This spring, more than 100,000 men and women in the United States—and many more overseas—will graduate with a master's degree in business administration. Management theorist and critic Henry Mintzberg has a few words for them.
Dear new MBA:
Congratulations! You have a sparkling new degree, highly prized in this world. You have learned a great many things about business. You have invested two years of your life, not to mention lost wages and a small fortune in tuition, in this impressive undertaking. As a result, you are fully qualified to go out and become a menace to society.
Granted, this isn't fully the fault of your school. Nothing personal, but full-time MBA programs by their nature attract many of the wrong people—too impatient and analytical, with little experience in management itself. These may be fine traits for students, but they can be tragically ill-suited for managers.
Conventional MBA programs then compound the error by giving the wrong impression of management: that managers are important people disconnected from the daily work of making products and producing services; that managing is largely about decision making through analysis; that managers pronounce deliberate strategies for everyone else to implement; and worst of all, that by sitting still in a classroom for a couple of years, you are now ready to manage anything.
Sure, you've taken courses called "management" and "strategy." But these were about looking in from the outside. The truth is, no one can become a manager in a classroom. Management is not a profession, nor is it science. It is a practice that depends mostly on craft and significantly on art. Craft is learned by experience. Art can, of course, be admired in a classroom—think of all the visionaries you read about in cases. But voyeurism is not management, either, nor does it develop creativity.
Trying to teach people who have never practiced is worse than a waste of time— it demeans management.
Take the case study. Now that is the "real world." Everyone debating what the CEO of XYZ Corporation should do next. Heady stuff. But what did you really know about XYZ? Did you even hear of it before you spent an hour on the case? Is that how we should be training our leaders: to read a few pages and then pronounce a future?
Sure, it's great to expose people to the experiences of others. Cases can do that well. But only for people who have had sufficient experience of their own—and then only to appreciate other situations, not to pronounce on them with the most superficial of knowledge.
Imagine dropping a young MBA student into a classroom of experienced managers. So long as the class sticks to theory and technique, the student would be fine. But as soon as the discussion turns to application, the student would be lost. In this respect, a classroom of such students is always lost. Organizations are complex phenomena. Managing them is a difficult, nuanced business, requiring tacit understanding that can only be gained in context. Trying to teach it to people who have never practiced it is worse than a waste of time—it demeans management.
There was a book called Inside the Harvard Business School, published in 1990, that listed the great CEOs the school had produced. Harvard is very proud of its graduates who made it to "the top." The book said little, though, about how those CEO graduates actually performed. So we tracked the 19 people on that list, from 1990 to 2003. The results were dismal. Ten failed badly, and the records of another four were questionable at best. So much for the fast track.
So there it is: You've invested all this time and money, and now I pop your balloon. What are you to do now? Well, there is hope. You probably did learn a lot about business, and that's important—if you go into business. (Please stay out of government and the social sector; they have enough troubles.) If you are truly interested in management, as opposed to just fame or money, you may be ready to learn its practice. Find an industry you like, get a good job, and stick with it. The world doesn't need more case-study managers who flit from one industry to another. Prove yourself, and eventually you'll be tapped for a managerial position. That is when your management education will begin. Prepare then to learn about management. Live it. Experience it.
By then, you'll be ready for some formal management education. Look for a program that builds on your experience and allows you to share it with other practicing managers. We have just the thing, by the way. The International Master's in Practicing Management (www.impm.org) encourages managers to reflect on their actual experience while on the job. We can't create a manager in a classroom, but we can sure help the practice of people who are already practicing management.
I hope you learn. The world desperately needs dedicated leaders. Not heroes on some kind of fast track, but decent human beings who engage themselves and others substantially. That could be you—if you can get past your MBA.
Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University. His book Managers Not MBAs (Berrett-Koehler) is out this month.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.