Posted by: danielrashke | June 7, 2018

The Fine Arts of Finance

18-TASC-0008-CEO-Blog-Content-Marketing_MFA_736x229_v1The conventional wisdom in the business world is that the best way to hire someone who will help you succeed and grow is to look for an MBA.

After all, MBAs have “a head for business” and the skill set necessary to jump in and start contributing.

But now a lot of business owners and CEOs are questioning that logic. I’m one of them. It’s not that MBAs aren’t valuable. The point is that with the world changing so quickly, innovation and creativity are essential in every aspect of a business, from product development to finance. So along with recruiting qualified MBAs, it’s time for businesses to look for a different kind of candidate.

Recently, at an event hosted by University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, I met a gentleman who told me he believed the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) was the new MBA. He pointed out that in theater, for example, you learned how to direct people, how to play a specific role, and how to collaborate both creatively and on practical aspects like building sets and setting lights. The more I thought about his argument, the more I saw that the skills necessary to put on a show weren’t all that different from those necessary for business success and innovation.

In fact, I realized that my own company had benefited from an employee’s arts background. Our Chief Operations Officer, Michael Herman, got his undergraduate degree in theater. One day Michael and I were discussing my plan to create change within TASC and he pointed out that when you want to bring about significant change in a company, you need to create a “saga”—a story that explains why the change is necessary and beneficial—or else you risk creating a disruptive “drama” in your workforce. This was a perspective that came directly out of his theater background, and it made perfect sense to me.

We tend to think that finance and fine art are completely different things. But as I realized when I wrote both terms on the smartboard in our office, they share most of the same letters. I consider that a pretty accurate metaphor for how much they overlap in the real world.

The idea that “the MFA is the new MBA” first started appearing about ten years ago, and it has gained steam among business thought leaders ever since. Harvard Business Review pointed out that MFA grads have important “soft” business skills such an ability to accept criticism, an interest in studying motivations of people, and an understanding of the importance of engaging the audience. Inc. magazine’s online “Brandview” points out that “reason alone—the MBA toolset—can diagnose the issue, but not discover new ways to solve it, to radically recreate a company’s business model for real innovation.” That takes creativity.

I’m not arguing that the answer to innovation in business is to hire only MFAs. It’s just as important to have MBAs who think like MFAs. This spring we hired a new Chief Financial Officer, Scott Lane. Scott has an incredible business resume and a traditional business education, with a BBA and an MBA. He’s a first-class financial guy. But he’s also a very creative thinker. Instead of accepting “business as usual,” Scott put together his own approach to creating and fostering business partnership. He has brought us a perspective you wouldn’t necessarily expect from your typical CFO. Even if you’re not lucky enough to have a “Scott,” you can still foster creativity by implementing tools like design thinking, where you start by asking what customers [internal or external] need and then work backwards toward a product or solution (versus asking, “What can we sell?”).

As I recently noted during a speaking engagement, TASC is a 40-year-old company. As companies go that’s old. And we don’t want to be old. So it’s essential for us to create a culture that thinks creatively about what we can do next. I believe bringing MFAs and MFA thinking to Finance and the rest of business is key to keeping our businesses alive and vital, especially through periods of intense change.


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