Why people need more than a business school degree to succeed.
Do business schools do a good job preparing individuals for the corporate world?
This is a billion-dollar question.
The proliferation of business schools around the world (and in our own backyard) would intuitively indicate that the answer would be an emphatic ‘yes!’ However, having been a recruiter of top-end talent for many years and in doing so, interacted with successful corporate players across most industries in Pakistan and abroad, (and now teaching at a business school myself), I can safely say that there is much, much more to the equation than a simple business degree.
Let’s start with the institutions because that is the crux of the question. Their reputation rests on the quality and reputation of the faculty, as well as the achievements of the alumni. This can become a chicken-and-egg situation which, in any case, creates a virtuous circle. Quality faculty, along with quality facilities and a robust curriculum can and should be the starting point. Stringent admission screening further enhances the chances of turning out “bright, young things.”
This is where another part of the equation comes into play: if only top candidates get into top schools, then what comes out should also be top.
Next is the curriculum. Most textbooks are authored by Americans (in whose country exist the largest number of universities and researchers) and these are used in Pakistan. So, if everyone has access to the same content, then can we safely presume that the faculty makes all the difference? Academic rigour, stretch assignments, quality guest speakers and corporate internships, with honest grading enhance the experience and grooming of the students.
Hopefully, by now, recruiters have what they are looking for.
Where textbooks and content are concerned, there are seismic shifts taking place at a rapid pace in the way business is conducted, so the relevance can sometimes be debated. However, students are exposed to current trends and processes courtesy of guest speakers and relevant journals.
At the undergrad (BBA) level, the curriculum leans heavily on introducing students to the various functions and disciplines required to successfully navigate the world of commerce and industry. Electives help those who wish to pursue specific careers (marketing, finance, HR) acquire deeper knowledge of those areas. Many recruiters express the desire for candidates who have a “broader understanding of the world” such as found in social sciences. These include history, art and sociology, and take us a level above the ‘bread-and-butter’ aspects of business degrees.
Poor work ethics picked up at school seriously impact attitudes to learning: regurgitate what one hears in the class and expect high marks.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of students at the BBA-level do not have a compelling aspiration for a business degree other than ‘finding employment’ (which is what one aims to do with any degree, anyway). In addition, poor work ethics picked up at school seriously impact attitudes to learning: regurgitate what one hears in the class and expect high marks. One segment is driven by a desire for high GPAs, while the bulk, as graphically represented by the bell-curve, wants to do enough to just get by.
Here is another case of structure driving behaviour: employers give preference to high GPAs (as a way to filter from hundreds of hopefuls) and so students are driven by that magic number. Yet, as we all realise, the GPA is earned in an artificial environment and in no way indicates the potential career trajectory. It would not be out of place to say that a successful career is built as much on ‘what we do’ in addition to ‘what we know.’ Naturally, recruiters now seek to find that out through the interview and selection processes.
Employers give preference to high GPAs (as a way to filter from hundreds of hopefuls) and so students are driven by that magic number. Yet, the GPA is earned in an artificial environment and in no way indicates the potential career trajectory.
Google doesn’t even ask for GPA or test scores from candidates anymore, unless someone is a year or two out of school, because they don’t correlate at all with success at the company. Even for new grads, the correlation is slight, the company has found. Laszlo Bock, Google’s Senior VP of People Operations explains: “Academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they are conditioned to succeed in that environment,” he says.
While in school, people are trained to give specific answers, “it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer,” Bock says. “You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”
As for interviews, many managers, recruiters and HR staffers think they have a special ability to sniff out talent. They are wrong.
“Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring,” Bock says. “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship.”
This then is where the argument for using the case-study method comes in. Mainly taught at the MBA-level, cases expose one to a variety of situations that have actually occurred. And while there are no right or wrong answers, the discussion and debate help sharpen the thinking process, and the cases do provide a reference point at some time in the future. At Harvard, where this method was developed, an MBA student in the two-year programme would be expected to study and prepare around 500 cases (a daunting number by any standard). Critics, however, will still point out that this takes place in an “artificial environment where no one has to deal with the consequences of their decisions.”
So, how do we answer the billion-dollar question at the start of this article?
Let me attempt it this way: ‘Does every successful corporate executive/businessman have a business degree?’ The answer would be an emphatic ‘No.’
‘Do you need a business degree to succeed?’ Again – ‘No.’
“Can a business degree from a top university help your career?” ‘Yes and No.’ There are those who, after doing their MBA locally, proceed to obtain another from a prestigious institute overseas. Why?
Why all these ambiguous answers? For every successful person with a degree, there are hundreds who are not. Ideally, the degree should be an ‘inflection point’ in one’s career. But the degree is only one room in a house (career) that requires many, many rooms. Things like intellectual, physical and emotional capacity, building networks, drive and ambition are also important. Life skills, org-savvy, and knowing how to ‘play the game’ are essential. Also, a successful career requires a huge commitment in time which somehow has consequences for work-life balance.
So, yes, a degree from a good school can do wonders for your career but no, it is not the only ingredient.
Leon Menezes is a senior HR practitioner, Professor-of-Practice at IBA, Executive Coach and writer.