MBA programs turning out ‘unqualified elite’

World-renowned management academic Henry Mintzberg takes apart MBA education

At his most generous, management professor Henry Mintzberg of McGill University likes to say that teaching management to someone who has never managed is like teaching psychology to someone who hasn’t met another human being.

When not so kind, Mintzberg will point to the MBA and link it to much of what’s wrong in the corporate world, from the way it rewards ambitious neophytes seeking a shortcut to the top, through to the way it convinces CEOs that they can jump from one industry to another and still deliver shareholder value without having to spend time learning the business.

“MBAs create a kind of self-serving managerial elite,” said Mintzberg in an interview with Canadian HR Reporter. “They train people to believe that they’re prepared to manage anything, which means that they’re not tied or committed to the contexts they’re managing necessarily.”

Mintzberg’s critique of MBAs in his new book, Managers Not MBAs, begins with business school curricula. Since the first business school was set up at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881, schools have tended to devote the bulk of course time to teaching functional specialties — marketing, finance, production. What has been absent is a more integrative approach that looks at management through various social science disciplines like psychology and economics, writes Mintzberg.

And in place of management, they tend to teach strategy, reducing managing to analysis and decision-making. “Business becomes a collection of functions; strategy, a set of generic strategies and competitive analyses; even people become analytical things,” writes Mintzberg.

What managing is, to Mintzberg, is the messy, chaotic job of dealing with a constant churn of problems, all the while motivating employees and facilitating their work. It’s a job that demands of managers no small amount of tacit knowledge and soft skills like intuition, communication and collaboration — the stuff learned only through experience.

Most business schools don’t require managerial experience among their recruits. Some will take in greenhorns who have scant experience in the workforce, let alone managing others. What MBA recruits tend to share in common, writes Mintzberg, is the belief that leading is better than following.

“In fact, many people apply to MBA programs not just to move up but to move out — to find a better job somewhere else; in other words, to get away from the source of whatever limited experience they do have. Should that be telling us something?”

Compensating for the lack of experience among their charges, schools claim to bring learning close to the real world by emphasizing case studies as a pedagogical tool. As a result, students may be expected to digest several 10- to 20-page synopses of businesses at some sort of crossroads and pronounce an opinion on a preferred strategy the next day, writes Mintzberg. He tells of a student told not to come to class again if he wasn’t prepared to make a decision, the rationale being that good management students have to take a stand.

The problem with this approach, writes Mintzberg, is that it distorts the notion of management. “Effective managers do more than talk, convince and make decisions; they create events, by leaving their offices, getting involved, stimulating others; they see and feel, experience and test, first hand.”

Mintzberg looks for the damaging consequences of this distorted notion of managing at the top: CEOs. Trained to be self-assured in their analytical decision-making despite knowing neither the business of the organizations they head nor the craft of implementing and managing people, MBA-trained CEOs too often damage the companies they were brought in to lead — often by favouring big, dramatic moves like mergers or layoffs, the strategies taught in business schools or copied from another business in another industry.

In sum, “the MBA confers important advantages on many of the wrong people. Put differently, people should be earning their managerial stripes on the job; their progress should not be speeded up by their having spent time in any classroom,” writes Mintzberg.

Many of those who fast-tracked to the top may find the “very characteristics that have gotten (them) into senior positions undermine their performance once there: They are too smart, too fast, too confident, too self-serving, and too disconnected.”

Allan Conway, program director of the MBA Roundtable, an industry body representing about 200 business schools in Canada and the United States, said although Mintzberg can be unfair in not recognizing the efforts schools have made to improve their curricula, his critiques shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Due to market pressures on business schools, however, some of the problems Mintzberg highlighted will get worse, not better, said Conway, also associate dean of University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. As applications for full-time two-year programs have declined in recent years, schools are forced to increase their intake of students with no working experience. At the same time, the pressure on faculty to publish or perish has grown, not fallen; business school professors are hence under greater pressure to spend time on research and not course preparation, he added.

“I would say there’s truth to much of the criticisms,” said Conway, adding however that he disagrees with Mintzberg’s attack on case studies. “Putting people in front of multiple case studies in quick time gets them used to deciding what’s important, or at least how to get through things quickly to get to what’s important.”

It also helps people see patterns across industries, said Conway, noting that a shortcoming of learning through experience is that it limits the manager’s learning to what he sees at one company, in one industry.

Brian Bemmels, associate dean of academic programs at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, noted that business schools have been moving towards an integrative approach and away from the teaching of disparate functions as Mintzberg says.

And in response to the connection Mintzberg makes between the collapse of Enron and 250-some MBAs it hired yearly in the 1990s, “to me that’s not good analysis,” said Bemmels. “I’m sure there are other large multinational corporations that hired 250 MBAs a year and didn’t have problems. To try to blame all that on an MBA is unfair.”

Latest stories