I can’t even count the number of times people have asked me this question: Do I need a Wharton [or some other ivy league] MBA to get the kind of jobs you’ve had?

People are usually surprised when I tell them that not only do you not need an MBA, but you don’t even need an undergraduate degree to succeed in business.

Of course, everyone knows the famous stories of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Mary Kay Ash, and the other billionaire dropouts. People don’t write too much about the hundreds of thousands of anonymous dropouts that failed in business. But I’m not talking about the billionaire entrepreneur success/failure anecdotes. I’m talking about basic career success where you are in a job you love, making money that is more than sufficient for your lifestyle. Easily achievable … with or without a degree.

The other night I taught a workshop on How to Ace an Interview. The space was provided by a very cool geospatial software company called Azavea. One of the managers from Azavea gave a brief intro before my presentation, and she indicated that Azavea was hiring. I took a look at the job description, and at the bottom was this awesome paragraph:

You’ll notice that we don’t say “X-Y years of experience” or “M.S. in Computer Science.” Formal credentials like these are not irrelevant, but we are primarily looking for people who have had experience successfully building sophisticated web applications.

You might have had these kinds of experiences without a college degree. Or you may be just out of school but worked your way through school and had some great co-op experiences. Or you might have a math or humanities background but a have a great head for software development.

These are all potentially great backgrounds, and we’d be interested in hearing from you.

It’s no surprise this company is one of the hottest places to work in Philadelphia. Notice how they say what really matters is a great head for software development and experience building sophisticated web apps. And the ultimate in blasphemy – you might even have a humanities background.

When I ran engineering for Unisys, I found that the most successful employees (coolest roles, highest salaries, and most respected) were not the people with the highest grades or most prestigious alma maters. Rather, they were the ones who had the cleverest ideas, knew how to work extremely well in teams and on their own, and could make the connection between their efforts and the impact on the business. They were people with very high EQs – emotional intelligence levels – not necessarily IQs.

And so it is in nearly all professional endeavors, whether engineering or ecology or economics. The “soft skills” will differentiate you much, much more than the hard ones. But, it takes work to develop those soft skills. It starts with a willingness to look honestly at your own defenses and insecurities, and then systematically work through them.  In my experiences (with plenty of insecurities to cull from), the work itself wasn’t nearly as hard as the honest look in the mirror. Why did I need to get the last word in at that meeting? Why am I so reluctant to listen to what that other person has to say? Once you start looking, with an open mind and a desire to improve, the dominoes tumble rapidly.

I asked the Azavea manager what mattered most to her when she interviewed candidates. Of course they need to have the technical skills, but what was of most significance beyond that baseline – personality!

No degree in the world gives you those skills, not even a Ph.D. in psychology. Conversely, anyone with a shred of intelligence and a willingness to honestly examine their shortcomings – MBA from Wharton or GED from W.H. Adamson High – can succeed and thrive.