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Why a Top MBA?

Would you advance faster with a top-quality MBA degree? What do senior executives advise?

By Dan Bauer, Founder, The MBA Exchange

Whether you’re an undergrad contemplating a corporate future, a young exec with just a few years of work experience, or a mid-career manager reaching for the elusive “brass ring,” career assessment is essential. Regardless of your current status, there are gaps between you and ultimate success. The bridge from present reality to preferred future can seem overwhelming at times, but must be analyzed and strengthened before it can be crossed.

Determining which gaps are most relevant is a first step. Which of these six issues do you face today? Which will you encounter down the road? How would pursuing a first-class MBA degree help you?

No matter what your age, the visible achievements of others in your college graduating class are, and will remain, a yardstick to measure your progress. These peers are the former classmates who proudly announce their latest promotions in alumni newsletters, boast of their latest mega-deal, and seem always to be in the right place at the right time. No matter what your age, the visible achievements of others in your college graduating class are, and will remain, a yardstick to measure your progress.

Think of this phenomenon as a lifelong class reunion. Looking around the room, literally or figuratively, how many of your peers have loftier titles on their nametags or smile more convincingly when describing their future prospects? Just a few? Or most? If the gap between you and the high flyers is substantial — and seems to be expanding — a top quality MBA degree may be one answer.

The CEO of a global payment systems company says, “I got my MBA because I wanted to become — and be viewed as — a broader business person who was more upwardly mobile. An MBA is helpful in getting a job, then being considered more promotable. More is, and should be, expected from someone with an MBA. It’s hard to see how you can go wrong with that degree.”

The president and CEO for a major operator/franchiser of restaurant chains shares his perspective on the topic. “As an undergrad, my long-term goal was a senior management position with a major organization. I believed that an MBA would help provide the background and firepower to leapfrog over my fellow competitors in the job market.” He advises, “Get your MBA as soon as possible, hit the ground running and never look back!” The former president of a well-known aircraft manufacturing company also advocates getting an MBA. “At my company, those who earn the degree are earmarked for bigger and better things because they’re more likely to add value to the business. That’s what it’s all about.”

Whether based on your college major or job assignments, most managers are identified with a particular business discipline. The most common are operations, finance, marketing, information and human resources. On a daily basis, you deal with associates who represent most of these disciplines. For example, marketers work with information systems managers to get data for product development, operations execs work with financial analysts to plan capital investments, and so on. You face even more representatives of other disciplines and industries if you are in direct contact with customers or vendors.

To grow and succeed, you must communicate effectively and work productively with colleagues, clients and suppliers who have very different priorities and perspectives. If you cannot accomplish this, you may be destined to either remain a lower-level specialist or, more likely, get replaced by someone with that broader perspective. If you want to make the leap from specialist to generalist, spanning business disciplines and industries, a top-quality MBA education may be your key.

At business school, students learn the “language” of each functional specialty. Furthermore, many MBA programs emphasize team projects in which you are part of a cross-functional group working through real-world business issues; each student learns how to achieve objectives with and through teammates who bring a different expertise to the table. Then, once they return to their companies, MBA graduates are often placed in special “rotational” programs where they work in a variety of departments, gaining hands-on experience with each of the organization’s core functions.

A graduate business degree can prepare you for dramatic changes that may thrust you into different roles. For example, the chief operating officer of corporation owning newspapers, TV stations and other companies around the world says, “Chances are you won’t stay in the same career for life. You need flexibility so that, if one career gets shut out, you can go for another. An MBA degree is a great way to help make this possible.”

Companies traditionally select as chief executive officers those who have transformed themselves successfully from middle managers to general managers. En route to the big corner office, they enhanced their knowledge, raised their visibility and built strong personal networks.

A former top executive with a global advertising agency explains that an MBA degree helped him get noticed early on, and tagged by his CEO for key trouble-shooting assignments. “No matter what I happened to be doing at the time, if the company was facing a challenge, the CEO would call me to say, ‘Go find out what’s wrong.’ He’d tell the client that he was sending his MBA to fix things. As an MBA student, I had learned to penetrate the real issues and address the central problem.”

Another top executive says, “Throughout my career, I’ve always been an aggressive problem-solver with a global perspective, skills that my MBA curriculum brought into focus. Combined with leadership skills, innovative thinking and common sense, an MBA degree can be a powerful catalyst. To achieve high-level success in business today, an MBA is almost a necessity.”

Not everyone at the top chose an MBA along the way. The founder and CEO of a leading technology company, who opted for an engineering degree rather than an MBA, now reflects, “My company might have been bigger if I had an MBA degree, because then I would have been able to make business decisions with more sophistication.”

There is broad agreement on the networking benefits of a top-notch MBA degree. By “joining the club”, a euphemism for graduating from a leading business school, one gains entry to an invaluable web of classmates, alumni, future grads and educators who represent a world of expertise and influence. A former advertising agency leader says, “Students at the top business schools get to know people they’re going to network with for the rest of their lives. I would run into people from my MBA class years later, and it took just five minutes for us to reconnect. There was no question about whether we trusted each other. All they asked was ‘What do you need?’.”

You know, far better than anyone else does, when you are truly successful. This requires meeting your own standards, but more often it means exceeding those standards and then raising the bar. It has been said that success occurs at the intersection of opportunity, ability and motivation. Frequently, though, one or two of these variables are missing. You can become frustrated, feel trapped and unable to proceed, not knowing how to realize your full potential.

While there are no guarantees, the truth is that people can improve their odds of reaching a personal best. Winners learn how to create opportunities, neutralize weaknesses, develop higher abilities and boost motivation. Such confidence and proficiencies can be sharpened by the rigor of a quality MBA education.

A senior operating officer explains, “I always believed that, if I graduate with distinction from a top business school, then continue to work hard, I’d never have to worry about anyone being a heck of a lot smarter than I am. Education is a lifelong process. You must never stop learning. Earning an MBA opens up the pores, and helps keep them wide open. Do it. It will pay off over the years. You will have more confidence in the decisions you make.”

MBA education is not just for those in their early to mid-20s. An accomplished entrepreneur and venture capitalist, with extensive holdings that include over a dozen McDonalds’ restaurants, shares his thoughts. “Whether you’re 25 or 40, it’s a heck of a way to jumpstart your career. Without the exposure you get in these programs, I don’t know how you can compete. It makes you better suited to handle your own career and not be at the mercy of some giant corporation. An MBA is like money in the bank. They can’t take it away from you, and you’re always going to use it.”

Last year across the U.S., over 90,000 individuals earned an MBA degree. In education as in business, some investments deliver a far greater return than others do. Earning a diploma from one of the nation’s top business schools can help bridge all of the gaps described in this article.

One CEO advises, “Go to the very best school you can. There’s an aura there that means something. When interviewing management candidates for our company, all things being equal, I look at what business school a candidate attended. If it’s a top school, we usually say, ‘This person must be something special’.”

The retired vice chairman of worldwide manufacturing company observes, “A top-notch MBA is always highly prized. Our CEO, and most of our top officers, had business degrees from Harvard, Wharton, Chicago, the better schools. If you can swing it, it’s worth doing.”

Another senior executive expresses his view more bluntly. “As a hiring manager, I always looked askance at someone whose MBA degree was from ‘East Snowshoe U.'”

The economic case is quite compelling. Although annual tuition may cost $5000 or even $10,000 more at the highest ranked of the top 50 schools, the average annual starting salaries are substantially higher for grads of those leading programs. Assuming a 20-40 year post-MBA career, that income differential can really add up. The bottom line? Despite similarities in course content, apparently employers do not consider all MBA programs equal.

Ironically, the most difficult aspect of earning the degree may be getting accepted to the school of your choice. At the perennially top-ranked programs, for every ten individuals with the credentials and confidence to apply, only two or three are admitted. Even at schools ranked lower on the top 50 list, acceptance can be limited to less than half of all applicants.

All is not lost for the majority of applicants who, calculating those stiff odds, eschew the elite schools to seek openings elsewhere. Of the nation’s approximately 300 accredited MBA programs, there are about 25 private and public business schools with a national reputation for excellence. The next tier of 25 includes many fine schools with well-deserved regional notoriety. Although national rankings change from year to year, due to innovations by the schools and new demand for their particular specialties, the top 50 offer broad choices to those who want to bridge the gaps. As an applicant, you must evaluate which program is “best” for you in its teaching methodology, academic focus, faculty credentials, placement success, alumni network, location, price and admissions criteria.

MBA admissions committees typically use four selection measures: academic ability, personal character, management potential and professional goals. Excellence in one, or even all, of these is not enough. Schools weight these criteria as they strive to diversify the incoming class. They want some balance in age, gender, nationality, academic strength career profile, etc. And the model can change suddenly. So, awareness of current admissions priorities at a given school can help give you the inside track.

So, what must one do to win the admissions game? Ideally, preparation should start while you are an undergrad. Stretch your mind with Liberal Arts and challenging quantitative courses. Get involved as a leader in student and community activities. Seek summer internships that let you show you’ve really accomplished something. Earn your bachelor’s degree, and get at least two years of solid business experience. Then, at that point, you’ll know why you want– and need– an MBA degree.

For mid-career MBA applicants, the advice is similar. Seek and document work assignments that demonstrate leadership skills and quantifiable results. Share your know-how with not-for-profit organizations through pro bono work. Gain visibility as an officer with professional associations. Fill in any significant gaps or weaknesses in your education with local college courses. And don’t forget to stay in touch with former professors and bosses who you might need as future recommendations for your MBA applications.

Once you decide to ‘market’ yourself for admission to business school, your next decision is whether to go forward alone or seek help. While some people rely on the vast array of “how to” books and software programs on the market today, these can be oversimplified and outdated. Furthermore, such tools are used widely by the very people who are competing against you for the same MBA openings. Remember, one key is to admission is to differentiate yourself from the pack, not follow it.

Given the benefits of attending the best possible schools, the arguments for seeking professional assistance can be compelling. An increasingly popular strategy is to work with an admissions consultant. Qualified experts can help you evaluate your options, target schools, customize your application, strategize for interviews and recommendations, even select the right courses and best jobs. But, like the various MBA programs, not all MBA admissions consultants are alike. Again, selecting the very best is worth the effort and need not cost any more.

How and when will you get past the gaps? As soon as you believe that an MBA degree could help you move faster and higher, it is time to get started. The gaps in your future will not get any smaller when rationalized or ignored. And there are more than 90,000 other people going through the same process, with the same motivation and goals, as you.

So, what is your next step to close the gaps in your future? We invite you to request our free, expert evaluation of your MBA candidacy.