Friday, October 7, 2011

MBAs and leadership

The other day I was reading a Forbes article, which came to me via someone I follow on twitter, and the topic was Why MBA Programs Don't Produce Leaders. As someone with an MBA I was intrigued by the topic and what the author's views were so I added it to my Read It Later account for  my commute home.

Hansen (the author) argues that MBA programs were places that people went to learn hands-on knowledge but at some point in time (50 years ago as quoted by an HBR article) business schools shifted from practice to science - measuring and learning. As a result MBA students tend to be directed toward the numbers and an analysis of a situation but not act on this info; and the criticism is that soft skills aren't offered.

Now, I have to say that I am of two minds on this.  My first reaction is that Graduate schools aren't workshops. I think that the point of graduate education is to get you acquainted with a few key sets of facts, figures, laws and mechanisms that are pertinent to the profession that you elect to pursue. It's also a graduate school's job to make sure that you can fend for yourself - in other words the oft quoted "teach a man how to fish." Graduate school classes, in this capacity, can help you connect the dots in some limited fashion; however they can't connect all the dots for you, nor should they! Students should be trained to sniff things out on their own and connect their own dots.

The converse to this is, and I agree with Hansen, that MBA programs can seem a bit disconnected. After all, an MBA is a generalist degree, with the aim of getting practitioners familiar with the many different facets of a business, including operations management, marketing, IT, finance, accounting, statistics and economics (among other things). All of these are disciplines in an of themselves, so the connection-making may not seem that obvious.  I have to say that I was lucky because of the path I chose for my MBA. In addition to taking the required MBAMGT 650 (Organizational Analysis and Skills for Managers), or as it is affectionately known Bootcamp. In 650 we do get those soft skills that Hansen alludes to and it's up to the students to carry through, use, and perfect those skills in each and every course that they take in the MBA program. Instructors aren't meant to handhold you and cover group dynamics and other such topics each and every semester.

For me, my luck comes in three fold:  First I opted to have one of my specialties be human resources management, and those courses were very enlightening as far as management of people goes. Second, the college of management at UMass Boston has (what seems to be) a ton of guest speakers from the industry come and speak to students that are new to the game. Sometimes students are pulled out of class to go, but most times it's really up to the student to make the time to go to these events and learn from practitioners!  Finally, as far as putting it all into practice, I worked full time, as did most of my classmates, so when projects came up where we had the option of choosing our own company and project, I could always dip into my workplace for a true cornucopia of topics and projects that my team could work on and help get off the ground.

The theme that becomes apparent to me is this: Leadership isn't taught - for that matter even if leadership were taught it would be up to the student/graduate to make things happen. I took a few of the opportunities offered in the my MBA program, and I created some of my own. A successful students does not just depend on the instructor, they need to do some (or a lot) of the leg work on their own.

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