Set your heart on an MBA? Philip Delves Broughton suggests a radical alternative: don t bother
Business schools have long sold the promise that, like an F1 driver zipping into the pits for fresh tyres, it just takes a short hiatus on an MBA programme and you will come roaring back into the career race primed to win. After all, it signals to companies that you were good enough to be accepted by a decent business school (so must be good enough for them); it plugs you into a network of fellow MBAs; and, to a much lesser extent, there s the actual classroom education. Why not just pay the bill, sign here and reap the rewards?
The problem is that these days it doesn t work like that. Rather, more and more students are finding the promise of business schools to be hollow. The return on investment on an MBA has gone the way of Greek public debt. If you have a decent job in your mid- to late- 20s, unless you have the backing of a corporate sponsor, leaving it to get an MBA is a higher risk than ever. If you are getting good business experience already, the best strategy is to keep on getting it, thereby making yourself ever more useful rather than groping for the evanescent brass rings of business school.
Business schools argue that a recession is the best time to invest in oneself. What they won t say is that they also need your money. There are business academics right now panting for your cheque. They need it to pad their sinecures and fund their threadbare research. There is surely no more oxymoronic profession than the tenured business-school professor, and yet these job-squatting apostles of the free market are rife and desperate. Potential students should take note: if taking a professional risk were as marvellous as they say, why do these role models so assiduously avoid it?
Harvard Business School recently chose a new dean, Nitin Nohria, an expert in ethics and leadership. He was asked by Bloomberg Businessweek if he had watched the Congressional hearings on Goldman Sachs. He replied: “The events in the financial sector are something that we have watched closely at Harvard Business School. We teach by the case method, and one of the things we ll do through this experience is study these cases deeply as information is revealed over time so we can understand what happened at all these financial firms. I m sure that at some point we ll write cases about Goldman Sachs because that s how we learn.” He could have stood up for Goldman or criticised it. Instead he punted on one of the singular business issues of our time. It is indicative of the cringing attitude of business schools before the business world they purport to study.
When you look at today s most evolved business organisms, it is obvious that an MBA is not required for business success. Apple, which recently usurped Microsoft as the world s largest technology firm (by market capitalisation), has hardly any MBAs among its top ranks. Most of the world s top hedge funds prefer seasoned traders, engineers and mathematicians, people with insight and programming skills, to MBAs brandishing spreadsheets, the latest two-by-twos and the guilt induced by some watery ethics course.
In the BRIC economies, one sees fortunes being made in the robust manner of the 19th-century American robber barons, with scarcely a nod to the niceties of MBA programmes. The cute stratagems and frameworks taught at business schools become quickly redundant in the hurly-burly of economic change. I ve often wondered what Li Ka-Shing of Hong Kong or Stanely Ho of Macao, or Rupert Murdoch, for that matter, would make of an MBA programme. They would probably see it for what it is: a business opportunity. And as such, they would focus on the value of investing in it.
They would look at the high cost, and note the tables which show that financial rewards are not evenly distributed among MBAs but tilt heavily to those from the very top programmes who tend to go into finance and consulting. Successful entrepreneurs are as rare among MBAs as they are in the general population.
They would think to themselves that business is fundamentally about two things, innovating and selling, and that most MBA programmes teach neither. They might wonder about the realities of the MBA network. There is no point acquiring a global network of randomly assembled business students if you just want to work in your home town. Also, they will recall that the most effective way to build a network is not to go to school, but to be successful. That way you will have all the MBA friends you could ever want.
They might even meet a few business academics and wonder. Then they would take their application and do with it what most potential applicants should: toss it away.
Philip Delves Broughton is the author of “What They Teach you at Harvard Business School” (Viking) and a Harvard MBA
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