Full time MBA

Rage against the MBA: Why some CEOs praise MBAs and others don’t

By Liz Rosenberg

Not all CEOs have MBAs. Some, like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, don’t even have BAs. Steve Jobs famously said during his 2005 Stanford commencement speech that, “dropping out of college was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

But, then there are CEOs like Tim Cook, Warren Buffett, and Barbara J. Desoer (MBA 77) who hold MBAs from top business schools and continue to support their alma mater and the value of advanced degrees. A recent study by Harvard Business Review shows more than 30 percent of the top-performing CEOs in the global marketplace have an MBA.

With great divides between education level and success, what are the arguments for and against obtaining advanced degrees to support career achievements?

Get out of it what you put in

Advanced degrees aren’t for everyone. Not every career path requires an MBA. Not everyone has the determination and grit to withstand the challenges that accompany earning an MBA. But for those who are dedicated to advancing specific components of their business acumen to reach a predetermined professional milestone, a top MBA program can be life-changing.

This is especially true when you’re an active participant in classroom discussions, and student life, which can strengthen your network, improve hard and soft skills, and broaden your perspective.

Warren Buffett told the Nebraska Business magazine in 2001, “If you are interested in business, or likely to be in business, an MBA is very useful. But, what is really important is what you bring to a class in terms of being interested in the subject.”

In an MBA program, your classroom will be filled with students of different professional backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, ages, religions, languages, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, political perspectives, socioeconomic statuses, and geographic regions. The diversity in an MBA classroom allows you to learn new thought structures, hear from students with varied experiences, explore new ideas, and improve your critical thinking abilities. The more you give to your MBA program, the more you will receive.

Welcome the real world into the classroom

A common hesitation with MBA programs is that a classroom has order and predictability, whereas real-world experience is messy and unpredictable.

However, top business schools with deep connections in their communities bring real-world experience into the classroom. For example, Berkeley’s Startup Lab, organized by 60 Berkeley students gives students the chance to work on real-world strategic business challenges startups face. In fact, Ben Ferrara, MBA 15, worked on the launch of San Francisco-based delivery service, Munchery, while in his Startup Lab.

The Startup Lab is a part of the applied innovation initiative at Berkeley--a program to ensure students are getting the most out of their MBA experience.

These hands-on opportunities are especially useful if you are working to improve your skills in highly specialized areas like corporate leadership or international business development. An MBA will empower you with the skills you need to participate and excel in the workforce post-graduation.

Understand leadership is more than data points

Critics of MBAs think that while many programs specialize in the training of critical functions of business, they don’t dig deep enough into the actual practice of managing. Instead, MBAs focus too much on data and analytics and need to allow more space for developing human-centric skills.

On the contrary, one of the most signification qualification standards to enter an MBA program is experience in leadership, something that’s difficult for students to have in their portfolio until they’ve been in the workforce for a few years. This is a purposeful requirement because exposure to the modern workforce allows students to gain a better understanding of their own leadership abilities (or lack thereof) to maximize their learning experience.

Perhaps previous work experience has shown that you:

  • Aren’t being shortlisted for the roles you want
  • Don’t feel taken seriously at work and want new ways to demonstrate your abilities
  • Lack hard or soft skills to be effective in your role

By internalizing shortcomings, you can focus on how to improve during an MBA program.

For example, Rachel Adams, MBA 17, says, “In my experiential Startup Lab I learned the value of working on your weaknesses, rather than just playing to your strengths.” While pursuing her MBA, Adams learned, “As people advance in their careers, they often try to seem perfect to their colleagues. What I saw from my teachers, classmates, and the business leaders we worked with was that authenticity gets you much further, and that recognizing and communicating both your strengths and weaknesses is key to authentic leadership.”

There are few other academic programs which develop these management skills in the same way as an MBA.

Strategically enhance your career trajectory

Getting a job post-graduation is not a guarantee, nor is an immediate salary increase. However, an MBA will give you the ability to accurately assess your opportunities before jumping into a stifling situation. For instance, as you weigh your career options post-grad, how can you be sure you’re jumping on a wise opportunity? Or should you pass?

  • Does the company you’re considering have a reputation for taking smart risks?
  • Does the innovation of the company match your expertise?
  • Does the executive team have a history of making market advancements or being on the forefront of new ideas?
  • How easy is it for you to make contributions within the company?
  • Do you have connections within your network that can vouch for the company?

Don’t waste time on opportunities that won’t further your career, or involve yourself with companies who restrain your growth. Instead, learn how to assess opportunities for long-term happiness and job satisfaction by finding an organization that continues to feed the professional development you’ve nurtured over the course of two years in business school.

Focus on execution

The argument against MBA graduates is that they spend too much time analyzing problems and organizing recommendations with too little emphasis on executing a solution. And, success depends on execution.

MBA programs will dispute this argument. Without the ability to get things done, an organization won’t survive. To emphasize this need, top business schools will teach you a series of techniques and questions that help assess the most logical solutions and pathways to execute, no matter what the problem is.

According to Kriya Chantalat, EMBA 16, an executive MBA was an excellent way for her to learn about execution and making decisions that impacted the big picture. “Accounting is a role where you know the ‘what’ and the ‘how’—this is what we’ve done and how we got here,” she say. “For a CFO, it’s about the ‘where’ and the ‘why.’ Where are we heading, and why? That’s more strategic and visionary.”

By learning strategic decision-making methods, you’re more equipped to solve big problems and make accurate, snap decisions to further your organization's success.

What’s your stance on obtaining an MBA? If zeroing in on your business and leadership abilities to improve your career trajectory in business is a part of your plan, let us help you. Learn more about Berkeley's MBA program today.

Posted on June 13, 2019
Themes: Applying
Liz Rosenberg
Liz was Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Full-time MBA Program at Berkeley Haas from 2018-2019. She holds an MBA from Boston University and came to Haas after gaining years of experience in retail for Gap and Gymboree, in financial services for Putnam Investments, as well as engaging in significant non-profit volunteer work. Prior to joining the Full-time Berkeley MBA Program, she spent 7 years in admissions for Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals. She loves her work in admissions because of the connections she's able to develop with students, all of whom bring such amazing diversity of personal and professional experience to the program.