Over the close to 30 years I’ve worked in business education, I have heard ‘the fall of the MBA’ predicted more than once; the acronym is also occasionally equated with “Master of B****r All”, usually by people who don’t hold the qualification. And having an MBA is not a prerequisite for being a good leader, just as having any university qualification is not a predictor of success.
Any list of highly successful university dropouts contains a who’s who of art and technology, e.g., Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison, Janine Allis, Bill Gates, Anh Do, Mark Zuckerberg, Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes.
IT CAN’T HURT
However, at the same time, some impressive individuals attribute at least some of their success to their MBA studies.
Indra Nooyi is an Indian American business executive and former CEO of PepsiCo. She has consistently ranked among the world’s 100 most powerful women. Her MBA is from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.
Phil Knight is one of the world’s most successful businessmen. He followed the classic route, starting as an accountant with what is now PriceWaterhouseCoopers, taking his MBA from Stanford in 1962. He founded Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 with his running coach, Bill Bowerman. Blue Ribbon Sports was renamed Nike in 1971. I suspect you know the rest: Knight’s net worth was $37 billion in 2019.
Carly Fiorina is an American businesswoman and political figure, known primarily for her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP). She oversaw what was at the time the most significant technology sector merger in history, in which HP acquired rival personal computer manufacturer, Compaq. The transaction made HP the world’s largest seller of personal computers. The success of the rest of her tenure at HP is disputed, mainly because of a boardroom argument. However, there is no doubt that she grew HP. Her MBA is from a less fashionable school, University of Maryland, but the principles she acquired seem to have held her in good stead, with a net worth north of $50 million.
Tim Cook is CEO of Apple. You might say that he’s been reasonably successful; following on from Steve Jobs was never going to be easy. Cook’s MBA is Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Mary Barra has been the chairman and CEO of the General Motors Company since 2014. She is the first female CEO of a major automaker; her MBA is from Stanford.
Like Tim Cook, Satya Nadella had a tough job, becoming CEO of Microsoft in 2014. At the time the company’s fortunes had slumped in comparison with previous achievements (although still stellar by usual standards). Nadella turned it around. In 2019 Microsoft was worth over $1 trillion. Nadella’s MBA is from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
THE VALUE OF AN MBA
The MBA is regarded positively across all industries and every type of employer. When structured and delivered well, it develops high-level understanding and skills in business strategy, transforming or creating leaders. Demand for MBA graduates remains strong in manufacturing, technology, healthcare, finance, accounting, energy, utilities and consulting. It’s also a frequent springboard for entrepreneurs.
What an MBA should do is to promote your ability to see and analyse the big picture; what is it that other businesses are doing? Which business models work, and which don’t? MBA students focus on understanding better the complicated world of business, its challenges and opportunities.
What studying for an MBA does is to challenge, refine and promote students’ abilities to think critically and strategically, to solve issues and leverage opportunities.
MBA studies also promote long-term thinking and sustainability (often in all of its guises) through developing holistic thinking about the enterprise. Most importantly, MBA students should engage with material that encourages the practice of leadership and the development of skills and traits associated with it. At the heart of this lies the core skills set of creativity, decision-making and communication; self-discipline will improve too, as well as a boost in confidence.
THERE ARE MBAs AND MBAs, BUT NOT REALLY
Most of the examples I gave above are graduates of prestigious American business schools. Indeed, Harvard University created the MBA in 1908. Now the degree is taught worldwide.
I’ve taught on variants in the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, New Zealand and Australia. My experience includes world-class programmes (Cambridge and Bradford) and lower-ranked courses too. By and large, the content is pretty much the same, with a highly common core covering the main business disciplines and an applied capstone project. The variations between the programmes come from so-called ‘elective’ subjects.
The other primary source of variation is faculty. There are some atrocious teachers in world-class programmes and some brilliant teachers in more lowly institutions. I was fortunate to encounter some talented teachers on a Harvard executive development programme, who are also Harvard MBA teachers; equally, I’ve experienced some terrific educators elsewhere. I long ago concluded that the significant advantage of world-class programmes is their networks of fellow students and alumni, rather than their curriculum.
Another significant variant across programmes is the price. World-class seems to equate to spectacularly expensive; even lesser schools are not cheap. Consequently, if it’s the network you want, my advice is to apply to the most highly ranked programme that you can afford. If it’s the knowledge and skills you want, then take a careful look at the curriculum.
One more thing: just be aware that in Australia, generally speaking, it’ll take you at least two years full-time and four or more part-time. That’s a big commitment.
A SHIFTING BUSINESS EDUCATION LANDSCAPE
I don’t agree with the critics who say the MBA is in decline. I think there will always be conventional MBAs delivered at top business schools. That’s because there will always be large corporates and consulting firms who will employ them. They’re also a rich source of international student recruitment.
However, the business education landscape has shifted of late. Start-ups like The Entourage, the General Assembly and Academy Xi in Sydney offer intensive and immersive business-related courses. My favourite tribe, Thought Leaders Business School helps train smart people to be commercially savvy, again through intensive teaching and ‘flipped’ educational content. The emphasis of each of these institutions is pragmatic, short-term, high return, fail fast, fail forward business skills development in highly networked communities.
There are, of course, business mentoring programmes running for between three and 12 months. Some of these are excellent; many aren’t. The emphasis is on wherever the bias of the mentor lies, e.g., often as not in ‘high growth’, but at least they’re sometimes but not always tailored to the needs of participants.
TODAY’S MBA FOR TOMORROW’S LEADERS
How would it be if we could have the best of everything? A 12 months pragmatic programme, led by an experienced mentor, tailored to participants needs with a core of relevant practical as well as theoretical knowledge and skills-based material focused on transforming leadership and business? An unconventional MBA that enhances career prospects or enables you to start your own business? An unconventional MBA that transforms leaders and enterprises?