Does the world really need MBAs?

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop writing my thesis. Next to me were two students from Harvard’s Business School, that esteemed institution responsible for many of the managers who have been doing such a bang up job of running our nation’s financial system. They were going over a case for one of their classes, and from listening to them struggle with simple math, it was apparent that those two, who are at the best business school in the country, probably wouldn’t have lasted a minute in any graduate program in the hard sciences.

To begin with, I am skeptical of the very idea of having a management class that swoops in from their MBA school, sans real world experience, to manage companies. It seems to me it would make more sense to pick management from people inside a business who have demonstrated understanding and ability of the unique aspects of that industry.

From my admittedly distant vantage point, business school seems to train people not to truly lead, but to be the quickest in following the herd. Instead of giving us managers who learn a business and find ways to improve its product, it gives us a bunch of jar scrapers who do little of sustance but simply find increasingly clever ways to fool people into paying more for less using the latest management fad. You leverage your customer base into a value-added service relationship, or you outsource non-core competencies, or synergize across divisions, etc. Anything to goose the next quarter earnings growth. You put Snickers bars near the check out at Kinkos, but god forbid do you actually innovate and create something of unique, sustainable value.

Of course, you can’t expect them to do that, because true leadership isn’t something you pick up in a seminar, and acquiring the skills to really innovate in a meaningful way requires a tough slog through an actual technical education. Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for good managers, having worked under a few. But it can’t be taught in a class. Worse, the concept of business school means that our leadership class is an entirely self-selected group. Leadership should be a position that is earned, not self-anointed by one’s choice of graduate school.

In fact, give some thought to what kind of person even thinks it possible to become a valuable leader with two years of night school, and you begin to understand why corporate America is the fix it’s in. It’s no surprise so many of them cut corners ethically and focus on short term results at the expense of true sustainable value. When I was applying to grad school, I looked at the statistics of the GRE scores by major. Business majors scored lower than everybody; lower on Math than English majors, and lower on Verbal than Engineers. It seems the only qualification one has to have for leading people in corporate America is an inability to do much else.

This kind of pseudo leadership is epitomized by the well-documented decline of Hewlett-Packard under the erstwhile tenure of Carly Fiorina. This once great innovator that gave us the first handheld calculator was morphed into a company that sells cheap plastic printers at cost so that they can gouge consumers with ink at 1000% profit margins. Short term, that works as a way to make money. Long term, HP is never going to invent anything again, because after all the short-sighted cost cutting, their research labs are essentially defunct. Of course, a marketing consulting firm was probably paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with their “invent” slogan. The management class has no sense of their own self-created irony.

Like HP, many once great American businesses are essentially management consulting companies that happen to have inherited some intellectual property. Far out product development funding is decimated, and what remains is for management to scrape the bottom of the jar with marketing tactics, outsourcing, and whatever trivial refinements are allowed by their skeleton R&D departments. Looking naively at corporate profit growth in the US, the MBAs seem to be vindicated, but this growth has been illusory. They call it transforming America to a knowledge-based economy. I call it burning the furniture to heat the house. How much longer can we grow by shrinking?

Given the ubiquity of MBAs, it’s easy to forget that the very concept of business school didn’t come about until the early 20th century, and it didn’t take off until after the war. We managed, as a country, to produce some of the world’s greatest industrial achievements without the aid of MBAs. We built a transcontinental railroad, gave the world aviation, invented the automobile industry and modern assembly line manufacturing, all without a single business school graduate around to synergize or value-add anything.

I believe history will show that the concept of management school, and the notion of a management class that is self-selected by career choice and not demonstrated ability in a field, is a major failure. Maybe it’s time to rethink our pipeline for corporate management.

Obviously, any time one is talking about an entire group consisting of hundreds of thousands of people, you’re talking in approximations and on the average. Some of the great leaders I’ve met that I alluded to above actually had MBAs. My point is that they are great leaders not because they have MBAs, but because of their experiences and inclinations. In fact, the people I know who I respect the most with MBAs have very little respect themselves for the degree, which is where much of my skepticism about the degree originates.

3 thoughts on “Does the world really need MBAs?

  1. Fred Woodbridge

    Reading this quickens the pulse: you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head. As with lawyers, forget not that MBAs are essentially History or more dully, PoliSci majors with grease coated finger-tips grasp on rigorous intellectual work–I know, my two direct ancestors are both lawyers, as is (sniff!) Barack.

    Alas, many of America’s more disastrous ideas emanated directly after WWII. A slackening of standards, perhaps.

    1. Jonathan Post author

      Thanks, Fred! I’ve got a post on lawyers on the burner, but it’s hard for me to write about lawyers without getting too angry and meanspirited. Not that I was all that diplomatic about MBAs, but at least MBAs, if they do their jobs correctly, can help the world by organizing productive efforts. They usually don’t, but at least their job description isn’t indistinguishable from that of a tapeworm. Lawyers, on the other hand, simply cut up the pie and take a piece for themselves. I’d reckon only about 5% of them are needed for society to function, the rest are just parasites. (See what I mean about getting meanspirited?)

      By the way, my mother is a lawyer, though to her credit she only ever worked with kids and nonetheless ended up quitting after a few years.

  2. Mathieu Landry

    Amen (and I’m not religious). I wholeheartedly agree with your commentary. For some reason, I remain skeptical the masses will get the point and that is slightly dispirinting. I will go get a coffee and eat a muffin to cheer myself up. All the best.

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