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Could an MBA upgrade your career?

posted by Jennifer Small
17 April 2020

The gold standard in executive education has never been more popular among procurement professionals – but it might not be right for everyone.

How do you make it to the top of the tree? While the pragmatic answer might be to work hard, make the right connections and perfect your personal brand, for years a three-letter acronym has been seen as a shortcut to business success.

The MBA – it stands for Master of Business Administration – has been viewed as the pinnacle of executive education ever since it was first offered by Harvard University more than a century ago. It is a route for ambitious managers to get the rounded business expertise they need to make it to board level, or for entrepreneurs to become fully fledged leaders.

Courses promise to equip students with the nuts and bolts of every discipline – from finance and accountancy to marketing and advertising – as well as leadership, emotional intelligence and global awareness, tested through live projects that may involve international travel.

But while, traditionally, the MBA has been synonymous with financial specialists looking for a general business education as they covet the CEO role, the greater visibility of the procurement profession means universities have increasingly been marketing their courses – which can be taken full or part-time and typically last two years – at CPOs and other ambitious practitioners. The question is: does such a serious (and seriously expensive) course deliver value for money?

Author, business school professor and entrepreneur, Margaret Heffernan, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an advocate. As she puts it: “The MBA can help you see the entire ecosystem, so you can understand the consequences of your decision-making across all parts of the business.”

The numbers are positive. In the 2018-2019 academic year, there were 19,545 people studying for an MBA with UK educational institutions, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, up around 20% year on year. This growth is mirrored across many parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

A key factor in the UK was the introduction of the government’s apprenticeship levy in 2017: many MBA courses are aligning themselves with the Level 7 apprenticeship standard, which means much of their cost (London Business School charges up to £78,500, though £20,000 is more typical) can be offset against employers’ levy funding.

“The levy has increased the popularity, because all of a sudden employers are realising they’ve got access to a huge amount of money so they can get to a position of lifelong learning for their employees,” says Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield University.

Equally importantly, business schools are adapting their offerings. Online MBAs have become popular, and rather than aiming at generalists, syllabuses are now tailored to specific sectors or functions, including supply chain management and logistics.

Wilding advises would-be students to carefully examine the modules and lecturers, and the case studies that will be used to choose a course that best suits their situation.

For procurement professionals pursuing leadership roles or seeking career moves, he says the evidence-based grounding of an MBA can be vital: “It’s about embedding a thread of commercial understanding, and an understanding of the interconnectivity of people’s decisions, and how they impact other functions within the organisation and also externally.”

But MBAs aren’t the only game in town. Their numbers have been in decline for some time in the US and much of Europe, partly due to cost but also to a sense they are ‘disconnected’ from the realities of business life and fail to help graduates prepare for financial crises. One MBA graduate, who asks to remain anonymous, tells of being on an MBA course alongside students with only a few years’ experience, who “floundered because they weren’t able to relate course content to real-world involvement”.

As Wilding points out, sometimes it’s more effective for those at the start of their career to look at a specialist Master’s degree or courses offered by professional associations, before considering the broader benefits the MBA has to offer.

“It’s all about continuous development,” he says. “And either the MBA or a specialist Master’s degree will help professionalise the procurement profession. The goal is to create the supply chain professionals of the future.”

What an MBA did for me

Shirley Cooper FCIPS, FCMA, MBA
Commercial director at Tapestry Compliance LLP and non-executive director and caretaker chair of the Audit and Risk Committee at the Ministry of Justice.

It was while working as a “typical factory accountant” for Tetley Breweries that Cooper seized the opportunity to study for her MBA at Bradford University in the early 1990s. “It propelled me because it broadens your business experience and knowledge,” she says. “My career as a commercial director wouldn’t have been possible without the breadth of knowledge and skills I have from doing an MBA.”

Tarek Dakwar, MBA
Head of procurement and contracts, Buset Group.
Dubai-based Dakwar completed his MBA online as an international student at the Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University. “The business case studies were so relevant,” he says. “The course provided practical skills and techniques, such as finance, accounting, goals and project management.” Having gone into the MBA with the notion of setting up his own business, Dakwar believes the MBA has given him the ability to engage more effectively with stakeholders from different disciplines.

Claire Younghusband FCIPS, MBA
Procurement consultant at 7 Step Solutions, and CIPS assessor.
The attraction of the MBA for Younghusband was access to commercial and international experience. “It’s a globally recognised qualification across every single business discipline, which gave me the confidence to apply for jobs that I probably would never have considered,” says Younghusband. However, the MBA is “not the be all and end all”, she warns, as procurement professionals must invest in long-term, continuous development if they want their skills to remain current.

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