Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Survey Says

GMAC shared the results this month of a global survey of MBA graduates 
GMAC is best known to MBA students and graduates for administering the GMAT, often a formidable hurdle when applicants decide to take two years off to immerse themselves in business school.  But the organization is more than a mere exam-process vehicle.  It is engaged, for example, in in-depth research in business education.

This month, it published the results of an extensive global survey to share what business-school graduates from around the world say they obtained from having earned an MBA degree.  What did they gain in terms of compensation, productive work experiences, and promotion paths toward the top? What were the most important skills they used in business experiences? What specific skills were important at various points in a long career?

Over 12,000 respondents replied to survey questions last fall.  They included MBA alumni from over 70 schools all over the globe, most of whom attended U.S. business schools, many in familiar two-year, full-time programs. Graduates from 1959-2014 were represented. Graduates in age from 25-75 were included. GMAC asked questions that encompass a multi-decade career and asked questions relevant to those just a year away from campus. It probed to determine whether business-school knowledge was more relevant in latter career stages than in the beginning. And it asked graduates whether or not certain courses are more important in senior corporate positions than in entry roles. 

Respondents attended a wide spectrum of business schools (which means a range of MBA experiences and curricula).  They included graduates of MBA executive programs, one-year programs, regional schools, and those brand-name elite schools with 3-5 times more applicants than spots for students (including Consortium schools).  The survey, hence, drew conclusions based on the input from, say, a septugenarian MBA graduate from a local business school in the 1960's, from 1990's graduates of prominent schools in Europe or from those who just stepped from the halls of, say, Dartmouth-Tuck or UCLA-Anderson a year or two ago.

But praise the organization's comprehensive efforts.  While the MBA evolves and adapts to the times, there is common ground for most MBA graduates. There are common experiences in school, common core courses, and a common immersion into factors (markets, finance, economics) that affect business performance.  The survey results suggest, for MBA's, there is long-term value. 

Survey Shortcomings?

Like all surveys, there are flaws or short-comings, even in the GMAC survey.  Graduates who are doing well professionally or have done well over many decades may be more eager to take the time to complete a long list of questions and share their stories of promise and good fortune and report their upward-sloping compensation ranges.  As well, measurements of "success," "accomplishment" or "senior management" benchmarks are often a function of personal experiences, values and objectives.

Furthermore, the good or bad fortune of graduates is influenced by other matters besides hard work, preparation, and business-school knowledge.  Notably, an indefinite number of factors unrelated to the MBA can explain "success," including the economy, an industry's product timeline, market timing and plain ole good luck, being in the right place at right time (or being at the right place, but in the wrong time, as many 2008-10 MBA graduates would attest). And even in 2015, bias, nepotism and old-school fraternal ties might come into play. 

Summarizing the Results

Yet like many surveys, there are some intriguing trends and worthwhile messages.  Some of them are highlighted here:

1.  The more senior they rise within an organization, the more likely MBA graduates will admit they use knowledge and skills obtained from business school. 

This suggests a notion many have stated all along--that MBA learning focuses on senior leadership, senior management, and global businesses. Business schools are often praised for teaching students to become sector leaders, business heads and chiefs of finance and marketing. 

But the same schools are often chastised for not reminding new graduates that the road toward the top will be long and hard, and years of dues-paying grunt work will likely precede end-of-career success at the top of the organization chart. 

Survey results show that as business-school graduates become more accomplished over time, they more readily acknowledged that the analytical and management skills they were exposed to as MBA students helped prepare them for current, senior roles.  A public-policy, real-estate or operations-research course might seem irrelevant to a first-year associate, but the head of Asia operations will more likely say exposure to those courses long ago helped. A second-year brand manager at a major consumer-products company may not appreciate her intermediate accounting course until she becomes a business-unit head responsible for a substantial balance sheet and bottom line. 

2.  Recent MBA graduates (more than older graduates), the survey suggests, say professional and alumni networks have helped propel their careers (win coveted job offers or get early promotions). 

Such sentiments might suggest the difficulties MBA graduates of the last decade have confronted, when financial crises, recessions, and massive restructuring across many industries meant graduates had to push beyond MBA credentials to find the best opportunities. Meanwhile, more experienced MBA alumni, established in their roles, may not need to rely as much on networks and contacts.

3.  The survey concludes that more experienced MBA graduates, especially those who have advanced to the highest rungs in organizations, are more likely to feel comfortable with taking risks in their careers.

They are more willing to embrace innovation and change, more willing to be pro-active in business strategy and more tolerant regarding risks of all kinds (financial risks, market risks, business risks and social risks). 

Many inferences can be drawn from the results, although not necessarily conclusively. Some will argue it's easier to take risks early in a career, when reputations have not yet been molded and when graduates have fewer family constraints and can start, stop and transition elsewhere without significant responsibility.  

But these survey results may imply: 

(a) Those who are the types who embrace and gravitate toward risk-taking, business execution, challenge and change are more likely to advance high in their industries, firms or companies. (They advanced because they were risk-taking.)

(b) Those who have reached those highest rungs also have the experience, confidence and financial resources to be able to take risks they may not have been able to when they were strivers still seeking to show competence. (The are risk-taking now because they have advanced.)

4.  For most of those who work in conventional corporate settings, there are few timeline short cuts to "C-suite" positions (CEO, CFO, chief marketing officer, chief information officer, chief risk officer, etc.). 

Survey results say it takes about 17 years of related work experience to reach the top of an organization, business unit or sector. The average age is 48, and the survey tells us something we already know well--that the officer in their C-suite slot is likely to be male.  

5.  Large numbers of MBA graduates today don't work for mega-corporations. They (about 12% of those surveyed) are entrepreneurs or are self-employed.  MBA entrepreneurs tended to be those in technology or products.  Those self-employed tended to be consultants. Vast amounts of the survey might have been irrelevant to them. The survey, nonetheless, allowed them to opine and reflect on their MBA degrees, as well.  

Many in this group describe themselves as being slightly less risk-taking than those in C-suite positions. 

That contrasts from popular notions that entrepreneurs and owners of their companies are those with unlimited courage, willing to tackle business and financial risks boldly.  Like others, they attribute parts of their success stories to business-school learning. They take risks, they acknowledged, but they are measured, calculated risks, especially because they are singularly responsible for employees and accountable to demanding lenders and investors (venture capitalists, banks, and funding backers who want a five-year payout).

6.  About 17% of survey respondents work in finance.

They survey shows that the oldest MBA alumni worked more prominently in finance (about 20% for graduates before 1990).  For later graduates, the global MBA workforce in finance has remained flat, notwithstanding the financial debacle of the late 2000's.

MBA graduates in greater numbers are  marching into technology and consulting (17% and 12%, respectively, over the last five years).  The most notable decline is the significant decrease in recent alumni (over the past five years) choosing government and non-profit positions. 

Those in finance, as expected, are working in financial centers around the world:  Singapore, Japan, New York, and London, e.g. 

7.  As alumni, what do MBA graduates want from their alma maters?  The survey shows they don't want to be harrassed too much about how much they aren't donating to their business schools.

Meanwhile, they prefer their schools offer alumni seminars in business strategy, business analysis, and data science.  They also want continuing access to career-development offices, alumni networking events, and more contact with professors on campus. 

Of the 12,000 graduates participating in the survey, about 70% graduated within the past 15 years and 70% are from the U.S.  About 69% were male, reflecting a surprisingly woeful lack of gender balance at the MBA level (and contributing to a scarcity of women who enter the pipeline from MBA associate to sector head).

Expanding the Survey?

The GMAC survey omitted many questions and topics it could have (or should have?) covered.  No doubt it needed to present a polished, easy-to-check-the-box list of questions, one for which there are discrete answers and which would not be time-consuming for survey-challenged executives. For the sake of efficiency, it avoided topics where responses are ambivalent or deserving far more than a multiple-choice selection.

The survey, for example, didn't provide breakdowns among some segments of alumni--women and under-represented minorities, for example, although there was ample categorization based on geographies and industries.

It would have been informative, for example, to review trends and signs of success among Latino graduates or to review the MBA skills women in senior roles saw as affording them a big advantage in pushing their careers. It could have provided hard data about trends among African-Americans in corporate hierarchies and compensation. And it could have confirmed whether the pipeline to senior leadership is dwindling or promising. 

The survey, too, didn't give alumni a chance to opine on the future of MBA education:  What should business schools focus on? How should courses be taught and in what format and timeline?  What should be in a first-year student's core? How much emphasis should schools put in online offerings, international experiences, operations and management topics, ethics, politics, and psychology?

GMAC is already doing research and sharing its finding on many of these topics.  The 2014 effort was likely about getting maximum participation from the largest number of respondents possible, from all over the world and from all ages and letting the data alone speak.

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