Over the years, I have mentored many people whose opening question was “should I do an MBA?” The real answer to the question is of course “it depends”. But career development is not about fence-sitting. It is about clear thinking and taking some decisive actions, so lets explore this further.
A former IBM colleague in the US Bill Smillie would sometimes interject in a meeting to say “are we asking the right question”. Which is exactly what we should be saying in the case of the MBA question above. Indeed, the MBA choice can only be fully understood if we are sure to explore the right question.
Starting points are different
People approach the MBA issue from many different starting points. Some will have recently completed undergraduate education, and see the MBA as a natural launching point into the world of business. Others may be ten or so years into their careers and see the MBA as an opportunity to re-group and refresh or possibly change direction. Other will approach the issue strongly influenced by the culture of their national business community. For instance, the MBA in the US has long been the popular and in many cases the expected track from college into business careers, whereas the MBA in Europe or Asia has not been as prominent.
The MBA decision is a big one as it may involve significant timeout from an existing career, plus a substantial cost in dollar terms and personal and family commitment.
So notwithstanding the geographic and cultural differences, what are some of the questions to be explored.
1. What can you bring?
The first is about what the person can bring to an MBA programme. Some find this a strange place to begin. What about the nature of a specific course and the reputation of a business school? Yes these are important, but a good MBA is as much about learning from each other as it is about learning from a professor or management guru. You get out of an MBA as much as you put in. What you can bring to the table determines whether you should embark on an MBA in the first place, and indeed which MBA should be undertaken.
A good MBA is about shared learning rather than an experience of being taught. This can be viewed in the context of that wonderful thought from Benjamin Franklin “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
2. How will your specific needs be addressed?
The second is about how the MBA may help the person address his or her needs. Is it about a career change or about career enhancement in specific areas? How does the MBA really address these points, and why? Someone said to me once that they wanted to embark on a MBA to enhance their skills in marketing. I responded by asking why the MBA would help in that regard. We then engaged in a full and frank discussion, not so much about the MBA, but rather about the perceived need to enhance the skills in marketing. We finally agreed that the marketing need could be better addressed through different roles back in their organization. But what we did agree was that the MBA would provide a different set of thinking around business problems. One example might be how marketing can provide a better role in delivering value to the business, and help to re-shape its business model.
A good MBA will provide an excellent set of experiences about the process of solving a problem as distinct from learning specific functional techniques. For example, in statistics, there are plenty of ways of learning how to calculate a standard deviation. But in a MBA context, the point is not how to do the calculation, but rather how to interpret the results in a particular business context, what it means for the business and what decisions need to be considered from the data.
3. How will the MBA make you different?
The third and final key question is to have an understanding of what broader success might look like after the program is completed. This needs to go beyond the warm and fuzzy feeling upon graduation, and monetary opportunities that may arise. It needs to take into account the new capabilities that are acquired, and how people will be different, both personally and in a business sense. This is akin to the personal business case for doing an MBA. What will be different after your significant investment of time and money into the MBA? Will you be a better person and one with enhanced capability to grow your career both professionally and personally?
So back to the original question, “should I do an MBA?” For many people, the answer is definitely yes, and significant benefit can be gained in many dimensions. For others, it may be a different outcome. But the real point here is not so much a “yes” or “no” position, but rather the level of engagement in a rigorous decision-making and questioning process. Only then will we have the right answer.