Is an MBA Your Growth Path? What About Alternatives?

Full disclosure:  I have an MBA in international business and I’ve run my own business for fifteen years.  I’m throwing stones at my own glass house.  But I’m still questioning MBA entrepreneurship programs as a personal growth path.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have had the opportunity to gain an M.B.A.  because it is superb training in some areas of business.  But if given the choice between the M.B.A. education and going to work at age of twelve to support myself, I would choose the work experience as more valuable to a business education.  As with money, too much “formal” business knowledge may be worse than too little for a small businessman.

Paul Hawken

 Here’s another view from the big business world.

From late 2012 to early 2013, Hult Labs conducted 90 interviews with a globally diverse group of Csuite executives, managers and academics—all to understand their perspectives on the current state of business education. In particular, Hult Labs asked for their thoughts on how MBA programs can improve. 44% of those interviewed expressed a negative view on the current state of business education, while a mother 23% expressed a mixed or neutral view.

 Employers had many opinions about the current state of business schools, but there was a common thread throughout their comments—many of those interviewed, leaders and executives alike, thought business schools could do a much better job of producing graduates with the right combinations of skills.  As discussed in the executive summary, employers had three main critiques of business schools.
  1. Business schools do not adequately measure if their students are actually learning new, relevant skills and behaviors.
  2. Business schools don’t place enough emphasis on building ten critical skills and abilities.
  3. Business schools continue to overemphasize theory, and should instead concentrate on simulating real-world experiences.

What’s going on here?  One of the best authorities on small business says he’d trade the work experience of a 12 year old for an MBA, while a recent survey suggests that two thirds of large company executives don’t think an MBA is a good preparation for business.

Maybe Gaining a Masters of Business Administration Doesn’t Make you a Master of Business.

I’m afraid I’d have to agree.  I benefitted from my MBA… but not because it prepared me for life as a business owner.  Rather, It helped me unlearn several habits painstakingly instilled through my education as an engineer.  I think the same would be true of other “learning to think like…” disciplines;  physics (the swiss army knife of natural science degrees), medicine, and law.

The Un-MBA

If you have an absolute passion to become a business person, here are three ways to spend 2 years of tuition, books and late nights differently.  Same goal, different growth path.

  1. Get a part-time job in retail.  Meet a lot of customers and earn some money by selling things.  Either learn to do it well or learn that you really don’t like it much.  Either way you’ve learned something very valuable.
  2. Take a bookkeeping course and use it to track your personal finances.  The idea is to get in the habit of counting money.  Business is a very dangerous place to be financially illiterate.
  3. Start a business… any business… the smaller, simpler and more ordinary the better.  Do everything yourself.  Learn the true meaning of the words “simple” and “bootstrap”.  When you don’t know how to do something, find out.  Laugh, cry, lose sleep, and save the first dollar you make.  The object is to experience, firsthand, the two most basic elements of business:  (a) survive, and (b) make a profit.  Even if you accomplish neither, you’ve still come away with priceless experience.
Here’s an interesting thought…  Suppose, starting at 16, you, your son or your daughter does those three things.  When they graduate from secondary school they’ll  be far ahead of me when, as an engineer, I started my MBA to unlearn my engineer’s mindset.

Where’s the Real Value of an MBA?

Alright.  You’re a freshly awarded MBA or halfway there, and this post is making you sick.  You can’t figure out whether you’re more angry with me or disgusted with yourself.  What are you actually getting for your tuition, books and late nights?

First, you’re learning the language of business.  You’re learning how to talk with business people and the accountants, bankers, and attorneys who support them.  You’re learning the vocabulary you’ll need to pick the right books to read, the right search terms for the web… you’re building the foundation for your future personal research.

Second, you’re learning something about the functions of business; sales, marketing, administration, finance, management.  A successful business does all these things… ignore any one (or more) or them and you’ll wind up in trouble… the kind of trouble that could cost you your life savings, your health or even your good name.

Third, you’re broadening the mindset your liberal arts, engineering, science, medical or legal education so painstakingly instilled in you.  You’ll be doing some unlearning as well.

In another article we looked at couple of different MBA programs and discussed criteria for choosing well.

 Finally and most importantly, you may be learning the most valuable lesson of all… there’s no shortcut, or even a single path, to mastering business.  Not even via MBA entrepreneurship programs.  That’s real growth.



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