It’s not what you learn on your MBA but how you apply it. Not every graduate goes on to success but there are lessons to be learnt from those who have
Before Johan Eksteen studied for his MBA, his pelleting business was a hobby — a means for him and his brother to earn some extra income. Eksteen’s master’s degree in sustainable agriculture was a nice-to-have but it hadn’t transformed his career. So when he found himself posted to Uganda by an employer, he decided it was time for change.
He enrolled for a distance MBA at the University of the Free State Business School and almost immediately began to see his hobby in another light.
Agricon today is a world leader in agricultural pelleting – the production and distribution of pellets for animal feeds, fertilisers and biomass products. It has been responsible for developing new technologies and its machines are exported to 27 countries in Africa, Europe and Asia.
When Eksteen began his MBA, however, Agricon, founded in 1993, was still “something I kept on the backburner”. He and his brother produced a couple of machines each year. “One sale funded the next. The business was something to fall back on in an emergency.”
He adds: “I doubted myself and my ability to take it to another level.” That changed with the MBA. “It opened up the world. It dragged me out of my comfort zone. What I learnt on the programme helped me see the business as an international one, not a local one.”
Change happened rapidly after Eksteen,
46, graduated in 2003. Instead of putting machines together at home, he outsourced production to specialist manufacturers. Marketing was ramped up, new territories were explored. Everything was self-financed.
“By the time a bank finally offered me an overdraft, the company was already up and running,” he says.
Agricon’s success has earned him a slew of awards, including SA small business and overall entrepreneur of the year, as well as a national innovation prize.
Eksteen has no doubt that, without his MBA, none of this would have been possible. “It helped me believe in myself and my judgment,” he says. “It was the making of me.”
Plenty more graduates make the same boast. But not all. Many of those who go through the MBA mill come out the other side thousands of rands poorer but with no enrichment of their working lives.
Not long ago, a major retailer announced it would no longer pay for managers’ MBA studies because previous beneficiaries had added no value to the company.
“They come back thinking they know everything but actually offer nothing new,” observed the HR director.
Market research for this cover story shows other employers are not convinced their staff, sponsored or not, return as gamechangers. The problem in many cases is that they don’t know how to use their new knowledge in the business environment.
The situation may improve. The 2016 decision to change the MBA from an academic degree to a professional one means it is more focused on applied learning. The research component of MBA programmes is no longer limited to academic pursuits but may also include industry case studies and even inhouse projects for employers.
Wits Business School MBA director Conrad Viedge thinks there is a case for schools to teach employers how to get the best from MBA graduates. “Students want to go back and make a difference but companies haven’t always thought how they will use them,” he says. “To sponsor someone on an MBA, or even to let them go off and study, and not have a plan for that person to create value, is extremely wasteful.”
However, he says graduates are ultimately responsible for making things happen. “Don’t go back and wait for your managers to do everything. You are the one who must push and volunteer.” Regenesys Business School director Penny Law agrees: “We tell our students that they bear the responsibility for