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The Truth About MBAs, Like It or Not

Last Updated Aug 19, 2010 11:36 PM EDT

The Truth About MBAsEvery so often there's an article about whether you should or shouldn't get an MBA. The only thing all those stories have in common is that the folks who write them usually have a stake in the game. Guess I just got a little tired of all the overreaching headlines, the prospecting for eyeballs, the one-sided viewpoints, the self-serving research studies, and frankly, all the BS.

Also, I think it's indefensible to be screwing around with folk's career potential and ability to land jobs at a time like this. This is a time for the truth, like it or not. So here it is, no sugarcoating, no research that can be manipulated to make a point, just pure, unadulterated experience and simple logic.

For those who aren't familiar with The Corner Office blog, here's my management cred:
  • 7 years owning a boutique (which just means it's small) management consulting firm
  • 23 year career in high-tech, including 10 as a senior executive (VP, Sr. VP, CEO)
  • BS in physics. MS in engineering. No MBA.
And, here's my story:

I started taking classes toward an MBA when I was an engineer with Texas Instruments. Everyone else was doing it, so I figured what the heck. But after two classes, I got sick of it and quit. Guess I was done with school. If I'm management material, I reasoned, I'll make it on my own merits.

Long story short, I eventually made my way from engineering to sales management. But I was laid off during the recession of 1992 and the only available management jobs were in marketing. Time to go for it. But every position spec wanted an MBA.

Luckily, I had a friend at a hot Silicon Valley company that was looking for a director of marketing. The hiring VP wanted someone with an MBA, but I somehow managed to talk him out of it and got the job. That led to my first VP of marketing position at a public microprocessor company, and the rest is history.

The bottom line
Sure, I've had a successful and satisfying career, but I had to fight tooth and nail to beat out competitors with MBAs from Harvard, Stanford, and other top schools for executive-level jobs. Most of the time, I lost. What saved me was my real-world track record, but if you're just starting out, you don't have that.

Maybe it's just a piece of paper, but that piece of paper is either desired or required for the vast majority of senior management jobs at companies big and small. If you don't believe me, just check out the job listings.

So, if you aspire to climb relatively high up the corporate ladder, you'll have a far easier time if you get that piece of paper, especially if you get it from a top tier school.

There are three exceptions which account for a lot of the contrarian data and surveys:
  • You rack up an impressive number of successes and jobs come to you.
  • You're one helluva schmoozer and networker so you'll get to see a lot of opportunities.
  • You're so damn smart that you can wow just about anyone.
Sure, you may pull it off as I did, but you know, the job market's a lot tougher now than it was then. So, if you think you're executive material and you're not willing to risk your future on being an exception to the rule, an MBA from a top notch school will indeed improve your prospects. Otherwise, you'll be swimming uphill your entire career.

But if you're not into climbing the corporate ladder, think you can make it on your own as an entrepreneur, or can't afford or get into a top tier school, then it's probably not worth it. All hype and headlines aside, that's the simple truth.

One last thing. Notice I didn't say anything about an MBA actually improving your management ability. That's because I don't believe it would have for me and I don't believe it does, in general. To me, this whole discussion is about a piece of paper, no more, no less.

Image CC 2.0 via Flickr user CargonNYC