Three Signs You Should Not be enrolling in an MBA (and One that You Should)

Earlier this week, I published a post on LinkedIn drawing three lessons from Queensland’s recent domination of the Australian Financial Review (AFR)/BOSS biennial review of Australia’s best MBA programs. For those who missed the results, Queensland schools took out four of the top five positions, including the top spot, with another two schools in the top eight of a survey that gives its highest weighting to the value graduates put on their experience. At the crux of each of the lessons was one central truth: in a market as crowded as that of Australia’s MBA providers, the key is to give the people what they want. Which raises a question for those thinking about undertaking an MBA – what do you want? And is an MBA the right way to get it?

Here are three signs your plans to commit serious time and money to an MBA – the winner of the best value-for-money title (also a Queenslander: number 8 overall) has full-time fees of $AU32,400 – may not be the best way to get what you’re really after:

  1. You think an MBA will give you a grounding in business: a large proportion of the MBA market is postgraduates whose undergraduate degree wasn’t in business and want to expand their career horizons. Indeed, when Harvard University awarded the first Masters of Business Administration in 1908, it was to meet a not dissimilar need: corporations had become so complex and so large, it took particular skills to manage them, skills demanding a rigour best delivered by professional education standards*. And an MBA will certainly cover core business competencies such as accounting, finance, strategy and marketing.
    However, if your expectation is for a “grounding” in business, a “Masters” in anything is probably not the place to start. Certainly over the past 15 years, the MBA has transformed from a degree of distinction to the staple of the postgraduate business industry, but it still remains an advanced degree. Someone looking to make the jump from a discipline to a leadership role may well embrace tasting each of the core business disciplines in their native forms, all couched in developing an ability to lead, and will no doubt refine their commercial acumen and nous along the way. However, if the commercial acumen and nous is actually what you’re after, a semester of concentrated marketing theory is far more likely to drive you running screaming from the world of commerce for ever.
  1. You think an MBA is necessary for/will guarantee you a leadership position: the AFR surveyed Australia’s leading headhunters and search firms, and “none could think of a single example where an MBA had tipped the balance in favour of one C-Suite candidate over another.**” Their research found that, while employers may brief search firms that an MBA is highly desirable or even preferable, “for senior appointments, experience and track record overwhelmingly trump educational qualifications”. An MBA might confirm that a discipline-specific graduate has the skills to move beyond their specialisation into general management, but that confirmation seems limited to the first two or three moves after finishing the degree.
    To quote one managing partner: “It’s not the fact of the MBA, it’s how they’ve used it to broaden their opportunities”. Or another: “Real life experience wins hands down. What have you done with your talent in the real world? Employers don’t want a highly educated nincompoop.”
  1. You think with your record of successful study, you’ll blitz it. There is a common misconception, particularly in science and technology disciplines, that the “soft” disciplines of business, law and communication are somehow if not easier at least not as difficult***. Like many rivalries – whether you are a cat or dog person, or prefer Nuttino or Nutella – the truth comes down to some fundamental preferences, not relative difficulty.
    Today’s higher education system spends years training Australian innovators to deeper and more specialized levels of sophistication in their technical skill sets. By the time they hit full-time employment, one thing they are generally really good at is succeeding at study. So they should ace an MBA, right?  After all, it’s not rocket science, which for some of them is what they’ve spend the last 10-15 years conquering.
    In the words of the AFR’s Education Editor, Tim Dodds, while every MBA includes some core learning “the real test comes in how well students can apply this knowledge in practice, as well as master many other less-tangible skills… resilience, effectiveness, how to be persuasive, how to manage competing demands… Students also need to understand that there is often not one correct answer to a business problem, and sometimes no good answer at all. This is something that can be a challenge for those trained in technology or engineering.”

    “If they don’t have insight into some of these things, they are going to flounder.”

    Melbourne Business School MBA, which came second in this year’s survey, includes strategies for these skills as well as working in groups, team building, networking and interviewing skills, in their degree. “It’s very difficult for us as human beings to operate in uncertainty and ambiguity but that’s what the real world is like” according to their Associate Dean for Academic Programs, Laura Bell, who sees these skills as essential to MBA success. “If they don’t have insight into some of these things, they are going to flounder.
    And you might notice – these key skills for success are all “soft” skills, reinforcing the contrast between the model of competition and individual excellence that has often driven success in a discipline, and the model of collaboration and alliance building at the heart of an MBA.

But as with any degree – any activity at all, really – there is one good reason to commit the time, money and resources to an MBA.

  1. You think the experience will serve your purpose better than any other use of those resources.

Which means knowing your purpose. Knowing your alternatives. Knowing your priorities and the context in which they apply: small children are only small once but another degree intake is as assured as a sunrise.

Only then can you make an informed decision to commit to the overall MBA experience, and not just the graduation ceremony.  All the evidence – statistically and anecdotally – shows that perhaps more than with any other degree, success and satisfaction from an MBA is a reflection of the journey at least as much as the destination. Success in completing an MBA, particularly a well-regarded MBA, demonstrates an ability for rigorous strategic and analytical thinking, as well as excellence in problem-solving and in embracing a broader economic and industrial context. However there is an increasing recognition of the value of networks developed across MBA classmates and alumni that continues to deliver benefits post-graduation in terms of access, insight and perspective beyond that of the graduate’s own experience, role and country.

“It’s not the fact of the MBA, it’s how they’ve used it to broaden their opportunities”

And if that’s your goal – to shift from a discipline to a leadership role, and embrace a career pathway of general management opportunities to head a major organisation, or even your own organisation, then an MBA – the right MBA – may be the smartest investment you’ll ever make in yourself.

But if it’s not, or you’re not sure, think twice before joining the 42% increase in MBA student enrolments in the last two years. After all, that’s a big commitment to make to find out that if everyone is super, no-one will be…

*I’m paraphrasing here from Steve Blank and Bob Dorf’s excellent text The Start-up Owner’s Manual, 2012 edition.

** eg CEO – Chief Executive Officer; COO – Chief Operating Officer. The report went on to note for some C-positions eg CFO – Chief Financial Officer, CIO – Chief Information Officer, discipline specific postgraduate qualifications are often considered at least equally favourable, as they also reflect the ability to think strategically and a commitment to ongoing learning.

***no, I don’t know what the difference between “easier” and “not as difficult” is either, but I’m told there is one….

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