Mastering the MBA

The MBA has long been the pinnacle of academic achievement for business professionals. Today it is increasingly weighted towards experiential learning, leadership development and mind expansion. 

Sit down with a new MBA graduate for an hour, as NZBusiness did, and you’ll quickly appreciate the profound impact that the ‘Master of Business Administration’ can have on people’s lives and careers. Disregard its somewhat archaic title and the fact that it’s been around since 1908 (when Harvard established the first programme based on Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management), today the MBA still represents the ultimate business qualification for people aiming for the highest echelons of business and personal achievement. 

As Ken Lee, director, MBA and Professional Masters at AUT explains, people considering postgraduate study in business have typically decided to take their education and career to the next level, and for middle to senior managers the logical step is an MBA. It can fast-track careers and open doors to entirely new career opportunities. 

Lee points out, and this is reflected in recent graduate Sharn Piper’s profile (see opposite page), the MBA also reflects the needs of the SME sector, while enabling graduates to be effective in a global business environment. 

“The MBA provides flexibility to fit around work and personal life commitments, and because projects can be applied to the students’ work environment, they can produce results that are relevant to their business or industry, and which add immediate value.” 

Lee highlights the key selling points of AUT’s MBA, which include a flexible programme structure for busy working professionals, the practical nature of the program, and the curriculum’s “future focus”.

When asked to identify favourite papers, students refer to the likes of ‘Developing High Performing Teams’, ‘Developing Creativity in Business’ and ‘Negotiation for Impact’.

“The Applied Business project capstone paper brings together all the learnings of the MBA in a consultancy style project, which produces outstanding results,” says Lee. “Business clients have high regard for the project reports, the presentation of which provides a valuable and rewarding experience for the students.”

He says nested within the MBA are a postgraduate diploma and a postgraduate certificate in business administration. “Both are available as entry or exit qualifications and provide the opportunity for students to customise their study plan to match their professional development needs.”

Peter Withers, director, MBA Development at Massey University, sees today’s MBA programmes as much less generic and geared more to experiential learning and developing leaders who can make high-value decisions in the VUCA business climate. (The acronym VUCA, first coined in 1987, still describes the world in 2019 – i.e. volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.) 

This requires MBA programs that best facilitate peer learning, he says.

“Advanced executives need to share learning and enhance both personal and professional development with Executive MBA classmates of similar ilk. Equally, emerging managers need to embrace and apply new skills in the company of professional MBA peers at similar levels of career development. 

“Hence Massey’s decision to widen its MBA portfolio to include an Executive MBA, a full-time MBA and an online MBA,” he says.


The MBA’s relevance

Understandably there are those who would question the relevance of the MBA qualification in 2019, and the large investment in time and money required. But the message from participants and providers is that it is more relevant than ever – particularly for people at the mid-to-advanced stages of their professional career development, and for decision-makers.

“Those in decision-making positions are being presented with increasingly complex situations and deluged with ever-increasing amounts of information with ever-shortening time frames. And both corporates and SMEs must survive under these conditions,” explains Withers. “Accordingly, decision-makers need to identify MBA programmes that are evolving to meet the demands of business: experiential MBA programmes that teach advanced strategic thinking, leadership in culturally diverse workplaces, problem analysis and problem solving, international business, leadership coaching, and the ability to apply and manage new technologies.”

This year Massey University is launching its new 180 credit programme, described as user specific and targeted at emerging and SME managers. It has a common curriculum delivered in two distinct modes. 

“The full-time mode, completed in 12 months study, allows curious, world-ready candidates to obtain a recognised qualification from an internationally accredited business school with minimal career disruption,” says Withers. “They are well-positioned to return to their companies or to step into new roles with added confidence, relevant applied skills and a diverse network of peers. 

“The online mode offers a flexible and convenient course of study for time-constrained emerging and SME managers in regional New Zealand. It enables them to manage self-paced personal and professional development in a manner conducive to balancing study, business responsibilities, family and lifestyle. It also includes networked learning with peers and enables learning to be immediately applied in the workplace while completing the degree at a customised pace of two to five years.” 

Withers emphasises the continued focus on applied learning – a prerequisite to study from both a student and employer perspective. Massey’s partnership with Wiley Educational Services – the digital learning arm of educational publishers John Wiley & Sons – is a game-changer too, according to Withers. It brings a vast inventory of current learning materials together with leading edge production and delivery of online programs. 


Fine tuning the options

New Zealand’s MBA programmes are constantly being fine-tuned to ensure curriculums are current and responding to a dynamic business environment.

AUT’s Ken Lee says their curriculum developments are future focused, while the structure maintains maximum flexibility and choice for students.

“Value-added initiatives such as the extracurricular coaching for leadership programme, the Beyond AUT Award employability focused award, and the international study abroad programme will prove increasingly popular, and papers which focus on the human, technological and data literacies will be in high demand.”

Lee’s advice for students weighing up MBA programme options is to consider their long-term goals, their learning style and the program philosophy.

Some MBA programmes may have a strong academic bias, he says, but if a student is a disciplined learner, a distance education program may be suitable. 

“If a student is looking for a strong practically-focused programme, which enables regular engagement and interaction with like-minded students and business-focused professionals, then AUT has a strong value proposition to offer.”

Lee’s advice is to have an open mind and be prepared for a program which expands horizons, challenges thinking and develops a creative mindset. 

“I would prefer that students choose a programme or study pathway they are passionate about, rather than one which they perceive to be where the jobs are. 

“Similarly, I encourage students to focus on the engaging learning experience, rather than become fixated on grades. But MBA students are a competitive breed.” 

MBA programmes are unquestionably expensive and life-changing – but the key is to choose one where the cohort embraces diverse backgrounds and industry sectors, and shares your motivations and aspiration. 

The level of executive/managerial experience needs to be similar in terms of decision-making responsibilities as well, explains Withers.

He believes the greatest learning comes from your peers, and the teacher’s role is to draw out and enhance peer knowledge and experience within a given subject area. 


The MBA’s true value

Never believe that the letters ‘MBA’ after one’s name are a silver bullet for career success. It is the individual’s ability to apply and leverage the MBA experience that really matters. And, as a high-achiever you’re not there purely to compete with those around you and gain better grades than them. Grades may be important, says Withers, but the ability to support your classmates, learn from them and embed lasting networks has far greater and longer lasting value in your professional career. 

Perhaps the greatest misconception about the MBA, he suggests, is that it’s purely an exercise in embracing new skills and learning how to apply them. 

“Almost universally, graduates will tell you that it was truly a life-changing experience that had an enormous impact personally and professionally, not least in instilling confidence in their abilities as leaders, parents and partners.” 

With 20 years’ in the industry Peter Withers has seen many students graduate while overcoming immense difficulties in their lives.

He recalls the solo mother with little money whose motivation was setting an example for her teenage son. “She proudly showed me the ‘kick ass’ stiletto shoes she had saved for to wear at graduation.” 

There was the dyslexic 45 year old “bursting into my office exultant at the A grade he had just received for the first time ever in his schooling.” 

There are the women in high-powered positions, pursued by the media as “experts”; and Māori and Pasifika graduates now playing important roles for their iwi and communities. 

But Withers often reflects on his most humbling moment. “The graduating student who once said to me, ‘thank you for teaching me how to think, not what to think’.”


The future challenge

The MBA continues to evolve and thrive in an ever-changing business landscape. 

The biggest challenge for providers, as AUT’s Ken Lee sees it, will be to continue to influence their reach and become the enablers for lifelong learning. “We shall need to constantly rebalance the curricula to respond to the shifts that are occurring in all facets of business and society. 

“Our role will not only be concerned with the traditional topics and challenges of business, but to provide environments which enable students to develop a creative mindset [in order] to develop products or provide services that business and society deem valuable.” 

The threat of substitute products and programmes from providers which lack the level of academic rigour provided by university business schools will likely increase, he predicts. 

“The challenge for university business schools which provide MBA programmes will be to ensure that business and industry appreciate and recognise the difference.”

Lee’s predictions include greater demand for flexibility in programme delivery, increasing popularity and recognition of micro-credentials, and stronger partnerships with business for the co-creation of programmes.   


The University of Canterbury (UC) Business School will be launching a revamped MBA in February 2020

The UC Business School has recognised the changing needs of business in the region. Particularly in relation to the impact of ‘digital’ on organisations, what this means for leadership practices over the next decade, the need to drive intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship, connectivity across geographies and, most importantly, instilling a sense of purpose and impact – beyond economic drivers – in those who lead the organisations.

The all-new UC MBA will be delivered in the same way in which a story unfolds, as a narrative and an experience. The programme will commence with a focus on purpose and impact while honing in on attributes that support innovative thinking. 

As the programme unfolds, externalities and creating agile organisations will become the focus before delving into intricacies of data driven strategies and digital transformation. 

A focus on agile and innovative leadership, meanwhile, will be woven across the entire programme so that leadership does not just become a course or a subject delivered at a single point in time but instead the learnings are put into context of the theme delivered during that period. 

One of the key programme changes will be the blended nature of delivery, wherein there will be an almost equal split of real-time online interaction and in-person intensive block weekends. This will enable participation from across Australasia. 

With the industry links we activate and the end outcomes we are looking to deliver in three to five years, UC’s ideal MBA candidate will be one that is keen on making a difference, embracing of risk, enjoys a challenge, and willing to lead and drive change. 


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