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Monday, March 1, 2021
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Africa: MBA not the only route to success

Bryan Hattingh

A master of business administration (MBA) degree has long been touted as a “crowbar” to pry open career opportunities that lead to corner offices or counter offers.

While not a specialist degree, there is no denying that it offers those who choose to pursue it a deeper understanding of the business world. If being scholastic is your fashion, then an MBA is a tailored fit.

However, studying for an MBA doesn’t come cheap. The fees at the top five South African universities offering the courses are north of R200 000.

Studying at some of the top B Schools in the US is prohibitive at over $100 000 just for the tuition fees. Throw in the living expenses and you are in debt faster than you can say Ivy League.

When such large sums of money are involved, the pursuit of higher education begins to be a gamble.
The notion that an MBA helps one understand anything and everything of business is false. It is equally false to assume that an MBA can potentially enrich you in its aftermath.

The theories and frameworks taught at business schools become quickly redundant in the ever dynamic economic milieu. At best, it must be viewed as an investment that can pay out at some stage. It is definitely not a Ponzi scheme.

A study of the 100 best-performing chief executives in the world done earlier in the decade by the Harvard Business Review highlighted that an MBA is not a prerequisite for business success.

Of the 100 chief executives on the list, only 29 had MBAs. Apple, for example, had hardly any MBAs in its top ranks and most of the world’s top hedge funds preferred people with insight and analytical skills to those with MBAs.

Unless you work for a company that provides generous learning opportunities, leaving it to get an MBA is a higher risk than ever.

If you are at the coalface, getting good business experience, a better strategy is to keep learning on the job. Some of the world’s most respected business leaders have grown by following that simple strategy.

Investment in an MBA is not only financial and, when you add the time spent away from home and family and other commitments and opportunities lost, you are undertaking an arduous journey.

Still, if you can match your intent for pursuing the programme and be willing to trade the above, it could well turn out to be a rewarding and adventurous journey.

There are some very good reasons to opt for an MBA, though if you intend to build a career in, say, event management, an MBA will do little to boost your career prospects outside of bragging rights.

That idea re-emphasises the importance of knowing exactly what you are hoping to gain from an MBA. When you outline your goals, compare them to the coursework and see if they align. If not, it might be time to look at shorter and more meaningful courses.

There is a tendency to discount the impact of shorter courses like those offered by independent organisations and even online. These can be of tremendous help to those who aren’t ready to commit to a full degree but want to improve their credentials.

That said, there are some good reasons to get an MBA. Ask yourself how much room for growth you have in your current career and whether your aspirations require you to flap your wings elsewhere.

If you’re not getting the right learning opportunities in your current workplace, but you’re also short on some of the skills to progress in another role or company, it might be time to think about getting an advanced degree. An MBA could be the best place to gain this knowledge.

While leaving employment to pursue an MBA might not be a financially prudent decision – already know that even though classes do happen after office hours, studies and exams will mean you sacrifice all free time.

Usually this is met with an overwhelming “yes” but when the adrenaline runs out, it can be stressful – having a goal in mind gives you something tangible to keep you motivated.

If your employer will reimburse your MBA tuition, it might seem like a proverbial no-brainer to take advantage of that benefit. But understand what will be required if you do – many companies in South Africa require you to commit to a certain period in which you cannot leave the employ of the company.

Largely this then goes against your plan of moving up the corporate ladder in another firm, an underlying reason for the sacrifices at the altar.

If you do have money saved and hope to advance your career with a new employer, make sure the B-school you choose has the right resources to support your job search.

Hattingh is founder of exponential leadership firm Cycan

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