Confessions of an MBA Student

Financial TimesLast year Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, earned $183,500. With bonuses included, this is almost exactly what a graduating MBA now expects to be paid to create PowerPoint slides for a bank or consulting firm. But don’t expect them to look happy about it.

We (I graduated four days ago from Insead) have taken our core negotiation course, plus optional salary-negotiation masterclasses and we know that all first offers, no matter how generous, should be viewed as only inching their way into the ballpark of respectability. No wonder recruiters think we are arrogant.

According to the 2007 survey of recruiters run by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, the key gripes of MBA recruiters are about our unrealistic expectations, both in terms of salary and level of job. MBA hires are routinely perceived to be strong on analysis but weaker on interpersonal skills.

If ever a process were designed to inflate the self image of those going through it, business school is it. Before applying we peruse the tables of recent graduates’ salaries and sign-on bonuses and read about the “truly world-class business talent” that employers come to business school to hire. And the tables do not lie. Potential employers do indeed greet us en masse at nightly cocktail events.

We are showered with attention, from corporate USB keys to invitations for get-to-know-you coffee chats. Soon we are happily filing our job applications, explaining to McKinsey, Google and three dozen others how their company might just be the right next step for us.

Perhaps this is simply evidence of the euphoria of the last few inches of the upswing. Certainly, recruitment in banking will be less exuberant next year. But it also says something about the process of MBA education.

The huge expansion of business education in the past two decades is a function of the schools’ success in spinning ever faster the virtuous circle of recruitment. As schools place more and more graduates into higher-paid jobs, the more the salary expectations glitter and the more capable candidates flow in. Some recruiters cannot afford to play this game, so many schools end up funnelling the bulk of their classes into the banks and consulting firms that can.

The truth about people entering business school is that, at least when we arrive, we feel nothing like the global business leaders of tomorrow. Some of us are under-confident over-achievers. Others are smart people somehow stalled in their careers.

Some are looking to make a decisive switch from banking to consulting, or the other way round. All are committed to paying the fees and suffering the workload. And motivating us is easy – just set up a competitive grading system and stand clear as we stampede to claim our place at the top of the class.

We are also attracted by prestige. MBA student clubs, while often short on action, are never without treasurers, co-presidents and long lists of executive officers. No one of course wants to make phone calls or lick stamps – can’t you see we are heading for the boardroom not the mailroom?

But perhaps the education itself is somehow responsible for this sense of entitlement.

The cornerstone of MBA pedagogy, pioneered in 1912 at Harvard Business School, is the case study. For the uninitiated, a case is a short business fable, usually accompanied by reams of data, detailing a business dilemma of some kind. Students analyse the situation through the eyes of the protagonist and decide on a strategy.

Initially, the cases are baffling. They address unfamiliar roles in strange industries and it is not immediately clear how my experience in financial publishing qualifies me to optimise the smelting of iron ore in a plant in Trinidad. Soon, however, with eight weeks of operations classes under our belts, you can’t shut us up.

Truthfully, if you are interested at all in business you cannot help but find cases fascinating and the process by which we find ourselves confidently opining on them is positively scary.

But sometimes cases reveal more. For one of my final electives we read together the tale of a new MBA graduate who runs into trouble when hired to establish a local mobile phone franchise. We were full of advice for his bosses, including the inevitable demand for more training and mentoring, but strangely short on tips for dealing with the nitty gritty of rolling out a phone mast network or placating local politicians.

Our hero works hard but makes bad decisions, misses deadlines and is sacked. The shock in class was palpable. He can’t fail, can he? His strategy seemed sound. He had an MBA from a good school (not as good as ours, but never mind). Surely he can’t just fail? No one ever mentioned that in the recruiting bumf.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007