PracticePeople In PracticeMBAs – Broadening your options with an MBA.

MBAs - Broadening your options with an MBA.

While MBA recruitment has fallen dramatically with the downturn, the qualification remains popular. Mary Huntington looks at its relevance for consultancy and finds that, while it is not vital, the combination of learning and experience remains a powerful one.

Although MBAs are expensive to undertake, the step change in salary and career progression has traditionally been significant. But the downturn has hit the prospects of MBA graduates hard. Laura Sibbons, associate director responsible for MBA and consulting careers at the London Business School, says things are bleak. “Normally around 37% of graduates go into consultancy but this year there are virtually no consultancy jobs in London and opportunities worldwide are down. We saw offers deferred and withdrawn last summer and a much smaller recruitment profile in October.”

And sources suggest that 60% of the summer promotion from Insead left without a job and the school sent out a letter to alumni asking for help.

Barrie Dennett, a senior partner with research and recruitment firm ADD-Resources thinks that changes in the industry may affect MBA recruitment in the long term. “We have the sense that there will be a lot of restructuring, particularly in the wake of Enron. I suspect firms will still want to recruit top MBAs in the future but possibly not in the same numbers. Fewer firms want to buy strategy when the economy is in the state it’s in. They want cost-cutting, performance improvement and so on. To deliver that you need people with experience, who have been there and done it before.”

Despite the downturn, however, business schools have seen a significant increase in applications: at LBS it was a rise of 47% this year.

So what are the advantages of an MBA? The general view is that an MBA is a broadening experience, giving a good overview of business and how it operates, analytical and problem solving skills, the ability to work in teams and international groups and an excellent network of contacts.

The qualification can be a springboard to a high-flying and lucrative career. LBS graduates going into consultancy last year received average salaries of #65K and sign-on bonuses of #18K to #20K, says Sibbons. But the two-year course will have set them back around #60K. And salaries look set to be lower this year.

Deloitte Consulting recruits between 200 and 300 MBA graduates globally each year, says Jeremy Franks, European director of HR. “This is important for the profile of the organisation, for the breadth that MBA graduates can bring, and for the networks they provide as well. That is an important part of our business development strategy.”

While the firm has cut back on overall numbers with the downturn, it hasn’t cut back on its commitment to bring in seed corn at graduate level and MBAs as well, he says. Deloitte focuses its European recruitment activity on LBS and Insead, and is intent on building long-term relationships with those institutions, he adds.

The fact that consultancy firms like Deloitte target only the top schools should be borne in mind by would-be students, says Chris Sale, a director of recruitment consultancy Prism, as these are very difficult to get into. “There are a number of business schools perceived to have significant value but beyond that the MBA is of incremental value – a string to the bow. What you need to consider is not only the actual cost of the course but also the cost of supporting yourself and the opportunity costs – how well would you have done in terms of career progression if you had remained with your employer? And ask yourself what level of confidence you have that you will be materially better off, in terms of salary and insights to make you better at your job?”

An alternative is a part-time or distance learning MBA. This is something that consultancies will consider for individuals, says KMPG’s Tomlinson-Roe, and tends to be undertaken later than a full-time MBA. “People within KPMG may be sponsored to do an MBA as part of their professional development. This is dependent on the provision of an business case demonstrating benefit to the individual and the firm,” he says. For junior consultants who have joined the firm at a relatively young age with a first degree, this tends to be discussed at some point, depending on what their career ambition is, he adds.

He says it is very important for individuals to understand what they want out of an MBA when they embark upon it. “I don’t agree with development for the sake of it. There needs to be an objective from both the individual and organisation’s perspective. And there must be an analysis of what knowledge, skills and experience the individual needs to enable them to meet their career objective. If they have a general management ambition the MBA remains a very good platform but it is not the panacea to everything.”

Deloitte Consulting also has a sponsorship programme in place, says Franks. “Occasionally people want to do an MBA and we will support a number of them. We don’t throw it around like candy but there are some good people who will have a long-term future in the firm that we are very happy to support.”

There are several problems here, however. Part-time learning does not fit well with the consultancy lifestyle and client commitments, says Sale. And Sibbons agrees. “Distance learning is an easier option because it is much less formally structured and much of the work can be done under your own steam,” she says. But there is a trade-off. “You lose the sense of community learning and teamwork and the benefits of mixing with different cultures (many MBA students come from overseas). And for many companies that global networking is an key part of the course.”

Deloitte’s sponsorship may be on full-time courses or by distance learning, says Franks. Whichever way an MBA is done, he adds, it is very challenging, “but doing it by any other means than full-time requires huge commitment.” Franks is convinced that the people who gain most from an MBA are those with experience, who can apply the learning and add richness to the discussions.

But sponsoring people through MBAs can be risky for their employers. Says Sibbons: “It is quite normal for strategy houses to put people on MBA courses – the challenge is to get them back.” Around 20% of LBS’s promotion last year were from consultancies; only 43% of those returned to the sector, though not necessarily to their erstwhile employers. “If they have done consultancy straight from university and then an MBA, they may want to spread their wings and move into industry. That is not unusual,” she says.

Tomlinson-Roe agrees. “My experience is that mid-career MBAs tend to leave their current organisations. From my class of 26 (he did an MBA at Ashridge in 1998), 22 have changed jobs since.”

He attributes this to the effect that the breadth of knowledge acquired on an MBA has on people, particularly those from a relatively singular background. “Often the light switch goes on in terms of what they want to do and triggers the thought that they are more likely to be able to do it if they break the mould of the past and join a new company.”

For the sponsoring company, however, this is bad news. “An investment in an MBA is not a light thing for an organisation – a programme can cost up to £36,000 – so they will commonly say we’ll sponsor you to an extent but if you leave within two years of completion you have to repay us.”

He sees the qualification as extremely helpful in consultancy but not a must-have. “What’s really important for KPMG is deep industry experience as well as functional and subject competence. But an MBA helps hugely in demonstrating to clients that you understand their business and how it works.”

Deloitte’s Franks agrees that an MBA is not essential for a long-term consultancy career: “It is not a prerequisite for partnership. The emphasis there is on the contribution to the business, which might be enhanced by an MBA, but there are some very high quality people without one.”

The fact that consultancies try to promote close links with particular business schools is well known. Deloitte Consulting, for example, focuses on LBS and Insead, in Europe while McKinsey has a special arrangement with Insead, whereby people can almost do an MBA by sandwich course. It also has input at LBS, according to Laura Sibbons. “People in the faculty have worked with McKinsey to incorporate its methodology into the programme so that students get to understand the problem-solving process.”

Sibbons differentiates between the strategy firms, like McKinsey, and those for whom strategy is only part of the equation. Not surprisingly, she says, different firms have a slight bias in terms of some of the skillsets they look for. “They all want creative, good problem-solving individuals but previous industry experience is more valuable to the likes of Accenture than it would be at BCG, for example.”

A recent meeting between members of the Management Consultancies Association and representatives of the business schools offers some further insight. Says Sarah Taylor, deputy director at the MCA: ‘We concluded that the content of the MBA needs reviewing in line with changes in the industry. For example, we talked about the huge growth of outsourcing and the emphasis in firms like Accenture on more implementation-led projects. MBA students often come out thinking they are going straight onto high level strategy whereas a lot of the work within big firms is much more around benefits realisation, cost reduction and implementations. So they don’t just want emphasis on pure strategy.”

On the other side of the table, Jonathan Slack, CEO of the Association of Business Schools, got the message that the firms were looking for a broader range of consultancy experience. “We did discuss the idea of trying to target particular MBA programmes towards consultancy but the whole point of the MBA is that it is a broadening experience,” he says. “One or two of the consultancies were saying ‘we have taken bright, young MBAs in the past and we value their creativity and fresh thinking’, but then were critical because they hadn’t got experience. We found that rather curious – that what they espoused was not what they were actually looking for.” However, it became clear that the consultancies are taking a global view. “Arguably, many US MBAs are much younger and not genuinely post-experience,” he says. But Slack does feel that it is a case of the firms aligning their actual recruitment requirements with their policies. “They seem to be commited to three schools in Europe and don’t look at anything else. But the sorts of individuals they say they are looking for probably exist in larger numbers in other schools.”

Mary Huntington is a freelance journalist

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