Building the perfect leader

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MBAs and Masters

Anne Ross-Smith has extensive experience in tertiary education. She was involved for many years with the University of Technology, Sydney MBA program as head of the School of Management, she studied a Masters degree at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, and is now Director of Graduate Studies at Macquarie University’s Faculty of Business and Economics. If anyone is in a position to assess the pros and cons of executive education – particularly at post-graduate university level – it is her.

With literally hundreds of short courses, Masters degrees, MBAs and other business education offerings, it’s hardly a surprise that some candidates – who may have been out of the education loop for many years since they completed their undergrad degree – find it confusing.

“There are a lot of courses on offer,” concedes Ross-Smith. “Those who have been in the workforce for a number of years and are perhaps thinking about their career – usually it’s a career change or career improvement – are typically in the 25-40 age bracket. They may be confused about what choice to take. However, my experience is that they make sure they do become very well informed before they make that choice.”

What do students assess? Ross-Smith says the number one factor is the value for money proposition. With high-end MBAs offered by Melbourne Business School and Sydney University costing up to $100,000, it’s a significant financial investment usually borne out of the student’s own pocket (although employers that sponsor students to undertake further education will often reimburse them).

The prestige of the institution, the reputation of the teaching, the reputation for where it can lead post degree – where your career path might go, how much extra income you may earn as a result of having a post-grad qualification – all become part of the mix of this complicated decision making.

Another important consideration is work-life balance. “This generation of upcoming business leaders are concerned about balancing home life with work life and stud. Many women also undertake post-grad business courses, so in some instances that often transcends the reputation of the institution. The key concern becomes, is it close to home or close to work?” says Ross-Smith.

There are three categories for post-grad Masters in business. Most tertiary providers offer these or slight variations:

  • MBA – a generalist degree – in terms of course structure there’s a heavy concentration on development to become a general manager. It can take up to four years or more of part-time study. ‘Executive MBAs’ are specifically designed for senior executives or those aspiring to be senior executives. The focus is typically on ‘executive’ leadership. These typically take two years part-time study.

  • Professional Masters – (eg Master of Accounting or Master of Economics). Fast-track and intensive, these programs offer an executive-style qualification directly relevant to career environments. Time to complete: between 12 and 18 months full-time study or part-time equivalent.
  • Generalist Masters – (eg Master of Commerce, Master of Business). Sometimes these have majors, such as HRM or marketing. However, there can be an option for students to complete a general track – at Macquarie University it’s called a Master of Commerce with no specialization. Most comprize of coursework, project work and research in varying combinations. They are designed to enhance professional skills or help you acquire a deeper understanding of a specific area of knowledge. Time to complete varies due to the range of entry pathways, but most require the equivalent of two years’ full-time study.

“Your classic MBA student was an engineer or an accountant who found themselves in a management position after many years of working in those professions, and lacking skills in general management. That’s changed significantly. Although I still find many people from those professional backgrounds in my classrooms, students now come from a wide range of professions – doctors, nurses, lawyers. I once had a well known rugby coach moving into the management area and needed the skills,” says Ross-Smith.

She adds that typically, for a student weighing up whether to undertake an MBA or generalist Masters, it often comes down to what undergraduate degree they have done. For those who have done an undergraduate business degree (as opposed to an Arts degree or other), an MBA is not a logical follow-on.

“If you’ve got an undergraduate Bachelor of Business degree why would you then do an MBA? You’ve already got the basic skill sets. What makes students do the MBA is that often the marketplace demands it. But if I was advising someone who had an undergrad business degree, I’d say you’ve got your skills there, why not think about specializing in an area you’re working in or see your future in?” suggests Ross-Smith.

Both a Generalist Masters or an MBA are viable options for HR professionals, Ross-Smith says. “If they’re working in the field of HRM and they don’t have a background in that area, they may seek to do a Master of Management or Master of Business in HRM – there are a few straight Masters of HRM around but not many. These Masters enable the student to focus on HR in more depth with a view to building their career in that profession. 

The majority of MBAs, on the other hand, don’t have a fully prescribed set of units – some have six, others nine, others 10, but most will offer 12-16 subjects, leaving the option for a student who’s interested in a particular specialism to take 3-4 units in that area. That means the student graduates with an MBA but might have a sub-major in HR. “It really comes down to student choice here – weighing up the various value propositions,” suggests Ross-Smith.

Ross-Smith is an advocate of face-to-face learning and the peer networking opportunities that presents, and she says that knowledge of what a student’s peers or colleagues are doing does play a role in influencing study choices. However, she suggests that the one thing students don’t do enough of is ask what their employer is interested in.

“If I was embarking on a Masters I would be talking to my supervisor, my work colleagues, the HR department, to find out things like the pragmatics of doing it, their experiences, what the career path options might be if I have a Masters, whether they would be more inclined to advise me to do an MBA or a Generalist Masters, depending on where they see my career going. 

“For $2,500-3,000 per subject, 12 subjects in a degree, it’s a big personal investment. You want to be sure you’re making the right choice.”

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