EDUCATION : How to put “general” into management? – By Degrees!

Following her resignation from Television New Zealand for health reasons, presenter and journalist Susan Wood told the New Zealand Herald she hopes to use her long-held MBA degree for future career opportunities.
If this works out for Wood, it will be good example of how slipping MBA up your sleeve is smart career move. But how well does MBA course content support the business administration needs of today’s organisations – is different type of business degree more advantageous?
John Bell, director for the MBA degree at the University of Otago – named lead New Zealand MBA programme by publishers of The Economist magazine – says potential MBA students need to look closely at the skills and confidences an MBA delivers before applying. Some are seeking extensive research work which, suggests Bell, may better suit Master of Commerce or PhD qualification. The MBA is mostly about problem solving and provides an opportunity for someone skilled in one area of business to gain an understanding of another.
“If someone already has broad [business] degree, they may not need MBA. If we don’t think an MBA is going to add value to person’s career, then it is not in our interests to encourage them to do it,” says Bell.
It’s refreshing approach in competitive market that is sprouting wealth of course options – many of them private institutions with minimal MBA entry requirements and large intakes as opposed to the smaller, more selective philosophy of the country’s major universities.
MBA lecturers employed by the latter feel the MBA ‘brand’ is being damaged by glut of courses, lowered entry standards and course content of debatable value.
“If the Government permits [private education businesses] to offer full masters programmes I can’t see what any one academic institution can do about it except to protect their own MBA brand,” says Bell.
But where does this leave the MBA in New Zealand? Do business professionals and their employers still view it favourably, and more importantly can it still make difference to the career and life of business professional who commits to it?
Well yes, according to Ken Lee, director MBA programme for Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Most students perceive the MBA as value-added qualification that adds overall business and management training plus personal development to existing skill sets, and allows them to put what they have learned into action.
“When 80 percent of MBA students are already in full-time employment, they bring [real life] business examples to class. So you can say ‘Okay you work for Air New Zealand, how does this concept relate to what you see?’ Or ‘You have your own business? How then does this relate to you?’,” says Lee.
To large extent it puts more grunt behind the “general” aspect of their management know-how by broadening base disciplines and adding some strategic clout, says Paul McDonald, MBA director for Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). Employers want general managers able to think on several planes – people who can understand the IT, financial, and marketing sides of the business among others. They also want MBA graduates with heightened ‘EQ’ and soft skills, who display leadership qualities, can deal with conflict and also with change when others are resisting it.
Having your head filled with intellectual concepts if you can’t turn those to action doesn’t do you any good, adds McDonald.
“People with high IQ and low EQ maybe shouldn’t do an MBA because they may not be suited to general management – they may be better to do masters degree in applied finance.”
The most common misperception of the MBA is that it is guaranteed job or promotion ticket. In reality, it needs to be approached more strategically. Graduates must ‘package’ themselves and have vision for how the MBA will fit into their bigger life picture, says McDonald.
“We view the MBA as personal trans-formation for business professionals. We are trying to produce more rounded leader than the earlier MBA generation who were more intellectual thoroughbreds. No one should [now] do MBA for itself.”

Generally speaking…
When it comes to the business relevance and end value of an MBA, that is really determined by the efforts of the student. The qualification doesn’t make much difference if it’s left to languish on CV, says Barbara Wilkinson, programmes unit manager for workforce literacy organisation Workbase and 2006 University of Auckland MBA graduate.
Her own MBA research project explored what Kiwi companies look for in general manager and involved 10 interviews with HR managers and consultants as well as with directors responsible for recruiting general managers for medium and large companies. From this and subsequent research Wilkinson developed profile of the desired New Zealand general manager (See figure p56).
She found New Zealand employers want financial astuteness, motivation and drive, the ability to fit company culture, and above average intellectual and emotional intelligence in their managers.
She’s not the only graduate who’s found good application for her MBA out in the real world. customer satisfaction survey of VUW graduates from 2000-2005 found most of the 92 respondents had been able to apply their learning, according to the survey’s author Ashley Borden – herself graduate of the programme.
She advises students seize all opportunities presented within the course – particularly exposure to business case studies and analysis of current business issues.
“Otherwise you are in danger of not being able to take theory and apply it. As result of my MBA, my clients are getting someone with much more strategic approach, more EQ, more confidence, more self awareness and who can deal with meaty business issues.”
For Karen Rolleston, director of ICT collaboration and presentation tools company Manzana, her MBA from AUT was strategic career move. Not only did it increase her across-the-board understanding of business areas but it strengthened her previously ‘weak’ area: marketing. After including marketing endorsement on her MBA Rolleston was confident to implement those skills in her business – even before graduating.
“I’ve always been big picture person, but the big picture suddenly became much clearer,” she says.
All three graduates say gaining the MBA qualification required more hours than they had anticipated, affected their social and family time, and pushed them well beyond their comfort zones. Of course, there were also rewards.
“The most interesting thing for me is how much it motivated my daughter. I would come home from university and talk about my marks and she would come home from school and talk about her marks and we would compete, but in good way,” says Rolleston.
She stopped working in order to complete her MBA full-time in 18 months and says she would not have been able to complete it over longer time frame because she needs short-term goals to stay motivated.
This underlines an important point made by MBA directors: in order to succeed, MBA students need to be aware of their own learning styles and personal limits.
Wilkinson says she cut down her work hours in order to complete her MBA part-time and had to give up her social life.
“I just said: ‘look I am committing myself; this year is the hardest year and every weekend I will be studying’. My partner and I arranged our life around that.”
Note the self-awareness and the pre-MBA goal setting among these students: MBA directors say this is hallmark of students who will complete the MBA and use it to their long-term advantage.

Could they do better?
MBA pro-grammes are constantly fine-tuned and improved by good providers, and many conduct regular ‘think-tanks’ with local businesses, employers, university colleagues, plus past and present MBA students.
The latter are not short of useful opinion. As an MBA graduate, Wilkinson says she would like to see more emphasis on financial skills and believes New Zealand

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