MBA mo­tives run deep

A bet­ter job and more money are not stand-alone rea­sons for at­tempt­ing an MBA, writes Kirsten Wood­ward

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

EV­ERY year al­most 25,000 stu­dents en­rol in a Mas­ter of Busi­ness de­gree in Aus­tralia, yet only about 20 of the CEOs of the coun­try’s top 100 pub­licly listed com­pa­nies have one. What is more, ac­cord­ing to a study by re­cruit­ment com­pany Egon Zehn­der, only 20 per cent of se­nior ex­ec­u­tives from the US, UK, France and Ger­many con­sider MBA cour­ses help pre­pare stu­dents for real-world busi­ness chal­lenges.

With course fees be­ing $15,000—$50,000, not to men­tion a year with­out in­come for those who choose to study full-time, do po­ten­tial MBA stu­dents need to have clearer ev­i­dence that busi­ness stud­ies are linked to busi­ness suc­cess — that their time and money are well in­vested?

Op­por­tu­ni­ties and salaries are what stu­dents con­sis­tently cite as the rea­son for un­der­tak­ing post-grad­u­ate busi­ness stud­ies.

David Lees, a grad­u­ate of Mac­quarie Grad­u­ate School of Man­age­ment’s MBA pro­gram in 2003, ac­knowl­edges the fi­nan­cial mo­tives of most stu­dents. ‘‘ On the face of it, peo­ple saw the MBA as a ticket to higher in­come — and some peo­ple do deal with it as a cost/ben­e­fit sce­nario, but for me it of­fered a ca­reer break af­ter 15 years at work and a chance to get back to fun­da­men­tal skills, such as or­gan­is­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing, gen­er­at­ing ideas and per­suad­ing other peo­ple.

‘‘ Ul­ti­mately I earn more money but, hand on heart, I couldn’t say that was nec­es­sar­ily the MBA. Be­fore the MBA I was an en­gi­neer who had been pro­moted to man­age­ment. I had no ex­pe­ri­ence and felt I was liv­ing hand-to-mouth in terms of what to do. Now I am do­ing es­sen­tially the same job — but in a big­ger com­pany, man­ag­ing three times as many staff and more com­plex tech­nolo­gies.’’

Lees, who rode the in­ter­net boom at OzE­mail and Worldcom, looks af­ter the op­er­a­tions of Tel­stra’s Big­Pond net­works. The MBA not only gave him the con­fi­dence to put him­self for­ward for the role, but he be­lieves it has helped him to shape and in­flu­ence the job in a way he would not have pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered.

‘‘ When I came on board the area was un­der­go­ing a ma­jor re­struc­ture, with the help of out­side con­sul­tants. Straight from my MBA I was buzzing with ideas and en­ergy. I could speak the con­sul­tants’ lan­guage, work closely with them, and see is­sues and so­lu­tions with great clar­ity.’’

Lees en­cour­ages peo­ple con­sid­er­ing an MBA to have broad ex­pec­ta­tions of the ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘‘ You think of an MBA as ac­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion, learn­ing skills and tricks and get­ting a view of how the whole busi­ness thing works. You don’t ex­pect the very way you think to be chal­lenged. But mod­ules such as Foun­da­tions of Man­age­ment Thought — an in­tro­duc­tion to phi­los­o­phy — and Man­age­rial Psy­chol­ogy acted as a cri­tique of the whole man­age­ment process, chal­leng­ing as­sump­tions about your­self and oth­ers in a pro­found and fun­da­men­tal way.’’

Stephen May­ers, a grad­u­ate of Lon­don Busi­ness School’s Sloan Fel­low­ship Pro­gram (a one-year MBA for ex­pe­ri­enced man­agers) agrees that it is what you don’t ex­pect to learn on your MBA that can cre­ate the most last­ing value. Re­flect­ing on his stud­ies, it is not a fi­nan­cial for­mula or a strate­gic method­ol­ogy that springs to his mind. ‘‘ On my course they only al­lowed one or two peo­ple from each in­dus­try and four or five from any one na­tion­al­ity. There were 40 of us and we were all so dif­fer­ent.’’

May­ers re­mem­bers the gen­eral from the Is­raeli Army whose pres­ence on the course was so hush-hush his name could not ap­pear in any doc­u­men­ta­tion, as well as the charis­matic priest from rural Spain, al­ways look­ing for the next de­gree to study. Th­ese were not nec­es­sar­ily the kind of peo­ple with whom a banker from Bri­tain’s Mid­lands would ex­pect to in­ter­act in the run of nor­mal busi­ness.

He also re­mem­bers two weeks into the course be­ing asked to write his own obit­u­ary as an ex­er­cise in stim­u­lat­ing stu­dents to con­sider what might be their legacy to so­ci­ety (an ex­er­cise the war-hard­ened gen­eral did not fully ap­pre­ci­ate).

May­ers’s stud­ies had a prac­ti­cal out­come: ‘‘ I was part of a project team at Mid­land Bank charged with com­ing up with a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing busi­ness that would al­low the com­pany to ex­pand its reach be­yond its base in Birm­ing­ham with­out the need to ex­pand its branch net­work. The bank sent one per­son a year to Lon­don Busi­ness School and I was se­lected. The pay­back for their in­vest­ment in my ed­u­ca­tion was my the­sis on di­rect bank­ing, which be­came the ba­sis on which the on­line bank First Di­rect was built.’’

May­ers was ul­ti­mately head­hunted for a chal­leng­ing role in fi­nan­cial ser­vices in Aus­tralia, and now runs two niche con­sul­tancy busi­nesses. But a third of his work­ing time is al­lo­cated to com­mu­nity-based not-for-profit ven­tures. The mo­ti­va­tion and method­ol­ogy he em­ploys there has its roots firmly in his MBA ex­pe­ri­ence.

Ex­pand­ing ca­reer op­tions was a key mo­ti­va­tor for Akiko Jack­son to en­rol in an MBA at Stan­ford Univer­sity in the United States. ‘‘ I was be­com­ing very spe­cialised af­ter five years in bank­ing in Tokyo and I wanted to broaden my per­spec­tive. I knew that a Stan­ford MBA would open doors and I wanted to see where that might lead.’’ Akiko was also keen to move back to the United States, where she had spent much of her child­hood.

Her MBA ticked all the right boxes. Her first job out of Stan­ford was with man­age­ment con­sul­tancy Booz Allen Hamil­ton in New York, even­tu­ally trans­fer­ring to the com­pany’s Syd­ney of­fice. ‘‘ I some­times won­der what my life would have looked like oth­er­wise. Per­haps I would have stayed in Ja­pan, be­come a house­wife, given up my ca­reer for mar­riage.

‘‘ I am more self-con­fi­dent since the MBA, I have more op­tions and I have an in­ter­na­tional net­work of friends who range from High School teach­ers to se­nior ex­ec­u­tives.

Pic­ture: Sam Mooy

Life chang­ing: David Lees be­lieves his MBA ex­panded his think­ing and boosted his con­fi­dence

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