Is the MBA still an express ticket to the top?

Some people feel the degree got them where they are today, others query its worth in a fast-changing global scene, says Peter Bartram

September 5, 2013

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is one business leader who believes an MBA can be an entry ticket to the executive suite of the world’s largest companies. He told students at the Fuqua School of Business at North Carolina’s Duke University: “An MBA helps you to work with people who have a very different point of view from your own.

“For me, that was the overwhelming value of being here – not learning about the specific rules of marketing or strategy or operations.”

There are hundreds of other CEOs who swear that they would never have made it to the top without their MBA. Gary Smith, a graduate of Britain’s Ashridge Business School, is one of them. Smith, now CEO of US networking technology company Ciena, valued at some $2 billion (£1. billion) says: “Without an MBA, I don’t think I would have been given the opportunity to become CEO. Could I have become a CEO without an MBA? I think so, but it would have been more difficult. And I’m not sure that I would have had the confidence to take it on.”

Ankur Kumar, director of MBA admissions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business – one of THE’s top 10 – says there are three reasons why an MBA should help ambitious managers on their way to the top. First, the core curriculum covers topics such as operations, marketing, strategy, communication and leadership, which provide a good understanding of all aspects of business.

Secondly, an MBA programme can provide access to a network for both formal and informal advisers through faculty and alumni. “And, thirdly, by navigating different interpersonal situations, you get a great lesson in decision-making, time management and prioritisation,” says Kumar.

But not everyone is convinced that an MBA is such a hot ticket in a business world that is changing faster than ever. Candice Carpenter Olson, a Harvard MBA and former CEO, says: “My perspective is that an MBA is no longer the requisite path to business leadership it once was.”

Olson, co-founder of the Fullbridge Program, which provides courses that prepare recent graduates for the workplace, says: “The pace of potential learning in a real job is much faster than it was when the MBA was invented and moves far quicker than any current MBA programme. Therefore, the opportunity cost of sitting out two years of selling, working with customers, making presentations, and thinking about new businesses is quite high.”

Olson argues that even the supposed benefits of using business schools to build a contacts network are not all they are cracked up to be. “There are many effective ways to build a solid and relevant network today,” she says. “In any event, that personal network will have to be constantly refreshed and rethought in a changing global business over the course of a career.”

Graham Clark, director of the full-time MBA programme at Britain’s Cranfield School of Management, says that whether an MBA helps an ambitious manager towards the CEO’s chair or not depends on the quality of the course. “If it’s a course where you sit in a classroom and take on board bits of management theory, that’s probably a waste of time,” he says. “But if the course is focusing on aspects of leadership in its broadest sense, then I think an MBA is invaluable.”

He says an MBA should equip future leaders with the ability to turn ideas into reality.“There’s an old view that an MBA is a smart-arse who knows what to do but can’t actually do it,” he adds. “There has to be an implementation piece in the course; how do you create something and have the backbone and courage to see it through?”

Pejay Belland, director of marketing, admissions and financial aid for the degree programmes at Paris’ INSEAD – another THE top 10 business school – agrees that teaching executives to make things happen is important. “Schools such as INSEAD prepare students for roles in which they will need to hit the ground running – through the sheer intensity of the programme,” she says.

She also argues that the diversity of faculty, students and cultures at top business schools prepares CEOs to run multinational businesses in the future. “An MBA, particularly from a top school, can help executives to refine their skills, broaden their knowledge of all aspects of business, particularly in the global arena, build their network and accelerate their career path from an early stage.”

However, Vincent Bastien, who was CEO of the luxury brands Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent Parfum before becoming a professor teaching on the global executive MBA programme at Paris’ HEC business school, says: “An MBA is only really useful when you are a CEO or COO – head of a company. Then you must understand all aspects of your business.”

Former British cabinet minister Virginia Bottomley, now chair of the board and CEO practice at headhunters Odgers Berndtson, says that an MBA will certainly be one of the things she considers when reviewing candidates for a major CEO post.

“An MBA from one of the most prestigious business schools certainly suggests that the individual has great intellectual ability,” she says. “They will also have had exposure to a highly multicultural environment exchanging views and learning from others.”

But lack of an MBA would not rule out her recommending a suitable candidate, she stresses. “But I’d need to satisfy myself the candidate had ability, intellectual rigour and a strategic facility.”

She adds: “The other thing an MBA suggests is that the individual has a useful network, which often lasts through their career. So the MBA has become rather like the old school tie.”

Not all MBA graduates have followed a traditional route. Howard Collins started his working life as a trainee on the London Underground, driving trains and sweeping platforms. Then he decided to take an MBA at Westminster Business School. That was followed by management posts in London Underground.

Now he has just been appointed CEO of Sydney Trains, which operates the rail services in the Australian city. He says: “The MBA programme introduced me to people from across the full business spectrum. These people opened my eyes to new ways of thinking.

“And the programme gave me real-life immersion into new industries and executive exposure to how businesses really work at board level.”

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