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.

For 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.

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

"I have now got 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.

Yet, 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.

"It 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."

The 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.

For 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.

"It 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.

Julia 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.

Yet 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.

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

The 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.

"If 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.

An 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."

So, 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.

"You 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."

Neither 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.

HR people need to
start to emphasise the strategic nature of HR, 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."

For 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 needs to
become a key part of their arsenal.

MBAs come in pecking order

Doctorates: PhDs 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 *

MBA: Gives 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 *****

Specialised Masters
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 ****

Management Diploma: Shows you’re thinking widely about
your field and how best to work within your organisation ***

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

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

skills need continuous updating

achieved, an MBA will need updating. Indeed, one of the central tenets of any
good MBA programme is the need for life-long and continuous professional

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

Four months ago, AMBA
launched MB Academy 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.

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

This is a forum
comprising 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.

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