Deep research and realistic appraisal of the courses on offer are vital for those anxious to kit themselves out with the skills to move on and up. Stefan Stern reports.
If only there were a management X factor, a password or code that gave you accelerated access to the higher rungs on the corporate ladder.
For many years the MBA has been held up as just such a device. Not all the statistics lie: in the US, where the MBA was pioneered in the early 20th century, 40 of the largest 100 corporations are run by MBAs, and more than a third of Fortune 500 chief executives are similarly qualified.
In the UK, the figures are less impressive but rising: 14 of the top 100 firms were run by MBAs in 2000, up from four in 1990.
The latest survey of the members of the Association of MBAs showed that for their members:
- The average MBA salary was pounds 64,000, although at the top end Harvard graduates earn on average almost twice that much
- Three in five MBAs were either board directors or senior managers
- 70% were aged under 45
- One in four expected to run their own business in the future.
But as with anything popular that has benefited from a bandwagon effect, an anti-MBA backlash has set in. Research recently published by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford University business school suggests that the inflated salary expectations of MBA graduates may not always be realised.
Confident MBAs returning to the workplace make themselves unpopular by speaking in a jargon-filled language, or by treating colleagues as just another case study to be dealt with and dismissed.
Critics also point to the broad-brush generalism of MBA courses, arguing that they do not offer the specialist skills required in business or the not-for-profit sector today. What about practical leadership and interpersonal skills, what about the whole new sustainability agenda, and what about tuning in more thoughtfully to the different priorities of a new generation (post-Enron and post-WorldCom), which may have less to do with share options and Lexus cars and more to do with work/life balance and having a clear conscience?
As Professor Henry Mintzberg of Montreal's McGill University has long pointed out, MBAs may be very good at the business analysis side, but as far as helping to create better managers is concerned, the record is spotty, to say the least.
Another great hazard in the MBA arena is branding. MBAs are themselves a triumph of marketing, a great educational growth story of the post-war years. But understanding what the MBAs of different schools are worth is vital if your considerable investment of time and money - up to pounds 50,000 or pounds 60,000 for a two-year course plus living expenses - is not to be wasted.
David Norburn, dean of Imperial College Management School in London, advises aspiring MBA candidates to pick carefully between business schools and to research what they might be getting from different institutions.
'Certain schools are very, very good at a few things,' he says, 'but they will not necessarily be good at everything. Look at Warwick's work on operational management, LBS's work on corporate finance and Imperial's achievements in technology and entrepreneurship - we're the best in Europe, by the way. It's horses for courses.'
Just as many employers will be sceptical about some first degrees from certain new universities, so senior managers will have their shortlist of 'acceptable' business schools. This list will be informed largely by precedent, word of mouth and the much-disputed b-school league tables published by the Financial Times and others. It may be narrow-minded and unimaginative of senior managers to keep such a list, but that's the reality.
You will have to make a very good case if your more obscure, possibly unaccredited MBA is going to be taken seriously.
And who has time for a two-year, full- or part-time course anyway? You may feel that at this stage in your career something less time-consuming makes better sense, or at least will be more acceptable to your bosses.
A part-time, one-year course - say, an MSc in finance, an MA in entrepreneurship, strategic leadership or organisation consulting (all courses on offer at UK business schools) - may deliver the specific skills you need without cutting you off from the organisation for too long.
Another argument against the full MBA is that the recruitment market has fallen dramatically compared with the irrationally over-exuberant days of the late '90s. Leading consulting firms and finance houses are not looking to staff up at the moment - rather the reverse - and you cannot assume that even in two years' time a particular jobs market will have returned to the excesses of before. Your MBA may prove an expensive and unwieldy key that opens fewer locks than you had hoped.
Like the business world around them, business schools are in a state of flux, forming international partnerships, looking at online alternatives to traditional classroom-based teaching, and reshaping courses and syllabuses to fit in with shifting demand and a changing business climate.
Last month, Warwick launched the first European MBA in partnership with the University of Mannheim in Germany and Essec in France. The one-year, full-time European MBA course is initially open to just 30 students drawn from the three schools. The degree is designed to meet European employers' needs for home-grown senior management. Students will have to be at least bilingual and not completely helpless in a third language.
It is a good example of the diversification being seen in the executive education market. LBS has similarly formed a partnership with New York's Columbia to extend the global reach of both, while the new European Academy of Business in Society is a collaboration between many leading European schools to promote greater awareness of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and to force CSR onto the MBA agenda.
Imperial's Norburn injects welcome scepticism into this overhyped and inadequately understood market. He feels that the full-time MBA has a lot of life in it yet, as long as it develops practical leaders who will deliver results for their employers - getting things done, finding solutions, generating deal flow, working with and through people, not against them.
Above all, meeting your own and your organisation's development needs must be a priority.
'Distance learning is problematic, because you miss out on that vital interaction between students, where, frankly, you learn most,' says Norburn.
'In the worst cases, the weekend MBA can mean divorce, while the part-time evening MBA has you falling asleep at your desk. Without the support of your employer it will be difficult in any case.'
It is clear that some form of further training and development is vital for managers serious about getting to the top, or who just want a more successful career. 'We've done a lot of research into what makes a CEO and a high-performance board,' says Norburn. 'Between the ages of 26 and 35 is the key time. That's when you accelerate people, build their mini-CEO CVs, put them in development situations.'
Those situations are going to include seminar rooms and lecture halls in addition to executive offices and dealing rooms.