It's a tired stereotype in Corporate America: The MBA-minted CEO who gets the top job, boosts returns using short-term tactics, and rakes in a outsized payday in the process.
But according to a new study, there may be some truth behind it. A paper published online last week in the Journal of Management Inquiry found that among star CEOs, those with MBAs were more apt than those without one to engage in what the researchers called self-serving behavior. They were more likely to have used acquisitions to grow their businesses, it found, and tended to receive a bigger boost in compensation, even as their companies' performance fell.
Danny Miller, one of the paper's co-authors, was quick to point out that he isn't claiming business schools instill self-interested behavior in their graduates. "You can't blame MBA programs," said Miller, who holds posts at both the University of Alberta and HEC Montreal. It may be that company boards with impatient shareholders could be seeking out CEOs with the degree. Or people who have a tendency toward self-interested behavior could just seek out the programs. Either way, he notes, "there’s an association between that degree and certain types of behavior, and it’s not a flattering one."
Indeed, Miller didn't start out seeking a connection between star CEOs and the degrees on their resumes. He and his co-author originally started looking for evidence of CEO hubris or reckless behavior among a sample of 444 CEOs after they had been featured in a positive light on the cover of national business magazines between 1970 and 2008. But after not finding any real link, the pair looked at the educational backgrounds among their sample and were surprised by the differences.
The CEOs in the group who had an MBA--about a quarter of the total sample--tended to spend more on acquisitions in the year before the cover story than those without a degree, as well as have poorer cash flow and returns on assets. In other words, Miller said, they appeared more focused on easier ways to grow their companies that showed more rapid payoffs. "Acquisitions are notoriously difficult to integrate. They seemed to be sacrificing returns and cash flow in the attempt to grow."
Then, after the CEOs appeared on the cover, the market valuations of their companies declined significantly faster than those with non-MBA CEOs. Yet despite that worse performance, the percentage increase in CEOs' paydays was more for the MBAs than the non-MBAs. (Miller notes the sample size for that finding was smaller, since pay data was only available back to 1992.) "You would have thought that since compensation is tied to performance, that MBAs would have smaller increases in compensation, but actually the opposite was true," Miller said.
Miller is careful to point out his study was not a random sample of CEOs, but a group of CEOs already getting positive attention for their results--and that a group of smaller or less celebrated companies could show different results. Still, after controlling within their sample for a number of factors, from the size of the firm to whether or not the founder was a CEO, none of the variables lessened the performance declines linked with the MBA CEOs.
As someone who works at not one, but two business schools, what does Miller think his paper should say to boards and graduate business programs? "I don't view us as cultivating that kind of behavior, and increasingly there are courses on corporate responsibility and business ethics," he said, though he said more could be done.
As for the people doing the hiring of CEOs, he says, "I wouldn't condemn anyone a priori for having an MBA. But I'd really look very carefully into the sustainability of the performance of who they're trying to hire."