MBA & business education guide 2008: How an MBA changed my life

After starting his weekend MBA course, Julian Bailey, a senior producer at the BBC, soon found himself contributing to strategic projects in the broadcaster's business unit. Reputation management was the area he got most excited about - and that led to a radical change of career.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Read the marketing literature from business schools and you'd be tempted to sign up for an MBA straightaway. Harvard promises to prepare you for 'a lifetime of leadership'. Insead's course will be 'life changing', and my own school, Henley, says its MBA is an investment 'guaranteed to pay dividends'.

Back in 2006, I assumed those dividends would include the confidence to take on any business problem and the opportunity to walk into my dream job with a big pay rise. I wanted to know more about finance and marketing so that I'd be able to converse knowledgeably about Vodafone's latest acquisition or Marks & Spencer's new marketing wheeze.

I didn't need much persuading to sign up. But which course, and at which school? As any MBA student knows, every consumer decision is about the four Ps - promotion, price, place and product. The product I wanted was a part-time MBA.

Working at the BBC on a journalist's pay, I didn't want to risk taking a year out of work while paying for a full-time course. I opted to take the MBA part-time at the weekend while working full-time in the week. It therefore had to be a British school.

The best advertisement for a business school is to come high up in the league tables compiled by the Economist or the FT. These surveys examine student satisfaction, quality of teaching and the all-important average increase in graduates' salary. In the Economist's, a handful of British schools appeared regularly in the top 50 global business schools, among them Warwick, Henley, Cass and London Business School.

Price was important. I didn't fancy spending more than £40,000. The excellent but expensive London Business School was therefore out. But the place had to be near to London - which ruled out Warwick. That left Henley and Cass, and I'm afraid I chose Henley for the vacuous reason that it was in a pretty location and has a decent reputation.

I started my first term at Henley without really knowing what I'd let myself in for. A friend had done a part-time MBA and she told me I would need to be selfish. 'There won't be any place for friends or fun,' she said.

She was right. The workload was aggressive, tough on me and my wife, who has had to endure the suspension of normal family life. One of the single guys on my intake bailed out because the self-sacrifice threatened to ruin his love-life. He thought this too big a price to pay for a glittering executive career.

The payback for this hard work is the amazing learning that you get at business school in areas such as marketing, human resources, management and strategy. Through that, I quickly gained a better appreciation of what my own employer - the BBC - was doing right and what it was doing wrong. It was a call to action.

It was not long before I was getting involved in higher-level projects at work. I became a better manager, realising that the biggest challenge at the BBC was hiring, training and keeping the best people - the best TV and radio programmes will always be made by the best producers. So as I learned more about human resource management, I began to spend a lot more time and effort on the recruitment area.

As I learned about marketing, I saw that my own section did not know much about the tastes of its audience. We had never done any market research. I persuaded my boss to spend some money finding out about our customers.

Before I started the course, I was mystified by finance. I read the FT's Lex column and thought how great it would be to know what 'cost of capital' or 'net present value' meant. This is exactly what you get on the Henley MBA - a crash course in valuing a business or assessing its financial performance.

But the course also taught me to conceptualise ideas I may have understood at an intuitive level. I used to think 'synergy' was a bullshit management expression. I now understand that bringing two teams or companies together can lead them to produce more or better products.

I'd also been told that I would meet some gifted people. This proved true, but there are a few big egos, too. When these clashed it could be spectacular. Group problem-solving exercises could develop into heated rows if one person didn't get their own way.

But there's a benefit to working with people from different backgrounds. They inject new ideas. During exam preparation, groups of students joined together to sweat over case studies. We knew that if we took on the exam alone there was a good chance that we'd fail. So, encouraged by tutors, we worked collectively.

I will keep in touch with some of these people. Not just because I might need to network with them but because I did manage to make a few friends along the way.

Now that I'm at the end of the course I can reflect on how it has helped me. I certainly know a bit more about the grammar of business. This means I can handle a conversation with a company chief executive and not sound like a moron, and even do a passable PowerPoint presentation.

I started the degree course thinking I could walk into a variety of highly paid professions. Could I become a hedge fund manager or investment banker? Probably not. There's no substitute for industry experience, and there are plenty of people in every industry with MBAs behind them. So I won't be knocking on Goldman Sachs' door just yet.

The real benefit is that I now know what I find interesting about businesses. There was one area that got me excited during the course: reputation management. Business history is littered with examples of firms that paid too little attention to their corporate reputation. This was something I could get excited about.

My MBA has guided my career choice. I tracked down a consultancy that advises companies across the world on reputational issues and convinced them to give me a job.

So was the pain worth it? I think so. But my advice to any prospective MBA student is: think carefully and examine your levels of commitment. You can expect an exhilarating but gruelling period of your life.

Julian Bailey is a senior consultant at specialist PR firm Gavin Anderson & Company.

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