What price education?

an MBA can be a real career accelerator and gain you a place on the board but
as Nic Paton discovered, it is also essential to ensure you grasp fundamental
strategic and business objectives

Salter, HR director at entertainment company Clear Channel Entertainment,
graduated in September as an MBA from the Open University Business School. A
former secretary, she has worked her way up through Grand Metropolitan (as
was), Scottish & Newcastle and Apollo Leisure to a point where, if it
wasn’t for the fact Clear Channel is owned by a US parent, she would now be on
the board.

her, securing an MBA on top of her OU degree and IPD qualification was not
simply an option, it was a necessity. The course, three years of distance
learning modules, tutorials once a month and a residential element, was a tough
juggling act.

if she wanted to have credibility with the people who mattered – the board – to
go onwards and upwards, she felt she needed the qualification.

now have a language that lets me communicate with them. The MBA has also
changed my whole way of thinking. I am much more likely to look at what the
business needs are and tailor the solution to them rather than thinking
something is just good to do," she says.

in the three years of studying, she did not meet a single other HR
professional. While it is impossible to know with any certainty what percentage
of high-level HR professionals hold MBAs, Salter’s experience does not seem
unusual. Fewer than 2 per cent of those who studied at Henley Management
College in recent years have HR or personnel backgrounds and just three of the
300 people who graduated through the latest London Business School MBA
programme came from an HR background. The Association of MBAs (AMBA) estimates
that, out of a total membership of around 11,000 people, fewer than 40 of its
members work in HR.

is true, very few people in HR either have an MBA or intend to do one,"
agrees Linda Holbeche, director of research at the Roffey Park Institute.
"They tend to get their qualification through the CIPD or an MSc in
organisational development or whatever. But they are reinforcing the usual
problem of HR being apparently disconnected from the business."

HR profession is increasingly being urged to talk the language of business. HR
professionals in turn often bemoan the fact they are perceived by chief
executives, financial directors and chief operating offices as non-core – a
useful, if slightly, well, woolly adjunct to the real business of making money.
Management often sees HR in much the same way it views public relations – glad
it’s there, particularly in a crisis, but for God’s sake don’t let them get too
close to the big stuff.

Mike Jones, director general of AMBA, the fact this view still prevails in many
boardrooms around the country, is "a real shame". But HR can be its
own worst enemy, preferring to focus on "technical" qualifications
such as the CIPD and ignoring the need for general business skills, he argues.

is essential that the HR director or manager has a very strong understanding of
the constituent parts of the organisation. 
In many large companies, having an MBA is a prerequisite for getting on
the board. It is the only management qualification that gives a broad
perspective on the various functions and functionalities of the business,"
he says.

Tyler, director of the MBA programme at London Business School, agrees.
"What the MBA will do is move you out of the HR ghetto and give you
knowledge of the general business functions," she says.

in one sense the MBA has become a victim of its own success. The range and
breadth of courses now offered by a plethora of organisations and institutions,
some good and others distinctly less so, has devalued the qualification’s
currency. It is important, therefore, to pick a well-respected course. Out of
124 schools in the UK offering MBAs, AMBA only accredits 34. And these 34
account for two-thirds of all MBA students.

MBA has lost its exclusivity, but against that it has become the mainstream
management qualification," admits Jones.

qualification is increasingly becoming a must-have for the younger,
up-and-coming executive, adds Professor Leo Murray, director of the Cranfield
School of Management. To become a board-level director without an MBA or other
high-level business qualification is the exception rather than the norm. HR
professionals who want to get on should consider studying for an MBA earlier
rather than later – perhaps even at HRM level.

you are about to get on the board of a FTSE company the probability is that you
are 35 to 40 years of age and are pretty high up your chosen ladder. You will
probably already have done a general management programme or an MBA. Typically,
people who do an MBA are the high-fliers in the 25-to-35 age bracket,"
says Murray.

alternative option is the executive MBA, or eMBA. This is the same
qualification studied part-time on a modular basis and often through
e-learning. Many colleges have linked up with other institutions around the
world to offer eMBAs that are truly global, designed to attract high-fliers
working for multinationals. Ultimately, though, it is the qualification and the
school it is from, not how you got it, that matters, argues AMBA’s Jones.
"An MBA is an MBA is an MBA."

it’s easy, then; an MBA is a passport to the board. Not necessarily.
Cranfield’s Murray and LBS’ Tyler agree an MBA can be an enormous career
accelerator, but getting to the board is a different matter altogether.

cannot just say that HR directors are not on the board because they do not have
MBAs – that is deeply far fetched. It is about knowledge, skills and
persuasiveness," says Murray. "An MBA is extremely useful. It gives
you a vocabulary, an agenda that lets you relate to the business. But the
further up you go the less it is about qualifications and the more it is about
your experience, determination and drive."

can the qualification teach an executive what life is really like on the board,
whether from an HR background or not, argues John Weston, head of the centre
for director development at the Institute of Directors. An MBA will give you a
sound under-pinning of effective management, but the IoD also runs a diploma in
company direction that aims to offer clear, distinct guidance on how to lead
and be a director. About 300 people a year go through the course.

 "Most MBAs miss the unique difference of
being on the board. Managing and directing are not the same thing. There is the
collective responsibility, different legal duties and responsibilities. It is
about operating beyond your function and specialism," says Weston.

people need to start to emphasise HR’s strategic nature, he adds.
"Managing directors and financial directors tend not to understand that
concept  very well. HR professionals
really have to blow their own trumpet more. They have to say, ‘This company
will not work unless you have an effective HR strategy in place’. They could be
leaking their best people like a sieve and not know it."

the HR professional looking to progress up the greasy pole, it appears the
question of acquiring an MBA is increasingly becoming one of when rather than
if. Of course, some HR high-fliers will continue to make it to the board without
MBAs. But, if HR professionals want to win the battle to become an integral
part of their organisation’s strategic and business objectives, then the MBA
must become a key weapon in their arsenal.

MBAs come in the pecking order


can be a useful tool for focusing on business issues or problems, but they are
more usually for the serious academic. Nevertheless, they can add gravitas to
an already solid CV


Masters Degree:

should be able to show an advanced 
level of academic and conceptual thinking and understand their function
inside out. But while they should give a sense of the broader business picture,
they may also be tightly focused on a specific function or discipline

* * *


a credible grounding in general management and administration skills. Graduates
will be expected to be able to "think outside the box" when it comes
to their function, be real business players and, probably, on a fast-track to
the board

* * * *


you’re thinking widely about your field and how best to work within your

* *


vital qualification for any self-respecting HR professional, but worth getting
behind you as fast as possible and then moving on



* * * * stand for excellent, through to * which has less relevance

skills need continuous updating

achieved, an MBA will need updating. Indeed, a central tenet of any good MBA
programme is an expectation for life-long and continuous professional development.

MBA students are generally encouraged to remain in touch with their colleges
throughout the rest of their professional working life.

months ago, AMBA launched MBAcademy as a specific initiative to tap into this
need for life-long learning among MBA graduates. The academy offers members a
series of five-day refresher courses designed to update their management skills
with the latest thinking, open them up to new ideas and simply allow them time
to rethink some of their management beliefs.

other initiatives, Roffey Park launched its Strategic HR Network in September.

forum comprises some 30 HR professionals who can share views, contacts, best
practice and hold discussions at least twice a year. The members will also be
given software to allow them to keep in touch through their computers outside
the meetings.

article first appeared in the February 2002 edition of
Global HR
magazine.  To subscribe click here

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