The link between an MBA and successful managers

MBA Podcaster interviews with:

  • George Atkinson, Senior Client Partner for Korn/Ferry International
  • Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University
  • Penelope Trunk, Author of “Brazen Careerist: The New Rules For Success”
  • Lili Yeo, Recent IMD MBA graduate and account director of Ziba Design

You’ve got your eye on becoming a manager and you’re pouring time and money into a MBA programme or you’re considering it and you’re wondering if that’s a good move. Do business schools prepare good managers? If you ask experts in the field you’ll hear strong opinions on whether a MBA successfully prepares people to become successful managers.

Let’s pose the key question to Professor Henry Mintzberg; do business schools prepare good managers?

“No. No. Verysimply, no. I think they could if theywoke up to sort of other ways of doingthings. They’re fine for learning the business functions like marketing and finance and all that, but they do not train managers.”

That is a very interesting and somewhat daunting concept I would think for some MBA students who pour thousands of dollars into an education. With that said, what kind of advice do you have for students or potential students?

“I think peopleshould earn their managerial stripes,they shouldprove that they are capableof managing by joining an organizationbeing selected to manage andthen get into managerial jobs and learnit in the only way that you really canlearn it, initially which ison the job,on the ground. Because the way, tryingto teach management to somebodywho hasnevermanaged is trying toteach swimming to someone who hasnever been in the water. You knowthetheory is fine but it doesn’t prepareyou for what is coming.”

A totally different point of view from George Atkinson with Korn/Ferry International. Do you think business schools prepare good managers?

“Yes, I think they do and I thinkit’s one element of manythat fall intowhat makes a good manager. I think alot of business schools do a wonderfuljob atgiving them the tools toessentially ask the right questions whenit comes to maybe beyond theirfunctionalarea of expertise, what they needto ask in areas that don’t typically fallin their daily work. But on that levelyes, and I think what we’ re readingabout a lot today are do businessschoolsprepare good leaders andmaybe that is a broader question butcertainly not from an I would use arecruiter as a typical requirement inmy mind to be a good manager butbusiness schools typically dogive themthe right tools to manage effectively.”

Author, Penelope Trunk has another twist on that key question,

“I think thatwhether businessschools prepare goodmanagers or not is actually secondaryto whether it’s worth it to spend theamount of money that business schoolsare asking for in exchange for thatpreparation. So I meanthere are a lotof ways to learn how to be a good managerand business school is a prettypriceyoption. Maybe another way tolook at it is do youneed that degree forwhat you’re goingto do after businessschool and a lot oftimes people thinkgoing to business school is somethingthat you do to kind of open up a lot ofoptions for yourself if you’re not reallysure what to do. But the loans thatyouare going to take out to go to businessschool actually start shutting doors foryou because youcan’t always take highenough paying jobs to pay off the loansafterward. So you’re much better offfiguring out exactly what you want todo and then looking at the people whoare doing that andseeing if they allneeded business degrees to do it. Andif the answer is yes then it is worth itto go to business school.”

Lili Yeo did go to business school and now with her MBA presents yet another view of whether one must get a MBA in preparation for becoming an excellent leader.

“To be a good manager it’sreallyjust at the heart, you know beinga good person and being able to leadother people. A leader isoften somebodywho people are willing to follow.So all of that is with respect and withtime and people truly believing you areafter their best interest. Does one needa MBA for that? That is way too big ofa question, I think. What I would sayis that at least for the MBA programmethat I went through; it made me lookinside and see who I am and how I lead.I think that is a large part of the singlebiggest benefit that I received inbusiness school with respect to meleading organisationsand teams goingforward.”

A study from Egon Center seems to support your position, Professor Mintzberg. It says that less than 20% of executives in the US, the UK and France and Germany believe that the MBA helps prepare managers for the real world. That falls in concert with what you’re saying. George Atkinson, as a recruiter what do you think of the Egon Center study?

“I think that’s probablycoming fromthe factthat a lot of people have ahard time looking at their managersand tying the MBA to their successandtheir ability to prepare them for thereal world. Many folks in the industrytoday that have the MBA are successfulseemingly to those senior leadersout there for their experience probablysince they got the MBA. It’s hardto really tie that back. So I’m not surprisedthat the statistic is low, in factthey say many of the people that aresaying the MBA is critical to preparingsomeone for successprobably are moreclosely tied to what is going on in theMBA programmes today and have investedinterest in that. But most people don’t.Most people are consumed with theircompanies and whatthey are doingday-to-day in their jobs and they justdon’t, it’s just not top of mind how theMBA prepares that person longer term.”

Lili Yeo, a 2006 MBA graduate, what do you think of this study that says students aren’t really prepared by MBA schools to be good managers.

“My experiencehas been that MBA school oftenteaches you at this high level aboutwhat a CEO might think about the decisionsthat are important and stickingto them. So when you come back tothe real world, and the real job, manypeople don’ t actually value the MBAnearly as much anymore because thereare so many different types of MBAscan get. So there is a lot less standardevaluation, much different than whatsay a MD for a doctor in that to sayhow much ability does a MBA reallybring to the table.” Lili adds that it is a humbling experience to return to a world that doesn’t seem to value a MBA as much as you do.

The professor has a compatible view,

“What we’re doing is creating a hubris.We’re creating a kindof an arrogancewhere people who have never managedanything or barely managed anythingwalk out of the classroom andthink they are already ready to orderpeople around or manage other peoplebecause they sat still in the classroomfor two years . It doesn’ t make anysense.”

George, you’re saying that success in the business world depends largely on the candidate’s level of emotional intelligence. Is that true?

“I think it is, butagain that answer isn’t going toabsolute, it’s gotto be both sides ofthe coin. I mean someone needs thebasic tools to know how to assess aPNL who knows something aboutfinancing, time value of money, knowshow to market a brand, knows how toassess a sales force, get into new markets,knows a little bit about international business, organisationaldevelopment. These are all things thatyou have to come out of getting a MBAwith some exposure to. Again it goesback to knowing how to ask the rightquestions. However, I do think that thesofter skills and leadership skills thatare being offered in specific courseworkmore and more is going to becomemore critical but again it goes back tothe notion of the pool of people andthe method by which you are learning,some being maybe more team basedthan others, maybe some being morevirtual and that’s okay. But it’s theprocess that I think creates the rightkind of leader, not just kind of the textbooks.”

Advice Penelope?

“Be honest wi thyourself about what you want andwhat you have to offer, whereyourstrengths are and worry about that.Don’t worry about what used to bethe prestigious, powerful thing to dojust go with what you need to do forthis life.”Professor, what kind of advicewouldyou give to students at this point asfar as getting an MBA, not getting aMBA if they really,really want to bemanagers and not accountants andthat kind of thing? “Go work and getinto a managerial job and learn whatmanaging is about and then find aprogramme like ours and like someofthem in the UK that really focus onhow managers learn.”

Lili, what is your advice?

“For thosethat are getting their MBA make surethat you constantly look atyourexpectations and refine them and talkto both people in the schools and outof the school , pre and post their MBAto really get a much more realisticview and to calibrate your expectations, pretty routinely. For those whoare going to be coming out , I wouldcertainly advice that have a healthyamount, as much as confidence as wecan get coming out of business schoolwhich is fantastic alsohave a healthyamount and dose of humility and anattitude of learning, it will definitelyset thecareer a lot , I think in manyways a lot more successfully goingforward in the integration process in your organisation. ”