The right MBA can be career Viagra

A RECENT report from the Institute of Leadership & Management found that many HR professionals were ambivalent about the value of an MBA when recruiting people to leadership positions. When asked how important an MBA was in recruiting senior management, 68 per cent replied “not at all”, or only “slightly”. Some felt that while MBAs are strong on theory, they often did not deliver. A number said that seeing somebody had an MBA “created unrealistic expectations of ability” and others worried that its value was diluted if taken at the wrong stage of a career.

So is an MBA a waste of time? Not at all, according to Kathleen Fitzgerald, a director on the Executive MBA Program for Chicago Booth, which topped the Economist’s 2010 MBA rankings. “In 10 years that I have been involved with MBAs, I have never known anybody say they regretted it,” she says.

The key to making an MBA work for you is to choose the right one, and for the right reasons. Some just want the earnings boost (see chart). But that might not work for all career paths. For example, lots of top private equity people have an MBA but that’s not so true in banking, where learning on the job and getting deals under your belt can be more valuable.

To make your MBA count, you need to do your research, and that’s not just working out whether it will help in the sectors that you are interested in. The first step is deciding which sort of MBA suits you.

On a full-time MBA, Fitzgerald says, the main thing you will get is education, tools and a framework to make you a better manager. But, she warns: “If you are mediocre and think that it will make you a superstar, that’s not going to happen. It’s not career Viagra. You still have to put in the hard work. It’s like learning a language – until you start using it you don’t get it.” Echoing the recruiters in the report, who said that MBAs sometimes have too high an opinion of themselves, she says that you still have to manage your expectations even when you have finished a full-time MBA – and keep working hard.

Then there is the executive MBA. Those who benefit most from this are older people who are focused on one function and want to gain a broader understanding of business. “They have a good idea what their peers are doing but they are not speaking the same language. It is a chance to re-tool and learn about other areas.” With an executive MBA, the network is vital. “You are in school with people who have actually done things and have connections.”

Finally, there is the part-time MBA. There are two reasons that people do this: one, to get a good track record so that they will find it easier to get on to a full-time MBA; and two, because they don’t have the luxury of taking time off. “A part-time MBA is a good way to get a better job in what you are doing, but it’s harder to career-change.”

Daniel Callahan is better placed than most to work out how to make the most of an MBA. He did the full-time MBA at IESE in Barcelona in 2007 and has since set up a business called MBA & Company, which helps to fit MBAs to businesses, and also to help people select the right MBA for them.

He says that the MBA helped him to change career – a politics and French graduate who had worked in media strategy, he learned about venture capital funding, marketing, and how to write a business plan. He says 40 per cent of his cohort were planning to change jobs.

He thinks that the timing is one of the keys to making an MBA count. “If you are paying for it, like I was, then you need to do it at the right time. I had other projects while I was working in my old job and the MBA allowed me to concentrate on them. You have to be in the right frame of mind and have the time to dedicate to it.” He says that the most important thing is to choose the right school, not least because it costs money to apply. “Go to careers fairs, do mock interviews and find the right fit for you.” You should also talk to alumni to work out if you would fit in.

While some managers might say that they do not value MBAs, there are plenty who do. Do not underestimate the importance of the school that you go to, either. Employers tend to respect MBAs from the top schools, largely because of the network they bring with them, and beneath the top few this advantage stops applying.

So it can be worth going for a school that will give you a massive network of alumni, many of whom are keen to recruit others from their old school. Among the biggest are the Spanish business school IESE with 33,000 alumni in over 100 countries. London Business School has 30,000 in 130 countries, while Harvard has over 71,000 in 150 countries. That is a sizeable advantage when looking for a job.

Apart from a vague guarantee of quality, it’s hard to say why MBAs want to employ other MBAs. But they do. Perhaps it all comes down to that much-vaunted management concept of “intangible skills.”

FOUR WAYS TO MAKE YOUR MBA COUNT

1. Go at the right time. Most agree that the best time is your late 20s or early 30s, when you have some management experience. If you are young, a masters in management might be better.

2. Be sure what it will do for you. Many MBAs plan a radical career change. For some careers – such as consultancy – an MBA will help. But if you are a trader, for example, or a banker then it might not do a lot for you. Which is not to say you shouldn’t do one, as long as you…

3. Know the reasons you are doing it. For some, taking an MBA is all about boosting future earnings; others want to learn how to run a business; some turn to the MBA primarily for the intellectual stimulation.

4. Go to the right school. Reputation matters, so if your scores are keeping you out of your top choice, go and re-take the GMAT. Also, study the alumni and the faculty – find out if they are of a high standard. Talk to former students, and go on a visit.