Why It Pays To Get Your Hands Dirty

Apr 29, 2015 1 Min Read
a dirty hand
Work Experience Always Triumphs Over Classroom Learning

What do Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Simon Cowell have in common? Other than being incredibly rich and successful, they are also drop-outs. Apple, Inc. founder, Jobs, did one semester in college before taking his chances with the real world. So did Dell, who started Dell, Inc. (then PC’s Limited) with just US$1,000 and a short-lived college career. Gates, the richest man in the world, is still ‘on leave’ from Harvard to run his billion-dollar company, Microsoft Corporation. Branson didn’t finish high school but did manage to make Virgin one of the most valuable and bankable brands in the world. And before he was making Idol wannabes miserable, Cowell was just a humble mailroom boy.

Evidently, somebody forgot to tell these guys they need to score straight As first then make a success of themselves! Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the value of good education as much as the next person. I thoroughly enjoyed all my years at the University of Bridgeport in the US and later even went to work at GE’s corporate university, Crotonville, for a number of years. So, I would be the last person to condemn a great education as both my university experiences added immensely to my personal, social and professional development.

But I also am a firm believer that getting your hands dirty on the job is perhaps far more important than a good report card. Work experience always triumphs over the classroom because people learn better while they are doing. The common myth is that our growth and learning is mainly attributable to course work or formal training. Most people believe that about 70% of what we learn comes from training and classroom sessions. Then networking, role modelling and mentorship (about 20% of our learning) comes next and finally job experience (10% of what we learn). And so, there is an overemphasis on classroom learning because of the belief that training is the way to enhance learning. Most corporations structure their organisations and training teams based on this belief that more classroom training means better, more learned employees.

However, based on research conducted by a number of multinationals, including GE, and later validated by research firms, classroom style training, in fact, accounted for only a mere 10% of real learning and growth. In a reversal, it is on-the-job experience that develops business acumen and long-term career growth. The harder the role, the tougher the environment, the more challenging the assignments, the more you learn and grow.

Common Myth


For the perennial proof in the pudding, consider GE’s Financial Management Programme (FMP) which I was a part of when I was in the US; later when I returned to Malaysia and took on the role as CFO of our Aviation unit, I help set up and manage this programme here. We put out recruitment ads for young graduates from diverse backgrounds, universities and required Grade Point Average (GPA) scores. Granted, we had some very brilliant recruits but many were also average students in whom we saw drive, potential, and a desire to make a difference in the world. And this was evident in their non-academic experiences even if their report cards were decidedly ordinary. We picked these over some super straight A students, even turning away a seemingly brilliant Ivy League student. Today, each FMP graduate is holding a senior level position in GE offices around the world – regardless of their grades when they joined us.

How did we do it? I believe a major part of our success in churning out global leaders – and not just in Malaysia, but everywhere around the world – lies at the intent of the FMP modules, which pushes each trainee into a new job every 6 months for 2 years. And this is where real learning and growth happens – at the job and on the job. There is an importance to classroom training especially in functional and technical matters but the learning that comes from the field is equally invaluable as it changes based on context and situation. Each new instance is a new learning experience and a new growth opportunity. As we look back on the Bransons, Gates, and Jobs of this world, it’s not surprising why they succeeded. They learned their trade in the field facing new situations and learning and growing through experiences. And the more experiences they accumulated, the greater their learning and growth.

Classrooms learning will always have their place and relevance. In fact, part of what the team at Leaderonomics are now working on is to ensure classroom training is action-learning based. And action learning (which literally means training which is experiential based) is in all our modules. This will be the future of training – experiential based.

I have had 9 jobs, and a number of roles, in the 13 years I was with GE. In that time, I’ve been exposed to different industries from Oil & Gas to TV/Media to Financial Services to Aviation and Healthcare. My job functions ranged from Finance to HR to Operations to various leadership roles. Each experience helped build my personal learning and each experience contributed to my personal growth. So, although classroom and training has its benefits, my advice is if you really want to be a leader, go out there and get those experiences – even if it means working in a dingy start-up or a company that is struggling. Those experiences will mould you and teach you much more than you would ever gain from attending a lecture from a professor.

You may also like this: What I Wished Someone Told Me About the Working World

[First posted on Leaderonomics.com on 17 June 2010 and subsequently updated on 30 April 2015]

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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