opportunities for entry level sales talent has exploded. Corporate recruiters increasingly seek undergraduate business majors with relevant sales coursework and extracurricular sales-related activities (student sales clubs, intercollegiate sales competions, etc.). Undergraduate sales courses should be designed to (1) prepare them to get their first job in sales and (2) help them succeed in that role (likely a Sales Development Representative/SDR).
- Graduate students in MBA programs. Even if only a small number of masters candidates intend to pursue careers in direct sales, a much larger percentage expect to manage business units with P&L. Because they will surely manage sales organizations within their BU hierarchy, business leaders must have a functional understanding of sales processes and sales management best practices. Graduate-level sales courses should cover both how to sell and especially how to manage and scale the sales/revenue generation function.
- Students in Entrepreneurial Studies programs. These primarily technical/engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate, will someday pursue entrepreneurial ventures. In addition to designing and building their products, these future entrepreneurs must understand commercial models and sales processes for their businesses to be viable and succeed. Entrepreneurial sales courses must introduce future technical founders to all aspects of sales, sales management, and go-to-market approaches.
In business, revenue is the lifeblood of a company. Hitting quarterly sales targets, and overseeing the Sales function, are first on the agenda of virtually every single Board of Directors meeting in corporate America. From the smallest startups to the largest public companies, arguably the most valued skills of any successful C-level executive are the ability to support revenue growth and manage the Sales function. The time has come for business schools to recognize this, and to prepare future business leaders appropriately.