Which MBA Programme?

Career and Personal Benefits: Enduring and Ephemeral

How do you decide where to pursue an MBA? Well, if you base your decision on a program's effectiveness in teaching analytical skills, it's apparently hard to go wrong. Big schools, small schools, well-known schools, and little-known schools - they all produce MBAs who get high marks for analysis and technical competency. In contrast, the concurrent mastery of people-management, leadership and teaming skills - and the opportunity to build cohesive relationships with cohorts - are greater variables in choosing among competing programs.

Analytical Skills: Consistently High Marks

As a young professional contemplating the MBA experience, the choice among programs will not likely yield a measurable difference in the mastery of technical and analytical skills. These skills are the hallmark of virtually every accredited program. In fact, in every "consumer" survey asking employers of MBAs what attributes among graduates they routinely find most developed, analytical skills are always at the top of the "most satisfied with" list.

People Skills: Consistently Low Marks

If we glean from the same employer surveys the other consistent pattern of responses, then most MBA programs do a lousy job of teaching soft management skills. Interpersonal, people-management and teaming skills consistently rank among those attributes that employers find the least well-developed among MBAs, and these are the skills which employers are least satisfied with when they have hired an MBA.

Curriculum changes over the past decade - and there have been many changes over-sold as "revolutionary" - have begrudgingly nodded to the expressed frustrations with MBAs who can't manage, not to mention lead, fellow employees. But in most of these celebrated curriculum revisions, a nod is all you'll get. The faculty and administration of most graduate business schools are trained to deliver analytical skills, not people skills, and they are not about to retool in soft skills or abandon their tenured posts to those who have those skills.

As it turns out, both faculty and MBA students are more comfortable with the traditional preoccupation with analytical and technical skills training. A majority of MBA candidates have technical backgrounds in fields like engineering, finance, accounting and the sciences. This makes the adoption of soft-skills curricula ever more challenging, since it takes both the consumers and suppliers outside of their comfort zones. What we've been teaching in MBA programs is easy for professional engineers; what we haven't been teaching is not.

So the challenge for an aspiring MBA student is to identify that relatively small set of suppliers who are responding to what the ultimate consumer of MBA talent, the employer, has been telling mostly deaf ears over the past decade.

Whether schools feel comfortable with soft-skills training or not, the failure to effectively help students to develop and strengthen those skills represents a considerable diminution of the value of the MBA curricula. The reality is that as business managers rise in their organizations and take on ever-greater responsibilities, the percentage of their time devoted to "people problems" increases exponentially. The CFO of one of the world's largest soft-drink giants, whose training had been in accounting, once told me that 95 percent of his time was spent dealing with people problems; the financial issues had to be compacted into the remaining 5 percent.

Connections: The Ultimate Enduring Value

Finally, we come to probably the most important and most enduring benefit for those MBAs lucky enough to have acquired it: deep, personal relationships with other MBAs. When I talk with MBA graduates about their various experiences and results, regardless of where and when they studied, those who developed close personal relationships cite these as the primary enduring benefit from their MBA programs. For those whose programs failed to foster a strong sense of connection among their student colleagues, the entire MBA experience is discounted as little more than a "hurdle" to have jumped over in pursuit of greater management responsibility, rather than as a time of personal growth, important learning and life-enhancing relationships.

As important as relationship building is to the MBA experience, few programs make a conscious, energetic effort to facilitate that process. That failure diminishes the value of services rendered to their MBA clients, and accordingly leads to lower retention rates and a diminished sense of alumni loyalty and support once the students finish their programs. In other words, ignoring the relationship-building aspect of an MBA program yields the worst case "lose-lose" outcome: a diminished experience for students, diminished retention rates for the school, diminished levels of alumni support and enthusiasm for the school, a diminished reputation for the program and, ultimately, diminished rates of applications and admissions.

This is a colossal loss for both programs and their students, and it's a needless one. Facilitating connections and relationship building can be and ought to be an objective of every credible MBA program, but it takes more than merely providing lounge space for students to congregate before and after classes, or workspace for student teams to hold team meetings. It takes structured programming that either explicitly, or as a by product of building leadership and teaming skills, brings students together in the kind of intensive work (and play) circumstances that foster the development of strong, enduring personal relationships. Outdoor experiential-based training programs, for example, can be woven into a skills-building course in leadership and team development, ideally offering an extended retreat component that keeps a cohort group in close proximity for several days and nights. The result of this kind of investment: the creation of life-long personal relationships.

Alumni who are five, ten and more years removed from their MBA studies say the quality and quantity of lasting personal relationships are the ultimate enduring values of their MBA experience. Prospective MBA students should expect that - should demand that - from their MBA programs.


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