How do you know if someone has an MBA? They’ll tell you.

Jokes aside, the question of whether an MBA is necessary to gain a top corporate job is relevant for those aiming for the corner office.

Jonathan Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of Henley Business School Africa, part of the University of Redding in the UK, says, “You never needed an MBA to be a CEO. There are many ways to become a CEO; it’s all about talent and capability. The question is: ‘Can an MBA help you become a good CEO?’ The answer is obviously ‘yes.’”

He says that taking on an MBA is a good way to develop complexity of thought and the ability to deal with large-scale change, as well as being able to move a team of professionals towards an objective and to find the meaning of value.

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“I am really against peddling MBAs as a kind of ego boost or a way to fast-track yourself to a position,” says Foster-Pedley. “If you are leading a business, you had better be pretty good at building value for your clients and your people, and that’s what you need to learn.”

On the radar

In a fast-paced corporate world, is having an MBA an essential qualification recruiters look for?

Faye Tessendorf, Director at Homecoming Revolution (“the brain-gain headhunting company for Africa”), says: “At the CEO level you cannot say a certain qualification is ‘essential’, as experience counts for more at that stage of one’s career. Yes, an MBA is preferable and would definitely be an added advantage, but not all CEO candidates have an MBA and that doesn’t disqualify them from applying for the role if their experience is relevant.”

She points out that it’s not just having an MBA that counts, but where the MBA was obtained, with Ivy League schools giving candidates a definite edge.

Weighing up the positives

Faith Khanyile, CEO of WDB Investment Holdings, who has an MBA, says she thinks it’s a necessary qualification for CEOs who want to stay at the top of their game.

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“An MBA equips you with all-round knowledge and a holistic view of the environment in which a leader, entrepreneur or manager operates,” she says. “It provides the student with the technical and critical thinking skills they need in order to be an effective leader of businesses and people.”

Experience and exposure

South African-born Alan Leibman learnt the ropes of the hospitality industry under Sol Kerzner and went on to become the CEO of Kerzner International.

He says: “In today’s world, if one is able to get an MBA, it certainly can be a benefit. “However, we have seen great examples of terrific companies that have been disrupters in all industries where, in some cases, the CEO/entrepreneur does not have an additional university or tertiary education.”

Long-term relevance

In a Forbes article entitled: 10 Reasons You Don’t Need an MBA, in addition to the costs and time needed for an MBA, it is suggested that the qualification might not remain relevant in a constantly changing marketplace, where new jobs are invented seemingly overnight.

The article points out that “the value of your MBA might not last forever”, as the science of business administration is always changing, so what you learnt while doing an MBA 10 years ago may not be relevant today.

Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, an enterprise software company based in San Francisco, told Fortune magazine: “The first piece of advice I would give anyone starting a new business is to forget everything they learnt in business school. Or better yet, don’t go to business school. Why? Because right now we are going through a once-in-a-century transformation in business that is throwing out all the existing rules – and that includes everything that the MBA programmes are currently teaching their students.”

An ever-changing workplace

In an article called Robots, MBAs and the Future of Work (Poets&Quants blogsite), CEO of Relish Careers, Zach May, quotes research conducted at Harvard that indicates that social skills will become the prerequisite for the top jobs in the USA in the future. He says that if there is any qualification one should go for, it is the MBA.

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“Talk with any graduate business school alumni about their career, and you’re likely to hear one common thread: MBA jobs are all about working with people. And while MBA programmes come in many flavours, the general management curriculum and the increasingly collaborative focus of graduate business school make it a near-perfect primer for a career in leveraging inter-personal skills. Given that, the MBA might just be the most future-proof academic degree available.”

AI and an uncertain future

The Wall Street Journal published an article earlier this year entitled, How MBAs Will Thrive in a Future of Robots and AI, written by Andrew Dalik, Marketing Manager at the University of St Gallen’s MBA. “Concerns of employee displacement by robots and AI are giving way to a nuanced understanding of how humans and machines can reinforce each other’s productivity. For managers to succeed in a technology-augmented work world, MBA programmes need to adjust as well,” writes Dalik. “The social competencies MBA programmes already excel at developing are what many futurists deem the most robot-proof competitive advantage of humans” While he may be in the business of selling MBAs, Dalik makes a good point

Clearly the reinvention of the MBA is the new trend. In another clever piece of marketing, an article entitled: The traditional MBA is Dead,” declares the University of Sydney is featured on the university’s website.

The school’s MBA Director, Professor Guy Ford explains: “To thrive in this world, business leaders need skills that equip them to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. To do this, our programme focuses on developing skills around creativity, critical analysis and a systems approach to problem solving. We also work to develop the personal and interpersonal skills needed to lead effectively.”

So it’s all about being better humans and finding ways to solve our troubled world’s many problems, but do we really need to invest in a business degree to achieve this?

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins), says the entire concept of learning is being turned on its head. He writes: “Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search…”

While some may be throwing caution to the wind and putting all their trust in the University of Google while others go the MBA route Jarvis sums up the most important thing to keep in mind perfectly, when he writes: “the only sane response to change is finding the opportunity in it”.

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