A degree of confidence

MBA courses can cram you with useful skills and knowledge, but it takes natural ability and hard work to make the investment pay over time.

by Richard Reeves, he may be contacted at:richard@richard-reeves.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The names of certain schools attach themselves to their alumni: David Cameron and Boris Johnson didn't just go to Eton: they are Old Etonians. Nobody just went to Winchester; they are a Wykehamist. Or you may, like me, be an Old Huntonian. (OK, I made that one up. Peterborough's Jack Hunt Comprehensive School has yet to produce any new proper nouns. Quite like the sound of it, though.)

Our school years are highly formative, and if people continue to feel attached to theirs that's probably a good sign. But it's curious that something similar happens among holders of certain Masters degrees. If your friend is awarded an MSc in, say, economics, you might say of her: 'She's got a Masters in economics'; likewise, an MA in literature or philosophy. But if she completes a Masters in business administration you could say: 'She is an MBA.' Rather like the grand schools, there is something magical about MBAs that means you don't just take one, you become one.

The implicit claim that an MBA makes you a different kind of person reflects the accepted view of an MBA as essential kit for a climb to the top of the corporate mountain. Ads for MBA programmes rarely aim low: 'Mould Breaking Ambition' (Henley); 'It's not where you are. It's where you want to be' (Liverpool); and 'To become an exceptional business leader in a rapidly changing world, you need an exceptional MBA' (London Business School).

You won't be just a Master of Business Administration (a boring title, really) but a Master of the Universe. It's true that MBAs are not quite as sexy as they were during the heady years of the 1990s, but applications to business schools - especially at the elite end of the market - remain strong.

With my colleague John Knell, I've recently starting running an '80-Minute MBA' course, a kind of Reduced Shakespeare Company approach to business education (www.the80minutemba.com). Some of the responses we received when the programme was advertised were instructive. A couple of proud MBA graduates complained that we were devaluing the MBA brand. Others have asked if they'll get a real MBA. And quite a few have said: 'Eighty minutes is a bit long. Any chance you could do it in an hour?'

Plenty of the people who attended our first events were thinking of going on a full-time MBA course and viewed our show as a taster. Their questions were: How do you know what makes a good MBA? Will an MBA help my career enough to justify the investment of time and money?

Let me be perfectly candid. Business schools are not, in general, the place to find rigorous, deep thinking. In purely intellectual terms, you'd be better off in an economics or philosophy department. What MBAs offer is a shallow introduction to a wide range of subjects. Yes, I'm aware that someone doing it in 80 minutes is in no position to be pious, and I am not necessarily making a negative criticism. It is valuable in a business leader to know the basics of economics, accounting, marketing, human resources, leadership theory, and so on. Often, MBA degrees feel like such hard work because of the volume of material covered, rather than the depth of thinking required. One MBA graduate described the experience as 'like studying for 30 O-levels in a year'.

As well as covering the basics, the best courses try to look ahead and prepare their graduates for the business world to come. This is difficult: by the time most courses had developed decent curricula on e-commerce, the dot.com boom was over. But a willingness to adapt is a vital sign of health. The issue of climate change is the new biggie and a number of schools, including Sloan Business School at MIT, are building sustainability into their courses. David Schmittlein, the new dean at Sloan, says: 'It's not a story of 28-year-olds trying to save the world. It's a story of managing in times of cataclysmic change. It's about what our students do and need to say when they get into these organisations.'

It's hard to say which is the best MBA in terms of actual teaching and skills acquired, not least because of the overpowering impact of the brand. True, graduates from Harvard, Insead, Stanford and Wharton may well earn more than those from other business schools, but this is likely to be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy: these schools get a reputation for being good, and so attract the best students, who, naturally, go on to be highly successful. The MBA is proof of their talent, not the cause of it.

At the same time, elite business schools inevitably generate higher-quality networks for their students: success breeding success. Still, almost all MBA programmes can show that their graduates earn at least 30% more than their peers.

The view that MBAs are just expensive ways to prove your smarts and make some useful friends prompts sceptics to urge an alternative focus on GSDs - people who have proved themselves by Getting Stuff Done. The GSD hero is Steven Ballmer, who dropped out of Stanford to be the money guy for a small start-up called Microsoft. On this view, sheer entrepreneurial talent is worth a dozen MBA certificates. But this case should not be overstated: one study showed that 30% of the CEOs of e-business start-ups have an MBA. In many cases, an MBA gives someone the skills and confidence to take more risks.

What is clear is that an MBA can supplement but not substitute for brains, hard work and ability. As one graduate of a top school says: 'It opens that first door for you. After that, it's up to you.'

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