Do you need an MBA?

For upwardly mobile executives, the MBA opens doors to career advancement


by Elizabeth Seymour

“Gone are the days when you start working for a company out of school and stay until you retire,” says Maury Kalnitz, executive director of the Executive MBA Council in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., USA. “The average person will have eight or nine jobs before retirement.” As you continue to reach for the brass ring, a few career switches may, in fact, be necessary, as management positions at other companies open while your current situation remains stagnant. However, an increasing number of those positions require an advanced degree—in particular, an MBA.

“Many project managers have their current positions because of their technical expertise,” says Dawn Brennan, MBA and senior project manager in the Office of Project Management for the State of Michigan. In order to progress to a more executive level, project managers may require the business knowledge and training obtained from an MBA. “[An MBA] provides a project manager with additional opportunities for advancement, such as managing larger or more complex projects,” Brennan adds.

The degree is valuable to companies, too, because it gives employees the skills to be more adaptive. “People are more interested in educating their staff, perhaps because projects are failing so often,” says Tom Block, professor at the University of Management and Technology in Arlington, Va., USA, and president of Block and Associates, a Fairfax, Va., USA-based consulting firm. Kalnitz agrees, saying, “More and more companies are realizing that [earning] an MBA is an outstanding training ground for rising executives. It gives them a broader perspective on how entities work.”

This is true around the globe. In its 2000 rankings, BusinessWeek launched its first-ever rankings of non-U.S. schools in response to increasing demand throughout Europe and beyond for MBA-trained executives. Much of this growth is due to the spread of deregulation and U.S.-style, market-based business practices.

Return on Investment

Whether funded by the individual or sponsored by the employer, an MBA is a substantial investment of up to $100,000, warranting a close examination of the intellectual and monetary gains. Financially, the degree affords an advantage. According to Dan Nagy, associate dean at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in Durham, N.C., USA, the average student comes to the program earning a base salary of $49,000 and leaves making $90,000 plus bonus. Kalnitz adds that those with MBAs typically experience accelerated career growth within five years—and substantially faster than their non-MBA counterparts.

Dollars aside, the knowledge is valuable too. “The courses required for an MBA program definitely complement the skills required for good project management and give the project manager an advantage,” Brennan says.

She directly applies the subjects studied in business school to project management skills. “MBA courses add to the technical expertise by showing project managers how to understand project financial statements (accounting); learn about the cost of money and how to leverage project purchases to minimize the cost of the project (finance); see how their project fits into the company's organizational strategy (organizational theory); find new ways for the project product to earn revenue (customer diversification, product revisions, deliverables, marketing); and understand the legal ramifications of project decisions (law).”


The Commitment

The timeline for an MBA ranges from two years to three years, depending on whether students attend full or part time. If possible, Block advises pursuing the degree full time. “It's tough to do it while working, because project management is more than a full-time job,” he explains. “[Attending full time] allowed me the freedom to pursue my own interests besides just the curriculum.”

For many, however, the most appealing option is the executive MBA, in which a company sponsors an employee's education because it has identified him or her as a worthwhile investment. “The executive MBA allows the company to retain the employee and give him or her the skills to move into other roles and be more adaptive,” Nagy says. In exchange for this sponsorship, the employee is expected to remain loyal.

Typical executive MBA candidates are slightly older, with an average age of 34, compared to the average of 28 for most daytime program students.

Most executive MBA programs require weekend classes over the course of 19 to 20 months, although distance learning has replaced some of these classroom requirements. In addition, most programs mandate one or more weeks in residence, which may occur around the globe. For some students, this means spending vacation time to attend school, while others may be given time off by their companies.


Typical executive MBA candidates are slightly older, with an average age of 34, compared to the average of 28 for most daytime program students.


The Competitive Edge

In the end, says Nagy, the MBA opens a lot of doors. “[The degree] gives the opportunity to change careers. If you wanted to make those changes without a degree, it would be tough.” Brandt Allen, associate dean at the Darden School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., USA, concurs. “We can't say you must have an MBA to get a position.” On the other hand, he says, “MBA students coming out of the best schools have a real advantage over just about anybody else.”

While Allen doesn't say that the degree fast tracks a career, “It does get you off to a fast start. You must prove to your employer that you really are a fast-track person. But the superior education that people get helps them as their careers progress.”


What's in a Name?

Every year, schools and prospective students eagerly await the graduate school rankings issues of publications such as BusinessWeek and US News & World Report. Those schools ranking in the top 20 are often viewed as the only ones worth the investment. However, the publications themselves caution readers that these rankings should be used as a guide, not a decision-maker. In the end, your particular interests and needs should drive your choice.

One of the most important considerations for prospective students is placement, and that often has a direct correlation to the schools’ rankings.Matt Kelley, a recent graduate from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, Ill., USA, says that when he applied to schools, he only considered those in the top tier. Employers in the industry he sought recruited heavily at those top schools. “Knowing that I would need a job when I graduated to pay off the student loans and support myself, I wanted to go to a school that positioned me best for the job I wanted,” he explains. However, he adds, “I have worked with MBAs who went to non-‘top tier‘ schools, and they have convinced me that the quality of education is not significantly different. The biggest difference they report is that they had to work harder and more independently to get the jobs they wanted.”

Tom Block, MBA, professor at the University of Management and Technology in Arlington, Va., USA, advises asking, “Are you looking for ego, or are you there to learn?” The bottom line should be an education that will enhance your skills and knowledge.

In 2000, BusinessWeek's top three picks were Pennsylvania (Wharton); Northwestern (Kellogg); and Harvard, while US News & World Report ranked Stanford, Harvard and Northwestern as its top three (based on 2000 statistics). BusinessWeek ranked INSEAD (France and Singapore) as its top global pick.

PM Network September 2001



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