Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development
By Henry Mintzberg
"HOW do you teach managers to manage? Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management at McGill University in Montreal, has long held a contrary view to that proposed by most business schools. In this constantly stimulating book he divides his answer into two parts: first, he argues that the traditional qualification, the Masters of Business Administration (MBA), is the wrong way—he says it “prepares people to manage nothing”. Then he expounds what he believes is the right way: an imprecise mix of personal reflection and the sharing of experience.
Mr Mintzberg finds fault with the emphasis that many MBA programmes place on frenetic case studies which encourage students to come up with rapid answers based on meagre data. But more than that, he criticises them for their concentration on dry analysis. Such courses, he says, enable their graduates to “speak convincingly in a group of 40 to 90 people”, and make them believe they can leapfrog over experience. That, though, is not the sum total of what is required to manage a complex commercial organisation.
Synthesis, not analysis, argues Mr Mintzberg, “is the very essence of management”. On several occasions he cites Robert McNamara, once president of the Ford Motor Company and a United States secretary of defence in the 1960s, as the archetypal MBA, a man who thought that even in Vietnam “generic analysis could substitute for situational knowledge”. More recently, the qualification has been thrown into deeper disrepute by the heavy dependence of companies such as Enron on MBA recruits. Its former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, currently awaiting trial on 36 charges of fraud and insider trading, liked to boast that he came in the top 5% of his MBA class at the Harvard Business School.
And yet, if the MBA is so bad at teaching management, how come America has far more successful businesses than Europe and Japan, areas of the world that are significantly less enthusiastic about such methods of learning? Leaving aside the unprovable rejoinder that American firms would have done even better without the MBA, Mr Mintzberg argues that any list of America's most admired corporate leaders is heavily loaded with people who don't have the qualification: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jack Welch, Michael Dell and Andy Grove, to name but a few. The fact that some 40% of the bosses of America's biggest companies today have an MBA is, he claims, largely due to the fact that the system is self-perpetuating. “Enabling Harvard to place so many people at the top is the fact that Harvard already has so many people at the top.”
Mr Mintzberg is not alone these days in questioning the value of the traditional MBA. Leading consultants such as McKinsey and Mercer are spreading their recruitment net much more widely. Mercer's London office says that one year's in-house training enables young graduates to “run circles round newly minted MBAs”. In its February issue, the Harvard Business Review (no less) said that “an arts degree is now perhaps the hottest credential in the world of business”, with corporate recruiters trawling places such as the Rhode Island School of Design.
“Managers not MBAs” throws a stone into the often complacent world of management education. It should be required reading for anyone who has the qualification, wants one, or just wonders what all the fuss is about."