Business brains built by degrees

Is an MBA a life-changing experience, or just a fad? Midway through her university course, Sarah Stuart discovers that whatever else it may be, it's no easy ride

Sarah Stuart, taking on an MBA - the joys of late-life university.
Sarah Stuart, taking on an MBA - the joys of late-life university.

Written in the front cover of my red 2013 diary is the following, humiliating reminder: "For %: take % number, divide by 100 (ie 30% = .3) then multiply by number given."

After a 24-year career in media, writing for newspapers here and in Australia, editing magazines, interviewing CEOs and for several years managing a large group of daily and community newspapers, percentages still eluded me. Regressions? Never heard of them. Excel spreadsheets were something I quickly forwarded to my efficient PA.

I was the proud recipient of a Sixth Form Certificate from a small Catholic girls' school (75 per cent for maths; lowest mark religious studies) followed by 2 decades of No Other Academic Qualification. The sum total of my professional training consisted of two weeks on a live-in journalism cadetship course, aged 16, before the company that hired me went bust.

But frustrated in my well-paid job and flummoxed by the enormous changes happening to the media around me, I quit and applied on a whim for an MBA at the University of Auckland Business School, with less than no idea of what I was in for.

That little tip for working out percentages was my preparation for a year of accounting, finance, quantitative theory and economics. Marketing, management, strategy and supply chain, as it turned out, would prove even more difficult.

I am of a generation that still values academic qualifications as some kind of achievement holy grail. We were the last of the on-the-job-cadets, the last group who believed it when our parents exhorted us to "work your way up from the bottom". At 42, I am in a university from which two of my nephews have graduated, and where a niece and a nephew are still studying, but I am the first of my siblings to aim for a degree. Recently, I interviewed Morning Report's esteemed host Geoff Robinson, who said he and former colleague Sean Plunket would laugh about the fact that neither had a degree, yet so many of their listeners envied their jobs.

And six months into my first $26,000, self-funded, taking-it-from-my-husband-and-two-small-children year, I read this from Sir Bob Jones: "My company only employs history or classics graduates ... We'd certainly never let a BCom type near us and as for MBA dullards, possibly the greatest of all the many disgraceful cons currently occurring under the much abused broad umbrella of 'education', they're doomed with this badge of mediocrity," he wrote in this newspaper. "Success in commerce amounts to common sense, a broad knowledge and an open, inquiring mind which no loser enrolling in this tripe has by definition."

Luckily, Sir Bob, by then I was a convert, an advocate of the tripe. Which is just as well, as the MBA hits kept coming. "Oh God, an MBA," one of my colleagues was told by a sniffy recruitment "consultant" when he was poking about for a new job. "I've got an MBA. Doesn't mean much."

And it's true: the number of people applying for Executive MBAs worldwide is softening. The Master of Business Administration, once an elusive status symbol attained by the very few, is now offered by any university worth its salt, and many that are barely worth their cafeterias. Entrepreneurs, we are often told, have no need for such costly mumbo jumbo (though the strategy paper which covered how entrepreneurs think was a highlight of my year).

The latest Economist reports on the building sprees at the world's top management schools, adding rooftop bars, massage rooms and million-dollar art collections to attract students now paying US$200,000 for their MBAs (see P 14).

The posh facilities at Auckland's new Business School had me sold early on. And so they should: I've spent most of the past year amid the hushed tones of the business information centre, rarely sitting on the lovely leather chairs perusing the world's best business magazines, as I thought I might, but hunched over the too-small desk cubicles, heart racing, a panicky eye on the door waiting for the security guard to enter and ask me to leave (11pm usually; sometimes they'll let you stay a little later).

Because one of the big fallacies about the current MBA programme, I think, is that it's easy. I found that first year bloody hard. Every test has been sweated over. Every final exam has made me feel ill. I've spent money hiring imperious young tutors who could barely hide their contempt for my lack of mathematical knowledge - something I expected from the start. But when those first grades came in at the end of term one, it was A for accounting! And a measly B+ for management, a written discipline I'd expected to cruise through.

Winging it doesn't work at university, it turns out. Charm won't inflate a grade. A cute turn of phrase or pages of flowing prose don't impress the lecturers. At university, words are there to work - and so are you. The Executive MBA programme is estimated to take 20 hours a week of lectures, study, assignments and group work. It does. Two weeks into my second year, it's looking more like 30.

I joined on a programme designed for those without an undergraduate degree. We began with eight students and ended the year with five. Of that group only two were employed full-time, one without children, the other with a full-time wife and mother at home. The others - a former successful business owner, a consultant and me - were working from home with flexible hours. Juggling full-time work with motherhood and an MBA proved especially difficult for the other two women with whom I began the year. Both were promoted at work. Both decided to delay the MBA.

"For two years all I did was go to work and do my MBA," says Mighty River Power chair Joan Withers of her mid-career study at the age of 35. She had left school at 15, worked her way up through sales but lacked the confidence for the next step. After completing the degree "a light went on", she says. "It's a life-changing experience.

"Being able to challenge management on business cases, to ask what discount rate is being used for an NPV calculation, to speak the same language, is highly valuable," she says. "I still have all my textbooks and I refer to them when I need to. I go back to university and sit in on classes when I feel I need a brush up. I've done short courses. It sets you up for a life of learning."

One year in, I too understand NPV (net present value), can read regressions and correlations (though I still hate Excel), I know that economics is social history, finance is grippingly interesting with way too many formulas and "effectuation" is the way to great entrepreneurship (not risking everything on an idea formulated alone in a dark room). I thought I'd won Lotto when I got my first A+, cried in a quant tutorial and made friends with a group of unlikely, non-journalist business aspirants.

Does that make me a dullard? Definitely at parties, where I bore people on the joys of late-life university. Will it gift me a stellar new career? No, though I'm hoping at least some of the $42,000 investment pays off financially.

This year it's all new again. Working with clients on growth strategies, a trip to a non-English speaking country (Colombia? Turkey?) to pitch New Zealand business and a lot of self-analysis through group dynamics.

I wrote my % reminder in the front of my red 2014 diary just last week. Just in case.


What it costs

University of Auckland Executive MBA costs are:

• Two-year Executive course: $42,260.40
• Student service fees: $1452
• Excludes international trip, textbooks ($35-$250 per book)
• Classes are held two evenings per week (Auckland pathway) or Fridays and Saturdays fortnightly (Executive pathway).
• Information sessions are held at the UoA Business School on the first Wednesday of each month. More info at gsm.auckland.ac.nz.


What the MBA graduates say

Dr Lester Levy, chief executive of the NZ Leadership Institute, chairman of the Auckland and Waitemata District Health Boards and Auckland Transport, lecturer at the University of Auckland:

Lester Levy, one of the earliest MBA students at the University of Auckland. Photo / Michelle Hyslop
Lester Levy, one of the earliest MBA students at the University of Auckland. Photo / Michelle Hyslop

"I did my MBA right at the beginning of the programme - I was in the second-ever class at Auckland in the mid 1980s. I was in my early 30s and a qualified doctor and working for 3M, which had a pharmacy arm, as a clinical researcher. I got involved with a project around copyright and patents of drugs and found I liked it but knew little about the business side of things. The MBA wasn't as ubiquitous as they are now and there was quite a bit of intrigue about them, and suspicion and envy.

"It was transformative for me and I see that in students today. I came from a scientific background and was very skill orientated and it turned me into someone who places major emphasis on mindset and context and relationships. It set me on a lifelong journey of learning.

"Not all MBAs are the same, of course. Some have got a very low entry barrier and are easy to get through. A good MBA from a good school is still very good - if you're going to bother to go to university you may as well go to the best in the country. They're definitely not created equal. My advice is to never finish it. Seamlessly continue post your studies to read and think and reflect and critically analyse, to stay in that mindset for the rest of your life."


Joan Withers, chair of Mighty River Power and Auckland Airport, deputy chair of TVNZ:

Joan Withers, chair of Mighty River Power and Auckland Airport, deputy chair of TVNZ
Joan Withers, chair of Mighty River Power and Auckland Airport, deputy chair of TVNZ

"The MBA changed me because it gave me confidence. Having five or six years at home with a child did blow my confidence. Being a sales rep, I was fine out talking to people and selling, but in a meeting scenario when the GM would ask questions of us, I could have died. But the MBA changes you in so many ways if you can hack it.

"Naysayers criticise it for being too easy but you have to have a hell of a lot of tenacity to even get through it, let alone the intellectual challenge of learning new concepts and the extra tuition that may be required. It pushes you. I remember when I got an A+ because I had really applied myself and I thought 'I'm going to do this and make it work'. It is the single most important thing I did in my career for a whole variety of reasons."


Ross McConnell, founder of private equity firm Kinfolk Capital; 2004 graduate of Berkeley:

Ross McConnell, founder of private equity firm Kinfolk Capital; 2004 graduate of Berkeley
Ross McConnell, founder of private equity firm Kinfolk Capital; 2004 graduate of Berkeley

"I was in construction project management and had done civil engineering and sciences as my undergrad and an MBA had been on my radar since I graduated. I'd got to the stage where I wanted to take a change in direction in my career - I felt I had transferable skills but the perception of the construction industry meant that without an MBA others might not necessarily have agreed with me.

"I applied and got a scholarship that covered part of my tuition - I came out of it with a net worth of precisely zero, which was a good result. The greatest experience for me was being in a group of students at a similar stage in their career asking similar questions of themselves ...

"It gives you a level of confidence, a feeling that perhaps some of the mental limitations you place on yourself are unnecessary. And it gave me an entrepreneurial mindset. As soon as I graduated, my wife and I came home and started a business that became a global vendor for Microsoft and I started as the chief executive of KEA (Kiwi Expats Abroad).

"I don't think anyone gets recruited because they've got an MBA - it's simply another string to your bow. Anyone who thinks they should get a job because they've got an MBA is deluded. But as an employer I know it takes a huge commitment and investment to actually do it and the networks you make are invaluable."

- NZ Herald

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