Saturday, June 6, 2009

The MBA and Corporate America

OK, slow early traffic combined with a bit of a weak first topic has limited the early banter. So, let's try something a bit more juicy, shall we?

I'd like to address the post-graduate degree officially titled Masters of Business Administration, and most commonly referred to as the M.B.A.

Disclaimer -- this is most definitely not intended as a slam or knock on those of you who have achieved this degree. In fact, in general I applaud the desire and drive to set aside time in one's life to further their education to grow one's knowledge and ability in a particular field. I have more than a handful of friends and family with M.B.A.s, and hope that they will participate in this discussion without the need to feel defensive, but rather to share their viewpoint on the subject.

This specific topic has simmered in my head for years, really since the day about nine years ago that someone strongly recommended that I get an M.B.A. to help ensure my success in the business world. How could I ever have so innocently thought that one could achieve the same success through their prior education, hard work, on-the-job training, natural ability, and common sense?

What caused me to think of it as a debatable topic for this blog was a conversation I was having with a co-worker last week as he was trying to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on an M.B.A. for himself. What struck me as odd was not that he would consider or even make the decision to go for it, but rather that "where" he chose to get your M.B.A. was relevant.

Please, allow me to clarify "where". I will acknowledge that there is probably a difference between the quality of education at say Harvard University Business School and Wright State University's Soin School of Business in that Harvard's reputation allows it to draw the most talented professors to share their knowledge. Does it immediately stand to reason that a person holding the Harvard degree will be a more successful business-person than the one holding the Soin degree? I think not. Does it mean that they will have a better chance to prove it...indeed, it likely does. Does it mean that one will be able to command a higher salary that the other with no different relevant background to deserve it? Yes, it does.

But, that is not all. The items I describe above have been known by me for many years now...really since graduating college back in 1993. The new revelation that struck me as entirely ridiculous is that certain highly ranked M.B.A. programs hold significantly more prestige in their geographic region, as if the business principals and tools learned at The University of Illinois are somehow more useful in corn belt states than they are east of the Appalachians. Or that a University of Washington degree is optimally effective in the moist cool air of the Pacific Northwest. The last time I checked 2+2 = 4 in every one of the 50 states as well as Puerto Rico AND Guam. Are you serious?

So, to add to the debate, I have heard many times in the past that where you get your M.B.A. should depend on what your career goals with it are. Essentially, getting an M.B.A is buying your way onto a more rapid career path with a higher ceiling, and the more prestigious the school awarding your M.B.A. the more rapid and higher you can climb. Additionally, you will have greater opportunities to network with the "right" people who can lead you to the doors concealing that rapid climbing ladder from most others.

So, in this Land of Opportunity of ours, is this really a level playing field? With the cost of a "Top 20" M.B.A. breathing heavily on the 6-figure range, is this not a system of business that assures the rich getting richer? Isn't the continuance of the belief that hard work alone (possibly even with the assistance of a "low prestige" M.B.A.) will only get you so far in corporate America potentially ignoring a large percentage of the population, and thus many potentially great leaders of American business?

I do not have an M.B.A. I am not currently planning to get an M.B.A. I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Iowa State University. I majored in History (highly underrated degree as it pertains to business & politics, but I will leave that for a later blog topic). I took many classes in Psychology, Economics, Philosophy, and even peppered in some advance math, writing, and photography courses. I went to Benet Academy in Lisle, IL for high school, an excellent and well respected college prep school that taught me well. I consider myself intelligent, well-educated, decisive, well-written, well-spoken, business savvy, and a strong leader. I do not think that I want to be a CEO which is one reason I have chosen not to pursue an M.B.A. at this time, but I do think that I could be a CEO without that top tier M.B.A. -- a good one at that.

So, is it a shame that unless I make that decision I may never even have the opportunity to find out, or is that the way it should be? In order to reach the top, you need to pay your cold cash!

Please talk amongst yourselves...


  1. I agree with you… up to a point.

    I have little respect for the MBA in and of itself. I have worked with several MBA’s (as have you), including those from prestigious schools, and have been disappointed overall with the poor quality of thinking and strategy coming from them. The degree itself is worthless if the person holding it does not have a good “gut” instinct from which to apply it.

    I have more respect for an MBA that has good gut instincts, or has not had their gut instincts educated out of them. Not because they are smarter, but because they may have a few more tools than I to work with and that’s all they have over me.

    That being said, you are correct that in corporate America the MBA is often a requirement for advancement. This is because corporations are as much political organizations as anything else. If you want to play the political game and advance, you will need an MBA to play the game and where the MBA comes from is part of the equation. You are also correct in that it appears to be weighted towards those that can afford it. The rich making sure that the rich keep getting richer. That’s also part of the game.

    But I do disagree with you that you must have an MBA to be successful and advance. That rule only applies to corporate America, an environment in which you are but a cog in a wheel, a tool, and a human “resource”. I have discovered that to be successful is more than simply being promoted or advancing in an organization. It’s about freedom, freedom to do what inspires you, freedom to blaze your own path and be in charge of your own destiny. You don’t need an MBA to do that. All you need is some guts, good ones.

    I would go for the MBA if someone else paid for it. I believe you and I would made excellent MBA’s but we’re neither poor enough to qualify for grants and scholarships, rich enough to easily pay for it out of pocket, or dumb enough to acquire $100,000+ of additional debt. But you are more than qualified as you stand now to blaze your own path and exit the rat race to create your own destiny on your terms. You have good “guts” and an excellent mind. That’s all you really need unless you want to continue playing someone else’s game. Most of what MBA’s learn you’ve already acquired through experience.

    I believe you’ve reached the point, as I have, where you are questioning whether playing the game on someone else’s terms is really going to make you happy and feel self-fulfilled. I believe you and I have greater aspirations, personal aspirations, and a sense of wanting to make a difference in the world that is driving you to question and critically think about the future in store for you.

  2. I think I tend to agree with you. It's great when people want to add to their education with an MBA, but at the same time there is too much emphasis placed on the superficial aspects of the degree. Education really depends on the individual--even between two graduates of Harvard who hold MBAs. They both may have been given the same information...but only one may be innovative enough to truly make a difference with the degree. You can give a person all the tools in the world, and he may still not be able to build a table...on the other hand, you might have someone like MacGyver--give him some twine & a paper clip and he'll construct a zip glider between skyscrapers.