So does it? Actually, yes. Among respondents to a 2003 survey of new business-school grads by the Graduate Management Admission Council, 62% say the M.B.A. increased their long-term career potential by developing their business skills. The skill most often improved? Strategic thinking - 88% of graduates say business school made them better at it.
Executive M.B.A. students, who are already in senior management, value coursework on leadership, decision-making and interpersonal skills more than other M.B.A.s. Meanwhile, far more graduates of full-time programs, who are younger and often trying to switch careers, say their programs helped them to develop technical skills for a specialty.
But the particular skills a single individual hones at business school depends on his or her age, career path and prior work experience. So we asked current students and graduates what tangible knowledge and skills they've gained in exchange for those hefty tuition checks they've written, and they didn't disappoint. A few tales from the trenches:
A Finance Exec Applies Organizational Theory
Millicent Chancellor had long been a CPA with a top firm, but when she moved into the corporate realm six years ago as a vice president of finance for a subsidiary of Halliburton Co. in Houston, the job was about more than balance-sheet crunching and tax issues. She was involved in discussions on broader management issues and advised senior executives on the financial aspects of such strategic moves as acquisitions, alliances and product development.
In the finance arena, she felt she could build on what she knew already or could learn on the job, but she wanted formal instruction about other parts of the business. So the 44-year-old enrolled in the Global Executive M.B.A. program at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, which allowed her to stay at Halliburton. For the past 15 months, she's combined commuting to Durham, N.C., with Web-based coursework. She graduates in December.
She's also changed jobs. Just this year, Halliburton reorganized part of its business into new product groups and made her the director of finance for one of them. One of her first tasks has been helping to organize the rest of her new group. "We've been figuring out which functions we should share with the central organization or with each other," she says. Luckily, she'd taken a class on organizational structure.
"A lot of what we'd covered in that class turned out to be things I'd already learned since being here," she says. Still, the class made a difference. "[Learning] the theories behind all these things gave me confidence in what I know," she explains. "So in meetings with colleagues I speak in a more authoritative manner about why there shouldn't be two reporting lines, or why it makes sense for one reporting line to be dominant."
A Global Manager Masters Financial Analysis
Nestor Johnson spent two years working his way across Asia, first building new operations in Malaysia for Brooks Automation, a small semiconductor-equipment company based in Chelmsford, Mass., then as its director of operations for the Asia-Pacific region.
He returned to the U.S. in 2002. As a manager for international business development, it's his job to figure out, among other things, the best way to enter the market in a particular country. "I understood operations from managing factories overseas," the 34-year-old says. But he headed back to school, also at Fuqua, to "fill in the gaps" and deepen his understanding of other business areas, like finance. He also finishes his program in December.
"Learning financial [analysis] has been nice," he says. "I've always had financial people working for me, but they can generate tons of data." Now, he's better able to tell them what kind of information he's looking for on a particular project. "I can ask more intelligent questions, drive home what I need and focus on what's really important when the information comes back," he explains.
And he can be a better manager, too. "I understand what they do, I know what they can deliver and how to use it, which makes them feel more appreciated."
An Engineer Learns Networking
As an electrical engineer at Motorola, outside of Chicago, Smriti Anand had made her way into the lower ranks of management, "but I knew I would go only so far without an M.B.A.," she says. In particular, it would have been difficult for her to realize her goal of moving from a technical career path into marketing. So she signed up for a part-time program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, finishing in June 2002.
The most important know-how she gained had less to do with financial theory and more to do with understanding America's business culture.
"In India, after college, you take placement exams and companies hire you based on how you do," she explains. "There's no such thing as networking." Even after being in the U.S. for several years, Ms. Anand, now 33, was more inclined to stay in touch with people she already knew than to reach out and introduce herself to those she didn't. By talking with teachers and classmates, she began to appreciate the role networking plays in business and to study how it was done. She notes, "It's easy to see that it would be hard to land a marketing job if you know only engineers."
Classmates who worked in other areas at Motorola advised her to speak with certain managers about marketing openings they'd heard of, and she took their advice. She even told her boss about her aspirations and asked him for referrals. "I learned to rely on the alumni database, too, checking to see if a person went to Kellogg before calling them," she says.
Eventually she talked to one manager, who introduced her to another manager - a Kellogg alumnus - who liked the technical knowledge she could bring to his marketing group.
Then she networked for the help she needed to succeed. "On the first big marketing plan I had to do, I went back to Kellogg and asked my professor for feedback," she says. She asked for his reactions to her pricing ideas for potential new products and explained her case for developing those products a certain way, to make sure she hadn't missed anything.
Thanks to some tweaking and reassurance from her teacher, she says, "it turned out OK. They wound up using the plan."
An Accountant Turns Entrepreneur
James Oliver, 33, accepted a job but lost it after finishing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2002. But like many M.B.A.s, he has an entrepreneurial inclination, and he's using some of his new skills to indulge it.
Based in West New York, N.J., he's working toward launching a niche sports magazine. "I'm trying to either partner with a company or raise money," he says, and that means he had to write a business plan "with a full set of financial statements." (While he gets the business going, he's collecting unemployment and seeking part-time consulting work and full-time opportunities.)
As an accountant, he says, he could have put together some basic financial information. But in his graduate financial classes he learned how to go deeper, generating discounted cash-flow models and potential long-term growth rates for his business.
And then there were the nonfinancial pieces of the equation, such as product development, the potential market, a sales strategy and other factors. "Now I can see how those pieces interact and could put them together in the business plan," he says.
He's still shopping his idea around, and despite a tough media market, he's hoping for the best. He notes, "The M.B.A. gives you credibility and knowledge to back it up, so I feel ready to go to that next level."
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