In an earlier post, we discussed whether an MBA has ever been worth the cost. You can read more about that here.
One of the key motivations for an MBA is that it is a "career accelerator". We operate under the assumption that the CEO ranks are composed entirely of former McKinsey, Bain and Deloitte consultants. But, according to Harvard Business Review, this isn't the truth.
In an article published last year, the authors cite a study (the interestingly named CEO Genome Project) that showed that only 24% of the CEOs studied have "elite MBAs". The underlying hypothesis was that the path to success is to land an elite MBA, climb the ladder and avoid risky moves.
In fact, the chief finding from the study is a profile called a "Sprinter".
Sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top. We found that three types of career catapults were most common among the sprinters. Ninety-seven percent of them undertook at least one of these catapult experiences and close to 50% had at least two.
Hence, it is behavior- and risk- that determines trajectory. For example, 60% of Sprinters took a smaller role at some point in their career or moved to a smaller company for broader responsibilities. The article has a number of interesting case studies about people who took risk or were opportunistic even when trying new things was risky.
One other profile- inheriting a big mess. This is the example most closely aligned with the companies I've worked for. McKesson corporation experienced gross accounting scandal associated with the acquisition of HBOC, resulting in the removal of most of the C-level. The head of the pharmaceutical division and a recent hire, John Hammergren, was promoted to lead the company. During his tenure, the stock went from $14 to $252 (at peak). The lesson was that inheriting a mess and working through it, risking career and reputation, can often be the key to career growth.
My guess is that for every success story, there are dozens where taking risk blows up on people. There is comfort and security in playing it safe. But, for those who are willing to take risk, there may be ample rewards.
Allow me to introduce Drake, an amazing dog who has been our companion for the past 10 years. He was a gentle, sweet and beautiful dog and is the subject of this post. He was put to sleep last Friday; it is that experience that serves as the impetus for this post.
For context, I need to go back a month. My wife and I took our 2 dogs for a walk. At the end of that walk, Drake seemed more tired than normal so we said to each other, "Maybe that's a little bit long for him." After all, he was 12 so it seemed normal that he might be slowing down a bit. However, after a brief rest, Drake stood up and it was clear that something was wrong. He was favoring his right leg and seemed to be in pain.
We let him rest and gave him some aspirin. The following week, we took him to our vet, beginning what became a month of exploration and treatment. Along the way, Drake got the best care from the kindest people. They were thoughtful and considerate of his age, consultative and responsive. Emails got quick responses; phone calls were returned; questions were answered.
We had a couple of moments where we thought things were improving but last week things took a turn for the worse. Recognizing we may need support not available at their clinic, our vets recommended we see a doctor at regional veterinary hospital. We called, discussed our situation and were able to make an appointment for later in the week.
We arrived at 10:45 and were quickly shown to an observation room. The doctor entered shortly thereafter and what followed was amazing:
Newsflash: applications to top MBAs are down by 9%, the fourth straight year of declines. This has led to much hand-wringing and analysis of whether an MBA is still worth it. The way that question is phrased implies that it is common knowledge that an MBA was once worth the investment. I think that's worth a discussion.
I am no educational historian so I will limit my comments to the 20 or so years since I first took the GMAT. Back then, at least for junior officers trained in nuclear engineering, MBAs were considered the fastest route to a career change; in exchange for $80,000 (or so), you could expect a 50%+ increase in salary and a massive recruiting advantage in specific fields, particularly consulting and investment banking.
I hit my first hurdle on my first round of application (full disclosure- I had to apply to Kellogg twice). The feedback was, "The purpose of Kellogg is not to serve as career guidance and career placement for former military officers." This was in response to my application which stated far too clearly that I didn't know how I was going to use my degree. I knew little or nothing about the business world. Other than doing a little bit of personal investing, I knew nothing about markets. I grew up in a family of pastors, so the only education and career path I understood was that of theological training. I thought that the purpose of an MBA was exactly what Kellogg said it wasn't: vocational retraining and recruiting support.
My second awakening was mid-MBA. More often than not, the classes resembled "common sense". Few exceeded what I felt could have been gleaned by reading a series of good articles or a book. When I brought this up to my friends who already had degrees, they sort of smiled, like this was some inside joke. "Then why do an MBA?", I asked. "It's a union card", said one friend in the consulting industry. "You need it to be considered."
It was then that it occurred to me that even by the late 90's, MBA programs were just doing the hard work of screening and vetting candidates for specific industries. Because of the churn in entry-level positions in consulting and investment banking, they needed to replenish their ranks. They had 2 entry-level tracks; undergrad and grad. In many cases, these employees did the same job, but one was paid more than the other and was, therefore, more willing to put up with the lifestyle challenges associated with the job. The MBA programs represented a pool of people who were ideal for this second round: motivated, rested and in debt.
My third surprise was once I got into consulting. I was quite taken aback that the case-work, creativity and teamwork highlighted in business school were entirely missing in real-world consulting. No one was interested in my opinion; they just wanted the results of my analysis. Furthermore, the "messiness" (or what David Epstein calls "wicked" learning environments in his excellent book, Range) of real world problems bore little resemblance to the challenges we were trying to solve. I had never imagined a data file that would exceed Excel's 64,000 rows (yes, that was the limit back then). I just figured clients would hand us clean balance sheets and we would pontificate on how they could do better.
Which brings me to my fourth surprise: people who ran businesses were pretty smart, and few of them had the academic pedigree I had been trained to expect. This especially came home in my 2 stints as an employee in Fortune 500 companies. I worked for really good people, most of whom had achieved far more professionally than I had and didn't come from top MBAs (or even "top undergrads"). True, I could do a few things they couldn't and could write better decks; but, their grasp of the industry, of management, of teams and of what made their business go was tremendous. It made me wonder what I had really accomplished with my education.
Perhaps this reflection is also conditioned on when I finished my MBA. The opportunity for the MBA classes of 2001 and 2002 was highly affected by the collapse of the dot-com era and 9/11. Many struggled to make up for those lost years; many of us have careers that look like random walks across the economic landscape. But I don't think that's the answer. I think that current MBA programs would be better split as continuing education for managers and executives; brief, intense seminars to increase knowledge in specific domains and on specific issues. It would allow managers to apply learnings directly to issues they are facing, a far more practical approach than attempting to apply case studies 20 years after the fact.
But the greater thought is this- we all need to be lifelong learners. Some institutions are introducing the "60-year curriculum" in recognition of the potential length of careers, the broad number of challenges faced over a career, the burden of expense and the likelihood that what I'm doing today is not what I'll be doing in 5 years. This better reflects the needs of people and companies; instead of asking, "Should I go back to school?", many of us will be asking, "What do I want to learn next?"
Perhaps, instead of churning through undergrads and replacing them with MBA grads, consulting firms and investment banks should invest in training and retention. Perhaps the notoriously painful rights of passage of 100 hour weeks and miserable pay could be replaced with less work, more training and a more sustainable career trajectory. Wouldn't that be cheaper and more effective than having to replace and retrain your workforce with higher cost resources? It might undermine many long-held beliefs; it might also be the right thing to do.
So, has an MBA ever been worth it? Many would say, "Yes, it set the course for my career." But wouldn't those same energetic, curious, creative people have developed new paths and new solutions wherever they were planted. I think yes- MBA or not.
Update: some friends from University of the Potomac have some resources to help understand the benefits and costs of an MBA. Check out their thoughts here.
Jim is the CEO of i2g Consulting