Should You Get an MBA?

Should You Get an MBA? At least once a month an ambitious and hard-working person in their 20s asks me, “Should I get an MBA?” I earned my MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 2000, and since 2007 I’ve been an Instructor and an internal coach back at the GSB, helping hundreds of students develop their leadership and interpersonal skills. Here’s how I respond to those inquiries. First, it’s critical to determine whether your expectations for an MBA are aligned with what the degree will likely do for you. MBA programs offer three different types of benefits, all of which vary tremendously from one school to another.

1. Practical leadership and management skills. Management education has changed significantly over the last few decades. Previously it focused on quantitative analysis in areas such as finance and operations, with little emphasis on other aspects of organizational life. As a result MBAs were often seen as bean-counters myopically focused on data and out of touch with the challenges managers face in the real world.

MBA programs responded by expanding their offerings in areas such as strategy, organizational behavior and leadership. B-school curricula are still intensely quantitative, but as Stanford Dean Garth Saloner told McKinsey, “The [quantitative] skills of finance and supply chain management and accounting and so on, I think those have become more standardized in management education, have become kind of what you think of as a hygiene factor: Everybody ought to know this.”

Business schools have realized that it’s not sufficient to provide quantitative and analytical training, because within a few years of leaving school (or even immediately upon graduation) their alumni will add value more through their ability to lead and manage others than through their talents as individual contributors. And effectiveness in these more senior roles requires an entirely different interpersonal skill set. Saloner goes on to note that, “the softer skill sets, the real leadership, the ability to work with others and through others, to execute, that is still in very scarce supply.”

But the ability to provide quality training in these areas is unevenly distributed across MBA programs. The best schools have made leadership and interpersonal skills a high priority—Stanford now offers twelve sections of Interpersonal Dynamics to more than 400 students each year, making this labor-intensive course our most popular elective. Second-tier schools are making an effort to catch up, but high-caliber programs in these fields are difficult to establish . Harvard’s Bill George has said, “I don’t think you can teach leadership, I think you can learn about it” through experiential activities that bring students together to help them understand their strengths and limitations, provide feedback and promote self-awareness, and these activities require a very different approach from traditional lecture methods.

I’m not suggesting that the quantitative and technical skills that an MBA provides aren’t useful—they absolutely are. But they’re also increasingly available through other venues that individuals can access on their own at a much lower cost. The special advantage of an MBA program is the opportunity to develop leadership and interpersonal skills with a group of peers in a sequence of experiential courses informed by current research. So ask yourself:

Do the MBA programs I’m considering provide practical leadership and management training?
How well-established are these courses? How much support do they have from the school? How much support do they have from the surrounding community?
What do alumni say about their experiences in these courses? How have they benefited from this training?
And what alternative means are available to me to develop these practical skills?

2. A credential that sends a signal to the marketplace. No career paths absolutely require an MBA, —it’s an optional degree and is nothing like a JD, an MD or the other credentials that professions such as law and medicine make mandatory. There are many senior people in general management roles, in consulting and even in financial services who don’t have an MBA—so don’t assume that the credential will necessarily serve a meaningful purpose in your chosen field.

As a coach I have two different “markets”—my students at Stanford and my private clients, who are primarily senior leaders, and in both settings my degree sends a useful signal. New students feel more comfortable knowing that I’ve been in their shoes (albeit 15 years ago), and prospective clients trust that I understand the complexities of their world and the challenges they face.

But it’s not a given that an MBA will have this effect. In my first job after business school I interacted with a very diverse range of communities, and while I never misled anyone about the fact that I had an MBA, I didn’t advertise it either. I knew that some people in my field had negative impressions of MBAs, and I needed a chance to prove myself as an individual before being stereotyped. My particular version of this experience may have been unusual, but by no means is it unique—there are many fields and organizations in which MBAs are viewed with skepticism and even disdain.

In addition, the nature of the signal being sent depends on the specific MBA program’s reputation, and this is not simply a matter of prestige. Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton routinely top lists of U.S. business schools, but they also have a reputation for entitlement and arrogance. While some firms seek out graduates from elite schools, others avoid them out of a concern that they will be difficult to work with and disruptive to the established culture. So ask yourself:

What market am I in now? What markets might I seek to enter in the future?
Who’s interested in my services? How might this change if I had an MBA?
How are MBAs perceived in these markets? What signals does an MBA send in these markets? What stereotypes (both positive and negative) might I face as an MBA?
What is the specific reputation of the MBA programs I’m considering? How are these schools and their alumni viewed within my desired markets?
And what alternative means are available to me to send the signals I desire to communicate?

3. Membership in a learning community and access to an alumni network. Business school emphasizes working in groups, and MBA students often learn as much from their peers as they do from faculty, so it’s important to consider who you’ll be working alongside for two years. Those same people will become your fellow alumni, and access to that network is one of the most valuable benefits an MBA program can offer.

Of course, alumni networks aren’t created equal. Larger MBA programs yield larger networks. Certain networks are concentrated in specific geographic areas or in specific industries. And some B-school experiences create networks that are particularly active sources of mutual support.

I’ve benefited tremendously from the support of my fellow GSB alumni during two major professional transitions. In my job search after graduation and later when I began exploring executive coaching as a career path, other Stanford alumni were extraordinarily generous with their time and insights, and there’s no way I could have succeeded without their help.

All this said, there’s a misperception about the importance of socializing in business school as a means of cultivating these ties. To be sure, my students devote a substantial amount of time and energy to elaborate social activities, and I often find myself amused at the lengths to which they go to entertain themselves. However, while it’s true that I’m middle-aged and boring, and a quiet night at home is my idea of a good time, I was pretty boring even as a student, and I didn’t spend much time at parties or other social events.

But I didn’t need to in order to benefit from the GSB network—the school’s relatively small size and communal culture help ensure that graduates feel a sense of obligation to help fellow alumni. And the fact that I can’t pay back the many people who helped me is motivation to “pay it forward” by doing as much as I can to support recent alumni seeking help from me. So ask yourself:

What do I know about the students at the MBA programs I’m considering? Are they like-minded peers? Do I see myself learning alongside them?
What do I know about the alumni networks of these programs? How active are they? Are they concentrated in geographic areas and professional fields of interest to me?
What support does a school provide to its alumni network and to individual alumni? Do alumni return frequently to participate in events and activities at the school?
One final point on diversity: I have no doubt that my experience in business school was made substantially easier by the fact that I’m a straight, white, American man with an Ivy League undergraduate degree. Even as MBA programs have sought to attract more diverse student populations in recent years, B-schools are still disproportionately filled with people like me. And even at Stanford, which prides itself on its inclusiveness, I know that women, gays and lesbians, people of color, students from outside the U.S., and non-native English speakers can feel isolated in business school and find the MBA experience more difficult and stressful. I hope to encourage people from a wide range of backgrounds to consider business school as an option, and it feels important to acknowledge this current state of affairs if anything is to change.

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