INTERVIEW With "Human Resources Magazine Asia"
HRM Asia journalist Shalini Shukla asked ART's Managing Director to discuss the role of the MBA in today's Asia executive searches
Atlantic Research Technologies,
L.L.C. (ART), www.atlanticresearch.com,
is a global executive search firm, recruiting in the
industrial, high tech and service sectors, for senior- and middle-management
positions in general management, sales and marketing, finance, supply chain,
manufacturing, IT, and human resources.
HRM ASIA: How important is an MBA in getting top management jobs nowadays?
ART: "Ultimately, success in obtaining the top management jobs still depends upon competence in one's field of expertise, be it in general management, sales, marketing, finance, supply chain, manufacturing, operations, technical, or human resources roles. Above all, a manager needs to have a solid track record of successes in one's employment history. There is no single qualification, even from the top B-schools, that could replace career success as evidence that one is a competent manager. Yes, some very large companies will recruit some people with no career experiences fresh out of some top B-schools and put them into their management training programs, but even those employees are not guaranteed success at that firm or at future firms. In fact, they will be evaluated even more exactingly than many others, specifically because they were recruited with great expectations. If they cannot prove themselves on the job as competent managers, they will be pushed aside quickly.
"It is true that there are many companies that will not consider hiring managers who do have great successes in business but who do not have MBA's. This, I think, is a tragic mistake, because in my experience as a recruiter - over 25 years - I have seen people with top degrees at top business schools lead their companies into historically tragic failures, while I have also seen outstanding business leaders even without university degrees bring great success to their employees, shareholders, vendors, customers, and to society at large. Each person should be judged by their individual abilities.
"The worst attribute of a hiring manager or a company hiring policy is inflexibility in the face of obvious excellence. If your firm's greatest competitor is run by a manager without an MBA, and if your firm wants to be as successful as your competitor, would you turn away that top manager who made your competitor successful, only because s/he did not have an MBA? Some companies are that inflexible, and in my experience, such inflexibility suggests a company's management is more focused on policies than on realities, more on image than on results. Such companies usually do not last long in the real world, because, we should remind ourselves, the real world is not the same as a business school case study. The real world of business is infinitely more complex than any business school course or academic theory.
"In the hiring world, if a company truly believes that an MBA is proof of success in business or in understanding business, then they are naïve to reality and therefore, a more risky kind of company to work for. Let's remember that the famous Dotcom Bubble burst when investors finally realized that all those CEO's, CFO's and COO's coming out of top American business schools actually had little or no experience starting or running actual businesses. They were hired for their abilities to conduct "road shows" rather than for any actual experience running successful enterprises. The perception of those managers by VC firms that hired them was that investors would assume that the dotcom would succeed simply because the management came from such elite business schools. Their pitch was that success was somehow guaranteed because of a diploma. The standard lie that was fobbed off to the public was that these managers were so smart that they did not have to have actually run firms profitably, and when they kept doing little more than burn through investors' money, investors were told not to worry, that those managers knew better. Many investors were fooled until they started to understand that the chief game was not in making real companies but in fooling even more gullible investors. Our firm never worked with such companies or candidates, because at ART, which was founded in 1987, we always need to see competence in the managers that we recruit, and also in the hiring managers for whom we recruit. We need to see that our client companies are properly run by competent people, or, if they are problematic, we need those employers to show that they are anxious to bring in competent managers who could fix their problems. Frankly, I do not know how many executive search firms willingly turn away as much business as ART does, but we are proud to do so, because we only want to work with firms that we think could be good for our candidates' careers.
"Having an MBA alone must never be viewed as a replacement for career success, personal integrity, strong work ethic, great interpersonal skills, a natural ability as a leader, or any other key attributes expected of a top manager. It is important to remember that every day someone with a nice MBA degree is fired because s/he was a bad manager. Yes, an MBA might help get you a good job, but it is up to you to keep that job by being a good manager.
"An MBA should be looked at as only one tool in a job seeker's 'tool chest' of qualifications, skills, abilities and achievements. In interviewing for a top management job, an employer will be evaluating the person as a whole, and an MBA or other educational qualification will be seen as possibly representing certain training that a manager should have, but it will normally only be viewed as one checkbox among many that an employer will need to check off before recommending a hire."
HRM ASIA: Any change from the past? Any trends you're noticing in the various industries and geographies?
ART: "In the past, in the Asia-Pacific region, we tended to see mostly American companies looking for MBA's in their Asia-Pacific managers. This was primarily because in America so many hiring managers themselves had MBA's, and generally hiring managers usually hire in their own image.
"For several years, we have been seeing numerous Asian companies either require or desire MBA's in their new management hires. This is frequently due to the hiring manager having received an MBA, but also when some forward-looking Asian firms need their managers to have a more formalized and recognizable training in standard world business practices and processes. Many Asian firms started out as family run businesses, and such structures often have their own unique conceptions of business finance, operations, and management. In such firms, a very good manager at one such family run company or conglomerate might have been indoctrinated with certain non-standard conceptions about business management that might not work well at other companies, including other local family run firms. An MBA from a recognized business school could inculcate larger and more global practices that could be critical for the firm's long term survival in this very competitive Asian business world.
"Often family based firms reach a point where growth becomes a problem for them, because they have been organized in old ways that worked well for much smaller sized businesses. At this new stage of growth, however, an MBA-trained senior manager might be able to come in and help reorganize the firm to handle sustained growth or other challenges. Be it in operations management, human resources management, financial management, sales and marketing management, or supply chain management, a good world class MBA might bring to a company tremendous extra value. This, I think, is what any education should be used for. It should bring knowledge or ways of thinking that otherwise might not have been possessed by the manager. One usually knows only one's immediate experiences in the companies where one has worked. In a lifetime, that might be a handful of exposures to different business models. Good MBA training, however, might have exposed a manager to dozens or hundreds of different business models, both good and bad, from which the manager could borrow or adapt practices to fit his or her company.
"Another trend that we are seeing in the Asia-Pacific region is an MBA requirement by some European firms. Traditionally, European managers often have not had MBA's. Many very good European managers do not have full four year university degrees, while others have technical degrees, including Ph.D.'s. They usually looked for managers who were in their image, so MBA's were less common. Recently, however, we have been coming upon European hiring managers posted in Asia who have European, North American or Asia-Pacific MBA's, and they often are seeking local managers with MBA's. In one placement that we made in China with a very prominent French company, we placed a Chinese General Manager who had received his MBA from Oxford. He has proved to be one of the corporation's most successful and high profile managers globally. That manager's value to our client came from both his excellent business training and his prior experiences working as a manager for a top German competitor. We would not have made that placement if we had not first seen competence exhibited on the job at recognizably excellent companies, but his MBA greatly added to his depth in understanding how to run a key business unit of a global corporation."
HRM ASIA: It seems that many management level executives have MBAs. What then would be a differentiating factor amongst them?
ART: "I think that the big difference among many MBA holders whom I have known is in the individual's intellectual curiosity. Intellectual curiosity is not something that comes with any university degree; it has to be in one's personality. However, it is easy to see people with MBA's who really seem to have learned nothing in business school. These are the people who usually look at an MBA or university degree as a sort of lucky charm or as proof of some kind of knowledge. These are shallow people for whom, in my opinion, education was wasted, because just as they crammed for exams and immediately forgot their lessons and casebook studies after the exam, they move through life and their careers mostly trying to just get by without thinking or doing much. In senior management roles, such people could be horrible managers, often driving out the most enthusiastic and capable managers and staff.
"The best managers who have earned MBA's are those people who look at their company or department as a sort of continuous improvement project. They keep learning from others and from their mistakes, and they make their organizations and themselves better. They are enthusiastic about learning new ways of working more efficiently. They are enthusiastic about developing their careers, companies, staff and customers, and in turn, these parties provide positive support and appreciation of their hard work and good will. Good business training, like any good educational experience, should teach a person how to think, how to approach problems, how to not assume that they are always right. A good business manager should look at a challenge at his or her company as an opportunity to apply his or her knowledge and abilities to help make a better company. So while comparing two resumes I could see two people with apparently similar MBA's and similar job titles and companies, my job as a headhunter is to know how to differentiate between the 'faker' and the 'real thing.' The difference between an experienced headhunter and an inexperienced one is that the experienced headhunter is usually better able to recognize and recruit the bright, enthusiastic manager, and to the avoid the corporate deadwood."
HRM ASIA: Is there any other type of executive education course that leaders should look towards over and above an MBA? Or perhaps a different type of MBA altogether (specialisation, etc...)?
ART: "Whenever possible, if one aspires to the highest ranks of management, it is always worth considering expanding one's training beyond one's immediate field. This breadth of professional self-development makes one more attractive to employers, because one becomes more aware of the interconnections between departments and disciplines. For example, if one's specialization is sales and marketing, beyond focusing on business development studies, finance training could be valuable, because an understanding of accounting, budgets and investment finance could make one a more complete business unit head -- great preparation for a CEO or Managing Director role. A person working in finance, similarly, could gain much by greater training in supply chain or operations or even sales and marketing. This could dispel conceptions by some that s/he is mostly a "numbers cruncher" and therefore s/he might be looked at for COO or CEO jobs, in addition to CFO positions. A manufacturing or supply chain executive similarly could advance in a company beyond departmental roles by delving into other disciplines. An HR head should try to learn more about best HR management practices, of course, but with additional training in other disciplines - business development, finance, supply chain management, business operations, s/he could potentially be considered for general management roles. The principle here is that the more that a manager can exhibit an ability to understand and reach out to more departments, and to understand how to manage challenges beyond one's immediate department, the more career opportunities that might become available. Even if one wishes to remain in one's own discipline, the broadening of knowledge into these other relevant areas can make one's prospects and daily challenges much more rewarding.
"Beyond formal degrees, everyone could probably use effective training in interpersonal communications, because good presentation skills can influence others and make one's job a lot easier. Many senior managers are terrible communicators, and companies are often on the lookout for good communicators who could better manage their departments and business units."
HRM ASIA: Would this mean that a general MBA is no longer 'valid' in today's context?
ART: "There are so many versions of business training today, that it is difficult to generalize about this or that curriculum's validity. Some are focused on teaching all major disciplines in modules, with a goal of creating a manager who could potentially fit into any department. Other programs are more focused on specific job duties or specific industries. I think that all of these types of programs are valid and useful, as long as the person taking them can learn something. There are some managerial positions that really require a person to have a very specialized and narrowly focused approach, while other managerial roles demand a 'large vision' training that cuts across different disciplines."
HRM ASIA: Any other thoughts?
ART: "There is a very disturbing trend involving MBA's and other totally unaccredited university degrees. This is the proliferation of the many 'diploma mills' that are doing business across Asia and elsewhere and that are selling nearly worthless degrees to people who might not be fully aware of what they are buying. Most of these businesses operate in the UK, Australia, or the USA, and they offer alleged MBA's attached to so-called 'universities' that are often little more than mailing addresses. Their names can be very grand and deceptive, and this is the main selling point of these bogus degrees. Sometimes people buy these diplomas in order to deceive employers. I imagine that these job seekers believe that armed with a good-sounding MBA, they will become more attractive to employers or will earn high compensation. In my opinion, however, presenting these kinds of fake qualifications is very dangerous to one's career. I know of employers that have fired people who were found to have claimed fake degrees. If a person is fired for this reason, future employment prospects at other companies might be endangered or limited during a reference check. Our firm warns prospective recruits to absolutely not present to us or to our client companies any degrees or qualifications that are not from accredited educational institutions. If during a recruitment process we find that a candidate has presented us with fake qualifications, we will not present them to our client. If we discover these fake qualifications after a presentation, we inform our client of our findings and as a result the employer typically decides to not move on that candidate.
"Our reasoning is that faking one's qualifications suggests not simply a desire to do better in one's career -- 'to get a leg up'-- but rather that the person has a serious character flaw: a lack of personal integrity and ethical behavior. I am personally offended when a person sends me a resume or CV with falsified qualifications, and I will not present them to my clients. Since our firm is often hired to find replacements for problematic managers, our clients want us to find managers for their business units who can be trusted. We often are asked to do international recruitment, where our client and candidates are a world away, and so our client absolutely needs to have a Managing Director, General Manager, Vice President or Director who absolutely can be entrusted to run their overseas business. A hard working, honest and ethical business manager is an extremely valuable manager for a company and for an executive search firm. It is imperative for our firm to avoid candidates who might suggest to us in any way that they are dishonest. While some people might minimize the presentation of a fake MBA as a just a way of getting ahead, we absolutely do not tolerate this behavior if we discover it. Either the person is exhibiting bad judgment or bad ethics, and both of these characteristics make very bad managers, with or without MBA's. Our belief is that such a person cannot be trusted to run our client companies. There are many good people that we prefer to help instead."