Once upon a time, a high school diploma was enough to get a good executive job. Today, the quality of the MBA degree itself has become determinative. Current expectation is that a high-level manager demonstrate strong technical skills, mastery of soft skills, and extensive abilities to manage, influence, interface with, and negotiate with a wide variety of people both within and outside the company as well as—at the same time—manage a personal career. Today’s MBA programs teach things that cannot commonly be mastered on the job, such as statistics, finance, marketing, and managerial economics.
One way of differentiating between the various types of MBAs is by the kinds of programs they offer. There’s the executive MBA, or EMBA, program, which accepts experienced and accomplished managers as students. There are the top-tier MBA programs, such as those offered by Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Stanford, and the Wharton School. And there are the rest, which is not to say that some of them are not offering excellent programs, but they’re simply not considered among the well-recognized top-tier ones.
So, from the employer’s point of view, how important is an MBA? The answer is, it depends. A client of mine in the late 20s and a recent Wharton MBA graduate in marketing was offered a starting annual salary of $145,000. In that case, the hiring company considered this individual a high-potential candidate—if for nothing else but just judging by that starting salary. Other clients of mine—also top-tier MBAs with several years of experience—are struggling to find jobs. The MBA degree is more important (1) soon after graduation and (2) when the individual is seeking promotion or different employment with a current employer. Later on, what becomes important is the significance of the person’s accomplishments.
Certainly, an MBA is a positive discriminator, but those considering enrolling in an MBA program should clearly understand what it takes. Consideration should be given to reputations of school and professors, school location and size, school mission, program length, class sizes, student-faculty ratio, and, ultimately, the school’s graduates’ levels of success in terms of getting jobs both upon graduation and afterward.
Note that an MBA can also be considered a liability: First of all, by having an MBA, one automatically belongs to a different class of employees. Next, fewer jobs are available when an MBA is a prerequisite. And the impression in the eyes of employers is that job applicants with MBAs require higher pay. Despite all of those potential negatives, though, I recommend getting an advanced degree if at all possible. More often than not, it will ultimately pay handsome dividends.