Is That MBA a “Must”?
Recently, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly accomplished the heretofore impossible feat of securing an interview with the elusive Charles Koch. In his Kansas home, Charles sat forward in his chair, his mild bespeckled face framed by a full head of gray hair, wearing a pair of shorts necessitated by the neon green and orange cast that extended from his left knee to his ankle. His mild persona may belie the steely ambition of a multibillionaire, but this particular interview certainly didn’t paint a picture of intimidating power. He seemed more akin to John Walton leaving his sawmill to have a chat before suppertime.
Amid a discussion of his upbringing and how old fashioned values of hard work and fair play drive his companies and his hiring practices, Megyn asked Charles if he’d hired a lot of the elite MBAs from the likes of Harvard. Charles smiled and said no, noting that the president of one of his companies has a high school diploma while another has an associate degree from a community college. He seemed to imply that an elite MBA degree might get in the way more than it helps.
Well, first let me say that I’m not writing this to diss MBAs. An MBA, pursued through a relevant and rigorous program, at the right time in a career and for the right reasons, can bring great value to the individual and the company. But I do sometimes find myself in the position of talking clients down from an insistence that their open position requires an MBA.
First, let’s dispel a couple of myths:
- Most Fortune 100 CEOs went to Ivy League schools (most, in fact, did not).
- Most Fortune 100 CEOs have an MBA (only 29 do).
Second, let’s ask what the risks are in making an MBA a position requirement:
- An MBA’s higher salary and promotional expectations may not be commensurate to the value added.
- While an MBA shouldn’t automatically trigger a turnover alarm, know that these expectations of salary and growth will be colored by their MBA peers and by the 40,000-foot view of business their case study work has enabled.
- MBAs from the elite schools may have little patience with the timeline of your company’s succession plan, much less their bachelor-degreed boss.
- Why did he or she leave the work force to get an MBA? Sometimes the reasons include an inadequate IQ or EQ, or other issues that led to suboptimal performance and a default to Plan B: “I’ll try it again with an MBA under my belt.”
Third, let’s consider what an MBA can bring to the table that might not be accessible through a more typical career progression:
- Some people find themselves blossoming in an MBA program. Seeing the big picture and trying out their wings in a safe environment can create a metamorphosis for a young professional who may have been stuck in a low-visibility, low-impact job.
- Depending on the company’s organizational structure, it may be virtually impossible for rising stars to gain the exposure and big picture view needed to get into visible and impactful positions. A solid MBA program may be the necessary ingredient to foster that big picture thinking.
- We may not always appreciate the ivory tower jargon our freshly minted MBA exudes in Monday morning staff meetings, but, hey, they can surprise us with some kickers! Two years as a pure business wonk can get the creative juices flowing.
As in most things, it depends. Keeping an open mind and reconsidering the MBA as a “must have” prerequisite is my strong advice.
If you are interviewing an MBA, I suggest you pay careful attention to these issues:
- Match the MBA program with the industry.
Does your position call for a Wharton quant, an Insead globalist, a Harvard consultancy type or someone with a standard case study background?
- Listen to the candidate’s goals, not your preconceived ideas of what an MBA wants.
For example, if social responsibility ignites his or her inner fire, don’t expect management of business analytics at a tire company to be a good fit.
- Think about pace – where does he or she expect to be, and when?
Can this expectation be fulfilled at your company? Perhaps no one in your behemoth of a firm moves up at the pace your candidate expects. Or perhaps the pipeline to the top is just a little too full of rising stars already.
If you think your ideal candidate needs an MBA, you might ask yourself these questions:
- Is an engineering degree perhaps the right formal training for leadership at your company instead?
It depends upon the industry, but consider that 24 of the top Fortune 100 CEOs have engineering undergraduate degrees and no MBA.
- Should I hire an MS instead?
The trend toward getting a specialty master’s degree in supply chain, information systems or marketing analysis, for example, is gaining strength.Partly because most MBA programs require five years of experience before entry into a program, many recent college graduates are opting to get a one-year master’s degree to gain quick entry onto a good career path. Be aware, however, that while the MBA tends to train for general management, the MS graduate may be more limited to functional leadership.
Leadership comes in many flavors and can develop along unforeseeable paths. Rather than screening out candidates without an MBA, let’s open our net to high achievers who, perhaps on paper, might even look like diamonds in the rough. They can polish up pretty nicely…and endure.
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