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You don’t actually need an MBA from a top-five university to be successful in business

I received my MBA in 2000, after serving for 22 years as a CEO of a company I built almost from scratch to a £90 million turnover and a seven-figure bottom line. My university wasn’t Harvard or Stanford; it was Kingston, a British polytechnic whose faculty worked their butts off in the ’80s to get university status and the creation of an extremely well run and successful business school. I spent two years on a Kingston Executive MBA and ended up recruiting several of my classmates to work for me; I never had a dud. I read Jay Bhatti’s recent article in Quartz, “If you can’t get into a top-five MBA program, don’t even bother,” with interest but must say I found his view extremely narrow and not very helpful. My advice to anyone who genuinely believes he has a future in business but cannot afford or cannot get into a Harvard- or Stanford-type MBA course is: Find a university that has a genuinely talented and keen faculty that fits you—and then work your hardest. A distinction is achievable and employers do take note of the efforts you have to put in to get your MBA, particularly with a distinction, even if it’s not from Harvard or Stanford. My personal experience of an MBA cohort of 40 students was that less than a quarter ended up the boss of his company. That’s because you cannot teach leadership to everyone: you have to have it in your DNA, and also because there are only so many CEO jobs. Nevertheless, you will learn, as I did, even after being at the helm of a company for 22 years, the basic structures of business (Operations, Human Resources Management, Finance and Marketing) with liberal doses of the latest strategic thinking from business gurus who have done the analysis and produced theoretical frameworks that can be applied to real business. This understanding of how businesses work will put you ahead of the pack for the more plentiful but no less important second line management positions that all great companies have to have in abundance if they are to succeed. CEOs worth their salt will work toward a day when they have nothing to do because their team has taken care of everything. In reality, this never happens but the endeavor creates depth in management and is part of succession planning. The three key ingredients to fill a management position are experience, qualification and personality. If boxes one and three are ticked then the candidate with the MBA is the favorite for the job. A distinction makes it a no-brainer. As for further evidence that business training is not just about getting into the top-five universities is the number of overseas students who come to a variety of second-tier universities in Britain and America to study business. Often, native students find they are in a minority. In their countries, a British or American degree, from whatever university, must carry weight. Why else would overseas students leave their families and homes; pay over the odds for their course; and almost invariably work like Trojans? My final piece of advice to all aspiring MBAs, home or abroad, is to be bullish.

  • If you are in work, ask your employer to sponsor you; don’t be afraid, employers respect chutzpah.
  • If you are out of work, spend time to try to secure a government-sponsored loan, and never worry about the government debt. It’s only deferred taxation, carries only notional interest and will only be payable when you hit certain salary levels. If you never reach the required salary level then, after a time, the debt is written off anyway.
  • If, for whatever reason, you have to fund your MBA out of your own pocket in cash or through a personal loan, as long as you are sure you have the talent—and that is important because no amount of training is a substitute for talent—then, I am certain, it will be money well spent.
  • And, if you come up against a boss who doesn’t put any value in an MBA, unless it comes from one of the top five universities, then you are in the wrong firm.

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