What companies want from an MBA graduate
If you can be effective immediately but take a long-term view, you’re halfway there.
Most companies are looking for people with senior management potential. In their view, MBA graduates have an above-average chance of fulfilling this need, but they are careful not to raise expectations too high. They also want people who can be effective quite rapidly. The many MBA students wanting to change career direction can therefore have difficulties in the short term, whatever their long-term potential. An engineer trying to move over to finance may be successful, but may be restricted to a job as a financial analyst specialising in the engineering sector.
Requirements change as markets change
Employers’ recruitment operations are becoming much more shortterm in response to fast-changing markets and technologies. Companies frequently look for specific mixes of skills, and the mix can change rapidly. In the mid-1990s, for example, there was a strong demand for German-speaking MBA graduates which could be traced to a number of leading German companies wanting to introduce a more international culture and the need to expand into east European countries, where German is widely spoken. This was followed by a demand for graduates able to work effectively in the fast-growing markets of China and the Pacific Rim, where candidates needed residence qualifications as well as the appropriate languages.
Such rapid change has led some careers offices to complain that they have problems trying to work out what employers want, and they suspect that the employers do not know either. They detect a general desire for skills as well as knowledge and a wish to hire for a specific job rather than a long-term career. The teaching staff would be able to explain, however, that all employers are facing unprecedented change and recruitment policies have to reflect the overriding need for flexibility. For most companies a long-term career is a luxury they can no longer offer.
Employers seem to have lost much of their suspicion of MBA graduates, even in some non-traditional areas. A few years ago many human resources directors, especially in Europe, preferred not to employ MBA graduates on the grounds of their arrogance, their excessive expectations of career and salary potential, and the difficulty of fitting them into established teams and career systems. Managers saw MBA graduates as being programmed to want to run things immediately, without taking time to gain the practical skills they needed or to learn how to manage other people. As organisations became flatter, destroying old-style career structures and putting heavy emphasis on teamwork among equals, such attitudes were even more alien. Now the experience of most companies seems to be that much of the perceived arrogance has disappeared. Any that remains is blamed on the business schools for not properly managing their students’ expectations, which are still sometimes pumped artificially high. The schools claim that, as a group, most MBA graduates are well aware of trends in the job market and that they have to climb the ladder (such as it is) like anyone else. But they also argue that there is a fine dividing line between undesirable arrogance and the thoroughly desirable ambition, confidence and intellect that an MBA is supposed to inculcate.
Supervisory skills and older graduates
Many companies still complain that MBA graduates’ excellent theoretical knowledge is not matched by sufficient interpersonal and, especially, supervisory skills, which are essential in a good manager. Graduates who are hired therefore have to be given the opportunity to learn these skills. Some companies still consider that students are taking their MBAs too young. The argument is that companies need young people in their 20s who are to an extent specialists, such as engineers and economists. It is not until they reach their 30s that they are likely to need the kind of broadening into general management that the MBA experience can provide. It is also one of the main reasons so many companies favour the part-time, consortium, executive and distance-learning programmes, which can fit better into a manager’s career at the appropriate time. It is the hot-house academic atmosphere of a full-time programme, designed to induce a radical change in outlook, that is responsible, many consider, for creating exaggerated expectations and later difficulties in adjustment.
A cultural fit for management consultants
Despite the dotcom craze, management consultancy and financial services are still significant MBA job markets. There is a reason. They attract MBA graduates not so much because of high salaries but because graduates can fit into the culture more easily. Such employers know what MBA graduates can do and how to use them effectively, and are prepared to pay the price. The graduates do not have to battle against antagonism or misunderstanding and there are likely to be others with similar backgrounds on the staff. Their academic training is suited to investigations in, for example, consultancy and mergers and acquisitions work.
The love affair between MBA graduates and management consultants, in the US at least, dates back to the 1970s when business schools were first told by corporate recruiters that they did not want applicants straight from undergraduate colleges. However, few companies were willing to invest in recruiting graduates from universities with a first degree, employing them for two years and then encouraging them to leave to go to business school with no guarantee of their return. The only people who did this were management consultants. First-degree graduates were recruited on the university “milk round” as research associates, encouraged to go to business school and then rerecruited as MBA graduates. Consequently, business schools found their applicant pools and recruitment base dominated by consulting. They also found that students with a consultancy background were more demanding, insisting, for example, on analytical “tool kits”. The curriculum was therefore geared more towards consultancy with a strong emphasis on strategy.
Few students joining consulting firms spend the rest of their lives there. Many are attracted by the high salaries, the lifestyle and the high-profile nature of the job, which allows them access to corporate life at the highest levels. Typically, many leave consulting for mainstream business after three or four years. But management consultants themselves know and almost expect this, and it is one reason for their being keen recruiters.
The traditional approach
The way more traditional employers assimilate new MBA graduates is to place them in central staff positions with roles such as strategic planning, where they are close to the levers of power and where their breadth of view can be put to good use. Special induction and training programmes are sometimes used, with a senior executive acting as a personal mentor. After a year or two they may be tested in line-management positions. Problems arise if the firm treats them like first-degree graduates. MBA graduates have more to offer and expectations based on this have to be met.