In recent years, the MBA has become a buzzword – ambitious professionals from around the world find themselves almost obliged to consider an MBA as a next step in their professional development. Putting myself in the shoes of potential candidates, I can easily understand the confusion and uncertainty about answering this deceptively simple question – “Should I get an MBA?”. Try googling this and you’ll see that there’s an awful lot of controversial opinions – from praising the MBA as still the most valued degree and panacea to all career advancement to stating it’s lost its magic. The reality is that there isn’t one right answer.
An investment as big as the MBA (both financially and time-wise) requires a careful examination of your own motivation as well as an expectation check – that is to determine whether what you want and expect from an MBA degree is aligned with what the degree will likely do for you. By answering these basic questions, you’ll also find yourself more comfortable with choosing the right program and school if you decide to take the plunge.
The summary below gives an overview of what you could expect from an MBA and suggests a number of questions to help you make the right decision.
Leadership and management skills
While specialized knowledge and hard skills are standardized and offered in various postgraduate qualification courses, soft skills are more difficult to learn (we should actually say “develop”) within a few days of executive training. Most leadership seminars offered by coaching firms, management institutes or universities take 1-5 days and albeit they may provide good value within this limited timeframe, they do not offer the depth of experience and reflection required for lasting behavioral changes.
MBA programs with strong leadership development track, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to go through a few cycles of learning about your own leadership style, receiving feedback from peers and applying desired behavioral improvements in experiential exercises throughout the program.
This is not to undermine the importance of quantitative skills and expert knowledge – these are essential and an absolute minimum for landing a good job, yet research shows they are not sufficient anymore. BSL’s study conducted in 2014 and including interviews with 25 multinational corporations in Switzerland shows that above everything else, employers look for candidates who have “the right attitude”, outstanding communication skills and the ability to adapt and be flexible. So even though there are a lot of skillful and ambitious professionals out there, it seems that executives with strong interpersonal skills, refined leadership characteristics and the ability to drive results with and through others are still a scarce resource.
Leadership courses vary tremendously from one business school to another, so it’s also important to examine how the program embeds the development of soft skills. Merely looking at the curriculum won’t necessarily give you all answers. At Business School Lausanne, for example, the “teaching” of interpersonal skills takes places in two ways – on one hand, there are a number of dedicated leadership courses on offer, and, on the other hand, the development of such skills is incorporated in the program design as such. “To encourage our MBA participants’ ability to adapt to changes effectively, we do a special class arrangement where students don’t have classes with the same people all the time – instead, we mix different MBA streams, so there’s an ongoing process of learning how to work with different personalities,” explains BSL’s Dean Dr. Katrin Muff. “It keeps them on the edge and requires them to adapt to the class dynamics each time,” Dr. Muff explains how that relates to the development of certain competencies which the school considers essential.
So here is a list of questions to help your decision making:
- How important is the leadership development component for my choice of an MBA program? What percentage of the program should it make for?
- What interpersonal skills do I want to work on? Are these included in the MBA program I am considering? In what ways (how are they taught)?
- Is the program curriculum balanced in including analytical and quantitative courses vs leadership and interpersonal skills training?
- What is the feedback of current students and alumni about their experience in the leadership development courses?
Valuable and globally recognized credential to your CV
The MBA has built its own strong reputation and stands for standardized general management education. Its value is recognized by employers around the world as it indicates a holistic understanding of business, commitment to professionalism in the field of management and a specific skill set including the ability to work effectively with others, coping with changes, sharp analytical thinking, problem solving and stress management.
Due to the standardized curricula of MBA programs and their labor-intense nature, the degree signifies high professional standards, dedication and ambition in addition to one’s work experience. As a result, earning an MBA will add a widely-recognized top credential to your CV and will help you sell your profile better in the job market. An MBA typically increases one’s salary potential and this is confirmed by BSL’s MBA graduates who indicate an average of 80% of salary increase two years after graduation (see Placement Report 2013). In addition, 40% of them confirm they have received better job opportunities and 60% admit having enhanced their work performance as a result of the MBA education.
The special advantage of an MBA is not just the higher remuneration package that can be expected, but also the access to better jobs in a geographical region of your choice.
These benefits should not be taken for granted, of course. An MBA degree on your CV will surely send a strong signal to the market place, but the MBA on its own is surely not enough to “upgrade” your job title – it must be backed up by a solid professional experience, a track record of achievements, and a demonstration of relevant interpersonal skills. In addition, the credibility of your degree may well depend on the reputation of the school and sometimes even on the choice of study destination. Despite the global recognition of the MBA in general, some markets (countries or industries) could also be more skeptical about its advantages.
Hence here is a list of questions to consider:
- How is the MBA degree perceived in the market, industry and country where I seek to work in the future?
- What is the local and international reputation of the school I am considering?
- What rankings is the school present in? What indicators do these rankings measure?
- What do alumni say about their career advancement after the MBA? How did the program help them move forward in their professional development?
- What is the reputation of the country I am considering for my studies? Is it known for high quality education standards?
Increased possibility to make a career shift
An MBA can indeed facilitate a career change, to a certain extend. While it may be difficult to jump to something completely different from what you’ve been doing so far, say move from Finance to HR, the degree does make the transition to other functions and industries smoother.
Many employers will take an MBA degree in lieu of experience and this can help you to advance more quickly in a different field. For instance, a huge number of MBA graduates tend to switch to management consulting – mostly because it is a good fit for professionals from a wide variety of industries and fields of expertise and it also offers attractive opportunities in the global job market.
Statistically, 64% percent of MBAs who graduated in 2012 entered a new industry, up from 55 % in 2011 and 52 % in 2010, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the GMAT exam. At Business School Lausanne, approximately 60% of MBA graduates report that they have been able to change their business function, industry of business or both within two years of graduation. Obviously, this would be more difficult the longer you wait after MBA graduation.
Here’s what you can expect from an MBA when it comes to career change:
- It gives you the time and framework to reflect on what you want to do next and how to get there – most business schools offer career related courses which provide an opportunity to undergo various personality and self-assessment tests, explore your unique strengths and professional interests, and learn about different career avenues from your peers
- It offers credibility to your profile – with an MBA credential on your CV, you increase your chances to get noticed by hiring managers for roles where you may otherwise not be considered
- It provides you with a network to help you land that new job – your fellow peers will have information about other companies, industries and professions and this can be a powerful resource in finding new career paths. MBA graduates often land exciting new opportunities as a result of a peer recommendation or contact referral.
Do you need an MBA to change careers? Not necessarily. An MBA is not required or relevant for many jobs and that will well depend on the sector you wish to work in. You might also want to consider aligning your new interests with your past experiences and ensure you’ve got a strong set of transferable skills to make the change happen. You may want to do one step at a time too – for example, if you have been working in finance and want to move to marketing, you could start by taking a finance job in a FMCG company.
Here some questions to consider:
- What skills have I developed in my career until now that might be relevant?
- What career change support can I receive in the school I am considering?
- What is the profile of MBA students in the program? Am I likely to meet professionals who have experience and network in the industry of my choice?
- Are there alumni with similar career paths I can speak to?
- What additional competencies do I have to develop to pursue a new job? Are these covered in the MBA program?
Strong add-on to your non-business background
The MBA emerged in the early 20th century in the US with the original intention to introduce engineers to the various core aspects of business management and help them run companies at a strategic level. Ever since, the MBA degree has kept, if not increased, its attractiveness to professionals with non-business background including IT, engineering, architecture, biology, chemistry, law, health care, liberal arts, and social studies.
The reality is that today, more than ever before, organizations in every sector need leaders whose expertise reaches beyond specific subject knowledge. Companies running hi-tech innovations, for example, need managers who not only have the necessary technical background (there’s no dispute this is essential), but are also able to tackle larger and more abstract strategic problems.
Specialists who want to step more into the business side of things will find it helpful to have a) an understanding of business and management including cost estimation, forecasting, supply chain management, product development, marketing, HR management, and strategy; and b) diffuse skills such as leadership, team management, driving a cross-cultural and diverse workforce, conflict solving, negotiation, and decision making.
In simple words, what an MBA degree can do for you is to top up your field expertise with management knowledge and skills that will help you translate this expertise into running a business. While it would be wrong to conclude that an MBA is a necessity for engineers to succeed in business, we can confidently say that combining an undergraduate technical background with a versatile graduate degree in general management such as the MBA opens the door to upper management positions as well as broader career choices.
It’s important to note that it’s not just IT specialists and engineers who benefit from an MBA education. If you have set your heart on working in the non-profit, government or NGO sector, you might not think of an MBA degree. However, the truth is that bringing in that business training and management skills can make a real difference in those particular organizations. It is these institutions that often suffer the most from the lack of best case management practices, business acumen, and leadership competencies and empowerment. Therefore obtaining an MBA will likely make your profile stand out and increase your access to more exciting and challenging job opportunities.
Here is a list of questions to reflect on:
- What are my next career goals?
- What skillset is required for my next career steps?
- How will I differentiate myself in the field I’ve chosen?
- Do you plan to run your own business one day?
- What qualifications and competences does my supervisor have that I don’t? What type of training, degree or experience could help me develop in these areas?
- What were the education choices made by leaders in my industry and field?
- How would an MBA degree enhance my professional development?
- How is having an MBA education perceived in my career field?
Access to life-long learning and a global alumni network
An MBA degree comes along with an access to life-long learning opportunities provided by the school as well as a membership to a global alumni network with no expiry date. The latter is in fact one of the major motivation triggers for MBA candidates who see the immediate benefits of a growing community of fellow peers and former students.
Sharing the intense learning experience of an MBA makes for lasting friendships and a sense of community whose members willingly support each other through job recommendations, partnership building, new client acquisition, sponsorship of start-up projects, and professional advice. In addition, if you seek to develop a global mindset or work in different countries, the international contacts obtained in the MBA program can be invaluable for your personal and professional growth.
When choosing your MBA, you might want to consider the quality of its network too, in addition to other decision making factors. Typically, big schools like INSEAD, for example, offer a large network of professional contacts around the globe which makes it easier to access job opportunities in different geographical locations. Smaller schools like BSL, on the other hand, nurture a sense of loyalty to a relatively small but engaged community of alumni who are ready to reach out and help their peers.
The success and achievements of previous generations of graduates are one indicator which speaks of the quality of the network; another important sign is the caliber and diversity of your classmates who’ll be the next alumni as well as the direction the school is taking in attracting and recruiting future candidates.
The access to life-long learning opportunities is another strong secondary benefit of an MBA degree. As the nature of business schools is to bring in cutting-edge management knowledge and practice, alumni take advantage of the portfolio of learning opportunities made available to them via guest lectures, executive training seminars, webinars, podcasts, and conferences.
Here is a list of questions to ask yourself:
- How big and engaged is the alumni community of the school I am considering for my studies?
- What do alumni say about the school and its MBA program? Did it help them in their career development? How?
- What information do the graduate placement statistics reveal?
- What learning opportunities are available to alumni of the school?
- In what ways does the school support the alumni network and its members?
- What are the stories of success and achievement of the alumni?
To sum up, an MBA can open up new avenues and bring exciting opportunities to your career life, yet it comes at a certain cost. Is it worth the investment in time and money? – it depends. What is important is that you make an informed decision and are clear about what you can expect.
Denitsa Marinova, BSL Marketing Coordinator