In Defense of the MBA

Yesterday the Financial Times’ Stefan Stern wrote an interesting piece titled Why MBA Bashing is Unfair. In it he argues that, while graduate business programs aren’t perfect and need to evolve, they are not churning out the sharp-elbowed, non-consequence-caring sharks that some in the media have accused them of producing. If anything, they are guilty of producing leaders who only manage by the numbers, and, because of their lack of true management experience, are unable to step back at times and think about an organization as more than just a pile of balance sheets and income statements.

The stereotype of the cocky (and guilty) MBA is surely somewhat deserved. Heck, recently one of Harvard’s own MBAs put out a book describing HBS as the “cauldron of capitalism” in his own unflattering words. But to say that “arrogance and greed” are solely responsible for our current economic troubles misses the larger point about the value that an MBA can provide.

Argues Stern:

The content of the course, while not exactly incidental, is really not the most important thing. It is the process itself: applying for a place, being admitted, meeting and working with faculty and contemporaries, and forming a new network, that matters.

This is what you find when you talk to sceptical MBA graduates who may not remember a great deal about the different modules they studied. Even they will describe their time at business school as a transformative experience. They went in one end as a fairly ordinary, apprentice businessperson. They came out the other ready to operate at a higher level.

This is what we at Veritas Prep always tell our admissions consulting and GMAT prep clients: The hardest part of business school may seem to be getting in, but once you’re in, what value you get out of the program is entirely up to you. There’s at least as much value in the chance to make new friends, get exposed to new viewpoints, and build an incredible new network, as there is in learning about the capital asset pricing model.

And, as McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg argues in the FT article, the real learning about how to manage still needs to occur on the job, after you graduate. That inevitably means that at some point a fresh MBA will be promoted into a role that he’s not yet fulled qualified for, but management must be learned in context. Today’s business leaders are at least as responsible for educating tomorrow’s leaders as any MBA program is. This kind of mentorship has always been how people and organizations grow, and this will never change.

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One Response

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment but would also like to add the following: frequently the problem is with the hiring process. It seems that the executives and upper-management doing the hiring often see the MBA as a badge representing ability and value. The branding of an MBA has too often taken precedence over the actual experiences and knowledge that it represents. Just because someone is able to get into and complete their coursework at HBS, does not mean they have the ability or the sense to successfully run a business (or manage the wealth of others).

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