MBAs are not BS
There seems to be a movement underway to say that MBAs are an antiquated and unnecessary. Josh Kaufmann’s Personal MBA program offers the belief that one can achieve the same results by reading 40 great business books. Brad Feld says that an MBA is BS, and also cites the example of my old friend and classmate Chris Wand.
With all due respect to Josh and Brad (as well as Chris), their arguments may explain why the MBA isn’t for everyone, but they do not mean that the MBA isn’t for anyone.
Like parenting, there is no substitute for a top-tier MBA program. That doesn’t mean everyone should go–most should not–but it does provide you with benefits you’ll have a hard time getting elsewhere.
If you deconstruct the benefits of a Harvard MBA, they fall into several categories:
1. The brand
2. The network
3. The learning
4. The people
5. The opportunities
The brand is self-explanatory. Businesses are generally interested in talking with Harvard MBAs, and this is especially true in Venture Capital, where HBS grads represent 20% of the industry–a remarkable concentration. You don’t need the brand to succeed–Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell seem to have done just fine without even a college diploma–but that doesn’t mean it can’t help.
The network is incredibly powerful. I’ve been able to get Fortune 500 CEOs on the phone, simply because they were fellow HBS alumni. And with 80,000 living alumni, many of whom reside in the highest positions in business, this is a pretty strong benefit. Of course, you still have to be good, but it gets you in the door.
The learning is highly underrated. HBS teaches using the case study method. You have to conduct analyses, make decisions, and persuade others of your point of view. Sounds an awful lot like the core of being a business leader. You can’t experience the same thing simply by reading books and commenting on a few message boards, especially when for a significant number of cases, the protagonist actually visits the classroom.
The people are incredible. Your fellow classmates are a remarkable bunch, and if you build relationships that last a lifetime, you’ll always have friends and supporters. This is no different than the college experience. Many people still have a core group of their closest friends from their college days. The intensity of the experience creates bonds that are practically unbreakable. It’s much harder to build such bonds on a message board.
The opportunities are helpful. If you go to a top-tier school, you will be heavily recruited by prestigious employers like McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, and so on. You could eat out at the finest restaurants for a month if you accepted every interview. It’s like the sushi-boat version of a job search: mouthwatering delicacies simply flow past, and you’re invited to partake of whatever suits your fancy.
Yet while this is often mentioned as the strongest selling point of B-school, to me this is the weakest, since it only affects your life once, when you decide on your first post-MBA job.
The bottom line is that an MBA has a lot of different benefits. Each person will place a different value on those benefits, which is why the MBA makes sense for some, but not others.
Ultimately, the arguments against getting an MBA are similar to the arguments against getting a college degree. After all, a college degree takes even longer, and costs even more, with fewer clear professional benefits.
You could easily obtain the reading lists for the core college curriculum, or even download the free courseware for almost any course you wish.
Yet few of the people who call for avoiding the MBA are also calling for an end to undergraduate education. Why?
I’ll let them comment, but my intuition is that people are still uncomfortable with business as a subject of serious study. Politicians may call for more math and science grads, but not MBAs.
There’s no question that MBAs have made a lot of mistakes over the years, but so did everyone else, and of the whole crop of bad apples, only Jeff Skilling of Enron holds an MBA. Dennis Koslowski, Ken Lay, Martha Stewart, Bernie Ebbers, not one of these jailbirds has an MBA.
Anti-MBA discrimination? It sounds absurd, but I think that an anti-MBA prejudice is just as bad as a pro-MBA prejudice.