Finding happiness the MBA way

Students are increasingly seeing a stint at business school as more about personal fulfilment than giving their careers a boost, especially if it means putting something into their communities.

by Jeremy Hazlehurst
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

These days, when Jesper Hornberg goes to work he's likely to be stepping into a mud hut in Kenya, checking on a solar lamp. He's the founder of an NGO called Givewatts, which is trying to reduce dependence on kerosene lamps. Rather than having to work in the poor light given off by kerosene, children whose families have his lamps can now see well enough to do their homework. In some cases, their school test scores have increased by 50%. On other days, Hornberg might be in a maternity ward, hearing how infant mortality and maternal complications have decreased now that midwives can deliver babies in electric light. Hornberg has worked in development before, but far from the front line. So what brought him to Kenya's poorest homes? An MBA.

That might seem odd. Many people assume that those three little letters are the gateway to swanky offices in shiny skyscrapers, not rural Africa. But these days, when an MBA doesn't guarantee the sort of salary bump that it used to, many people are doing MBAs for another reason - because they can profoundly change you. Hornberg, who currently draws no salary from Givewatts, says that his MBA at Swiss business school IMD 'really did change my life'. It wasn't the marketing and finance that he learned - although that was important - but the sessions with a psychologist, an elective part of the course but one that most students take up.

'The shrink helped me work through my life,' Hornberg says. 'My parents divorced when I was young, I lived with my mother and I took on a lot emotionally and practically and that influenced me. For example, I feel good when I am in situations where people rely on me, but then I also learned that there is a shadow to that, that maybe I am too dominant in some situations and don't give control to people who are more skilled than I am. I picked up on what damage that can do to a group. The whole experience prised open boxes in my soul I didn't know existed. It was very painful at times, but also very good. It made me much more at ease with myself.'

His case is not unusual. IMD prides itself on running a 'transformational' MBA, designed to prise open those boxes. 'If it was about making more money, in many respects it's easier to stay in your job,' says Martha Maznevski, the director of the school's MBA programme.

The reason people talk about salary increases is 'because it's more tangible', she adds. 'There is almost a conspiracy, which we all take part in, that MBAs are evil because they create people who want to make more money. There is so much rhetoric about this that it can almost become true. But when you get inside a good MBA programme it's not the case. People do MBAs for lots of reasons.' One of the main ones is happiness, 'particularly for people who have a high need for achievement and want to do something that affects other people in a constructive way and that grows', Maznevski explains.

A good MBA resembles a 'hero journey' from classical literature, she says. The hero goes on a quest, but somewhere along the way realises that all the gruesome monsters he meets are there not for their own sake, but to spark an inner transformation. The search is not really about some soggy old fleece, but self-knowledge. Likewise, the point of an MBA is, as Maznevski puts it, to 'develop a repertoire of behaviours' that allows you to behave in an 'authentic' way.

That might sound like the language of the analyst, but it's increasingly common in business schools. Graham Clark, academic director of the full-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management, who started his career as an engineer and has since trained as a psychotherapist, says: 'We call the MBA a 12-month conversation and by any other name this is a 12-month psychotherapy course. 'It's about who you are and what you really, really want to do with your life.'

It is impossible to learn about management without deep soul-searching, he thinks, citing Warren Bennis's book Managing People Is Like Herding Cats. This argues that the management of yourself is vital to the management of others. 'If you don't understand yourself, then how the hell are you going to manage anybody else?' asks Clark.

'It's a critical part of someone becoming a leader,' he says. 'They really need to understand who they are and what drives them.' The 'ruthlessly rational' just doesn't exist, and if you believe it does then you are 'sadly deluded'. He adds: 'We are trying to help people become much more self-aware, so that they know what's driving them and are able to make more conscious choices - to make the unconscious conscious, to use the Freudian phrase.'

Although this side of MBAs has come to the fore in recent years it is not wholly new. The granddaddy of transformational business education is the renowned Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal. For years, he has run a sort of anti-MBA called the IMPM (international masters programme in practising management). One module aims to boost the 'reflective mindset' and involves going to the Lake District to discuss Wordsworth, theatre workshops and 'pilgrimages' to places of worship. Another module, in India, is about developing what Mintzberg calls 'worldliness'.

'The idea is to take people into other worlds, so that they understand their own world better,' he says. 'We don't want to make them cookie-cutter global, we want to make them individually worldly, or distinctive, in the sense that they will understand their own culture and organisation a lot better because they have been exposed in some serious way to another.'

Eastern concepts like ba ('a shared space for emerging relationships') and kaizen ('continuous improvement') play a large role. Businesses including Lufthansa, LG and Fujitsu have been sending people to the IMPM for 15 years.

So what sort of changes do transformational MBAs produce? Maznevski says a common story in recent years has been students from emerging markets who arrive for their MBA convinced that they want 'a big career in a big company in Europe, but during the MBA they realise how much they care about the people in their own country. And, actually, when they finish they decide to go back home, but in a completely different role from the one they anticipated, and with different ambitions. They go and found venture capital firms or work for a local multinational to help them develop the local economy so that more people have jobs.'

An example is Pankaj Arora. He worked in consulting for over four years in the US before doing his MBA at Cranfield, which he has just finished, and is now planning to move back to his native India. He says that the MBA helped him make profound discoveries about himself. 'I was living two lives, one was my work life in my profession and one was my personal life, where I used to do a lot of volunteer work - for example, I worked as a volunteer fire-fighter for two years. Cranfield helped me realise that the idea of service and giving something back is important to me, and now I am trying to merge my skills with my passion.'

The process of self-discovery was 'really scary at times. Ignorance is bliss, you can blame all the world for your failures, but now I look at myself from a different perspective,' he adds.

During his MBA, Arora worked on a business plan for a social enterprise to provide preventive health care in India, and he plans to work in his home country in social entrepreneurship. He had been thinking about going home before, but the MBA made him sure.

Wherever Arora's MBA takes him and whatever salary he ends up earning, he is sure the experience has made him happier. 'What I have now is a deep sense of satisfaction, and that comes from the feeling that I know what I am doing and why I am doing it,' he says.

Hornberg echoes the sentiment. 'Money isn't everything,' he says. 'I have friends who work for big companies and they earn more than me, and some of them are happy, but that alone wouldn't make me happy. This does. Happiness is the ultimate kick.'

Watch out for MT's new executive education hub, which goes live on 22 October.

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