Why an MBA?
Career and Personal Benefits: Enduring and Ephemeral
I recently gave a series of workshops in Europe on "How the MBA Helps Your Career." I focused my remarks on three tangible outcomes that all students should expect to achieve from their MBA programs:
- Development and honing of analytical skills with which to identify, analyze and address business problems.
- Development and mastery of people-leading and people-management skills.
- Development and deepening of life-long personal and professional relationships with other students in the program.
Analytical Skills: Consistently High Marks
I found myself spending progressively more time with the second and third outcomes as I moved my workshop from Paris to London to Frankfurt and finally to Zurich. There were good reasons for this shifting of emphasis as I become more familiar with the questions and decisions facing my workshop participants. My audience consisted of European professionals evaluating both a) whether to pursue MBA studies and, once that decision was made, b) where to pursue those studies. As an aid to making the second decision, the outcome relating to analytical skills was of minimal value. Teaching analytical skills, arguably a great help in analyzing and addressing business problems, is the forte of virtually every MBA program that carries the imprimatur of the AACSB or comparable elite accrediting agency. In fact, in every "consumer" survey asking employers of MBA's what attributes among graduates they routinely find most developed, analytical skills are always at the top of the "most satisfied with" list.
So based 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.
People Skills: Consistently Low Marks
If we glean from the same employer surveys the other consistent pattern of responses - most MBA programs do a lousy job, if they even make the effort, 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 that have been over-sold as "revolutionary" - have begrudgingly nodded to the expressed frustrations with MBA's who can't manage, not to mention lead, fellow employees. But in most of these celebrated curriculum revisions, it's amounting to not much more than a nod. The faculty and administration of most graduate business schools are trained to deliver the first outcome cited above, analytical skills, not the second, 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 we feel comfortable with soft-skills training or not, our failure to effectively help our students to develop and strengthen those skills represents a considerable diminution of the value of our MBA curricula. It's not good enough to see ourselves as ill-equipped and ill-trained to deliver a soft skills curriculum, and hence sidestep the issue in favor of ever more hard-skills training. 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 (one of only two), 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 members of their MBA cohorts. 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 not only sounds like a colossal loss for both programs and their students; it is a colossal loss, 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, and 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 results of this kind of investment are definitive: the building of cohesive cohorts and life-long personal relationships.
The decision to pursue an MBA degree is becoming increasingly more complicated in this era of unprecedented job opportunities in high-tech, pre-IPO ("initial public offering"), start-up companies, and especially in a world that until recently was drowning in new venture capital. However, the aggregate market for MBA students is likely to remain strong into the foreseeable future.
As a young professional contemplating the MBA experience, the choice among MBA 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 contrast, the concurrent mastery of people-management, leadership, and teaming skills is a greater variable in choosing among competing program. Employer surveys resoundingly attest to the weaknesses of most MBA programs in delivering this important component of a quality graduate business education. It behooves the discriminating consumer to select a program that defies this particular norm - this common weakness - in the MBA market. Furthermore, based on feedback from alumni who are five, ten and more years removed from their MBA studies, 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.
Author: William L. Weis, Ph.D.,Director, MBA Program, Seattle University
Dr. William Weis is Professor of Management and Director of the MBA Program in the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University. He has published over 50 articles and a book addressing issues ranging from accounting history, non-profit accounting practices, the benefits of corporate health and wellness programs, academic leadership, and service learning in business curricula.
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