A few years ago, both my business partner and I stepped out of the day-to-day operations of StudyPoint, the tutoring and test preparation company we founded together in 1999, to attend business school full-time. We both have a love for learning, and we felt the experience would improve our effectiveness as leaders of a growing company.
In hindsight we were correct. The MBA experience did give us invaluable new tools and insights, but looking back, it also exposed a major shortcoming of graduate management program design in the United States.
For most business school students, the MBA curriculum provides the first real exposure to CEO-level thinking and challenges. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of MBA programs is their ability to broaden one’s perspective. MBA students learn to think about issues on an organizational and industry-wide level, and they explore and try to interpret macro and microeconomic trends. Likewise, MBA programs spend a lot of time on tools used by CEOs and CFOs — including balance sheets, discounted cash flow analysis, internal rates of return and cash flow statements.
Yet these skills look misaligned in light of the fact that most MBAs will graduate into a management role in which they lead teams of anywhere from five to 50 people somewhere in the middle of a large organization. The vast majority of MBA graduates will not use a balance sheet in the first five years after their degree, but they will almost certainly manage a team. Thus, they will need to be able to scale their impact on the organization by getting things done with and through other people.
This skill is the hallmark of any successful executive and requires a very different tool kit; one that includes knowing how to set clear performance objectives and understanding how to measure and motivate performance through metrics, public accountability, incentives and recognition. Likewise, good managers need to know how to build communication channels that surface obstacles to effective performance — and they need to be able to develop staff through clear and direct feedback, coaching and personnel reviews.
While most business schools offer leadership classes that scratch the surface of these topics, the art and science of the day-to-day management of people is largely absent from today’s graduate management programs.
For example, at our organization we use a system of performance metrics and dashboards that make visible to everyone in the company each individual’s performance targets and how he or she is progressing against those targets. These dashboards are an incredibly powerful management tool, and they came into existence not through lessons gleaned during our MBA coursework, but instead through reading, research and trial and error.
The shame in this is that for many people, a place in the executive suite is achieved through a series of successful stints as a general manager, each a bit larger and more complex than the former. Managers who can build and retain a high performing team, motivate excellent performance and create a culture in which people excel at and enjoy their work will be the ones who advance the furthest and make the greatest impacts on their organizations.
Thus, while an MBA leaves its owner with some of the skills needed to be the CEO, it also leaves him or her lacking one of the most important skills needed to get there.
The obvious solution would be a greater emphasis on the hard and soft skills of day-to-day general management, and a reduction or elimination of requirements that provide little medium to long-term value. For instance, an MBA curriculum focused on building true management skills, coupled with more widespread use of executive education programs later in one’s career, would create better alignment of learning needs and learning outcomes.
Standing in the way of this solution is likely the graduate management program accreditation process, but even the simple step of making extensive general management coursework a part of the required curriculum would go a long way.
The biggest take away for those considering an MBA is this: You will earn your opportunities in the business world through your ability to effectively manage and lead other people, and these are skills that you will not cover in depth in business school. Given this, it’s up to you to find professional development opportunities, mentors and any other resources that will help you become a manager for whom people want to work.
Rich Enos is co-founder and chief executive of StudyPoint, a provider of one-to-one instruction for the SAT, ACT and general academic subjects.