MBAs: Mad, Bad or Ambitious?

MBAs are expensive, involve a huge commitment of time and can have a massive impact on the lives of those around you.

For example, they are infamous for putting strain on the strongest of relationships.

So are they worth doing? Will an MBA boost your career prospects or is it just a vanity project?

Cause and effect

As long as it’s relevant to your position or career, any qualification will add value to your CV. But some will add more value than others.

An MBA is intentionally generic and high level. Its aim is to furnish the student with general business skills and develop leadership and strategic qualities.

If you are pushing at the door of an executive or board level position, an MBA may fill a gap in your skill set and improve your chances of promotion. But then again it may not. There is no clear cut evidence to suggest that MBA holders are guaranteed a high-flying career. There is correlation in parts, but causation is unclear.

Recent analysis by the Financial Times showed that 31 percent of the world’s 500 largest listed companies by market capitalisation are led by an MBA graduate. It therefore follows that 69 per cent are not.*

Also, there are no persuasive stats in the UK to suggest that obtaining an MBA leads to an uplift in your salary — either in the short or long term. This is contrary to professional qualifications — CA, CFA, IMC, etc — where pay increases do tend to follow the passing of industry-specific courses.

Return on investment

Do employers look for candidates with MBAs? The short answer is no.

I can recall few if any UK role profiles that stipulated this qualification — not even as a ‘desirable but not essential’. And this is the nub of the matter.

Countless employers — especially in the financial sector — will demand that a suitable applicant holds a CA, FPC, CFA or IMC.

They will also look for the necessary type and duration of experience. But few look for an MBA qualification.

Experience and relevant industry qualifications will always trump an MBA if it’s an either/or scenario. So if you are considering an MBA make sure you have maximised these other areas first.

Your time and energy may be better spent pursuing a ‘connector’ job, a role which will provide you with the necessary industry experience to take your career to the next level.

Or, if you haven’t already passed all your qualifications relevant to your profession, do so. This will represent a better return on investment than an MBA.

If you’ve already done this, you may want to also consider alternatives to the standard MBA. Many institutions run executive leadership or business strategy courses. They are often shorter and more modular in nature, making better use of your time and finances.

And having the likes of Wharton, Henley and Cass Business School on your CV won’t do it any harm.

Consider your motives

If, after all this, you are still set on an MBA, make sure you will be able to put to future employers a positive case for why you chose this option. The circumstances of an MBA are arguably as important as the MBA itself.

More often than not, people do MBAs because they are seeking change. It highlights a desire, an aspiration for positive change. And employers and recruiters will want to know why you decided on such a course.

If you have been overlooked for promotion, reached a glass ceiling or been the victim of a corporate restructure, an MBA can sometimes only reinforce these negative connotations.

If, on the other hand, you are returning to work after several years of bringing up your children and view an MBA as the ideal vehicle to bring you back up to speed with the business world, then this can be viewed very positively.

Similarly, if you were made redundant and used the time and the money to study for an MBA, this too will be looked upon favourably.

Again, the reasons for doing it are just as important as the fact you have done it.

The long game

It may sound as if I’m against MBAs. I’m not. Just because something can’t be easily measured shouldn’t reduce its value. I’m a huge advocate of self-improvement through formal qualifications.

The weakness inherent in an MBA — i.e. its generic nature — is also its strength. It will furnish you with high-level, strategic skills and a broader vision. Depending on your goals and ambitions, an MBA should increase in value as your career progresses.

But as such, it’s a long-term play. My main point is that first there may be smaller, more manageable steps along the way. Ones bringing more immediate, measurable benefits. Why struggle for apples at the top of the tree if lower hanging fruit can be picked first?

Success is not assured

MBAs are neither an easy nor an assured route to achieving your career ambitions.

While it pays dividends to invest in your career, you are likely to get a better return on your time and money if you look at other paths. Think hard about whether there are more direct and relevant routes to boosting your career, i.e. gaining additional experience through a ‘connector’ job or upskilling in the form of qualifications specific to your profession.

An MBA is not the immediate ‘door opener’ that many think it is. Like all the best decisions, weigh up the pros and cons before you take the plunge.

Betsy Williamson, Director, Asset Management, Core-Asset Consulting

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