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Big Interview: Abilitie Mini MBA Executives Reveal The Key To What Makes A Good Leader

They've built a suite of online learning programs which have helped more than 100,000 professionals, now Bjorn Billhardt and Nathan Kracklauer have compiled their business lessons into a new book

Fri Feb 16 2024

Bjorn Billhardt and Nathan Kracklauer have worked together for more than 20 years. 

Back in 2001, newly minted Harvard Business School MBA grad Billhardt founded his first edtech company, Enspire Learning. Working with a variety of clients including Ivy League universities and Fortune 500 companies, Billhardt's idea was to provide interactive learning courses that clients could customize. 

Kracklauer joined Enspire Learning in 2002. After 14 years of designing, developing, and delivering courses the pair embarked on a new path, spinning out the business simulation unit of Enspire Learning while the rest of the firm was sold. After a rebrand, this unit would become known as Abilitie. 

Focusing on building a business and leadership curriculum that could help cross-industry professionals, Abilitie set off delivering private, customizable courses for clients including the likes of Paypal, Accenture, Marriot, and Nokia. In 2021 the firm launched its first open enrollment mini MBA. 

Today the Abilitie mini MBA, which officially became The 12-Week MBA in 2024, welcomes around 150 students each year. In an environment where there is ever-increasing appetite for new forms of business education, the plan is to expand the program. 

Rebranding the mini MBA in 2024 coincided with a new addition to the Abilitie suite of business education material: a book. 

Published this month, 'The 12-Week MBA: Learn The Skills You Need To Succeed In Business Today' compiles Billhardt and Kracklauer's business teachings into 20 in-depth chapters, encompassing topics ranging from reading a balance sheet to fostering engagement within an organization. 

The book provides an overview of the fundamentals of business. BusinessBecause caught up with Billhardt and Kracklauer to talk about why now felt like the time to publish their teachings, and why The 12-Week MBA should be on the reading list of those considering applying to business school to take the next step in their careers.  

Why should people considering applying for an MBA read The 12-Week MBA

BILLHARDT: It's been the culmination of 22 years of working with companies in the learning and development industry and teaching what really matters. We've codified what we have learned over those years, so it's been an incredible journey to write. 


We have condensed the key lessons of our program into this book, almost like an abstract of a book. So when you think about an abstract—you read two pages to get to the essence of the book. Think of The 12-Week MBA as the essence of what's in our 12-week program. 

We believe that there is this core of universal and timeless lessons that are part of any MBA program, and while it's great for people to study a lot of other things during an MBA, it's this core that I think many people are actually interested in understanding.

Why did you decide to compile these lessons into a book and publish it today? 

KRACKLAUER: It’s guided now by our two decades of experience—in business as well as teaching. I think we're in a much better position to have written this today than before, even if theoretically we might have tackled something like this maybe 10 or 15 years ago. 

We're also in a moment where the methodologies and the venues for learning and training are changing all the time. Our particular offering with The 12-Week MBA is not just about being able to distill down the essence of what it takes to be a manager into a curriculum over 12-weeks, it’s that we can offer this in a way that suits people in their lives as they live them now, who are embedded in jobs, have families, and who just really wouldn't consider going to an institution. 

The dean of London Business School recently said the MBA had ‘passed its peak’, how would you respond to that?  

BILLHARDT: We agree that we are in a particular moment in time where people are rethinking whether two years of full time study in business is actually the right step for them to fulfill their professional goals. 

No one questions that a doctor has to be in medical school for many years before they can do open heart surgery, or that a lawyer has to be in law school for three years to truly make sure they understand the law before they represent you in court. But it is very clear that Michael Dell, Kendra Scott, Bill Gates, none of these leaders that we admire have been ‘licensed’ by an MBA. And neither have 70% of fortune 500 CEOs. 

I believe there's always going to be a need for a top tier MBA to bring together some of the more brilliant people in this world and talk about what business is about and how to change it in the future. I got a two year MBA. It was a wonderful experience. I don't think it will go away. But there are only so many MBAs that get minted every year and there are many more open management positions.

Students often highlight how elements like networking and developing soft skills elevate the MBA experience. Can this be replicated without practical and immersive experiences? 

KRACKLAUER: Certain aspects, and I would say specifically the shared social experience aspects, are very hard to replicate through online formats compared to the traditional business school. 

At the same time, I think there's actually a surprising evolution going on in terms of what technology enables and what expectations people have of what qualifies as shared experience. Many of our daily shared experiences or networking activities are now happening online. 

We do believe that, although we're not going to get to the same level as people sitting together in a class and then going off to a coffee shop or bar together, we actually are doing things in our own programs that provide shared experiences and deeply emotional experiences for people working together. 

We're not simply putting people in front of an instructor online who then lectures them, we are putting them in business simulations that they play alongside other peers and within competitive environments, under the supervision and the guidance of a facilitator who is from the business world. 

Another thing we often hear from MBAs is that the experience provides them with the confidence to face the challenges of the working world. How do you feel The 12-Week MBA can enhance readers’ confidence? 

BILLHARDT: I love the question. I think confidence is such a critical component of any type of education. What you're giving people is confidence that they know what they're talking about, or at least they have enough reference points to not feel insecure when they're stepping into a meeting to talk about numbers or revenue. 

If you think about confidence and what you have to do to give it to people, you have to give them exposure and then let them experience what it's like to make some decisions. 

This is why we wrote the book. We feel the actual knowledge of what it takes to successfully run any kind of business in general is not that much—it can be condensed into a book and we have attempted to put it into 300 pages.

I'm not 100% sure reading a 300 page book will give you confidence—I think the confidence will come if you go through a 12-week program that includes going through interactive exercises—what a book can give you, though, is the foundations. And I think that's what we tried to do.

The book is split between two key sections: ‘The Numbers’ and ‘The People’, why did you make that choice and what does it say about business and leadership? 

KRACKLAUER: In our own experience as managers we found that, while it was challenging to look at a company as a collection of resources that you can optimize, that was an area of expertise that you could learn and improve on. And then another area of expertise was being able to engage with people on a deep level and bring out the best in them. 

You might actually be able to do those two things separately quite well or at a reasonable level. But being a manager challenges you to do the two things at the same time. And that's what in many cases we felt deeply to be the most difficult part. 

Being able to execute that switch requires a kind of muscle in and of itself. But it is a muscle you can train. 

There are many different topics covered within the book. What are the core areas that would be most important for someone considering an MBA? 

KRACKLAUER: What I think is frequently lost or not recognised, even at mid level levels of an organization, is that one of the things you're doing in management is trying to reduce the variability of the overall performance of the company. You're trying to get a handle on what causes that variability and increase the predictability moving forward. That is actually achieved by having a very good outlook into the future. 

A lot of our efforts in a business actually look like bureaucratic nonsense at times, and sometimes they are, but some of these things are actually there to help move information throughout the organization so that we can gain confidence in the story we're telling about the company's future. 

I would focus on that aspect, above all, because it's an underrated one. 

The second part is that all of us want to be excellent managers, we want to be the best possible managers. But when we're new, we probably ought to assume a kind of position of humility and focus on not so much what we could do if we were the best manager, but how we can avoid being the worst. 

A lot of the book is then focused on that idea of first doing no harm. 

In the very last line of the book you speak about confidence but also humility. Why do you feel these are both important characteristics for leaders? 

KRACKLAUER: That is a really good question. Another of the final phrases is that 'management is a calling'—because it has such a profound impact on organizations but also all the different individual stakeholders of the organization. 

We all know that if somebody has a bad boss, when that person comes home their family knows it and it's not great for anybody involved. I think being aware of the impact that we have as managers is key. We are really at the central lever of human happiness in a way because we spend a lot of our waking hours at work and, as managers, we're shaping how the workplace is for real people.

That I think is, in itself, truly a humbling insight. 

Actually what we need to do is to make sure we are there to create a workplace where everybody works together joyfully to create amazing things for customers. And we need to do that from a position of humility. 

Confidence, of course, is required, though, to do this, as the truth is we make tough decisions as managers as well. 

The 12-Week MBA: Learn The Skills You Need To Lead In Business Today is published by Hachette Go and available now.