When I was starting my career, it was the time of London’s ‘Big Bang’. This was the period when the financial markets were deregulated. Although I chose to work in electronics, my friends and our peers still felt the effects of those heady days. What has not been written about is one of the things that this new era ushered in, a new feeling of access. For the first time ever in Britain it did not matter whether you had attended a private school. If Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, could become Prime Minister, then any of us could succeed.
Suddenly, middle and working class people could start to buy their own homes, afford new cars, and enjoy dining out. Some protested about the end of society and the bashing of the unions but as far as my friends and I could tell, they were relics. We found that we could go out into the world, make money, and be successful. When we looked at America and saw Steve Jobs, an acid-taking college drop out, invent an entire industry, it only furthered our ambitions. The first business book I ever read was Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple by John Sculley. Learning that Bill Gates and Larry Ellison had also dropped out was thrilling. Who needed to attend Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard to create? You only needed courage, self belief, and the energy to work 18 hours a day.
I found great success running my own business and then becoming a founder of NVIDIA in Europe. I met some very smart people and learned a ton from all that I did and from most of the people I met and dealt with.
Then, somehow a business qualification which had almost died out started to rear its ugly head into the business world. It is hard to say exactly when this degree started to become important again but in 2012 it has become almost essential to have one. HR departments, in particular, seem obsessed with them. What is an MBA? It stands for Master of Business Administration. The core courses in the MBA program are designed to introduce students to the various areas of business such as accounting, finance, marketing, human resources, operations management, etc.
For anyone who does not know or understand the basics of business, these are undoubtedly useful. Understanding how to raise finances, write a business plan, avoid getting sued, read a balance sheet, and spend money on focus groups is important. Education, in any form, is ALWAYS a good thing. However, I am beginning to dislike some of the recent MBA graduates I have met and I am learning to become suspicious of the whole system.
First and foremost, none of the schools I know of teach about sales and many (not all) MBA graduates act like salespeople are beneath them. Philip Delves Broughton touches on this and laments the lack of teaching and understanding on the importance of selling in his excellent book ‘The Art of the Sale’ (himself a graduate of Harvard Business School). A degree in business administration that ignores sales is like a master chef ignoring his restaurant.
Secondly, too many HR departments are lazily ignoring candidates who do not have an MBA. Rather than investigating a candidates real experience in the setting up and running of a business or a successful department or project, they too quickly dismiss a C.V. or resume that does not have one. Worse still, there is an unpleasant snobbery (by some) in HR towards anyone that does not add the special 3 letters to their name.
Thirdly, my real world experience in dealing with some MBA graduates is that they themselves have a snobbery and an unrealistic expectation of what the degree will entitle them to. No amount of education will make me think someone is ready to run a team or can be trusted with a project until I have seen them perform in the real world. Customers and markets have a horrible habit of not conforming to teachers’ exam paper behaviors, just ask the execs at Lehman Brothers.
Fourth, I am concerned that there is too much emphasis on educational qualifications over experience, creativity, energy, and attitude. The world needs a lot more Jonny Ives and a lot less Berni Madoffs. I am an enthusiastic supporter of Peter Thiel’s program to pay a $100,000 to bright students to drop out of university to pursue their dreams.
?We have a bubble in education, like we had a bubble in housing?everybody believed you had to have a house, they’d pay whatever it took,? Thiel told Morley Safer in an interview that appeared on 60 Minutes a little while ago. ?Today, everybody believes that we need to go to college, and people will pay- whatever it takes.? And that’s way too much these days says Thiel, when people without a degree can make as much as those with an advanced one.
I recently met 5 MBA students from UCLA. I asked them, two years into their coursework what was the biggest single thing they had learned. One said, ‘how to balance work, home, and school’, another said ‘to see things from someone else perspective’ the other three told me ‘not much, to be frank but it is important for my boss who is paying for me and it is great for my resume’. This, it seems to me, is a terrible shame. After all, getting an MBA takes a lot of studying. If the course could add in real world lessons and feature guest speakers from real world success stories, if it could include complex issues like how to sell past corruption in Russia and China, or how to cope with execs who no longer believe in long term employment then it would be a qualification I would take myself and one I would have greater faith in.